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Guest Post: Pundita: Missing Something?

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

We’re delighted here at Zenpundit to present a cross-post from our blog-friend Pundita — of whom it has been said that “What Julia Child did for French cooking, Pundita is doing for foreign policy discussion. She’s opened a haute pursuit to ordinary people.”

Pundita quotes Mark in this post, and also raises some interesting issues with regard to America and monarchism — and as I have been prepping a series of posts on “the impact of ritual and ceremonial in church, military and state,” we all agreed it would be good to bring this post across to ZP in the hope of stirring some discussion — and see how things develop from there.

Pundita’s epigraph for this post is as follows:

Alan Rickman‘s Sheriff of Nottingham to a scribe: “Wait a minute. Robin Hood steals money from my pocket, forcing me to hurt the public, and they love him for it? That’s it then. Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.”

We bid her welcome.

— Charles Cameron


Pundita writes:

The title of this post refers to the punch line in a series of TV commercials in the USA for Sears Optical eyeglasses. The ads feature amusing skits of people in serious need of a pair of glasses, such as the woman who mistakes a police patrol car for a taxicab. But helped along by bravura performances from Tara L. Clark as a blind-as-a-bat cat owner and Squirty as a wild racoon who can’t believe his luck, one of the skits is so funny it’s gone viral on the internet:

 Oh look it’s a democracy! Come snuggle with the United States!

There is nothing funny, however, about American officials who are so blind to what the United States stands for they snuggle with governments that march to a very different drumbeat than their own. Yet the officials are supported in their blindness by an equally blind populace. So in this post I’m going to break a taboo and wrestle with topics that are only whispered about in this country: monarchism and America’s involvement with it. To set the stage I’ll start with quotes from two recent news reports:

From the Globe and Mail (Canada), August 19, 2011:

Stephen Harper is working to recast the Canadian identity, undoing 40 years of a Liberal narrative and instead creating a new patriotism viewed through a conservative lens.Restoring the “royal” prefix to the navy and air force this week is just part of the Prime Minister’s attempt at “creating a new frame” for Canada and Canadians. …

From the New York Times, August 17:

A photograph taken last Friday of Gary F. Locke, the new United States ambassador to China, buying coffee with his 6-year-old daughter and carrying a black backpack at a Starbucks in the Seattle airport, has gone viral on the Chinese Internet. The seemingly banal scene has bewildered and disarmed Chinese because they are used to seeing their own officials indulge in privileged lives often propped up by graft and bribery and lavish expense accounts.


The first impression from the Starbucks episode has been bolstered by another photograph that shows Mr. Locke, his wife, Mona, and their three children carrying their own luggage after landing at Beijing Capital International Airport.Chinese who saw them then spread the word that the family had gotten into an anonymous minivan because a formal sedan that had been sent to pick them up was too small.

“To most Chinese people, the scene was so unusual it almost defied belief,” Chen Weihua, an editor at China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, wrote in an article Wednesday.

Cheng Li, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who studies Chinese elite politics, said in an e-mail: “Ambassador Locke’s photo contrasts sharply with the image of the Chinese officials who often live in a secret, insulated, very privileged fashion.

Often I’ve heard it asked why Britain’s political Right doesn’t seem much less socialist than the country’s Left. I’d say the answer is that the United Kingdom’s welfare state has as much to do with Marxism as bread and circus did under the Roman emperors. I’d also say the same answer would apply to the welfare state in the Kingdom of Norway and the Kingdom of Sweden and a number of other countries that are constitutional monarchies.

Yet my fellow Americans have such difficulty seeing monarchism that they confuse it with something else. The same blindness can afflict Americans who insist that China is not much different from the United States. In his 2008 article for the May/June issue of Good magazine (Ten Reasons Why China Matters To You), Thomas P.M. Barnett, an American security analyst, wrote that “China’s transformation echoes much of America’s past. … right now, China is somewhere in the historical vicinity of ‘rising America’ circa 1880.”

In my retort (The National Petition Bureau will see you now, Dr Barnett), I pointed out that Chinese make the pilgrimage to a bureau that’s a CCP placemarker for an emperor’s go-fers. I added in exasperation, “Ah yes, I remember as if just yesterday the tens of millions of American peasants in the 1880s who pilgrimaged to the nation’s capital every year to seek redress from the emperor.”

Dr Barnett turned out to have a sense of humor or at least a fair-minded attitude about receiving criticism because he linked my post at his blog. Yet that did little to allay my concern that Washington’s foreign policy establishment was blind as a bat to the fact that modern China is an imperial society with a frownie face of Communist Party dictatorship painted on it, and that modern Britain and a good number of other NATO-member countries are basically monarchist societies with a smiley face of democracy plastered on them.

One could even make an argument that modern Mexico’s most entrenched problems are rooted not in the rule of the Spanish but in indigenous imperial civilizations that predated Spain by thousands of years.

In fact, the more one starts looking around the world for societies that are not holdovers from the days of kings the more one appreciates that the United States of America has very few natural allies; i.e., countries that represent a real break with monarchism and the class systems that uphold it.

Norwegians might bristle at their society being described as monarchist. They would point out that their noble class has no political power anymore and that Norway today is an egalitarian society. However, it is an egalitarianism so rigidly enforced that the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik believed after he set off a bomb in Oslo that he would be caught and killed by the police before he reached Utoya island.

His faith in the omniscience of Norway’s government was dashed but the point is that the country’s egalitarian “open society” is maintained by the second largest deployment of public-space CCTV cameras outside the United Kingdom. And Norway’s generous public welfare system means that from cradle to grave Norwegians are easily monitored by the state, which helps the government make sure Norway stays an open, egalitarian society.

Yet Americans insist on describing such states as Leftist! Karl Marx would roll in his grave if he saw what passes today for many Leftist governments.

These same Americans decry their government’s close alliance with absolute monarchies such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They do so without realizing that there is a long history of the United States being closely allied with monarchies; that many of these are no longer “absolute” but “constitutional” with parliamentary forms of government and voting rights makes them no less monarchist.

Americans were also miffed at what they considered snobbishness when they heard the Swedish Chairman of BP, Carl-Henric Svanberg, expressing concern for the victims of the Gulf oil spill by referring to them as “the small people.”

Translation malfunction, explained his apologists. There was no malfunction; English is Svanberg’s second language. And he wasn’t being snobbish, he was being Swedish. Noblesse oblige and all that; one must always look after the basic needs of the small people so they don’t revolt.

None of the above is meant as a criticism of the countries I’ve mentioned or their people, and one would be hard-pressed to find nicer peoples than the majority of Swedes or Norwegians — and Canadians for that matter, who also live under a constitutional monarchy. I see no harm in people upholding traditions that provide them with a sense of order and give them continuity with their past, which is why I cheered on the royal pomp associated with the marriage of William and Kate. If it helped Britons get clearer on their values I was all for that.

The harm comes when Americans are so unclear on their own values, their own past and traditions, they can’t engage closely with the rest of the world without becoming terribly confused. One consequence is that the more the U.S. government has tried to mesh with the “international community,” the lower America’s standing in the world has fallen.

Americans can’t turn the situation around without first acknowledging that the international community is in large measure of bunch of royalists. Arriving at this realization doesn’t mean Americans should eschew friendly relations with people in such societies or that official Washington should spurn engaging with the governments on issues of mutual interest. It does mean that Americans are asking for ever greater trouble by lumping “democratic” monarchies” with American democracy.

Over at ZenPundit, Mark Safranski has again expressed concern about what he calls an emerging American oligarchy, an elite that’s manipulating the rest of the American populace to accept its rule. Meanwhile, Fareed Zakaria is seriously proposing that America replace its president with a prime minister and Congress with a parliament — with an upper house, I suppose, to be stuffed with Mark’s oligarchs, duly elected of course, so that Americans will stop the troublesome habit of vehemently disagreeing with one another.

Now just see how one thing leads to another. First you’re snuggling with liberal monarchies, then authoritarian ones, then one day you’re asking, ‘Why is there no USA anymore? Why is there only the international community?’

Missing something?

Brezhnev in the Hejaz?

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Bruce Reidl makes the case for the al-Saud as a decaying gerontocracy:

Brezhnev in the Hejaz

….The biggest unknown is how the Kingdom’s youth will act. They have watched the drama in Tahrir Square, Benghazi, Sanaa and Dara’a on Al Jazeera just like everyone else. And the Kingdom has the same demographics as its Arab brothers: a large youth bulge that is chasing too few jobs. With 80 percent of Saudis under thirty years of age and 47 percent under eighteen, unemployment is officially at 10 percent but could be as high as 25 percent (only men are counted since few women seek jobs outside the home). The underemployed young Saudi man may have more money in his pocket than his Egyptian counterpart, but he too is frustrated by a system that is completely opaque and closed to the nonelite.

While the Kingdom can and does appease many of their demands-Abdullah announced over $100 billion in new bonuses, mosque building and other payoffs-it offers them little or nothing in the way of political change. Absolute monarchies are not usually accommodating to transparency and devolution of authority; by definition absolutists do not compromise with nonroyals.

….In fact the Hejaz, with its young, urbane, religiously varied population, has never fully accommodated to Saudi and Wahhabi rule. It has always seen itself as more cosmopolitan than the Nejd, looking across the Red Sea to Egypt and north to Syria rather than to the harsh interior. For centuries it was part of the broader Islamic world, a part of the great empires of Islam from the Umayyads to the Ottomans. The Nejd, in contrast-remote and barren as it is-stayed outside of those empires. Moreover, the Hejaz is home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the center for the hajj every year, visited by Muslims from all corners of the ummah, thus exposing Hejazis to views and peoples of all caste and creed. Many of them are critical of the ugly remodeling of the holy cities to allow for plush apartment blocks and designer stores, and a few even long for the return of the Hashemites.

Color me skeptical that there is any deep longing among Saudis of any region to have the great-great- grandson of the Sherif of Mecca “return” as the lord of the Hejaz.

SWJ Blog Gets it’s Groove Back

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Dave and Bill and the staff at SWJ went through a server migration/site upgrade recently and SWJ Blog is back to rocking and rolling on strategy, warfare and COIN. Two examples:

The Limits of our Ability to Practice War by Garrett Wood

….There are two complementary ways to describe the enormity of war. First, it is a human phenomenon whose complexities multiply according to the number of people involved. Active duty servicemen are generally a small segment of a society and yet an entire society can be transformed when faced with occupation. Then opportunities to fight increase, a farmer can become a part-time soldier relying on tools like ambush and community intimidation to grind out victory. War is open to as many changes and interpretations as there are lives it affects.

Second, as the most visceral human action war draws a response from all aspects of life. It siphons wealth from civilizations, it builds and destroys political credibility, and it polarizes the religious into zealots and pacifists. War’s effects rebound back onto itself creating criticism, support, opportunities, and constraints that were unexpected at its outset. The influence that even intangibles like faith and the economy have, combined with the endless changes wrought on the shape of war by individual participants, make for complexity beyond understanding.

War quickly exceeds our ability to know it, so we make it smaller. We discard approaches and possibilities until we have something we can grasp and practice at the expense of resources we are willing to sacrifice. In the United States we rely on a volunteer force, augmented by advanced technology and massive sums of wealth. Our military is tailored to quick decisive engagements with minimal casualties and reflects the American consensus on what war should be, even when not employed that way. The forces that shape the way we fight are numerous, powerful, subtle and beyond our ability to master completely.

Overcoming Our Dearth of Language Skills by Morgan Smiley

….Read Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” and Thomas P.M. Barnett’s “The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century“.  In “Clash of Civilizations”, Huntington talks of potential conflicts arising along cultural “fault lines”, for example, where Christianity meets Islam (Central Asia/ Turkey/ Caucasus regions) or where Hindu culture meets Sinic culture (Himalaya/ Central Asian region).  In “The Pentagon’s New Map”, Thomas Barnett posits that the world is divided between the “connected” (primarily Western) regions/ countries and the “disconnected” or “Gap” areas, with many of those “gap” regions being in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, etc.  Given these two authors & ideas they put forth, the Army may want to look at educating Soldiers in Turkish, Persian, Hindi, and Chinese as well as focusing on those areas for cultural/ regional education.

….Though quite radical, we may want to revive the British concept of a “shooting leave” (we’ll call it something else of course).  During the period of British rule in India, both Company and Government, a “shooting leave” involved a British officer taking a few weeks or months of leave in order to travel through potentially hostile lands and gather information and intelligence, which involved the possibility of shooting or being shot at.  For our purposes, our officers ought to be able to take a sabbatical, perhaps no more than 3 to 6 months, and embed themselves in non-governmental organizations (NGO) operating in one of the regions we are interested in (with Doctors Without Borders in Tajikistan for instance) so that he may use/ improve his language capabilities, learn first-hand information about the region he is in, and work with organizations that we may end up dealing with should we become involved in those areas.  We may also want to look at embedding in foreign militaries involved in combat operations (Indians in Kashmir, Russians in the Cacausus, etc) or with private military companies (PMCs) operating overseas.  These opportunities would allow one to immerse in a local culture, refine language skills, as well observe routine activities (whether in conflict or non-conflict zones) in those areas of interest (a similar idea was proposed by COL (R) Scott Wuestner in his paper Building Partner Capacity/ Security Force Assistance: A New Structural Paradigm, Feb 2009).

The last suggestion is worthy of Coming Anarchy.

Alice’s Wonderland Battlespace

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — terrain, IDF, inverse geometry, Necker cube, apocalyptic signs ]



I’ve just read one of those astounding paragraphs that leaves the mind reeling. Some of you will no doubt already be aware of the work of Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, but for me, his paper Lethal Territory is new ground:

The maneuver conducted by units of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in Nablus in April 2002 was described by its commander, Brigadier General Aviv Kokhavi, as inverse geometry, the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of microtactical actions. During the battle, soldiers moved within the city across hundred-meter-long “overground-tunnels” carved through a dense and contiguous urban fabric. Although several thousand soldiers and several hundred Palestinian guerrilla fighters were maneuvering simultaneously in the city, they were so “saturated” within its fabric that very few would have been visible from an aerial perspective at any given moment. Furthermore, soldiers used none of the streets, roads, alleys, or courtyards that constitute the syntax of the city, and none of the external doors, internal stairwells, and windows that constitute the order of buildings, but rather moved horizontally through party walls, and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as “infestation”, sought to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares. Rather than submit to the authority of conventional spatial boundaries and logic, movement became constitutive of space. The three-dimensional progression through walls, ceilings, and floors across the urban balk reinterpreted, short-circuited, and recomposed both architectural and urban syntax. The IDF’s strategy of “walking through walls” involved a conception of the city as not just the site, but the very medium of warfare — a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.

Where do I begin?

* * *

1. For sheer creativity, this reversal of our normal understanding of space is both audacious and brilliant.

2. In terms of the way the humans living in that space experience the tactic, it must have been – must be – extraordinary – shock and awe on the scale of the individual family and its dwelling. Weizman quotes a Palestinian woman’s response:

Imagine it – you’re sitting in your living room, which you know so well; this is the room where the family watches television together after the evening meal. .. And, suddenly, that wall disappears with a deafening roar, the room fills with dust and debris, and through the wall pours one soldier after the other, screaming orders. You have no idea if they’re after you, if they’ve come to take over your home, or if your house just lies on their route to somewhere else. The children are screaming, panicking. . Is it possible to even begin to imagine the horror experienced by a five-year-old child as four, six, eight, twelve soldiers, their faces painted black, submachine guns pointed everywhere, antennas protruding from their backpacks, making them look like giant alien bugs, blast their way through that wall?

3. It has a past, there’s nothing entirely new under the sun:

Similarly, the strategy of walking through walls, as Israeli architect Sharon Rotbard reminds us, is reinvented for every urban battle in response to local conditions. It was first described in Marshal Thomas Bugeaud’s 1849 draft of La Guerre des Rues et des Maisons, in the context of anti-insurgency tactics used in the class-based urban battles of 19th-century Paris. Instead of storming the barricades from the front, Bugeaud recommended entering the barricaded block at a different location and “mouse-holing” along “over-ground tunnels” that cut across party walls, then taking the barricade by surprise from the flank. On the other side of the barricades and a decade later, Louis-August Blanqui wrote this microtactical maneuver into his Instructions pour une prise d’armes.

* * *

4. Quite apart from the notion of “inverse geometry” there’s a thread here that concerns mapping and deserves investigation. First, there’s this quote in Weizman’s essay from Walter Benjamin:

I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life — bios — graphically on a map. First I envisaged an ordinary map, but now I would incline to a general staff’s map of a city center, if such a thing existed. Doubtless it does not, because of the ignorance of the theatre of future wars.

Then, in a paper on forming a “coherent mental map of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, Weizman writes

A new understanding of territory had to be developed to govern the West Bank. The Occupied Territories were no longer seen as a two-dimensional surface, but as a large three-dimensional volume, layered with strategic, religious and political strata.

Later in the same piece, we can find Weizman’s description of a “politics of verticality” along with its vivid quote from Benveniste:

New and intricate frontiers were invented, like the temporary borders later drawn up in the Oslo Interim Accord, under which the Palestinian Authority was given control over isolated territorial ‘islands’, but Israel retained control over the airspace above them and the sub-terrain beneath.

This process might be described as the ‘politics of verticality’. It began as a set of ideas, policies, projects and regulations proposed by Israeli state-technocrats, generals, archaeologists, planners and road engineers since the occupation of the West Bank, severing the territory into different, discontinuous layers.

The writer Meron Benvenisti described the process as crashing “three-dimensional space into six dimensions – three Jewish and three Arab”. Former US president Bill Clinton sincerely believed in a vertical solution to the problem of partitioning the Temple Mount. Settlement Masterplanners like Matityahu Drobless aimed to generate control from high points.

* * *

Upside down, inside out, and topsy-turvy? Apart from Alice, of course — what does this remind me of?

Why, religion, naturally.

Take the Gospel of Thomas, logion 22 (Barnstone & Meyer, p. 51):

Yeshua said to them,
When you make the two into one,
and when you make the inner like the outer
and the outer like the inner
and the upper like the lower,
and when you make male and female into a single one,
so that the male will not be male nor female be female,
when you make eyes in place of an eye,
a hand in place of a hand,
a foot in place of a foot,
an image in place of an image,
then you will enter the kingdom.

Similar sayings are found in the poetry of Kabir, the great Indian mystic-poet, and described thus by Linda Hess (The Bijak of Kabir, p.135):

A particularly intriguing category of Kabir’s poems is the type known as ulatbamsi, poems in “upside down language”. They intrigue because they are absurd, paradoxical, crazy, impenetrable, and yet they purport to be meaningful.

In Japan, they might be given the name of koan — Hess quotes (p. 145) an early Mahayana sutra describing the world as “like a desert mirage, a celestial city, a mirror-reflection, a stone made from water hardened by a whirlwind”.

Here is one of the signs of the end times quote in Islamic sources:

After the night of three nights, the following morning the sun will rise in the west. People’s repentance will not be accepted after this incident.

* * *

And so perhaps the saying with which Eihei Dogen described Master Dogo‘s friend in his Shinji Shobogenzo best encapsulates both the state of mind that a sudden reality-reversal accomplishes in those who are not prepared for it — and paradoxically, the state of mind in which it can be accepted as part of the natural order of things:

He does not have a roof above his head, nor any ground under him.

Historical footnotes to game theory

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — philosophy, psychology, history, game theory, dilemma, commons cooperation, analogy, 9/11 ]


I have an interest in game theory that is much like my interest in music: I can’t play, but I can whistle. And so it is that I’ve substituted curiosity about the history of the thing, and whatever analogical patterns I can discern there, for any actual ability at the thing itself.

Somewhere in my analogy-collector’s mind, then, I have these two quotes, cut from the living tissue of their writer’s thoughts, and prepped fpor contemplation. I find them, in retrospect, quite remarkable.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in On the Inequality among Mankind, wrote:

Such was the manner in which men might have insensibly acquired some gross idea of their mutual engagements and the advantage of fulfilling them, but this only as far as their present and sensible interest required; for as to foresight they were utter strangers to it, and far from troubling their heads about a distant futurity, they scarce thought of the day following. Was a deer to be taken? Every one saw that to succeed he must faithfully stand to his post; but suppose a hare to have slipped by within reach of any one of them, it is not to be doubted but he pursued it without scruple, and when he had seized his prey never reproached himself with having made his companions miss theirs.

And David Hume, in A Treatise of Human Nature:

Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ‘Tis profitable for us both that I shou’d labour with you today, and that you shou’d aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know that you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains on your account; and should I labour with you on my account, I know I shou’d be disappointed, and that I shou’d in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labour alone: You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.


Those two, I believe, are fairly well known – I was delighted the other day to run across a third sample for my collection. William James, in The Will to Believe, writes:

Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted.


The first two quotes are of interest as showing the forms that an idea which will later be mathematized can take.  They are, if you like, precursors of game theoretic constructs, although neither Hume nor Rousseau appears to be mentioned in von Neumann and Morgenstern‘s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.

The third, I think, is even more interesting..  Consider the eerie and heroic “fulfillment” of that third paragraph if read “as prophecy” – in this account from the 9/11 Commission Report of the events on United Flight 93:

During at least five of the passengers’ phone calls, information was shared about the attacks that had occurred earlier that morning at the World Trade Center. Five calls described the intent of passengers and surviving crew members to revolt against the hijackers. According to one call, they voted on whether to rush the terrorists in an attempt to retake the plane. They decided, and acted. At 9:57, the passenger assault began. Several passengers had terminated phone calls with loved ones in order to join the revolt. One of the callers ended her message as follows:

“Everyone’s running up to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.” The cockpit voice recorder captured the sounds of the passenger assault muffled by the intervening cockpit door.

Yesterday’s highwayman is today’s hijacker, yesterday’s train is today’s plane…


If there’s anything to be learned here, it’s not a novel way of protecting trains or aircraft from passengers of malicious intent —

It’s that there’s a subtle thread running from something akin to instinct that’s also close to unspoken common sense, surfacing for a moment in the writings of thoughtful individuals, leading on occasion to the formulation of exact mathematical principles — but also (i) available, (ii) in the human repertoire, (iii) to be acted upon, (iv) cooperatively, (v) as required, (vi) via the medium of human common interest, (vii) which provides the resultant trust.

Which may in turn offer some reason for hope — for a humanity in various forms of communal distress…

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