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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.

Book Review: The Forty Years War

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons, from Nixon to Obama by Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman

I mentioned this book previously, expressing some serious skepticism of the authors’ core argument of a struggle between President Richard Nixon and the Neocons. Nevertheless, I ordered a copy and found The Forty Years War to be an absorbing read; for those with an interest in the administration of Richard Nixon, the history of the late Cold War period or the politics of American foreign policy, this book is a must read. I have a good working knowledge from my own research of primary and secondary source material related to Richard Nixon and his battle to re-shape American foreign policy and national strategy; yet I can say that and Colodny and Shachtman, working with newly transcribed archival material, demonstrated that we still have much to learn about the inner workings of the Nixon administration.

The authors have three important themes in The Forty Years War:

1. The intellectual legacy of militarist- moral idealism of Fritz G.A. Kraemer, the German-born Defense Department geopolitical theorist who was a mentor, adviser or ally to a glittering constellation of policy makers including Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, James Schlesinger, Fred Ikle, Andrew Marshall, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and others. Shachtman and Colodny call Kraemer:

“….the unacknowledged godfather of the George W. Bush administration’s ways of relating the United States to the rest of the world – more so than the philosophies of the university of Chicago’s Leo Strauss or those Trotskyites turned conservatives who founded the neocon movement”

2. That there has been a “forty years war” for the control over U.S. foreign policy not between Left and Right or Hawks and Doves but between foreign policy “Pragmatists” in the mold of Richard Nixon and “Neocons” or more broadly (and accurately in my view), “Hardliners” adhering to the rigid moralism and supreme confidence in military supremacy of Fritz Kraemer.

3. That Watergate, contrary to the orthodox historiography (argued by historians like Stanley I. Kutler and Robert Dallek), was exploited and aggravated by Kraemerites and proto-Neocons, especially General Al Haig, specifically to bring down Richard Nixon in an attempt to smash detente and institute more aggressive U.S. posture in the Cold War. Haig emerges as a central villain in the Watergate conspiracy in The Forty Years War and Nixon’s ability to inspire disloyalty in his closest aides is breathtaking.

While illuminating and deeply provocative, The Forty Years War is a quirky book, almost two different books with the first half devoted to the Nixon era and the second half sailing from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama. In a sense, this is unavoidable because it is the Nixon administration docs that are being rapidly declassified and subsequent administrations will not be releasing similar material for years or decades. Equal depth of treatment for every administration would also have swelled the number of pages to a staggeringly unmanageable size for authors and readers alike.

I am also not comfortable with the authors’ casual use of the label “Neocon” to describe a range of policy makers on the right, some of whom are not at all neoconservatives in a tight or ideological sense of the term. Toward the end of The Forty Years War, Colodny and Shachtman draw more nuanced distinctions that I think, is a more precise rendering of the positions of various figures in Republican administrations or Congress.

The Forty Years War is a book that deserves to have a much higher public profile as Colodny and Shachtman are marshalling new evidence to challenge conventional interpretations of late Cold War political history and foreign policy.

Strongly recommended.

Colin Gray Gambling on 21st Century Great Power War

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Eminent British-American strategist  Colin S. Gray gambles on the Sino-American War in the 21st century (hat tip SWJ Blog)

PARAMETERS –  The 21st Century Security Environment and the Future of War

How the two great powers are going to afford to fight each other, as war would destroy their interdependent economic condition, is left unsaid. As is the rationale for fighting such a war beyond “balancing” and “fear, honor, interest” or any explanation as to why nuclear weapons would not be a constraining factor on such a war breaking out though Gray does not appear to believe that Russia and the US aspire to nuclear armageddon.

Despite some nostalgia for the the halcyon days of the Sino-Soviet alliance, an interesting an often cautionary article by a noted scholar of war.

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007


Fred C. Ikle, a former Undersecretary of Defense, senior arms control mandarin and long time security scholar, has produced a thoughtful and provocative book with his Annihilation From Within. In the tradition of his fellow RAND alumnus, Herman Kahn, Ikle has tasked himself with thinking about the unthinkable but he has done so without the former’s sense of humor or optimism, which renders AFW a slim yet dour read.

Back in 1999, in The Future and It’s Enemies, Virginia Postrel hypothesized a growing political split over the implications of technology and social change between “dynamists”, who favored freedom of experimentation and “stasists”who favor top-down, social and political controls over technological progress. Ikle is clearly in the latter camp; while much of AFW is devoted to the outcome of a nuclear attack “from within”, Ikle spends a fair amount of time worrying about the advent of “superintelligence“, the dystopian potential of exotic technology and ends with a plea for a consideration of “stationary-state”economic theory. Shades of the Club of Rome.

Ikle adeptly identifies critical security vulnerabilities and likely hypothetical scenarios that the national security and defense communities have not adequately addressed. More than identifies, Ikle himself has attempted to nudge policy makers into taking necessary steps to minimize the chances of nuclear catastrophe as he once convinced General Curtis LeMay to establish screening procedures for military personnel who had access to nuclear weapons and used coded safety locks on the weapons themselves. The concerns Ikle raises are well worth raising and most should be acted upon to some degree, which is one reason AFW is a “must read” book for anyone interested in strategic or security studies.

That being said, Ikle falls into the common fallacy of futurist books of this type on two counts. First assuming that all that which is necessary for the worst case scenario to come pass will fall perfectly in to place. He does this most strenuously with the subjects upon which he has the least to say, such as on “superintelligence” ( which, none of us, in actuality can assess the parameters of, for reasons of self-referential limitations). Secondly, aside from dismissing the benefits of the exotic technologies that Ikle fears, he corrupts his probabilistic estimates of disaster by not accounting for all the positive downstream effects of new technologies that will also be causing societal shifts.

A stimulating and serious book.


James McCormick at Chicago Boyz

John Robb at Global Guerillas

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