Tuesday, February 10, 2009


"[The] national security community ... tends to maximize risk assessments," wrote Charles Duelfer, somewhat obviously in the New York Times in late December of last year. It was part of a parcel of opinions on what dangers the United States ought to fear in the new year. "Aerospace companies sell more weapons if the threat is judged to be increasing," Duelfer continued. "National security analysts don't get jobs if they say there is no danger."

Sadly, he's right. There's just no profit in not making stuff up.

Duelfer, in case readers have forgotten, was the final head of the Iraq Survey group. He got the job after the first guy came home, told the Bush administration what it didn't want to hear (in the Oliver Stone movie, W, this moment was called a "shit sandwich"), and resigned. Duelfer knows a lot about the practice of playing up danger and coming up empty.

The rest of the opinion piece was about fixing attention on the new menaces. Here in the US, the national security community always operates from the premise that it's always all about us -- as in America -- and the rest of the world is just something permanently nasty beyond the borders.

In Duelfer's case, the danger was an externalization of the financial meltdown. What if forces beyond our current ken, in foreign countries and terrorist groups, were moved to meddle in the economy?

"Presently, who would warn the White House if foreign entities made a concerted attack on our financial system?" asked Duelfer.

The answer would seem to be fairly obvious if you don't work directly within the national security community: No one can do as much harm to the economy as our own and when people tried to issue warnings in the primary example at hand, they were chased off as enemies of free markets and the securing of profit. So any talk of terrorists wielding financial weapons of mass destruction is putting the cart well before the horse.

But this doesn't matter in the US. Despite the baldly obvious that the most serious menaces to well-being have been internal (financial rapine, predator state practice, anthrax, poisoned drugs, poisoned food), it's still all about looking to make stuff up in our think tanks and officer training schools.

"The global financial meltdown is going to give our enemies new ideas to create economic havoc ... We don't have much time to plan our response," Duelfer's NYT piece concludes.

One of the challenges of the new administration will be filtering out such paranoid noise. It should entertain the idea that much less prognostication of this nature might be more than enough. However, since the production of it is the expert business of the Beltway national security apparatus, it's going to be a hard job, maybe impossible.

Which brings us right to this article's perfect teaching example for shaping and programming the noise filter, furnished by the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College. (We're going to leave the author's name out of this discussion. If you're curious about the name of just another guy hacking out a line on his CV, follow the link.)

Entitled "Known Unknowns: Unconventional 'Strategic Shocks' In Defense Strategy Development," this future menace paper calls for increased analysis directed toward unexpected threats, operating under the amusing assumption that there might be a shortage of such thinking.

It takes its title from the utterances of from former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, who most sane people think of as a leader who regularly delivered annoying circular arguments and ceremonial mockings during press conferences. However, "Known Unknowns" takes this disgraced man seriously, so much so it uses one of his famous monologues as the linchpin of the discussion.

"As we know, there are known knowns," Rumsfeld once said. "There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns. The ones we don't know we don't know."

These types of things were eventually collected in a book of humor by Hart Seely entitled "Pieces of Intelligence:The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld." Since Rumsfeld's off-the-cuff sayings were refashioned as comedy, it's incongruous seeing a bit from the lot used as the opening footnote in an allegedly scholarly paper produced by the US Army.

The Pentagon, it is said, is always worried about the next "strategic shock" and 9/11is the paper's touchstone as the contemporary "strategic shock" to the US military.

As we know, it spawned the cliche that everything was changed.

What change occurred, in retrospect, was straightforward. Blinded by tragedy and rage, the US overreacted to a thunderbolt once-in-a-lifetime event which took it by surprise. Then it invaded and virtually destroyed a country that was not responsible for the attack, created gulags, and began torturing prisoners. This caused the trashing of its reputation worldwide. The US military was only the blunt force instrument used to do this and so the dealing with the consequences, which were and are political and sociological, were beyond its control.

Even the most mentally enfeebled now seem to understand this.

But since the paper is not designed as a political discussion, it doesn't get into it. Its purpose, as stated in the preamble, is to "check against excessive convention," underwriting "DoD relevance and resilience."

"Doing so is a prudent hedge against an uncertain and dangerous future," it is claimed.

The problem, which is stated repeatedly, is that we lack sufficient imagination. And the evaluation of possible shocks, one type of which is called the "Black Swan" (more on this in a footnote), is "uncovered, informally covered or inadequately covered ground..." What is created is "an analytical no man's land separating conventional events from highly incredible or speculative ones." Regular readers may see an opportunity for some hilarity amidst all the gnomic Zen wisdom.

A graphic is provided (not reproduced here), one showing the "no man's land" divide between "conventional contingency events" and the "highly speculative extreme that pushes the far boundaries of defense rationality." This far area is called "the extreme 'disruptive challenge' where the US military might find itself powerless against the technical advances of a capable state opponent with little or no strategic warning."

It's hard to imagine this last one since the US spends more on its military than the rest of the world's militaries combined, but DD will gamely try to frame it for readers who fail to see its merciless logic.

Let's call it the "The Day the Earth Stood Still" moment, although the Army doesn't (not to my knowledge, anyway) and it isn't specifically in the treatise entitled "Known Unknowns."

It goes like this: An alien, named Klaatu, comes to earth and lands in Central Park, accompanied by his weapon of mass destruction, Gort. The US military reacts poorly to the strategic shock, attempts to torture information out of Klaatu, who escapes and activates his technological advantage. Gort turns into a swarm of nano-machines which destroy the US military and begin to eat the United States. Klaatu changes his mind and creates a global electromagnetic pulse which halt the nano-machines but ends electronic civilization.

There's your theoretical instance of the US military "[finding] itself powerless against the technical advances of a capable state opponent with little or no strategic warning."

With implacable and irrefutable reason, "Known Unknowns" also informs that the next big defense threat "is likely to appear by purpose and design or accident..."

Echoing the poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, a universal expert named Thomas Crombie Schelling makes an appearance. More zen ensues: "There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously."

Future situations could also arise, the paper says, in which action by the US military to rectify a matter of national security could be viewed outside our borders as "illegitimate." In the homeland, a catastrophic natural disaster might occur. Or the rest of the world might just decide to thwart American interests by passively getting in the way and not doing the shit we tell it to.

You know no one's thought of stuff like that before!

1. The Black Swan -- you stupido -- is the invention of someone named Nassim Nicholas Taleb, possibly one of the smartest public intellectuals in the world. That is, other than the guy I mentioned last week who'd been quoted in every major newspaper and magazine as well as being consulted for the Don Cheadle movie, "Traitor," now on PayPerView.


Anonymous sam_m said...

I anticipate that in a few generations 9/11 will be talked of as for the past millennia people have talked of the wooden horse at Troy.

We don't know who did it or why but the US's response to it makes it likely to be the event which precipitates the end of the USA as a major power.

4:26 AM  

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