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ISIS and the Crisis in American Statecraft

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

A Facebook friend with an astute comment pointed me toward this Wall Street Journal article by Joe Rago on the mission of General John Allen, USMC  as “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL”. What is a “Special Presidential Envoy” ?

In diplomatic parlance, a special envoy is an official with full powers (a “plenipotentiary”) to conduct negotiations and conclude agreements, but without the protocol rank of ambassador and the ceremonial duties and customary courtesies. A special envoy could get right down to business without wasting time and were often technical experts or seasoned diplomatic “old hands” whom the foreign interlocuter could trust, or at least respect. These were once common appointments but today less so. A “Special Presidential Envoy” is typically something grander – in theory, a trusted fixer or VIP to act as superambassador , a deal-maker or reader of riot acts on behalf of the POTUS. Think FDR sending Harry Hopkins to Stalin or Nixon sending Kissinger secretly to Mao; more recent and less dramatic examples would be General Anthony Zinni, USMC and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.  

In practice, a presidential special envoy could also be much less, the foreign policy equivalent of a national commission in domestic politics; a place to park thorny, no-win, political headaches the POTUS wants to ignore by creating the illusion of action and get them off the front pages. The position is really whatever the President wishes to make of it and how much power and autonomy he cares to delegate and what, if anything, he wishes the Special Envoy to achieve. Finally, these appointments are also a sign the President does not have much confidence or trust in the bureaucracy of the State Department or DoD, or their respective Secretaries, to carry out the administration’s policy. I wager that this is one of the reasons for General Allen’s appointment.

This means that General Allen is more or less stuck with whatever brief he was given, to color within the lines and make the best uses of any carrots or sticks he was allotted ( in this micromanaging administration, probably very little of either). Why was he chosen? Most likely because the United States sending a warfighting Marine general like Allen ( or a high CIA official) will always concentrate the minds of foreigners, particularly in a region where the US has launched three major wars in a quarter century. If not Allen, it would have been someone similar with similar results because the policy and civilian officials to whom they would report would remain the same.

So if things with ISIS and Iraq/Syria  are going poorly – and my take from the article is that they are – the onus is on a pay grade much higher than General Allen’s.

I will comment on a few sections of the interview, but I suggest reading the article in full:

Inside the War Against Islamic State 

Those calamities were interrupted, and now the first beginnings of a comeback may be emerging against the disorder. Among the architects of the progress so far is John Allen, a four-star Marine Corps general who came out of retirement to lead the global campaign against what he calls “one of the darkest forces that any country has ever had to deal with.”

ISIS are definitely an bunch of evil bastards, and letting them take root unmolested is probably a bad idea. That said, they are not ten feet tall. Does anyone imagine ISIS can beat in a stand-up fight, say, the Iranian Army or the Egyptian Army, much less the IDF or (if we dropped the goofy ROE and micromanaging of company and battalion commanders) the USMC? I don’t. And if we really want Allen as an “architect” , make Allen Combatant Commander of CENTCOM.

Gen. Allen is President Obama ’s “special envoy” to the more than 60 nations and groups that have joined a coalition to defeat Islamic State, and there is now reason for optimism, even if not “wild-eyed optimism,” he said in an interview this month in his austere offices somewhere in the corridors of the State Department

Well, in DC where proximity to power is power, sticking General Allen in some broom closet at State instead of, say, in the White House, in the EOB or at least an office near the Secretary of State is how State Department mandarins and the White House staff signal to foreign partners that the Presidential Special Envoy should not be taken too seriously. It’s an intentional slight to General Allen. Not a good sign.

At the Brussels conference, the 60 international partners dedicated themselves to the defeat of Islamic State—also known as ISIS or ISIL, though Gen. Allen prefers the loose Arabic vernacular, Daesh. They formalized a strategy around five common purposes—the military campaign, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters, counterfinance, humanitarian relief and ideological delegitimization.

The fact that there are sixty (!) “partners” (whatever the hell that means) and ISIS is still running slave markets and beheading children denotes an incredible lack of seriousness here when you consider we beat Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy into utter submission in the largest war in the history of the world with barely a third that number.  The best that can be said here is that Allen, in trying to be a herder of cats, got them to graciously agree on letting the US set a reasonable list of open-ended operations and policy priorities.

Gen. Allen cautions that there is hard fighting ahead and victory is difficult to define….

I think my head is going to explode. I’m sure General Allen’s head is too because this means that President Obama and his chief advisers are refusing to define victory by setting a coherent policy and consequently, few of our sixty partners are anxious to do much fighting against ISIS. When you don’t know what victory is and won’t fight, then victory is not hard to define, its impossible to achieve.

At least we are not sending large numbers of troops to fight without defining victory. That would be worse.

Gen. Allen’s assignment is diplomatic; “I just happen to be a general,” he says. He acts as strategist, broker, mediator, fixer and deal-maker across the large and often fractious coalition, managing relationships and organizing the multi-front campaign. “As you can imagine,” he says, “it’s like three-dimensional chess sometimes.”

Or its a sign that our civilian leaders and the bureaucracies they manage are dysfunctional, cynical and incompetent at foreign policy and strategy. But perhaps General Allen will pull off a miracle without armies, authorities or resources.

Unlike its antecedent al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State is something new, “a truly unparalleled threat to the region that we have not seen before.” Al Qaeda in Iraq “did not have the organizational depth, they didn’t have the cohesion that Daesh has exhibited in so many places.” The group has seized territory, dominated population centers and become self-financing—“they’re even talking about generating their own currency.”

But the major difference is that “we’re not just fighting a force, you know, we’re fighting an idea,” Gen. Allen says. Islamic State has created an “image that it is not just an extremist organization, not just a violent terrorist organization, but an image that it is an Islamic proto-state, in essence, the Islamic caliphate.” It is an “image of invincibility and image of an advocate on behalf of the faith of Islam.”

This ideology has proved to be a powerful recruiting engine, especially internationally. About 18,000 foreign nationals have traveled to fight in Iraq or the Syria war, some of them Uighurs or Chechens but many from Western countries like the U.K., Belgium, Australia and the U.S. About 10,000 have joined Islamic State, Gen. Allen says.

“Often these guys have got no military qualifications whatsoever,” he continues. “They just came to the battlefield to be part of something that they found attractive or interesting. So they’re most often the suicide bombers. They are the ones who have undertaken the most horrendous depredations against the local populations. They don’t come out of the Arab world. . . . They don’t have an association with a local population. So doing what people have done to those populations is easier for a foreign fighter.”

Except for the “never seen before” part – we have in fact seen this phenomena in the Islamic world many times before, starting with the Khawarijites, of whom ISIS are just the most recent iteration – this is all largely true.

ISIS, for all its foul brigandage, religious mummery and crypto-Mahdist nonsense is a competent adversary that understands how to connect  in strategy its military operations on the ground with symbolic actions at the moral level of war. Fighting at the moral level of war does not always imply (though it often does) that your side is morally good. Sadly, terror and atrocities under some circumstances can be morally compelling to onlookers and not merely repellent. In a twisted way, there’s a “burning the boats” effect in openly and gleefully committing horrific crimes that will unify and reinforce your own side while daunting your enemies and impressing onlookers with your strength and ruthlessness. Men flocked to Spain to fight for Fascism and Communism. A remarkable 60% of the Nazi Waffen-SS were foreigners, most of whom were volunteers. Ample numbers of Western left-wing intellectuals were abject apologists not only for Stalin and Mao but the Khmer Rouge during the height of its genocide. ISIS atrocities and horror are likewise political crack for certain kinds of minds.

The problem is that none of this should be a surprise to American leaders, if they took their responsibilities seriously.

William Lind and Martin van Creveld were writing about state decline and fourth generation warfare twenty five years ago. We have debated 4Gw, hybrid war, complex war, LIC, terrorism, insurgency, failed states, criminal insurgency and terms more obscure in earnest for over a decade and have wrestled with irregular warfare since John F. Kennedy was president. Yet the USG is no closer to effective policy solutions for irregular threats in 2014 than we were in 1964.

A more hopeful sign is that the new Iraqi government is more stable and multiconfessional after the autocratic sectarian rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His replacement, Haider al-Abadi, has been “very clear that the future of Iraq is for all Iraqis,” Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. He has restored relations with Middle Eastern neighbors and believes in the “devolution of power” across Iraq’s regions, Gen. Allen says. “Maliki believed in the centralization of power.”

So did we. Maliki and Hamid Karzai were originally our creatures. There was at least a bad tradition of centralization in Iraq, but we imposed it in Afghanistan ex nihilo because it suited our bureaucratic convenience and, to be frank, the big government technocratic political beliefs of the kinds of people who become foreign service officers, national security wonks, military officers and NGO workers. Unfortunately, centralization didn’t much suit the Afghans.

Critics of the Obama administration’s Islamic State response argue that the campaign has been too slow and improvisational. In particular, they argue that there is one Iraqi-Syrian theater and thus that Islamic State cannot be contained or defeated in Iraq alone. Without a coherent answer to the Bashar Assad regime, the contagion from this terror haven will continue to spill over.

Gen. Allen argues that the rebels cannot remove Assad from power, and coalition members are “broadly in agreement that Syria cannot be solved by military means. . . . The only rational way to do this is a political outcome, the process of which should be developed through a political-diplomatic track. And at the end of that process, as far as the U.S. is concerned, there is no Bashar al-Assad, he is gone.”

Except without brute force or a willingness to make any significant concessions to the states that back the Assad regime this will never happen. What possible incentive would Assad have to cooperate in his own political (followed by physical) demise?  Our Washington insiders believe that you can refuse to both bargain or fight but still get your way because most of them are originally lawyers and MBAs who are used to prevailing at home by manipulation, deception, secret back room deals and rigged procedures. That works less well in the wider world which rests, under a thin veneer of international law, on the dynamic of Hobbesian political violence.

As ISIS has demonstrated, I might add.

The war against Islamic State will go on long after he returns to private life, Gen. Allen predicts. “We can attack Daesh kinetically, we can constrain it financially, we can solve the human suffering associated with the refugees, but as long as the idea of Daesh remains intact, they have yet to be defeated,” he says. The “conflict-termination aspect of the strategy,” as he puts it, is to “delegitimize Daesh, expose it for what it really is.”

This specific campaign, against this specific enemy, he continues, belongs to a larger intellectual, religious and political movement, what he describes as “the rescue of Islam.” He explains that “I understand the challenges that the Arabs face now in trying to deal with Daesh as an entity, as a clear threat to their states and to their people, but also the threat that Daesh is to their faith.”

While Iraqi and Iranian Shia have ample existentiall motive to fight ISIS. Sunni Muslims find ISIS brutality pretty tolerable, so long as it is far away from them personally and furthermore ISIS religious-theological lunacy is not terribly far removed from the extreme Salafi-Wahhabi version preached and globally proselytized by our good friends, the House of Saud – or exported violently by our other good friends, the Pakistani Army.  Or at least Sunni Muslims are not bothered enough yet by ISIS to pick up arms and fight.

General Allen is doing his best at a herculean task, but American statecraft is broken and seduced by a political culture vested in magical thinking.

Pavers of Roads with Good Intentions: R2P Debate Rising Part II.

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

As I mentioned previously, I needed to make a more substantive reply to Victor Allen’s claims for R2P.  I am very tardy in doing so, for which I apologize to Mr. Allen but better late than not at all. While addressing some of Victor’s specific points, I want to be very clear that in my view:

1. R2P’s status in international law, despite grandiose claims by advocates, is weakly grounded, highly controversial and conflicts with accepted norms of state sovereignty

2.  The concept of R2P is a covert revival of the pre-WWI sovereign right to  wage aggressive war, albeit (usually) under some kind of collective imprimatur

3,  If regarded as a serious legal moral principle entailing an obligation to act, R2P is inherently anti-strategic, injurious to national interest and anti-democratic in nature

I will tackle point #1 today and points # 2 and #3 in successive posts.

In Victor’s original piece he argued that R2P is part and parcel of a (theoretical) “new sovereignty”:

That R2P does not violate sovereignty stems from the evolution of sovereignty from its Westphalian form in the mid 17th century to the “sovereignty as responsibility” concept advanced by Deng, et al. Modern sovereignty can no longer be held to give states carte blanche in their internal affairs regardless of the level of suffering going on within their borders. This does not diminish state agency for internal affairs, but rather holds them responsible and accountable for their action and inaction regarding the welfare of their populations. 

“Sovereignty as responsibility”  is a theory put forth by a Sudanese diplomat and minor UN bureaucrat and an American academic that proclaimed:

The authors assert that sovereignty can no longer be seen as a protection against interference, but as a charge of responsibility where the state is accountable to both domestic and external constituencies.

The “…and external constituencies” clause is an Orwellian negation of the traditional meaning of sovereignty where the state has sole de jure authority over such matters as their internal affairs, including the political character of their regime,  with very narrow exceptions mandated by treaty or customary international law ( ex. diplomatic immunity of heads of state).  The latter, is based on consent and derives from the history of the diplomatic norms adhered to, interpreted and practiced by sovereigns and such rulings of IGO to whose authority sovereigns have voluntarily submitted themselves through a binding covenant ( ex. World Court via the UN charter).

Of course, being sovereign, states differ on how such rulings are to be interpreted or even whether they will accept jurisdiction of bodies  like the World Court, the ICC or special international  tribunals of justice in specific cases. Furthermore, in signing covenants, states often, quite legally, make reservations or exceptions to specific treaty clauses as part of their agreement to adhere to the rest of the treaty and consider it legally binding.  The United States in fact, does this regularly as do most other states having major interests at stake in negotiating an international agreement. Unless you have a granular knowledge of what country “x” formally agreed to accept as a signatory, or are willing to do your homework in this regard, you do not actually know what the law really is in many diplomatic disputes – especially when the conflict is complex and multilateral.  Broad and bombastic assertions by activists in the media that novel restrictions or obligations on states that they support are “international law” or that some act they condemn is “illegal” are almost invariably factually incorrect, at least to some degree ( barring obvious and clear violations of jus cogens, such as mass atrocities).

Beyond international law based on formal covenants, custom and legal precedents generally accepted by sovereigns, other sources of authority in international law would include resolutions of the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, regional bodies like the OAS or EU, some institutions like the ICRC and even the opinions of scholars learned in international law. Unlike positive law within a state, international law in its various manifestations lacks a legitimate, overarching, coercive authority that could function as a global sovereign and impartial enforcer of consistently interpreted law and justice. Sovereign states are thus not subject to international law in the same relationship that their citizens are subject to sovereign authority; sovereign states are, at least legally, a community of equals able to draw upon and interpret overlapping and at times competing sources of legal authority in making claims – including precedents they intentionally created themselves!  This makes a quick redress of violations of international law difficult when the UN Security Council is empowered to make use of military force only in cases of ” international peace and security” (i.e. aggression) and the UN Charter also assures sovereigns of their “right to self defense”.

“New Sovereignty”, in the title of Victor’s first piece, is a concept propagated by the late Harvard theorist and State Department official Abram Chayes and his wife, scholar Antonia Handler Chayes, that repudiates much of traditional sovereignty in order to aggressively re-define it as “ the capacity to participate in international institutions of all types“.  In other words, sovereignty in their view would mean a state’s membership in good standing in  a mutually interdependent ” international community” and not control over national territory free from external interference by other sovereigns. Under “New Sovereignty”, such external interference is assumed as “normal” and is a point of constant, cooperative, negotiation toward consensus on emerging and evolving legal norms. As such, if accepted, “New Sovereignty” would be a massive transfer of political power and legal authority from legitimate national governments to a transnational and international class of legal technocrats and bureaucrats, who would assume by default a managerial role over the substance of international affairs. In many ways this erosion of traditional state sovereignty would be analogous to the transfer of real power from the hands of crowned sovereigns in the early modern period to their embryonic state bureaucracies that in time rendered most monarchs mere ceremonial figureheads.

In my view, while  Chayes had many laudable goals in mind,  “New Sovereignty” would be unworkable in practice and inherently is extremely reactionary in its anti-democratic repudiation of popular sovereignty as the basis for a state’s legitimacy. Citizens of states are effectively reduced to the position of wards under the protection of the international community as national leaders become responsive primarily to “external constituencies” in control of the eternal process of negotiation of international norms. While the problem is somewhat moot for repressive regimes whose citizens enjoy few freedoms anyway, in liberal states the “democratic deficit” produced by such a scheme runs contrary to the very foundations of their political legitimacy and independence.

In this context, we have the claim put forth for the legal basis of R2P by Victor:

 ….Indeed, the UN Security Council, having enshrined R2P in UNSCR 1674, did not subsequently authorize action under the R2P banner in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Burma, with the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General stating in his report that

[i]t would be a misapplication of responsibility to protect principles to apply them at this point to the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar…the Outcome Document of the 2005 [World] Summit limited their application to four crimes and violations: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

and in his second post:

Here Safranski and I agree on the proper role of theorists, but it wasn’t theorists that adopted R2P as a norm; it was the UN Security Council, as set forth in UNSCR 1674 in 2005, which was later utilized in the Libya intervention authorization (UNSCR 1973). Currently there are no higher authorities on interventions, peacemaking, and peacekeeping than the Security Council, which is surely not composed of academic theorists, but rather high-level diplomats that make moves, and yes, establish law, only on the explicit authorization of their countries. That the Security Council adopted the principles of R2P speaks more to the usefulness and applicability of the concepts than to any academic theorizing thereof.

First, while we should acknowledge that the UNSC resolutions that R2P advocates crow about are not nothing, their importance should not be exaggerated either. They are a precedent, but a very limited one that does not abrogate everything that has come before.

Since the inception of the UN the Security Council has passed over 2200 resolutions, which would put those devoted to R2P at a whopping .0009 %.  Moreover, of the UNSC resolutions passed, many merely take note of an event, express concern or urge restraint; other, more forcefully worded resolutions, dealing with conflict were dead letters from the moment of adoption, being ignored by warring parties exercising their sovereign rights of self-defense. The number of UNSC resolutions that led to effective action of any kind, much less decisive humanitarian military intervention envisioned by more muscular interpretations of R2P, have been few with a mixed track record of success.  Resolutions 1674 and 1973 by the Security Council exist within the much larger context of international law precedents going back centuries, most of which directly contradict the operative assumptions of “New Sovereignty”.

Furthermore, much of the text of Resolution 1674 itself is devoted to caveats reiterating traditional sovereign prerogatives and that protection for civilians occur under established conventions for the law of armed conflict before gingerly endorsing R2P provisions from the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document  of the World Health Organization. The legality of these qualifications and reservations are taken seriously by the member states of the Security Council because without them, 1674 would have never passed, nor 1973 after it ( likely to be the last of its kind for a long while in light of Russian and Chinese vetoes on Syria resolutions, which after Libya are certain to continue).  At best, in international law R2P has managed to secure only a toehold and its definition and application lack agreement (and even acceptance) among the world’s great powers.

R2P is not a secure legal scaffold on which to construct a foreign policy or decide on matters of peace and war.

An Absurd Column by Walter Pincus

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Walter Pincus, taking notes for the embattled bureaucrats of the creepy-state here:

‘Front-Page Rule’ is unprecedented in U.S. intelligence community 

….“Accountability and secrecy” were two watchwords a former senior intelligence official said guided operations during his 40-year career, not whether the public would approve of everything he was doing.

However, that’s not what President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies said last week after its study of intelligence gathering in the wake of disclosures generated by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaking of tens of thousands of previously secret NSA documents.

The president’s five-member panel called for reinstituting what it called the “Front-Page Rule,” which it described as an “informal precept, long employed by the leaders of U.S. administration.” It said such activities should not be undertaken if the public couldn’t support them if exposed.

In some 40 years of covering intelligence, I have never heard of such a rule, nor have several former senior intelligence officials with whom I have talked.

….Today, within the ranks of the intelligence community, there is concern that, in the face of the political uproar growing out of the Snowden disclosures, Obama might be backing away from the NSA after initially supporting the agency. “The White House may be looking to escape responsibility,” the former official said, adding that recently not enough public support has been given to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and NSA Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who are out front defending the programs.

There are other recommendations and statements put forward by the president’s review board that run contrary to past and present operations.

For example, the panel said a collection effort should not be initiated “if a foreign government’s likely negative reaction” to it being revealed “would outweigh the value of the information likely to be obtained.” That’s a judgment call that every CIA officer, from junior to senior, routinely makes.

….The president’s review board writes that “if we are too aggressive in our surveillance policies under section 702 [a program that permits collection of intelligence from foreign targets associated with terrorists], we might trigger serious economic repercussions for American businesses.”

It is true that the Church and Pike hearings left a generation of IC personnel feeling burned and very risk averse toward covert operations and distrustful of politicians as a career philosophy. We are seeing that longstanding IC bureaucratic preference for risk aversion here in the veiled threat by senior insiders that the IC will have to sit on their hands vis-a-vis foreigners unless the NSA is greenlighted to spy on Americans to an unlimited degree.

What utter rubbish.

The Church and Pike hearings were primarily about the so-called CIA “crown jewels” – clandestine operations, actual and proposed, against foreign targets that were hostile to the United States and usually sympathetic to the Soviet Union when not outright Communists. Some of these operations were ill-considered and harebrained while others were well conceived if not executed, but the driving force behind the hearings was that many prominent committee members were very liberal to leftist antiwar Democrats, some had monumental egos or presidential ambitions and many strongly opposed anti-communist and interventionist foreign policies for ideological reasons.

It is also true that this 1970’s history has little or nothing to do with the NSA becoming an unconstitutional organ of mass domestic surveillance. Apples and oranges. Letting the NSA control all our private data data does not mean the CIA then runs a more robust HUMINT clandestine program against the Iranians, al Qaida, the Chinese or Pakistanis. Likely it will produce the opposite effect as relying systemically more and more on SIGINT is a dandy bureaucratic excuse to approve fewer and fewer covert operations or risky espionage targets.

Americans, outside State Department personnel who have to deal with the resultant headaches, could really care less if the NSA bugs the German chancellor’s cell phone or the ex-terrorist Marxist president of Brazil. To the extent they think of it at all, most would probably say “Hell, yeah!” because that is exactly what a foreign intelligence service is for. If Americans heard the NSA or CIA conducted some surveillance that resulted in Ayman al-Zawahiri being killed in a horrible way it is likely to meet with high approval ratings.
The idea that Americans as a whole, outside of the usual anti-American activist-protestor crowd, dislike successful covert ops against our enemies is a proposition for which there is scant evidence. The so-called “Frontpage rule” being touted by Pincus is complete B.S. intended to blur the lines of what institutional missions are really being discussed.
If senior managers of the NSA and CIA would rather investigate American citizens on a national scale in secret then they are in the wrong line of work and should resign or retire so that people more motivated to harry our enemies can take their places. Mass surveillance is the job of a secret police, not a foreign intelligence or even a counterintelligence service. In some countries a secret police agency is a normal and legal part of the government structure. The United States is not one of those nations and the “big boy rules” for IC operations overseas against specific, dangerous, hostile foreign targets cannot apply inside the United States against the broad mass of citizens while having the US remain a constitutional democracy anchored in the rule of law.
You can have one or the other but not both.

The Myhrvold Report and Understanding Strategic Threats

Monday, October 7th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Several weeks ago, Cheryl Rofer wrote an important post analyzing the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold. I found Cheryl’s argument quite persuasive and would like to add a few points of my own; because while some of the concerns raised by Myhrvold are valid and his intent is no doubt well-meaning, the approach he suggests is, at times, problematic.

If in the past ten years you have been a serious student of terrorism studies, insurgency and COIN, national security, counter-terrorism policy, counter-proliferation policy,  intelligence community affairs and military theory, there is little that will be new for you in the first part of the report. Many of these problems had previously been raised (at least in part) by figures as disparate as Michael Scheuer, John Robb, Martin van Creveld, Thomas P.M. Barnett, William Lind,  Robert Bunker and dozens if not hundreds, of thinkers, practitioners and scholars. In addition, this ground was also covered by government agencies like the National Intelligence Council in its periodic Global Trends reports, and in classified analysis by the Office of Net Assessment and various three letter agencies. The blogosphere also had a lively discussion of catastrophic WMD terrorism, superempowered individuals, 4GW/5GW, apocalyptic Mahdism and related subjects throughout the mid to late 2000’s.  Diffusion of society-shifting power into the hands of small groups and individuals was a theme of Alvin and Heidi Toffler back in the 70’s and 80’s, so this is an old rather than new problem.

Dr. Myhrvold is a polymathic character, but his original area of specialization was mathematical research so it is not surprising that his approach to things “strategic” is dominated by scalar considerations. Namely, a threat taxonomy based upon potential magnitude of  disaster events up to the extinction of the human race (High M 10).  Wondering here, as the bibliographic references of this report are extremely scanty, if Myhrvold was influenced by Herman Kahns ideas on escalation or game theory based literature on deterrence or something else. Regardless, while there’s some merit to this definition – obviously if your civilization is destroyed or everyone is dead you have suffered the ultimate in strategic defeat – there are weaknesses too as the linear progression of destruction implies an apolitical environment and inevitable process. That’s not how things work with strategy in the real world, neither today nor back in the era of Cold War superpower nuclear brinksmanship. Even John Foster Dulles and Vyacheslav Molotov were more politically nuanced than that.

This is an important point. Myhrvold is focused on capacity alone rather than in conjunction with political purpose in defining strategic threats.  Capacity in bad hands is worth worrying about and Myhrvold is right when he criticizes the government for their obstinate refusal to develop a robust threat detection system for shipping to US ports of entry ( that’s boring, hard work with little payoff from a political perspective, but the NSA building a system for surveilling all Americans is fun and gives government bureaucrats great potential power to ruin anyone they wish); that said, outside of comic books and James Bond movies, people do not historically initiate violence on an epochal scale out of a Joker-like admiration of nihilism, not even terrorists. Instead, they have a political end in mind for which violence is a tool. This variable appears to be absent from Myhrvold’s thinking.

More troubling, Myhrvold’s solution to the potential threat of bioweapon terrorism would appear to be, as I infer it, even greater centralization of power in the hands of a national security surveillance state. As I expect Dr. Myhrvold is a great respecter of data-driven, probabilistic logic, he might want to consider that nearly every man-made, high magnitude, lethal event in the past century and a quarter years has been initiated by governments for reasons of policy, up to and including the auto-genocide of tens of millions of their own citizens. Most people on this planet are in far greater danger of harm at the hands of the state than they are as a result of terrorism or foreign attack and it would seem foolish, in light of such statistics, to increase our risk by delegating greater grants of power to the entity most likely to cause us harm. In the words of the late defense and security expert Dr. Fred Ikle, we would be risking Annihilation from Within.

Ikle anticipated years ago much of what Myhrvold wrestled with in his report and, in my view, prescribed better answers.

How to Lose a War: A Primer

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. “zen“]

Since Pakistan is now attempting to get its victory over the United States in Afghanistan formally ratified, now seemed to be a good time to reflect on the performance of American statesmen, politicians and senior generals.

It has occurred to me that we have many books and papers outlining how to win wars. Certainly the great classics of The Art of War, The History of the Peloponnesian War and On War are the foremost examples, but there are also other useful classics in the strategic canon, whole libraries of military histories, memoirs of great commanders and an infinite number of PDFs and powerpoint briefs from think tanks and consultants. Strangely, none of these have helped us much. Perhaps it is because before running this war so few of this generation’s “deciders” read them en route to their law degrees and MBAs

We should engage in some counterintuitive thinking:  for our next war, instead of trying to win, let’s try to openly seek defeat. At a minimum, we will be no worse off with that policy than we are now and if we happen to fail, we will actually be moving closer to victory.


While one of these principles may not be sufficient cause for losing an armed conflict, following all of them is the surest road to defeat.

1. War is the Continuation of Domestic Politics:

The point of politics is to acquire, hold and enjoy using power. When we lose sight of this fact due to romantic notions of “national interest” or “duty” and spend too much attention prosecuting a war against foreign armies then our real enemies – the political opposition – can take advantage. What good is overseeing a global victory over an epochal tyranny if the result is you get immediately voted out of office like some hapless loser? While on the surface, it might seem wise during a war to staff a government with able statesmen, experienced generals, capable diplomats and other experts, the truth is that if you do so you will have very few plum jobs left with which to reward the cronies, ideologues, campaign consultants, activists, wealthy grafters and partisan hacks who got you into power in the first place. Without their continued support, you will not be long for political office.

The fact is that the nation can survive many lost wars far longer than your career will survive lost elections.  Once you view the war solely through the prism of how any action might impact your fortune in domestic politics, you will have a marvelous clarity that the war is the best pretext upon which to expand your power at the expense of the opposition and the people.

2. Policy is the True Fog of War:

Having a clearly defined, coherently articulated policy based upon vital interests and empirical facts that sets a few realistic objectives in a way that makes possible shared understanding and broad political support is no way to go about losing wars.

Keeping in mind #1, the point of war policy is to generate a set of politically compelling slogans that remain ill-defined enough to serve as an umbrella  under which many contradictory and competing agendas can cohabit until some of them can be opportunistically realized. These agendas may not be realistic – in fact, it is easier to put them forward as attractive fantasies for the public if your administration is unburdened with officials with genuine expertise in warfare, economics, foreign cultures, history and other inconvenient information that the media and the political opposition will only be too happy to seize upon. The more abstractly and arcanely expressed the policy the harder it is for critics to demolish and the  better it is for losing wars. “Unconditional surrender” for example, is bad because it is too concrete and easily evaluated – either an enemy is totally defeated and in your power or he is not. “Make the world safe for Democracy” by contrast,  is better as it is more ill-defined and subjective, permitting a larger range of politically tolerable bad outcomes.  “Responsibility to Protect” and “War on Terror” are even more abstract, being essentially unlimited, open-ended, process goals that do not have any point of “victory” whatsoever and can thus not only potentially bring about losing wars but very long ones.

3.  Strategy is a Constraint to be Avoided:

Strategy is about lining up Ends-Ways-Means to construct a theory of victory. While that might give us hope of prevailing over an enemy in an armed conflict, forging a strategy – any strategy -comes with a severe cost: namely the discipline of the government adhering to a strategy requires choices be made about the use of limited resources rather than keeping “all options open” to react  to transient and trivial political concerns on a moment’s notice. Strategy for the nation equates with diminished political flexibility and mobility for the politician.

In other words, having a strategy might require elected officials expend their precious political capital in order to pursue it without getting anything in return that might expand their powers or further their personal careers.  Doing strategy would mean prioritizing winning the war over other possible objectives and putting key decision-makers in the uncomfortable position of having to say “No” or “Not now” to powerful and influential people or factions. Worse, having a strategy also implies that the results can be quantified and evaluated for success, costs, failure and ultimately, personal accountability for leaders.

Obviously locking ourselves into a strategy is something to be avoided if we wish to stay in power, so “strategy” is only invoked rhetorically to mean a wide and confusing array of other non-strategy things – tactics, goals, operational art, planning,  public relations, nation-building,  diplomacy, policy, routine procedures, withdrawal dates, theories, fantastical pipe dreams and so on.  When “strategy” means anything and everything it ultimately means nothing.

4. All Lost Wars are based on Self-Deception: 

It is not enough to avoid strategy, there must also be a collective political determination to avoid reality enforced from the inception until the bitter end.

Wars have real and physically destructive consequences for the people who fight them, but unless you are engaged in a desperate struggle to repel a foreign invader, chances are the battlefield is far away from your home territory. This gives political leaders wiggle room to manipulate perceptions – most importantly their own – to political advantage by controlling information about the war and shaping the ideological boundaries of acceptable public discourse. This will eventually lead to a vicious cycle of bad decisions as misinformation and deceit corrupts the OODA Loop, but political leaders will maintain their political advantage over their critics, at least until the day of reckoning arrives.

Here we must begin with an insistence of a position of firmly held ignorance regarding the prospective enemy, their military capabilities, economic resources, the geographic characteristics, their cultural attitudes toward conflict and their history as a people. Should such information become widely known, it might result in popular skepticism about the wisdom of the entire enterprise, the difficulties that might be encountered and the prospects for success. If you wish to lose a war ignominiously, the less you know the better.

Likewise, once war has begun, the initial jingoistic overconfidence that greeted the war will quickly fade unless actively sustained by preventing an honest analysis of  events and providing a steady stream of rationalizations for the gullible public. It would be a good idea to ban discussion that accurately characterizes the form of warfare  or the nature of the enemy, though these things alone will not be sufficient. The intelligence process itself should be corrupted when possible to provide the “right” answers and censored or circumvented when it is not; while public assessments should use irrelevant metrics divorced from their  context so that they will not have to be gamed later.  Critics, truth-tellers, whistleblowers and those not towing the party-line should be retired, fired, demonized and punished.

5. Isolate the War and those Fighting it from the People: 

A war forgotten by the folks at home is a war that is much easier to quietly lose.

At the outset of the war, ask no sacrifice of the people because that will give them too much of a stake in a victorious outcome and raise expectations about your own leadership. Neither raise their taxes (at least not for the war at any rate) nor conscript their sons. Do not even issue a national call to the colors for volunteers, instead encourage people to be at ease and go about their business. Supplement your small regular army that increasingly feels itself a caste apart with highly paid mercenaries and foreign paramilitaries while neglecting the needs of your own troops. Speaking of the troops, always lavish the soldiers with superficial public pieties about service, sacrifice and heroism, but cynically break faith when it comes to your obligations to look after their interests.

6.  Complexity= Opacity and Micromanagement= Power

Most things in war are simple, but they are not easy. By deliberately making everything incredibly complicated, war can also become impossible too

While adding superfluous complexity does not help win wars, it does offer a number of immediate benefits for the political class. First, in real life the consequence of increasing complexity in any governmental endeavor (not just war) is that you will have more jobs and contracts to hand out to followers as bureaucracy and regulations require new inspectors, secretaries, managers, clerks, lawyers, advisers and in a military context, also new commands, staff officers, promotions, headquarters, increased budgets and so on. Chances are, most of these new jobs will continue on, if not forever, for a very long time.

Secondly the sheer complexity and number of offices, bureaus, agencies, departments, teams, commands, commissions and committees offer excellent “cover” for carrying out unpopular or illegal actions “under the radar” and with diffusion of responsibility, should these antics come to light.  If everyone is in charge, then no one is.  So if your military, intelligence agencies, diplomats, cultural advisers, aid and development people and senior administration officials talk and behave as if they are all hailing from different planets, you are well on your way to losing the war.

Third, the control of people at the top is reinforced by excessive complexity because the initiative of lower levels is strangled by micromanagement. If every idea from the field ( or even basic actions) requires two, three or more levels of command approval with consultation with lawyers at each step the answer is always going to be “No” or a very delayed “Yes” long past the point of being useful. This, plus making examples of those who exercise initiative and act without orders, teaches everyone in the system to eschew risk, value passivity, play it safe and wait for higher-ups to spoon-feed them instructions. With modern, networked online communications every colonel, brigadier to three-star can play company commander while the President of the United States can ride virtual shotgun on SEAL team raids.

7.  Enormous Tail, Tiny Tooth: the Worse the ROI the Better

When you regularly use hundred million or billion dollar platforms to kill illiterate tribesmen with AK-47s and RPGs and build food courts in the Hindu Kush, something is eventually going to give.

Generally, a reasonably well governed country at war can afford to employ either a massive military force for a short campaign or a small, “light footprint“, force for the long haul. What few nations in history can afford, unless it is Persia under Xerxes, is to field a massive force disproportionately composed of rear echelon support troops and what used to be called “camp followers” and “auxiliaries” for years on end. There are two ways this can bring you to defeat.

First, obviously, fielding an enormous army for too long can lead to bankruptcy as costs of the war exceed tax revenues and the state begins to rely on various forms of credit, foreign bankers and debasing the currency to carry on. This does not guarantee an economic collapse or hyperinflation as war can also greatly stimulate production and other variables are always in play, but the risk of dire negative economic effects is significantly increased.

The second issue is that if you are moving your armed host into a desperately poor region to wage war against an impoverished enemy, the passage and encampment of your own military introduces the economic surplus to the local economy the enemy needs to afford to wage war. You are like a red hot iron in a bucket of ice water. Through bribery, extortion and theft the enemy will siphon from you money, arms and contraband and eventually, corrupt your own officials and officers.

 8. Cultivate Hatred and Contempt:

If you wish to lose a war, be hated but not feared.

While most principles of losing a war  are political, strategic or operational in nature and therefore the province of incompetent politicians and generals, cultivating contempt and hatred in all observers can be done at anytime by anyone regardless of rank, experience or status. Technology has revolutionized this sphere of losing warfare: where once undermining an entire war effort could only be done by an arrogant national blowhard, today any grinning idiot on a battlefield with a smart phone is only a tweet away from an international media firestorm.

It is import in cultivating hatred to remember that mere violence, an inevitable part of all wars, is not sufficient. One can respect and admire an honorable but fierce opponent. Conveying a bullying attitude of casual cruelty to all onlookers by mistreating prisoners and civilians, especially if you humiliate and abuse them is a surefire goad to hatred while also alienating allies and neutrals, especially when doing so contradicts the nation’s deeply held values.  Hatred can also be stirred in less dramatic ways, from posing with Nazi flags to widespread ignorance of and expressions of disdain for local customs and mores. Disrespect has legs.

Contempt by contrast, is earned more by exhibiting moral weakness and truckling appeasement of the enemy and his sympathizers. For example, have your own PA and diplomatic organs in speaking to the media, repeat enemy propaganda against your own soldiers and abuse the military justice system to prosecute soldiers for splitsecond combat decisions in order to appease these critics. Loudly trumpet the “culturally appropriate meals” to the guys you are going to waterboard and appoint enemy sympathizers as “cultural advisers” and “liaisons” to government security and law enforcement agencies. Do nothing as your own heavily infiltrated host nation “ally” repeatedly frags your soldiers.

9. Protect that Which is Most Unimportant:

Organizations signal what they really value not by what they say, but what they spend time and money on.

Make sure that as the war is steadily being lost that top brass and their civilian overseers frantically emphasize politicized trivialities and institutional martinet nonsense. Reflector belt mania, giving everyone and their brother breathalyzer tests, cultural sensitivity training, counterproductive regs for MEDEVAC helicopters, promoting the gender equality of foreign societies and gender-neutrality of our own should bump out boring, old training exercises for future combat deployment in terms of priority. Remember, the military is not really there to win wars – it is a captive social engineering project for things the wackier members of Congress wish they could impose on their constituents were it not for those damned free elections.

10. Level the Playing Field: Paralyze Your Own Tactical Advantages.

While a war is often lost by having a bad strategy or no strategy at all, the power of crapping away your tactical advantages to no purpose ought not be underestimated. There are thousands of ways to do this but if you are cutting the enemy repeated breaks you can’t go wrong.

First and foremost, you wish to avoid bringing all of your combat power to bear on the enemy’s weakest point in a combined arms assault because he very well may break and then where the hell will you be? You can hardly lose a war if the enemy dies or surrenders first.

Treat your combat arms, services and host nation military as separate, autonomous and almost unrelated units, each with their own objectives and set of ROE guidance more restrictive than required by the Laws of War (while mixing in allied and host nation forces of varying levels of capability and different ROE). Make it difficult for fire support, armor and air to work with your infantry commanders dealing with unforseen circumstances, who you should also spread thin over remote operational areas the size of, say, Iowa to maximize their vulnerability. If a battalion is needed, send a company. If a company is called for, send a squad. Allow the enemy to have safe havens in adjacent countries whose military power is dwarfed by your own by many orders of magnitude. Make sure that your intelligence and public diplomacy services are shorthanded on personnel  fluent in the languages used by the enemy, whom you allow to practice perfidy without punishment.

Remember, there are no guarantees in war. No matter how badly you screw up, the enemy might still be more poorly led and less adaptive than are you. That said, if you practice these ten principles you can become a master of the art of defeat.

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