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Hoffman on the New Strategic Guidance

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Strategist and military analyst Frank Hoffman, now Director of National Defense University Press, takes a warm view of the new strategic guidance from DoD as a risk balancer in line with a dire fiscal and political reality. A “Pivot and Partner” strategy:

DefenseNews – Pentagon’s New Guidance: Sound Strategy Intricately Linked to Policies 

….Despite the fact that the Pentagon’s guidance represents the essence of “good strategy,” it was immediately panned by numerous pundits and several serious commentators who should know better.

What my critical colleagues have a problem with is not this document’s long-overdue need to reconcile our interests, priorities and resources. No, the real problem is that this guidance reflects a policy decision to sacrifice nearly $500 billion of planned increases to the defense budget over the next decade. Rather than resolve the strategic solvency gap between America’s goals and funding, the guidance’s critics want to continue to borrow money to maintain an unsustainable agenda.

The most common criticism is that the guidance is risky. There is little doubt that reductions in defense spending of the size now contemplated will increase risk. Such risks would be even more severe if sequestration is triggered by political gridlock.

However, the critics have no concern for the risk of fiscal collapse or the risks borne by the lack of renewal in the foundation of America’s power. Nor can they find fault with the increased risk borne by the $2 trillion already spent to prosecute two wars and build up America’s military budget to its current high of $550 billion, which exceeds Cold War-era spending levels. That’s the sort of thinking that partially got us into our economic crunch in the first place.

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.



3-D Printing: A New Industrial Revolution?

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

I have been reading about the potential of 3-D printing here and there, particularly at John Robb’s   Global Guerrillas site. It looked hopeful as a technology vector, but not having a tech background myself, it was harder to envision the parameters of potential application and their possible economic impact.

The following short TED talk by Lisa Harouni I found to be a useful intro for the non-engineer. Much of it is illustrated by specific examples:

My first thought, given the low and descending cost of these devices, coupled with increasing sophistication and power is the boon it will be to small to medium sized manufacturers locked into competition with low-cost foreign producers. Transcontinental transport costs are instantly axed from the price while maintaining quality control (something most Chinese manufacturers, for example, have trouble attaining to level demanded by high end customers). It also revolutionizes the “high end” market for customers demanding unusual or specifically customized products.

The second thought is Harouni’s remark that 3-D printing makes possible devices that could not be manufactured in any other way. That’s an affordable, economically transformative, technology put in the hands of a new generation of “garage tinkerers” – the next Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs are out there, somewhere.

My third thought is, that our present elite, who are deeply vested in a crony capitalist ethos, gatekeeping and policies that create economic stagnation while “locking in” their comparative socioeconomic advantage and power as a political class, will eventually look askance at ordinary people having access to this technology.

When lobbyists from fortune 500 companies or foreign countries(!) begin squealing about losing market share to small-fry manufacturers, expect efforts to create regulatory barriers to market entry with 3-D printing in the same spirit that politicians today want to legislatively “roll back” the disruptive effects of unregulated internet access at the behest of the copyright cartel.

3-D printing technology needs to become as widely dispersed as computing itself, in order that not happen.

Metz on the Psychology of Insurgency

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Dr. Steve Metz, a friend of ZP blog and Chairman of the Regional Strategy and Planning Department and Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute, has new and heavily footnoted article up at SWJ:

Psychology of Participation in Insurgency 

 It’s common sense: to make insurgents quit the fight or to deter other people from joining them, to understand their appeal, we must know what makes them tick.   This is easier said than done as we Americans face a mental barrier of our own creation–we insist on approaching insurgency (and counterinsurgency) as a political activity.  This entails a major dose of mirror imaging.  We are a quintessentially political people, but it is politics of a peculiar type, born of the European Enlightenment.  We assume that the purpose of a political system is to reconcile competing interests, priorities, and objectives.  From this vantage point, we see insurgency as a form of collective, goal-focused activity that comes about when nefarious people exploit the weaknesses of a political system.  It occurs when “grievances are sufficiently acute that people want to engage in violent protest.”[1]  The state cannot or will not address the grievances.  And since insurgency is political, so too are its solutions: strengthen the state so it can address grievances and assert control over all of the national territory.  The improved state can then return to its mission of reconciling competing interests, priorities, and objectives.

            Much of the world–including the parts prone to insurgency–sees things different.  Most often the political system is used by an elite to solidify its hold on power and defend the status quo.  Most insurgents do not seek a better political system but rather one that empowers them or, at least, leaves them alone.  People become insurgents because the status quo does not fulfill their needs.  This is a simple observation with profound implications.  It means that the true essence of insurgency is not political objectives, but unmet psychological needs (although political objectives may serve as a proxy for psychological needs as insurgent leaders seek to legitimize and popularize their efforts).

This coincides with the observation of David Kilcullen that many insurgents are purely localized “accidental guerrillas“, motivated by other drivers than political calculation – such as opportunity for excitement, the dictates of an honor culture, fear of being considered a coward, prospects for glory or booty or the aggressive territoriality of young men.  Looking at historical examples of warlords as diverse as “General Butt Naked“, the Mad Baron Ungern von Sternberg and General Abdul RashidHeavy D”  Dostum, it is evident that some men fight and kill because they revel in slaughter for it’s own sake, are skilled at combat and find purpose in war.

Indeed, as Metz writes:

….Boredom also contributes to a sense of being lost.  In rural areas and urban slums, insurgency seems to provide excitement for those whose lives are devoid of it.[21] This theme appears over and over when former insurgents explain their motives.  Ribetti, for instance, heard it from Colombians, particularly from the female insurgents she interviewed who sought to escape the tedium of a woman’s life in rural areas.[22]  Louise Shelley observed that youth violence and association with terrorism is often linked to “the glamour of living dangerously and the adrenalin flow that is associated with living precariously.”[23]  States not susceptible to insurgency have proxies for youth boredom and the need for excitement which drains these impulses into less destructive channels, whether video games, violent movies, sports, or fast cars.  Societies without alternatives–particularly ones where the educational system has collapsed like Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and he tribal areas of Pakistan can see boredom be channeled into political violence.[24]

            The Thugs:  There are people in every society–usually young males–with a propensity for aggression and violence.  Insurgency attracts them since it is more prestigious and legitimate than crime, and has a better chance of gaining internal or external support.  It offers them a chance to justify imposing their will on others.  This is amplified when a nation has a long history of violence or major military demobilization which increases the number of thugs and puts many of them out of work.  In many parts of the world, whole generations have never known a time without brutality and bloodshed.  Sierra Leone is a perfect example of this.  The RUF emerged from a group of young people from the slums of Freetown known for their antisocial behavior.[25]  While this group sometimes provided violent muscle for politicians, it also served up the raw material for the RUF, leading Ibrahim Abdullah and Patrick Muana to label it the “revolt of the lumpenproletariat” (a word coined by Karl Marx to describe society’s lowest strata).[26]  Thugs seldom create or lead insurgencies, but they do provide many of its foot soldiers.


Book: On Creativity

Friday, January 27th, 2012

On Creativity by David Bohm 

A former student, now an adult, stopped by and gave me a copy of of On Creativity by the late and controversial quantum physicist David Bohm. Thumbing through quickly, On Creativity had an air of consilience to it that I think I will find enjoyable, though I am not sure I will agree with Bohm’s conceptions of thought and mind. At least, the book should challenge some of my preconceived opinions.

Thus, making it useful.


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