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Archive for November, 2007

MountainRunner at SWJ Blog

Friday, November 30th, 2007

The prestigious SWJ Blog featured an important IO/Public Diplomacy article ” What the SecDef Didn’t Call For, But Should Have” by blogriend Matt Armstrong of MountainRunner. Matt is bringing one of those critical but obscure inside-baseball variables into the light of public view and out of the realm of government lawyers and interagency staff meetings.

An excerpt:

“In his clarion call to revamp the current structures of government to meet modern threats, Mr. Gates sidestepped an obstacle that has been misinterpreted and misapplied over the last three decades: Public Law 402: United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, commonly known as the Smith-Mundt Act. Despite popular belief, the restrictions the Act is known for today were not designed or intended to be a prophylactic for sensitive American eyes and ears.

Understandably, Mr. Gates did not suggest revising the “anti-Goebbels” act, even if it is misunderstood (while his Department firmly believes themselves to be covered by the Act, a source tells me outgoing Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes was not aware of this until a few short months ago). Smith-Mundt has shaped the content and methods of communications from State and Defense through institutionalized firewalls created along artificial lines, fostering a bureaucratic culture of discrimination that hampers America’s ability to participate in the modern struggle over ideas and managing perceptions.

Simple communications models of the 1940’s have been replaced by global networks of formal and informal media. Perception overcomes fact as deliberation by both the consumers and producers of news shrinks to almost nothing. Too often, by the time the truth comes out, the audience and media have moved on. How America participates in this new world is central to the success of Mr. Gates’ proposed reorganization”

Go read the whole thing…and give a shout out in the SWJ  Blog comment section.

Reflections on China’s Warlord Era

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

One of my distinguished co-bloggers at Chicago Boyz, John Jay, penned a truly outstanding post on China, incorporating history, culture, economics and linguistics, using the famous  Manchurian warlord and opium addict, ” the Young Marshal ” Chang Hsüeh-liang, as a springboard:

Household Armies

“….China has historically allowed certain social forces to compete with loyalty to the state. Linguistic (and in the cases of the Hui and Uyghur, religious) groups have always retained a large amount of autonomy through the provincial governments, and in some cases provinces such as Guandong can almost be thought of as a separate country within China due to their linguistic (non-Mandarin) identity and economic self sufficiency. But Guandong gets little voice in Beijing relative to the economic might of the Pearl  River Delta. Cantonese don’t care, as long as the kleptocracy in Beijing leaves them alone (after they make their formal obeisance) most of the time, and does not attempt to steal too much wealth. That may change as peasants out West mobilize and force the central government to send more goodies their way. China never hit upon the Anglosphere’s solution of a Republican governmental federation of competing interests akin to either Great Britain or the competing American states – the Imperial authorities always wished to pretend that they were in complete control, while ceding a lot of practical authority to the provinces.  

Conflicts between the linguistic periphery and the Mandarin-speaking center have contributed to the ebb and flow of centralized power in China since even before the Ten kingdoms of the South broke away from the Five Dynasties that succeeded the Tang. The Chinese have historically seen history as cyclical, rather than linear. I think that this at least in part stems from the fact that since the fall of the Tang Dynasty, China has never bitten the bullet to reform itself by completely rethinking its social system. Systems have arisen as kludges to deal with a particular problem, but have never dealt with the fundamental flaws in society, only with their surface manifestations. As James Sheridan wrote in “Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng Yu-hsiang” :  

Read in full here.

Superempowered Individuals…After Dark

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Adam Elkus was kind enough to cite one of my old posts on superempowered individuals as a foil to develop the concept further in his DNI article “Night of the Lone Wolves“:

“Who is the “super-empowered individual?” He is talented, alienated from society, and willing to kill large numbers of people. The technological revolution has given him destructive tools unimaginable to the anarchists and terrorists of old. He is an innovator-he creates new doctrines, tactics, and operations. A “brittle” infrastructure that lacks redundancy and resiliency gives him a perfect target. Living off the grid, he is invisible to authorities. The unprecedented nature of his attack ensures that no counter-measures are in place to prevent it. And when he strikes, his attack will not only kill massive amounts of people, but also profoundly change the financial, political, and social systems that govern modern life.

This is a frighteningly plausible vision. As blogger and futurist Mark Safranski gloomily noted, “the world is but one self-sacrificing genetic microbiologist away from a super-empowered suicide bomber riding international air routes to a new black plague”. That being said, many scientists and security experts note the immense difficulty involved in acquiring, maintaining, and deploying weapons of mass destruction. One expert, Bruce Schneier, is especially vehement in deriding what he calls “movie-plot” threats.

Who is right? Both sides. For now, the probability that a super-empowered individual will trigger a extreme mass casualty event is extremely low. But the high odds against such a catastrophe occurring will ensure that when it happens we will be taken totally by surprise. If a mass-murdering microbiologist is indeed preparing to make engineered smallpox complimentary to the in-flight meal, there is little we can do to stop him. Confused? With apologies to The Matrix, it’s time to take the red pill. “

Read the whole thing here.

Elkus is correct, as he goes on to develop his thesis,  in assessing the mass psychology aspect of superempowerment as as aspect that will often be more significant than any kinetics in future SEI events. look at the societal shock delivered to the Netherlands by the murder of Dutch film maker, Theo van Gogh, a perturbation of Dutch society made possible not by the death of a single man but the reportage amplified through a modern mass media.  Often but not always. Aside from the microbiological example, the disruption or destruction of certain complex systems, such as financial markets, by an SEI, will have ripple effects of a significant magnitude.

Elkus closes with a positive prescription, one rooted in the strategic ideas of John Boyd, to which I can add my hearty assent:

“In any event, we have always lived with danger and always will. And the threat posed by murderous, alienated individuals, with or without weapons of mass destruction, will also always be with us. But the good news is that the key to overcoming these threats lies in two bedrock American values-hope and pragmatism: hope for a better world and the determination to create such a world; and the pragmatism that has helped us continuously innovate to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

What is needed is leadership at the top level that encourages and channels those values within the American people, instead of leadership that burdens them with fear. True leadership will recognize that strategy is not just wanton destruction-it is also, as John Boyd stated, “a pattern for vitality and growth“. If we recognize this, we can all be “super-empowered individuals” instead of victims huddling in fear of the sound of anything beyond the campfire.”

A Jeremiad Against the Establishment

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

My friend Bruce Kesler sent me an article by Dr. Angelo Codevilla, “American Statecraft and the Iraq War“, a senior scholar at The Army War College, that appeared under the aegis of The Claremont Institute.  The critique offered by Codevilla is scathing; in many places his argument is quite insightful and in others, his heavily state-centric approach to international affairs shares the blindness of the elite he criticizes. An excerpt:

“The occupation was unnecessary to any rational American purpose. As President George W. Bush spoke on April 30, 2003, under the banner “Mission Accomplished,” representatives of the State and Defense Departments in Iraq were putting the finishing touches on the provisional government to which they were to devolve the country’s affairs two weeks later. There was to be no occupation. Iraqis would sort out their own bloody quarrels. The victorious U.S. armed forces, having turned Saddam Hussein’s regime over to its enemies, would challenge the Middle East’s remaining terror regimes to adjust their behavior or suffer the same fate. But even as Bush seemed to be recruiting a sovereign Iraqi government, he was interviewing the disastrous Paul “Jerry” Bremer to be Iraq’s viceroy and preparing United Nations resolution 1483 to “legitimize” the occupation. The Bush team then declared that occupying Iraq was necessary to transform it into a peaceful, united, liberal democracy, whose existence would coax nasty neighboring regimes to be nice. Bush had acceded to the private pleadings of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as well as of British Prime Minister Tony Blair-whose advice reflected the unanimous wishes of Arab governments. While the administration’s newly minted mission was abstract and inherently beyond accomplishment, the Arab agendas-which had nothing in common with Bush’s-were intensely practical. And they prevailed.

The occupation of Iraq should go down in history as a set of negative lessons about war, the relationship between ends and means, the need for unity of purpose and command, and dealing with the world as it is rather than as one imagines it to be. The occupation, a confection of the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s hoariest recipes, is yet more evidence of that establishment’s bankruptcy. Media myth notwithstanding, the administration’s neoconservative component was sidelined as the occupation began. Bremer’s political advisor was the realist Robert Blackwill of the Council on Foreign Relations, and his military advisor was Walter Slocombe, a liberal internationalist from the Carter and Clinton Administrations. By 2007 the occupation’s military policy was being shaped by Stephen Biddle, another Kissingerian realist from the Council, for whom success means persuading somebody to accept America’s surrender. Bush confused statecraft, the pursuit of the country’s interests, with administrative politics-the consensus of constituencies in the bureaucracies (and their contractors), the prestige media, and the academy. As the disaster became undeniable, no one in the establishment dared to try to measure the occupation of Iraq against the standards of statecraft. “

Codevilla skewers the ideological assumptions of Washington officials and intellectuals from the Neocon Right, to the Liberal internationalist Left, to those of Realist scholars and diplomats. Kesler, in a post at Democracy Project, incisively interprets Codevilla’s philosophical approach to foreign policy analysis:

” Codevilla is a student of Machiavelli, who described the rules of the game of power. The rules may be used for good or ill, but to negate the ends accomplished by the necessary means is to create weakness and allow the field to those willing to use the rules for ill ends.

“a prince … cannot observe all of those virtues for which men are reputed good, because it is often necessary to act against mercy, against faith, against humanity, against frankness, against religion, in order to preserve the state.”

Codevilla takes the US severely to task for its failure to follow the rules in Iraq and the broader Middle East. His critique should be read in full. It’s not what most, either conservative or liberal, neocon or realist or defeatist, are accustomed to hearing. But, it cuts to the heart of our bleeding for four years, and the limited best outcomes we face. Codevilla has been consistently opposed to our entering Iraq, seeing bigger game afoot, and the confusion of our aims. He’s been proven correct, so far. His forecast, therefore, should be taken seriously. Most important, his indictment of our befuddled policy class requires a new realism in Washington.”

A weakness in Codevilla’s analysis is that while he correctly identifies the culpability of regional Arab states and Iran in sponsoring and tolerating terrorist groups and argues for meaningful penalties to be applied to such regimes, he overestimates the competency and resiliency of these states and simply dismisses the extent to which globalization has made non-state actors functionally independent of state patrons, who are quite helpful operationally but are no longer the existential requirement they once were in the 1970’s.  Economics and network-theory are entirely absent from Codevilla’s analytical framework and while Islamic religious identity is admirably included, it is considered a primarily reactive (even understandably so) phenomenon, which even a casual study of the 120 year evolution of Islamist ideology would refute. States still rule all, in Codevilla’s vision, an assumption that deserves careful reexamination. 

Nevertheless, a worthwhile and thought-provoking critique.

Just Because I like It

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Yes, I’ve previously linked to the slideshare version and Tom has done so with this video….but what the hey. It drives home some points and I like the soundtrack.

Hat tip to Historyguy99 for the reminder.

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