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What to do About ISIS? Constructing Strategy, Weighing Options

Friday, August 29th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

ISIS or the Islamic StateCaliphate” is the focus  of a great deal of discussion and demands for action from the United Statesand also inactionfrom many quarters.

What is to be done?

That is a famous question.  In matters of geopolitics and strategy, it is more fitting to begin with “Should something be done?”. We need to define the problem before rushing toward solutions. What is ISIS/ISIL/IS  and does it threaten the United States and American interests?:

An evolving offshoot of al Qaida, ISIS is a more radically takfiri, more ambitious and more impatient  jihadi/irhabi offspring than it’s parent. The so-called Islamic State holds sway over considerable Sunni Arab territory in both Syria and Iraq with a makeshift capital at Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Theologically, ISIS is the most extreme Islamist movement to arise since the GIA near the tail end of their 1990′s insurgency in Algeria, regarding the Shia and less radical Sunnis as apostates, deserving of death.  They have carried out genocidal massacres of Yazidis and Shia prisoners of war, tortured and mutilated prisoners and executed noncombatants and hostages like reporter James Foley. Ominously, ISIS may also be an apocalyptic movement, not merely a radical takfiri one, making it far less risk averse, even brazen, in its offensive operations and more intransigently fanatical on defense.

ISIS has been popularly described as an unholy mixture of “al Qaida, the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis”  and also as a terrorist army” by General David Petraeus. While it is true that their ranks probably contain the cream of the world’s Salafi terrorist-jihadi current, terrorism in the form of assassinations and suicide bombings has only been adjunctive to insurgent tactics and conventional combined arms operations. ISIS has shown impressive small unit discipline, the capacity to engage in maneuver warfare with heavy arms against the Kurds, Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army and rival Syrian rebel groups and even special operations skills. ISIS has moved aggressively on the physical, mental and moral levels of war to amass territory for their “caliphate” and consolidate their power and continues to advance, despite being rebuffed from Irbil by the Kurds and US airpower. ISIS is heavily armed with large quantities of advanced modern American and Russian weapons captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armies and is equally well funded, possessing in addition to significant revenue flows, the control of numerous dams and oilfields. Finally, in addition to their manifold war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, ISIS has also made broad, if vague, threats to strike New York, Chicago and Americans generally.

ISIS in a sense is the dream of jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri come to life and gone from strength to strength. If they do not have al-Suri in their ranks, they have his playbook and do not seem to shrink from employing stratagems and speed to achieve surprise.

Having assessed their capabilities, I think it is reasonable to conclude that ISIS is a threat to American interests because they are destabilizing the region, threatening the security of American allies and are regularly causing a grave humanitarian crisis far beyond the normal exigencies of war. It is less clear that they are a direct threat to the security of United States and to the extent that ISIS terrorism is a threat, it is a  modest one,  though greater to Americans and US facilities overseas. The caveat is that the strength and capabilities of ISIS have already grown faster and qualitatively improved more than any other non-state actor in the last forty years and are on a trajectory of further growth. ISIS is unlikely to be better disposed toward American interests if it grows stronger. CJCS General Dempsey, correctly attempted to convey all of these nuances in his remarks to reporters without overstepping his role into advocating a policy to shape our strategy, which is the responsibility of his civilian superiors.

This brings us to the cardinal weakness in post-Cold War American statesmen – an unwillingness to do the intellectual heavy lifting that connects policy and strategy by making the choice to articulate a realistic vision of political ends that are the desired outcome of a decisive use of military force.  The result of this aversion (which is bipartisan – I am not picking on the Obama administration here) is that a strategy is not formulated, much less executed and the military then attempts to remediate the strategic gap with the sheer awesomeness of its operational art. That does not usually work too well, at least on land, because contemporary American civilian and military leaders also do not like to inflict the kind of horrific mass casualties on the enemy that, even in the absence of a real strategy might still cripple through sheer attrition  the enemy’s will or capacity to fight.  The American elite today, in contrast to the generation of FDR, Eisenhower and Truman, have no stomach for Dresden – but defeating Nazis sometimes requires not just a Dresden, but many of them and worse.

However, let’s assume the best, that the Obama administration will, having learned from Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, construct a strategy to use force to accomplish victory – gaining coherent, specific and realistic political objectives. The President, having refreshingly admitted that there is no strategy at present, has freed up his subordinates to create one rather than digging in and defending the current policy that lacks one. Since the administration and nearly everyone else on Earth agrees that ISIS , in addition to being moral monsters, is a threat to at least some degree. the questions then become:

  • How much of a threat is ISIS to American interests or security?
  • What do we want the political end state to be in the Mideast if/when the threat of ISIS is contained, diminished or destroyed?
  • What is it worth to us to accomplish this outcome in light of our other, competing, American interests, in the region and globally?

Once those important questions are answered, the military leadership will have the proper policy guidance to give the administration the best possible advice on how military force could secure their aims or be used in concert with other elements of national power civilian leaders might wish to employ, such as diplomacy, economic coercion or covert operations. Moving forward without answering these questions is an exercise in flailing about, hoping that using sufficient force opportunistically will cause good geopolitical things to happen.

I will not venture to say how or if administration officials will answer such questions, but there are some broad military options the Pentagon might offer to further a strategy to contend with ISIS. Some suggested possibilities and comments:

These options are not all mutually exclusive and in practice some would blend into others. No option is perfect, cost free or without trade-offs. Attempting to find the strategy with no risks and no hard choices is a policy to engage primarily in ineffectual military gesticulations insufficient to actually change the status quo in Iraq and Syria ( and the eternal default strategy of domestic political consultants and career bureaucrats playing at foreign policy).

DO NOTHING:

Doing nothing, or non-intervention is vastly underrated as a strategy because it is passive. However, most of the greatly feared, worst-case scenarios will fail to materialize as predicted because the actors about whom we harbor grave suspicions usually become bogged down by their own friction, miscalculations, internal politics and chance. This is why calling every foreign menace, great and small, the next “Hitler” has lost much of its charge. Run of the mill tyrants and corrupt dictators simply are not Adolf Hitler and their crappy, semi-developed, countries are not to be equated with turning the industrial heart of Europe into a war machine. Avoiding a needless war of choice is usually the smarter play from an economic and humanitarian standpoint.  The drawback to this option is that every once in a while, the menace really is another Hitler, a Bolshevik Revolution or a less than existential threat that nevertheless, is politically intolerable for numerous good reasons.  ISIS barbarism probably falls into the latter category and doing absolutely nothing becomes risky in the face of a fast-rising aggressor and probably politically untenable at home.

CONTAINMENT:

Containing a threat with a combination of coercion, non-military forms of pressure and  limited uses of armed force short of all-out warfare is designed to prevent further expansion until the adversary loses the will or capacity to remain a threat. This defensive posture was the successful American grand strategy of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and is frequently invoked as a less costly alternative for proposed interventions. Admittedly, the idea of keeping Islamist radicals bottled up in a “Sunnistan” composed of the Syrian desert and northern Iraqi towns until they starve or are overthrown and murdered by locals has a certain charm.

Unfortunately, this option is not likely to work because the underlying analogy is extremely poor.  Containment worked in part because Soviet insistence on maintaining the USSR as a totalitarian “closed system” made them exceptionally vulnerable to Containment’s pressure which allowed them no lasting way to resolve their internal economic and political contradictions. ISIS is not the Soviets and their Caliphate is not a closed system, or even yet, a durable state.  Their jihadi cadres can melt away across borders and new recruits can make their way in, as can contraband, money and information. Physically containing ISIS would do nothing toward discrediting their ideas; more likely, their continued existence in the face of powerful Western and Arab state opposition would validate them.  In any event, sealing off ISIS would require the unstinting, sustained, cooperation of  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states, Turkey, the Assad regime, the Kurds and a large deployment of American troops. This is probably not doable except on a very short term basis as a prelude to a “final offensive” like the one that crushed the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

PROXY WARFARE:

Enlisting foreign local allies, be they loyalist paramilitaries or state military regulars of various countries offers numerous advantages as well as drawbacks. It provides boots on the ground that we can’t afford, while irregulars like Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militiamen would be highly motivated to fight. The Kurds are also (relatively speaking) well disciplined and trained compared to building units by throwing together ragtag tribesmen and down on their luck Iraqi townsmen looking for a paycheck. Adding overwhelming American airpower to the mix would greatly improve the fighting power of irregular light infantry, as was demonstrated recently when Kurdish and Iraqi forces repeled ISIS from Iraq’s largest dam. Proxy warfare offers a fairly decent chance to roll back ISIS but the downside is that proxies also have their own agendas and would range from “mostly but not entirely reliable” (Kurds) to “freebooting death squads” (Shia militias). As in Afghanistan, we would soon find our proxies were also in the pay of Iran and Saudi Arabia and attempting to play one patron off against the other. Recognizing Kurdish independence would most likely be part of the deal (not a bad thing in my view) which would require repudiating a decade of failed nation-building policy in Iraq ( also not a bad thing) and accepting partition.

LIMITED WARFARE: 

Limited warfare is often disdained because it can seldom produce a resounding victory but it is useful in playing to strengths (ex. relying on a robust air campaign) while  limiting exposure to risks and costs.  Overwhelming firepower can be applied selectively to prevent an adversary’s victory and impose punishing costs, eating up their men and material. Limited warfare works best in conjunction with simple and limited political goals and military objectives and poorly with grandiose visions ( like turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy and haven of women’ rights). Limited warfare on land, particular grinding counterinsurgency wars that go on for years on end with no clear stopping point, are very difficult for democracies to sustain politically. The electorate grows weary and the troops come home, often short of a permanent political settlement. The likely preference of the administration, if it chose this option, would be an air campaign coupled with drones, CIA covert action and SOF, working in conjunction with local allies.

MAJOR WARFARE:

For existential threats, go heavy or go home. This is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine in pursuit of a decisive battle that does not merely defeat but crushes the enemy and compels him to submit to our will.  It would be extraordinarily expensive in blood, treasure and opportunity costs as the United states military is ill-prepared to re-deploy the bulk of the Army and Marine Corps to Iraq, supported by carrier groups in the Gulf. It is highly questionable that ISIS, whose fighters number somewhere between 10,000 – 20,000 would stand up and try to fight such an mammoth expedition head-on. They would retreat to Syria and dare us to invade that country also or go underground. It is also dubious that American leaders have the kind of iron-hearted will to fight what Gary Anderson accurately describes as “a combined arms campaign of extermination“. ISIS by contrast, demonstrates daily that it has no such scruples restraining them.

GRAND COALITION:

This differs from the previous option only in that it would bring all or most of the aforementioned armed enemies of ISIS together to corner and annihilate the menace once and for all. It makes eminent strategic sense but the ability to bring together so many incompatible parties and weld them into a coordinated military campaign requires political-diplomatic wizardry on the order of genius to pull off. It also requires a much greater sense of fear of ISIS than even their ghoulish brutality has generated so far to bring together Saudi and Shia, Turk and Kurd, Alawite and Sunni rebel, American and Iranian, as military allies.

The Obama administration faces a difficult dilemma in pondering the problem presented by ISIS. I don’t envy them but their task will grow easier and a resultant strategy more likely successful if they are willing to make ruthless choices in pursuit of bottom-line, clearly-defined American interests.

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Humanitarian intervention in the Mesozoic: lukewarm

Monday, July 21st, 2014

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Article II, Section 3 of our Constitution opens with this strongly worded suggestion:

He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.

As a people, we underutilize the President’s Annual Messages to Congress from 1789-1913: here is a compact, blow by blow, year by year glimpse into how we saw ourselves through what the president wanted us and our representatives to hear about the state of our Union. What is reported is, inescapably, political. Yet, before Thomas Woodrow Wilson (may his bones be crushed) and cousin Franklin turned the president’s annual message into the State of the Union Spectacular, its submission to Congress was low key. Real history could seep through without being pooped on by monarchial excesses that turned its submission to Congress into a spot-the-living-applause-line-sitting-near-to-the-First-Lady-snore.

The instinct of His Excellency Thomas Jefferson, that old serpent of creative hypocrisy, was right: a clerk reading the annual message into the Congressional Record is less monarchial, more modest, and more republican than what we do now. Over time, Americans have acquired the usual growing taste for what the Nazis sold as Führerprinzip“leadership principle”. If your answer to every question is, from most complex to least complex, “These problems will be fixed when we elect __________” or “We need presidential leadership” or just “We need leadership”, you’ve already broken Godwin’s Law. Hero worship is a crutch for the weak-minded and beneath the dignity of a free people.

Few Americans worship at the altar of Grover Cleveland. Understandable: he was a walrus-like fat dude from Buffalo, New York. Yet his administration’s reporting on its evolving response to the Cuban War for Independence is a model of how sovereignty clearly communicates its responsibilities under the law of nations before that law was corrupted by international law.

The response began lukewarm:

Whatever may be the traditional sympathy of our countrymen as individuals with a people who seem to be struggling for larger autonomy and greater freedom, deepened, as such sympathy naturally must be, in behalf of our neighbors, yet the plain duty of their Government is to observe in good faith the recognized obligations of international relationship. The performance of this duty should not be made more difficult by a disregard on the part of our citizens of the obligations growing out of their allegiance to their country, which should restrain them from violating as individuals the neutrality which the nation of which they are members is bound to observe in its relations to friendly sovereign states. Though neither the warmth of our people’s sympathy with the Cuban insurgents, nor our loss and material damage consequent upon the futile endeavors thus far made to restore peace and order, nor any shock our humane sensibilities may have received from the cruelties which appear to especially characterize this sanguinary and fiercely conducted war, have in the least shaken the determination of the Government to honestly fulfill every international obligation, yet it is to be earnestly hoped on every ground that the devastation of armed conflict may speedily be stayed and order and quiet restored to the distracted island, bringing in their train the activity and thrift of peaceful pursuits.

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Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]
  

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!

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Is there truth in victory?

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Things change. Beliefs don’t. Facing change, belief clings to the agreeable and resists the disagreeable. Current fashion names this reflex “confirmation bias” and frames it as the enemy of truth. Closer truth names this reflex “concentration of force” and portrays it as the friend of victory.

The notion that discovery of truth is an individual effort persists. By its curiously resilient lights, the only truthful mind is a blank mind. Purge existing beliefs. Capture change free of entanglements. Embrace blindness to see clearly. Above all, lean neither one way nor the other. Only then, after much trial, with the last mental debris bulldozed away, will light come.

No one thinks like this. Despite the occasional brave try, everyone reflexively favors things that fortify belief over things that undermine belief. If truth is a self-help exercise, the existence of confirmation bias means the mind is inescapably flawed. If truth is trial by self-improvement, the only cure for mind flaws is constant reinforcement of what experience suggests is impossible. And if reinforcing the impossible only leads to more impossibility, at least it leads to an impossibility redeemed by its righteous aggression.

And so it would be, if leaving a vacuum and calling it truth is truth. But if truth comes from group contortion rather than individual self-flagellation, confirmation bias is a feature, not a bug. Then the mind is not flawed, at least not in that way. If the mind was guilty of chronic confirmation bias, it would only be guilty of operating to spec.

Those who insist on convening a symposium for a full and frank exchange of views every time they come under fire rarely need a good retirement plan. Because of this, to enforce effectiveness under fire, Darwin decrees that the mind comes preloaded and then preloaded with live ammunition, not blanks. Beyond this, freedom to arbitrarily switch the caliber of mental ammunition mid-stream is sacrificed for clarity of supply: mind yields measured in thoughts per calorie rise when ideas are bought in bulk following spec, especially amid uncertainty in the field.

Because buying ideas in bulk creates economies of scale, if confirmation bias is bias confirmed then it is bias shared. At the tribal scale, where human routine plays out, bias shared is indistinguishable from agreement. It too is guilty of operating to spec: Agreement reduces friction. Reduced friction lets group efforts prioritize targets. Prioritized targets let group effort selectively focus. Selective focus creates opportunities for local asymmetries. Local asymmetries can be exploited to further the tribe.

This makes confirmation bias concentration of force. Concentration of force is biased, first in favor being very strong and then at the decisive point. But it is confirmed only when being very strong and then at the decisive point yields victory. Local superiority in strength at a decisive point is neither constant nor guaranteed: it is only guaranteed to not be constant. So the mind must stay on target: it earns its keep by concentrating for victory, not emptying for truth.

This explains why what humans experience as “me” is a social loop: it is a argument simulator for forging chatter into weapons through endless drill of imagined conversations. It’s a display device, not a thinking machine. The thinking machine lies deep in the mind: real thought emerges from offline processing, especially during sleep. Conscious “me” is suited to rehearsing if small variations in action lead to opportunity through asymmetry. These variations are what gets flung at others as weaponized chatter. Some variations stick, leading to victory. Some miss, leading to defeat. Some should only be flung if clearly labelled FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY.

Truth emerges from accumulations of such victories piled on mass burials of such defeats. It is an unintended byproduct, not an intended end product. But its emergence reaches back to shape its source. Generation by generation, the mind is doomed to more and more bias in favor of weaponized thought measured in victories confirmed, always subject to how well they fit, however haltingly, what is true.

So things change while beliefs don’t. Confirmed truth is biased toward victory and victory is biased toward agreements with friends to win something with something rather than lonely pursuit of nothing through nothing.

See the argumentative theory of reason for more background on this framework.

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E.O. Wilson on the Evolutionary Origin of Creativity and Art

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

E.O. Wilson 

Last summer, eminent sociobiologist E.O. Wilson published an article in Harvard Magazine:

On the Origins of the Arts 

….By using this power in addition to examine human history, we can gain insights into the origin and nature of aesthetic judgment. For example, neurobiological monitoring, in particular measurements of the damping of alpha waves during perceptions of abstract designs, have shown that the brain is most aroused by patterns in which there is about a 20 percent redundancy of elements or, put roughly, the amount of complexity found in a simple maze, or two turns of a logarithmic spiral, or an asymmetric cross. It may be coincidence (although I think not) that about the same degree of complexity is shared by a great deal of the art in friezes, grillwork, colophons, logographs, and flag designs. It crops up again in the glyphs of the ancient Middle East and Mesoamerica, as well in the pictographs and letters of modern Asian languages. The same level of complexity characterizes part of what is considered attractive in primitive art and modern abstract art and design. The source of the principle may be that this amount of complexity is the most that the brain can process in a single glance, in the same way that seven is the highest number of objects that can be counted at a single glance. When a picture is more complex, the eye grasps its content by the eye’s saccade or consciously reflective travel from one sector to the next. A quality of great art is its ability to guide attention from one of its parts to another in a manner that pleases, informs, and provokes

This is fascinating.  My first question would be how we could determine if the pattern of degree of complexity is the result of cognitive structural limits (a cap on our thinking) or if it represents a sufficient visual sensory catalyst in terms of numbers of elements to cause an excitory response (neurons firing, release of dopamine, acetylcholine etc. ) and a subsequent feedback loop. Great art, or just sometimes interesting designs exhibiting novelty can hold us with a mysterious, absorbing fascination

Later, Wilson writes:

….If ever there was a reason for bringing the humanities and science closer together, it is the need to understand the true nature of the human sensory world, as contrasted with that seen by the rest of life. But there is another, even more important reason to move toward consilience among the great branches of learning. Substantial evidence now exists that human social behavior arose genetically by multilevel evolution. If this interpretation is correct, and a growing number of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists believe it is, we can expect a continuing conflict between components of behavior favored by individual selection and those favored by group selection. Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in
greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole 

Very interesting.

First, while I am in no way qualified to argue evolution with E.O. Wilson, I am dimly aware that some biological scientists might be apt to take issue with Wilson’s primacy of multilevel evolution. As a matter of common sense, it seems likely to me that biological systems might have a point where they experience emergent evolutionary effects – the system itself has to be able to adapt to the larger environmental context – how do we know what level of “multilevel” will be the significant driver of natural selection and under what conditions? Or does one level have a rough sort of “hegemony” over the evolutionary process with the rest as “tweaking” influences? Or is there more randomness here than process?

That part is way beyond my ken and readers are welcome to weigh in here.

The second part, given Wilson’s assumptions are more graspable. Creativity often is a matter of individual insights becoming elaborated and exploited, but also has strong collaborative and social aspects. That kind of cooperation may not even be purposeful or ends-driven by both parties, it may simply be behaviors that incidentally  help create an environment or social space where creative innovation becomes more likely to flourish – such as the advent of writing and the spread of literacy giving birth to a literary cultural explosion of ideas and invention – and battles over credit and more tangible rewards.

Need to ponder this some more.

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