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Graphic matches?

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — Netanyahu’s UN speech, Jyllands-Posten cartoon, a nifty film technique, and is there an echo there? ]


A fair number of people have commented on Israeli PM Netanyahu‘s displaying a cartoonish bomb graphic in the course of his UN address today, and some have complained, fairly IMO, at the choice of photo used to depict Netanyahu during his speech by eg Fox News:

I think it’s important to read graphic messages closely for the cues they contain.


Sometimes, as with images of the Virgin Mary seen in grilled cheese sandwiches or oil slicks, the correspondences don’t really mean much more than that the brain is designed for pattern recognition, and a little “imagination” without critical appraisal can get things wrong: the terms commonly used for this are apophenia, patternicity and pareidola.

My own favorite example of this phenomenon is of the wall-stain in a school in the East Bay that was recognized as the Virgin Mary by Catholics and the bodhisattva Kuan-Yin by Buddhists

Nonetheless, I’m reluctant to ridicule such modes of perception without also recognizing the utility of Rorschach blots in psychology and the even more creative uses to which Leonardo put them.


Perceived visual similarities, in short, can be the result of creative or merely overheated imagination, but in the visually sophisticated they become much more.

Film-makers, in particular, have several names for the kind of skillful editing by which one scene segues into another via a well-chosen visual similarity: match cut and graphic match.

My personal favorite example is that of Apocalypse Now, where the rotors of the fan in that claustrophobic hotel room in Saigon morph into the rotors of the helicopter coming to take Captain Willard out and away on his mission up river…

Perhaps even more celebrated, though, is Kubrick’s match between the bone tumbling through the air and the space station tumbling through space, in 2001: A Space Odyssey:


To get back to Netanyahu, then — is his hand held out a little above vertical, palm down, really a Hitler salute? I think not.

And does his image of a bomb carry any resonance from the Jyllands-Posten cartoon? I have to admit I’m almost undecided on that one.

And if there’s just a hint of a correspondence, would it be conscious or unconscious?


The thing is, politicians have to be extremely careful about tossing graphic matches onto dry kindling.

To my own way of thinking, both Netanyahu’s “cartoonish bomb” graphic and his “mid-heil” salute are potential fodder for incautious speculation — but neither one is even remotely as far-fetched as Jerome Corsi‘s claim in a recent WND that a recent Obama campaign use of the Stars and Stripes (above, upper panel) — in admittedly terrible taste — suggests that Obama in any way favored the decease of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi (lower panel).


My point here, as so often, lies not in any political content or conclusion, so much as in a general purpose invitation to persons of intelligence (and a fortiori, intel) to watch out for possible graphic matches, to make close and cautious readings of visual as well as textual data — in short, to take a closer look

Yet More Books……

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012


For The Common Defense (Revised & Updated) by Allan R. MillettPeter Maslowski 

In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland 

The Poison King by Adrienne Mayor

The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith  

I seem to be on another bibliomaniacal binge where my reach exceeds my time 🙂

For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America 1607-2012  is a courtesy review copy of the newly revised and updated 2012 edition.  I have referred students interested in a comprehensive look at American military history to older editions of For the Common Defense for years and I am curious about their handling of recent wars and how they applied new scholarship (Vietnam, Civil War) to explain old ones.

I am a big fan of Tom Holland already, having read his Persian Fire and Rubicon previously. Picking up In the Shadow of the Sword was a no-brainer.

The Poison King looks to be a fascinating read: Mithradates of Pontus was up there with Hannibal and the Parthians for dealing out devastating defeats to Roman power

I was sold on The Fate of Africa because it carried a robust endorsement on the book jacket from…. Ralph Peters!

Waco in Pakistan

Monday, September 24th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — on the way not listening sometimes leads to trouble, the importance of ultimate concerns, and a remarkable remark by M. Morsi ]

It’s happening again, this time in Pakistan.

Nicholas Kristof‘s NYR op-ed a day or two ago, Exploiting the Prophet, included one particularly interesting little quote that set me thinking – and my friend Bryan Alexander noted it too. Kristof was talking about how people in Muslim countries with little or no tradition of free speech sometimes “have an addled view of how the United States handles blasphemy” and commented, almost as an aside:

A Pakistani imam, Abdul Wahid Qasmi, once told me that President Bill Clinton burned to death scores of Americans for criticizing Jesus. If America can execute blasphemers, he said, why can’t Pakistan?

I challenged him, and he plucked an Urdu-language book off his shelf, thumbed through it, and began reading triumphantly about the 1993 raid on David Koresh’s cult in Waco, Tex.

That’s absurd, preposterous. Perfectly understandable. And dangerous.


Here’s a description of how Americans listened to al-Qaida, drawn from Benjamin and Simon’s book, The Age of Sacred Terror, p. 159:

So much of what was heard from al-Qaeda after the attacks sounded to Americans like gibberish that many chords of the apocalypse were missed.

According, that is, to two senior members of President Clinton‘s National Security Council charged with counterterrorism, jihadist “chords of the apocalypse” were missed because they sounded like “gibberish”.

When I read that, I couldn’t help but recall the label given by FBI field agents to attempts by David Koresh to engage them in a discussion of the Book of Revelation, which for him was a roadmap of the very events he was living through — the FBI’s siege of Mount Carmel in Waco, TX.

Here’s a quote from the abstract of Robert Agne and Karen Tracy‘s analysis, ‘Bible Babble’: Naming the Interactional Trouble at Waco, published in Discourse Studies (v 3 # 3, 269-294):

A frustrating yet persistent aspect for the FBI negotiators was the Davidians’ talk about the Bible and their religious beliefs, what agents dismissively described as ‘Bible babble’.


Does it matter if one group of people persists in misunderstanding the religious positions of another in high-tension disputes?

In the case of Waco, it may indeed have contributed to the tragic outcome.

In this study, we analyze several exchanges between Koresh and one of the FBI agents. The analysis shows how the FBI’s identifying their problem as ‘Bible babble’ contributed to the negotiation failure.


There are other parallels that can be drawn between the Branch Davidians and their worldview, and al-Qaida and theirs — parallels that may have significance wherever there is a clash in which the “irrational” religious discourse of an (often apocalyptically inclined) “other” is easily brushed off by our own “more rational” mindset.

According to conflict resolution scholar Jayne Seminaire Docherty, writing in Learning Lessons from Waco (p. 99):

During the Waco negotiations, the Mount Carmel residents invited the FBI negotiators to choose God’s law over man’s law.

Compare al-Qaida, as seen in two excerpts from Michael Scheuer‘s Al-Qaeda’s Completed Warning Cycle – Ready to attack? published by the Jamestown Foundation in Terrorism Focus (v 2 #5, 2005):

After 9/11, bin Laden received sharp criticisms from Islamist scholars that dealt with the al-Qaeda chief’s failure to satisfy several religious requirements pertinent to waging war. The critique focused on three items: (1) insufficient warning; (2) failure to offer Americans a chance to convert to Islam; and (3) inadequate religious authorization to kill so many people. Bin Laden accepted these criticisms and in mid-2002 began a series of speeches and actions to remedy the shortcomings and satisfy his Islamist critics before again attacking in the United States.

Parallel to the warnings, bin Laden on two occasions since 2002 asked Americans to convert to Islam as the means of terminating the war al-Qaeda is waging against the United States. “We call you to Islam,” bin Laden said on both occasions, addressing himself to President Bush – as the leader of the American people – and asking him to lead his countrymen to Islam. He also offered to serve as guide and teacher for the American people, urging them to “follow the right path” to Islam. “I am an honest adviser to you.” bin Laden concluded, “I urge you to seek the joy of life and the after life…. I urge you to become Muslims….” (Al-Jazeera 6 Oct 02; Waaqiah.com, 26 Oct 02)


The Davidian invitation to the FBI interlocutors to talk Revelation — like the AQ invitation to President Bush and all America to convert to Islam — may seem a foredoomed invitation, but it’s one that at the very least situates one side of the conflict in the territory of “ultimate concerns”. Thus Docherty continues:

The negotiators resisted these invitations as situationally inappropriate conversion efforts. The Branch Davidians, they said, were disrupting the “real” negotiations with their proselytizing. However, for the Mount Carmel residents, proselytizing was the truly important business at hand. With the Second Coming looming on the horizon, all else was trivial by comparison, even the task of peacefully resolving the barricade standoff.

What is ultimate and what is, strictly by comparison, trivial?

One of the most significant answers to that question was given by Muhammad Morsi when he said recently:

To God, the attack on a person to Allah is bigger an attack on the Kaaba.

I still have a post or two in me concerning the ugly video clip and the far uglier riots it triggered, and in one of them I’d like to explore that remarkable remark of Morsi’s — deploring the killing of Ambassador Stevens — and supporting texts from the Qur’an, hadith and the writings of the late Egyptian cleric Sheikh Ghazali.

Bassford’s Dynamic Trinitarianism, Part II.

Monday, September 24th, 2012

In Part I.  we looked at a working paper by Professor Christopher Bassford that he he has posted at Clausewitz.com entitled  Tiptoe Through the Trinity, or, The Strange Persistence of Trinitarian Warfare.  As I said previously:

At 31 pages of analytic prose, diagrams and footnotes regarding the nature of  Carl von Clausewitz’s“fascinating” trinity; how Bassford thinks Michael Howard and Peter Paret got some important points in their translation of On War wrong ; the real meaning of Politik and on the perfidy of non-trinitarians – Bassford’s paper is not a quick read but a worthwhile one. I learned some important things about On War from reading this paper and had some uncertain speculations strengthened by Bassford’s expertise on Clausewitz and Clausewitzians.  I am not going to attempt a summary of so long and abstruse an argument, but I would instead like to highlight some of Bassford’s more valuable insights. There were also a couple of points where, in stretching to make analogies with other fields, I think Bassford may be going astray, as well as some commentary I might make regarding “non-state war”.

This paper will be more digestible if we blog the topics one at a time, in succession. 

Having previously tackled Bassford’s interpretation of the “fascinating” trinity and his argument for it’s dynamic nature, the time has come to observe how he explains a concept almost as important for understanding On War, what Clausewitz meant by “Politik“. We have all heard the often quoted maxim that Clausewitz said that “War was the continuation of politics by other means”, but what that sentence actually meant has been subject to both misunderstanding and debate. Here is Bassford:

….That leaves us with the problem of Politik. This is a huge subject, for it encompasses the entire issue of the relationship between it and war; perhaps 90% of debates about Clausewitz turn on it. Let us pause for a (long) moment and consider the meaning of those problematic words, Politik, politics, and policy.

Clausewitz seldom overtly defines Politik in any detail, and when he does so the definition is shaped to fit the immediate context. In translating Politik and related words, English-speakers feel compelled to choose between “politics” and “policy.” Some even prefer the much more specialized term “diplomacy,” which limits the discussion to relations among organized states—that is how Jomini’s Politique was usually rendered into English. Our choices can seriously distort Clausewitz’s argument. Clausewitz himself would probably have been very comfortable with the word “statecraft,” the broad zone of concerns and activities within which “statesmen” operate. But that term avails us no greater clarity and might even lock him exclusively into the state, where so many modern writers want to (uselessly) maroon him. We are interested in what Clausewitz meant by Politik, of course, but our focus here is even more on the question of what we mean by policy and politics. The latter two terms are related but far from equivalent. Each captures a part of the meaning of Politik, but even used together they do not cover quite the same ground.

…..1. Politics and policy are both concerned with power. Power comes in many forms. It may be material in nature: the economic power of money or other resources, for example, or possession of the physical means for coercion (weapons and troops or police). Power is just as often psychological in nature: legal, religious, or scientific authority; intellectual or social prestige; a charismatic personality’s ability to excite or persuade; a reputation, accurate or illusory, for diplomatic or military strength. Power provides the means to attack, but it also provides the means to resist attack. Power in itself is therefore neither good nor evil. By its nature, however, power must be distributed unevenly, to an extent that varies greatly from one society to another and within the same society over time.*25

2. “Politics” is the highly variable process by which power is distributed in any society:the family, the office, a religious order, a tribe, the state, an empire, a region, an alliance, the international community. The process of distributing power may be fairly orderly—through consensus, inheritance, election, some time-honored tradition. Or it may be chaotic—through intrigue, assassination, revolution, and warfare. Whatever process may be in place at any given time, politics is inherently dynamic and the process is always under pressures for change. Knowing that war is an expression of politics is of no use in grasping any particular situation unless we understand the political structures, processes, issues, and dynamics of that specific context…..

….The key characteristics of politics, however, are that it is multilateral and interactive—always involving give and take, interaction, competition, struggle. Political events and their outcomes are the product of conflicting, contradictory, sometimes cooperating or compromising, but often antagonistic forces, always modulated by chance…..

….War—like politics—is inherently multilateral, of course, though Clausewitz often uses the term sloppily in the sense of a unilateral resort to organized violence…..

….3. “Policy,” in contrast to politics, is unilateral and rational. Please do not confuse rationality with wisdom, however. As you may already suspect, there is no shortage of unwise policy out there. Policy (like strategy) represents a conscious effort by one entity in the political arena to bend its own power to the accomplishment of some purpose—some positive objective, perhaps, or merely the continuation of its own power or existence. Policy, is the rational and one-sided subcomponent of politics, the reasoned purposes and actions of each of the various individual actors in the political struggle.

….The key distinction between politics and policy lies in interactivity. That is, politics is a multilateral phenomenon, whereas policy is the unilateral subcomponent thereof.

….This makes policy and politics very different things—even though each side’s policy is produced via internal political processes (reflecting the nested, fractal *27 nature of human political organization).*28 This is not of merely semantic importance. The distinction is crucial, and there is a high price for confusion.

….In general, H/P’s word-choice reflects this logic, despite its strong bias towards “policy.” Whenever the context can be construed as unilateral, as in the Trinity discussion, we see “policy.” In Clausewitz’s final and most forcefully articulated version of the concept, however, the context is unarguably multilateral, with so strong an emphasis on intercourse and interactivity that, ultimately, even H/P is forced to use “politics” and “political”:

We maintain, on the contrary, that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase “with the addition of other means” because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs. The main lines along which military events progress, and to which they are restricted, are political lines that continue throughout the war into the subsequent peace. How could it be otherwise? Do political relations between peoples and between their governments stop when diplomatic notes are no longer exchanged?*30

….The clash of two or more rational, opposing, unilateral policies brings us into the realm of multilateral politics. Thus there really is no reason to avoid translating the Trinity’s politischen Werkzeuges literally, i.e., as “political instrument.”

That brings us to the problem of instrumentality. Force or violence is, of course, an instrument, in the sense of a hand-tool or weapon, of unilateral policy. War, however, must be bi- or multilateral in order to exist. Thus, while military force is indeed an instrument of unilateral policy, we should see war as an instrument of politics only in a very different, multilateral sense, as the market is an instrument of trade or the courtroom an instrument of litigation (“which,” as Clausewitz says, “so closely resembles war”)

….Clausewitz seems simply to assume that his readers will distinguish, on the fly, whether he is speaking in the unilateral or the multilateral sense. After all, he has stressed time and again the interactive nature of war, and, of course, his own language’s term Politik encompasses both our multilateral politics and our unilateral policy. But this casual stance results in constant confusion for the translator and the reader.

….We sometimes forget, of course, that Clausewitz’s magnum opus is not about policy or politics, nor about human nature or the nature of reality. It is merely a mark of the book’s profundity that these matters arise immediately in any serious discussion of it. In fact, Clausewitz himself dismisses the political complexities of policy in order to focus on his true subject, the conduct of military operations in war

….On the other hand, he’s offering some good advice here, not necessarily a prediction. It seems rather superfluous to suggest that perhaps Clausewitz actually grasped the facts that there is such a thing as bad policy, that bad policy has military consequences, and that this in turn may have consequences for both the political leadership and the community whose interests it is supposed to represent.

Clausewitz’s analogy to markets and litigation are interesting, partly because they are strained.  Still useful, but strained.

In the case of the former, the relationship is actually the reverse: trading is an instrumentality of economic relationships and economic laws which continue to operate even if their “natural” manifestations are suppressed by political power wielded by the state (i.e. the Soviet Union or North Korea could fix prices or set quotas but then had shortages, surplus goods and black markets instead). However, in CvC’s defense, he was still correct that there was a degree of parallel between economic competition and war and economics was then still in it’s infancy. Some of the classical economists had yet to become regarded as such by wrestling with their own conception of iterative, friction-generating, relationships. Furthermore, in Clausewitz’s day, the heavy hand of the state in economic life was traditional in continental Europe while “liberalism” (allowing freer markets) seemed like a radical innovation rather than an underlying mechanism behind an existing system of distortions.

The same might be said that litigation is the instrument of the courtroom or justice, but I am less sure here. Continental legal traditions and assumptions are sometimes very different from the Anglo-American legal systems based more upon common law and the evolution of judicial independence from the executive. And unfortunately, early 19th century Prussian royal courts are a subject beyond my competence. In any event, the adversarial and zero sum nature of litigation carries through in Clausewitz’s analogy.

In regard to Politik, I think Bassford has done an excellent job teasing out the ambiguities of a German word that does not translate or transliterate precisely into an English equivalent. He offers the reader a method for sensibly discerning when to use “politics” or “policy” in interpreting Clausewitz’s text and reasonably assumes that Clausewitz expected the reader to infer the correct meaning from the surrounding context. That’s how most of us write when dealing with multi-layered, abstract topics – we sacrifice exact clarity for useful brevity and expect (or hope) the audience will intuitively grasp the right nuance in our line of reasoning.

I am also intrigued by Bassford’s diagram. The representation of internal political dynamics is very useful but I am curious how he would weave a visual representation of strategy flowing from policy or (more accurately, policies) and strategy’s relationship with politics, beyond being subsumed. Many a potential strategy is stillborn in the tumult of bureaucratic-military politics, never mind the larger societal kind.

As complex as the text of On War sometimes seems, it really was a brilliant simplification by Clausewitz of the dynamics mediating conflict and war.

Lang, Francona et socii on an Israeli strike

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — a quick recap of Col. Lang & Lt. Col. Francona on the realities of an Israeli strike on Iranian facilities, 2006-2012 — and the recent WaPo trilogy ]

Nuclear and missile sites, 2008, credit: Stratfor

I posted here a while ago about what happens when “religious leaders talk of wiping nations off the map” — quoting the Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei and the Shas Rabbi Ovaida Yosef — and unobtrusively included the question:

Do the logistics back the rhetoric up?

Or so I thought.


Srikanth R of the Takshashila Cyber Strategy Studies team picked up on that supposedly unobtrusive question, though, so maybe it wasn’t so unobtrusive.

The thing is, it’s a solid, material, practical, down to earth realist’s question… and behind it, behind my dropping it into that post, is a memory of Col. Pat Lang, the blogger at Sic Semper Tyrannis, pointing his readers to that question quite a while back, in the form of a post by his one-time DIA deputy, Rick Francona back in 2006. Any “intelligence” in my question is strictly theirs.

I thought then, and I think now, that logistical considerations are as important as potential messianic-mahdist echo-chambers or statements by Israeli intelligence figures or American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to bear in mind when considering the potential for an Israeli attack on Iran.

This is not an area that I consider myself informed about, so I thought I’d check back and see what Lang and Francona have had to say on the issue over the intervening years…


Rick Francona: flight routes, 2006


Here are a bunch of other places where Lang, Francona et socii discuss such matters, in what I believe is a sequence by date:



From that last URL, here’s the most recent map in the series:


And is that all?

Over the last few days the Washington Post has published a three-part “essay” on an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. I’ve already quoted from David Ignatius‘ contribution in a comment on ZP, but that was about a different aspect of the thing. Here are links to the three parts:

Azadeh Moaveni, What if Israel bombed Iran? The view from Tehran
Anat Berko, If Israel bombed Iran, what would life in Tel Aviv be like?
David Ignatius, Lessons from an Iranian war game


Again, let me emphasize that I don’t know about logistics, but that I suspect Col. Lang does. You might think three points of view was enough to get a decent overview of the situation. You might believe that a war game conducted by a cluster of intelligent specialists would be enough…

Just for the record, Col. Lang obviously still thinks we’re missing the point. This is from his Sic Semper Tyrannis blog, today:

A general defect of the thing is the complete ignorance reflected of the actual limitations of distances, weapons, numbers of aircraft and missiles, Iranian air defenses, the lack of any recovery air fields between Israeli bases and the targets or SAR capability for the attacking Israeli force. Basic military knowledge of the situation is ignored in the manner common in politico-military strategic war games. In these “games” any reference to actual limitations are airily waved off as not germane. In this essay it is suggested that one option is for the US to “shoot down’ the attacking Israeli force before it passes beyond Iraq. The Joe Biden character angrily says that this is not an option. He is correct but not for the reason implied. In fact, since the completion of the US withdrawal from Iraq the US has no ability to do such a thing and neither do the Iraqis. The nearest USAF assets are in the Gulf or Turkey and the nearest US Navy assets are where the carriers may be. Look at the distances.



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