Category Archive 'George Friedman'

12 Oct 2017

George Friedman on Manners


Times have changed since George Friedman was a boy.

I grew up in the 1960s, when manners were held to be a form of hypocrisy, the sign of a false and inauthentic time. When Mickey Mantle hit a home run, he trotted around the bases as if his excellence was incidental and required no celebration. His undoubted elation was contained within ritual. Today, success in sports has fewer limits, and success and contempt for the other side frequently merge. When I was very young, courtship and marriage rituals were ringed with things you did not do. Of course, all these things were done, but they were hidden from the gaze of others. Part of it was shame, but part of it was also respect for manners, even in their breach. It had the added and urgent dimension that the most precious parts of growing up were private things.

The argument was that honesty was the highest virtue. Manners restrained honest expression and therefore denied us our authenticity. What came of this was an assault on the distinction between what we are in private and what we are in public. The great icon of this was Woodstock, where the music was less important than the fact that things that had been ruthlessly private had become utterly public. The shame that is attached to bad manners was seen as dishonesty, and unrestrained actions as honesty. The restraint of manners became mortally wounded.

Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower had come to despise each other by the time of Eisenhower’s inauguration. They hid this in public. The press, undoubtedly aware of the tension, chose not to focus on it. The ritual that was at the heart of the republic – the peaceful transfer of power ­– was the focus, and the personal feelings of each were hidden from view. They were dishonest in their public behavior, and in retrospect, the self-restraint with which they hid their honest feelings was their moral obligation. These were two dishonest men, honoring their nation in their dishonesty.


15 Oct 2013

George Friedman: The Founders and the Shutdown

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Detail, Horatio Greenough, George Washington Attired in Roman Toga, 1841, National Museum of American History

Stratfor’s George Friedman thinks seriously about what the founders would have thought about the partisan stalemate in Washington.

The founders needed to bridge the gaps between the need to govern, the fear of tyranny and the uncertainty of the future. Their solution was not in law but in personal virtue. The founders were fascinated by Rome and its notion of governance. Their Senate was both a Roman name and venue for the Roman vision of the statesman, particularly Cincinnatus, who left his farm to serve (not rule) and then returned to it when his service was over. The Romans, at least in the eyes of the founders if not always in reality, did not see government as a profession but rather as a burden and obligation. The founders wanted reluctant rulers.

They also wanted virtuous rulers. Specifically they lauded Roman virtue. It is the virtue that most reasonable men would see as praiseworthy: courage, prudence, kindness to the weak, honoring friendship, resolution with enemies. These were not virtues that were greatly respected by intellectuals, since they knew that life was more complicated than this. But the founders knew that the virtues of common sense ought not be analyzed until they lose their vigor and die. They did not want philosopher-kings; they wanted citizens of simple, clear virtues, who served reluctantly and left gladly, pursued their passions but were blocked by the system from imposing their idiosyncratic vision, pursued the ends of the preamble, and were contained in their occasional bitterness by the checks and balances that would frustrate the personal and ideological ambitions of others.

The Founding Father who best reflects these values is, of course, George Washington. Among the founders, it is he whom we should heed as we ponder the paralysis-by-design of the founders’ system and the current conundrum threatening an American debt default. He understood that the public would be reluctant to repay debt and that the federal government would lack the will to tax the public to pay debt on its behalf. He stressed the importance of redeeming and discharging public debt. He discouraged accruing additional debt and warned against overusing debt.

However, Washington understood there would be instances in which debt had to be incurred. He saw public credit as vital and therefore something that ought to be used sparingly — particularly in the event of war — and then aggressively repaid. This is not a technical argument for those who see debt as a way to manage the economy. It is a moral argument built around the virtue of prudence.

After these excellent observations, though, George reaches a dubious conclusion.

I think the founders would have questioned the prudence of our current debt. They would ask if it were necessary to incur, and how and whether it would be paid back. They would also question whether economic growth driven by debt actually strengthens the nation. In any case, I think there is little doubt they would be appalled by our debt levels, not necessarily because of what it might do to the economy, but because of what it does to the national character. However, because they were moderate men they would not demand an immediate solution. Nor would they ask for a solution that undermines national power.

As for federally mandated health care, I think they would be wary of entrusting such an important service to an entity they feared viscerally. But they wouldn’t have been fanatical in their resistance to it. As much as federally mandated health care would frighten them, I believe fanaticism would have frightened them even more.

The question of a default would have been simple. They would have been disgusted by any failure to pay a debt unless it was simply impossible to do so. They would have regarded self-inflicted default — regardless of the imprudence of the debt, or health care reform or any such subject — as something moderate people do not contemplate, let alone do.

So, by this analysis (which I think is drawn unconsciously from the poisoned well of the establishment media), even though Obamacare and an ever-increasing and unsustainable public debt are both classic examples of the kind of fundamentally destructive perils to the Republic which the framers devised the Constitution specifically to avoid, good men must refrain from fully utilizing the House’s power of the purse to restrain the radicals and the corrupt because refusing to write checks to cover the debts they irresponsibly and uncontrollably pile up would mean the good men were being “immoderate.” Uh, huh!

Sorry, but I think it is appropriate to quote Justice Jackson to Mr. Friedman: “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” And a one-sided political philosophy which demands that the forces of conservatism, liberty, and fiscal prudence must be moderate and cannot fight totally ruthless opponents who shrink from nothing with all their means simply guarantees that the democrats are always going to win.

When we have one of these policy confrontations, I would say, “Republicans, what would the democrats do?” The answer is: everything and anything necessary to win. In political wars, it is desirable to maintain a standard of behavior. It is desirable to set an example of moderation. But to set any kind of example, to have any impact on the future, to be remembered by history, you actually do have to win. Nobody, long years afterwards, says, they lost, but they were so well-mannered and restrained in their manner of being defeated that we are building them this monument.

We have, in this country, an ongoing political struggle between two parties. The Republican Party is commonly comprised of well-meaning, civic-minded and moderate men, successful businessmen, Rotarians who went on into public service. The democrat party, on the other hand, is full of machine politicians, of ruthless bastards with limitless ambition, of demagogues and crooks. Republicans would like to do politics in the genteel way you play a game of croquet. Democrats are professional, organized, and utterly and totally determined to win every time at any cost. We are doing politics as an obligation and a duty. They are doing politics to make a living. If a typical Republican leaves office, he is happy to go home. If a typical major democrat pol were to leave politics, he’d be in the gutter or in jail. The Republican Party is going to keep losing until its leaders realize that they are really fighting for the survival of the Republic and that they have to fight these people with no holds barred.

Read the whole thing.

05 Oct 2010

We Should Boil the Sea that Terrorism Swims in

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Stratfor’s George Friedman discusses the purpose and significance of the October 3rd alert warning of possible terrorist attacks in Europe and contemplates the broader problem.

The world is awash in intelligence about terrorism. Most of it is meaningless speculation, a conversation intercepted between two Arabs about how they’d love to blow up London Bridge. The problem, of course, is how to distinguish between idle chatter and actual attack planning. There is no science involved in this, but there are obvious guidelines. Are the people known to be associated with radical Islamists? Do they have the intent and capability to conduct such an attack? Were any specific details mentioned in the conversation that can be vetted? Is there other intelligence to support the plot discussed in the conversation?

The problem is that what appears quite obvious in the telling is much more ambiguous in reality. At any given point, the government could reasonably raise the alert level if it wished. That it doesn’t raise it more frequently is tied to three things. First, the intelligence is frequently too ambiguous to act on. Second, raising the alert level warns people without really giving them any sense of what to do about it. Third, it can compromise the sources of its intelligence.

The current warning is a perfect example of the problem. We do not know what intelligence the U.S. government received that prompted the warning, and I suspect that the public descriptions of the intelligence do not reveal everything that the government knows. We do know that a German citizen was arrested in Afghanistan in July and has allegedly provided information regarding this threat, but there are likely other sources contributing to the warning, since the U.S. government considered the intelligence sufficient to cause concern. The Obama administration leaked on Saturday that it might issue the warning, and indeed it did.

The government did not recommend that Americans not travel to Europe. That would have affected the economy and infuriated Europeans. Leaving tourism aside, since tourism season is largely over, a lot of business is transacted by Americans in Europe. The government simply suggested vigilance. Short of barring travel, there was nothing effective the government could do. So it shifted the burden to travelers. If no attack occurs, nothing is lost. If an attack occurs, the government can point to the warning and the advice. Those hurt or killed would not have been vigilant.

I do not mean to belittle the U.S. government on this. Having picked up the intelligence it can warn the public or not. The public has a right to know, and the government is bound by law and executive order to provide threat information. But the reason that its advice is so vague is that there is no better advice to give. The government is not so much washing its hands of the situation as acknowledging that there is not much that anyone can do aside from the security measures travelers should already be practicing.

The alert serves another purpose beyond alerting the public. It communicates to the attackers that their attack has been detected if not penetrated, and that the risks of the attack have pyramided. Since these are most likely suicide attackers not expecting to live through the attack, the danger is not in death. It is that the Americans or the Europeans might have sufficient intelligence available to thwart the attack. From the terrorist point of view, losing attackers to death or capture while failing to inflict damage is the worst of all possible scenarios. Trained operatives are scarce, and like any strategic weapon they must be husbanded and, when used, cause maximum damage. When the attackers do not know what Western intelligence knows, their risk of failure is increased along with the incentive to cancel the attack. A government warning, therefore, can prevent an attack. …

the warning might well have served a purpose, but the purpose was not necessarily to empower citizens to protect themselves from terrorists. Indeed, there might have been two purposes. One might have been to disrupt the attack and the attackers. The other might have been to cover the government if an attack came.

In either case, it has to be recognized that this sort of warning breeds cynicism among the public. If the warning is intended to empower citizens, it engenders a sense of helplessness, and if no attack occurs, it can also lead to alert fatigue. What the government is saying to its citizenry is that, in the end, it cannot guarantee that there won’t be an attack and therefore its citizens are on their own. The problem with that statement is not that the government isn’t doing its job but that the job cannot be done. The government can reduce the threat of terrorism. It cannot eliminate it.

This brings us to the strategic point. The defeat of jihadist terror cells cannot be accomplished defensively. Homeland security can mitigate the threat, but it can never eliminate it. The only way to eliminate it is to destroy all jihadist cells and prevent the formation of new cells by other movements or by individuals forming new movements, and this requires not just destroying existing organizations but also the radical ideology that underlies them. To achieve this, the United States and its allies would have to completely penetrate a population of about 1.3 billion people and detect every meeting of four or five people planning to create a terrorist cell. And this impossible task would not even address the problem of lone-wolf terrorists. It is simply impossible to completely dominate and police the entire world, and any effort to do so would undoubtedly induce even more people to turn to terrorism in opposition to the global police state.

Will Rogers was asked what he might do to deal with the German U-boat threat in World War I. He said he would boil away the Atlantic, revealing the location of the U-boats that could then be destroyed. Asked how he would do this, he answered that that was a technical question and he was a policymaker.

Read the whole thing.

George Friedman is clever and cynical as always, but I think he’s wrong about the United States and her Western allies being unable to boil the Islamic sea.

Terrorism is really war by another name, and war is labor intensive and consequently costly. Terrorism exists because funding, weapons, material support, and ultimately safe havens are made available by the only entities capable of providing the necessary scale of support: governments.

We are in denial about the collusion of hostile states like Iran and supposedly friendly states. A major debate occurred some years ago in foreign policy and intelligence circles on the possibility of the existence of non-state actors operating in complete isolation from any state or government. The liberal side of the debate was articulated most prominently by Paul Pilar, chief of analysis at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and expressed most completely in his book Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy.

Pilar’s position, that unicorns exist and spontaneously generate, has become the Intelligence Community’s orthodoxy and it is nonsense. The Taliban have been able to pay their fighters more than than the Afghan government pays members of its security forces. The Taliban have an estimated 20,000-30,000 fighters. $300 a month times 20,000-30,000 men is $6,000,000-$9,000,000 or $72,000,000-$108,000,000 in minimum base salaries alone per annum before adding in higher compensation for officers and ncos, arms and ammunition, clothing, rations, and medical supplies.

We have a multi-hundred million dollar per year enterprise underway in the Afghan mountains and other insurgencies operating in Iraq, in the Arabian Peninsula, in Africa, and to some extent in Europe and the United States. A certain amount of all this activity is self-funded by kidnapping, robbery, and extortion, but it must be obvious that enormous amounts of monetary and material support are coming from somewhere.

It is also obvious that what makes the expenditure on NGO terrorism possible for governments, groups, and wealthy citizens of the Islamic world is the vast transfer of wealth from the civilized and developed world exchanged for oil at artificially high prices created by the manipulation of prices and supplies by the OPEC oil cartel.

To boil the sea that terrorism swims in, the US government merely needs to destroy OPEC, return petroleum to prices to the mercies of the real world market, and thereby reduce the economic surplus that flatters Islamic egos and enables Islamic extravagances.

The first step, of course, would be to defeat the liberal security orthodoxy that protects state supporters of terrorist surrogates and immunizes them by enabling deniability.

23 Feb 2009

Stratfor’s George Friedman Predicts

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I commonly link George Friedman’s penetrating and insightful analysis of foreign policy and military strategy in Stratfor essays, so I was interested to see their author deliver a series of long-term prognostications on this 4:29 video issued last November in association with the release of his new book, The Next 100 Years.

Friedman predicts even greater American world influence due to our naval supremacy and… solar energy from space (!). Less good news is that the Ottoman Empire is coming back. And the really bad news is that Mexico is going to challenge the United States. (I wonder if Mexico becoming a failed state in the near future might not impact the last predicted development.)

I tend to agree with more of Mr. Friedman’s essays than I do with all this. Frankly, in this case, he lost me right after the Influence of Sea Power on History. Besides, who is going to take seriously a guy who makes videos in the library of the Army & Navy Club not wearing a tie?


Hat tip to Bird Dog.

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