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US Foreign Policy, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

The Obama administration, though they would not characterize it as such nor have much desire to acknowledge it at all, have attempted  a strategic detente with the “moderate” elements of political Islam.

This policy has not been entirely consistent; Syria, for example, is a quagmire the administration has wisely refrained from wading directly into despite the best efforts of R2P advocates to drag us there.  But more importantly, under President Obama the US supported the broad-based Arab Spring popular revolt against US ally, dictator Hosni Mubarak, and pushed the subsequent ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Libyan revolution against the entirely mad Colonel Gaddafi. These appear to be geopolitical “moves” upon which the Obama administration hopes to build.

I would like to emphasize that there is one legitimate and valid strategic pro to this sub rosa policy; namely, if everything went well, it would provide the United States with powerful triangulation against revolutionary, apocalyptic, radical Islamism as expressed by al Qaida and various Salafi extremist movements. There are reasons, rooted in takfirism, strategy and the politics of lunacy that our terrorist enemies frequently hate and revile the Brotherhood as traitors, apostates or whatever. Isolating the most actively dangerous and violent revolutionary enemies from a large mass of potential allies is, at least, a good strategic goal.

It is also my view, that this “outreach” is as politically sensitive  to the Obama administration as was the China Opening was to Nixon and about which they have been equally opaque and misleading for fear of a domestic backlash. The weird, foot-dragging, dissembling, embittered, kabuki drama inside the Beltway about public statements and intelligence on whether Benghazi was caused by obscure crackpot Islamophobic film makers or a well-orchestrated terrorist attack  is in my view due to a major foreign policy strategy never having been framed in public for what it is. I’m sure people will differ strongly with me on this (which is fine), but I would characterize detente with Islamists as a strategic shift on par with the “Pivot to Asia”.

The downside here is that first, things are not likely to come out well at all, as unfinished revolutions tend to give birth to monsters; and secondly, any detente with “moderate” political Islam is an uncertain gamble based on certain exceptionally optimistic conceptions of not only what the Brotherhood might do, but about it’s very nature.

While the removal of Arab dictators resonated with American values , it was questionable realpolitik while the administration’s de facto support of  Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faction over poorly organized secular liberal modernists was an act of realpolitik that required a compromise of the democratic values so recently invoked to justify abandoning Mubarak. This was cynical diplomatic flexibility worthy of Talleyrand.

Unfortunately, the most democratic thing – perhaps the only thing – about Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood supporters was his election.

The Egyptian people who are subjected now to thuggery from both Morsi’s Islamist stormtroopers and from the security forces of the Egyptian military are less sanguine than are the Brotherhood’s cheerleaders inside the administration. The Egyptian people, in fact, seem to be in revolt against domination by the Muslim Brotherhood’s shadow government.

The first question to ask in assessing if the Obama administration policy here is wise would be “What is the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood?” Americans love to personalize foreign policy, but if  Morsi were to be toppled or die, the Brotherhood will remain what it currently is, the best organized political force in Egypt and one widely influential throughout the Arab world and the West itself.

I am not an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, nor am I an Arabist by education. Most of us aren’t – a group that I fear includes most of the Obama administration officials involved in shaping this policy. Almost fifty years after King Faisal determined to export Wahhabism, more than thirty years since Khomeini’s Revolution and more than ten years since 9/11 the USG still has less in-house expertise related to Islam than it did about the Soviet Union and Communism a decade after the Berlin Blockade.

Perhaps we all should begin learning more?

Here is an analysis from FPRI; it is extremely critical but it touches on organizational aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood that I have not seen elsewhere (hat tip to David Ronfeldt). Feel free to suggest others, both for and against. The Brotherhood is a very large group with a long history that includes violence , terrorism and subversion on one hand and peacefully representing expressions of pious, middle-class, social conservatism in other places and times:

Lecture Transcript: What Every American Should Know about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Delivered by Eric Trager 

….Two years ago when I was doing my dissertation fieldwork in Cairo, I sought out interviews with leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I was referred to a man named Muhammad Morsi, now the President of Egypt. At the time, President Mubarak was ill and had gone off to Europe for operations amid a lot of mystery surrounding his health. I asked Muhammad Morsi whether the Muslim Brotherhood would run a presidential candidate if Mubarak died tomorrow. Here is what he said:

[From an audio file played by Trager]

Eric Trager: You don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood nominating a presidential candidate [if Mubarak dies tomorrow]?

Muhammad Morsi: No… because society is not ready… Our society is not ready yet to really defend its worth. We want a society to carry on its responsibilities, and we are part of this society. Another thing, if we are rushing things, then I don’t think that leads to a real stable position.

When he made that statement, I don’t think he was lying, and I don’t think he was being coy. I think that he didn’t expect that he would be faced with this reality in a mere six months. He did not expect that Mubarak would step down six months later and, to be completely honest with you, neither did I. My dissertation was entitled “Egypt: Durable Authoritarianism”—until the revolution.

What did Morsi mean when he said that the Brotherhood was trying to build a society? Let me give you some background on the Muslim Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, who was a schoolteacher in Ismailia. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal was then—and remains now—to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. The way it pursues this goal is by trying to Islamize Egyptian society. Through social services, education, and the mosque, it sought to make Egyptians more religious and more Islamic as a grassroots strategy for building an Islamic state. That’s very, very different from a strategy that says, “We’re going to run for president, run for the Parliament, and use that power to transform society.” Rather, the Brotherhood says, in effect, “We’re going to Islamize society to build towards power.” It was a long-term strategy; it took them 84 years before they ran for and won the presidency. So Morsi told me in 2010 that the Muslim Brotherhood was not going to run for the presidency because it was not done Islamizing Egyptian society….

Read the rest here.

Kelly Vlahos Spoons John Nagl Over COIN

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

There is quite a buzz going in mil and defense blogger circles over the recent op-ed savaging in The American Conservative by Kelley Vlahos regarding Dr. John Nagl and COIN. Unfortunately for Vlahos, little of it that I have seen online or privately is favorable – including from some people who I know are less than well-disposed toward COIN or the COINdinistas.

Speaking as someone who was one of the earlier voices to remark that the political moment of pop-centric COIN had passed, I found Vlahos’ post to largely be ill-tempered, context-distorting, schadenfreude.

But hey, judge for yourself. My comments will be in normal text:

Learning to Eat Soup with a Spoon 

….Then Tom Ricks, Washington Post correspondent-court scribe, conducted a full-blown high school popularity contest, literally ranking the “brains behind counterinsurgency’s rise from forgotten doctrine to the centerpiece of the world’s most powerful military.” In this cringe-worthy “top ten” published in Foreign Policy in December 2009, Ricks places “King David” Petraeus at Number 1, and then Nagl, whose Oxford dissertation-turned-Barnes-and-Noble-bestseller Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife made him a counterinsurgency “scholar,” among other bright lights of the time. Nagl, Ricks predicted, would be “in a top Pentagon slot within a year or two.”

That was just three years ago. Today, there is no better symbol for the dramatic failure of COIN, the fading of the COINdinistas and the loss that is U.S war policy in Afghanistan than this week’s news that Nagl is leaving Washington to be the headmaster of The Haverford School, a rich preparatory school (grades k-12) for boys on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

Hmmmm. I guess General Petraeus as CIA Director and General Mattis as Combatant Commander of CENTCOM are therefore examples of a rare form of career failure.

And really, only a subpar military officer would involve himself in educating young people. Shame on you, John Nagl, for joining such a shady group of misfits.

….That’s right — Nagl, once called the Johnny Appleseed of COIN, who reveled in his role as face man, tutoring reporters with practiced bookish charm on the “the new way of war,”  and burnishing his personal story to convince everyone that he was a counter-insurgent before his time — a modern T.E. Lawrence — is packing up for good. Turns out that despite all the high hopes, the COINdinistas hit the brass ceiling with a smack, especially once it became clear that the magic they sold was a bag of beans….

Again, most of the COINdinistas, so-called, have not hit some kind of brass ceiling  nor are they secretly running the Army or the administration. Most are  in perfectly respectable but unremarkable ranks, institutional positions or jobs in the private sector. HR McMaster is now a brigadier major general, Con Crane is a director at the US Army Military History Institute, Kalev Sepp is a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, Montgomery McFate holds the Minerva Chair at NWC,  General Jack Keane sits on several corporate boards, Fred Kagan is still at AEI,  Andrew Exum is at CNAS, David Kilcullen is the  CEO at Caerus Associates and so on.

By Washington standards, this is a relatively modest level of policy influence or promotion (Petraeus and Mattis excepted). If you want to look at rapid advancement through political connections, consider Al Haig rising like a rocket from LTC to full general and NATO Supreme Commander due to his proximity to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Or the unusually gilded career path of Colin Powell.

That said, there are many grounds, theoretical and practical, to find fault with pop-centric COIN theory and FM 3-24, from an anti-empirical legacy assumption of a Maoist model of insurgency, to a fundamental confusion of tactics and operational art with strategy to the hardening of COIN from a fairly flexible emergent doctrine in Iraq into a rigid, micromanaging, ROE dogma in Afghanistan. COIN is ripe for revision, not excision and substantive, informed, critiques of the wars of the past decade are sorely needed by scholars, military officers and defense intellectuals. Irregular conflict is never going away any more than war will go away.

Unfortunately, Vlahos was too busy with gossipy smears on Nagl’s character to make any substantive points of that nature which would have made her column something more than ad hominem rubbish.

Gunpowder, treason and plot

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — instance of religious terrorism, UK, Catholicism, Protestantism, Vendetta-the-movie, Anonymous, OWS, Pharaoh ]



I am seven hours “behind” the land of my birth, but today would be the day on which to remember one Guy — named Guido in the image above — Fawkes, a terrorist whose religious and political sympathies were closely interwoven.


Archbishop Cranmer‘s [dare I say, Laudable?] blog today has a poetic description of the event, a fine illustration:


and some fascinating comments portraying both the event itself and religious terror more generally…

We have had four hundred years to “remember, remember” — should we remember, or should we forgive and forget?


The mask worn in the movie V for Vendetta is a Guy Fawkes mask, now also associated with both the Anonymous group and the Occupy movement… and it shows up in all sorts of strange places…


Pharaoh? Guy Fawkes?

Clear proof that if you connect too many dots, you may go what we Brits call “dotty”…

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, a review

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

 [by J. Scott Shipman]


Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson, the acclaimed author of biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, has produced a definitive and up-close biography of Steve Jobs. The book is a very readable 571 pages that took only a couple of days to read. Jobs approached Isaacson to write his bio in 2004, but Isaacson resisted until 2009 when  Jobs’ wife Laurene Powell “said bluntly, “If you’re ever going to do a book on Steve, you’d better do it now.”” Isaacson insists no restrictions were placed on him, in fact, Jobs and his wife facilitated access to many people who do did not hold Jobs in high regard—the man excited passions good and bad. I found it ironic that Jobs, a man who obsessed with control would willingly relinquish control in what will probably be the definitive biography of his life.

Isaacson offered early that his book is really about innovation. He offers: “At a time when the United States is seeking ways to sustain its innovative edge, and when societies around the world are trying to build creative digital-age economies, Jobs stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness, imagination, and sustained innovation.” Given Apple’s growth, his point is well taken.

Isaacson clearly admires Jobs, but he does not spare the reader of Jobs volatile and brutal out-bursts directed at just about anyone he considered a “bozo” or worse. From the beginning, Jobs was a very difficult person to work with. He did not tolerate mediocrity and punished what he thought was mediocre thinking, often publicly. Isaacson offers some insights and ideas as to the cause of Jobs distinctly caustic personality, but most ring hollow. Jobs was a driven and passionate man, with very little empathy—even for family members. Isaacson suggests “people who were not crushed ended up being stronger” and many of the folks interviewed agreed—Jobs drove people to do things they didn’t know they could do. As one of Jobs colleagues Debi Coleman said, “You did the impossible, because you didn’t realize it was impossible.” So the folks he didn’t scare off, appear to have been inspired. Tim Cook, Jobs’ successor offered, “What I learned about Steve was that people mistook some of his comments as ranting or negativism, but it was really just the way he showed passion. So that’s how I processed it, and I never took issue personally.”

My favorite parts of the book were Isaacson’s liberal use of quotes from Jobs. Some quotes bristle with passion, and a few were profound. This one appealed to my notions on pattern cognition:

Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases,  people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.

Isaacson covers Jobs journey at Apple, NeXT, Pixar, and his triumphant return to Apple. I did not know much about Jobs at Pixar and found it interesting that Jobs was CEO at both companies simultaneously—and both companies had a “different” versions of Jobs. Isaacson says, “Pixar was a haven where Jobs could escape the intensity of Cupertino. At Apple, the managers often excitable and exhausted, Jobs tended to be volatile, and people felt nervous about where they stood with him….It was a Pixar that he learned to let other creative people flourish and take the lead.” Jobs was more hands-on at Apple I sense because he considered it his creation—essentially an extension of his person. I suspect Jobs viewed his role at Pixar as more that of a steward in comparison.

Jobs hated slide presentations (I agree—one great thing about Boyd & Beyond is the general ban on PowerPoint) and said, “People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.” There is a poignant passage towards the end where Jobs was meeting with his team of doctors and the doctor had a PowerPoint presentation. Jobs gently suggested the Apple Keynote program was better.

Jobs, despite his bristly exterior, reached deep in his Zen training and life experience (particularly after his cancer diagnosis) when he spoke at the 2005 Stanford commencement:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices of life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.  

We are a Apple/MacBook Pro family, we have iPhones, iPods, and the iPad on our wish list. Isaacson discusses one thing I’ve noticed with every Apple purchase; the thought put into packaging of the product. Apple packaging is patented and it shows. Jobs alter ego and head Apple designer Jonathan Ive, said, “Steve and I spend a lot of time on the packaging…I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.” I believe we have kept every box our Apple products arrived in—they are works of art.

This book will elicit the spectrum of emotions, there are parts where I was embarrassed or appalled at Jobs poor behavior, there were tender moments towards the end of his storied life that brought a tear to my eye. Isaacson has given us a valuable portrait of a man mathematician Mark Kac “called a magician genius, someone whose insights came out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power.”

Isaacson’s Steve Jobs comes with my highest recommendation.

NOTE: This is admittedly a different book review for this site. I’ll admit up front that I’m a fan of Jobs and his products—and I know many people hate him passionately and with good reason. I’m sharing this review because Jobs was an iconoclast very similar to John Boyd: people either loved him or hated him. Both men were driven, had poor people skills, and both left rich legacies in completely different areas, and are eminently interesting figures.

Boyd & Beyond 2011 Reading List

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

[by J. Scott Shipman]

As promised in the original review, the following books and articles were recommended during the Boyd & Beyond 2011 event. Some of these titles are well-known in Boydian circles, others are new to me.

TEMPO Venkatesh Guru Rao [Zen reviewed this book here. Chet Richards here, and Fred Leland here. This is the most anticipated book in my anti-library, but I don’t want to read it until my book is finished and with the publisher.]

Sound Doctrine by Sid Heal

The Monks of War Esquire

The Mind of War Grant Hammond

The Talent Code Daniel Coyle [This was the lone book that I recommended this year. I read The Talent Code a few years ago and must say, Coyle makes a compelling case for the power of what he calls “deep practice.” His deep practice tracts nicely with Polanyi’s ideas of “indwelling” and tacit knowledge.

Strategic Intuition William Duggan

Unity of Mistakes Marianne Paget

Sensemaking Karl Weick

Sources of Power Gary Klein

Streetlights and Shadows Gary Klein

Heavy Matter Russell Glenn

On Combat Dave Grossman

Bond-Relationship Targeting Dr. Robert J. Bunker (this may not be the precise reference, the topic seems to be within an essay Higher Dimensional Warfare)

Blink Malcolm Gladwell

Descarte’s Bones Russell Shorto

Unrestricted Warfare Qiao Liang & Wang Xianqsui

How to Be Your Own Best Friend Berkowitz and Newman

The Logic of Failure Dietrich Dorner

The Psychology of Personal Constructs GA Kelly

The Unity of the Philosophical Experience, Etienne Gilson

Geography of Thought Richard Nisbett

The classes conducted by Edward Tufte were recommended for visualizing information.

I could not find the following references, so if you have them, please feel free to add a link in the comments or send an email and I’ll add.

1955 Hogenboom Report

Field Command

1970’s Urban Planning/Wicked Problems Rittel and Webbes

Swarming Cato

This is an excellent video series on US Strategic Nuclear Policy.

One closing note, Cameron Schaefer at his blog recommended a healthy dose of fiction for the strategic practitioner, and I agree—here is a link to his list of fiction.

UPDATE 10-29-2011

I did recommend Melanie Mitchell’s book Complexity A Guided Tour, but never managed to write it on the white board—best book I’ve read on the topic.

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