As an exclusive to my loyal readers, I am sharing some excerpts from the draft script of the newest installment of the Derp Wars saga, Derp Wars: The Phantom Doctrine.
Previous Derp Wars films tackled the subject of drones (Derp Wars: Attack Of The Drones), counterinsurgency (Derp Wars: A New, Ambiguous Yet Massively Overhyped And Misunderstood Hope), Iranian nuclear programs (Derp Wars: Return Of The Munich Analogy), Iraq (Derp Wars: America Strikes First), and the home front (Derp Wars: Revenge of the Battalion Family Readiness Group).
Derp Wars: The Phantom Doctrine is a thrilling adventure that deals with the most dangerous threat to the military-industrial complex yet: the national security establishment’s inability to coherently explain a new set of military concepts. Not even the long-suffering Bothan spies can get a hold of plans/blueprints that would explain this concept in any coherent detail.
The confusion caused by the new concept has created a powerful disturbance in the force, causing many otherwise intelligent defense analysts to stray to the Derp Side. Such is the power of The Phantom Doctrine.
DERP WARS: THE PHANTOM DOCTRINE
OPEN WITH A TEXT CRAWL OVER A BLANK SCREEN:
CRAWL: A long time ago, in a PowerPoint deck too long and confusing for anyone to understand and filled with squiggly lines……
Turmoil has engulfed the defense galaxy. Sequestration has fallen upon the Galactic Republic, and many in a distant and forbidding star system begin to doubt the Republic’s staying power. Hoping to resolve the matter with an array of deadly and cheap weapons concentrated in one geographical location, A Great Power That The Republic Will Only Refer To With Vague Euphemisms (AGPTTRWORTWVE) threatens to deny the Republic strategic access. Planets within the system are worried that the Republic lacks staying power and are already beginning to hedge. Other planets react to the challenge by making threatening moves towards the AGPTTRWORTWVE that could draw the Republic into a conflict it seeks to avoid at all costs.
While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates over whether or not it will pass a budget, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched Republic Navy and Republic Air Force graduates of SAMS (otherwise known as Jedi), the guardians of dense and abstract theories of operational art and strategy, to settle the conflict…..
CUT TO A MEETING OF THE AIR-SPACE BATTLE OFFICE, WITH TWO JEDI TALKING TO THE CHANCELLOR VIA HOLO-CONFERENCE. THE TWO JEDI HAVE WORKED LONG AND HARD TO DEVELOP A SET OF OPERATING CONCEPTS THAT CAN HELP DEAL WITH THE CHALLENGE. WHILE THE OPERATING CONCEPTS ARE NOT A STRATEGY OR A POLICY, LIKE GOOD FOLLOWERS OF SAINT CARL THEY HAVE OBVIOUSLY TAKEN SUCH THINGS TO INTO ACCOUNT…
CHANCELLOR: Welcome Jedi. I have been expecting you. I have handpicked you due to your mastery of the way of the Force. I sent you to SAMS for a reason, despite the fact that you would be mostly among men of the ground forces. I intended for you to gain command of the ancient arts of operations through your interpretation of old Soviet and German artifacts, and become proficient in the ways of the Force.
Yes, it was a difficult challenge. You encountered individuals such as the Doctrine Man who gave you the most difficult of tasks, you drove armored vehicles over vaguely humanoid teddy bears, and communed with the Floating Clausewitz Head. But you mastered the art of devising military operating concepts and doctrine. You not only know Design, but you even understand Systemic Operational Design — a feat that few of the most skilled warriors have managed.
And now I am eager to hear your report on the situation that I have tasked you to resolve.
JEDI 1: AGPTTRWORTWVE is increasing its strength. It can regionally concentrate forces, and is maximizing cheap but effective battle-network guided systems. We, on the other hand, have a bunch of expensive platforms strung out on the edge of their logistical tether, ambivalent partners, a few partners that we fear could start a crisis, and a vast body of operational space to cover. And we are currently undergoing sequestration. I’ll turn over to my colleague, who has done background research on the crisis.
JEDI 2: My review of regional history and relevant academic literature in the Jedi library suggests that this may be an star system where — in our absence — the regional planets will bandwagon with a rising great power rather than balance against it. While Interstellar Relations theorists continue to debate if this system has rules distinct from the galaxy as a whole, the possibility exists that history will repeat itself if our power declines.
However, we were unable to gather more information on the situation because budget cuts have limited us to just to JSTOR — we need more access to other scholarly databases. Or at least an unpaid intern in college or graduate school that we can exploit for his database access and have him supply us with coffee.
CHANCELLOR: As you know, our great Republic has declared a pivot to this system, and we will exercise our complex adaptive, smart power-centric…..
CHANCELLOR PAUSES, AS IF HIS BUZZWORDS HAVE GIVEN SOMETHING AWAY HE WISHED TO HIDE…..
CHANCELLOR: ……We will demonstrate our strength, and show the regional planets and AGPTTRWORTWVE that we are here to stay! So what do you propose we do? How can we best marshall our ways and means given the strategic end?
JEDI 1: Well, you see sir, that’s the problem. We’ve looked at the official policy documents produced by our Republic diplomats„ the Republic National Security Strategy, and a backlog of all of the speeches made by various authority figures about the regional balance in this system. There’s nothing really to go off.
Beyond a series of vague platitudes, I’ve found very little specific and useful things about our security relationship with AGPTTRWORTWVE. Hell, I’ve never been told why we can’t call it by its actual name instead of a series of euphemisms…..
THE CHANCELLOR’S HOLOGRAM IMAGE BEGIN TO FLICKER AND DISTORT, AND SLOWLY WE COME TO SEE THAT HE IS A MAN IN BLACK ROBES THAT COVER HIS EYES, NOT A POLITICIAN DRESSED IN USUAL REPUBLIC GARB.
JEDI 1: …..There’s really very little concrete thought about how we are actually going to manage the diplomatic, military, and security issues in this region with the objective we currently have. It’s true that Republic diplomats have been energetically shuttling around regional planets, but it’s still hard to parse exactly what we are doing beyond a vague “pivot.” I’m at odds to see how our policies in this region connect to larger Republic National Security policies, and if official documents, budgeting decisions, and our frequent involvement in a star system we were told that we were drawing down from are evidenced — everyone else is confused too.
THE CHANCELLOR’S IMAGE IS NOW COMPLETELY TRANSFORMED TO A ENIGMATIC, FRIGHTENING-LOOKING FIGURE IN DARK ROBES. HE BEGINS TO RAISE HIS HAND IN THE AIR, PREPARING TO DO SOMETHING.
JEDI 1: Yes, I’ve done what you’ve told me to do. Me and my colleagues have worked on what is within our purview, generating military concepts that maximize the capability of our existing platforms in the region and the new ones about to come on line. We’re working to ensure they cooperate better together, and also are better suited to the range of tactical scenarios that might come up in a regional conflict given the opposing force weapons. And we believe that these capabilities are fundamentally sound and will help our military adapt to regional conditions.
But I must stress that these capabilities are modular. They are meant to be plugged into an existing policy and strategy context and customized for purpose. And for the life of me I can’t see what we’re trying to do, and my conversations with my regional counterparts suggest they aren’t getting it either. And without someone who explains the larger purpose that these tools would serve, I’m afraid that Air-Space Battle will be misinterpreted as a coherent strategy or even a policy. So let’s think abt—-
THE CHANCELLOR SUDDENLY SHOOTS A STORM OF MILSEC BUZZWORDS AT JEDI 1, WHICH APPEAR AS LIGHTNING BOLTS. JEDI 1 IS ELECTROCUTED THROUGH THE HOLOGRAM. JEDI 2 SUDDENLY REALIZES HE IS NOT DEALING WITH A REPUBLIC OFFICIAL, BUT DARTH OBFUSCATIOUS — A POWERFUL SITH LORD WHOSE COMMAND OF DOCTRINAL BUZZWORDS, ACRONYMS, AND EUPHEMISMS HAS BEEN LONG CHRONICLED BY LEGENDS OF OLD. BUT WERE THE SITH NOT DEFEATED LONG AGO? HOW COULD THIS BE?
DARTH OBFUSCATIOUS: “Continue, Jedi.”
JEDI 2 ADJUSTS HIS COLLAR AND GULPS.
JEDI 2: Well, as my colleague said, we have the operational concepts. We can optimize our platforms, technologies, tactics, and so on…..So I think we’re set. We don’t need any more policy or strategic input. But we will need to explain these technologies to the interagency community, the Republic Congress, defense reporters, etc so we can make sure that what we’re trying to do isn’t misunderstood……
DARTH OBFUSCATIOUS: You do not understand the way of the Derp Side. We are not even going to name the state that cannot be named. Instead we are going to refer it to with a serious of vague and ridiculous euphemisms like the AGPTTRWORTWVE — despite the fact that it is perfectly aware that we consider it one of the major use cases for these capabilities!
JEDI 2: So we’re not going to explain the military capabilities to the interagency and the public? I don’t get it……
DARTH OBFUSCATIOUS: That is not the way of the Derp Side either. We will explain to the interagency and the public, but we will make it so deeply convoluted that people find it impossible to understand. They will be unable to avoid completely taking it out of context. And then they will fear it. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate….hate leads to suffering.
As a result of their confusion, the defense community will give in to the Derp Side and fill the Internet with out-of-context critiques that do not even remotely engage with the concept as you have formulated it. In fact, I suspect we could generate more Derp on the Internet than even drones.
JEDI 2: *shudders* Even drones??? How is it that possible?
DARTH OBFUSCATIOUS: Oh, but it is. Believe in the Derp Side, and together we will rule the galaxy as father and son.
JEDI 2 CONSIDERS BRINGING UP THAT HE ISN’T ACTUALLY RELATED TO THE SITH LORD, BUT HESITATES OUT OF FEAR HE WILL BE FORCED TO LOG IN TO HIS COMPUTER WITH A CAC CARD.
DARTH OBFUSCATIOUS: Brave men will seek to explain that your Air-Space Battle is not a strategy or a policy. They will try to tell the public that it is a banal set of optimization procedures and tactics that have no inherent strategic or political form. But to no avail…..we will have made it so confusing and opaque that the concept will be taken grossly out of context.
It is not for nothing that we have called it Air-Space Battle. This has confused many defense analysts by tying it to an Army-Air force doctrine from a completely different political and strategic context! Now you see how long and intricately we Sith have planned our return. The Derp Side will spread throughout the galaxy, and we will will crush the Jedi Order.
JEDI 2 MAKES A QUICK CALCULATION AND REALIZES HIS SITUATION IS HOPELESS.
JEDI 2: Right-o. So what will I say when I speak “off the record” to my favorite defense reporter that I always leak to? How will make it convoluted enough? Surely you will give me a PowerPoint with talking points? A read-ahead?
DARTH OBFUCATIOUS: Turn off the targeting computer and let the Derp Side guide you. Embrace its power. You will soon find yourself speaking with sentences as long, confusing, and meaningless as those of a PhD student that has just read Judith Butler for the first time while taking an acid trip. You will create acronyms so long and confusing that even the Introduction to Algorithms authors will not be able to design an method to compute your buzzwords with a running time that ends before the Great Heat Death. Forget the man who trained you, only by following me will you become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
And this is the beginning. I am building a battle station so horrible, terrifying, and powerful that all the star systems will cower before us when it is fully operational. All I can tell you at the moment is that it involves Listcles that you cannot reduce to a single page. What better way to demonstrate the futility of resistance to the Sith than by forcing people to scroll through an article with a range of 5-30 different pages…..and each page only displaying a single list item??? We must carefully protect knowledge of such a doomsday weapon from the prying eyes of the Bothans, daughters of the nobility with strange hairstyles, nerf herders, and landspeeder jockeys with outsized ambitions…..
CUT TO A OVERPRICED BAR POPULATED WITH COLLAR-POPPING INDIVIDUALS SOMEWHERE IN THE ARLINGTON SECTOR OF THE GREATER REPUBLIC CAPITOL. JEDI 2 WATCHES AS THE REPORTER HE HABITUALLY LEAKS TO WALKS IN. MONITORING THE CONVERSATION, DARTH OBFUCATIOUS LAUGHS MANICALLY AND MOVES TO THE NEXT PHASE OF THE PLAN: DESIGNING THE MOST IMPLAUSIBLE ROMANCE IN SCI-FI HISTORY.
1. There isn’t actually any point to them being SAMS graduates except being able to use the term Jedi routinely and make a bunch of bad jokes about obscure military theory.
2. As you can likely tell, I’m writing mostly out of pure frustration with the ASB debate and also because I need a break from finals….
3. And yes, this is supposed to be as absurd and weird as possible. My inspiration is Crispin Burke’s old Transformers parodies…. http://www.thewire.com/politics/2010/08/how-transformers-3-explains-counterinsurgency/19031/
4. No, I don’t literally believe that Sith Lords are responsible for ASB being so poorly explained. This is an overwrought, overly nerdy satire. It also goes without saying that this is an intentionally absurdist post that does not really seek to explain how the ASB office actually works relative to other parts of the defense bureaucracy.
At the National Interest, Gian P. Gentile has a column attacking what he views as the Army’s undue obsession with “learning and adapting.” Now why would one have a problem with learning and adapting? Here is how Gentile characterizes the issue:
The idea of “learning and adapting” in war, and in particular how well or poorly this has happened with counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, has consumed the American military and especially the U.S. Army. However, this hyper-focus on learning and adapting has prevented the military from stepping back and objectively assessing the overall strategic and political worth of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military history shows quite conclusively that it is natural for military organizations to learn and adapt in war. The crucial issue, however, is how well or poorly they do it.
Unsurprisingly, Gentile takes issue with the Army’s own official conclusions about the real lessons of the last 12 years of war. This is fair, but what follows is somewhat problematic critique of the military’s historical retrospective.
Gentile argues that “lessons learned” efforts are suffused with the logic of COIN. In such logic, an army trained for conventional warfare stumbles initially, lower levels get it right, a “savior general” emerges, and the day is saved. He argues this is being reified in official documents:
The COIN narrative’s fundamental notion of learning and adapting permeates the current intellectual climate in the American military. This has unfortunately caused assessments of Iraq and Afghanistan to focus singularly on the doing of war—its tactics, methods, and procedures. What is never asked or considered in all of these assessments is what these wars have actually accomplished and if they have been worth the cost. The result is an American military isolated in a world of tactical and operational assessments, devoid of the greater strategic and political context.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey released a report in June 2012 assessing what the American military had “learned” in operations since the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The report is striking in its underlying acceptance of the counterinsurgency narrative, and the learning and adapting paradigm. The report noted that for the “first half of the decade” the American military fumbled at COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan. But roughly by 2007 it finally started to learn and adapt at COIN operations and became better. Nowhere in the report, however, is there any kind of objective assessment of exactly what counterinsurgency operations had achieved strategically and politically in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I decided to examine the Dempsey document myself, and found something quite different from the COIN hagiography described in the Gentile piece. Rather, it’s a mostly anodyne report that focuses on areas of tactical and operational remit that are mostly above reproach (“atmospheric”intelligence, threat finance, special operations-general purpose forces integration, information operations, etc etc) even if detailed subject matter experts on each tactical or operational function described might contest their inclusion or veracity.
Who is going to seriously argue, for example, that SOF and GPF alignment and cooperation should not be well-coordinated? Is the contention that interagency coordination was uneven somehow beyond the pale and should it be controversial that the US should strive for better in future conflicts? Are the writers of the report wrong to conclude that host-nation partnering wasn’t a panacea? Each area of tactical or operational concern is addressed briefly and with some candor unfamiliar in mil-speak.
The report’s criticism of the US military’s lack of preparation for the nature of its post-9/11 challenges is fair and amply documented by a variety of sources. The bookshelves and library shelves groan with study after study chronicling various aspects of US military ineptitude after summer 2003 (and even of the invasion phase itself!) One can argue deeply with such sources’ interpretation of the information and recommended solutions, but the problems existed. It is also true that the US military adapted to them with time, even if the act of adaptation was vastly oversold by buzzword generators and its strategic effects a good deal more minor than often represented in both popular and academic literature. But the report is on solid ground in noting the veracity of two now banal arguments that the US military was unprepared and that it adapted.
The report also does not ascribe such failings to a denial of “classic counterinsurgency” or mention canonical counterinsurgency works in a glowing light. It does fumble about at articulating some Friedmanesque ideas about the power of small groups or the end of Westphalian sovereignty, but this in and of itself is hardly a failing worth damning the entire report over. Instead of COIN, the report actually seems to reflect the predominant influence of SOF and interagency fusion/complex operations fans. Neither are above reproach of course, and their success is exaggerated in the report in some areas. But this is something very, very, different from a wet kiss to Galula or FM 3-24.
Certainly much of the report is perhaps unduly optimistic about the ability of the US to rectify the flaws listed (particularly in the section on narrative and information operations) but it is not the responsibility of the report to assess the likelihood of a problem area being fixed. The function of the report is to look at operational and tactical problems and recommend potential solutions.
In short, I expected to see a COIN hagiography when I opened the report (based on Gentile’s characterization) but instead found a boring and safe government document with some flaws and occasional flashes of insight. Just like 90% of the other .mil documents I’ve downloaded to my computer since I began studying security and defense.
There is no systematic conclusion that the small operational successes (which are described in extremely measured and qualified language) added up to a total strategic success. Nowhere in the report does the military suggest that the wars were worth it, and given the strong resistance from many parts of the military to intervening in Syria it would seem that significant portions of military elites see Iraq and Afghanistan the way the rest of us do—a Pyrrhic victory at best.
This brings us to the larger problem with Gentile’s critique of the report. Gentile wants the report to be a ringing attack on the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan and a forthright statement that it was not worth the cost to the American people, their soldiers, and the overall national interest. But this kind of sweeping evaluation is inappropriate for a tactical/technical report on operations. And one should also question whether it is the military’s place to argue in the first place whether wars—as a matter of policy—are worth it or not.
I have written before here many times over the years that Gentile’s call for “good strategy” and attacks on COIN as a “strategy of tactics” often confuse strategy for policy. When Gentile is talking about “good strategy” (preventing future Iraqs and Afghanistans) he is really talking about better policy aims. Strategy is a mapping function from point A to B to accomplish policy goals. If there is not is good policy, then the best strategy in the world is completely useless.
To be fair, his COIN sparring partners often blur this line as well—making arguments that American involvement in certain kinds of wars and certain military methods of involvement in said wars are inevitable. Even if the enemy gets a vote, it does not decide the whole election. The US has a variety of responses to irregular threats and COIN (or, the COIN that the US military is familiar with) is only one of many.
In any event, we do not pay the military’s salary to conduct moral and political assessments of whether or not wars are worth it. We pay them to learn how to leverage organized violence and whatever other enabling functions they require to accomplish political goals. And if we aren’t paying our officers to choose policy, we’re also not really paying them to do strategy most of the time. Much of the military’s remit will be in the realm of tactics and operations, not strategy. The military’s opinions about strategy are valuable, but their bread and butter is implementing strategy as operations and tactics on whatever poor bastard happens to get in the way.
This is the implications of the idea of the “unequal dialogue” inherent in Huntingtonian-Cohenian ideas of civil-military relations.The military has a right to input its ideas into the strategy-making process, a process of “dialogue and negotiation” pace Colin Gray. But by nature of the model of a republican polity, the political class will dominate discussions of strategy and the military will find its chief role defined as a implementor of policy and strategy on the ground.
Unfortunately for the military, one byproduct of this is that it will have inevitably have to deal with civilian politicians who do not appreciate the ravages of war or even fail to go to war for the “right” reasons. And by “right reasons,” I mean that it is very well possible that soldiers will be sent to fight, kill, and die so someone can get re-elected. Even Lincoln himself subordinated many aspects of Civil War operations to the demands of domestic politics, and Johnson and Nixon both allowed Americans to be killed and maimed in massive numbers to satisfy domestic political imperatives.
The Civil War military thinker Emory Upton reacted to this problem by arguing that the military ought to carve out a Prussian-like political autonomy if it were to hope to retain a sense of professionalism, discipline, and rigor. This involved pushing back against civilians with nonsensical ideas of war and military policy. We see the spirit of Upton alive today in artifacts like Robert Scales’ recent op-ed asserting that the Obama administration has no clue about Syria and his own brass is against him.
Other officers in American military history, from “Billy” Mitchell to the current crop of retired flag officers calling for a draft or national service, seek to fix the civil-military problem by proposing expansive changes to the fabric of American government and society in order to solve what they portray as narrowly military-technical problems.
All of these types of interventions blur the tactics/strategy/policy distinctions in rather troublesome ways.
Gentile is free to make a straightforward policy argument and join the legions of scribes debating over the future international relations and security policy of the United States. Thus his arguments can be assessed at their rightful place of prominence. He has done so in his recent piece on a “cheaper, stronger Army” by laying out a set of reasons why or why not the US should engage in war. I critiqued them as being vague and contradictory, and also unfortunately set too much within the military-technical problem as opposed to policy. But more of this could serve a more useful function in preventing future Iraqs and Afghanistans.
Ironically, for a prominent critic of US strategy as being unduly rooted in operations and tactics, Gentile fails to recognize where he could potentially make his greatest contribution. Instead of beating up on operational-tactical adjustments to bad policy choices, Gentile could go after those choices themselves. It is not hard—-the policy assumption that governing an opponent is the same thing as defeating them, for example, is something Gentile has critiqued repeatedly in his own work.
The arrow of causation, however, is faulty. A read of the secondary sources on the Bush and Obama terms does not reveal Bush deciding to go to war in Iraq with a copy of FM 3-24 in his hand. Instead, it seems actually that COIN gave both Bush and Obama the promise of a Nixonian “decent interval” between American operations and whatever else happened after the US concluded its military involvement. With both, a combination of domestic political concerns and concern with systemic factors like terrorism or the future of the Middle East regional balance seems to have predominated.
COIN, in other words, mattered a lot more to the defense nerds (myself included) that endlessly debated it than the actual people who held political decisionmaking power. I don’t think we should to let COIN off scot-free, particularly relative to the outsized public claims made about its effectiveness. Gentile and others have already performed this function. Further criticism ought to be directed explicitly at the policy realm.
Contra Gentile, there is, in fact, a political and strategic context lurking within the operational evaluations. It is one that briefly (in the opening paragraphs of the report) acknowledges the impact of narratives that civilian politicians have voiced in 12 years of speeches about the irrelevance of Cold War national security policy to the post-9/11 world. If Gentile disagrees with these contentions—voiced by both Bush and Obama and their appointees, he should say so and say so explicitly. But again, this would take him out of the realm of military-technical matters and up into the more abstract and civilianized area of international relations and defense policy.
We should all be adjusting our fires towards the correct target. The military should be left to try its best to “adapt” to the challenges of whatever Third World hellhole some future idiot politician throws it into next.
UDPATE: I’ve gotten several questions about the meaning of the last line, so I’ll clarify here. It’s just a throwaway quip expressing sympathy for the challenges of the military fighting conflicts that they themselves do not choose and have unequal input in. As evidenced by the preceding line, I’m saying that they should be allowed to learn and adapt to such issues, and that Gentile-like critiques should be best directed towards higher levels.
UPDATE 2: If I were to condense this post down to a much shorter version, I’d go with my own Twitter summary: the military does not get to decide where we go to war and what objectives it should fight for. Hence a document about operational challenges should not scream “DON’T DO IT AGAIN! IT WAS HORRIBLE AND USELESS!” in all caps. Rather, it should try to evaluate said operational challenges.
Some notes on the emerging Syria confrontation follow, via a parenthetical reference to an older natsec debate:
One of the few criticisms of the drone campaign with much weight was the notion that the focus on various tactical-level mechanisms (drone strikes, joint raids, security force assistance, advise and assist, etc) never amounted to a cohesive strategy to fight against al-Qaeda and other associated enemies.
Certainly a strategy existed (and still exists), even if we have to use the minimal descriptor of just a theory of victory. Coherence or validity is neither a necessary or sufficient condition for a strategy to exist—if it were, 90% of military strategies would not qualify. Additionally, I’m also becoming more and more uncomfortable with the arbitrary nature of how “strategy-ness” is measured. So we ought to lean towards saying something is a strategy, even if it is a bad one.
In any event, when alleged-lack-of-strategy arguments aren’t a fig leaf for left or right wing anti-interventionist arguments, it serves as a foil to pleas for a more expansive political mobilization against the forces arrayed against America. As whole of government-centric arguments fell victim to the decline of the counterinsurgency era, those in search of a more comprehensive strategy reached for COIN’s natural cousin: covert action.
Max Boot famously called for a "department of dirty tricks" that would act to covertly undermine, discredit, and sabotage America’s enemies in the Middle East. Boot’s portrayal of American Cold War exploits in that area is an glorious stream of triumphs—a tale at odds with historical evidence of widespread bumbling and overreach leavened with the occasional coup de main.
Boot’s arguments also echo those of Cold War strategists such as Andre Beaufre and Roger Trinquierer, both of whom placed great stock on the supposed ability of supremely powerful enemies utilizing political instruments to undermine the stability of Western societies and their allies. Certainly one cannot underrate the power of subversion, but consider that the Soviets and their allies considerably outclassed the West in “active measure.” But the USSR found that the advantages granted by skullduggery were not transferrable into meaningful advantages in the overall strategic competition. In other words—they still lost badly.
Still, a mixed historical record is not a sufficient strike against the idea of a “department of dirty tricks.” It is plausible that, even if covert action’s effects may be less reliable or useful than posited, they could still be valuable in concert with other state actions and strengths.
Which brings us now to the waning summer of 2013, with the news coverage dominated by Syria and the continuing divulgence of sensitive intelligence information by Edward Snowden. In light of such turbulence, perhaps Julian Assange himself has provided us with a useful means of thinking about the conditions under which a large-scale campaign of political warfare could succeed or fail.
Assange famously wrote that governments are “conspiracies.” They take in information and output decisions—-a sort of gigantic mathematical function. More formally, a conspiracy’s power is the sum of its weights (a measure of the importance of a link between two nodes). Total conspiratorial power, in other words, is the sum of a conspiracy’s important connections.
Assange etched out a very crude complexity measure to make the argument that a conspiracy requires a certain degree of structural complexity to output good decisions. Reduce the connections by breaking the links (mostly through compromise of trust and confidentiality) and you have degraded the conspiracy’s decision-making power.
None of this is, of course, to endorse Assange’s “model.” It’s just a scribbling rooted in a few network formalisms. Rather, I point it out to make the general point that there are certain structural requirements that must be met for continued future operations in any multiscale, differentiated, and distributed social entity.
Putting on our Assangian (tinfoil) hats, what structural internal (as opposed to external) requirements might we posit for a “department of dirty tricks”? Here are some very informal measures:
All of them issue from the general trade-off between the covertness of an operation and its scale. Any large human endeavor leaves ripple effects, residue, and signature. A large object will have a larger radar cross section, making the stealth technician’s job more difficult. Successful “political warfare” enterprises—like the CIA’s backing of leftist parties and cultural outlets—-often depend on a large degree of discretion only possible with a certain degree of secrecy.
First, elite cohesion is absolutely necessary for the preservation of secrecy. The security of classified information depends on the ability of millions of clearance-holders and uncleared civil servants with access to classified information to all cooperate despite the individual symbolic, monetary, psychological, political, and bureaucratic benefits from leaking.
Obviously, a breakdown in this massive coordination game or the penetration of enemy operatives reduces trust in the confidentiality of information. Without confidentiality of information, foreign partners necessary for the effective prosecution of covert operations may revise their assessments of the value of working with American covert agents.
However, elite cohesion is more than just an agreement to responsibly use classified information. It is also an general consensus or agreement on a theory of covert success or at the very minimum elite cohesion is an condition where the prosecution of covert operations is not crippled by elite infighting.
It goes without saying that breakdowns in elite coordination and lack of trust in confidentiality will also effect topsight—the covert decision-making body’s access to the outside information it needs to make useful decisions.
Fall 2013 does not give us confidence about these conditions. WRT elite cohesion: A civil-military crisis seems imminent, different arms of the White House’s national security decisionmaking organs seem to be feuding with each other, and while Obama may eventually be successful at corralling support for a Syrian intervention deep cleavages are beginning to present themselves in terms of right and left challenges to national security policy.
Moreover, from Stuxnet to Snowden we have seen a rather bracing cluster of gigantic leaks and the failure of internal administration efforts to root out, punish, and deter leakers. As for topsight—most of 2012 and early 2013’s national security debates around drones eventually converged on the point that America lacks reliable information in places like Yemen ( a locus of the drone war).
What we come to is a potential structural explanation for why the drones, missiles, cyber attacks, and special operations seem to be the order of the day. And it doesn’t rely on silly objects of abuse like the All-Volunteer Force or the supposed inhumanity of cold, robotic killing machines.
It may just be that America isn’t getting its whole-of-government, Sun Tzu quotation-filled “political strategy” because it is structurally incapable—-at present—of generating higher-order actions beyond the iterated Great Raid. Anything more complex than that could very be higher than the national security system’s capability for planning, confidentiality, trust, and cooperation.
Full unedited transcript of W.K. Winecoff interview from Abu Muquwama post.
(Q) Lots of people in national security and international relations are attracted to network analysis. What prompted you to study networks?
(A) With the proviso that my work (much less my philosophy) is not all-networks-all-the-time, I think the best answer is that network analysis conforms to many of our intuitions about the way that social systems work. It is relational and systemic, interdependent and hierarchical. A society is a network; that’s why we often talk in terms of community, polity, market, congregation, corporation, whatever. These are ways of describing linkages between people and groups, which is the definition of a network. So why not use network tools to study these systems?
To give an example, when I entered grad school in the Fall of 2008 I wanted to study the international politics of finance. Everyone talks about finance as if it were a network — “systemically important” etc — but not that many people actually research it as the complex adaptive system that we all know it is. Network analysis allows us to do that in ways which are otherwise unobtainable.
More generally, in IR and IPE we’ve spent a lot of time constructing elaborate theories related to complex interdependence, spatial dependence, diffusion/contagion, joint memberships in institutions, epistemic communities, and systemic relationships more broadly. Network methodologies are very well-suited for working in those contexts. Network science has now advanced to the point that there are some pretty well-established methodological tools — inferential and descriptive — that folks who understand basic probability can more or less pull off the shelf without too much trouble. Until very recently that hadn’t been true, so I understand why network analysis is still catching on in some circles, but at this point there aren’t any good excuses for not using these tools when its appropriate to do so. And it is almost always appropriate to do so.
Perhaps more importantly, other methods are often not well-suited for the analysis of world political systems. Regression-based statistical models assume that observations are independent from each other and are distributed identically (I.I.D.). If this is assumption is not true then statistical results will be biased in an unknown direction by definition. I know of no substantive theory in IR, IPE, or really any other corner of social science or foreign policy analysis that would accept that assumption as being valid. Not a single one. Sometimes that might not matter: we’ll get lucky, the dependencies will be weak, the errors will still be random, and we won’t commit an inferential error. But it’s heroic to believe that will always, or even usually, be the case. In practice this means assuming (generally implicitly) things like the fact that the U.S. did not declare war on Britain in 1941 has nothing whatsoever to do with Germany or France, or Britain’s relationships with those countries or with the U.S. Or assuming that the fact that Britain had a financial crisis in 2008 had nothing to do with the fact that the U.S. had a financial crisis in 2008. It’s absurd. You don’t have to do absurd things like that in a network analysis. Nor do you have to abandon quantitative analysis entirely, as some have done.
Closer to home for me, the financial crisis revealed the importance of this in two ways which have clear analogues with many other areas of IR, security studies, comparative politics, and other fields. First, because no quantitative IPE folks saw the financial crisis coming. We had no models, no empirics, basically nothing. We didn’t even have a way to contextualize it. It was like the end of the Cold War for IR, 9/11 for security studies, and the Arab Spring for comparativists. We all missed these huge events, which were clearly a spasm of interdependent processes.
Second, because no quantitative IPE folks were able to say anything much about the crisis after the fact — and security folks and comparativists spent some time flailing after 9/11 and the Arab Spring, respectively — except what everyone else was saying: bankers are greedy bastards; blowback (i.e. “balancing”); autocracy isn’t sustainable. So what? Bankers are always greedy but we don’t always get global financial crises. The U.S. has had a foreign military presence for 70 years but we never had a 9/11. Autocracy has been the norm in the Arab world for decades but we’ve never had a cascade a revolutions.
You can’t explain change with a static variable. And explanations focused on local regulatory quirks can’t explain why we had 27 financial crises in industrialized countries that all had different regulatory structures at the same time. Same with other major events that are shaping our time. But the qualitative folks that supposedly saw these things coming almost universally expected many more crises than have actually happened, and have uniformly predicted post-crisis responses which have not occurred. For example, nearly all critical theorists expected a paradigmatic shift in the organization of global finance away from Anglo-America after the crisis, which hasn’t happened. So I don’t think they really understood the system either. Network analysis can help with this.
On this point: to this day the emblematic journal of American IPE — International Organization — has not published a single research article related to the crisis. Other journals have published sociological discussions of the discipline in the wake of the crisis, or have tried to parse the fallout from it, but we still have no clear sense of why it happened when and where it did. Much less what to expect from the future. We’re six years on at this point. That should be a major cause for concern.
So, given that the worst failure of IPE since its emergence in the late 1960s began the month after I got to grad school, and nobody knew what was going on, looking for new approaches seemed logical. As I was just beginning my dissertation research I was in the perfect position to do it. But I wouldn’t have latched onto the things I did as early or as well without guidance from my advisor, Thomas Oatley. We co-authored a paper with some other folks (Sarah Bauerle Danzman and Andy Pennock) that really gave my dissertation project a spark. I took that ball and ran with it, and am still running with it. Skyler Cranmer, who served on my dissertation committee and is one of the leading figures in bringing rigorous network methods into IR, was also instrumental in putting me on the path.
As my research progressed I started noticing other folks outside of my immediate subfield saying some interesting things that have helped me. For example, Anne-Marie Slaughter published an essay at CNAS right after she left State in which she argued that the pursuit of network centrality should be the grand strategy of the United States in the 21st century. Well, here I am writing all this stuff about how network prominence confers much more power than people understand, and I’m trying to measure it and explain where it comes from (which nobody’s been able to do before, at least in banking), and the outgoing Director of Policy Planning of the United States is saying the same thing in one of her first articles after leaving office. That tends to perk folks’ ears up even if they don’t give a damn about the nuances in my research per se.
Since I’ve gotten more heavily into inferential network models I’ve begun to trust less and less of the IR and IPE statistical work that’s gone on before. And a good bit of the bargaining work too. We spent about a decade in IR/IPE regressing democracy scores onto every conceivable variable, getting statistical significance, and then making up just-so stories about audience costs, or credible commitments to democratic polities (the same as audience costs, basically) or who knows what else to explain these correlations. But that’s not how any other political scientist thinks about politics. There are no audience costs for a 1,200 page trade bill, or at least none that would be sensitive to regime type. Nobody knows what’s in it and very few people care. Nobody votes based on that. Same with the PATRIOT Act or any number of other things. If we paid two seconds of attention to the Americanists and comparativists down the hall from us we’d know that.
Now we’re starting to go back and revisit some of these claims using network methods and we’re finding out that many of them aren’t robust at all. Skyler is leading the way on this in security studies. He’s already called the democratic peace into serious question. Not any particular theoretical explanation of it… the correlation itself. Once structural network processes are taken into account a lot of the variables at lower levels of analysis wash out, including regime type. The same is true in other areas. This is the danger of the I.I.D. assumption: it can’t handle endogeneity, and a lot of what we observe is endogenous. I have a pretty strong suspicion that analyses seeking to explain phenomena by reference to regime type are pretty much over. If I’m right, this will be the biggest development in the discipline in a long time. So get used to reading about geometrically weighted edgewise shared partners distributions.
I could be wrong, though. Most of the rest of the discipline seems to be pre-occupied with engineering randomized controlled experiments at the moment.
(Q) What do people most frequently misunderstand about networks?
(A) In terms of IPE — and to a lesser extent IR — I think there are two. First is that network analysis is just about drawing pretty pictures. That it’s not rigorous empirically. Whenever I hear that — and I still hear it a fair amount — alarm bells start ringing. It’d be like saying that cosmology is just looking at sparkly things in the sky. That may have been true a long time ago ago, but it’s certainly not true now. It shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what is possible. We now have a lot of descriptive and inferential tools that make detailed empirical examinations of networked systems feasible.
The second is a two-parter, concerning a belief that it is not rigorous theoretically: that insights from network science are trivial and/or obvious. These are related but distinct. I’m not quite sure why people think networks are trivial in IR/IPE when no one else in the world seems to, but they do. I think it’s because they don’t understand the importance of topology and dynamics in a network context. At a prominent panel at the flagship conference of the International Studies Association, I heard one of the most famous internationalist political scientists say, with a straight face, that we all know that networks are important because if one node gets infected any other node can get infected. That the only insight from networks was like something we could learn from the movie Contagion. I’ve seen that movie. S/he described it well. But that is fundamentally not what network science says. Not all network topologies behave the same in the face of shocks. Not all pathogens (or financial crises, revolution diffusions, etc.) spread the same way. So the structure is not trivial, and those who think it is do so because they don’t understand quite what they’re dealing with. (As an illustration, this scholar was using the Contagion example to argue against the importance of structural theories: yadda yadda things spread we all know that who cares.)
Another example: one of the most cited papers in IR that mentions networks distinguishes them from “markets” and “hierarchies” as distinct organizational forms. This, again, misses the point entirely. Markets are networks: they are an aggregated grouping of interdependent actors which are connected by the relationships between them. And networks can be — and almost always are in real-world social systems — hierarchical, and a hierarchical organization cannot be anything other than a network. So I think there is some foundational misconceptualizing going on that I’d like to see corrected.
In particular, I think the discipline doesn’t understand the difference between simple random networks — the kind in Contagion where all nodes and all links are basically the same — and complex dynamic networks — the sort that constitutes the global economy, where all nodes and links are demonstrably not the same. The two types don’t behave the same way. They don’t have the same properties. They can’t be treated as if they were identical, either in theory or method. They are so different that in some ways I wish they weren’t both called “networks”.
For related reasons many people seem to think that network insights are obvious. Whenever something like this is said it should bring to mind Duncan Watts’ book Everything Is Obvious (once you know the answer). Watts is a sociologist who works with social networks, and part of his argument is that things that seem obvious really are not, while things that seem plainly true are frequently false. Everyone “knows” that networks are important, or so I’m routinely told, but if you asked them to articulate why they’d have a very hard time doing so. Everyone “knows” that interdependence is serious business already, but explanations of how generally involve a fair bit of fumbling. Moreover, if it’s true that everyone knows these things then practically the whole discipline are intellectual charlatans, because very few scholars are taking networks and interdependence as seriously as they should. If everyone really knows that networks are important then they shouldn’t let any of their students defend a dissertation without including a network analysis or at least putting forth a very good argument as to why the dependencies in their data are not a major problem. That isn’t happening. Reviewers shouldn’t accept papers that don’t do the same thing. That isn’t happening either, so far as I can tell. If it’s so obvious then why am I having justify the obvious thing every time I present at a conference?
Now, to be fair, my work has been received very well by lots of people even though I’m very young in the discipline. So far academic IR has been very good to me, and I only criticize it because I love it and want to see it get better. And I’m not an innovator, just an adopter. But I think a lot of people have been waiting for methodological and technological innovations that can better incorporate complex networks into IR/IPE. Network analysis isn’t new to IR/IPE — Jeffrey Hart was using it in the early-1970s, before Keohane and Nye’s “complex interdependence” was even a buzzword — but it didn’t catch on because the tools were limited. Now that we have some better tools and more computing power I think it’s starting to turn some peoples’ heads, because it matches so many peoples’ intuitions. If these had been available in the 1970s I’m not sure the Great Grand Theory Debates would even have happened, because Keohane and Nye might’ve just gone about modeling the complex interdependence that they theorized about rather than trading blows with Waltz. But that option wasn’t really available then.
This isn’t just a political science problem. We have all these intuitive concepts floating around — influence, interdependence, structural power, etc. — but we’ve lacked good ways to make them concrete. You can do that in a network analysis. You can show who has influence, how much, and where it comes from. We couldn’t do that before.
(Q) You are one of the most vocal international political economy proponents in the blogosphere. What does IPE give a policy analyst or political scientist that other approaches lack?
(A) Thomas Oatley (my dissertation advisor) has argued that at best academic social scientists are irrelevant to policymakers. His basic point is that we generally seek to explain why they do what they do. Presumably they already know why they do what they do, so why would they need us? Perhaps this is why economists have a more prominent role than political scientists. I disagree with Oatley, to some extent. I think the information problems policymakers face are significant enough that IPE should be able to help provide policy advice.
But I don’t see that as the central task of IPE scholars. Instead, I see our role as more critical and our audience as the broader public. Economists tend to assume that Benevolent Social Planners are trying to set policy optimally; when done well, IPE demonstrates emphatically that that is not the case, which is why the world does not work at all as economists believe it should. We tend to emphasize the importance of power when setting policy, highlight rent-seeking, and generally take a critical line. We can also illustrate structural features of the world economy, and explain how the structure confers power, whereas economists focus almost entirely on agents which they perceive to be autonomous. So I’d say that IPE’s comparative advantage is showing how the world actually works while economists argue about how it should work.
I think this leads (or should lead) IPE away from the moralizing that economists and much of the lay public quickly fall into. If interests and ideas compete to set policy then there is little to moralize about: one side wins and the other loses, but both are trying to advance their interests. Some IPE folks side very clearly with some social class or other group, but this is an aesthetic choice. There’s no moral reason to do so, or at least none that comes from our discipline. In this way IPE is much more like “science” than economics, because it is more grounded in empirical reality than just-so theory. Economics believes in a social welfare function; political science does not. Daron Acemoglu, an economist who steps more and more into IPE and CPE (comparative political economy) as time goes by, recently co-wrote a very interesting working paper excoriating the economics discipline for just this thing. He’s basically saying that economists need to become political economists, which is what we in IPE are already supposed to be doing. I went through the same transition as an undergraduate economics major, which is why I went to graduate school for IPE rather than economics.
I quite like the amoral character of IPE. Paul Krugman constantly says that “economics is not a morality play” but he’s one of the biggest moralizers of all. In fact it’s hard to find an economist that isn’t ideologically committed. In my opinion this tendency has a very negative impact on critical thinking. For example, Krugman wrote a big essay in the New York Review of Books accusing Ben Bernanke of being brainwashed by the Fed “Borg”. For Krugman this was the only possible explanation for why Bernanke wasn’t following the Optimal Social Policy. I couldn’t believe that such a sophisticated person would make such an unsophisticated claim in a prominent media outlet. An IPE person would never write that way. We’d look at the ways in which interests and ideas are filtered through institutions to explain why policy is set the way it is. We don’t think there is any such a thing as an optimal policy. That’s pure fiction. Just like the Borg.
That said, the rest of the world — especially economics — doesn’t know IPE exists. Even in international relations nobody reads us, even though 99% of what actually happens in international politics is not security related, and security threats are almost always a function of political economy developments. Part of IPE’s lack of influence is time: we’re a young sub-field, particularly in its current forms. Part of it is a lack of engagement on our part. The fact that (as you say) one of the most prominent IPE voices in the blogosphere is a grad student from UNC speaks to that. A ton of prominent economists blog; not many prominent IPE people do.
And part of it is that IPE hasn’t done a very good job at dealing with the significant issues of the day. We didn’t see the financial crisis coming, or explain it after the fact. We haven’t been able to pin down how major structural changes to the world economy over the past 40 years have had a major impact on inequality, development, or changes to political systems. Part of this is because we are a fairly small discipline — the International Political Economy Society annual meetings attract about 150 people, I’d guess — but part of it is because we’ve been asking progressively narrower questions. That needs to change and I believe it is changing.
(Q) You’ve also had some beefs with poli-sci bloggers over the years over war, peace, and international and domestic economics. What do you think your most contentious blog post was?
(A) I’m not sure which is the most contentious. All my posts are contentious. My attitude towards the blogosphere — and, to some extent, academia — is that it serves no purpose if it’s not about contesting ideas. And when ideas are being contested the stronger the better. Come direct or go home. Be prepared to be wrong, too! There’s no shame in that. I try to learn something every day, which means that every day I realize I was wrong or ignorant about something. It’s not a big deal, it just requires being realistic. I don’t know why sheepish people get in this business, and I don’t understand why people won’t update their beliefs when they do learn. The dialectic remains important.
Anyway, I write in a provocative style quite often so it’s hard to know what the most contentious post was. Sometimes people don’t notice or just let it go, but in terms of attention received the most controversial had to be the one where I said that Paul Krugman has the political sophistication of a 6 year old. Which is true, as an exaggerated description. He’s all about blaming others; he’s faultless himself. He’s a truth-teller and everyone else are liars. He’s been sticking his tongue out at everyone for years on the authority that his preferred policies would have worked had they been tried, but they weren’t, things aren’t great, so… there? He’s been running victory laps despite having been defeated in every campaign he’s run. This is childish, I’m sorry.
He could be 100% right about the economics but he should really just stop writing about politics. He’s in way over his head. It’s a somewhat-regular theme for me, or used to be. I’ve laid off recently. But one of these times Henry Farrell took exception at Crooked Timber, and it got picked up all over the place: Krugman’s NY Times blog, Drezner at FP, Nexon at Duck of Minerva, Daily Kos, everywhere. The CT comment thread was pretty epic even for CT. The consensus seemed to be that I was either a fool or a knave because my argument did not reduce to “evil Republicans ruined the world on purpose” (see above about how the amorality of the IPE approach appeals to me). I believe only Phil Arena and Dan Drezner were on my side.
But it never bothered me. I still think I’m right on the merits, and moreover I was arguing from the most left-wing position of anyone. Nobody got that, and so I was being criticized from the left for my criticism of the bourgeoisie(!). My argument was Marxian, it was structural. Many of my arguments are, even though I’m not in any strict sense a Marxist. I’m sure I could have come across better but I don’t think it would have mattered. In some circles if you attack Krugman it’s knives out. (That’s another problem with the doctrinaire left these days: if you can’t criticize the op-ed page of the New York Times, then who the hell can you criticize?)
In one sense that episode was too bad, because it was an intra-IPE fight when I suspect that Farrell and I agree on much more than we disagree. He’s been kind to me in the past and was even mostly generous in that exchange. I don’t think there’s any ill will between us and I certainly hope there isn’t. I have a lot of respect for him and I’d like it very much if I earn his respect over the course of my career.
Anyway, that would have to be the biggest controversy. But I enjoy arguing with people smarter than me as a general rule. I’ve been fortunate enough to have attracted the attention of some of the blogosphere’s leading lights, and they’ve been kind enough (or defensive enough) to engage with me. I’ve seldom come away from those discussions without having improved my understanding, which is my whole goal. I hope I continue to have opportunities to participate in those kinds of discussions.
David J. Silbey, “The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China” (Hill and Wang, 2012)
Posting some of the strategy lols I’ve made for friends over the last two years at the Cheezburger Network. This is one is a somewhat creepier version of Basil Liddell-Hart. Imagine good ol’ BLH as a PUA.
U.N. Expert Calls for Halt on Military Robots -
He pointed to a United States Defense Department directive issued in November that banned use of lethal force by fully autonomous weapons for up to 10 years, unless specifically authorized by senior officials, and that identified possible technology failure …..Although no countries currently use such weapons, the technology is available and human rights groups are campaigning to pre-empt deployment.
Anticipatory governance is great. But this one requires a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer.
The Flaw that May Bring Down Bitcoin or Change it Forever - Global Guerrillas -
Bitcoin is currently being used as a publishing system due to a design feature/flaw. That flaw threatens the viability of Bitcoin as a currency. How so? Some folks have expoited that feature/flaw to publish Wikileaks cables and pedophile porn links…
John Robb managed to snag an interview with the bitcoin team. Well worth reading.
Under the Shadow of Napoleon is an excellent book, but its main argument is wrong. I will explain that paradox in this review, beginning with the book’s shortcomings. Michael Bonura (PhD Florida State), an active duty US Army officer who has taught at West Point, maintains in chapter 1, “A French Way of Warfare,” that, in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era, the French created a combat model closely emulated by the US Army. The French archetype became so entrenched as to represent, Bonura argues, a Kuhnian paradigm that persisted until the German blitzkrieg of 1940. But talk of paradigms and paradigm shifts presupposes an entire way of thinking about a subject, including the sorts of questions to be researched and the very language to be used in describing that subject. Kuhn’s ideas apply best to scientific knowledge, where dramatic changes are both more possible and more perceptible. When it comes to such human activities as war, the notion of a paradigm shift is seldom germane, especially at the macro level. —
From a review of a new book on French military influence on US army practice.
Would benefit from consideration of tdaxp’s comments on loose exemplars.