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Two Cheers for the State?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

An excellent post from Adam Elkus – strongly recommended!

The State Problem In National Security Policy

….The report makes a lot of comments about the rise of individual autonomy, the empowering of regional network-cities, and technology’s acceleration of the power of non-state actors. Wired interpreted part of this as signaling a decline of the statewhich has been a popular theme since Martin van Creveld’s work on theTransformation of War. I think that is an accurate characterization of the parts of the 2030 report that talk about the empowerment of non-state actors and the rise of international networks. I’m less interested in the report, though, than in the general narrative of state decline in national security policy discourse.

We’ve heard that states are in decline, and both benign and malign networks and private actors are on the rise. This isn’t a new theme—if you look back a few decades the rise of multinational corporations and the multilaterals prompted a similar debate about sovereignty and power in the modern world. The state-centric defense practitioner is enjoined to move beyond caring about states and embrace a new reality.

…. What we have been dealing with, however, is an unfortunate tendency to write the non-state actor and transnational network out of the last few centuries of history. But he (or she) stubbornly refuses to go away. We can talk about some of the reasons why this might be the case in the international environment but it is also worth talking about why we often assume much more coherence and cohesion in our domestic environment than reality may justify.

….In Charles Tilly’s book Democracy, he argues that four processes are necessary to create and sustain a democratic state: the growth of state capacity by suppressing alternative sources of power, the reduction of categorical inequalities, and the integration of strong tie-based trust networks into public life. Warlords and kingpins that predate make it difficult for rights to be guaranteed. Categorical inequality lessens the ability of the people to meaningfully control their own destiny. And strong trust networks that cannot express themselves in political and social life also have the potential for predation and the erosion of state authority. Tilly casts these processes as never-ending in scope, and states are capable of backsliding on any one of them.

Very rich food for thought.

Trust networks are an interesting way to look at broader social networks and discern, at times, the presence of modularity (and therefore specialized skills, capacities, knowledge etc.) within a looser network structure (weak ties and links vs. highly interconnected sets of hubs with strong ties). We tend to graph these things in simple diagrams, like concentric circles with “al Qaida hard core” in the center, but really, they are more akin to clumping or clotting or uneven aggregation within a less dense field of connections.

Adam is also right that the irregular, the illegal, the tribal, the secret society, the rebellious peasant was largely ignored by nationalistic  historians in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century – and when they came back in vogue in the 1960’s with revisionist, labor, social, cultural etc. schools of historians, they tended to groan under the heavy yoke of dogmatic Marxist class analysis and then later the radical academic obsessions with race, gender and sexual orientation “oppression”. Too seldom, were these people and their doings found to be interesting in themselves so much as puppets for a very tortured, abstract passion play to exorcise demons and pursue petty grudges against other scholars.

In any event, Adam is worth reading in full.


The Journal of Military Operations

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

The Journal of Military Operations  

A new peer-review “journalzine” from the IJ  Group, which publishes Infinity Journal.  The difference between the two is that Infinity focuses on strategy while the former, as the masthead implies, is dedicated to military operations as well as tactics. If you do not know what the difference between strategy and tactics are….well….reading these should help. The Editor is Dr. Jim Storr, a.k.a  Colonel Storr, author of the well regarded The Human Face of War.  Registration is free.

The maiden issue of JoMO has articles from two friends of ZP, Deputy Editor Wilf Owen and Adam Elkus.

Ironically, Wilf is  arguing against the existence of an operational level of war or the utility of separating operational art from sound understanding of tactics and strategy and criticizes Soviet strategist A.A. Svechin:

“The Operational Level of War Does Not Exist”

….Thus the definitions of strategy and tactics were and are simple, coherent and highly workable. While armies conducted ‘operations’, such activity did not impinge on the delineation of strategy and tactics. Conducting operations did not an operational level of war make!

The operational level of war is strongly associated with Soviet military thought. A.A. Svechin is often seen as the originator of the idea, when he discussed ‘Operational Art’ (operativnoe iskustvo) as conceptual connection between tactics and strategy.[iii] He defined an operation as ‘the effort of troops directed towards the achievement of a certain intermediate goal in a certain theatre of military operations without interruptions.’[iv] In the very next sentence he went on to explain that operations were designed to destroy or encircle a portion of the enemy forces to force a withdrawal of other forces, to capture or hold a ‘certain line or geographical area.’ Destroying a portion of the enemy’s armies is what battles traditionally sought to do. Svechin’s description equates strongly with battle and thus tactics, at least in terms of the outcome described.

Much Soviet and Russian writing (and Western analysis of it) on the Operational Level of War is, once subject to rigour, paper-thin and mostly a sophistry that arbitrarily creates a false and unneeded link between strategy and tactics. The extremely high losses suffered by Soviet Forces in WW2 are not symptomatic of anything other than bad tactics poorly executed. If the acme of operational art is encirclement operations, then at what level of command does this operational level of war take place? A platoon can encircle an enemy section, just as much as an army group can encircle an enemy army.

Svechin’s fundamental intellectual problem was not that he did not understand strategy or tactics, but how to function as a strategist in a society where politics as normally understood no longer existed and adherence to yesterday’s policy could be regarded as today’s evidence of treason. Indeed, this is what ultimately resulted in Svechin’s demise during the Great Terror despite his best effort to the contrary. Whatever the other merits of defining an “operational level of war” or “operational art” Sevechin was looking for an ideological safe harbor, a purely “technical” realm where military officers could do the campaign planning war required without the act of planning or doing strategy itself being ideologically suspect in Stalin’s eyes.  In 1937, this was a hopeless task, but Svechin’s legacy carved out a degree of professional autonomy for Red Army general staff officers in milder times that was unthinkable under Stalin’s rule.

Adam Elkus explains “D&D”:

“The Continuing Relevance of Military Denial and Deception”

….From the end of the Cold War onwards, Western militaries have rightly assumed that military competitors would attempt to disguise their power and deceive to draw attention away from their real capabilities and intentions. Moreover, the West’s enemies also are frequently authoritarian states for whom cheating and deception is basic political behavior. The attractiveness of deception operations and capabilities to opponents ranging from Mao’s China to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq provides empirical support for this prejudice.

But democracies are also capable of information manipulation and deception. The United States was able to exercise remarkable control over information in the 1991 Gulf War, not only shaping the media coverage’s tenor, but also protecting secrets. It is true that America cannot do so today in regards to its remotely piloted vehicle (‘drone’) program and its cyber operations in Iran. But while this demonstrates the difficulty of conducting D&D in democracies, it is not proof that D&D is impossible.

Now that the West has become fiscally weaker and weary of war, denial and deception will be crucial to engaging and destroying both conventional and irregular forces. Currently, the United States is employing special operations forces, paramilitary intelligence capabilities, and regular air and sea military platforms to acquire and target al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Information denial is key to this campaign, lest press leaks alert al-Qaeda to ongoing operations. The US reliance on human intelligence also presents opportunities for adversary deception operations, like the Jordanian double agent who executed a hit against an American spy base in Khost in 2009.

Future conventional campaigns are likely to also hinge on the employment of denial and deception. Information denial has always been a hallmark of successful Western operations, but deception has been neglected due to the brute fact of Western qualitative and material superiority. If one marches with big battalions and has better troops, platforms, and weapons, why do any extra effort to engage in deception? At times, such as during Operation Moshtarak in Afghanistan and Israeli operations in Lebanon and Gaza, operational objectives have been served by telegraphing the attack in advance in order to allow civilians to leave the target zone and intimidate the enemy.

I think Adam is on the right track here with his analysis. In an age of austerity, as the advanced states field shrinking, increasingly expensive, militaries, this will force a return to the employment of force-multiplying stratagems that are supplementary to and supportive of the employment of military force and coercion.

Scarcity is the mother of strategic invention.

Elkus and Zen at Pragati Magazine

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

My amigo Adam Elkus and I each have an article up at the newest issue of Pragati magazine:

Adam Elkus – Confront, Conceal, Leak 

David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal is best used as a Rosetta stone for deciphering DC discourse. Its true utility lies not in its uneven discussion of Barack Obama’s national security decisions, but in the way it reveals both mundane and alarming traits of American foreign policy debate. Sanger’s obsession with a supposed “split” between values and interests, mistaken belief that international security should be conducted according to the Golden Rule, and exposure of sensitive leaks all tell a story about the state of national security debate in 21st century Washington. Although the message is muddied and the narrator unreliable, Confront and Conceal is gripping reading.

Sanger’s self-designated task is to illuminate, through judicious research and both on and off the record interviews, the Obama administration’s struggle to operationalise its new vision of foreign policy. Sanger is at his best when exploring the way high-level officials engage in bureaucratic judo. His Obama is a canny political operator that compensates for relative inexperience with self-awareness and vigor. Even in the face of strategic surprise and bureaucratic infighting, Obama keeps a firm hand on the steering wheel. Sanger aggressively promotes a reading of Obama as driven operator rather than spectator, a portrayal that rings true when compared to other popular accounts of Obama’s foreign policy leadership style…. 

Mark Safranski –Drone invasions and cyber dystopias 

….Of the two, drones have the older history, going back almost a century to the Great War where experiments in auto-piloted planes were financed by the US Navy, but for much of the twentieth century, military applications for drones (or “remotely piloted vehicles”) were sharply limited. The technological capabilities of drones always lagged far behind the advances in manned aircraft and they were extremely vulnerable to modern anti-aircraft systems, or in some cases, small arms fire. While drones had some marginal utility for battlefield surveillance or as decoys, during the Cold War they were never the primary collection tools for sensitive intelligence that the U-2 Blackbird, listening posts and spy satellites were.

Several factors in the twenty-first century have pushed drones to the forefront as a weapon of choice for the Pentagon and the militaries of major powers. First, has been the relative decline of the probability of major interstate war since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the corresponding rise of irregular warfare in the form of insurgency by terrorists, guerrillas and rebellious tribes. Generally, these low-tech combatants reside in poor and remote areas and lack the capacity to detect or defend against drones except by concealment. Secondly, drones offer a tremendous economic advantage and battlefield return on investment (ROI) per enemy killed over advanced fighter aircraft.  A new F-22 costs $150 million to buy and $45,000 an hour just to fly with a pilot whose training costs the USAF $2.6 million; a reusable, propeller-driven Predator only costs slightly over $4 million. About the price of two and half Tomahawk cruise missiles….

Educating Divided Minds for an Illiberal State

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Adam Elkus had well-constructed argument about the Thomas Friedman-Andrew Exum exchange:

Education and Security

Andrew Exum’s has a useful critique of Thomas Friedman’s recent piece. In a nutshell, Friedman makes the old argument that the US could buy friendship and allegiance by giving Middle Easterners more education and scholarship opportunities. To this, Exum has a rather terrific rejoinder:

“I am a proud graduate of the American University of Beirut, but do you know who else counted the AUB as their alma mater? The two most innovative terrorists in modern history, George Habbash and Imad Mughniyeh. U.S. universities and scholarship programs are nice things to do and sometimes forge important ties between peoples and future leaders, but they can also go horribly wrong and do not necessarily serve U.S. interests. There is certainly no guarantee a U.S.-style education leads to greater tolerance or gender and social equality.”

Habbash and Mughniyeh are hardly alone. Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog famously observed an distinct overrepresentation of scientists, engineers, and other highly educated professionals in both violent and nonviolent groups with illiberal ideologies. Gambetta and Hertog make an argument that the black-and-white mindset of certain technical groups correlate well with extremist ideologies, but I am unfamiliar with how this has been academically received so I won’t endorse their claims. To be sure, a look at 20th century history would also reveal a significant confluence of intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences being involved in either state or non-state illiberal movements. 

Indeed, the problem here may be the imbalance of educational systems that produce divided minds, where lopsided cultures of thought interact with enough disturbed individuals with a will to power. Stalin demonstrated what Communism looked like when a former Orthodox seminarian presided over a police state run by engineers; Mao one-upped him with Communism as the mystical rule of an all-powerful poet.

One of the more unfortunate trends among many bad ideas currently advertised as “education reform” is the denigration of the humanities and the reduction or elimination of the arts and history in public schools in favor of excessive standardized testing of rote skills and reasoning at the lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, mostly due to Federal coercion. That this has become particularly popular with GOP politicians (though many elitist Democrats echo them) would have appalled erudite conservatives like William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk or old school libertarians who would have seen nationalization of k-12 education policy as worse than the status quo.

In an effort to appear genuinely interested in improving education, some politicians couple this position with advocacy for STEM, as the teaching of science has also been undermined by the NCLB regime and a grassroots jihad by religious rights activists against the teaching of evolution in high school biology classes. While STEM in and of itself is a good thing and better science instruction is badly needed, STEM is no more a substitute for teaching the humanities well than your left hand is a substitute for your right foot.

The modes of thinking produced by quantitative-linear- closed system-analytical reductionist reasoning and qualitative-synthesizing-alinear-imaginative -extrapolative are complementary and synergistic. Students and citizens need both. Mass education that develops one while crippling the other yields a population sharing a deeply entrenched and self-perpetuating lacunae, hostile and suspicious of ideas and concepts that challenge the veracity of their insular mental models. This is an education that tills the soil for intolerance and authoritarianism to take root and grow

Education should be for a whole mind and a free man.

In Defense of Grand Strategy

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

I have been involved, on and off, with another grand strategy discussion. Several discussions to be exact, one of which was prompted by Adam Elkus’s well-constructed volte-face on the concept of grand strategy. While I can find merit in many of Adam’s points regarding our dysfunctional policy-strategy process, the need to make definitive choices in order to have sound policy and our partisan epistemological crisis, I part company with him on his core argument:

America Needs Sound Policy, Not Grand Strategy

….The idea of grand strategy as both policy and strategy is by definition unachievable, and the source of much confusion.  By infusing normative policy elements into strategy, this fusion turns strategy into a manifestation of ideology rather than a technical device for getting things done.  Think, for example, of how debates about regional strategy and even the tactics and operations of COIN, drones, and counterterrorism have become proxies for domestic ideological political battles. This happens, in larger part, because the policy-strategy distinction in American national security circles is extremely weak, as strategy is taken to be politics and politics becomes strategy.

Adam has further endorsed a more emphatic follow-up post by our mutual blogfriend Joseph Fouche, where, much like his fictional countryman,  Captain Renault, JF in his forcefully argued post is shocked to discover that gambling is going on in here:

Terminology Proliferation is the Escape Hatch of Politics 

….One sure way to detect politics is signs of desperate efforts to call politics something other politics. Though politics is the most elemental of human endeavors, disgust with overt political machinations is one of the most elemental of human emotions:

Who likes a brown noser?

Who likes a squealer?

Who likes the kid who gathers up his toys and goes home when he doesn’t get his way?

Who likes the guy who obviously looks out for number one?

….Policy is portrayed as the objective, virtuous, and expert pursuit of ponies for everyone. Framed this way, policy is politics without the division of power. But politics without the division of power is impossible. “Policy” is a mythical beast. ”Policy making” is mere politicking, trading one favor for another to offset one interest with another, persuading through influence when possible and enforcing compliance with violence when impossible. But this reality reeks of knavery so it must be wrapped in the most virtuous lies imaginable. Hence we see a dramatic proliferation of “policy makers” and “making policy” where we’d normally expect to see politicians and politics. WIth so many policy makers making so much policy, you’d think the good and true would be breaking out all over. But, looking around, we see nobody down here but us dumb humans, horse trading with each other to get incrementally ahead.

“Grand strategy” and “operational art” represent further efforts to divorce politics from politics through politics, leaving behind a vacuum inhabited only by virtuous technocrats. In reality, they’re both attempts by one political group to escape the power of another political group, hopefully gaining more power for themselves in the process. The formulator of “grand strategy” is often an aspiring political actor who lacks the gifts necessary for political success. So they whine from the sidelines, falling back on a passive-aggressive strategy of victimhood where they denounce expertise in politics as squalid while advocating its replacement with their own (implicitly) more virtuous expertise. They attempt to reframe political questions as technical questions best handled by professional specialists. If a political question can be reframed as a technical question, resolving it is a merely an implementation detail. Such technical minutia should be beneath most politicians. Their attention should be devoted to truly important questions, leaving details to the poor peons.

….Policy, grand strategy, and operational art are merely the continuation of politics with the addition of other layers of obscurity.

Now, the insightful Mr. Fouche is not wrong in detecting politics in strategic clothing. In my judgement, he’s very much correct.  His objection, as I infer it, to grubby political decisions within a state being regularly deferred “downward” to be made in the guise of nominally apolitical (in American tradition) operational planning, or “upward” to be masked as “technocratic” grand strategy is reasonable because it is a sign of dysfunction in our political community. He’s right – America has a systemic problem in being unable to overtly make any hard political choices through it’s formal political process.

However, being politically dysfunctional doesn’t mean that grand strategy (or policy, or operational art or whatever) in general is purely fictive or that it is always simply a deceptive substitute for an honest political process. Or that raw politics can replace all these conceptual tools equally well or better. These conceptual tools were developed as a form of intellectual specialization because politics as a general and broad societal activity too often failed to meet the challenges of diplomacy and war. Or worse, politics worked irrationally against the survival of the political community in wartime while to the benefit of a faction within it.

Grand strategy, policy, strategy and even operational art are imbued with a political character, but one that is a step or several more removed from the general politics – the art of strategy is, after all, intended to serve a political community and “Ends” of “Ends-Ways-Means”  is always infused with value-laden assessments of worth and priority. Nor is politics their *only* character; all are, foremost, instrumental, while some may also be specifically cultural and technical.  The recession of politics (ideally as settled choices and not ongoing, sub rosa, competition) in strategy to the background permits greater focus on solving particular problems with diplomacy, coercion and force of arms. If made a substitute for domestic politics, these things are less likely to work for their intended purpose – to the risk of all.

Grand strategy can be useful, and while it is not always needed, at times having a sound grand strategy is vital for survival. As I have previously written on the subject:

….Grand strategy is not, in my view, simply just ”strategy” on a larger scale and with a longer time line. Strategy is an instrumental activity that unifies ends, ways and means. While grand strategy subsumes that aspect, it also provides ordinary strategy with a moral purpose, perhaps even in some instances, an identity.  Grand strategy explains not just “how” and “for what”, but ”why we fight” and imparts to a society the supreme confidence in itself to sustain the will to prevail, even in the face of horrific sacrifice. Grand strategy brings into harmony our complex military and political objectives with the cherished, mythic narrative of a ”good society” we conceive ourselves to be, reducing “friction”, “pumping up” our resolve and demoralizing our enemies. Grand strategy is constructive and energizing.

A simple but profound moral argument is a critical element of a grand strategy, to a great extent, it frames the subsequent political and military objectives for which war is waged.

and furthermore:

….First, to use an analogy from the biological sciences, grand strategy enunciated by a great power is a process of geopolitical co-evolution. There is an effort in grand strategy to impose over time one’s political will upon others to shape the “battlespace”, the sphere of influence, the hegemonic dominion to a state of affairs favorable to the state actor. Often, this is done by military force in times of crisis but over the long term, economic and diplomatic factors, all of DIME really, weigh heavily on the outcome. The process is never a one way street, even for actors who are considered to be largely triumphant. It is coevolutionary. If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.

….Secondly, sustaining the national or group identity is a critical component of grand strategy that makes it a different, more expressly political/cultural  exercise than crafting strategy as Clausewitzians use the term as being driven by policy. Grand strategy should guide policy formulation because it is not just a set of concrete structural ends, or a laundry list of “vital interests” but a constructive, values-laden, attractive, motivating, civilizational narrative. An ideal or cultural identity for which men and societies are willing to go to war, to stand, fight and die. As Thomas P.M. Barnett once put it, for a “Future worth creating“. Grand strategy is a defiant clarion call of civilizational supremacy, marshalling those who will fight for that which is not, but could be.

Men do not stand, fight and die for mere instrumentalities. You can show a man how to do an unpleasant chore in the most efficient manner but he may remain unmotivated to do it, still less to make terrible sacrifices to do it. Conversely, the passion of faction is strong, but usually rejects the logic of strategy for it’s own self-destructive calculus. It divides the house against itself in the hour of maximum danger.

Not every nation needs or can execute a grand strategy. Having sound policy and competent strategy, as Adam Elkus suggested, is often more than sufficient ( nations frequently prevail despite incoherent policies and poor strategies) and is no small task to get right in itself. A grand strategy, if required, is something that crystallizes into consensus because it emanates from deep cultural roots as well as empirical dangers – without such an anchor to give it legitimacy, it is less likely to amount even to a sound policy than a trite political campaign.



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