ISIS & Calls for U.S. leadership & Growing the Ideal Lawn

There have been calls for the U.S. to exercise “leadership”, originating on partisan political lines.  A bias towards passivity , described in part by the phrase “leading from behind”, went badly wrong in Syria, seeding the ground for ISIS. A misdirection of priority for  the political integrity of Iraq further compounded the problem.

It would be a shame if  the idea of leading from behind, which, according to the New Yorker, originated with Nelson Mandela, were a casualty of these recent events. Foreign policy tends to be described by single buzzwords, and here we have a whole phrase of three words, a welcome addition to the sparse palette of buzz-choices.

In Making Plans; Getting Ready; Iraq Mosque Massacre, the argument is made that the problem of ISIS defies the conventional notion of a plan, which tends to have an algorithmic expectation for attainment of the goal.

So ingrained is this in the human psyche that we habitually call our politicians liars when they put forth plans that call for military pacification of millions of people followed by reconstruction of the local civilization (or lack) and erection of a democratic polity — and the plan fails to come off as expected.

If, thinking the better of the above,  politicians propose a plan without the algorithmic element, meaning that no promise of a specific, endpoint-goal is made, the politicians are called indecisive.

Military plans once had a rigidity caused by the difficulties of communication and awareness (the fog of war), and the process of “mobilization.” Driven by the rigid scheduling of railways, this reached a peak with World War I. Each country had an intricate plan to move  military assets to the border in minimum time. Once started, the plan could not be interrupted or modified, because trains run on tracks, and the rest of the transportation was by horses or foot. Perhaps diplomats unconsciously copied this pattern in the rigid framework of interlocking alliances that made the assassination of an obscure archduke a compulsion to war.

In certain fields, humans have been forced, by compelling need, to abandon the legacy of a mental framework. In the Fifth Solvay Conference, in 1927, the physicists received the first intimation that the concepts of truth, as examined by philosophy, are widely invalid in the real world. In physics, compelling need has caused the concept of truth to evolve, diversify, and, in some cases, become non sequitur. And although Ludwig Wittgenstein provides a kind of a gap-filler for anxious liberal arts students, physics continues to outpace. At best, we can claim Wittgenstein is relevant to us, and we are limited.

With those eminently respectable examples in front of us, consider the evolution of warfare, which has been info-centric for a long time. The colorful costumes of Napoleonic and earlier were required to know where the troops were. Orders were originally shouted, then written,  then sent by telegraph key, then typed, then teletyped, then sent by encrypted burst radio; now by micro-cellular radio with heads-up display. This is reflected in the evolution of U.S. battle doctrines. The first evolved doctrine, the product of Vietnam’s junior officers, was AirLand Battle, superseded by Full Spectrum Operations” (  American Army Doctrine for the Post-Cold War). And it keeps going. While political debate tends to have a cyclic, repetitive character, the U.S. Army learns from their mistakes. Experiencing the death of soldiers under one’s command seems to provide collective inspiration, which is why, some have said, war brings out the best in men, though making the kind of history that should have been avoided.

The thinking implied by the article, “Post 9/11 Stability Operations; How U.S. Army Doctrine is Shaping National Security Operations”, could help avoid the painful mistakes of past counter-insurgencies. But part of the avoidance is not getting in the situation in the first place. And a risk of not getting involved is the kind of global malignancy not seen in past Cold-War situations. There is no doctrinal replacement for fluid intellect in calling the shots.

DoD is at the service of public policy, not the originator. DoD doctrines are shaped by the need to connect the dots, in detail, all the way to training the soldier. The need to be absolutely nuts-and-bolts practical and implementable results in great detail at the bottom, and less at the top. There is no DoD manual on when to engage. That’s left to the politicians. The cited document provides methods, but the judgment to apply is left to Wise Men, who are often not that wise.

The nature of partisan politics tends to promote one-word solutions. Phrases of three words are better, though, as recently seen, three might not be enough. Homeowners in the suburbs who are trying to grow nice lawns are acquainted with reading little articles on the side of grass seed bags. You start with red fescue, just to get something down, mulch, aerate, weed, mow, and fertilize, and seed with Kentucky Bluegrass to replace the coarse fescue. Then, after some years, you’re supposed to have a nice lawn. Although I hate yard work, and I have never actually seen this happen, millions of homeowners seem to obtain life  fulfillment in their quests.

That was about 50 words. You don’t exercise leadership to grow a lawn, and you don’t follow it. Sometimes you let it sit, and sometimes you mow and weed like crazy, according to the weather, not some grand plan. Single words and simple phrases don’t suffice. Perhaps we should grow a vocabulary.

ISIS Beheadings

In ISIS Executions & Emotional Reactions, I remarked that it is important not to be captured by emotion. It is natural to be more affected when the victim is culturally one of our own. It is not necessary to offer the opinion that all lives are of equal value. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t; that is your private affair. But let us not be distracted from the game in which the opponent is ISIS. There is data to be extracted.

Some have suggested that, in the personal address of threat to President Obama, the perpetrators believe that this may deter a U.S. policy of confrontation with ISIS. This is one possible interpretation. Another  interpretation, exclusive of the first, is that the intended audience is internal, to spur other ISIS combatants to competitive acts of savagery. To an audience  of sympathizers, it could be a recruitment pitch.

A third possibility is that the executions stem from nothing complicated;  they are merely physical venting of extreme hostility, or taunts, as appear in the Scandinavian  “blood sagas.”

Which is more correct? The inexperienced analyst may fall into the trap of projecting a made-up mental image, a kind of false empathy, into the problem. Perhaps, having just seen an emotionally charged movie, a complete work of fiction, you have had an animated discussion on the motives of a character. Whatever you think, it is a projection, because the character never existed, not even in the mind of the script writer, who, from personal experience, goes for overall-impression-and-damn-the-details.

There are perhaps four intelligence agencies with the depth of resources for an answer that is more than a guess. One test of relevance of a strategy to counter ISIS is that the answer matters.


Ukraine & Politics of Appeasement

Many younger readers may not be familiar with the phrase “politics of appeasement“, which is best associated with British P.M. Neville Chamberlain’s misguided attempt to avoid World War II by forcing Czechoslovakia to cede territory.

Chamberlain was not the only practitioner. The period over which the Western democracies attempted to appease the Fascist states spanned 1931-1939. It even includes the refusal of the U.S. to recognize Japan’s annexation of Manchuria, which did not avert the subsequent atrocities or the war itself.

Although Merkel is not a Chamberlain, and Putin is not a Hitler, there are certain similarities. Merkel is rumored to push Poroshenko to make concessions, which, presumably, would lead to “peace for our time.” And Putin, who does not have Hitler’s histrionic speaking style, repeatedly makes reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

It is disconcerting that Putin thinks the EU is susceptible to psychological manipulation, and also, that he might be right. Two sources of Putin’s inspiration come to mind.

The small mustelid predator called the “weasel” overcomes the speed of the rabbit  by performing what is called the “weasel dance”, rapid lateral leaps and bounds, which apparently overload the rabbit’s nervous system so that the flight instinct is paralyzed.

Among the underclass of thieves and murderers, and perhaps among KGB veterans, there is the lore that to kill a familiar person, it helps to habituate the intended victim to the presence of the murder weapon. Familiarity by the victim of the knife or the gun provides the killer a few more seconds, before the victim is aroused, to accomplish the deed.

The interpretation of Putin’s behavioral subtleties is not a science. But there is more power to the technique than referring to the Dnieper river, which bisects Ukraine, as a strategic goal. As a student of Napoleon, Putin knows that being a prisoner of circumstances, and being an opportunist, are not contradictions.

Germany, Ukraine and “Peace for Our Time”

On September 30, 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of the U.K., returned from Munich, having negotiated with Hitler to permit annexation by Germany of portions of Czechoslovakia. He said, “I have brought peace for our time.” This  was a false hope. Next, Hitler invaded Poland, and World War II followed.

David Clarke says that Merkel is pressuring Poroshenko to concede territory in the east of Ukraine, eerily similar to Chamberlain’s pressure on the Czech government, who capitulated to the Munich agreement.

On 8/22, Germany approved the acquisition by  Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman of RWE Dea AG, an oil and natural gas subsidiary of RWE AG.  Berlin explains that, removing concerns about Russia, the holding company that purchased RWE, LetterOne, is an EU based company.  Fridman’s current relationship, or lack of, with Putin, would be interesting to know. It would help determine whether the  Russian invasion now under way was encouraged by the approval of the deal.

Here my detached “little man” homunculus steps in, providing remove from despair at the West’s response, which stems from a convergence of factors. Some are  some coldly economic, and some are psychological.

Unlike the U.S., the Germans are possessed of a national characteristic that drives them to run a tight economic ship. They do not mint money. Until a few years ago, Germany was the largest exporter of finished industrial goods in the world. The names you know: Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen, Bosch, Sennheiser,  Leica/Leitz, Zeiss (the oldest optical company in the world.) German quality is the stuff of legend.

While Germany’s parliament does not have the equivalent of U.S. conservative pressure on foreign policy, it has high labor costs, which includes a bargain with labor: everyone will participate to keep the economic machine running 24/7. Unlike the U.S., Germany does not enjoy even the illusion of continental self-sufficiency. If something out of science fiction  isolated each country behind an impenetrable barrier, the U.S. would survive longer. The atmosphere in Germany is too small to hold much oxygen. The U.S. economy can almost stop and then start again; in Germany, cessation of life might be permanent.

Although conservatives are quick to condemn the current Administration as weak on foreign policy, even a strong reaction to Putin’s Ukraine adventurism would not have been enough to catalyze the equivalent of Cold War unity against Russia. Extraordinary  economic interdependence between Europe and Russia is one obstacle. And the erstwhile “Allies” watched the U.S. mainspring run down after the Iraq invasion,  as U.S. “neoconservatives” attempted the Manhattan project equivalent of social engineering, with consequences disastrous for both doctor and patient.

The current Administration has pursued a policy to draw down U.S. activism in world affairs. They know that, historically, no empire has managed to shed its burdens quickly enough to avoid economic ruin. Some personalities are better at bluff, formerly called “brinksmanship”, than others. Hillary Clinton’s remark about China debt,  “How do you deal toughly with your banker?”, could be paraphrased by Germany as, “How do you expect us to drive into the economic ditch, when we have no empire as an excuse?”

There is still room for personal inclination. One  relatively low cost option is to supply arms to virtuous supplicants. There seems to be a bias against handing out guns, rooted in guilt over decades of proxy wars. Is the Ukraine conflict a case of “Live free or die”, or some inhuman premise of international law, such as territorial integrity?

The detached “little man” steps aside. Make your choice.



Al Qaeda Hostage Release, & Lantana Weed Control

The NY Times quotes Rick Brennan of RAND. “Qatar has an interest in making certain it is seen as an ally in the war on terror. And beheading Americans or Westerners is not in Qatar’s interest.” Qatar negotiated with Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate, for the release of journalist Peter Curtis, who was held somewhere in Syria. According to the media, no ransom was paid.

Until the advent of ISIS, Al Nusra was perhaps the most effective Sunni opposition group in Syria. The NY Times has claimed that Qatar funds Al Nusra, and has transferred MANPADs (shoulder fired AA missiles) to them.

Although open sources on this subject are a minefield of kooks with agendas, there is perhaps one more reasonable fact: the philosophic inspirer  is Abu Musab al-Suri, described by some as the most sophisticated jihadi thinker. It seems that he is the creative author of some ideology compatible with Al Qaeda, and a motivator as well — enough for a group of fanatics to assume his teachings as their mantle.

As the West is hostile to the notion of overthrowing legitimate governments and replacing them with caliphates, the Western definition of “terror group” is more inclusive than that of the Qataris. The Qataris, on the other hand, have less concern about genuine acts of terror — although, if asked, a Qatari would probably not condone all of the acts of Al Qaeda, or even condemn. In juxtaposition with the way Qatar has made facilities available for western military projection of power, this presents a very complex picture that is probably worthy of extensive psychoanalysis. But as far as the human mind is concerned, we must remember that internal contradictions are surprisingly easy to live with. We just happen to recognize them more easily in others, and be more puzzled.

There might be a tendency to tokenize the Qataris with a blip like “actor”, and assign to them a few characteristics for simulation, such as “interests”, “activities”, and “likely response”. But actually, they are just as complex as we are, and in this area, perhaps more so. They are probably wondering, just as we are, what they can do to right the ship. They are not passive, nor are they impeded by bulk.

Here we should note that many “experts”, consultants to the West, who are still part of the decision process, declared the demise of Osama bin Laden to be the end of Al Qaeda. This was attractive because of the apparent finality, and because it is an antidote to the assertion that the West created Islamic terrorism.

We did not create the problem. A vulnerable culture was exposed to the wealth of oil. The delicate skin of Arab isolation was ripped off by cultural abrasion, exposing a culture gap of eight centuries. An ideological vacuum filled with a lantana of the spirit. Lantana is an invasive, noxious weed that kills livestock.

The experts who mistook the capitation strike for the solution are still part of the very bulky decision process that has evolved as an inferior replacement for human judgment and intuition. Paraphrasing the NY Times article by Philip Tetlock, debunker of political expertise , we mistake the process for the solution. And the “process” has become so elaborate, and so prolonged, the events of the past several years have repeatedly outrun it. It would be the stuff of jokes if it weren’t so tragic.

Now for the speculation.  Since the Qataris are closer to the problem, they may already have this intuition. They are not blameless, but as a much smaller ship, they can turn around before we even adjust the rudder. They understand that to displace lantana, one has to plant something that can stand up to it, something that itself might be quite noxious to us. Abu Musab al-Suri is such a seed, and he languishes in a Syrian jail. As an ideological fountainhead, he may offer the prospect of a less pathogenic organism than ISIS.

This kind of action could not pass our decision process. But while we unaccept, the world turns. In the past, other unseemly acts have devolved to proxies. But the Qataris are not proxies.

The lantana metaphor, of the need for an ecological approach to the human spirit, may actually be more useful than the typical literary analogy. The Cold War was a cool, quiet game of chess. Now we’re all farmers. It’s time to get dirty and sweaty.



Did Egypt bomb Libya ?

Quoting Reuters, “Renegade General Khalifa Haftar’s air force was responsible for strikes on Islamist-leaning militia in Tripoli on Monday, one of his commanders said“. The Guardian has a  profile of Haftar. With Haftar’s backing, the Zintan militia had been fighting Misrata militia for Tripoli’s main airport, which the Misratans have now captured.

Haftar claims his forces did the bombings, which the Zintans praised as professional. Reuters: “A Zintani source said fighters in his unit saw planes bombing a Misrata militia position. “Our forces at the airport saw massive and accurate bombings,” he said.

Of course, what we’d really like to know is, who is going to win Libya, Haftar, or the Islamists. But the attention of the press is elsewhere, so the question is not currently tractable, other than to note that losing the airport is not a good sign for Haftar’s bunch. So we start small: Whose airplanes were they? With open source intelligence, this might eventually add up to something.

NATO and Egypt exclude themselves: “A U.S. official and an Egyptian security source, both speaking on condition of anonymity, said their countries had not been involved. ” Since no statement appears credible, this is an occasion to sift through the contradictions, while enjoying a crooked smile:

  • Capability. It is almost a fact that nobody in Libya has warplanes that work.
  • Unimportance of the target. The target has been described as no more than “a Misrata militia position.” This favors Haftar’s claim of responsibility, since the more distant the responsible party, the more important the military justification.
  • Denials. The U.S. and Egyptians deny, but “both speaking on condition of anonymity.” Usually, a denial of involvement is made loudly and with official imprimatur.  But it’s important not to fall into the trap of excessive conspiracy. Their shyness does not inculpate the U.S. or the Egyptians, but it at least implies that the force responsible for the bombings is shielded by ambiguity. And it gives Haftar the benefit of propaganda.
  • Strength. Haftar wants credit for the bombings, because the ability to bomb implies strength, and strength evokes loyalty. There is always an attraction to being on the winning side.
  • Ethics. In the Middle East, in the current conflicts of nationalist versus tribal, there seems to be a “golden rule”: atrocities committed by one tribe against another are acceptable, but outside interference is considered unfair. This is all too familiar to law enforcement responders to domestic violence calls, when one or both parties interrupt their attempts to murder the other by turning on the responders.
  • Secular vs. Islamist. Islamism of all sorts is packaged for export. It has been claimed that Saddam Hussein initiated the Iran-Iraq war because he feared Iran would export revolution to Iraq’s Shi’ites. Saddam’s Iraq was comparatively secular. El-Sisi’s Egypt is secular compared to Libya’s Islamists. By analogy, el-Sisi could fear the potential of Libya’s Islamists to refuel the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • The U.S. ? This might seem attractive to those distant from U.S. politics, to those who see the U.S. as the author of conspiracies such as have historical record. Those closer to the U.S. political scene understand that the country has changed. For better or worse, the giant has feet of clay.
  • Israel? Although there is talk of actual cooperation between Israel and Arab states that fear political Islam, it would be unprecedented. The process of exclusion would lead to Israel only if el-Sisi could not safely motivate the Egyptian military to attack Libyan Islamists. But the climate in Egypt, particularly in the insular military, seems permissive of the action.





Making Plans; Getting Ready; Iraq Mosque Massacre

In political impact on attempts at unification, the massacre, reported by CNN, is the most significant of recent massacres, because, unlike the others, it is interpreted as an act by one political faction against another.  The word “interpreted” is added just to guard against the  chance that it was  a false-flag ISIS operation. In the dismal accounting, it adds to the pile supporting the hypothesis of “Important Iraq Question“, and “Iran’s Strategy of Partition.

Proving nothing, the massacre is merely compatible with the Iran hypothesis, but I find myself  surprised that the perpetrators couldn’t find something better to shoot at. In the long game, the difference will show, but in the intermediate, the massacre highlights the nonviable nature of a U.S. strategy based on a politically unified Iraq.

Western culture is one of plans. In histories of World War II, much credit is given to Allied planning, which encompassed industrial and logistical effort spanning multiple years. While the raw material, men and their lives, remained the same as in previous wars, waging WWII became an exercise of management science. The specialty of operations research originated in the U.K., but was subsumed by U.S. technologists postwar. Some readers may be familiar with linear programming. One of the first postwar uses of digital computers was to solve linear programming problems as they appeared in the context of O.R.

Every previous U.S. intervention has assumed at least the fiction of political stability. This is now absent. It’s more like a game of pinball where you don’t even get to pull the plunger. The ball skitters out onto the table, while the adroit “cheat” tries to tilt the table without activating the “tilt switch.” Perhaps a closer analogy occurs if the pinball machine is in the mess of a destroyer in a rough sea.

Normally, I would stick to just trying to guess what’s coming down the pike, but the situation is so unusual, I venture an opinion. A situation like this defeats the normal concept of a plan, requiring innovation in the approach:

  • The immediate goal is dynamic, point-to-point minimization and containment of the threat, not molding of regional politics.
  • The response should be fluid, opportunistic, highly dynamic, and capable of varying rapidly and repeatedly from intensity to quiescence.
  • Since all of the players, with the possible exception of the Kurds, seem capable of uncivilized activities, politics must be very practical.
  • The duration is unknown.
  • The endpoint cannot be defined.
  • As the situation evolves, it is possible that opportunities for exit, or a more conventional strategy, will present. But not now.

Whether the challenge can be met will largely depend upon whether the planning structures of the U.S. government can adapt to these new requirements.


ISIS Executions & Emotional Reactions

Part of predicting is gathering of information and analysis. Another, equally vital component, is the mindset in which these activities occur. For two broad reasons, the ISIS executions should not shock. One reason is that analysis  should have already been performed, anticipating the executions.

But the best predicting also requires a kind of emotional detachment that is contrary to the need to wish for the good, the beautiful, and the true. I have found it useful to imagine, inside my head, a “little man” who feels detached, and who analyzes and predicts on my behalf.

Since computers became widely available, the term “virtual machine” is probably understood by many readers. Psychologists have a term, “empathy”, which is enabled by imagining the thought processes of another, or equivalently, simulating a simplified version of another person’s mind. This is a type of virtual process.

All this was anticipated by the mathematical specialty of estimation theory, which advocates, “Every good predictor contains a model of the system that is the subject of prediction.” Sure enough, in linear systems theory, where prediction and control systems can be drawn as diagrams, there is always a block identifiable as the system model.

So, if you find yourself more than modestly affected by the recent ISIS atrocities, you need to do some work on the part of your self you use for predicting. In my own case, this has resulted in lesser inclination to stomp on my hat and gnash my teeth, but without harm to my soul.

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