James Clapper, Carl von Clausewitz, Vladimir Putin and why Russia is winning

As I’ve noted, the Obama administration, after having been humiliated by Russia’s Vladimir Putin at virtually every turn has resorted to telling anyone who still listens to them that Putin is in over his head, doesn’t know what he’s doing, bogged down, due for defeat, etc. etc. Today James Clapper, our Director of National Intelligence, was the latest administration luminary to make the claim:

Moscow’s escalating militancy in Syria comes not because of careful strategic decisions but rather because Russian President Vladimir Putin is “winging this,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told CNN Thursday in an exclusive interview.

Clapper said Putin was “very impulsive and opportunistic” as he increased Russian support for close ally President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s roiling civil war.

“I personally question whether he has some long-term strategy or whether he is being very opportunistic on a day-to-day basis,” Clapper told CNN’s Jim Sciutto. “And I think his intervention into Syria is another manifestation of that.”

When asked if Putin had a plan for Syria, Clapper said Putin didn’t.

“What his long term plan is, I’m not sure he has one,” Clapper said. “I think he is kind of winging this day to day.”

At first blush, if Clapper’s implication is that Obama has a long-term strategy then I’d say we’d be much better off operating without one because all evidence would indicate that Putin’s “winging it” is kicking our ass.

But we all know that isn’t the case. Putin wishes to ensure Russia has a perimeter of neutrals or pliable client states. Putin wants Russia to be respected as a world power and to have its desires given a huge amount of deference. When one views actions through that lens then the Ukrainian adventurism (which secured Sebastopol as Russian territory and killed any hope Ukraine had of EU or NATO membership), the cultivating of Iran (across the Caspian from Russia and bordering Russian client states), the intervention in Syria (defense of a long time Russian client), and trolling the Obama administration at every opportunity all make perfect sense.

As I noted in the first link, what the real issue is with dealing with Putin is that he has a decision cycle, an OODA Loop, that is much more compressed than than of any of his adversaries. What Clapper derides as “very impulsive and opportunistic” is actually an attribute of military commanders and it even has a name: coup d’oeil.

The Prussian general and military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, postulated that there was a “genius for war” that was composed of three essential tasks:

1. applying the rules to a military situation where the key data are in fact not given, but must be guessed at—or, better put, recognized, based on fragmentary evidence, by intuition, which itself works not by rising above the rules, but by (in the words of a modern cognition theorist) “extract[ing] patterns from experience, without necessarily being able to say what they are,” through “use [of] information that is of a degree of subtlety greater than we can talk or think about.”*34

2. having the strength of mind to prevent the urgings of fear and the timidity of great responsibility from interfering with those intuitive calculations—i.e., to prevent emotion-driven phantom dangers from masquerading as the dimly perceived observations of sound intuition, when the “fog of war” makes it easy to confuse the two.*35

3. applying the rules, lightning-fast, to the “probabilistic” data thus acquired, by a process of reasoning which has been completely internalized, in the same way that a well-educated speaker of English will have internalized the rules which dictate when to use “he” versus “him.”*36 (The rules of war, like those of grammar, incidentally, can be derived inductively as well as applied intuitively. This may provide the ability to reach the right conclusion without the need to learn the rules abstractly or apply them analytically.

These talents were a necessary but not sufficient baseline competency. To succeed, a commander needed more:

A person who can consistently carry out these three very difficult tasks with an extraordinary degree of success possesses one of the two characteristics of the military genius, what Clausewitz calls coup d’oeil. This is the essentially intellectual (though partly “subrational”) component of genius, which gives the ability to quickly recognize “a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection.”*38 Knowing what to do, however, is only half the battle, if that. The commander still must overcome fear and friction to do it. This requires tremendous determination, which is the second half of the Clausewitzian conception of genius.*39

What makes the great commander great, thus, is not an ability to “rise above the rules,” for “genius, dear sirs, never acts contrary to the rules.”*40 Geniuses are, rather, distinguished by exceptional ability to grasp and to apply the rules, intuitively, in the trying circumstances of military command, and then, overcoming friction, to execute the course of action that, as the rules of cause and effect take their course, will lead to the outcome desired.

This is what Putin has that Obama and his unwieldy bureaucracy of mouth-breathing Ivy League PhDs are missing. Putin instantly recognizes opportunities. He doesn’t yet have the power to create those opportunities outside his own sphere of influence — given Russias dysfunction he may never have that ability —  but he sees them. Where he sees them, he acts on them. The very fact there have not been clashes between American and Russian forces indicates he understands the risks, he knows the boundaries, and he pushes those boundaries in a manner calculated to maximize international fear of conflict but which is actually designed to minimize the risk of of a conflict. And he has the resolution to push ahead on his chosen course of action.

We really don’t have anyone who can play this game. In fact, I don’t think we even have anyone who has even seen the game played on YouTube. It’s like they just turned on the lights in the arena and we’re dressed for basketball and the other five teams are wearing hockey gear. And now our Director of National Intelligence  is actually claiming that we are getting our ass kicked, we are having our alliances destroyed, because THE OTHER GUY isn’t playing fair. What the f*** is this? AYSO U-8 girls soccer?

Our problem is that not only are we operating without a coherent national strategy, because ricocheting from crisis to crisis is manifestly not a strategy, and because we don’t have a strategy we are unable to seize opportunities. Clapper seems to think “winging it” is an insult. In geopolitics and in war if you can’t “wing it” you simply don’t understand the game.

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