Entering Pandemonium

[M]ultivocality can plausibly take a variety of different forms. The Renaissance form is to adopt a strategy of ‘whatever you say, say nothing,’ leaving it for others to interpret your ambiguous actions as they will, forcing them to commit while you remain unbounded. Another is to talk constantly, but not to allow what you say to be constrained by consistency, or logic, or anything other than the short term desire to badfoot your opponents in short term tactical games and the long term one to make everyone pay attention to you, and condition their actions on you, without you having to condition their actions on them. The two have somewhat similar long term consequences. In each, the successful practitioner dominates the public space and public argument as everyone tries to interpret what the hell you have done, paying attention to you and no-one else but you, so that you can continue to play center stage in the theater of politics while everyone else is reduced to Waldorf and Statler, carping from the critics’ box.

Henry Farrell, November 2016

People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Karl Rove, attributed, 2004

Private Hudson: [after the drop ship crash] Well, that’s great. That’s just fuckin’ great, man! Now what the fuck are we supposed to do? We’re in some real pretty shit now, man!

Corporal Hicks: [grabs him by the shirt] Are you finished?

Newt: I guess we’re not gonna be leaving now, right?

Ripley: I’m sorry, Newt.

Newt: You don’t have to be sorry. It wasn’t your fault.

Private Hudson: That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over! What the fuck are we gonna do now? What are we gonna do?

Aliens, Dir. James Cameron, 1986

Norbert Wiener, prone to thinking about life in general in terms of games and enemies, imagined two kinds of enemies. The first was the “Augustinian demon” (or devil), which represents chaotic but mostly intentionless disorganized forces. The second was the “Manichean demon,” a wily opponent with a will of its own and the ability to use cunning and logic to outwit and out-adapt its foes. Defense analysis is mostly focused on the second, though it does so imperfectly at best. A consequence of this focus is a bias towards viewing situations in terms of structured interactions between adversaries that are both operating at optimal settings. This is a tendency that defense practitioners have spent decades trying to moderate, especially given that there are many internal and external reasons why strategic behavior can fall short of optimum. President Donald J. Trump presents the community of practice with an extreme version of this challenge, one that they are mostly failing to meet.

The occasion that prompted this post was watching the reactions play out in real time to the killing of Iranian military commander Qasem al-Soleimani last Thursday. Integral to Iran’s projection of regional power, politically and symbolically powerful among Tehran’s political and military classes, and responsible for massive chaos and carnage, al-Soleimani was truly an epochal figure. It is arguable that any American administration would have found it necessary in the indefinite future to lethally or non-lethally remove him from the battlefield. Even if two prior administrations repeatedly rejected the option of utilizing American military power to do so. Normally the decision to take a figure like al-Soleimani out would be debated soberly in accordance with the inherent gravity of the choice and the complex tradeoffs involved. The situation, however, degenerated into farce very quickly. Because virtually nothing about the Trump administration can be debated soberly in spite of its inherent gravity. How can you soberly debate the behavior of someone that treats statecraft as if it were a TV show? Trump provided the first “official” reaction to the operation by tweeting a giant picture of an American flag. Officials rushed to offer confused and often mutually contradictory explanations and justification for the operation. And, though information is rapidly evolving about the operation, it appears that the President made an impulsive decision to pursue an option that his aides did not expect he would select, once again forcing the military to spring into action to suddenly implement the unexpected order. Due to lies and omissions both large and small, the administration’s tortured explanations for the operation have been met with skepticism or even silence and indifference by those who might traditionally and ritualistically pay deference to them.

But this post will not dwell on whether or not the operation was justified or what the long term impacts of it will be. It is too soon to judge – and it is possible that there may be solid justification for the mission that we are not yet aware of. If you are interested you should consult Middle East specialists and particularly specialists on Iraq and Iran. However, some things are certainly clear enough at this juncture. Things that cast doubt on even ironclad justifications for the operation not because the operation was rash or foolhardy but because it occured in the context of policy pandemonium. First, the US pursuit of “maximum pressure” towards Iran lacks a feasible achievable aim. Let us not delude ourselves about the nobility or good faith of our adversary – and yes, Iran is an adversary of the United States and (despite intermittent cooperation) has been an adversary since 1979. Post-1979 Iran is a revolutionary state that has always been a menace towards its neighbors. It uses special operations and proxies to engage in and support terrorism, subversion, and rebellion. It seeks regional supremacy, and is the direct cause of massive suffering not only in the Middle East but as far away as Argentina. We can only modulate this tendency rather than do away with it, because doing away with it would likely mean the destruction of the regime itself. And having eliminated Iran’s biggest regional foe – Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – we have lifted constraints on its external power projection. Having undermined one of the few durable other constraints on Iran – the Iran Nuclear Deal – the Trump administration has decided to directly challenge Tehran with sanctions, military maneuvers, and plenty of Twitter-borne blathering. It has not been prepared for the adversary’s countermoves, which the administration has responded to in a mostly incoherent and muddled fashion. Indeed, one possible reading of the al-Soleimani operation is that the President was overtaken by events. Aggravated over the non-response to repeated Iranian provocations (and more specifically, media coverage of it), he decided to up the ante to make Tehran pause and cease testing America’s mettle.

That may be a justifiable course of action in isolation – to say nothing of possible intelligence warnings of imminent strikes being planned by the Iranian military chief we killed – but the problem when one gets overtaken by events is that anything can be justified in isolation. The Bush II and Obama administrations lost control of the “AfPak” portfolio because neither could eliminate the central contradiction of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy: Pakistan allowed us to target enemy fighters inside Pakistan, which Pakistan was also supplying and directing. Every kill mission could be justified on its own merits, but cumulatively America was left with little to show for its efforts. This is not to repeat the tired cliche of “we need a strategy” (often a formalized, bullet-pointed document with every step explicitly laid out). That is not how strategy works and strategy – good or bad – is prevalent no matter what. It is true that sometimes “good enough” strategy emerges from what is ommitted. Nothing is final, and sometimes the best that can be achieved is a measure of control over the state of the strategic interaction that keeps consequences at a desired level of intensity. But that is plainly not what has happened over the last year in the Middle East. The Trump administration has blundered through everything from Syrian non-withdrawals (in the midst of a Turkish invasion it partially provoked) to what Trump alleges was a massive strike on Iranian facilities averted with only 10-15 minutes to spare (take most accounts of this with a grain of salt, even if the truth could very well be far more bizarre). And now the administration has blown up a major Iranian commander and several Iraqi officials at Baghdad International Airport. More operations are ongoing as this post is written.

Military operations should aim to violently alter adversary behavior in a desired fashion. And Trump says that he does not “want a war” but requires Iran to cease its malign actions and behave appropriately. Yet there is no off-ramp provided for Iran and little clear idea of what it should do to avoid more violent American punishment. As Army War College professor Christopher J. Bolan observed back in June, the Trump administration simultaneously demands that Iran cease uranium enrichment, provide unrestricted access to Iranian civilian and military facilities, halt missile development, cease support to all regional proxy forces, and generally end unspecified “threatening behavior.” Charitably, this totalizing set of requirements is too broad and all-encompassing to ever be accurately processed by Iranian leadership or acted upon. Uncharitably, it is an sotto voice expression of a preference for regime change that the Trump administration is too supine and insecure to follow to its most logical conclusion. Either way, where is the mechanism for achieving desired American policy outcomes? And not just through military operations and sanctions but also diplomacy and coordination with other relevant stakeholders. Nothing there either, you will be not surprised to learn. Additionally, what is the incentive for Iran to get back to negotiations that the US has – to put it mildly – shown highly inconsistent interest in participating in? Lastly, it is difficult to see how any of this fits with American self-declared priorities for a rebalancing towards “great power competition” and specifically the refocusing of energy away from Middle East quagmires towards the Asia-Pacific. To be fair, this is an old story that transcends Trumpian particulars, of course.

But I did not write this post because I wanted to offer my opinions about al-Soleimani and American Middle East policy and strategy. There are too many opinions. Many of them are totally useless. And others, even if voiced with great sincerity and erudition, are besides the point regardless. My excavation of the al-Soleimani affair’s context is only the backdrop for my underlying gripe: that we are analyzing any of this with the pretense of seriousness when we have known for some time that President Trump is pathologically unserious. His psychological profile – known to all of us prior to him becoming President – suggests he is incapable of being constrained by reality and will not take responsibility for any of his behaviors. His political profile – evident from the 2016 presidential campaign onwards – suggests his primary aim is to dominate the domestic public space in American politics and by design will tolerate or even cause frequent instability, abrupt policy shifts, baroque palace intrigues, and other quirks of his unique combination of reality TV politics and personalist governance. This has significant domestic consequences, but in the realm of foreign policy and national security it has far more sweeping implications. You see, Trump has a reality distortion field (RDF) that allows him to skillfully shape events in American politics. You do not have to like him to respect his ability to do so. It is what allowed him to become President despite the opposition of both the Republican and Democratic party establishments, even if that opposition was also inept, inconsistent, and weak. You do not have to approve of his actions to understand that something within him made him the man of our particular hour or note that the unique species “Homo Trumpicus” seems to be well-adapted to our current political ecosystem.

Still, it must be said: Trump’s RDF only operates domestically. The farther away one travels from American borders, the weaker the RDF gets. By the time one reaches the assault rifle or IED of a Middle Eastern militiaman, the RDF is nonexistent. But the Middle Eastern militiaman’s behavior is an nonetheless an input to the American domestic system that Trump lords over. And we know that the President and his men are unlikely to respond to such inputs in any way other than what we have repeatedly seen since January 2017. That is, sheer pandemonium. Its impossible to fully enumerate why but I will again make the futile attempt to provide a partially useful summary. The White House is a pirate ship of feuding personal and bureaucratic factions, all of which leak sensitive information promiscuously to the mass media. The President, primus inter pares among his collection of warlords, bandits, and princelings, presides over the chaos when he is not watching TV and shotgunning 12 cans of Diet Coke a day. Typical bureaucratic structures designed for national security policy decision have been hollowed in favor of personal channels, often corresponding as much to the President’s personal financial interests as they do to any publicly declared goal he ostensibly pursues. And as demonstrated by the case of the unfortunate General Flynn it is clear that a good portion of his aides are similarly freelancing, perhaps for multiple foreign and domestic interests. The President hires and fires key cabinet officials like a Hollywood starlet picking up and discarding boyfriends, preventing the building of long-term rapport with any one particular figure. Perhaps foreshadowed by his notorious habit of not paying contractors in private life, the President ultimately owes loyalty to no one but expects absolute loyalty and deference in return. Impulsive decisions by the President – often announced via social media – send his subordinates scrambling to adjust policy and implement them, only for the President to often forget them later and move on.

Worse still, many Trump decisions are slow-walked or even ignored and disobeyed outright, leaving some portions of the government operating more or less autonomously from political control. Even though many of the commands generated by unpredictable firings of synapses in the President’s Diet Coke-addled brain are nonsensical, outrageous, or even insane they are nonetheless lawful orders that must be obeyed. In thwarting his will, Trump’s subordinates go beyond what prior civil servants have done in response to the madness of Richard Nixon and other psychologically (and physiologically) unstable presidents, lending credence to the President’s dark allegations that a “deep state” is out to get him. If the President’s subordinates ignore and undermine his will, he in turn ignores their counsel in favor of insights from network TV shows he obsessively watches. It is said that Ronald Reagan had a “cinematic” style of governance, but the President at heart believes he is a TV character and that the ultimate measure of his performance is how well it plays on TV. The results of this fixation in the national security realm range from comedic to terrifying. We can laugh at the President’s angry tweeting during the 2017-2018 North Korea crisis. But it is much less humorous to observe that the President flew into a rage when he was told that the South Koreans would not move their capital from Seoul and had to be talked out of withdrawing American civilians from the Korean peninsula – a step that would almost certainly be interpreted by the North Koreans as a prelude to war. Trump would not be dissuaded from the course of action, but as his wont eventually dropped it after a fusillade of empty bluster. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, as is the habit of officials during the Trump administration, ignored and thwarted the lawful authority of the President rather than implementing it during this crisis. At least if reports are to be believed, because accounts of the President’s national security decision-making come from large numbers of “officials not authorized to speak on the record” or “individuals with knowledge of the situation.” Anonymous sources.

“At least if reports are to be believed” is a sentence we often say during the Trump administration years that I hate. I bitterly hate saying it. All of our knowledge about the inner workings of the administration come from anonymous sources that leak, almost certainly for ulterior purposes. This is not new. Internal leaking and palace conflicts between different parts of the US government carried out via leaks are not new, though they have been steadily increasing in intensity over the last decade or so. But what we have today ultimately amounts to a debased combination of Kremlinology and celebrity gossip, intelligence analysis and TMZ tabloidism. We are addicted to the steady drip-drip-drip of leaks from this shambling mess of an administration, unable to verify any of it for ourselves. That is, until the President may suddenly blurt out a confirmation of an insane rumor in one of his Twitter rants. Which forces us to act on the assumption that even the craziest rumor – such as the notorious “pee tape” that the Russians may have recorded – could be validated tomorrow. But we still have to be vigilant because – again with the pee tape – hoaxes, distortions, and misinterpretations pervade what is left of the ordinary news cycle. Nothing is real and everything is possible. We have all the news, all the time. But all it does is confuse us further. And both the public and professional observers have grown unusually tolerant of a constant stream of inanities and insanities that would otherwise shock us, forgetting events that occurred even weeks or days ago and treating each one as if they are novel and to be examined in isolation from each other. This latter tendency was on display during the analysis of the al-Soleimani operation. There was – and continues to be – a strange assumption that it was the product of a normal national security decision-making process, to be debated in terms of its pros and cons rather than the latest spasmodic emission of an administration whose default state is chaos. Analysts often assume there is some fixed preference that Trump pursues, indifferent to copious evidence throughout the last several years that even minor alterations of inputs and stimuli can make the President immediately contradict his own stated motivations and choices.

When analysts do not trust the President they trust that there are others around him who can moderate, shape, or otherwise direct his tendencies in a certain orderly fashion and impose discipline. This has never been particularly true and – given that Trump has done away with many of the more moderate and established figures of the cabinet – it is far less true today. And in some cases, bizarrely enough, the “adults in the room” have been even more out of touch than the President himself. H.R. McMaster, one such figure expected to guide the President, ended up arguing dubiously for military strikes on North Korea out of the even more dubious presumption that the North Koreans could not be deterred. If individual officials can moderate the President, cumulatively the pandemonium of the administration’s competing personalities and factions negates the benefits of their moderation. And yet, analysts nonetheless seem to persistently tie their hopes to the administration being able to do what it cannot: consistently make responsible national security decisions. For sure, it would be unfair and delusional to blame all of this on Trump himself. He has inherited decades of flawed, compromised, and otherwise difficult policy situations. In many cases he has simply accelerated what otherwise was a slow rot. In some cases he is unfairly blamed merely for highlighting that the rot existed to begin with. And it can be hard to argue that Trumpian chaos and frivolity is uniquely bad when non-Trumpian order and seriousness has brought catastrophe. That being said, the President bears ultimate responsibility for actions taken under his time in office. Quite literally, it is the price of command.

Given enormous power to personally direct the conduct of foreign, military, and intelligence affairs, the chief executive is too colossal of a figure to be treated as an afterthought in their formulation, implementation, and execution. But therein, again, lies the problem. If Trump is just an empty vessel, a mirror even, how could we begin to hold him responsible for anything? Daniel Drezner has taken to calling Trump the “Toddler in Chief” precisely because everyone around him and everyone that observes him often speaks of him as if he is an troublesome child who cannot be expected to behave appropriately or be held to adult standards of right and wrong. Each analysis of a core national security decision by the administration will very likely in some way ultimately lead back to the same abhorrent conclusion: that the analyst has devoted far more brainpower towards interpreting a Trump behavior than Trump has in formulating and executing it, that the entire thing is just another episode of the Donald Trump Show, and that we are all hostages to his stochastic narcissism. This is not always true, but is true enough to be one of the few reliable constants of the Trump years. Hence it is understandable that analysts would resist acknowledgement of the situation that confronts them and attempt to persist as if they could dispassionately and professionally evaluate national security policies, strategies, and tactics the way they always have. The alternative is too radically divergent and painful to fully accept. But how did we get here? What is the underlying context that makes us all just extras on the Trump Show? What is the precedent for it, and was it avoidable?

The 20th century bore witness to an enormous attempt to craft and manipulate perceptions and attitudes, often signified by the rise of advertising, media pseudo-events, and political spin. In the United States, politicians have increasingly become indifferent to the empirical realities of the choices they make and pursue the cultivation of narrative. This is motivated by and results in cynicism. Obama administration official Ben Rhodes – appropriately – had a prior background in creative writing and fiction and expressed withering contempt about the journalists he razzle-dazzled. During the height of the Bush II administration, Karl Rove is alleged to have said some version of the “we’re an empire now” monologue quoted at the beginning of this post. Setting aside the contentious debate about whether or not Rove – or anyone, really – ever said those words, it seems rather obvious to me that the Trump administration is the apotheosis of what they signify. This requires some further elaboration. If you interpret the Rove pseudo-quote literally, it seems insane. No single administration can control reality! George W. Bush could not simply just tap in the Konami Code and get whatever he wanted!

But the statement is best interpreted the way we interpret Jean Baudrillard’s infamous claim that the Gulf War did not take place. This too is a seemingly bizarre and nonsensical claim that becomes more legible with careful re-reading. The Cold War, Baudrillard observed, was as much conducted via simulations of conflicts that never occurred as it was by actual blood and force of arms. Therefore, it is not particularly surprising that the first Gulf War was rehearsed as a simulation, implemented for the viewing public as a simulation, and consumed in the same manner one might binge-watch a TV show. So we should look at the Rove pseudo-quote in a similar fashion. Let us now return to what Rove supposedly said in 2004. What Rove is “really” saying is that people who “study” mind-independent external reality are suckers. The epistemological equivalent of a Warner Bros cartoon villain building an elaborate (and comically flawed) trap to catch an elusive prey, they attempt in vain to analyze and interpret the news of the day and impose linearity and rationality on what is neither straightforward or rational. And just as soon as they are done doing so, another event occurs that overturns their analysis of the prior event and forces them to once again restart their analysis from scratch. They are passive, forever reacting to a stream of novel stimuli that they must force into fragile and rigid mental models that collapse as soon as they are constructed

Where Rove falls short, of course, is the assumption that this is what an “empire” does. In fact, it is only possible to achieve such a pure state of dissimulation in simulation if one cares for nothing except the ability to make others perpetually react – regardless of whether any actual goal is achieved in the process beyond being the center of attention. And this, as Henry Farrell argued in 2016, is exactly what Donald J. Trump aspires towards as a politician. To force everyone to react to events he sets into motion, even when they are themselves opportunistic and impulsive reactions to events outside of his control. To keep on analyzing these eruptions and disruptions is mostly to grant this grotesque circus an air of dignity, nobility, and sobriety it does not deserve. This is true of domestic politics, and I see no reason why foreign policy and national security is any different or should be treated any differently. This poses a problem for analysts of all kinds, but particularly defense and security analysts. It gets tiring to say “this is the chaotic and muddled product of a chaotic and muddled administration” over and over again. It negates their unique and hard-earned currencies of expertise. It renders them just another group of people shouting in the cacophonous din of the Trump years, just more noise that can be ignored without much consequence. But this is far better than the fate that awaits those that insist on trying to impose normalizing assumptions on what is profoundly abnormal.

Any attempt to create an authoritative narrative about what the administration is doing can be undone by a single tweet, an errant leak, or a bomb exploding. Unfortunately this realization forces us to consider the broader implications of being (mis)governed this way and the implications for our roles as ostensibly dispassionate and professional interpreters of arms and influence. I do not claim to be a paragon of excellence in this regard. I do not even claim that I have lived up to my own expectations either. And understand that while I am being harsh on the deficits of others in this post, I am also similarly being harsh about the ways in which I have fallen short of the reckoning I urge here as well. All I can say is that I have done what I can to mentally assimilate the new analytical challenge of the Trump administration even though it forced me to radically alter almost every aspect of my prior worldview. If we are to “think the unthinkable” we have to do so regardless of where it will take us. It is possible to move on, perhaps to a better place, from our current unfortunate situation. But we will never fully escape it, and the sooner we acknowledge this the easier our collective task will be. Sadly, I believe that retreat into fantasy will continue to remain more appealing (even if fantasy sometimes can accidentally remind us of our predicament) in the face of the unpleasant, bizarre, and ominous unreality of reality.

In many cases, analysts quite literally retreated into analysis of fantasy worlds because dealing with the world as it is today is too great of a burden. Fiction provides order and structure when reality itself feels fictional. If one cannot analyze the fever dream that passes for American national security policy, one can at least argue about how a fictional general ought to have deployed dragons or Star Destroyers. There is, after all, ample precedent too for that. The historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga argued that the late medieval court responded to the increasing savagery and disorder of the world outside by immersing itself in chivalric romanticism and expressions of nostalgia. However, this is not enough. At some point we have to at least momentarily abandon the comfort of childish things and put down the action figures, comic books, and video game controllers to deal with the harsh realities of the adult world. And one of the harshest realities of the adult world is traditionally the child’s realization that the adults themselves are no better than – and are frequently worse than – children. The recognition that the adults will not be coming to the child’s rescue – in part because they cannot be trusted to behave responsibly or benignly – is the basis for the child learning to cope with the world as it is, not as the child wishes it to be. This is not a task that ever naturally stops, it only ceases upon the moment of death.

Until then, we all have to imperfectly and often sub-optimally cope with the challenges of a finite, random, and often cruel and absurd universe. Less philosophically, I place special emphasis on the necessity of conceding to the reality of our unreality because it is unlikely that things will return to “normal” once the Trump Show ends its TV run. Just as what Bush II and Obama did (and other Presidents before them did) to further the precession of simulacra did cannot be undone, Trump’s own unique contributions similarly are irrevocable. They will influence the formulation, implementation, and reception of national security for decades to come, even if they are by no means the place where national security theory and practice will be permanently frozen. If we do not start to adjust today, we will probably never get around to doing so.