The Saudi Oil Conspiracy Theory

Reuters: REFILE-Saudi oil policy uncertainty unleashes the conspiracy theorists. Quoting, “‘Even those who have known Naimi for decades are puzzled. ‘For the first time, I really do not know what is likely to happen at the meeting. It is not clear’, said a long-serving senior OPEC delegate.

If this is a conspiracy, it is of the most transparent variety.  On October 19, 1973, during the Arab-Israeli war, OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo against various countries perceived to be allied with Israel. In December 1980, during the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia forced the price of oil down.

Following Sun Tzu’s dictum, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”,  on Nov. 12 Saudi Oil Minister Ali al Naimi said “Saudi oil policy… have been subject a great deal of wild and inaccurate conjecture in recent weeks. We do not seek to politicise oil … For us it’s a question of supply and demand, it’s purely business.”

Russian support for the Assad regime has created a desire, totally internal to the Sunni Middle East, to wreck Russia. It also reduces the saleability of Iranian sales leaking through the sanctions, so one silver bullet takes on both Russia and Iran’s “caliphate” dreams.


Psychoanalyzing Putin, Part 2

CNN: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the West wants Putin out. Quoting, “As for the concept behind the use of coercive measures, the West is making it clear it does not want to try to change the policy of the Russian Federation … they want to change the regime — practically no one denies this,” Lavrov said at a meeting of a foreign and domestic policy council in Moscow.”  Putin also reiterated his fear of “color revolution”, as used to denote revolts in several former Soviet states that resulted in regime change.

With social stress impending from financial collapse that is not far off, this fear of Putin and Lavrov may be genuine. But it’s not real. Without Putin at the helm, Russia would deteriorate into a gigantic criminal enterprise, feeding vast amounts of cash into both the underworld and terror, with the additional horrible possibility of smuggled nuclear weapons. Mr. Putin, we actually need you. We just want you to be good.

World leaders would like Putin to forget his unfriendly notions of Western intentions, and return to the apparent amicability prior to…when? Angus Roxborough, in his book The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, offers the experience of  P.R. firm Ketchum, who  in 2006 contracted with the Russian government for press representation in the West.  Subsequent to the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya  in Moscow on October 7, 2006, Roxborough observes that Putin’s inner circle stopped engaging the press. After that [citation missing], they just didn’t seem to care.

It’s hard to like someone who is responsible for the deaths of 4300+ people. But this should not deter us from an unbiased look at the large part the West has played  in the creation of the current Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, like the other components, was a tabula rasa, an almost unique ideological vacuum. It had neither communism, democracy,  Platonism, Confucianism, or the divine right of kings. Democracy comes in various grades, but Russia didn’t even have “vote banks” representing popular constituencies. Instead, everything was for sale. There is even the story that, in those lawless days, one Russian, owed a debt, was paid off with a hydrogen bomb, which he kept in his garage.

In a letter dated January 1, 1989,  Ayatollah Khomeini offered Gorbachev a cure for the vacuum. Quoting, “In conclusion, I declare outright that the Islamic Republic of Iran as the greatest and most powerful base of the Islamic world can easily fill the vacuum of religious faith in your society.”   With what we can assume was a polite decline, Russia turned toward the West. This seems too obvious an outcome, but in reviving a state religion, with the aim of conservative cultural values, Putin may have given Khomeini’s letter some consideration.

So the West ended up in “loco parentis“, attempting to rear a modern democracy from nothing. It has been done, but rarely. While George Marshall saved Europe, and Douglas MacArthur authored democracy in Japan, there was lacking, for Russia, a supreme authority of unimpeachable intent. In particular, the economic consultants assumed too much sophistication on the part of the general public, with privatization resulting in the creation of an oligarchy that frustrated the growth of civil government. Simultaneously, the Western trade zones declined to include Russia, with Europe fearful that the large, low cost labor force would swamp their economies in a way that China is doing now. China got in the door, while Russia was excluded, because, at the time, the Russian and Ukrainian industrial bases were much closer to technological parity with the West than China’s. Today the situation is reversed.

These are the errors and considerations that came of the moment. But there were also historical attitudes, still vital and poisonous. Consider this quote:

“The Government of…Russia, arrogating to itself the supreme power to torment and slaughter the bodies of its subjects like a God-sent scourge, has been most cruel to those whom it allowed to live under the shadow of its dispensation. The worst crime against humanity of that system we behold now crouching at bay behind vast heaps of mangled corpses is the destruction of innumerable minds. The greatest horror of the world–madness–walked faithfully in its train. Some of the best intellects of Russia, after struggling in vain against the spell, ended by throwing themselves at the feet of that hopeless despotism as a giddy man leaps into an abyss. An attentive survey of Russia’s literature…of her administration and the cross-currents of her thought, must end in the verdict that the Russia of today has not the right to give…voice on the single question touching the future of humanity, because from the very inception of her being the brutal destruction of dignity, of truth, of rectitude, of all that is faithful to human nature has been made the imperative condition of her existence.”

Relative to the above indictment, Vladimir Putin reasonably considers himself enlightened and benign. Does it read like a reaction to Stalin’s purges? It’s from a 1905 essay by Joseph Conrad, “Autocracy and War”,  where the elisions hide a few words that would date the piece. Fear and suspicion of Russia predate our time. In the New World, this is dim history. In the EU, it is culturally alive. The briefly “new” Russians were astonished and offended that they were not welcomed into the bosom of Western love, while simultaneously enduring a brief, misguided, and very painful parentage.

The emotional factor is significant because, unlike previous convulsions in Europe, the ideological gap yearned to be filled with love and understanding. It was a brief moment, occasionally depicted in Hollywood feel-good flicks in which a natural disaster, plague, or alien invasion breaks down the barriers to what, in the imaginative  mind of the scriptwriter, is the natural human state of goodness.

One can blame, or think of avoidable causes, but a better situation would have been an exceptional historical outcome. That the response of the West to aggression in Ukraine has eschewed violence, relying on economic pressure, is itself an innovation in conflict resolution. But in the formative days, the West could have offered a more inspiring and practical approach to democracy and economic reform. The Russians could have tried harder to transcend their heritage as described by Joseph Conrad. That neither happened is part of the tendency of humans to make bad history.

For the Russians, the picture was completed by military and geopolitical moves, which we, confident of our kind and generous nature, could not conceive as threatening. That’s next.

Battle of Ramadi, ongoing, the high water mark of ISIS

CNN reports ISIS is attempting to take the government complex in Ramadi.

ISIS will fail. This, even more than Kobani, will be known as the  “high water mark” of ISIS. Some may recall this phrase from the history of the U.S. Civil War, of Longstreet’s assault into the Union lines, at the Battle of Gettysburg, on July 3, 1863. This is of that magnitude.

The considerations that form this estimate are as follows:

  • All eyes are upon the defenders. They know they will be branded as heros or cowards. In other words, the same “search for significance” which has been discovered to motivate the influx of ISIS recruits is now within the grasp of the defenders.
  • To the Iraqis, the asset is worth bending the rules of  air support that minimize civilian casualties.
  • The close proximity of official Iraqi  forces facilitates deployment of U.S. ground personnel for precision targeting.
  • An ISIS all-out assault has been repulsed. If the LA Times paywall doesn’t stop you, it’s here. For those who rely on open source intelligence, a successful repulse illuminates a ground situation that may be murky even to the participants. ISIS didn’t get it the first time.
  • A development of the Vietnam War was a kind of  strongpoint called a “firebase”, which delivered regional artillery support on demand. During U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese did not succeed in overrunning a single firebase, although some were evacuated for tactical reasons. Although Ramadi is not a firebase, U.S. advisers have a wealth of experience defending similar strongpoints.

A rule-of-thumb for military engagement is that the attacking force must have 3 to 1 force superiority over the defender. But this assumes the forces are organized as conventional forces, with similar discipline, training, and motivation. In this case, it is a question-mark, a wild card. But one French ISIS fighter cites free hair shampoo as a motivation. Although Iraqis in general may lack better reasons,  those defending Ramadi have one: to live or to die.




Kennan’s Long Telegram

On February 22, 1946, George F. Kennan sent the Long Telegram to the State Department. The subsequent publication of the “X Article” in Foreign Affairs, considered by the foreign policy elders of the day, set the policy of Containment toward the Soviet Union. Quoting from the preface,

Answer to Dept’s 284, Feb. 3,13 involves questions so intricate, so delicate, so strange to our form of thought, and so important to analysis of our international environment that I cannot compress answers into single brief message without yielding to what I feel would be a dangerous degree of oversimplification. I hope, therefore, Dept will bear with me if I submit in answer to this question five parts...I apologize in advance for this burdening of telegraphic channel; but questions involved are of such urgent importance, particularly in view of recent events, that our answers to them, if they deserve attention at all, seem to me to deserve it at once

No subsequent policy, even the War on Terror, has combined the durability and success of Containment. Thirteen years since that ennunciation, there is now a need to enunciate a new policy, not replacing, but overarching the War on Terror, because the world is no longer even remotely bipolar.  A new policy must be authored,  suitable for the resumed pluralism of the world scene.  It should answer this question:

How,  in a multipolar world, with a relative decline of economic and military power, can America’s  security, as much economic as military, be best assured for the next half-century?

The purpose of the long horizon is this. It disallows incorporation into the policy issues that relate to specific, immediate, tactical needs. It forces the authors to take the long view.  It should be a relevant test of every policy with shorter horizon.

We’re a bit short of elder statesmen right now. Those remaining should be invited to add to their legacies of thought.

Psychoanalyzing Putin

According to reports, 32 tanks and assorted howitzers have been deployed by Russia to the Ukraine. An obvious target is  the Donetsk airport, recently the site of some Ukrainian success. But with Russian artillery, unless the Ukrainians have since been supplied with counter battery radar and plenty of throw-weight, it could quickly become a graveyard. Only high resolution satellite imagery can inform whether the Ukrainians have prepared for this level of challenge. In the past, they have not.

This battlefield warmup may pique reader interest  in what makes Putin tick: the psychological makeup, and perhaps, his “philosophies.” Very few world leaders are favored with as much press coverage as Putin, making him an excellent and timely subject. My interest in this actually goes back to 2012, when I published a paper, “Putin’s Character and the Intersection with Russia”, downloadable from With Putin as an enigma, any number of outcomes of the Ukraine crisis, and subsequent evolutions of Russia-West relations, are possible, freely chosen by the prejudice of the predictor. It’s wired into us to decide that any so-and-so is a “force for good”, or “evil incarnate.” A simplification would be to imagine that the outcome lies along a line, as a kind of function,

Outcome = Function(some personality characteristic)

What we would like to know has an analogy in radio direction-finding. Imagine you are trying to find a spy who is surreptitiously transmitting in your territory. If you have a single radio, you rotate your antenna until the signal of the spy is in the “null.” His location is determined to lie along a line, that extends both in front of and in back of you. By adding to your surveillance a second radio, you almost know where he is, unless he is located along a line that passes through your two radios. But if you add a third radio, the spy’s position is almost pinpointed, subject to some irrelevant technical caveats. This example, requiring three radios, is intended to remind the reader of the hopeless inadequacy of plotting Putin’s position along some “axis of evil.” Believe it or not, people have actually used that phrase.

Consider the compatibility, with the facts as they are known, of the simplistic assumption that Putin is benignly concerned about the fate of Russian speaking minorities in eastern Ukraine. This view could be coherently supported by the historical embrace of Fascism by the Ukrainian speaking population, and the continuing, active political presence of Fascism as a minority viewpoint. The imposition of the Ukrainian language as the only official language smacks of petty intolerance. This case also draws energy from the current political landscape of neighboring Hungary, where Fascism is more than a taint. And the breakup  of Yugoslavia suggests that the ingredients for extreme ethnic conflict exist in the current Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the above does not exclude the possibility that Putin is,  in our moral system, genuinely malevolent, challenging the West with every possible grab not repelled by forceful response. Nor does it exclude that Putin, furthering what he considers Russia’s national interest, may now be a permanently painful, annoying blister on the foot of European serenity. The Ukraine scenario admits the whole spectrum of possibilities, which the reader may be inclined to fill in with his own prejudices.  It is difficult  to like someone who is disturbing what had become a very peaceful place.  Bullets in Europe? Who would have thought! But foreign policy is too expensive to rely  on personal prejudices.

With the exception of the Balkans, the history of Europe since the founding of the EU was a refreshing break from Realpolitik, which is, at heart, an amoral (not evil, there is a difference!) system based upon Cardinal Richeliu’s principle of survival of the state, raison d’État. Have we now gone full circle to October 1938 ?

Only Putin On the Couch can tell. To be continued…


Advisers in Iraq: What They Do, What They Can Do

In the CNN article, “U.S. readying plan to send advisers to Iraqis fighting ISIS in Anbar“, a rather sterile description of the role of an advisor is provided by Col. Edward Thomas, spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “To be clear, this is not a change in mission nor is it a combat role, as they will be operating in the same advisory role as the other locations.” In the same article, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, expands it a little: “…train-advise-and-assist mission into the Al- Anbar Province.”

The key difference is “assist”, which does not mean opening doors, changing tires, or carrying luggage. Nor is it mission-creep, because the operational definition of “adviser” has always been usefully elastic. In his book First In, Gary C. Schroen, who lead the first C.I.A. mission to Afghanistan post 9/11, provides a personal view of the highly customized assistance to various indigenous forces in the early-phase of the U.S. intervention. Some of the forces that comprised the Northern Alliance had all the discipline and purpose we now ascribe to the Kurdish Peshmerga. Some commanders were exceptionally brave, inspiring, and professional.

But chapter 41 describes the defense of a position by a motley group of untrained or elderly Afghans, who might be a good model for the Albu Nimr tribe, advised by “Craig”, chief of the C.I.A.’s first team operating in southern Afghanistan. The  retreat of facing Taliban-allied forces had been achieved by massive application of air power from high flying B-52’s, with targeting provided by U.S. operators of which “Craig” is an example.

Separated by about 700 yards, the Taliban-allied elements, which included Chechens and Arabs, knew exactly the quality of the opposing force, so a shock assault was mounted, by three fighters. Quoting, “…and Craig could make out the figures of two, now three men…The three stood in line, arms raised above their heads, each holding an AK-47 and shouting…”

You did not misread. Three fighters went up against Craig’s 60 Mujahedin, charging across 700 yards of open ground. And the shouts? The taunts of Homer’s Iliad. Continuing, “…Sixty men, all armed, frightened by three men running towards them…” Acting as the adviser, Craig yelled, “Tell the men to shoot! Shoot!”

With the proviso that the following description of Afghan marksmanship applies only to the lowest category, the traditional firing position is to hold the weapon as high above the head as possible, and spray like a garden hose. In a slight upwards step of competency, the weapon is held lower, but emptied on full automatic, so that the burst climbs to the sky.

The account has more detail, and then, “…it was too much for the Afghans, and again, the shout of “Chechnya” rose in the air.  As if on signal, the entire group of 60 turned and began to run…”  The three were Chechens. Having crossed 700 yards of open ground, they occupied the positions formerly held by Craig’s Afghans. One grabbed his crotch, and wiggled his manhood. There are Chechens fighting in Iraq today, and they are some tough [expletive goes here.]

Craig had a problem. He and his partner could have easily shot the Chechens as they dashed through the open, but that could have resulted in fatal humiliation of his Afghan allies. So he resorted to a higher power, a B-52 loitering in the area, which dropped a GBU-31 within feet of one of the Chechens, who at the moment of detonation was offering Craig a kind of salute delivered with the middle finger of the hand.

For the Afghans, it was a morale building lesson, that the opponent was not invincible.  As much as technique, morale is a part of training.  One could argue that a B-52 strike was a gift of victory without valor, but one of the gifts of democracy is the understanding that the less valor, the better.

In the interest of precision, the term “Tactical Air Control Party” is a designation of the regular armed forces. The same function, or subset of target designation, is provided by special forces with various designations.



Additional U.S. Forces Provisioned to Iraq promotes tipping point

CNN: U.S. readying plan to send advisers to Iraqis fighting ISIS in Anbar.

I’m feeling lucky today. In the post,  Child Psychology, Iraq, ISIS, Tipping Point, Holy Grail, I wrote,

“The provision of force adequate to produce the tipping point may have occurred. Providing political insight,  movements tell more than battles.”

For insight as to the role of the “advisers”, see Leon Panetta on ground troops. The presence of Tac Air Control Parties on the ground, providing target designation for high-flying aircraft above the altitude limit of MANPADs, is now judged less risky and more effective than Apache helicopters, which are very vulnerable to MANPADs.

Check out Obama’s new message to ISIS.



Child Psychology, Iraq, ISIS, Tipping Point, Holy Grail

The terrible army of ISIS is not composed of children, but, composed of criminals, teenagers, and sociopaths, shares some of the attributes of such.

When captured, the terroists of Al Qaeada, and by extension, ISIS, tend to talk. See the NY Times article, “Some Captured Terrorists Talk Willingly and Proudly, Investigators Say.” Contrast this with the behavior of the typical well-trained Soviet spy, with the Rosenbergs, the “atomic spies” as a particular example, who refused to confess to save their lives, or the song of Kevin Barry.

One could argue that that this willingness to talk is due to the lack of “resistance training”, but, quoting the Times,

“They want to boast, particularly if they have ever done something to harm ‘the infidel,’ ” said David Raskin, a former chief of the terrorism unit in the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan. “But just being an enemy of the United States is something they’re very proud of and anxious to talk about.”

So it has the elements of the taunt, which has a long history in warfare, going back to Homer. But the taunt of Homer’s warrior was a form of psychological warfare, intended to unhinge the opponent. The taunt of the captured terrorist is something else: lacking external efficacy, it is no more than a psychological prop to the prisoner.

Now let’s look at the behavior of Iraqi troops following the recapture of the town of (Reuters) Jurf al-Sakhar, in the account given in the Reuters article, “After victory in key Iraqi town, time for revenge.” Several behaviors are described:

  • Execution of prisoners, not unknown in well trained armies (See Commando Order.)
  • Noisy, demonstrative celebration.
  • At a point where, the battle concluded, the need for personal risk taking had abated, the militia continued with in risky behavior in their celebrations. Quoting, ““Run to the ditch. Mortars. Mortars,” yelled a militiaman. An army officer shouted at local militia leaders, berating them for advancing too fast, before helicopters had wiped out any pockets of resistance.

The celebration was paid for with lives.  One would think that at least some of the participants had some prior relevant experience. Had  none of them been warned, “Keep your head down”, or does something impel this noisy, dangerous outburst at the end of an event where success should be its own reward?

A CNN article, ISIS prisoners reveal life inside terror group, contains interviews of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurds. Although the statements of the prisoners cannot be taken as fact, they are valuable  even as creative lies. Creativity is not the mark of a terrorist mind, so the statements are a view of the mental landscape, constructed, at the very least, from what they were told by, or experienced by, others.

There is a classic question to put to a veteran: Why did you fight? What made you keep on?  It may be hard to just get up and leave, but there are many ways to shirk. As late as World War I, the French Army had a roving echelon to execute soldiers who attempted to leave the line. In World War 1, the British executed 304 men for desertion.  But in the 20th Century, just one U.S. Army soldier suffered this fate, Eddie Slovik.

The veteran answers, “You fight for your buddy.” The buddy system is explained to the soldier as to his advantage, because two heads are more than their sum. They are told to look out for each other. What they don’t know, but only experience, is that they become friends. If your buddy is a casualty, your fury becomes that of an animal, which makes you better at what was merely the business of killing.

After your buddy, you fight for your unit, your country, your flag, but these are increasingly abstract conceptions of “duty”. They are important nonetheless, because they comprise motivations that are contained totally within the self. They rely on a mental landscape hospitable to indoctrination by time proven techniques of military training.

Absent a sense of nationhood, the same techniques of military training applied to the Iraqi Army did not achieve the result of effective internal motivation. The buddy system, if applicable at all, failed to amplify the effectiveness of the individual soldier. The Iraqi Army is actually less effective than the militias and the terrorists, which employ a completely different motivational system.

Even though most of the combatants are not literally children, the concepts of child psychology are useful here, explaining much:

  • When battle interferes with the coherence of a unit, the absence of internal motivation results in cut-and-run behavior. In Western armies, where training has produced internal motivation, units are much less likely to cut and run.
  • The weakness of the abstractions of “duty” result in dereliction at the level of an army.
  • Motivation in these units is external, not internal, requiring constant reinforcement by group contact, celebration, and incentivization.
  • Emotion, the importance of which for an army cannot be underestimated, swings wildly between irrational exuberance and complete disintegration.

In sum,  the units of the combatants on both sides behave like the peer groups of child psychology. The stories from both sides are not identical, but congruent: imaginative, dependent on external reinforcement, crumbling either as the individual prisoner or the incoherent unit. Strictly for prediction, it may be useful to imagine the combatants as composed entirely of children with guns. The canny image of ISIS leaders is sharply undercut by the fantasy of an air force of three jet fighters abandoned by the Syrian Air Force.

Put into the fewest possible words, with an implied reference of Western culture, the combatants exhibit labile affect. This is a useful result. It implies that, when the tipping point occurs, the collapse of ISIS, as an organized entity, will be as rapid as their ascent.

The provision of force adequate to produce the tipping point may have occurred. Providing political insight,  movements tell more than battles. The arrival of 150 to 200 Iraqi Kurds in Kobani, previously sanctioned by Erdoğan, and also, “between 50 and 200 Free Syrian Army rebels“, seems to signal a relaxation of the former preconditions of the U.S. and Turkey on the application of force. In touching regard for the corpse of the Iraqi state, the U.S. had declined to arm the Kurds, with this notable reversal of the policy. Erdoğan has acquiesced to or achieved an abandonment of domestic policy towards the Kurds and the foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors.”

The aspect of child psychology called “peer rivalry” suggests that arming the Kurds will have a salutory effect on Iraqi military performance. It works like this. In the mind of the child, it is more acceptable to flee the bully than it is to allow a peer to excel. If you’re not convinced, then simply imagine the Iraqi Army as Gore Vidal, who said,Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

But this will not be the happy ending, as ISIS will continue as an insurgency, the ending of which would be the Holy Grail.






Homework for Aspiring Predictors re 17 Ways of “Knowing”

Using the list of 17 labels/categories described in Obama Admin Decision Making; Iran/Syria Policy Paralysis Part 2, characterize how some contemporary and historical world leaders think.

By considering historical figures, you get to check if your analysis makes any sense. Contemporary figures are useful for actual predictive juice.

Depending upon where you live, you may have a homecourt advantage with certain leaders. In the U.S., Obama and Putin are covered very well. Pakistan has always been rather opaque to me. India is intermediate.  Curiously, Afghanistan’s Karzai was always very well illuminated.

Due next Monday.

Obama Admin Decision Making; Iran/Syria Policy Paralysis Part 2

A source in the Obama Administration refers to a C.I.A. internal study doubting the effectiveness of covert arms programs. Take a look at the New York Times article, or, if you’re blocked by the pay wall, the Georgetown Law brief,  “CIA study finds arming rebel groups is rarely effective.”

The study was used as justification for the decision not to provide the Syrian moderates with lethal aid. As a knowledge base for the decision,  in my little table of types of knowledge, this falls under the category of “expertise”.

People think they know lots of things, but rarely make the distinction of “how” they know them, unless there is an argument. Then it comes out as reason versus intuition, intuition versus expertise, expertise versus common sense, etc. After it is established that the “truths” are irreconcilable, there ensues a brief argument about which type of “how I know” is more valid, flummoxed expressions, followed by disengagement and, inevitably, amnesia. The dispute which underlies is not about the “truths” subject to debate, but in a meta-domain of how people come to identify things as “truths.”

Let’s see how this works. The table below is a mix of labels, some of which are qualities, while others may be useful in a system of categorization. We have:

  • personal judgment

  • consensus

  • widely held (preexisting consensus)

  • expertise (provided by third parties, and accepted as truth because of the elevated opinion of their judgment)

  • non rational (faith based, idée fixe, delusion)

  • belief (assertion of fact without reason, or reason that has not recently been examined by the one making the assertion)

  • intuitive (the product of unconscious cognition)

  • instinctual (producing a response yet without cognition)

  • scientific (observational )

  • common sense (derived by rudimentary logic from primitive beliefs)

  • factual (indisputable, the repudiation of which occur with great advances of knowledge)

  • logical, capable of formal derivation

  • probabilistic (opinion)

  • operational (practical)

  • theoretical (compromised by lack of application)

  • contradictory

  • falsity (a form of truth which is not)

The above is actually the anchor of a system useful to the practitioner with the need to justify a decision. It is a Chinese menu of  17 modalities, of which only a single arbitrary choice is required to trump all the others. If this were a card game, it would be a gambler’s delight.

Let’s take an example. Suppose Obama were afflicted with a heartrending desire to help the poor Syrian moderates. He need only pick and assert “personal judgment”, which immediately knocks “expertise”, the C.I.A. study, out of the game.

On the other hand, suppose Obama had been afflicted with the Tea Party, and a lingering desire to be a great domestic President, while   the wolves, both domestic and international, attempt to fasten their jaws into various parts of his anatomy. (I don’t know how he slept at night.) In this case, he picks “expertise”, the C.I.A. study, from the list, which immediately knocks “consensus” out of the game.

If Obama wishes to pursue some course other than the above two, he need merely pick “contradictory” from the list. All the cards are available to be picked, without requiring sleight of hand. Of course, one of the rules of this game is that while the selection of cards is arbitrary, the choice  must be justified by “spin.”

If it seems that this simple list of 17 labels facilitates believing anything you want, this is because the list embodies something akin to what logicians call a “domain error.” There is also an interesting analogy to the “principle of explosion”,  that from a contradiction, anything can be proved. Since the list of 17 is not a formal system, we can’t go further, but it should give you some idea where the weakness lies.

The table appears useful to illustrate fallacies, but it is equally useful for real-world paradoxes. The novel The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil, is set in Austria prior to World War I, illuminating a precocious modernity lost to all but specialists or readers of the book. Arnheim, a sophisticated, assimilated German Jew and successful industrialist, has an earthy father, who created the waste-management industrial empire that Arnheim seeks to manage for the benefit of mankind. Arnheim the younger is a sophisticate who would be entirely at home in our age.

As a hybrid of older practices and modern management, Arnheim the elder commissions studies on business opportunities that embody scientific risk taking. Then, in contradiction to the studies, the board, and his son’s advice, he proceeds with his instinctive choice. And he is always right.

Invincible intuition may not be a myth, but neither is it a fact. More people think they have it than do. It is always subject to repudiation. But it has a dark companion, that goes with you into a solitary state, where you sort things out, not caring if all the details of the process are communicable to others. Only the result counts. When the result is good, it’s called genius. But it requires that solitary place.

Henry Kissinger, in his book, World Order, section “Cyber Technology and World Order”, expresses concern for the availability of that solitary state. The absence, according to Kissinger, results in displacement of thought, which is solitary, by data, which is communal. Quoting, “Great statesmen…had these qualities of vision and determination; in today’s society, it is increasingly difficult to develop them.”

I feel some sympathy. One of the reasons for this blog is the apparent disappearance of the fifth of the Five Ws of news gathering, “who,what,when,where,why”,  from the most popular news sites. Why? In the jargon of databases, human knowledge, the way it is actually stored in peoples’ heads, is flattening out. The zeitgeist seems to be “ditch the why, everything is phenomenological.”

But Dr. Kissinger’s nostalgia for the great thinkers of the past neglects the dark heritage of those thinkers. The “isms” of the 19th Century that caused the great wars of the 20th were the products of those solitary minds. One advantage of a flat knowledge structure is that it prohibits the construction of those piles of ideological sophistry, of dizzying height and weight, that the 20th Century bore as an unsheddable burden.

President Obama, and other people of similar age, are of just the right age to be conscious of the enormity of those solitary thinkers, and to be desirous of avoiding repetition. If you’re a good guy, and don’t want even the chance of authoring another historical monstrosity, this is what you do. You ignore the solitary option entirely, and go with the collegial.

Most history, when separated from advances in knowledge, fails to justify itself. Ever since Plato’s Republic, people have wished that, by some magical social system, they could throw some sand in the gears of the history machine. This desire is my interpretation of Obama’s apparently simplistic dictum, “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Unfortunately for all those who would prefer to concentrate on the improvement of domestic society, the world won’t leave us alone.  Other world leaders, fiddling in solitude while their  societies and economies drift in darkness, are the sureties of this.

 There are always many ways to draw the problem, in this case, the analysis of the Obama Adminstration’s decision processes. But even Leon Panetta’s memoirs, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, indicate the intricacies are closely held. According to Panetta, the “college” of the decision process has not been inclusive of  expertise existing inside the government. But if what is there had worked to prevent the ascent of ISIS, who would care?

 The outsider has the luxury of not having to make bad history. What would I have done, had I been in the room with that classified C.I.A. report? Perhaps, to free my conscience from inaction, I would have first picked “personal judgment”. Then I would have attempted to show that the C.I.A. study, and the contemplated action, were based on different domains of discourse. The post “ISIS & Calls for U.S. leadership & Growing the Ideal Lawn”, contemplates novel actions, based on a strategy without a defined endpoint.





Intel9's world view

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