Monday, October 30, 2006

Mongols start your pencils

Max Boot, writing in the LA Times, argues in an article entitled Are we the Mongols of the Information Age? that American government has yet to master the forces of the Information Revolution which catapulted America to global dominance. "It may sound melodramatic, but the future of U.S. power rests on our ability to remake a government still structured for Industrial Age warfare to do battle with decentralized adversaries in the Information Age."


The need for the US government to adapt to the 21st century is a theme often articulated not only by Donald Rumsfeld, but also by any number of pundits, not all of them conservative. But the key issue is not whether a 'government structured for the Information Age' is possible but whether it is desirable. The argument may be made that the US government doesn't face a single state adversary adept at the Information Age. It has no need to improve in competition with other governments. What American government actually faces is nongovernments foes and it is reasonable to ask whether the decentralized architecture which has proved so useful in allowing the enemy to exploit the information age will ever been an attribute of government, however hard we try.

The historical power of government lay in its ability to centralize effort by centralizing control. It is this centralization of control which is the essence of government. But the power of groups like al-Qaeda stem from their ability to centralize only certain aspects of its control -- akin to defining the interface or creating a standard -- and letting local organizations write their own compliant applications. In the familiar words of business, the America's enemies in the Information Age can Think Globally but Act Locally. And this makes them powerful.

In fact, terrorist groups rather than America may currently have better claim to being the Mongols of the Information Age. The historical Mongols were able to assemble to strike and disperse before they could be cornered; maintain communications over long distances and live off the land. This gave them unprecedented mobility and allowed them to defeat  the greatest states of the day notwithstanding the fact that they were socially primitive and materially poor. The dominance of the Mongols ended when societies, I will not say states, adapted their methods against them. The Mongol's enemies eventually understood that their strengths were also their greatest weaknesses. The horse gave them mobility but it also dictated their actions; their decentralized structure gave them evanescence but it made them prone to squabbling and fracture.

Maybe America's decisive weapon will eventually consist not of a government "adapted to the information age" but of private organizations fostered under a central government which will allow them act with greater effect than the nongovernment organizations which threaten civilization today. In other words, in a victorious strategy government should not attempt to become a counterterrorist app so much as an operating system within which counterterrorist apps can be written. This means that the way forward lies not so much in creating technology heavy versions of 20th century government but of creating new versions of 18th century government; a kind of retro future where we are all settlers on the Information Frontier and Washington is but a city of marble and of dreams, and distant as only a vision can be.


Blogger Nate said...

The problem with a private group, under the auspices of government, working to defeat a menace that plagues society is that it defeats the very legitimacy the government relies on to continue to function.

The essential problem of states fighting NGOs is that the contest is not about policy or war or peace. It's about legitimacy: The government that manages to destroy an NGO will also destroy itself in the process, whether by outsourcing the solution(and hence, the legitimacy), or by creating such a despotism that the NGO finds toxic. The only problem with creating this despotism is that the state still loses legitimacy, and when the despotism disappears, so will the state.

I think the real answer to defeating terrorists is instead focusing on our current institutions. This doesn't mean bringing computers to the information age. This is about knowing the history and heros of your people, knowing and keeping the constitution, etc. In a crisis of legitimacy, the thing that matters most is strengthening institutions, not outsourcing legitimacy.

In terms of fighting terrorism overseas, I'm not sure what the answer is. On the grand strategic level, it probably has to be about a message or theme or idea, probably about tying these people's past to a future worthy of living, help those people to find the tools they need to fight the malevolance, and having them fight the terrorism within the contexts of their own history. In a word, we need to work to strengthen their institutions as well, and from the past, midwife other institutions into existence. I suppose that a good positive example of this would be the use of the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan (a council of nobles used to confer legitimacy on a government.)

This fight doesn't have much to do with the information age except to the extent we use that technology to fight him in the level of the information age (i.e. blogs, fighting ideas with ideas, tying these disconnected ares to the economies of the world, etc).

But in the end, it's not the bombs, bullets, beans, or bytes. It's the legitimacy, stupid.

When was the last time you read your constitution?

10/30/2006 04:08:00 PM  
Blogger Yashmak said...

You know, it's not necessarily the case that a government must destroy itself to destroy an NGO. The simple fact that we haven't been able to destroy the NGO's we're currently struggling against doesn't mean that will be the case for ALL NGO's.

Your statement, smitten, sounds alot like the 'moral highground' arguments I hear alot lately. Keeping the constitution intact is a noble, and desireable goal to be sure, but in our country's most dire moments, we've found it necessary on many occasions to dispense with portions of it temporarily. . .for the greater good of all. In those instances, no lasting/irrevocable damage was done to our institutions (from my point of view at least).

A man with a knife at his throat wishes very little for legitimacy. He wishes for a knife.

Do I know the long term answer? No. But I do know that words by themselves have historically made little difference without actions to back them up. Unfortunately, in most cases those actions were violent indeed. I suspect we have signed on for an era of sustained combat against militant forces, in a variety of venues.

I would agree however, that we need to START focusing on our institutions, in particular our media and institutes of higher learning. When we allow those who wish to see us 'brought down a notch' relate world events to us, then we influence the population at large to feel the same way. When we teach our students that we are to blame for the world's ills, we should not be surprised when that is what they learn.

10/30/2006 04:23:00 PM  
Blogger Nate said...


I specifically addressed the issue of fighting terrorism overseas, and I don't contest the need for force in many applications against terrorism.

I am speaking about steeling ourselves against the moral threat. When people say "this war is about oil!" or pipelines or whatnot, we need to be able to contest them on that point. And contesting them doesn't mean saying KBR or Haliburton is clean, or Bush is awesome, or stating talking points. It means saying the fight we're in is existential, that there are groups who despise the humanist qualities of our society, etc.

When the POTUS says the he understands that this war is "Twisting the Psyche" (as he did a few weeks ago) of the country, you know that this GWOT is about legitimacy. It's about the legitimacy of states doing what needs to be done to fight this terror. Al Qaeda isn't trying to destroy the US by attrition. It's trying to destroy our moral fiber to act on a physical (i.e. war) level.

As you said, yashmak, that the man with a knife to his throat wishes for a knife. Indeed. But the 1,000,000 people who see his decapitation on YouTube and CNN want legitimacy. They want and need to know that the fight is worth fighting and it's worth losing 100 soldiers a month, or 1000, or 10000.

Semper Fidelis.

10/30/2006 04:37:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

At Present, "The Government" is CLUELESS!
Iran & W... What does the president know, and when did he know it?
Michael Ledeen

10/30/2006 04:38:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

"in December, 2001, Iranians meeting secretly with American officials in Rome, informed the United States about Iranian plans to kill coalition soldiers in Afghanistan. The information was correct, and the killers were eliminated. But in short order, orders were given to terminate all such contacts with Iranians, even though the Rome meeting had produced life-saving information."

10/30/2006 04:45:00 PM  
Blogger enscout said...

The seemingly unstoppable Westward march of the Mongols was halted by a single event. Not a battle with another army nor a barrier of geography but by the death of Ghengis Khan.

Actually the Mongols had a technological advantage over many of their foes: the stirrup. Imagine what fear the jihadis would instill today if such superiority were present today.

Any advantage the jihadis might have technologically isn't due to the technolgy itself but rather in the creative use found in application; a corruption, if you will, of the intended application. Take away their toys and what will happen?

True that, just as then, most of the problem in mounting a defense against the audacious barbarians is lack of will and ambivilence.

10/30/2006 05:32:00 PM  
Blogger Mike H. said...

You wrote an article a while ago that stated that the weapon doesn't care who wields it or who the enemy is. Virtual applications in virtual operating systems can be weapons.

10/30/2006 05:35:00 PM  
Blogger Pyrthroes said...

We return to the historical analogy we have made before: For some centuries, established States "legitimate" only in name (as Tom Paine famously said, What is legitimate about plucking up a Crown on Bosworth Field and thereby rendering yourself a Monarch by Divine Right, until the next usurper with bigger battalions comes along?) waged worldwide maritime warfare by issuing Letters of Marque and Reprisal. These "legitimated", among others, Captain Kidd and Edward Teach (aka "Blackbeard"). As State deputies they could not lawfully be hanged as pirates; like later German "commerce raiders", they had State-authorized missions to fulfill.

So "legitimate" States (as defined) conducting "privatized" hostilities by means indistinguishable from piracy have ample historical precedent; nor can we think of a single instance when such activities "delegitimized" an accredited State entity. Quite the contrary-- applying force majeur at arms length proved a lucrative extortion racket, given that (say) Francis Drake contributed mightily as a "privateer" (a "private pirate") to
the coffers of his Virgin Queen.

In today's world, why not empower "privateer" militias with advanced State-sponsored weaponry, and deputize them to eradicate terrorist or "rogue regime" entities as bounty hunters? Statist bureaucracies would be appalled-- not because such groups are "illegitimate", but because they would threaten feckless and puerile, chest-beating bureaucratic cadres whose stock-in-trade is always to rake off appropriations while accomplishing precisely nothing.

Most likely, a smaller State --not Israel, but perhaps one feeling crowded by Putin-- will take the lead. After all, no identifiable Muslim entity suffered after Beslan. But if schoolchildren are fair game, then so is anyone, anyone at all. Gird up your burkhas, ye Warriors of Islam! Hiding behind your hawiris' skirts won't save you from Blackbeard.

10/30/2006 05:38:00 PM  
Blogger Cedarford said...

The Islamoids are proving that they can out-propagandize us and rapidly use new technology in Jihad.

But America's problems do not begin and end on the military front.

We have an outdated Constitution, more lawyers per capita than any state except Israel, and "the can-do" American reputation is being destroyed by ossification due to litigation and political unwillingness to reform.

Our government itself is built on an early industrial age model that is seeing not only Congress but the courts becoming dysfunctional. Both are now unable to deal with critical issues in a timely, effective manner, with anywhere near the cost effectiveness of Euro or Asian legislative and judicial models.

Pyrthroes - today's world, why not empower "privateer" militias with advanced State-sponsored weaponry, and deputize them to eradicate terrorist or "rogue regime" entities as bounty hunters?

The era of "mercs" is long over. They were only good for an era of primitive nations lacking adequate communications, anyways. Nowadays, a merc band shows up for bounty hunting, their presence is noted and communicated area-wide...then they are confronted by the masses and likely whacked.

10/31/2006 12:07:00 AM  
Blogger anonymous said...

Don't forget that in the information war, the biased media, liberal in the west, pro-terrorist in the moslem world, and anti american everywhere, is also the enemy.

The problem is not that the US government is not adapting to the information age. The problem has existed for ages but each generation thinks the same old thing is something new.

The problem is to get the media to say things that the people working for it do not want to report.

10/31/2006 01:33:00 AM  
Blogger Red River said...

I disagree with this assessment of the Mongols.

The Mongols adapted and perfected a wide variety of tools - the horse, recurve bow, tough upbringing, long-distance communications, social organization, and writing all within a very vicious inter-tribal competition that was isolated from the outside world.

They were then united under Genghis Khan - a man who was a very good leader and a very good organizer - who went through many, many close calls as well as a period of exile wherein he, like many great leaders, used the time for introspection and reflection.

They fought the Chinese for many years - who had some very good leaders ( probably the best at that time ) and unlimited resources - but not the same level of technology.

This allowed the Mongols - in desperation at times - to develop much better tactics and organization and training. The Mongols had to perfect large operationial manuevers on a variety of terrain, develop and perfect intelligence operations - both recon and humint, and develop siegecraft as well as low-cost psyops to prevent expensive siegecraft. They also developed very effiecient and highly motivated Supply Operations - the women and children provided resupply and communications.

The end result was a self-contained conquering machine. The nearest analogy are the large locust flights that arise out of the Sahara or the ones that arose out of the American Rockies - basically biological energy dissapative structures.

The Mongols, honed in China, had a much easier time when they rode into Europe or Asia Minor. The population was not warlike, had little experience with war, especially manuever warfare, was not pyschologically prepared to fight, and did not train both on a unit or operational level. They were time and time again tricked by the Mongols - either in negotiations or on the battlefield - even when they had the upper hand - and lost.

Only when the Mongols ran into the smaller kingdoms in the Middle East which had a history of warfare and had much of the same technology and operational command and control, were the Mongols defeated.

The Mongols exploited an unfilled niche in the socio-military ecology of their time. When they hit lands that had that niche filled, they lost.

Had a state actor in the Mongol period of expansion - say a Thessaly or a fanged Russia - adopted the same tactics as the Mongols - and led by a Belisarious or a Sobieski - and met them in battle - the result for the Mongols - their supply trains vulnerable - it would have been a disaster for them.

A very small cavalry action in winter while the main body was on manuver - would have destroyed their homes and killed their families and that would have been it.

The United States cavalry knew this and that is why it campaigned in the winter during the Indian Wars - and destroyed the villages and took the families captive.

In the end, its always a failure to understand, classify, organize, test tactics, and then execute.

10/31/2006 09:20:00 AM  
Blogger CorporateCog said...

It may be pretty simple to maintain a blog and use that as communication hub, but actually writing and maintaining advanced internet applications is increasingly difficult, and requires highly trained and dedicated staff. The difficulty of hacking into these systems is also steadlily increasing. For this reason I am leary of drawing similarities between Al Qaida and the internet with the mongols and their ponies.pjemzg

10/31/2006 10:52:00 AM  
Blogger Joshua Chamberlain said...

Wretchard, I'm sorry, but when I read posts like this, I am reminded of a line from Angelo Codevilla's War (2d ed.): "We include many classical examples to disabuse modern audiences from the tendency to think their problems are unprecedented and therefore an excuse for nonsense." War is war. It hasn't changed, and what makes for victory and defeat is the same as it was at Thermopylae.

10/31/2006 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger Googlecash said...

recurve bows are great

11/11/2007 02:16:00 AM  

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