Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 5, 2013

Shaping the context: Syria and more

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Resilience,Strategy,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on September 5, 2013

Our options in Syria are, as far as I can see, all bad.  Any action or non-action involves chaotic possibilities — probabilities — well beyond confident prediction.

In our increasingly interconnected, interdependent, dynamic — and therefore complex — world this seems to be the one source of consistency on which we can depend:  Outcomes are uncertain.

There may even be a corollary:  The more confident one is of a specific outcome, the more likely the confidence is misplaced.

Even as our tools of observation, analysis and action become more powerful our capacity to accurately anticipate results seems to recede until — not unlike our oldest ancestors — we are left arguing analogies.

Is this Hitler’s Rhineland or Poland or Stalingrad?  1914 Serbia or 1938 Czechoslovakia?  Are we in the midst of a new Thirty Years War or merely the newest wrinkle in a 3000 year-old-struggle?  Is our best model a new Treaty of Westphalia or Ataturk’s solution or some sort of Ottoman consensus or expanded Concert of Europe?  Are we truly latter day Crusaders or closer to Pax Romana administrators (with our share of both Pilate’s and Pliny’s)? The historical comparisons are endless and treacherous.

I will add one more analogy which is less about a specific outcome — ultimate or ephemeral — than how context can be shaped.

A true story: Once upon a time long-ago, but no longer so far away, the Great King-of-Kings was challenged by a minor kinglet from the edge of the civilized world. Despite the overwhelming resources available to the King-of-Kings, prior encounters with the upstart had not ended well, costing the empire considerable lives, treasure and prestige.

When various political and diplomatic efforts failed and the provocations persisted, even increased, the King-of-Kings decided patient persistence required the reinforcement of other techniques.  Accordingly and with careful political deliberation, military planning and battlefield execution the King-of-Kings gathered all he needed at a time and place of his choosing.  Ancient sources disagree on details, yet all concur the balance of forces was at least 2-to-1 and credibly as much as 5-to-1.

But an unexpected oblique upended the established order.  The King-of-Kings was chased from the field of battle, his centuries-old empire imploding, and a whole new cultural reality emerging from this unexpected loss.

What the clearly weaker party could claim as comparative advantage was mobility, flexibility, curiosity, discipline, diversity, unity, speed, innovation, and considerable self-confidence.  These strengths were demonstrated on that battlefield 2344 years ago on October 1.  Even more important, the upstart’s culture demonstrated the same characteristics, long surviving the short life of its victorious king.

I don’t have an answer for what we should do in Syria.  But whatever we do — or don’t — and whatever the outcome here and abroad, I hope our choices will nurture the characteristics of this and many other upstarts across history.  These are the intellectual and spiritual foundations of resilience.

We will be challenged, sometimes horribly.  We will make bad choices, sometimes tragically. But our homeland will enjoy greater security the more we embrace mobility, flexibility, curiosity, discipline, diversity, unity, speed, innovation, and self-confidence.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

September 5, 2013 @ 3:28 am

Interesting post! Perhaps the real difficulty is there is no longer any reality to the concept of HOMELAND or perhaps even NATION-STATE!

Instead the various collectives merging into one mass collective that to survive must skillfully draw lines between the collective and the need for individuals to be able to bring certain skills and ideas forth or the collective cannot survive any longer run than the individual.


Comment by William R. Cumming

September 5, 2013 @ 3:47 am

Time for rereading George Orwell’s 1984 as the collectives move towards OCEANIA, EURASIA, AND EASTASIA!

Comment by Christopher Tingus

September 5, 2013 @ 7:05 am

“WE ARE ALL STARDUST” — Indeed an outstanding description….and with the ignorance and dysfunction which seemingly abounds and the little respect so many have for Life….merely stardust for humanity has lost its way to Lucifer!

Leviticus 26:19: “And I will break the pride of your power; and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass.”

Kindly refer to for one of the better descriptions of present day America – Syria – Middle East:


Christopher Tingus
Harwich (Cape Cod), MA 02645 USA

Comment by Christopher Tingus

September 5, 2013 @ 7:07 am

correction: merely – dust – for it is apparent that there are few – stars – today who strive to follow the guideline and principles of our Creator…what a pity and few obviously shameful for their actions and their lack of repentance….

We are in much peril!

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 5, 2013 @ 8:30 am

Carl Sagan’s phrase if memory is correct!

BTW! Dr. Sagan’s support for the concept of NUCLEAR WINTER post employment of SIOP by Soviets and USA led to its popularization in the public discussion. The original science article was 1983.

I have at least 10 PhD friends that are physicists. All admitted that the NUCLEAR PRIESTHOOD had never thought about the after affects of the SIOP!

ALL admitted to me that the physical concepts were correct!

And the 8-12 nuclear capable states still pretend these weapons have a military usage. They are totally wrong.

Comment by Quin

September 5, 2013 @ 9:06 am

Results like Guagamela were made possible with the scarcity and slow speed of replenishing and marshaling capabilties at the time (people, food, military supplies, gold etc..). One and done (though if I recall, Alexander spent years chasing Darius down). Absent some apocolyptic event, the days of spiking the football for the big win are gone, unless we’re willing to grind another power into absolute dust, salting the earth if you will, and we currently don’t face a threat that would impel us to do that.

Your last point about self-confidence is interesting. You would think a country with the most powerful military in history(and at this point it’s pretty well trained from a decade of war) and pretty potent law enforcement ability, wouldn’t freak out over all these less than existential threats. But we do. Even though our national rhetoric begins on December 7, 1941, I doubt it started then, probably much, much further back. I just wonder if we’ll ever be able to see the difference between persistent, managable and, all things considered, minor threats, with those that actually threaten our security. Instead, every incident becomes the next (or future) Pearl Harbor.

As for Syria, the cynical part of me thinks of it as 1943 Russia. Let the Soviets (Assad-Iran-Hezzbollah) fight it out with the Nazis (al-qaeda and friends). But it’s moral damnation for not helping those stuck in the middle of that war.

But lets a least be honest about chemical weapons. They’re horrible, but so are the many, many other awful ways people are killed. I have two friends who saw their friends burn to death in this last decade of war right in front of their eyes. The fact is, for the great powers with highly developed “conventional” armed forces, taking away chemical weapons from the battlefield increases our tactical superiority by eliminating a class of area denial weapons from the field. Instead of slowing everyone down on the battlefield, it lets us use our superior mobility and decision making (in large part due to are excellent situational awareness tools) to efficiently kill our enemies. Same thing goes for mines (even though that’s taking forever for us to figure out, future soldiers, sailors and Marines should be so happy for the “world” to make their lives so much safer).

So yes, Sarin is an awful, awful “illegal” weapon, but so are a lot of others. And why then is it the 12th or 14th time and not the first that we intervene? If it was illegal to use the 14th time, it was illegal the first time. If it was sheer numbers of deaths why did it take 100,000? Why not 10,000? 1,000? And if the longer this war goes on, the more damage is done to our national security, then why not just say that? And if not all of the rebels are worthy (see today’s NYT article by CJ Chivers on what some of them are up to), then pick a group that is, even if they’re a minority, and run with them (and see if they can swing some of the seculars from Assad to their side). And then be prepared to articulate why we are when their foes retaliate against us. Or, if that civil war isn’t a national security threat that warrants intervention, then say so and stay out (while handing boatloads of money to the NGO’s and neighboring governments handling the human swell of refugees). Instead it looks like we’re headed down the path of a policy founded upon cognitive dissonance.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 5, 2013 @ 11:59 am

Quin, Bill, Mr. Tingus:

Thanks for your comments. A friend wrote me directly, “Your Gaugemela analogy can slice every which way. Which way do you intend?” I was trying to imply every which way and along the way suggest both the power and risk of analogies.

I think it is entirely possible that our failure to effectively engage Syrian use of WMD against a civilian population could one day be traced as the genesis for a tide of genocide such as we have never before seen. I think it is entirely possible that a “symbolic” response could one day be seen as a major contribution to a global unraveling of American influence. I think it is entirely possible that a badly executed response could motivate a whole host of new American adversaries.

We are accustomed to framing strategy/tactics around “effective” goals (in this case deterring future Syrian actions). If in this case effectiveness is as elusive as I perceive, what other framing might we consider? If not effective, perhaps ethical? Perhaps punitive? Perhaps… what? What other options do we have for framing the problem when our options for engaging the problem-as-currently-framed are so unsatisfactory?

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 5, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

BTW! What exactly is chemical weapon when any good bench chemist can go into any supermarket and obtain supplies to blow up a ten story building?

Is Whiskey Papa [white phosphorus] a chemical weapon?

Comment by Quin

September 5, 2013 @ 1:02 pm


I believe the U.S. considers WP an “incendiary weapon” and has stated that in its reservations to Protocol III of the CCW.

“The United States of America, with reference to Article 2, paragraphs 2 and 3, reserves the right to use incendiary weapons against military objectives located in concentrations of civilians where it is judged that such use would cause fewer casualties and/or less collateral damage than alternative weapons, but in so doing will take all feasible precautions with a view to limiting the incendiary effects to the military objective and to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.”

This is also reflected in the most recent edition of the 2013 Army JAG School OpLaw Handbook.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 5, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

Thanks Quin and did you also notice that new guidance out of DoD on Posse Commitatus states that no restrictions if the OPS are military. Chicken and egg?

I understand the difference between High Explosives and CW but IMO incendiary weapons all chemically based.

Comment by Frank Edwards

September 5, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

I don’t know if it’s purposeful of not, but one of the things I like most about Philip Palin’s pieces is his ability to imply multiple meanings at the same time. It’s sort of a wonkish version of glossolalia. So what I take away from today’s post is that Obama — and the West generally — is behaving like Darius when he (and we) need to behave more like Alexander (or at least the Hellenes).

The piece also reminded me of a bit by Leibniz that has taken me most of the day to find (between work):

Thus the quality of king, which belonged to Alexander the Great, an abstraction from the subject, is not sufficiently determined to constitute an individual, and does not contain the other qualities of the same subject, nor everything which the idea of this prince includes. God, however, seeing the individual concept, or haecceity, of Alexander, sees there at the same time the basis and the reason of all the predicates which can be truly uttered regarding him; for instance that he will conquer Darius and Porus, even to the point of knowing a priori (and not by experience) whether he died a natural death or by poison,- facts which we can learn only through history. When we carefully consider the connection of things we see also the possibility of saying that there was always in the soul of Alexander marks of all that had happened to him and evidences of all that would happen to him and traces even of everything which occurs in the universe, although God alone could recognize them all. (Discourse on Metaphysics)

Which if I understand correctly is how Leibniz argued against Aristotle’s concept of universal knowledge and asserted the reality of individual substance… with all its implications for our modern understanding of reality… including our inability to be confident of contingent futures.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 6, 2013 @ 5:19 am

Mr. Edwards: Many thanks. It is purposeful. I am glad to know you notice. Ambivalence is usually read as ambiguity. As you recognize, there is a crucial (if often subtle) difference. But I don’t pretend to have mastered the art. It is, for me, difficult.

I was not familiar with the very relevant Leibniz quote, though I recognize an echo of Aristotle’s contingent logic. Seems suggestive of our contemporary theory of a multiverse.

So in one individual substance, eighteen months ago the Syrian regime and opposition reached an accommodation? In another individual substance an effective coalition of non-Salafist opposition was propelled to power last May? In another individual substance chemical weapons have not yet been used? Is this a Leibnizian way to frame the logical contingencies?

Can we conceive a set of contingencies we prefer and then frame a policy/strategy that advances the set (improving our odds) rather than just one preferred outcome?

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 6, 2013 @ 8:21 am

IMO Putin had more support at the G-20 than President Obama!

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