Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The previous post dealt with the concepts of Horizontal and Vertical scenarios from Dr. Barnett's Deleted Scene on System Perturbation. Today I'm commenting on the first three rules that his workshop produced but ended up being cut from The Pentagon's New Map. Originally, I had intended to do the whole rule set in one shot but the amount of text would probably be of burdensome length to the average blog reader so I'm going to tackle it in a series of smaller bites. Again, Dr. Barnett's prose is in bold and my remarks are in standard text:


"Who's really in charge during a System Perturbation?

Rule #1: Super-empowered individuals may rule vertical scenarios, but nation-states still rule horizontal scenarios.

I got this one from a senior personal aide to the Secretary of Defense, who made the observation during a brief I gave him and a slew of his colleagues. His point was simple: a terrorist like Osama bin Laden can put together the people, money, and logistics to hijack three planes and fly them into buildings, but that vertical shock will trigger significant long-term responses from the threatened nation-states. The responses from these states are true horizontal scenarios that stretch on for years, like the global war on terrorism. A serious campaign like that takes an enormous amount of resources, which really only nation-states can muster. So, a super-empowered individual like Bin Laden can certainly pull off a "heist" here and there, but the "police" are able to spend years hunting him down. As my old boss Art Cebrowski likes to say, the terrorist has few resources, but lots of will, whereas the state tends to have lots of resources, but difficulty maintaining will, or vigilance. So it is a cat-and-mouse sort of game over the long run: he has to be shifty, we have to be relentless"

I'm generally in agreement here with a significant caveat.

Governments of great power nation-states are like ocean liners. Once bureaucratic resistance to a policy is overcome and a new policy direction is set a tremendous power of institutional momentum develops that future officeholders can stop or reverse course only with the greatest difficulty and even that over a period of time. Stalin, allegedly, is once said to have asked of one of his henchmen " How much does the state weigh ? " - it weighs one hell of a lot if it comes breathing down your neck ! Just ask Saddam. So I do agree, horizontal scenarios keep unfolding for years after the System Perturbation that triggered the response.

My caveat is the concept of " marginality ". All systems have tipping points where the accumulated stress is too much to bear and the ability of the system or state to self-regulate, enforce rule-sets and reproduce their core values is exceeded. Suddenly, a once formidible regime like the USSR finds it's own elite security troops unreliable and long-dormant regions have sprung to life and begun pulling away from the center. While it is unlikely that a superempowered individual on their own could spark such a crisis, a System Perturbation could, at the right time, push an already strained system over the edge.

Rule #2: Vertical scenarios choose us, but we choose horizontal scenarios.

This concept stems from an observation made by an historian of millenarian movements, or groups with apocalyptic agendas. Richard Landes of Boston University says, look back through any nation's history and you will find defining moments, or what he calls "chosen trauma." These events shape the ethos of the society because people there have chosen to mark them as key turning points in their collective history. In the United States, our chosen trauma include the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Gettysburg, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and now 9/11. Not every bad thing that happens triggers this response. America could have chosen to respond to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center to launch a global war on terrorism, but we did not. In general, a chosen trauma can be summarized by the phrase, "Remember the ______!" So Americans "Remember the Alamo!" and "Remember the Maine!" But we do not really chose to remember Columbine or Oklahoma City in the same way. The point of this rule is simply to remind us that we have the ability to say no to responding to a vertical scenario, and that when we do decide to respond, like with a global war on terrorism, that is not a choice forced upon us, but one we make freely -- thus signifying control. It is one of those things we all learned in kindergarten: anyone can hurl an insult or a rock, but you only have to fight when you want to."

With all due respect to Dr. Landes, he's wrong. Or at least he's not counting the costs of *not acting* when he argues for a completely free choice in responding to vertical scenario attacks.

The difference between 9/11 and the car-bombing of the WTC in 1993 and Pearl Harbor and, say, the Panay incident or Gettysburg and Bull Run is that all the former cases involve a mass psychological crossing of the Rubicon. Our collective attention is grabbed not merely by death tolls but by the gravity of the situation with the implied costs. Pearl Harbor buried peace negotiations with Japan. Gettysburg buried reconciliation with a Slave power South and 9/11 to most Americans buried the law enforcement view of Islamist terrorism. Yes, we could have chosen *not* to go to war ( or up the ante to total war against the Confederacy) but not acting after Pearl Harbor or 9/11 carried serious costs that were universally evident to everyone - a serious defeat for America and a possible slippery slope decline when friends and enemies change their risk calculations on a host of unrelated problems to adjust for our non-action.

A System Perturbation by definition, provokes a response.

Rule #3: Once the vertical scenario plays itself out, control reverts back to nation-states, so long as they stay on the offensive.

You could say this one also comes from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, because that has been the basic philosophy they have advocated in America's global war on terrorism. In other words, once the dust cleared after 9/11, it was America's task to keep hounding Bin Laden and Al Qaeda until they are completely destroyed as a threat. Our enemy's goal is clear: they need to keep hitting us with vertical shocks that cumulatively depress our stock of rules, our collective sense of individual security, and our belief in the stability of our system. A vertical shock like 9/11 immediately creates a sense of rule-set void: people are thinking, "We are clearly short of the right rules because if we had had them, this disaster never would have happened in this way." If an Al Qaeda can maintain a certain frequency of shocks, America never really fills that void back in with new rules, because we would be constantly scrambling to understand -- yet again -- "how something like this could happen?" But if we maintain a constant pressure on the enemy, those vertical shocks are few and far between, allowing us to fill in any voids created by our original sense of shock and horror. This is the essential difference between America and Israel since 9/11: we have never been hit again, but Israel keeps suffering the vertical shocks of suicide bombings, thus Israeli society suffers systematic brutalization and thus responds more brutally with time. My point: you take the offensive, you limit the need for brutality in your response. You get the bad stuff over as quickly as possible

I could not be more in agreement. In fact I've harped upon this point time and time again that retaining control of the initiative is critical in an unconventional, asymmetric war like the War on Terror. Smart, creative, ever evolving tactics within a larger strategy keeps the enemy off-balance but forces him to evolve to an extent, organizationally-speaking, in a direction we determine by our setting of the conflict parameters. This is why it is critical that the United States government - not the UN, not the Red Cross, not the EU, not professional NGO activists or media blowhards - determine the rules of engagement against a foe whose only rule in this war is that they will honor no rules whatsoever. Beslan is their paradigm, not the Geneva Convention.

Attempts to force the post-Kantian " police model " rule-set of warfare, adhered to by most European powers, on the United States military, is an attempt to hobble our response to al Qaida. Not an *effect* of applying such standards but the *intent* for applying them. Not all of our friends are really our friends in this war and not all of our usual or logical enemies are against us either, as they each pursue their own best interests.

In Part III. we will investigate rules # 4-6 which answer "What's really at risk in a System Perturbation? "
"are like ocean liners"

Cited in Archive of Metaphor and Analogy.
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