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For whom the bell Dengs, it Dengs for Lee

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

[rang by Lynn C. Rees]

Elite mouthpiece Charlie Rose once asked former Singapore Prime Minister Lee “Harry” Kuan Yew which of the many, many, many, many world leaders he’d met in his long, long, long, long career he most admired. Lee chose Chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the Chinese Communist Party Deng Syauping. Lee especially admired Deng for his world-historic “adaptability”.

Flashback: 1978. Deng makes Deng’s first state visit to Singapore. Deng is flummoxed by Singapore’s prosperity (Deng’s briefings were inadequate). Deng asks Lee how Lee made Singapore prosperous. Lee tells Deng how Singapore climbed the food chain: First, attract foreign direct investment with cheap labor. Second, become subcontractors. Second, became contractors. Third, become competitors. Fourth, learn as you go. Veteran Marxist Deng muses aloud: Singapore’s created an egalitarian society using capitalism. Lee happily seconds Deng’s thought. Deng flies back to China. Deng applies the Lee model to China. Everyone lives happily ever after.

Appian records:

10. It is said that at one of their meetings in the gymnasium Scipio and Hannibal had a conversation on the subject of generalship, in the presence of a number of bystanders, and that Scipio asked Hannibal whom he considered the greatest general, to which the latter replied, “Alexander of Macedonia.”
To this Scipio assented since he also yielded the first place to Alexander. Then he asked Hannibal whom he placed next, and he replied, “Pyrrhus of Epirus,” because he considered boldness the first qualification of a general; “for it would not be possible,” he said, “to find two kings more enterprising than these.”

Scipio was rather nettled by this, but nevertheless he asked Hannibal to whom he would give the third place, expecting that at least the third would be assigned to him; but Hannibal replied, “To myself; for when I was a young man I conquered Spain and crossed the Alps with an army, the first after Hercules. I invaded Italy and struck terror into all of you, laid waste 400 of your towns, and often put your city in extreme peril, all this time receiving neither money nor reinforcements from Carthage.”

As Scipio saw that he was likely to prolong his self-laudation he said, laughing, “Where would you place yourself, Hannibal, if you had not been defeated by me?” Hannibal, now perceiving his jealousy, replied, “In that case I should have put myself before Alexander.” Thus Hannibal continued his self-laudation, but flattered Scipio in a delicate manner by suggesting that he had conquered one who was the superior of Alexander.

Like the great Carthaginian (as framed in Appian’s fable) but with greater circumspection, Lee gives Lee a hearty backslap for the ages here by promoting Deng to virtual Leeness, making Deng almost a Lee Kuan Yew, Jr. Deng is great for”adaptibility”. Translation: Deng is great for “adaptibility” because he adapted by following Lee, who’s also great for “adaptibility”. Deng is great because Lee is great. While Deng did great things, Lee claims, also circumspectly, a greater priority: Lee’s been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

There is merit here. If Lee’s memory was as accurate as it was convenient, Lee was one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century. Deng Syauping stepped out of the way of one fifth of humanity’s rise from absolute poverty to genteel poverty. For that, Deng is one of the most adequate leaders of the twentieth century. If Lee helped Deng rise to adequacy, he deserves his adequate share of significance.

Lee is a frequent candidate for great authoritarian of the late twentieth century, the sort of man that, if they could be produced on demand, would euthanize democracy. That great authoritarians are not produced on demand continues to be a problem. Lee proved resiliently traditional in his attempts to solve the problem: Placeholder minion. Check. Dynastic succession. Check.

Whether history gives Lee as hearty a backslap as Lee (through Deng) gave Lee will depend upon whether Lee’s great authoritarianism continues to be great authoritarianism without its great authoritarian. Cárdenas’perfect dictatorshipendured 54 years. Stalin’s dead cat bounce reached 1991. Mau’s dead cat bounce carried a Deng, a Jyang, a Hu, and now a Syi. And those cabals had some component of rotation of elites built in. Lee’s die is cast with old school hereditary monarchy. His dynastic successor has an heir and two spares (three spares if Singapore doesn’t follow Salic Law). Time will tell if Lee Kuan Yew wins the genetic lottery now that he’s no longer around to play retired emperor.

“No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” – Madhu

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

As mentioned recently, I’m reading Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida. Chapter 2 is complete, however Sumida included one sentence at the end of the Introduction that has been nagging me. Professor Sumida said, speaking of Alfred Thayer Mahan:

“It remains to be seen whether readers exist with the mind and will to accept his guidance on what necessarily is an arduous intellectual and moral voyage into the realm of war and politics.” (emphasis added)

The phrase “whether readers exist with the mind and will” jumped off the page. Over the last few days I’ve seen several articles of warning of the West’s decline, and while many shed light on symptoms that would indicate decline, most are tired old bromides masquerading as “new thought.” For instance, a few days ago, a friend on Twitter (an Army officer) shared a Tweet from The New Atlanticist of an article called, “Why We Need a Smart NATO.” He tweeted, “Call me a cynic, but haven’t we ALWAYS needed a smart NATO?” Good question. In my estimation, “smart NATO” is yet another venture into sloganeering. While it may call into question my judgement, my first thought on reading “smart NATO,” was a line from the cult movie Idiocracy (if you haven’t seen it, get it) and one scene where the time traveling protagonist is attempting to explain the importance of water to plants to people of the future who use a sports drink instead. Here is the clip:

but it’s got electrolytes…

We’re living in a world of unprecedented availability of information, yet our meta-culture seems indifferent to anything that takes more than a few minutes to consume. Among too many military colleagues I know, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase, “I’ve not read Clausewitz through….nobody does…” And I respond, “But if not you, then who will?” If the practitioners of a profession as serious as the profession of arms don’t read and think deeply, who will? And what will become of the timeless principles learned and recorded at the cost of blood and treasure and how those principles translate into how we fight? I have an abiding fear our military, not out of malice but neglect, is cutting the intellectual cord with the past by making it culturally acceptable to be intellectually indifferent and incurious, to sloganeer instead of think, allowing slogans and PowerPoint as woefully inadequate substitutes. There is no app for intellectual development.

We can’t afford to allow the profession of arms to be anything but intellectually robust and challenging. Zen wrote an excellent summation of the recent posts on disruptive thinkers (which may for some have the ring of sloganeering). However these posts are evidence a lot of the young guys “get it” and want more. Good news, but recognition of the problem is not enough; action is required. Action that may damage a career.

I’m a member of the US Naval Institute, and an on-going concern of the Institute is relevance to the young folks. Yep, relevance. Relevance with a mission statement like this:

“To provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.”

Reading, thinking, speaking, and writing requires what Sumida referred to as “mind and will.” Leaders create this condition and desire by example, unambiguous expectations, and by listening, adapting, and sharing their knowledge with subordinates and encouraging them to push their intellect. Good leaders will create a space where deep thinking is expected, where curiosity isn’t the exception, but the rule. Many of our folks in uniform compete in the physical fitness arena and do the hard work necessary to be the best physically, but we need more intellectually rigorous competition in both formal schools and at the unit level. Leaders create this environment, for the best leaders want their people to think. Robert Leonhard in his excellent book, The Principles of War for the Information Age said it best:

“The greatest legacy that a leader can leave behind is a subordinate who is not afraid to think for himself.”

While we can’t pretend to be in good condition or physically fit, some may be tempted to pretend on the intellectual front. Which brings me back to Madhu’s quote: “No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” Doc Madhu, a blog friend and frequent commenter at zenpundit, was commenting on an excellent essay by Mike Few at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure. The essay was titled Finding Niebuhr, and Mike reminds us of Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer:

“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Courage and wisdom are virtues enabled by a well-developed, well-rounded, curious intellect. “Pretending” in the profession of arms can have deadly consequences, and more often than not, the pretenders are trying to “be someone” instead of “doing something.” More often than not, this is a group effort, enabled by a crippled culture dominated by groupthink.

Boyd’s challenge continues to ring true:

“To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

This is cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

Time for a Grand Strategy Board?

Monday, April 25th, 2011

The Gerousia

“I have not lived so long, Spartans, without having had the experience of many wars, and I see among you of the same age as myself, who will not fall into the common misfortune of longing for war from inexperience or from a belief in it’s advantage and safety”

Archidamus, King of Sparta

One thing on which most commentators, academics and former officials seem to agree is that the United States government has a difficult time planning and executing strategy. Furthermore, that since 1991 we have been without a consensus as to America’s grand strategy, which would guide our crafting of policy and strategy. This failing bridges partisan divisions and departmental bureaucracies; there are many career officials, political appointees and even a few politicians, who can explain the nuances of the Afghan War, or the Libyan intervention, the depreciatory tailspin of the US Dollar or America’s Russia policy – but none who would venture to say how these relate to one another, still less to a common vision.

Sadly, they do not, in fact, relate to one another – at least not, as far as I can discern, intentionally.

Few American policies or even military operations (!) in one country can be said to have been conceived even within a coherent and logically consistent regional strategy and it is not just common, but normal, to have DIME agencies working at completely contradictory purposes in the same area of operations. The interagency process, to the extent that it exists, is fundamentally broken and incapable of interagency operational jointness; and the institutional coordinating mechanism for any “whole of government” effort, the National Security Council, has become too consumed with crisis management. A mismatched prioritization of resources which leaves little time for the kind of long range planning and strategic thinking that allows nations to seize the initiative instead of reacting to  events.

It would be a useful corrective for the better conception and execution of US policy, for the President and the Congress to create a special board for grand strategy that could give presidents and key officials frank assessments and confidential guidance to help weave their policy ideas into a durable and overarching national strategy. One that might last beyond a few days’ headlines in The New York Times.

The President of the United States, of course has a number of bodies that could, should but do not always provide strategic advice. There’s the Defense Policy Advisory Board, an Intelligence Advisory Board,  the National Intelligence Council, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, the Office of Net Assessment and not least, the NSC itself and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose Chairman, by act of Congress, is the military advisor to the President and Secretary of Defense. While strategic thinking does percolate from these entities, many have very specific mandates or, conversely, wide ranging briefs on matters other than strategy. Some operate many levels below the Oval Office, are filled with superannuated politicians or have personnel who, while intellectually brilliant, are excessively political and untrained in matters of strategy. The Joint Chiefs, the professionals of strategy, are highly cognizant of the Constitutional deference they are required to give to civilian officials and are very leery of overstepping their bounds into the more political realms of policy and grand strategy.

What  the President could use is a high level group just focused on getting strategy right – or making sure we have one at all.

I’m envisioning a relatively small group composed of a core of pure strategists leavened with the most strategically oriented of our elder statesmen, flag officers, spooks and thinkers from cognate fields. A grand strategy board would be most active at the start of an administration and help in the crafting of the national strategy documents and return periodically when requested to give advice. Like the Spartan Gerousia, most of the members ( but not all) would be older and freer of the restraint of institutional imperatives and career ambitions. Like the Anglo-American joint chiefs and international conferences of WWII and the immediate postwar era, they would keep their eye on the panoramic view.


The Octagon Conference – FDR, Churchill and the Combined Chiefs of Staff

Here’s my grand strategy board in a hypothetical perfect world, unlike the one that prevails inside the beltway. I’m sure people will quibble with particular names or will suggest others. I freely admit, for example, that I do not have the best grasp of who our leading intellectual powerhouses are in the Navy, Air Force or the closed world of intelligence analysis and this impairs my ability to put together the list. Nevertheless, I’m trying anyway:

Let’s start with a group of acclaimed and eminent strategic thinkers who have demonstrated over a long tenure, their ability to consider matters of war, peace and statecraft as well as the nuances of strategic theory:

Thomas Schelling -Chairman
Andrew Marshall
Edward Luttwak
Colin Gray
Joseph Nye

Next, some senior statesmen:

Henry Kissinger
George Schultz
Zbigniew Brzezinski

Madeleine Albright

General officers and one colonel with a demonstrated talent for challenging conventional assumptions:

Lieutenant General Paul van Riper
General James Mattis 
General Jack Keane
Colonel John Warden

Two economists:

Alan Greenspan
Nouriel Roubini

Two scientists:

Freeman Dyson
E.O. Wilson

Mixed group of strategists, historians, practitioners and theorists:

David Kilcullen
John Robb
John Negroponte

Barry Posen
Antulio Echevarria

Chet Richards
Micheal Vlahos
Thomas P.M. Barnett
Stephen Biddle
Robert Conquest
Duane Clairridge
Jack Matlock
Martin van Creveld

Visionaries and Contrarians:

Nicholas Nassim Taleb
William Gibson
Ray Kurzweill
Andrew Bacevich

What are the problems with my grand strategy board (aside from having zero chance of coming into being)? 

For one, it is probably way too large. In my efforts to balance expertise in strategy with varied thinking it grew bigger than what is manageable in real life, if the group is to be productive.

Secondly, it is an exceedingly white, male and conservative leaning list – though to some extent that reflects the criteria of experience, the field of strategy itself and the nature of American politics.  Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, is definitely bright but her politics are fundamentally opposed to effectively maximizing American power in the world or the use of military force – thus making her of little use except as a voice of dissent.

Another limitation of this exercise is the idiosyncratic eclecticism of my approach – this was a blog post written over a few days in my spare time and not a methodical inquiry into who in American life would verifiably be the “best qualified” to help construct a grand strategy. There are “insiders” who command great respect within the national security, defense and intelligence communities who are unknown to the general public, or even this corner of the blogosphere, who would be enormously helpful to such a board. Finally, a grand strategy board would not be a panacea; it would be subject to all the inertial pressures that over time would reduce it’s ability to effect change, just as the Policy Planning Staff and the NSC have been “neutered” over decades by the forces of the status quo.

That said, the above group or one reasonably comparable to it could, for a time, markedly improve the construction of strategy , assuming American leaders are willing to enlist such advice, put aside short term political considerations and pursue long term strategic goals.

Whom would you nominate to a grand strategy board?

Grand Strategic Viewing:

The US Army goes Crossfit and America’s Changing Social Mores

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

This sounds very much like Crossfit:

New soldiers are grunting through the kind of stretches and twists found in “ab blaster” classes at suburban gyms as the Army revamps its basic training regimen for the first time in three decades.

Heeding the advice of Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans, commanders are dropping five-mile runs and bayonet drills in favor of zigzag sprints and exercises that hone core muscles. Battlefield sergeants say that’s the kind of fitness needed to dodge across alleys, walk patrol with heavy packs and body armor or haul a buddy out of a burning vehicle.

And this is hilarious – and largely true in my observation, at least for most LMC -UMC suburban teen-agers who become Army recruits:

Trainers also want to toughen recruits who are often more familiar with Facebook than fistfights.

….But they need to learn how to fight.

“Most of these soldiers have never been in a fistfight or any kind of a physical confrontation. They are stunned when they get smacked in the face,” said Capt. Scott Sewell, overseeing almost 190 trainees in their third week of training. “We are trying to get them to act, to think like warriors.”

Godspeed to you, Captain Sewell. And a hat tip to Dave Dilegge

The culture has changed. School anti-bullying programs have eliminated a lot of the physical aspects of student conflicts but had the unanticipated effect of making the nonphysical but verbal and social bullying far worse because organized ostracism, slander and anonymous internet harrassment are far harder for school authorities to prove in court when challenged by the always litigious parents of the chronic bullies who have (finally) been disciplined.

Consequently, most suburban kids a) feel quite safe in saying unbelievably heinous things to each other that a generation ago, and certainly two generations earlier, would have resulted in an instant punch in the mouth, if not a savage public beating; and b) are completely inept at defending themselves when they come across someone outside their narrow, whitebread, cultural zone who takes offense at their wanton disrespect and reacts with an “old school” response. They are the Emo generation.

Coupled with a widespread loathing of physical exercise and an expectation of gratuitous consumer-debt financed luxury, a sizable segment of young Americans are better prepared for conflict in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles than joining the Army. Or even a moderately resilient soccer team.

Thus concludes my cranky, old man, rant. 🙂

Friday, November 16th, 2007


Over at Chicago Boyz.





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