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Triumph of the Will?

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

An extremely intriguing post by Steve DeAngelis today:

The Importance of Willpower

….Aamodt and Wang assert that personal willpower (the ability to overcome the tension created between desire and common sense) is a zero sum game — use it and you lose it. That is, people who demonstrate willpower in one area have less of it to use in another.

“The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have found that people who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated task. In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every ‘e’ on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall. Other activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams and trying to impress someone. Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.”

During the Second World War, the United States faced in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, enemies whose leadership placed an unusual stock in the advantages of superior will.  While roundly cursed posthumously by his generals at the time, historians now tend to give Hitler considerable credit for preventing a potential disaster in the face of the Red Army counterattack in 1942 with his fanatical insistence that the Wehrmacht stand and fight for every inch of ground, ultimately stabilizing the German lines and permitting a regrouping for further offensives. Noted historian, John Lukacs, has written of Adolf Hitler ” His mind and willpower were extraordinary….”.

Hitler held his regime together to the very end with his word being regarded as law througout the Third Reich, even when Soviet tanks were two hundred meters from his Fuhrerbunker. He dismissed from office his most powerful paladins, Goering and Himmler with a word, even when he was mere hours from his own suicide. The strain of such indomitible determination, in the face of apocalyptic stress, however, made a physical and mental wreck of Der Fuhrer. Hitler’s marked physical degeneration after 1941 was aggravated by the gross quackery of his physician Theodore Morell, an unhealthy lifestyle and injuries sustained in the 1944 bomb plot, but close associates like Speer had noted personality changes in Hitler as early as the latter’s fiftieth birthday when Hitler began to rigidly and monomaniacally focus on the war. Shuffling, beset by Parkinsonian symptoms, frequent rages and chronic insomnia, possibly addicted to stimulant drugs, Hitler’s sickly, grayish appearance often startled high Nazi officials who were granted increasingly rare audiences in Hitler’s final years.

A Barnett in a China Shop

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

Tom appears to have really rattled somebody’s cage at The White House with his profile of CENTCOM commander Admiral Fallon in Esquire Magazine

The Man Between War and Peace by Thomas P.M. Barnett

The money quote from the magazine article that probably caused political WWIII:

Last December, when the National Intelligence Estimate downgraded the immediate nuclear threat from Iran, it seemed as if Fallon’s caution was justified. But still, well-placed observers now say that it will come as no surprise if Fallon is relieved of his command before his time is up next spring, maybe as early as this summer, in favor of a commander the White House considers to be more pliable. If that were to happen, it may well mean that the president and vice-president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of this year and don’t want a commander standing in their way.

We will be hearing a lot more about this in the next few days.  Before the analysis commences, I’ll add that what Tom wrote for Esquire was not some shoot-from-the-hip, data-free analysis, op-ed, blog post. His profile of Admiral Fallon was  deeply sourced and the product of a great deal of firsthand experience, careful research and extensive review to vett it prior to publication. Far more so, I might add, than what Thomas Ricks put up in WaPo in response.  🙂


I’ve redacted this section as the link was broken and the post has been removed by the author. In the interim, The SWJ BLog has put up an extended post that details the Barnett-Fallon-Ricks story in greater detail as well as Tom’s COIN coments (as well as linking here – thanks Dave!).

SWJ Items of Interest

Meanwhile, Barnett was quite critical of a recent SWJ Magazine article, The Global Counter Insurgency, by Jonathan Morgenstein & Eric Vickland.

From the article…

Sixty years ago, George Kennan penned his landmark Foreign Affairs article that defined American foreign policy for the next half century. Seminal security policy decisions such as the creation of NATO, the blockade of Cuba and the Berlin airlift were all components of the policy of Containment. Today, a radical Islamic ideology seeks our destruction, yet we lack a unifying doctrine on which to base our foreign policy. Al Qaida and its ideological compatriots represent a worldwide insurgency based on religious extremism. At its core it is a political struggle with political aims and in order to defeat it, we need adapt our means to the nature of the struggle. We are not fighting a war on terrorism. We are fighting a global insurgency against an extremist brand of Islam.

Read the rest here.

Other Blogs Commenting:

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Hybrid New Deal-Military Keynesianism for Iraq?

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

Steve DeAngelis of ERMB had an excellent post on Iraq that I believe has a lot of resonance for historians:

Dealing with Iraq’s Great Depression

“When Americans think about the Great Depression of the 1930s, they think about soup kitchens, unemployment, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Those people who managed to remain employed during the depression were considered fortunate. To some extent that is the situation facing people in southern Iraq (the northern Kurdish sector is booming in comparison). The U.S. just announced a new approach for dealing with the lack of jobs and the lack of security in the south. It is a mixture of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society programs [“U.S. Plans to Form Job Corps For Iraqi Security Volunteers,” by Karen DeYoung and Amit R. Paley, Washington Post, 7 December 2007]. Once again it is the U.S. military leading the way.

“The U.S. military plans to establish a civilian jobs corps to absorb tens of thousands of mostly Sunni security volunteers whom Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government has balked at hiring into local police forces. The new jobs program marks a sharp departure from one of the most highly touted goals of the so-called Sunni awakening, which was to funnel the U.S.-paid volunteers, many of them former insurgents, into Iraq’s police and military.”

The program aims at alleviating two of the most crucial challenges facing southern Iraq — jobs and security. As DeYoung and Paley report, the program is aimed primarily at Sunni citizens who have been unable to find work under the Shi’ite regime. The program has raised questions, however.

“President Bush and Gen. David H. Patraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, have said the volunteers have played a major role in the recent downturn in violence and would provide a key element of local security as U.S. forces draw down. Plans to reconfigure the program raise new questions about the permanence of security and political structures the United States has sought to impose on Iraq.”

The Bush administration’s program seems to be based on three assumptions. First, people need jobs so they can once again feel good about themselves and support their families. Second, jobs help the security situation by eliminating many unhappy and unemployed people from the list of potential insurgent supporters and, by giving them a stake in the future, Sunnis will get involved in the war against the insurgents. And third, the job program reduces sectarian violence by getting Sunni and Shi’ites working side by side.

Read the whole thing here.

The period of the Great Depression and the later postwar occupation is rich with potential lessons and analogies for exercises in state-building in Iraq or elsewhere. Steve mentioned the Civilian Conservation Corps as a model, probably one of the most popular public memories of the New Deal. a program where adolescents and young men of all backgrounds did public works and environmental projects under the supervision of active and retired U.S. Army NCO’s .

Iraq certainly does not lack for oportunities to repair or improve infrastructure, something that would both create jobs and future platforms to facilitate economic growth as well as enmeshing local elites in positive partnerships with coalition forces. My suggestion here, to build on Steve’s New Deal paradigm, would be to complement any physical construction -jobs effort with one of the New Deal’s least appreciated major programs which would be even more appropriate for Iraq today than it was for the United States in the 1930’s, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

What makes the RFC, originally created by the Hoover administration but given expanded powers under FDR, different from other New Deal agencies was the focus on reestablishing liquidity and the extension of lines of credit to private banks and businesses on a sound financial basis but one with a realistic adaptation to the conditions of the Depression. This was made possible by the astute judgment of the imposing Texas financial wizard who headed the RFC, Jesse H. Jones. Chairman Jones, historian Jordan Schwarz wrote:

“He could be an expedient lender; frequently he accomodated schemes of dubious creditworthiness, and New Dealers remained suspicious of Jones’ personal coziness with bankers and big business. Ironically, RFC-financed programs such as rural electrification were dear to their hearts and made possible profounder consequences for American society than those of almost any other New Deal program” [1]

Jones’ discernment  of  a borrower’s viability was such that out of the $ 2 billion 1930’s gold dollars in credit extended to banks, local governments, corporations and small business concerns during the Depression, nearly every loan was repaid. More remarkably, Jones disproportionately targeted the relatively undeveloped South and West for the RFC assistance in building networks of finance capitalism that made possible the later Sunbelt Boom of the 1960’s.  In his person, Jones combined a wealth of experience in entrepreneurial capitalism and banking with an intimate “local knowledge” of the political, social and economic conditions giving him a degree of success that made him irreplaceable to FDR.

A RFC on the Euphrates could only work in close collaboration with Iraqis who possess the prized “local knowledge” that we lack – mostly former Iraqi central bank types leavened with key Kurdish and Shiite equivalents with an American holding the pursetrings but the Iraqis vetting borrowers for viability rather than collateral, much the way Jones himself did in the cash-poor South and West. The effort could be enhanced by a separate microloan program, perhaps funded by NGO’s, attached to coalition commands to get smaller enterprises off the ground and help revive local economies.

If great care is exercised, state capitalism in Iraq can become a catalyst for the growth of the liberal markets of actual capitalism.

1. Schwarz, Jordan  The New Dealers:Power Politics in the Age of Roosevelt.  Alfred A. Knopf. New York 1993

Friday, August 10th, 2007


Steve DeAngelis of ERMB has journeyed to the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq a second time on Enterra business. He’s had several posts reflecting on his experiences working in ” the other Iraq” or about the Mideast in general.

Probing the Edges of Globalization

Lessons from the Edge of Globalization: Part 2, Day 1

Labor Reform in the Middle East ( Dubai focus)

Islamic Finance

Kurdistan’s clan-based rulers and Peshmerga leaders have been exceptionally deft players in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, managing to have excellent relations with the United States, Iran and ( allegedly on the quiet) Israel. Quite a neat trifecta. Only Turkey remains a serious problem, deeply fearful of Kurdish revanchism, PKK terrorism and having assumed the role of protector of the Turcoman minority in Iraq ( ironically, reprising the posture that imperial Russia once assumed toward Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire that the Sublime Porte found so offensive).

To be a state or not to be a state, a choice the Kurds must make. One of the few things most countries can agree on is that international borders are no longer up for grabs via the use of force – Europe’s peace was built on the permanence of German borders and the Europeans are not going to reopen that topic, even in principle. The road to sovereignty, independence and NATO membership for Kurdistan runs only through Ankara but it requires strategic choices not seen in Mesopotamia since 1919.

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007


Tom brought an excellent post by Curtis Gale Weeks at 5GW to my attention and then offered his own commentary. Here are the posts:

On the Barnettian 5GW” by Curtis Gale Weeks

Nice post by Curtis on 5GW” by Dr. Barnett

I have to agree with Tom and Shane that Curtis really hit his stride with that post. I have a few comments of my own on their 5GW exchange.

Curtis wrote:

“—There is a term used variously and vaguely in these discussions; I myself conflated two interpretations of the term. The Robbian view seems to depend on unequal distribution of “-powerment”, in which some individuals or groups become more powerful than the general human population; whereas, at heart Thomas Barnett’s Core/Gap paradigm and strategy seem to depend upon an eventual equalization, or a relative equalization (which is a type of oxymoronic phrase), of individual empowerment across the globe”

I don’t think Curtis’ use of ” relative equalization of individual empowerment” is actually as oxymoronic as it seems. This is an astute normative economic observation on Week’s part. Instead, it illustrates the aggregate effect of Schumpeter’s creative destruction rippling across the globe as the spread of economic connectivity and information technology proceeds apace. The spread, of say, cell phone-based wifi internet access to states with sketchy (at best) landline telephone service, is a quantum leap forward for equalization of empowerment on the macro- scale even as certain small networks or individuals of those states on the micro- scale, possess the ability to leverage still greater levels of empowerment to become “more equal than others”.

This seeming dichotomy are flip sides of the same coin in any true market action and is always ongoing to some degree, provided the market is permitted to function. Unless the comparative advantage is artificially locked in by force ( this is what tyrants of disconnectivity, like Mugabe and Kim Jong-Il, do – force everyone else to remain still in order to retain their own local “super empowerment”), any individual or entity’s “super empowerment” is apt to be a fleeting condition unless constantly maintained by adaptive improvements.

Much later, Curtis opined:

“Many people seek saviors of one sort or another; many are happy to delegate responsibility for the things they themselves cannot touch or do not have the time or motivation to fix themselves — or do not understand, themselves. The crux of the Barnettian paradox involves the manner and method of assigning these delegations so that the general man-on-the-street can rest easily knowing his prosperous future is assured. Even within the Core, much doubt about this process of delegation exists; various superempowerments within and without the Core threaten to upset faith in the systems of the Core. “

Visible super empowerment within a society is a condition representing both change as well as inequality; two phenomena against which it is nearly always possible to rally anger, envy, fear and political opposition.

Tom Barnett wrote:

” Instead of trying to be all things to all individuals in Vol. III, I’ll explore the one thing I know well. I do that because I feel the knowledge is important in its own right, addressing a serious gap in our tool kit vis-a-vis other, rising societies of SEIs (especially China and India).

….The book on SEIs remaking the world in their vision–positively–is a book I could see writing with Steve a few years down the road.”

The accent on positively remaking the world by Dr. Barnett is a noteworthy point to keep in mind. Numerically speaking, most highly intelligent, energetic, creative and task persistent individuals who function as change agents are overwhelmingly positive actors. Maslow wrote of a stage of self-actualization and in a certain sense, exceeding oneself by changing society in a positive direction may be an expression of both self-actualization as well as super empowerment The Ted Kaczynskis and Osama Bin Ladens are perverse and statistically rare anomalies; exceptions that prove the rule, in a sense.

Unfortunately, the exceptionally negative super empowered individuals do and will exist and have the potential to inflict system perturbations, at least on a one-shot, ” black swan“, basis. Deep uncertainty regarding the nature of such future superempowered individuals’ actions has to be dealt with in terms of proactively engineering systemic resilience to cope with these malicious one-hit wonders. Steve’s Development-in-a Box paradigm at Enterra is one effort to begin comprehensively addressing these deficits. Tom’s Sys Admin is another. Building new, highly decentralized, “Wikinomic” mass-collaborative platforms from scratch, may be yet a third.

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