Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Strategery and Easter Baskets.

This is the first in a series of posts reading and providing running commentary on a recent submission on U.S. national security strategy.

A National Strategic Narrative” is sold by its two authors as potentially having the same sort of guiding role for 21st Century America as George Keenan’s pivotal document “Sources of Soviet Conduct,” had for the post war era. Keenan’s document, penned under a pseudonym “Mr. X”, sets out, not only to explain the world view of the Soviet communists, but predict their short and long-term behavior. It then outlines a strategy how best to counter that behavior. What was the gist of the paper?

In short, Keenan saw communist ideology for what it was, a strange evangelical movement devoid of theism, bent on bringing about the end of the capitalist world and its ‘imperialism’ (military and commercial). They believed this imperialism was the last stage of that world’s less than ideal social structure, the last thing standing in the way of the natural process of prole revolution, revolution that would radically alter the means of production, mans material nature, and abolish class structure. Happy days were near.

In the interests of bringing about that revolution, and liberating man, the Russians set about fomenting insurgencies wherever they could, expanding the sphere of their own influence, in the hopes of hastening the promised days. Keenan saw in this evangelistic system fundamental and fatal internal flaws that were being masked by economic stimulus provided by the Soviet efforts toward fomenting insurgency and revolution around the world and otherwise expanding their sphere of influence.

His strategy, in a word; containment. If the free world were successful in containing the expansive propensities of Soviet Russia and its reliance on client states, the Russians could not rely on the economic stimulus that expansion created. There system would collapse internally due to its poor record of production. The free world could pull this off with a combination of diplomacy, economic aid, opening up market forces around the world, propaganda, and covert action.

This document was seminal during the Cold War, giving rise to NSC 68, a more thorough guiding document that emphasized military measures in containment. The Keenan containment strategy is why we intervened in Greece, Korea and Vietnam. This line of reasoning was behind SDI as well. It ultimately allowed us to bring an end to Soviet Russia, and most of its communist satellites without resort to large scale conventional warfare.

Now, the fact that you can summarize Keenan’s intent (as I hope I have accurately done) is only partially due to the benefit of decades of hindsight. It is also due to the clarity and focus of his paper.

Having all this in mind the authors of “A National Stategic Narrative,” self nominated as “Mr. Y,” think there is need for a fundamental re-evaluation of America’s role in the world, and her strategic priorities. Consonant with that re-evaluation they sketch in general terms, how we should prioritize our spending.

Where things get tricky, as you read the document, is getting clear about what is new about the strategy, what does not count as being directly germane to national security, and what they recommend in terms of specifics of implementation. I’ll try to explain all of these worries in a series of posts of which this is the first.


When I read the NSN, I am reminded of a famous quip by Jean Kirkpatrick when confronted with the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has to do with Santa Claus. Here is that quip (in bold), and its immediate textual context:

In our times, "rights" proliferate at the rhetorical level, with extraordinary speed. To the rights to life, liberty, and security of person have been added the rights to nationality, to privacy, to equal rights in marriage, to education, to culture, to the full development of personality, to self-determination, to self-government, to adequate standards of living.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights claims as a universal every political, economic, social right yet conceived.

The Declaration consists of a Preamble and thirty articles, setting forth the human rights and fundamental freedoms to which all men and women, everywhere in the world, are entitled, without any discrimination. Article 1, which lays down the philosophy upon which the Declaration is based, reads: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood." Article 2, which sets out the basic principle of equality and nondiscrimination as regards the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, forbids "distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sect, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status."

Article 3, a cornerstone of the Declaration, proclaims the right to life, liberty, and security of person: rights which are essential to the enjoyment of all other rights. It introduces the series of articles (4 to 21) in which the human rights of every individual are elaborated further.

The civil and political rights recognized in Articles 4 to 21 of the Declaration include: the right to life, liberty, and security of person; freedom from slavery and servitude; freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law; the right to an effective judicial remedy; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; the right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal; the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty; freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence; freedom of movement and residence; the right of asylum; the right to a nationality; the right to marry and found a family; the right to own property; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; the right to peaceful assembly and association; the right of everyone to take part in the government of his country; and the right of everyone to equal access to public service in his country.

Article 22, the second cornerstone of the Declaration, introduces Articles 23 to 27, in which economic, social, and cultural rights-the rights to which everyone is entitled "as a member of society"-are set out. Article 22 reads: "Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each state, of the economic, social, and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the full development of his personality."
The economic, social, and cultural rights recognized in Articles 23 to 27 include the right to social security, the right to work, the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to leisure, the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, the right to education, and the right to participate in the cultural life of the community

The concluding articles, Articles 18 to 30, stress that everyone "is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized" (Article 18); that "everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible" (Article 29); and that "nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein."

Recently, in Geneva, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights affirmed a "right to development" which carries its own concomitant list of "rights" including the right to a new economic order, peace, and an end to the arms race.

Such declarations of human "rights" take on the character of "a letter to Santa Claus"-as Orwin and Prangle noted. They can multiply indefinitely because "no clear standard informs them, and no great reflection produced them.” For every goal toward which human beings have worked, there is in our time a "right." Neither nature, experience, nor probability informs these lists of "entitlements," which are subject to no constraints except those of the mind and appetite of their authors. The fact that such "entitlements" may be without possibility of realization does not mean they are without consequences.

The consequence of treating goals as rights is grossly misleading about how goals are achieved in real life. "Rights" are vested in persons; "goals" are achieved by the efforts of persons. The language of rights subtly vests the responsibility in some other. When the belief that one has a right to development coincides with facts of primitive technology, hierarchy, and dictatorship, the tendency to blame someone is almost overwhelming. If the people of the world do not fully enjoy their economic rights, it must be because someone - some monopoly capitalist, some Zionist, some man-is depriving them of their rightful due.

I quote Ambassador Kirkpatrick at length, because the NSN, while not dealing with “rights” is fecund with analogs of all those rights in the U.N. declaration. It has the same flavor in that it is a basket into which a great many laudable political goals are tossed, alongside what I see as analogs of the small group of negative rights that are crowded out, (or rather, badly outnumbered) in that Easter basket U.N. document.

To be very clear, I see none of these analogs as rights. Rather, I see a mixed bag of goals. Some are carry-over strategic goals and practices that have always been a part of U.S. strategic thinking and practice, but which are painted by the authors as to some extent novel in the NSN. (Perhaps they just mean to say there should be greater emphasis put on these particular strategic eggs, less on other eggs, but the flavor of the piece is that it presents an important break with the past.) I see other of the eggs in the NSN basket to be tangentially or indirectly related to national security, and the line of reasoning used in support of their pursuit, being based on such a premise, as being a basis for arguing that just about everything in our society is a national security issue. Every aspect of domestic policy is brought into the ambit of national security. It reads more like a political party platform than a strategy for national security. (To be fair to Mr. Y, there are echoes of earlier national strategies here, pulling in domestic issues, in particular, the rationale for the interstate highway system, and primary/secondary science and math educational goals during the 1950s.) I say this, even as I recognize that there are some important eggs in that basket that rightly receive the attention of Mr. Y. I do think, though, that some sorting is in order. So, I need to get clear about what these two groups of eggs are. So, that’s task one. We do this sorting of eggs by scouring the text in later posts. But, there are other things to say about the paper before we sort. I’ll make those observations, give a brief treatment of the strategy described by Mr. Y, ask some questions about that statement, and leave off this introductory post. In later posts, we’ll examine the body of the paper in more detail. But first what are the observations I’d like to end the present post with? Briefly stated:

There is another ‘Kirkpatrick-esque’ aspect to my experience reading the NSN, closely related to the above: Its very general nature raises many questions concerning how the goals will be practically implemented, questions the resolution of which revolve around very complex matters of economics and politics. Perhaps it is not fair to expect this of a general document of strategy, but there is no specific information on how to proceed in these matters. Once again, it sounds more like a political platform than a strategic document of the Keenan variety.

Another troubling aspect: Unlike the Keenan document, [itself intended as a statement of general strategy] it is sometimes so general in formulation as to border on being devoid of content, saved from being perceived as such by our human propensity to treat vaguely formulated texts as Rorschach inkblots, [reading into them what we (and history) bring to them].

A last complaint (and I apologize for the critical tone): There are a number of claims that, are either false, or oversimplifications.

So, this is a lot to chew on, and I see no better way to proceed than to go through the document commenting along the way. We begin by taking a look at the strategy as presented in the opening of the paper. We’ll then wrap up this first post:


In the first paragraph we are given a statement of the strategy to be presented and defended:

The primary approach this Strategic Narrative advocates to achieve sustainable prosperity and security, is through the application of credible influence and strength, the pursuit of fair competition, acknowledgement of interdependencies and converging interests, and adaptation to complex, dynamic systems – all bounded by our national values.

Let’s break this down with a series of questions, keeping in mind that it is a general statement of goals that should be fleshed out later in the piece, answering the questions:

1. What is “sustainable prosperity”? We can assume Mr. Y means to refer not only to economic stability, but insuring no great loss of the standard of living in the U.S. We want to ensure this continues. No doubt. This is not a new goal. Perhaps the intent is to get across the notion that our local prosperity hinges on ensuring that prosperity is attainable around the globe, and once attained secure in those various locales. This provides us with wealthy trading partners. This is laudable, and true but not a new goal.

2. What is meant here by “sustainable security”: We must assume our first concern is American national security. We want to maintain that. OK. Nothing new. A stable and secure world environment redounds to our security. Well yes. That’s certain. Why do you think we went into Iraq and Afghanistan? Why have we been concerned with belligerent regimes in Asia and the Middle East? It’s in our interests to maintain international stability. The question though, as between Keenan and Paul Nitze, is whether we count the existence of security in each place on the globe as equally important, or rather, if we should focus our efforts on maintaining that security and the prosperity mentioned only in certain key areas, due to practical considerations, if not humanitarian? That is key. The overall flavor of the piece is global, and tends to lead the reader to take the ‘Nitzean’ view, if you will. But, is that practical, and if in light of practicalities, it boils down to advocating diplomatically, working economically, covertly and overtly using manpower and propaganda efforts via media (new and old) where we will not intervene militarily, how is this importantly different than what we already do?

3. What is “credible influence”? Reading the text we see it boils down to being perceived as having our actions in the international arena matching our stated values. Once again, this would no-doubt be a good thing to achieve, but it leaves unanswered all those hard questions realists (and others) would offer when it comes to making hard choices in the service of those values, or in service to the preservation of the security of our country and allies (especially when there are no good choices and inaction lurks as a deeply irresponsible non-option).

An example not all that theoretical: Given that we will not again employ water boarding in interrogations, nor further populate Gitmo, and given capture of a high value AQ operative from Indonesia, a man responsible for the Bali bombing, and given, FURTHER, that Pakistani ISI is likely to extract information using methods that go far beyond water boarding (or the Army Field manual), and given that the ISI is not exactly trustworthy in relaying information due to the double-dealing nature of our erstwhile friends in Pak, WHAT do you do? What do you do if you find yourself having to act as if nothing happened when some sensitive information extracted from him is embarrassing to the Pakistanis, and you have to make a choice to keep that secret in order to preserve the semblance of a relationship we do have with the Paks? No doubt, word gets out of such things, such compromises with values. And what do you do if someone like this is released by the Paks or the Indonesians? Does that not reduce credibility with other allies? Is outsourcing interrogation to true torturers any less of a hit to moral credibility than the CIA using the water board? This is just one of many instances of such hard choices, no doubt faced by our government each day. In such cases, are there any options that do not risk “credible influence” while decreasing the national security risk?

4: Is “strength” military superiority?

5. Pursuit of fair competition sounds a lot like opening markets to free and fair access. This is an old goal. Free trade agreements have flourished of late. Is that what this phrase refers to?

6. How do we carefully maintain those things that create the global interdependency referenced in the statement? How do we best serve the converging interests in maintaining the electronic and physical global commons, and the global market? How do we protect this from attack? Good questions and hot-button stuff when it comes to the international monetary system, global trade, and the dependency of all this on computer technology and the web. Yep. Spot on worry, that one.

As we’ll see, in answering these sorts of questions, matters of priority will allow us to sort our Easter eggs.

Hopefully this post is the first in a series, one each for each of the sections in the paper.

But, that’s enough for now. Next time, we see if and how these sorts of questions are answered, beginning with the section entitled “From Containment to Sustainment: Control to Credible Influence” We'll also see if we can sort some priorities, some Easter Eggs in the basket.