Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Playing to Win

I checked the news today and found that there was something historic again happening.  For those of you who have not heard, the Pentagon has decided to lift the restriction on females in all combat occupations.  Several of the more 'elite' groups have several years to explain why there shouldn't be females in certain roles, but for the most part, it seems as though America's military is done with its discriminatory practices.

Good for us.

I'm sure there are more than quite a few Americans out there who are again thumping their chest in pride at how we continue to become a more progressive society.  Our inclusivity is again at a level which puts us amongst the proudest progressive nations in the world.

I've got some personal experience with females in combat, and by in large its not something that I'm particularly concerned about.  Neither did I care terribly about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and from friends that remain in, neither did anyone else.  The Army knows better than anything else how to keep itself running, so I'm not worried about this causing large-scale disruption or anything.

Honestly, this is probably something that I should be much happier about, but for some reason I can't quite get behind this current action by the government.

I think it has to do largely with what I see going on in this video.  No, not the jokes, but what happens near the end:
In my first term, we ended the war in Iraq; in my second term, I will win the war on Christmas.  (Laughter.)  In my first term, we repealed the policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” — (applause) — wait, though; in my second term, we will replace it with a policy known as, it’s raining men.
The President is remarking on some of his accomplishments during his first term.  And he leads with what I believe to be a pretty strong one.  Ending a war.  Good job.  No applause.  Next up in the slot, ending 'don't ask, don't tell' (applause) does not really do it justice.  People are very pleased with this outcome.  Check the tape, around 15 minutes in.  This is apparently a bigger deal to most Americans.

And pretty soon women in combat roles is gonna be a bigger deal than Afghanistan.

Honestly, it hurts every time I witness shit like this go down.  Every time, it becomes more and more clear to me that the risks I ran, the blood and tears, the bodies, the shit, all of it was completely and utterly unimportant to America and to most Americans.  It really hurts to know that my friends who are dead are dead because of ambivalence and that deep down no one cares about winning.

Which brings me to my second video.  A classic to many people, I feel like this man a lot when I think about the war.  Since when was it ok to lose?  Since when was the Army about anything other than winning wars?

Let me be clear, I do not believe that women nor openly gay soldiers in combat will not endanger lives directly. But that does not mean it is appropriate to change these policies now.  You play to win the war.  We are at war.  We should be doing things that help us win the war.  Otherwise we should just quit.  It is heartbreakingly clear to me that America does not understand this.

While these current issues are often compared with the racial desegregation of the military in the 1950s, there is a critical difference in how these issues were portrayed and why they were carried out.  Racial desegregation was enacted to ensure that African-Americans continued to support the military and because it was inefficient and ineffective.  It was a waste and it made things more complicated, not less.  In short, desegregation was argued for on the basis of its inherent military benefits.

No one today even considers such things as military benefits.  We enact these current reforms because we want to feel better here in America.  It feels better to tell ourselves that we don't discriminate, even if it probably means that some unit is digging an extra trench for their new female counterparts to shit in.  We can be just that extra notch prouder, even in our non-service, while some company spends what little down time they have getting some extra sensitivity training on how to deal with openly gay squad mates.

I'm so sick of this bullshit.  And again, the bullshit is not these reforms, its why they are being carried out and when they are being implemented.  We are trying to social engineer our Army while it fights a war for no military benefit.  Its something that screams of an overblown ego.  And perhaps this too would be acceptable, but we are not winning.

But we aren't playing to win, are we?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Generals (Ricks, 2012)

I just finished Tom Ricks' The Generals, a work I've been meaning to review for some time.

Summary: Ricks conducts an analysis is U.S. Army generalship - specifically the selection, management, and retention of general officers - between WW2 and today and what he believes to have been a clear deterioration of the quality of these commanders and a failure of the U.S. Army's command management process over that time.

Contents: The volume is a fairly clear display of Ricks' strengths and weaknesses, but in my opinions his conclusions are less well-drawn, less useful for the civilian reader, and less practical as a plan for military reform.

For a work of nonfiction The Generals is quite readable; Ricks is a good writer of general military history. It contains some brief but well-drawn portraits and summaries of the careers of the general officers from WW2, Korea, Vietnam, and the "War on Terror" periods, including Marshall, Mark Clark, Patton, and Terry Allen from WW2; O.P Smith, MacArthur, and Ridgeway from Korea; Taylor, Westmoreland, and DePuy from Vietnam; and Powell, Schwartzkopf, Franks, Sanchez, and Petraeus from the past two decades. In each section Ricks uses the officers he profiles to illustrate what he considers the characteristics of flag officer policy in each period and the results in terms of combat effectiveness or the lack of same.

To summarize his overall thesis, he begins by positing that GEN Marshall crafted a system of flag officer selection and employment during the opening years of WW2 that was characterized by idiosyncratic promotion and placement of officers in command slots based on a rather personal assessment of their potential for command.

Of necessity this meant that Marshall and his subordinate theater commanders made some mistakes, and so the other essential component of this system was the early and ruthless relief of officers who were, or appeared to be, not competent at that level of command.

But because of the very nature of the appointments these reliefs were not particularly prejudicial (unless the general officer involved was clearly criminally incompetent or personally troubled) and involved at least one second chance for the officer relieved. Ricks takes the time to point out several men who were relieved, reassigned, and subsequently worked their way back up to command positions.

So by the end of WW2 the "Marshall System" consisted of a linked system of appointment-relief-reassignment conducted as a public process. Relief was - at least according to Ricks - not associated with punishment, not hidden from sight, and not considered a failure of either the individual or the system but rather the understanding that command was a privilege and the critical function of command was the efficient use of (and, where possible, preservation of) U.S. soldier lives.

Ricks then documents the transition from this to what he describes as the current system of U.S. GO management in which reliefs are almost impossible, intimately associated with failure both of the system and the relieved officer, and, consequently, problematic in that incompetent commanders are not quickly removed from the system.

This, in Ricks' view, is directly responsible for problems that the U.S. Army encountered in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

The work is well constructed, and arguments made with care, and in general I have no problem with Ricks' historical examples. The body of the work makes a good case for Ricks' thesis that the Marshall System has broken down and has been effectively replaced with a dysfunctional GO management process that promotes and places in command officers with severe military and geopolitical flaws.

However, I believe that The Generals also features a number of Ricks' weaknesses on prominent display as well.

He provides absolutely no context for his thesis; no other general officer systems outside the U.S. Army are detailed. He briefly discusses what he considers the differences between the U.S., British, and German armies of WW2 as organizations without any comparison between their differing methods of handling command assignments - which I assume there were. Such a comparison might be very useful.

He is inordinately impressed with the U.S. Army as an organization (which, while an opinion I share as a former GI, is not one that would seem helpful in the author of a work questioning Army policy). His intense focus on the Army, I think, also tends to minimize the role other institutions and branches of the U.S. Government and branches played in the evolution of the role of Army general officers and weakens his analysis.

As just a single example that occurred to me as I was reading his account of the increasing difficulty and complexity of the civil-military relationship during the Fifties (which he lays primarily at the feet of the "atomic military" and the problems the Army had with its role in the early nuclear age); he never once brings up the creation of the National Security Advisor position that effectively superseded the role GEN Marshall had played in WW2.

Certainly the interposition of a civilian appointee tasked with determining the scope, and even the details, or "national security" must have had some impact on the role of the Joint Chiefs, of the Army chief, and the commanders of Army theater-level organizations. But what that impact was, or whether there was any at all? Ricks has nothing to say on the subject.

Ricks doesn't deeply examine the role of military professionals in the pre-war debates leading to the the run-up to the post-WW2 interventions. He mentions, for example, that there might have been (and are) some teensy weensie problems with getting the citizens of a democratic republic to enthusiastically support a series of complex cabinet wars with difficult-to-articulate (at least if the speakers were being honest) objectives without discussing the effect this might have on the role, or ability, of general officers to influence the approach to or conduct of such wars.

Conclusions: Rick's draws the following conclusions:

1. That the current general officer corps of the U.S. Army has been crafted to be technically and tactically competent but is hopeless at anything more complex, being both too intimately entwined with civilian politics while at the same time poorly trained and educated about strategic and geopolitical issues and the current methods of training, promoting, and retaining generals should be changed.

2. That the civil-military relationship is deeply flawed, with both too much and too little interplay between the elected officials and the generals, and that a change in general officer management will improve this.

3. That the U.S. Army is, as a result, a superb instrument at the tactical-to-operational levels but deeply flawed for anything above that; i.e. that the U.S. Army can win battles but not wars, and that a change in GO management will improve this as well.

Recommendations: So far, so unexceptional. His final chapter containing the recommandations, however, sort of throws up its hands at ways to address this.

First, he recommends a return to the Marshall-style early relief-but-without-prejudice system. He then admits that in the small, insular world of the post-draft U.S. Army that this might not be possible, although he posits some potential moves to make this happen. My assessment would be even less optimistic. Ricks doesn't provide anything remotely like a way to develop a constituency inside or outside the Army that would drive this process. Marshall's revolution occurred at a unique moment in U.S. Army history. A revolution of similar magnitude - and that is what this would be - would need a similar setting.

Some of his other, relatively innocuous suggestions include personnel management changes such as the "360 review" concept (including juniors' as well as seniors' assessments in an officer evaluation report), extending the retirement age for senior officers (which is interesting, given Ricks' extensive documentation of Marshall's removal of an entire generation of senior officers in 1941 and '42 for being too elderly to command in the rapid pace of mechanized war), and revising officer education to produce general officers with the skills to think and plan strategically and improvise tactically in unexpected geopolitical situations. All worthy discussion-starting points in my opinion.

I consider that perhaps his least practical recommendation is his suggestion that unit rotations be halted or severely limited in counterinsurgency situations.

Given that this implies that U.S. soldiers would likely be locked into fighting against foreign rebellions for years the notion is beyond impossible both militarily (the probability of running out of troops is not inconceivable) and politically.

More troubling to me is Ricks practice throughout the work of avoiding questioning the usefulness of, or the role of the general officers in pointing out the likelihood of problems to, Great Power intervention in Third World rebellion suppression, more of which below.

Assessment: As a historical review and a potential discussion-starter I can cautiously recommend The Generals. It is eminently readable, and Ricks' work is not without value on the history of the U.S. Army's general officer policies and procedures.

As an actual prescription for constructive change in the U.S. Army, however, I consider this work severely limited.

First, it accepts without demur the formulation that an "increasingly chaotic" uni- or multi-polar world implies the need for U.S. military adventures in foreign domestic insurrections, rebellions, and disturbances.

Second, it implies that "better generals" can improve the likelihood that U.S. forces can successfully intervene in such conflicts. For example, although in his section on the Vietnam War Ricks mentions that the post-Tet success in counterinsurgency came largely as the result of the combination of the decimation of the COSVN guerrillas and the improvement of the ARVN - instead of any particular change in U.S. officer competence, and his section on Iraq specifies the employment of bribery of the Sunni muj and the success of Shia ethnic cleansing as the reason that the U.S. occupation "succeeded", he still considers these to have been be amenable to "better" U.S. generalship, a conclusion that I consider tenuous at best and unsupported at worst.

His formulation also elides the problem of the larger, mainly civilian/political formulations of "more rubble/less trouble" and "Muslims = terrorists" that seems to drive these open-ended interventions. Ricks seems as bound as his troubled generals to the tactical aspects of geopolitics, unwilling to accept that many foreign troubles contain too many unknown - and unknowable - strategic aspects for even the most widely read and deep-thinking general officer will be unable to predict.

Who, for example, would have been able to foresee that providing Western military aid to rebels against the Algerian, Tunisian, and Libyan dictatorships would have helped foment a rebellion in Mali that Western military assets are presently fighting? And would a U.S. general- even a well-informed strategic thinker - genuinely be willing to suggest that since the West has a great deal to actually create the conditions for this revolt that that the best response might be to wait and watch, doing as little as possible beyond providing whatever the local proxies might need to limit the success of most anti-Western of the rebels?

So while Ricks' The Generals suggests a link between in improvement in U.S. general officer policies and improved success in the "little wars" the U.S. has been fighting since the early Nineties, my thought would be - I wonder...if such improvement, had it been in place before Vietnam, before Iraq, today...have resulted in fewer such wars, instead?

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas Ricks (Penguin Books, 2012) ISBN-10: 1594204047 20.22 HC at

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Constitutional Right to Own Slaves!

I stumbled across this article in the Univ of Calif at Davis Law Review.  I will quote two paragraphs, suggest you read the whole paper, and let it speak for itself.  Quite an interesting look onto the history of and basis for the "sacred" 2nd Amendment.

This Article challenges the insurrectionist model. The Second Amendment was not enacted to provide a check on government tyranny; rather, it was written to assure the Southern states that Congress would not undermine the slave system by using its newly acquired constitutional authority over the militia to disarm the state militia and thereby destroy the South's principal instrument of slave control. In effect, the Second Amendment supplemented the slavery compromise made at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and obliquely codified in other constitutional provisions.[52]

Part I of this Article relates the hidden history of the Second Amendment. In many ways, the story begins in June 1788 at a convention in Richmond at which Virginia was to decide whether to ratify the Constitution of the United States. However, before relating the events at Richmond, Part I provides some background involving slavery, slave control, the militia, and the dynamics of the struggle between the Federalists and anti-Federalists as they headed toward a showdown in Richmond. Part I then describes political events occurring after Richmond which persuaded Madison to write a bill of rights, including the provision we now know as the Second Amendment.

Let the debate begin!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Canon Cockers

 The urge to save humanity is almost always
a false front for the urge to rule 
--H.L. Mencken 

Shut up! Shut up you American. You always talk,
you Americans, you talk and you talk and say 
"Let me tell you something" and "I just wanna say this." 
Well you're dead now, so shut up 
--The Meaning of Life (the Grim Reaper), 
Monty Python (1983) 

An important yet unspoken implication of the call for General Staff ethics training ("Ethics for Dummies") is this: Where is the ethics training for our Soldiers-cum-Warriors?  We don't talk about it, because warriors do not have ethics.

How can you have a cadre of hopefully ethical officers leading a group of killing warriors?  Answer: You can't; to imagine such a contradiction as effective is a joke.  The FOX news - Black Five contingent says, "Ranger stop spouting your high-falutin' sophistries," but Ranger is correct -- a democracy does not stand in name or reality if it adopts the Warrior Way in battle.

Warriors will do anything to win, versus Soldiers who are constrained in their activities by civilized norms recognized by our canon of common law.  You cannot expect ethical behavior from warriors, but you can from Soldiers.  Conforming to a body of ethics is the thing that allows Soldiers to return and enjoy a hopefully successful reintegration into their society. A warrior is condemned to living forever on the fringes.  While we may love our Kurosawa films, the actual life of a Samurai is not something most of us would relish.

Everyone calls our Soldiers "Warriors" today, but are loathe to consider the consequences of an actual transformation into warriorhood. Consider the Kandahar Massacre, in which Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales soldier methodically killed sixteen Afghan civilians and injured five others in Afghanistan 11 March 2012 on his own, in two separate actions (SSG Bales is currently being held at the Ft. Leavenworth correctional facility.)  SSG, Bales's actions were those of a warrior -- brutal, fierce, unforgiving, relentless, cruel ... lacking in humanity and devoid of adherence to any martial code.

SSG Bales behaved like the warrior he was, and we did not like it.  We may impose much onto our fighting men, but there are certain divide which we cannot brook because we know at heart that we are them -- we are both SSG Bales, and the villagers whom he slaughtered. 

We are aroused by the biblical story of Joshua fighting the Battle of Jericho, but we do not see ourselves as people who wreak such outright destruction.  We are people who, inasmuch as is possible, respect the elderly and the young; we respect that people wish to live a life, and work hard to cobble together a living best they can.  Their leaders may initiate wars and the people suffer and we understand all of this, and so endeavor to mitigate "collateral damage".  However, warriors do not take such considerations to heart. 

Flying planes into the Twin Towers is warrior behavior.  It is indiscriminate, violent and abides by no social norms.  It is doubly frightening both in its outright destruction and its disobedience of rules of civilized behavior.  We do not wish to be such warriors.  Moreover, we cannot fight that impulse if we ourselves display and abide by the same imperative.

Leon Panetta, who does not understand what it is to be a Soldier, cannot codify a body of ethics for Soldiers or for their leaders. 

Maybe the call to ethics training is a wake up call to return to Soldierly Values. 

[Cross-posted @ RangerAgainstWar]

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"The Winds of War"

On a truly different note.   In early Nov, responding to my wife's complaints of boredom one evening, I went through a box of old VHS tapes for something to watch when I stumbled across a nearly 30 year tape I made of Episode 1 of 7 of Herman Wouk's "The Winds of War".  She had never seen it, and was quite engrossed.  "We can watch the next episode tomorrow night!" she exclaimed.  Wrong answer.  It was the only episode I had, but I immediately ordered the DVD set for both "Winds" and the sequel "War and Remembrance" to be delivered to our daughter's to pick up when we got there for Thanksgiving.  If you haven't read the books or seen the miniseries, do so.  Very well, done.  It's a pair of major works, entailing about 15 hours of screenplay for the first and about 30 hours for the second!

Now, why I bring this up:  Back in 1983, while on leave visiting family in NY, I watched episode 7 with some aunts and uncles.  My Uncle Joe, who served in the Infantry in the ETO commented about the ending of the episode, which was scripted as shortly after 7 Dec, with Navy CAPT Pug Henry (Robert Mitchum) standing on a Hawaiian bluff overlooking the sea, watching his Aviator son's carrier set out to sea and saying a simple prayer.  Joe said, and the rest of the family agreed, that that scene truly captured the feeling of absolute uncertainty they felt at that time, and for some time to come.  Not fear.  Not anger.  Just uncertainty.  Profound uncertainty.

When the wife and I got to episode 7, I mentioned the family's remarks, and she agreed that the final scene indeed captured the emotion.

We finished episode 6 of 12 of "War and Remembrance" tonight.  Wouk and producer/director Dan Curtis did an amazing job of capturing the history of events from early 1939 through the end of the War, not just historically, but emotionally.

So, that's my truly unabashed plug for the books and videos.  A truly delightful change from most of the drivel on TV and the big screen these days.  And, no glorification of war, but more properly, the grim reality and uncertainty of war and the horror of the Halocaust.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Interesting Political Parallels

I am about half way through Pulitzer Prize winning Anne Applebaum’s “The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 “.  Very interesting, and disturbing account of the Soviet  transformation of Post WWII East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia into Soviet dominated communist satellite states.

Note that I said “interesting and disturbing” account.  Obviously, with the space constraints of the Pub, all I can do is offer my summary of what she said happened and how, but I think I can distill those interesting events in to a reasonably accurate picture, and then explain why it is also “disturbing”.

Of all the techniques employed by the local communists and Soviets that Applebaum has covered so far in my reading, the co-opting of each country’s political system is by far the one I would like to toss out for discussion.

As the Red Army “liberated” Eastern Europe from the Nazi’s, they gained legitimate occupation “control” over peoples who were dealing with what appeared to have been a failure of the pre-Nazi regimes to adequately defend them.  Effectively, all social, economic and political structures were in disarray, at best, and destroyed, at worst.  In short, a new and fresh start seemed necessary.  Moscow, saw this as extremely fertile ground for the easy cultivation of a dominant Socialist Workers’ regime in these countries.  After all, Marxism was the ultimate antithesis of the hated Nazi-Fascist form of government.  With help from local pre War communist figures already amongst the population, rallying the masses to support a Soviet style regime would be piece of cake, at least in Moscow’s eyes.  It worked in Russia.  Moscow was confident that the Yalta and Potsdam agreed upon “free elections” could be easily counted upon to deliver a communist victory, given a good preparation with stock in trade propaganda and a little skullduggery.

The truth was that other, albeit left leaning, parties far outdrew the local communist parties for the support of the population.   What would be typically called  “Social Democrats” and “Christian Democrats” was what was  widely desired, not the “extreme Left” of the Soviets.  The task, then was how to finesse a communist win while still conducting elections.  A communist win that had all the appearances of a local political party, while ensuring it be Marxist and subservient to Moscow.  While fear, election fraud and the like were indeed used, other, more interesting techniques helped immeasurably.

One technique was to coerce or convince other parties to merge into a left leaning “coalition party” with the local communist party.  Of course, the communists rarely operated under that particular name, lest they be seen as being in league with the Soviets.   By “combining” a few left leaning political groups, the possibility for a “ruling majority” was increased significantly, an attractive offer to all the parties concerned.  And, the former competing parties' identities disappeared in forming the "new" party.  Now “inside” a new party that is  elected into power, the communists could then drive out the leadership of their “rivals”, manipulate the party to become totally under the control of the communist element, and then move forward to extinguish external opposition parties in the minority.  Thus, a party that had a minority of the popular support could create a new party with 50% or more support, and rewicker that party, once it was in power, to execute only the will of the communist minority (soon to become majority), obtaining an extreme left wing government under the mantle of what originally was a more mainstream, left learning official identity.

Now, of course, the satellite states’ communists had the power (military and financial) of the Soviet Union to assist when necessary, but it became apparent (much to Moscow’s surprise) that overtly singing the “Moscow Party Line” was not a widely popular approach.  So the political pitch was given a coat of “national movement”, populist, only left leaning lipstick to appeal to the more moderate beliefs and national identities of each country.  And, in conjunction with a host of other factors, it worked.  While Moscow was never quite able to create complete “little Soviet Unions”, they were able to facilitate the emergence of tyrannical communist regimes, totally loyal to, and dependent upon, Moscow.

Now, as to the disturbing part.  Fast forward to recent years in the US.  When many in the GOP saw the need to moderate their stand on a variety of issues to maintain any semblance of popular support, a new political “movement” arose.  Not a “party”, but a “movement” – the Teabaggers. How many candidates for office in the US have run as a "member of the Tea Party" on the Tea Party ticket?  NONE.  Rather, they may run as TeaBaggers for nomination to represent the GOP.  Or run as "Tea Party endorsed" Republicans".  How many GOP elected officials live in fear of a TeaBagger challenge – not in an election, but in a primary?  Rather than stand on their own two feet, the TeaBaggers, radical right wingers, have entered a party that in many ways, would be an “opposition party”, if they were honest about it.   Then by pure and simple intimidation, such as the threat of outside funding of  a candidate the TeaBaggers support in party primaries, have co-opted many Republicans into either tolerating or embracing TeaBagger excesses.  Thus, elected GOP representatives, in the TeaBaggers’ view, must be either card carrying Teabaggers or puppets of the Teabaggers.  And, while the TeaBaggers claim to be a “grassroots” movement, they receive the bulk of their money from wealthy individuals in large lump sums.  A minority financed by an even smaller minority, and more often than not, a financing minority from outside the jurisdiction in which they are supporting candidates to influence elections.  And thus, the GOP slowly, but surely, becomes a arm of the Tea Party "Movement" and the "Movements" deep pocketed "foreign" (to the electoral jurisdiction) financiers.  Only without a name change.

In short, a deeply ideological minority, backed by disproportionate outside resources, imposing their will on a much greater majority, under the guise of the “democratic process”.  And where they can’t impose their will totally, they take every and any opportunity to thwart the will of the majority via loopholes in the existing system.  Is this not tyranny in the guise of “democracy”?

And that I find "disturbing”.  Am I missing something that might refute or at least mitigate that?  If not, it is just another reason why WASF.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Hoarse Whisperer?

A former head of the CIA is said to have believed that U.S. diplomatic signals may have helped kick off the 1982 Falklands War:
"Mr William Casey, the head of the CIA, who was closely concerned in Cabinet discussion on this subject, has implied to us privately that he thinks the Argentinians may well have been led up the wrong path.

'They may have believed that their support for the US in covert operations in Central America was more important to the US than in fact it was, and could be expected to earn them American acquiescence in forward policy elsewhere.'

Sir Nicholas also recalled handing US Secretary of State Alexander Haig a piece of paper detailing British evidence of Argentina's intention to invade on April 2, 1982.

He said: 'Mr Haig's reaction to the information I had given him was electric.'

Sir Nicholas added: 'He wanted us to win and would have been horrified if the Argentinians had got away with it."
Hardly solid evidence, but intriguing nontheless. Particularly when you think of this in the context of the supposed July 1990 meeting between Ambassador Glaspie and Saddam Hussein which may (or may not, or might have have been even more complex effect) have had the result of greenlighting the Kuwait coup in the mind of the Butcher of Baghdad.

Or the recent tragicomedy in Libya. Or all the other examples of international encounters - back to the war of Jenkin's Ear, it seems - where one side, or the other, or both, said one thing and the other, or the one, or both, heard something very different from the intention of the speaker.

Let me say that I'm not sure whether to put a tremendous amount of credence in this report itself; it appears to be the opinion of one man, albeit one that was a very experienced observer of the foreign policies of his time. And the internal politics of the Argentina of 1982 make it fairly clear that the junta was already deeply committed to the idea of using force to claim the "Malvinas".

But what this odd historical footnote does seem to point out is that for all that we often like to think of "foreign policy", "geopolitics", and "strategy", as sciences, as matters that people and nations can make into tools to use for their interests and both study and train on to improve they are often laden with what another U.S. recent foreign policy thinker used to call "unknown unknowns"; complexities and unintended consequences that even the sharpest wit and the most diligent student cannot anticipate.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Soft Power, A Strategic Theory Perspective

Not too surprisingly, soft power as an academic concept has gotten a lot of press almost since Prof. Joseph Nye first coined the term back in 1990. Since that time Nye has traveled the world giving lectures on soft power including one he gave back in 2010 for the organization I work for. The concept is easily misunderstood and sometimes intentionally so, especially by government bureaucracies engaged in budget/turf battles with other rival government bureaucracies. From a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective, the concept has merit and a clear understanding of it can assist us in seeing the advantages to promoting soft power approaches and understanding what can be achieved by this approach and what cannot. Also, soft power fits within the larger spectrum of conflict which is part of a more extensive on-going project of mine. Finally, there are inherent tensions in the concept as I see it, so while the definition of soft power is clearly Nye's, this analysis of the concept is clearly mine, based on a strategic theory perspective.
I will start with a definition of terms and how they interact followed by my own views on the practical application of soft power from a strategic theory perspective. While I have been employed as an English language teacher for almost 15 years by perhaps the leading soft power state institution, which as Nye states "has been practicing it effectively since 1934", the views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of any particular organization.
Let's start with the concept of power itself. Nye's definition agrees with the realist Weberian definition of power, that being "the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be able to carry out their own will despite resistance". It is important to stress here that for me power is a social relationship of varied degree, not a state of existence, nor a physical entity. Power can exist at various levels and involve individuals or whole nations. Force, coercion, economic incentives and "attraction" or soft power, are all types of power relationships. Power is also contingent, in that that each power relationship is unique involving the history, culture and personalities of the different actors.
At this point a quick diversion . . . consider Hannah Arendt's concept of violence . . . Violence will remain the unmentioned reality throughout this essay, since violence alone defines the political, the willingness to use violence in pursuit of strategic aims . . . While soft power is the opposite of force, it still retains its political character which exists as a sort of tension within the concept.
Soft Power is defined by Nye as:
"the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced."
Notice the link of soft power with policy and legitimacy. Here is where a whole series of tensions are introduced to the overall concept, which are not apparent with a casual reading. Power can involve simply two individuals, whereas policy involves distinct political communities, policy being simply seen as the collective interests of the political community (see On War, Book VIII, Chapter 6B). Legitimacy would require the targeted political community seeing the actions of the soft power wielding political community as "legitimate", which is obviously a difficult goal to achieve. This assuming of course that the policy actually reflects the national interests of the political community involved. Let's look at the source of this tension more closely.
Power is related to "domination" another Weberian concept, which is defined as "the probability that a command with a given specific content will be obeyed by a given group of persons". Power can involve individuals, whereas domination is always about groups. Domination also has more the nature of a "state of existence" involving a larger group, whereas power remains a specific relationship between two or more individuals. The distinction is important, since too often people talk of exercising "soft power" when what they really mean is attempting to secure domination. For domination to be secure over the longer term, Max Weber argued that legitimacy was required. Brute force would not ensure compliance in the long run, the people obeying the dictates of the leadership had to believe that what they were doing was correct or "legitimate". Like power and domination, legitimacy is also something of a sliding scale. When a ruling elite loses all legitimacy, they are said to be "dead" from a social action theory/strategic theory perspective since it is only force against their own subjects which will ensure their continued existence as rulers.
So, there is my introduction of the various terms/concepts. At the level of praxis, what can I say about soft power? Here is a list of six points:
First, a government has to decide whether they need this type of institution or not. Do the level of national interests exist such that a long-term commitment to establishing and maintaining this type of institution? For Luxembourg, this is probably unnecessary, but for the United States? Then there is the question as to where to have these representations? Obviously, not every country in the world would merit one, whereas other highly influential countries would merit an extensive commitment. I would add here the establishment requirement of a national government being able to formulate policy which reflects long-term national interests. This would also require bi-partisan support since the project is decidedly long-term, taking place over generations. If these basic internal political requirements do not exist, a country is probably better off not even attempting this sort of thing, and essentially writing off the application of soft power in any sort of consistent fashion.
Second, to exercise soft power effectively over generations, and it takes a very long period of time to achieve the type of influence I'm talking about, a political community/nation state is best advised to have a specific institution to attempt this. Relying on commercial interests (defined somehow as "national") or the military to carry out this function is short-sighted and actually impossible/self-defeating. Commercial interest are simply that, they have their own interests and goals, which are primarily associated with profit making. The "profits" associated with soft power are not going to show up on a quarterly balance sheet, in fact the actual success is almost impossible to qualify in terms of money or even statistics. Rather what defines successful application of soft power is the presence of a positive attitude over the long term, that is over generations.
While the military talks about applying soft power, especially the navy, which is the best suited branch of the military to carry this out, it is not something that can be done consistently. The task of the military is to act as an instrument of potential violence to achieve national policy goals, which is not going to be seen as positive by the those who are the target of that violence. Nor will this be seen as positive by outsiders who almost inevitably see military action as "unwarranted" or "extreme". Relying on the military exclusively to exercise soft power consistently is thus irrational.
Having a dedicated soft power institution avoids this problem. They act essentially as the sock puppet on the left hand to the mailed fist of the right. Having the military carry out soft power operations is like painting a smily face on the mailed fist. Sure it looks cute and might gain some temporary soft power success, but it is still a mailed fist.
In line with this argument, I would simply point out that Britain, France, Germany, Spain and other advanced countries have such institutions in place. In fact the USA is almost unique among the major powers for not having one.
Third, the skill set required by those working for the soft power institution is in some ways the opposite of those required by commercial enterprises and the military. The soft power institution sells "culture" which is why they also inevitably offer language courses as well. I will talk more about language teaching below, so let's look at the type of people we need in these organizations. We need people who easily fit in to and respect the target culture, who are knowledgeable of their own culture, who are open to new ideas and able to separate easily from their native culture, who are empathetic and enjoy dealing with people, who are "artistically" inclined (this broadly defined), who are critically minded (especially of their own country's policies), who are hard-working, dependable, not money-oriented, and of above average intelligence. If we label the ideal commercial person as a "business manager" and the ideal military person as a "soldier", we would label the ideal soft power institution employee as a "hippie" without the negative stereotypical characteristics.
What we need is essentially ambassadors who do not even realize they are acting as ambassadors and are not seen by the target audience as so acting. Their critical attitude towards their own country's policies pays extra dividends during war time, because the target audience sees that the institution is able to question the policies of the country it represents, sending a very strong message in terms of the target audience's experience with their own country. The artistic inclination will appeal to a large spectrum of the target people as well and will be linked to the country of origin somewhat free of additional, that is controversial policy, connections. To expand on the sock puppet analogy above, the sock puppet is always friendly, witty, entertaining, and never a threat, and offers something of a distraction while the mailed fist does its work. Even if the sock puppet complains, cries, or makes funny faces in response to what the mailed fist is doing, you still have the audience paying attention and in many cases marveling at the whole spectacle. Finally, since your "ambassadors" are not money-oriented, the target audience picks up on this positively as well.
Fourth, soft power requires a dual approach utilizing two models. Nye's two models of how soft power works are the direct and the indirect. The direct is when one leader does a favor for another because of cultural affinity/attraction. Say, the President of China offers a lucrative government contract to a US enterprise (via the US President) because he thinks America is a really cool place. The indirect model is when you attempt to influence the target country's government through public opinion, or rather elite public opinion. This brings up language education. This institution is not a commercial enterprise per say, but functions to sell your country's culture. The price of your language courses is going to be high-end, since you want especially the local elite attending. For the prestige of studying at your institute, the local people need to feel that they are getting extras including especially a cultural program. This could include visiting artists, musicians, poets, exhibitions, and the like, all of course associated with the institution's country's culture. In this regard, the last thing you wish the target audience to feel is that the language courses offered are simply a commercial transaction, which makes your institution the same as any commercial school. Rather you wish them to leave feeling that they have experienced something that only your institution could provide in the sense of an intense association with the "foreign", that is our, culture. Through consistent positive experience the students prize this experience and wish to not only maintain it, but share it. In this regard, alumni associations of some type, comprising former students (and current movers and shakers of the target country) are to be encouraged and financed. This will help to ensure participation in the institution's operations over generations.
Fifth, how does the type of institution we are talking about diverge from the activities of the usual diplomatic representation? Cannot the embassy perform this function? Nye talks about three dimensions of public diplomacy. The first two clearly fall in the realm of the embassy/consulate staff: daily communications and rapid reaction, and strategic communication, which is providing a consistent message regarding foreign policy objectives. These are essentially propaganda targeting the local population.
The third "circle is the most encompassing", according to Nye. This is everyday personal contact between the locals and our "representatives" and here is where the soft power institution functions best because this is its prime function. Who/what the locals are communicating with/being exposed to is our culture, not our political interests per say, nor commercial interests (since that would belong to the embassy staff as well). Recall the sock puppet and mailed fist metaphor above. The diplomatic representation is the fine frock coat that actually unites to two approaches, the left sleeve exposes the sock puppet while the right exposes the mailed fist. The coat unites, but does not dominate either, all three elements remain distinct since they have distinct functions, while all sharing in the achievement of the same set of goals.
Sixth, and finally, there is a need to separate this institution from the embassy, commercial interests, and our military. Flying the national flag out front is a good idea, but the association has to stress the cultural over all else. Access should be open to the public and security as light as possible. Obviously should the local security situation deteriorate to a certain extent, this institution would be the first to reduce activity or even close its doors. This sends an important message to the locals, that being that the institution is not seen by our country as any sort of legitimate target, having as it does officially a solely cultural function.
To conclude, history has shown that much can be achieved by the institutional application of soft power. This is by definition long-term with all the positive and negative aspects that implies. During the Cold War, the attraction the West enjoyed, much of which was centered on the US, did much to end that struggle. The application of soft power had begun with the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and continued ceaselessly beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Here is an obvious example of a US soft power success. An example of a failure is the invasion of Iraq in 2003, where it was assumed, essentially as an afterthought by President Bush and his advisors, that the Iraqi people would welcome the implementation of a US-styled form of government and economy. That was not the case, nor could it have been absent the existence of a long-standing US soft power commitment to Iraq. While soft power could not have assured success, its absence indicated the certainty of the failure of such extensive and radical goals.
I would like to thank all those who commented. It is a difficult task to combine theory with personal experience. Thanks especially to those colleagues who read this post and commented to me personally.
To my six points above I would like to add two more. Let's label them seven and eight for consistency's sake.
Seven, it would seem that the establishment of a soft power institution is the best way to plod the long road to rehabilitation after a political/cultural catastrophe. Luckily these are few and far between, but they do happen, as in the case of Germany in the 20th Century. The establishment of Germany's soft power institution has provided that country with a "way back" to attaining what I would see as it's rightful place among nations.
There are various advantages that a country achieves through a soft power institution including, but not limited to, recruiting skilled foreigners to work in the institution's country. Undoubtedly offering German courses overseas allows an opening for locals to consider working in Germany. This would be the same with other countries whose institutions have the same offerings.
Along with this goes the Westphalian element I've mentioned in the comments. The country operating the institution has to trust the local government to physically protect their soft power location/establishment. This subordination of actual physical security to the local political community is necessary to rebuild the image of the soft power wielding country as "just another country", rather than one which sees itself as above others. A point that Americans should carefully consider imo.
Eight, the subject of TV and mass media has been brought up. I've heard stories of people who essentially taught themselves English in isolated situations due to a very strong attraction to US or perhaps UK culture. While this is impressive on the individual level, it hardly amounts to strategic or even operational effect, which is no reflection on their individual achievements. TV and the mass media remain passive influences. The strength of the soft power institution following Nye is "the last three feet", the personal contract, the establishment of a dialogue which is what needs to be emphasized. This is after all why countries establish and maintain these institutions.
So, what about the future of these institutions? Provided that the institutions can avoid the pitfall of commercialization, I think they have a future, especially when the prospect of a political/cultural catastrophe is always possible.