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Archive for March, 2010

Metz on Unruly Clients

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Dr. Steve Metz of SSI takes on a theme of the “tail wagging the dog” in geopolitical relationships in World Affairs Journal:

Unruly Clients: The Trouble with Allies

When Congress approved a massive, five-year assistance package for Pakistan in the fall of 2009, much of it earmarked for strengthening the country’s military and security forces, Pakistani leaders reacted by immediately biting the hand that was trying to feed them. During a talk in Houston, former President Pervez Musharraf slammed the conditions in the bill, asserting that Pakistan knew better than the United States how to root out terrorists. General Ashfaq Kiyani, the Pakistani army chief, labeled the offer of support “insulting and unacceptable.” Members of the Pakistani parliament called the $7.5 billion appropriation “peanuts.” Some of this grumbling may have been for show, another example of Pakistan’s finely honed skill at extracting more and more money from the United States, but it also reflected a cynicism and sense of estrangement on the part of the Pakistani elites. And in this regard the episode highlights a central flaw in American security strategy: reliance on allies whose perceptions, priorities, values, and objectives tend to be quite different from our own.

….So where does all this leave U.S. strategy? Americans could soldier on, hoping for miracles and redefining expectations at each inevitable failure. Washington’s flawed allies will continue superficial reform, at least until they conclude that the political and personal costs of doing so outweigh the benefits. But husbanding of power rather than the decisive defeat of the extremists or the building of a stable, liberal system will always remain their goal. They will never fully share America’s view of the threat or the solution to it. Some, like Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in Iraq, may eventually reach a point where they can wield power without much American assistance. Recognizing that association with the United States erodes their legitimacy, leaders in this position will end or downgrade the U.S. alliance, pressuring violent extremists who pose a direct threat to them while ignoring or even cooperating with those who target only foreigners. Others like Karzai-and whoever rules Pakistan-will continue to minimize conflict with violent extremists who do not target them directly and reject reform that might undermine them or the elites who support them.

Read the whole thing here.

A similar argument to Metz’s analysis of 21st century strategic foreign policy was made in The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, who detailed the extreme headaches satellite leaders caused Khrushchev and Brezhnev, or American troubles with the Shah, Somoza and Ngo Dinh Diem during the Cold War. Patrons who become dependent upon clients are hostage to their pawn’s incompetence and perverse defiance of political realities. In that myopia, patrons lose sight of their own real interests.

Metz hits on that delicate point, regarding the diffuse character of Islamist extremism:

….Americans ought to stop hoping for miracles and find realistic and affordable methods of protecting their interests. Continued improvement in homeland security is part of this. There may even come a time when the United States must consider limiting access to the American homeland for individuals from regions and nations that give rise to violent extremism. 

If the United States cannot get effective and reliable security cooperation with various Muslim states like Yemen or Pakistan, a more cost-effective response than turning all of our own domestic procedures into “security theater” is to sharply circumscribe immigration and travel from those states to a level consistent with “best practice” counterintelligence norms until we garner the cooperation we require in clamping down on our enemies. There’s no shortage of applicants for visas from other backgrounds in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe who pose few if any risks to American society. This by no means would solve all our security problems but it will put a dent in the probability of another underpants bomber getting a plane ticket to visit.

Barnett on the Tipping Point of Blogging

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Dr. Tom Barnett had an excellent WPR column on the cognitive value that blogging has had for him:

The New Rules: Strategic Thinking in 10,000 Blog Posts or Less

In the last half-decade, blogs have gone from a quirky personal sideline activity to a mainstream, almost de rigeur professional activity — following the previous trajectory of Web sites and, before them, e-mail itself. To many, this democratization of the flow of information is a distinct blessing, to others it is the epitome of data deluge. As someone who has now posted blog entries every day for six years and recently passed the 10,000-unit mark (fulfilling Malcolm Gladwell’s quota for expert practice), I wanted to take stock of what this has meant to me as a writer and thinker

….Old-timer that I am at 47 years of age, I still read many of these sources via paper subscriptions, but that habit is slipping with each passing year and each new technology. In fact, what originally attracted me to online posting was the ease it offered in terms of maintaining the resulting database, compared to the hassle of physically clipping and filing MSM articles of interest, as I did during my pre-blogging days. With the blog, I can now attach my first-impression analysis to the formal citation, with both hot-linked to the full article and stored in a content management system — the blog — that I can instantly access and search from anywhere in the world.

In this sense, generating and maintaining the blog magnificently expanded my professional “RAM,” or random-access memory storage capacity. Without that upgrade, I simply couldn’t write or think at the level I do today, nor could I cover as much of the world or so many domains. Without that reach, I couldn’t be much of an expert on globalization, which in turn would seriously curtail my ambitions as a grand strategist — because nowadays, strategic thinking requires a whole lot more breadth than merely mastering the security realm. To be credible and sustainable in this complex age, grand strategy requires a stunning breadth of vision when judged by historical standards. So as far as this one-armed paperhanger is concerned — no blog, no grand strategist.

And I have to tell you, just making that admission in 2010 stuns me. But without the blog’s organizing and storage capabilities, I’d be reduced to a parody of “A Beautiful Mind”: tacking news clippings on walls and feverishly drawing lines between them, desperately seeking patterns but constantly falling behind the data tsunami. The blog thus prevents the early onset of what I call “strategic Alzheimer’s,” which is what happens when a strategist’s growing inability to process today’s vast complexity provokes a sad retreat into the past and an overdue reliance of history-is-repeating-itself arguments. But if a strategist no longer “gets it,” it’s because they’ve stopped trying to “see it.” The blogging “lens” corrects their vision’s lack of acuity.

But my blog is also my daily workspace, and I share it with strangers — for free, mind you — because I want to pass on this largely lost skill set of strategic thinking to others. I especially hope to reach the next generation of grand strategists, who would otherwise have to rely primarily on op-ed columnists’ flavor-of-the-news-cycle habits, with new “Manhattan Projects” proposed and “Marshall Plans” demanded every other month. Consider it a one-to-many offer of virtual internship.

Read the whole column here.

I really enjoyed this one because Tom was expounding on how a social media platform – this case, his blog – altered the psychological flow and conceptual reach of his professional work. It is now standard for author/thought leader types to have a blog that relates in some way to their books or speaking gigs. Some ghost it out to their PR firm or shut off the comments or have an almost static web page with little or no personal investment or thought.

IMHO those who keep the blog as an interactive medium with their readers as Tom does, tend to be more intellectually interesting and productive figures – they “grow” and play with ideas in the scrutiny of the public eye and accept the reader’s pushback along with the accolades which makes the exchanges are very stimulating – “infocrack”, as it were. Participation in well moderated, high quality forums like the Small Wars Council have a similar effect and are good places to “test drive” your new ideas – provided you have a thick skin and a healthy ego that can stand up to constructive criticism.

Personally, I wish I had more time for blogging – I learn a great deal from the readers who take the time to contact me across various Web 2.0 sites, send me links, ask questions, challenge my assertions, suggest new books or correct my errors. While the volume of feedback from ZP readers and other bloggers is sometimes more than I can manage as a one-man band, your contributions are always appreciated.

Creativity in the IC – Or the Lack of It

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

A great article in World Politics Review by Josh Kerbel, a 14-year veteran of the U.S. Intelligence Community ( Hat tip to Col. David Maxwell)

For the Intelligence Community, Creativity is the New Secret

It’s no secret that the increasing complexity of the international system — and in particular, its growing interconnectedness, integration, and interdependence — is eroding the fundamental business models of an ever-growing range of industries. Nowhere is this more evident than in the information industries, such as journalism, broadcasting, publishing, music and film, among others. More than a few entities have been swept to the brink of, or in some cases over, the precipice of irrelevance. And every information industry, it seems, is in some peril.

The U.S. intelligence community’s traditional model is similarly threatened by these transformations, but like so many cia.jpgother besieged industries, the IC is hesitant to deviate from it. In general terms, the IC’s model is a secret “collection-centric” one that:

– prizes classified data, with classification often directly correlated to value and significance;
– is driven by data availability, while analytical requirements remain secondary;
– is context-minimal, with analysis staying close to the collected data and in narrow account “lanes”;
– is current-oriented, since there are no collectable facts about the future;
– is warning-focused, emphasizing alarm-ringing;
– is product-centered, measuring success relative to the “finished intelligence” product provided to policymakers, rather than its utility or service.

This model ends up being highly “reductionist,” since secret collection leads to classification, compartmentalization and, inevitably, reduced distribution. Such a system, in which everything is constantly subdivided, was designed for the “complicated” — but not really “complex” — strategic environment of the Cold War. In that more linear environment, it was possible to know exactly where to look — namely, the USSR; access was severely restricted, making secret collection vital; the context of hostile intent and opposing alliances was well-understood; and the benefits of being forewarned, especially of imminent military action, was paramount.

Today’s complex strategic environment is vastly different. Now, there is no single focal point, as a threat or opportunity can emerge from almost anywhere; access is largely unrestricted, since the world is wide-open and information-rich; and context is much more ambiguous, because intent and relationships are fluid. In this more dynamic, non-linear strategic environment, reductionist approaches are, by themselves, a veritable recipe for systemic (i.e., strategic) surprise.

In practical terms, this means that it is no longer sufficient to just reactively collect data on how certain parts of the international system are acting in order to extrapolate discrete predictions. Rather, it’s crucial that such reductionist approaches be complemented by more “synthetic” approaches that proactively think about how the various parts of the larger system could interact, and consider how the synthesized range of possible threats and opportunities might be respectively averted or fostered. In other words, it is no longer enough to just monitor already identified issues. It is also necessary to envision potentially emergent ones. In short, it is time for the IC to use its imagination.

Read the rest here.

Comments, in no particular order of importance:
First, the underlying root problem is “political”. The IC is “collection-centric” primarily because the key “customers” for IC products have an implicit expectation of good intel as a higher level analytical journalism, just salted with some real-time “secrets” outside normal public purview. And some of them – George Schultz when he was SECSTATE is an example – want to be their own analyst, and are quick to complain about speculative,”edgy” analysis that clashes with their preconceptions. So IC senior managers are inclined to give the customer what they demand – current information which has a short shelf-life in terms of value. Educate the intel-consumer class of what the IC might be able to do given different tasks and they might start asking that new tasks be done.
Secondly, if the IC employed more programs that involved an investment in long-term “clandestinity” – it would both collect information of strategic, long-term value and offer the US opportunities to shape the responses of others through established networks of agents of influence. This is where imagination, speculation and synthesis would have greater play because of the need to create and seize opportunities rather than placing a premium on mitigating risk and avoiding failure.
The problem with analytical-reductionist culture in hierarchical institutions ( anywhere, not just the IC) runs deeper than a top-down, enforced, groupthink. Perceptive members of the org, even when compelled to parrot the party line “officially”, will often mock it privately and exchange more authentic critiques informally. The real problem is the extent to which this risk-averse, paralyzing, culture is psychologically  internalized by individual analysts to the point of creating lacunae. As individuals rise in the org they carry their lacunae with them and begin actively imparting them authoritatively upon their subordinates.
Ideally, a quality liberal education would be imparting a reflexive skepticism, a tolerance for uncertainty and a greater meta-cognitive self-awareness that would check the excessive certainty generated by an excessive reliance on the methodology of analytical-reductionism. Unfortunately, the emphasis upon academic specialization has been pushed down so hard in undergraduate and even high quality secondary public school education ( AP courses are the worst offenders) that generating good, insightful, questions is a cognitive skill that has been abandoned in favor of deriving “right answers” using “approved methods”.
is an  effective tool for breaking  analytical-reductionist  frameworks and freeing up our ability to synthesize and construct solutions. However, to be useful, scenarios require at least an internal logic or realism even if they represent improbable “blue sky” or “black swan” outcomes and they require more cognitively diverse inputs ( from “outsiders”, “amateurs” and “heretics”) to challenge what data the received culture considers significant.

Cool! My Genographic DNA Kit has Finally Arrived

Friday, March 26th, 2010

My kit from The Genographic Project is finally here! Huzzah!

Time to find out my haplotype!

Nixon the Liberal

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Dr. Chet Richards argues the case.

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