Ridin’ Dirty

Having promised Lauren that I would find some way to work this glorious YouTube video into a post, I will now do so.

Observe this helpless and terrified cat, trapped on a Roomba vacuum careening around a kitchen. This cat definitely is not going to get a cheezburger, no matter how many times it asks. Matter of fact, I’m not quite sure how it will get off the Roomba that it has been precariously perched on.

This is the vision of strategy that sometimes is offered as a criticism of Clausewitzian views of strategy–e.g. in practice strategy is as confused and irrational as a cute cat trapped on a Roomba moving around a kitchen while gangsta rap plays in the background. Eliot Cohen dubs this view “strategic nihilism.” Such a view, Cohen observes, denies the purposefulness of war and substitutes rampaging warriors for professional soldiers.

Cohen critiques this view, advanced mainly by Russell F. Weigley and John Keegan, as short-sighted. Beyond A Clockwork Orange-style gang violence, large-scale conflict is rarely simply waged for war’s sake. As Clausewitz observed, wars have political (in the full sense of the word) origins and are organized and limited by political, moral, and material factors. While debate continues about the form and process of strategy, it is certainly possible for strategies to be created.

Now will somebody please get that poor cat off the Roomba and hand it a cheezburger?

Defense Blog Networks

Crispin Burke points out that the structure of defense blogging is evolving:

Contrary to what Tom Ricks laments (and Automatic Ballpoint echoes), I don’t think that milblogs are waning, per se. Sure, total posts have slowed down, but many milbloggers are turning to Twitter for day-to-day interaction, link sharing, and up-to-date coverage of fast-moving events, such as last year’s “Rolling Stan” incident, or the recent demonstrations throughout the Middle East. And while Twitter seems to have supplanted the shorter posts, many milbloggers have turned to guest-posting in larger publications.

There’s another dynamic at work here too. The defense/foreign policy blogosphere, in contrast to the larger political blogosphere has always been tiny. Even the most popular defense blogs get a fraction of the hits that domestic political blogs do, because defense and foreign policy issues—always issues of narrow interest–are often discussed in a (comparatively) nuanced and dense style that requires some knowledge and/or experience to understand and critique.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that a lot of conversation is less directed necessarily towards blog readers and more among blog writers and interested academics and practitioners who often comment on blog posts. Much of this conversation occurs in forums such as Twitter and Facebook rather than blogging itself. Some of the most spectacular blog disputes of the last year or so are incomprehensible without doing forensic analyses of Twitter exchanges.

To make an analogy that Alex Olesker of i-Con might appreciate, reading defense blogs without Twitter is like trying to pay attention to the rap game while completely ignoring the mixtape circuit.

Retro-Progressivism and Grand Strategy

Much of Thomas Friedman’s writings over the last few years have focused away from foreign affairs per se and more so on the area of domestic competitiveness. Friedman, like many other writers, sees domestic health and political culture as key to political power abroad. Where he differs, however, from other writers, is his visceral embrace of technocracy. Friedman posits the key to American survival is an enlightened class of experts skilled in technocratic arts of governance. Such notions are part of an older tradition of American grand strategy whose usefulness to the modern era is somewhat dubious.

Take his Sunday column “Serious in Singapore.” Friedman, having taken a trip to a 5th grade classroom in Singapore, extols the industriousness and creativity of the Asian city-state–in marked contrast to lazier compatriots back home. Sprinkled throughout the op-ed are paens to Singapore’s pragmatism and success in building a well-functioning society. The timing of the op-ed, which offers (qualified) praise to an managed state, is a little bizarre in light of a large-scale revolt against a large authoritarian state in the Middle East.

This theme is more explicitly explored in a much-criticized interview on China in which Friedman stated:

So I don’t–I, I–I’m worried about this, it’s why I have fantasized–don’t get me wrong–but that what if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions, and I do think there is a sense of that, on, on everything from the economy to environment. I don’t want to be China for a second, OK, I want my democracy to work with the same authority, focus and stick-to-itiveness. But right now we have a system that can only produce suboptimal solutions.

Friedman more fully fleshed out his views in a 2009 column about the health care debate:

Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today. One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Although these quotes may suggest otherwise, it is unlikely that Friedman really does see a Singapore or Chinese-style managed authoritarian capitalist state model as viable or desirable for the United States. It does, however, express a fear that there is something fundamentally irresistible about these states’ growing power that mandates that America borrow some of their energy and dynamism. His work meshes with a rash of popular fear that conjures up images of an army of Southeast Asian students accomplishing nearly superhuman intellectual feats in the classroom and the boardroom. Friedman’s constant odes to Asian competitiveness and industriousness and chiding of supposed American laziness fits well with this genre. It is also personal, as Friedman’s frequent visits to Chinese and Singaporean elementary school classrooms reveal.

Obviously, no one is going to argue that industrial-scientific mobilization is unimportant to political, economic, or military power. Although we often (rightly) malign technocentric thinking in strategic affairs, we all want to be the man with his hand on the Maxim gun at Omdurman rather than the charging Mahdists about to be shot to pieces. However, Friedman’s oeuvre goes beyond the familiar nationalist imperative to out-compete the opposition (a rather old American rhetorical trope since the late 19th century), into a love affair with industrial-era models of education, managed political systems, and enlightened experts. This positivist idea suggests that complex, intractable political-economic problems are solvable as long as the right people, equipped with the right tools, are allowed to operate free of ideological confusion.

Friedman’s idea runs counter to an impressive array of research in political science, anthropology, and economics ranging from Friedrich Hayek’s “Use of Knowledge in Society” to James C. Scott’s more recent classic Seeing Like a State. Scott and Hayek, furthermore, both reacted against modernist ideas that favored heavily planned political systems and economies and benevolent, omniscient classes of experts.

In sum total, the most bizarre thing about the vision of technocracy that Friedman presents is that it is in fact very old. The 1920s and 30s were full of Western political-military thinkers who were dubious or conflicted about democracy and were alternatively troubled or excited by the seeming success that authoritarian nations in Europe and the East had in turning their countries into formidable powers. Friedman fits squarely into a tradition that John Jordan aptly describes in his history of pre-World War II technocratic thought.

Some of these modernist ideas were valuable, many of them weren’t–for the simple and banal reason that most public policy problems are not engineering projects, an insight grasped long before TRADOC made “wicked problems” a household phrase in the American defense community. Investing in infrastructure, elevating pragmatic elites, and improving math curricula alone are not going to make America competitive. I suspect Friedman understands this too, if his extensive caveats to his own op-eds are any guide.

Rebuilding the domestic sources of American power is important element of any grand strategy, and a good deal of this will by necessity deal with industrial, educational, and economic issues. However, the idea that it can be willed as a kind of giant nation-wide engineering project goes against most of what we know about large-scale human problems. Most importantly, Friedman’s constant, almost Amy Chua-like valorization of Asian societies and governmental system also misunderstands the substantial barriers to political, economic, and scientific innovation present in those societies.

Network-Centric Warfare…..and Pandas

I am late to the party that Crispin Burke has started again, but I have a valid excuse–looking for sponsors for the good Captain’s Balling out of Control Center of Excellence. Now that JFCOM is closing, we might have to consult a NATO partner and two former adversaries for assistance. We might even get the Israelis and the Chinese on board, and finally end the Korean war while we’re at it. In any event, when in doubt consult Silvio Berlusconi for the importance of Balling Out of Control for a nation’s national security.

But I digress. Burke and a heavily armed panda have teamed up to dump on an attempt by a man best known for Bat Nipples to single-handedly revive the “vulgar” version of Network-Centric Warfare (NCW)’s hubristic view that C4ISR will lead to decisive political-military dominance. Only this time, it is expected to work as a means of monitoring the border between North Sudan and the emerging South Sudanese state.

Conflict Early Warning and Response is a growing topic of importance, indeed there is an excellent blog by that very name. What emerges from reading the blogger’s survey of professional technical attempts and the scholarly literature is an extremely complex effort to integrate all kinds of technological and human sensors, historical and context-specific data, and develop methods for structuring analysis and creating effective systems for managing information.

Needless to say, such a process requires a lot more than satellites and volunteers.

Counterinsurgency vs. Countering Irregulars

Michael Cohen, on a recent village razing noted by Joshua Foust of Registan:

[I]t’s a far cry from what COIN advocates were saying a year ago. Then US/ISAF destruction of property was a bad thing because it “creates more insurgents.” Today, destroying property, not such a bad thing because we helped the people whose homes were destroyed to rebuild them i.e. building trust. It’s perhaps another example that COIN advocates tend to define COIN by whatever definition furthers their arguments at that exact moment.

The debate is currently ongoing on Twitter, where Foust observed that “From the outside, I have the sense that whatever soldiers do is being defined as COIN, regardless of action.”

This is an analytical problem in addition to a policy one. First, “COIN” as we understand it is a very recent body of military doctrine. Although it has antecedents in 19th century military campaigns, it is essentially a Cold War-era form of military science that has crystallized (at least in US military experience) as a distilled product of certain 1940s-1970s French and British military experience. What it represents in practice vs. rhetoric is a loaded topic that divides historians and analysts. But it does, especially in the US reception of it, bear imprints of rhetorical Cold War anticommunism—both in the relatively liberal US conception and the messianic call to global war against subversion seen in Galula and Trinquierer.

“Countering irregulars”–i.e guerrillas, brigands, mad mahdis, and such groups is as old as warfare itself, a point frequently made by William F. Owen during Small Wars Council debates. COIN falls under this tradition, but the two are not necessarily interchangeable. COIN advocates make the argument that COIN doctrine provides a better route for countering irregulars than other, older methodologies. Their detractors disagree.

In practice, however, there is little analytical purity to be had. Moreover, even within the framework of one war many typologies of conflict can be observed–the US Civil War was mainly an interstate war with significant irregular components and proto-COIN elements. Adding another level of analytical noise is the political purpose of COIN doctrine. As Gulliver observed on Twitter, official COIN doctrine is often used as strategic communications either abroad or domestically. So things that aren’t COIN are dubbed to be COIN and things that are COIN are assumed not to be because they do not mesh with a touchy-feely image sometimes put out.

To make things a bit simpler, perhaps it might be wise to point out that COIN is a very broad and ill-defined concept that also serves as a frame for Western conceptions of modern counter-guerrilla operations. It has room for tanks and human terrain teams. In many places around the world the conditions that Galula described don’t really exist anymore. In the future we might not even use the word “COIN” to describe our operations.

What hasn’t changed is the basics: a strategist trying to suppress a guerrilla movement should take note of the policy objective, the “facts on the ground,” and the means available. History and theory can frame the cognitive space that guides this determination but not suggest correct answers. In short, give the Floating Clausewitz Head his daily allotment of burnt offerings.