Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Nice video and commentary here:
This is the latest of an a-periodic yet stubbornly continuing series of posts on the document entitled "A National Strategic Narrative" that came out some months ago. Generally speaking NSN advocates a switch in spending priorities for the USG away from defense, and toward domestic and international development and education. It argues that such a shift will redound to the long-term security interests of the U.S. for two reasons: it will create a more prosperous world, which will in turn make it more difficult for the international criminal, and other disenchanted and fanatic elements (both state and non-state actors) to recruit. Secondly, it will align our international behavior more closely with our professed values, thus improving our image in the world. In the last installment we saw a level of specificity with regard to the efforts envisioned by Mr. Y. In the present post, we’ll see something like that again, that is; a proposal for future behavior, that is couched in critique of what Messer’s Y believe to have been our past behavior. I’ll depart slightly from my past approach, and will present a section, then commentary, then section, through all three sections present in this part of the NSN:
Closing the “Say-do” Gap - the Negative Aspects of “Binning”
An important step toward re-establishing credible influence and applying it effectively is to close
the “say-do” gap. This begins by avoiding the very western tendency to label or “bin”
individuals, groups, organizations, and ideas. In complex systems, adaptation and variation
demonstrate that “binning” is not only difficult, it often leads to unintended consequences. For
example, labeling, or binning, Islamist radicals as “terrorists,” or worse, as “jihadis,” has resulted in two very different, and unfortunate unintended misperceptions: that all Muslims are thought of as “terrorists;” and, that those who pervert Islam into a hateful, anti-modernist ideology to justify unspeakable acts of violence are truly motivated by a religious struggle (the definition of “jihad,” and the obligation of all Muslims), rather than being seen as apostates waging war against society and innocents. This has resulted in the alienation of vast elements of the global Muslim community and has only frustrated efforts to accurately depict and marginalize extremism. Binning and labeling are legacies of a strategy intent on viewing the world as a closed system.
We are introduced to a new phrase here: ““say-do gap.” It is self explanatory. The authors are arguing that we often speak in one way (in terms of the importance of our values for all human beings), yet act in the international arena in ways that show we really don’t mean it. They suggest we stop this. This is an element we have seen in earlier sections. Now do we close this gap? We begin by being aware of and avoiding something called “binning.” What’s that? In a world, conceptual categorization. Damn, that was two words…
The passage makes what seems to be a suspect claim vis that this binning being a tendency more prevalent in the West. We tend to do it more than other non-Western cultures. I doubt this.
All human beings “bin.” Binning is a fundamental human skill, it is cognition. We use concepts to categorize and sort our world. People in the East do it just as much as Westerners. While there may be differing levels of importance or emphasis upon certain concepts or “bins” across cultures, we tend to shape the same categories. This is not surprising, given our common evolutionary heritage, and the common environment, our planet. We all have concepts of ‘man’ for instance. We all (or most of us) have a concept of ‘snow’ even if it is true that some groups have a more finely grained conceptual apparatus when it comes to that form of precip.
Now, as we form concepts or categories, it is true that we struggle with aptness of the labels, that is, the descriptors or features we choose to latch on to and use as the names for categories. We don’t want to latch on to and use as a ‘binning’ category, some feature that is not central to, or essential to the things we put in that ‘bin.’ Why? That category would be inapt. We want to successfully cut the world at its joints, so to speak, bin things according to their actual natures. But this can be quite tricky. The debates concerning the term “person” or “human” or “man” that have gone on in philosophy and the legal realm are a very interesting case in point.
This points out a cross-culturally common feature of our conceptual apparatus. There are vague categories, and consequently vague terms. The concepts we form often change in light of further information. In a way most of our categories, if not all, are tentative conjectures as to the essential nature of the things they “bin.” Now, undoubtedly, categorization gives us a powerful tool with which we can deal with and interact with the world. This is reflected not only in our remarkable advancements as a species, but in our mythology. God “speaks” things into existence, teaches Adam the words for categories of things. In such stories we see the writers are struggling to give voice to a value judgment: Categorization is a net positive for us human beings, and a substantial power we have relative to other species.
The potential negative is that concepts can be inapt, and in particular, when applied to human beings, can amount to prejudice. This cannot be gainsaid. But to point this out is not new. Nor is the risk primarily a risk Westerners bear.
Now, turning to the main issue or example in the passage, Islam: What are the claims being made in reference to ‘our’ use of terms in regard to describing AQ and like entities? They are two: 1. Use of the terms “terrorist” and “jihadi” are inapt because they paint AQ types as Muslim when they are universally recognized in the Muslim world as not being true Muslims. 2. Use of these terms leads at least some Westerners to believe all Muslims are terrorists.
Re. 1. While presenting a laudable sentiment, I believe this claim simply misrepresents the state of affairs in the Muslim world. A significant portion of that world does believe that the radicals are Muslim, and do represent the true core of the religion. A cursory perusal of the writings and statements of prominent clerics in countries like Egypt, Syria, Iran, etc... bears out this reading. Fatwas are regularly issued that condone terror and totalitarian Islamism. There is a battle going on in the intellectual realm to between these elements and those that present a more pacifistic and personal interpretation of jihad and Islam. It does us no good to act as if this debate is not ongoing.
Re. 2. While it is true that some non-Muslims believe all Muslims are terrorists, it is simply false that most do. In fact, to say that labels have led popular opinion in that way is to misrepresent not only the great pains the Bush Administration took to make very clear that neither of our two wars were to be construed as wars against Islam, or predicated upon an uncharitable view of the religion, but is also to ignore repeated results of opinion polls in the U.S., and the remarkable lack of hate crimes aimed at Muslims. What is more, the history of the debate concerning how exactly to refer to the enemy, what terms to use, belies the picture here presented. I distinctly remember the term “terrorist” being favored precisely because it would not impugn the religion, where “jihad” might. And I also clearly remember the counter argument that use of that term did a disservice to reality by hiding the religious motivation. That is why I prefer the term “militant Islamist.” It makes relatively clear that the motivation is religious (after all Bin Laden made that quite plain), but it also carves the world correctly in that it signals that Bin Laden’s view is, after all one interpretation of that religion that allows for no separation of mosque and state. It respects reality in that it recognizes that this is an influential, but not the only strain of Islamic thought. This term allows us to draw a distinction between the militant Islamist, the Islamist and the Muslim. In terms of Venn diagrams, the latter is the enclosing circle, the middle is contained within, and the former is contained within that circle. This is accurately reflective of the facts. The term terrorist, while it does indicate an important fact, that the militant Islamist’s favored tactic of first resort is killing of non-combatants and infliction of terror, is nevertheless too broad, for other groups (religious and not) have used this same tactic as SOP. Categories must accurately cut the world at its joints. I believe this set of three terms does this job better than others. This threefold distinction also makes clear that it is not the case that the entire Muslim world acquiesces in the world view of the Islamists. If Mr. Y has a better suggestion for terminology, it is not contained in this passage.
Mr. Y now moves on to other examples of “binning.” In these examples he is not so much talking about the risks of categorization and terminology, but of what is commonly called “stove piping,” that is, the tendency toward relative isolation of departments of complex bureaucracies that are ultimately aimed toward a common goal, a goal that they have lost sight of. Much of what Mr. Y says here makes sense as advice to USG. Yet, much of it is ambiguous even as it is ambitious, reflecting the Marshallesque recommendations of the authors.
Another significant unintended consequence of binning, is that it creates divisions within our own government and between our own domestic and foreign policies. As has been noted, we cannot isolate our own prosperity and security from the global system. We exist within a strategic ecology, and our interests converge with those of people in virtually every corner of the world. We must remain cognizant of this, and reconcile our domestic and foreign policies as being complementary and largely congruent. Yet we have binned government departments, agencies, laws, authorities, and programs into lanes that lack the strategic flexibility and dynamism to effectively adapt to the global environment. This, in turn, further erodes our credibility, diminishes our influence, inhibits our competitive edge, and exacerbates the say-do gap.
We can see pretty clearly here an advocacy for a substantive 3D project, undertaken concurrently at home and internationally. We have reviewed the rationale for this project, and questioned its economic and political feasibility before… an Easter Basket.
The tools to be employed in pursuit of our national interests – development, diplomacy, and defense – cannot be effective if they are restricted to one government department or another. In fact, if these tools are not employed within the context of a coherent national strategy, vice being narrowly applied in isolation to individual countries or regions, they will fail to achieve a sustainable result. By recognizing the advantages of interdependence and converging interests, domestically and internationally, we gain the strategic flexibility to sustain our national interests without compromising our values. The tools of development do not exist within the domain of one government department alone, or even one sector of society, anymore than do the tools of diplomacy or defense.
I like the argument here that when we engage in other parts of the world, we should do so across governmental and private agencies, coordinating efforts between State and DOD for instance. What I don’t see here is an argument in favor of the global and simultaneous effort being advocated, as opposed to a more piecemeal and serial approach in certain select parts of the world (most obviously starting with those within which we are already substantially involved). I think such a piecemeal approach allows concentration of effort and greater resources and manpower to be committed, increasing the likelihood of success, while on the other hand, spreading ourselves too thin, across the globe, in an effort to get it all done at the same time, will, because such efforts of necessity will not be thorough, in fact substantially decrease the likelihood of success and in fact mimic the tepid results of such efforts we too often already see.
Another form of binning that impedes strategic flexibility, interdependence, and converging interests in the global system, is a geo-centric approach to foreign policy. Perhaps since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, westerners have tended to view the world as consisting of sovereign nation-states clearly distinguishable by their political borders and physical boundaries. In the latter half of the Twentieth Century a new awareness of internationalism began to dominate political thought. This notion of communities of nations and regions was further broadened by globalization. But the borderless nature of the internet, and the accompanying proliferation of stateless organizations and ideologies, has brought with it a new appreciation for the interconnectivity of today’s strategic ecosystem. In this “new world order,” converging interests create interdependencies. Our former notion of competition as a zero sum game that allowed for one winner and many losers, seems as inadequate today as Newton’s Laws of Motion (written about the same time as the Westphalia Peace) did to Albert Einstein and quantum physicists in the early Twentieth Century. It is time to move beyond a narrow Westphalian vision of the world, and to recognize the opportunities in globalization.I don’t know what to say about this passage other than this: It seems to be a very inaccurate and uncharitable view of 20th Century strategy. It paints that Century more in the light of the mercantilism of the 16th , 17th and 18th centuries. Which strategist envisioned our interaction with the countries of the world as being a zero sum game where we intended to be the one winner, while everybody else was a loser? Certainly not Marshall, nor Kennan. In so far as the passage emphasizes that we live in an interconnected world, one that has infrastructure so interconnected, markets so interconnected, the monetary system so interconnected, and in so far as they say we need to work together to preserve the security of these things, that cannot be disputed. But, that is nothing new.
Such an approach doesn’t advocate the relinquishment of sovereignty as it is understood within a Westphalian construct. Indeed, sovereignty without tyranny is a fundamental American value. Neither does the recognition of a more comprehensive perspective place the interests of American citizens behind, or even on par with those of any other country on earth. It is the popular convergence of interests among peoples, nations, cultures, and movements that will determine the sustainability of prosperity and security in this century. And it is credible influence, based on values and strength that will ensure America’s continuing role as a world leader. Security and prosperity are not sustainable in isolation from the rest of the global system. To close the say-do gap, we must stop behaving as if our national interests can be pursued without regard for our values.Once again, nothing too terribly controversial here, aside from the last sentence. Reality is more nuanced than the sentence seems to indicate. The messy world did indeed sometimes force us into the least bad option from time to time, in that we pursued national interest at the expense of promoting our values. In the 20th Century we had to do this to fight the Nazis. We had to ally ourselves with the equally repellent Soviets. After the war we had to ally ourselves with a few repellent regimes to contain the Soviets. In the 21st Century we felt impelled to work with repellent regimes while fighting the barbarian. (Case in point, our erstwhile friends the Paks.) We also tolerate much from some of our oil suppliers in that part of the world.
But, all that being the case, it is also the case that we worked in line with our values in other parts of the world, other situations. The fact is, we have always preferred that, and resort to the less savory approach only under perceived necessity. We held firm against the Soviets in post war Germany, we did not allow them to over-run Greece. We stared down Cuba. We aided Korea and indeed the dissidents in Russia and other areas of the Soviet world. We have provided the greatest portion of humanitarian aid the world over, made efforts to eradicate disease, feed the hungry, strengthen legitimate friendly governments in Latin America and other places, & etc..
The fact of the matter is that sometimes our national interests can only be pursued at the expense of our values. In that regard, we are no better off than any other nation. And, while we can and should set a ‘say-do’ example, and should, as I argued earlier, pursue a more vigorous policy of ‘linkage’ when it comes to foreign aid, assistance and security cooperation, we cannot expect that the world will change, that history will cease presenting us with hard choices. That is not being paranoid. It is certainly not Pollyanna. It’s just realistic. We must also keep in mind that a goodly portion of the responsibility for how we are perceived has almost nothing to do with what we actually do. We have enemies, and they will continue to paint the conspiratorial picture. That picture influences much of the world. Absent a thoroughgoing change in the politics of such regions, we should not expect that a global and simultaneous 3d campaign, no matter how well intentioned, will affect those prejudices, the ‘binning’ of America. We stand a better chance of affecting attitudes if we take the piecemeal approach. Indeed, we have a metric with regard to such efforts when we consider the attitudes of the Iraqis and Afghans, vis our country.
Next time, the section entitled: “Credible Influence in a Strategic Ecosystem”