When is a first strike not a first strike?
When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

July 06, 2004

How Do We Know What Finished Looks Like

Bravo Romeo Delta

As I’ve written about in past, humans are spectacularly good at recognizing patterns. This includes, among other things, recognition of patterns in systems and behaviors. A lot of this is due to the way that the human critter actually thinks. In fact, folks tend to be far better than they imagine at discerning changes in the behavior of systems then they can possibly imagine. It takes a long time and a lot of practice to be able to listen to changes in the pulse of an operating system to start to find underlying problems which haven’t yet manifested themselves clearly. But, the intuitive reasoning powers of humans are still surprisingly useful in getting a handle on vague and difficult to read situations. But, sometimes, a shortcut to understanding can be created if the flavor of the change is explained such that the reader can compare it to their own experiences. An experienced bartender at a small local bar might be able to sit back and watch a social interaction that closely mirrors the machinations of the UN Security Council. A avid sports fan can clearly understand the role of command, control, and intelligence in military operations by looking at how coaching staffs work together and against an opposing team. In particular, there are three kinds of behaviors that I want to write about in this post: the Culminating Point of Success, the Tipping Point, and Jumping the Shark.

Now, I’ve mentioned in passing, that one of the things that thought on history and strategy reference the idea of the “Culminating Point of Success.” To refresh, this is simply the point in an engagement between two hostile forces (most commonly two forces at war) in which a successful strategy outlives its usefulness and encourages the creation and adoption of successful countermeasures. A great example of this is the notion of an enemy on the offensive. The attacker might have a huge initial advantage (think the German drive into France in World War II) which is further accentuated by the fact that the enemy troops fall back in disarray. But as the advance continues, the attacker’s supply lines get longer (and therefore easier to interdict). Similarly, the attacker starts moving into hostile territory with insurgents that require troops be detailed to protecting supply lines. Meanwhile, the defender is falling back on terrain they know and can control effectively. As this situation evolves, these trends become more and more pronounced until the attack just runs out of steam, setting the stage for the counterattack. For this one, think about the German drive into Russia during World War II

Ok, if we get dorky about stuff, the culminating point is roughly analogous to a change in sign of the first derivative of a function. Or, for a more physical analogy, think about a car (with an automatic transmission), that is heading up a hill with the accelerator pressed down a (very small) constant amount. As the hill gets steeper and steeper, the car loses momentum, and eventually comes to a halt. Following that, the car will start to roll backwards, even though the gas is being pressed down. That point at which the car quits moving forward is the culminating point of success – the point at which the same old same old ain’t going to get you any farther.

Now, looking at a strategic term that came into vogue more recently, we have the notion of the tipping point. While the term had a more-or-less specific meaning prior to the Iraq War, it developed a life of its own when it came to develop a life of its own. In this case, it was used to refer to the point at which the total amount of stress placed on a system started to overwhelm that system’s ability to ‘heal’ itself (a behavior seen in some types of chaotic systems). Thus, once this series of injuries to the system has accumulated sufficient weight, then the opponent’s force simply can no longer recoup its losses and just starts to come unglued. This is behind a lot of the thinking involved in the concept of ‘Shock and Awe’ – or rather Harlan Ullman’s “Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance.”

For those inclined towards sticking with the mathematical analogies (all others, please skip to the next paragraph), one could think of a tipping point as being the inflection point of a curve, or when the value of the second derivative changes sign, which, in and of itself, doesn’t portend a change in direction of the curve, but does indicate a change in direction of the first derivative, which, if left uninterrupted, will result in a change of the value of the equation.

To get back to our mystical car, assume the car is on a slope and stationary (because we’ve cleverly balanced the pressure on the accelerator with the force of gravity pulling the car back down the hill). In this case, imagine if we just stomp on the gas. The car doesn’t do anything right away – in fact, it might even roll back a few inches despite the fact that we’ve just floored it. The moment at which it becomes apparent that, even though the car is rolling down the hill, very shortly indeed, you’ll be rocketing up the hill. In other words, the car is rolling down the hill, but is accelerating up the hill. This acceleration up the slope will result in forward uphill motion shortly, but just not right this instant.

The final notion, is that of jumping the shark. Many of you may be familiar with the term in its pop culture context, in which it is used to describe “A declining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now on … it’s all downhill.” More broadly, it’s similar to the point of diminishing returns – the marginal benefit of a given course of action is starting to rapidly fall off.

This case is a bit different from the other two phenomena as it seems to be uncannily appropriate to cultural and informational topics. That being said, don’t dismiss the phenomenon out of hand – if we acknowledge that the information and narrative generated by an event tells us as much about the event as the facts communicated, then this kind of behavior reflects the way that we change in response to our circumstances. Jumping the shark doesn’t tell us as much about the situation itself, but rather when we are done with the situation.

It’s a bit harder thing to pin down than the above two, because it describes a more complex behavior. First of all, it’s an irreversible change – in this sense, it’s kind of like bending something out of shape. You can bend a bit of metal and it springs back into shape – up to a point. After that point, the distortions become permanent and can’t be undone. Secondly, jumping the shark doesn’t necessarily imply that future results will be negative – they could just be flattening out, such that additional inputs result in smaller and smaller changes. Once the shark has been jumped, you can’t go back, and there’s not a whole lot of reason to continue.

So, you may ask yourself, what, exactly, is the point of all this nonsense. Well, I wanted to write a great big post about what’s going on in Iraq, and whatnot, but found myself unconvinced that the basic terminology was inadequate to describe the situation fully. So, given the flavors of behavior that I’m describing, let me try to give my sense of what’s going on. Before we get any further, it is important to keep in mind that these three sorts of behaviors are very similar and hard to tell apart –so your mileage may vary.

For starters, if we look at the interval between murders of hostages we note, that from Daniel Pearle onward, the amount of time between killings has changed as follows: 125, 697, 26, 31, 6, 4, 6, and 5 days. Of note, the first and second were outside of Iraq. Then we get to the Italian, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, who was shot on April 16. We then get to the decapitation of Nick Berg about a month later. The next month, a Lebanese national was killed in a particularly grisly fashion. We then go to Paul Johnson, followed by Kim Seon Il. Finally, within two weeks of that, we start the execution of US military personnel. As of the writing of this, the fate of Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun is uncertain.

The pattern of note here, is that once the bad guys started killing folks in Iraq, they moved from foreign contractor to the beheading of an American followed by the torture and killing of a Lebanese contractor– but at this point, the frequency was still rather low. So essentially, the brutality of the murders escalated while they were still going through contractors. But, it is entirely possible that the disgust of the Nick Berg tape led to the beheading of Paul Johnson shortly thereafter. At this point they were still sticking with contractors and the decapitation on tape motif. I think the lack of response is what drove them to the shooting of Keith Maupin. That generated little response, so I think it is entirely possible that they were testing the waters with an announcement that they were going to cut the head off of a Marine.

It could be that much of the uncertainty surrounding Corporal Hassoun’s status might be that they’re trying to figure out exactly how to get the media bang for their buck, since the execution of Private Maupin didn’t generate the kind of uproar they expected (particularly after Somalia). So, as it turns out, I think the jihadis have realized that they’ve may have hit another plateau in the business of chopping the heads off of bound captives.

So, in keeping with my earlier post I do believe that the actions taken thus far mean that the beheading issue has jumped the shark for Americans in this conflict. This is in opposition to the culminating point of success in this tactic, insofar as I don’t think that there is anything that they can do that will return this course of action to profitability – the transition has been made and is over.

Now, this ties into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal which has most assuredly jumped the shark due to simple media overexposure. By that same token, the PR battle fought by the US has pretty much flattened out and is unlikely to get significantly better until the streets are patrolled by Iraqis.

The hand over of Saddam coincident with the transfer of sovereignty is a tricky one. I think that the trial – if done correctly, can be a tipping point for Iraqi self-governance. The benefit doesn’t derive so much from fact as the symbolism that Iraq is in the hands of Iraqis. But, as mentioned above, a highly visible American security presence on the street could certainly contaminate these developments.

So, towards that end, the American security presence is only mitigated by the fact that the large scale insurrections by al-Sadr and his ilk have reached their culminating point of success when the powers to hold him in check opted to play the game with the interim government, rather than buck the system. This fact alone prevents the continued American presence from being a total, continuing loss.

Internationally, once the Iraqi government is in place, the anti-war arguments will all be essentially moot. The finding of the chemical weapons, the 9/11 commission report, and the burn out of the prison abuse scandal seems to suggest that the anti-war folks have hit their culminating point of success in argument after argument. By getting shriller and shriller about WMD and terrorism links, it makes it easier and easier to stymie those claims with smaller and smaller bits of evidence. Their very shrillness can lead some observers to start watching the movement of goalposts, thus requiring a smaller burden of proof to convince the undecided.

Going with that, if, as these things suggest, that the Iraq-as-quagmire/disaster theme is jumping the shark, then we find ourselves in an interesting position vis-à-vis the Madrid bombing type scenarios. A US that has essentially quit caring about Iraq becomes a fundamentally different sort of target. If we’ve gone down that path far enough before the next big attack on US soil, then they’ll get a much more 9/11-style reaction than the one they saw on 3/11. Furthermore, if our mindset has moved over that far, further attacks will hurt Kerry and embolden Bush. If sufficiently gruesome (and a year or two down the road) we’ll be asking why Bush Jr. stopped at Baghdad and do a one-two Damascus-Tehran combo or some such.

The swing vote, then goes to Europe. This makes the Al Qaeda assertion that the truce is lifting more interesting. If they do sense that Europe is a riper political target, then that has interesting implications, insofar as the attack would not be directed against European political opinion, so much as views in the states. By attacking Europeans, they can generate some (but a bit less) political momentum without invoking the Jacksonian response.

This has interesting implications, as it would suggest that the absolutely anemic nature of European military forces could finally turn around and bite them in the ass. By much the same token that all of our tanks and planes didn’t stop 9/11, all the forward basing in Europe and deployment of American troops can’t save them either. This could be the point at which a groundswell of European opinion changes, since there is precious little they can do (other than influence the US) to redress the grievance and sate their own calls for vengeance.

On the flipside, it could absolutely rip open the growing transatlantic divide. But I’m not sure how much that would hurt the US. Likely results from that would probably be a complete freeze up of the UN for years to come. Other results could include a great weakening of NATO – and it remains to be seen how that would play out with Muslim fighting in the Balkans and the integration of Muslim immigrant populations in Europe.

So, in summary, as some commenters have hypothesized, the al-Sadr uprising may have been spectacularly bad timing by the bad guys. By rising up when he did (at roughly the same time as the Abu Ghraib thing) it could be that he caused the prison scandal and the subsequent beheading of hostages to play out before its time, leaving the terror tactics strangely impotent, while pushing Sistani into having to sit on the side of the government and align the other undeclared militias on the side of law and order, rather than against the Americans exactly. This allowed for the US to start shifting policing responsibilities as well as setting the stage for an important early symbolic move as Hussein goes to the green mile. This is further aided by the, what amounts to, quiet acquiescence of the anti-war left in Europe to the realities on the ground today. European irrelevance is compounded by the cries that the Iraqis should not make their own butcher pay the price for peddling his trade.

All in all, the handover is not important for the handover itself, or even necessarily the transition of which it speaks, but rather that it is a proximate time marker for several trends which have been coming to a head for months.

Launched by Bravo Romeo Delta at July 6, 2004 10:37 PM

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