Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Blog on hiatus for now

Due to insane working hours and a general inability to find the time and space to think about stuff to write I'm going to have to quieten the blog down for the time being. Hopefully I'll be able to get back to regular posting within a week or two.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Seriously? A submarine?

I couldnt help but be fascinated by this story:
Members of the Colombian Navy stand guard on top of a seized submarine built by drug smugglers in a makeshift shipyard in Timbiqui, department of Cauca, February 14, 2011. Colombian authorities said the submersible craft was to be used to transport 8 tons of cocaine illegally into Mexico.
This is awesome and slightly terrifying on pretty much every level. Its not clear from the article if this is a home made job, or some piece of left over equiptment from some war or another.

I can only ask, what the heck is going on that these guys can run a submarine to transport drugs. Isnt that one of those "Nation state" style toys?

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Egypt: A case study in moral weakness

I've spoken before on this blog about the importance of being able to assert a moral position, contrasted against the prevaling short term pragmatism which pervades political decision making. Its something I've been dwelling on a lot recently as I've watched the seemingly relentless political vascillation which it seems has pervaded many Western democracies over Egypt.

It seems ironic that after we have fought two wars to instill democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan (to extremely limited success) we are so reluctant to embrace the possibility of democracy in this state. It is a clear recognition that realpolitik ultimately trumps the ideological goal of broadening democracy. President Obama once said this in GrantPark after winning the election:
To those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.
He would later go on to speak in Egypt, saying this:
That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.
Both of these are clearly stated moral positions, and it is not hard to imagine that the second speech in particular might have had some impact on the Egyptian people's position on democracy. They wanted a Government which reflected their will, so where was Obama and his Government?

Vice President Biden described Mubarak as "an ally" declaring:
Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with Israel, and I think that it would be – I would not refer to him as a dictator.
Claiming Mubarak wasnt a dictator is basically saying you don't agree with what the definition of what a dictator is. He was a dictator, thats a simple fact. He was also an ally. One does not preclude the other, but denying one because you like the other is a little bit daft.

Obama, a man who let us remember earned himself a Nobel Peace prize about 5 minutes after taking office, called on Mubarak to take "concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people." Would it have killed him to suggest that just maybe it might be a good idea for Egypt to have a real election? Apparently so.

Moral weakness is a peril which few leaders recognise. Most people believe that certain things are right, and others wrong. Usually they make this decision swiftly and once decision is made it is hard to alter their perception. In Egypt I think most people felt that the protesters were broadly in the right. There was some early fear that the protests were some sort of jihadi uprising, but that quickly settled down when it became clear the protests were largely peaceful.

Cameron and Obama struggled to assert a clear position on Egypt because they were trying too hard to see what the benefit of supporting either side was, without recognising that it would have been more positive to embrace the movement, garnering both domestic support, but more importantly have showed that he wanted something positive for the people of Egypt and the region more broadly.

I realise that my position on issues like this is idealised, entirely too much so, but I honestly believe that finding true moral position on some issues would genuinely be a fine thing for our leaders.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

On doctrine

The discovery of the highly entertaining “Doctrine Man” (hat tip to Starbuck of Wings Over Iraq fame) and my reading of First to Fight by Victor Krulak has put me in a contemplative frame of mind regarding the issue of doctrine. As I, an admittedly non military man, understand it, doctrine is an attempt to codify learning and create a method of dealing with a set of circumstances. Although in the modern age this mechanism may be overused, conceptually it is interesting.

My personal interest stems from my profound irritation with the idea that certain skills and abilities are rooted in some god given and indefinable talent. Ultimately it seems crazy to me to claim that any ability is utterly beyond another human being. We all have our specific aptitudes, and weaknesses, which have to be addressed and factored in, but these are only part of the overall picture of competence.

Consider checklists, checklists have been used to save thousands of lives the world over in medical procedures in particular. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande (eminently readable and highly recommended) is a great set of case studies in how this simple mechanism can be applied to any field to great effect. Is this so colossally different to doctrine? Perhaps those better versed in the topic of military doctrine will tell me otherwise, but it seems the answer is ‘probably not’.

Yet the business world seems almost profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that we should embrace and codify knowledge. At best, great ideas are passed on through training, and people half heartedly sit through a session, trying to muster enough interest and wondering how many pastries are reasonable to eat. All too often the ubiquitous ‘case study’ fills the void.

The case study is probably the tool which misses the point with greatest style. Rather than trying to assess at the strategic level how a set of circumstances can be dealt with in a competent way, people are exposed to the lowest operation level and told that’s where they should go for answers.

So what is the solution?

There is a real case to be made to bring the same scholarship which is seen in the military at its best, codifying and improving knowledge ready to be deployed and applying it to business. Part of the reason I write this blog is to try and keep my thoughts in a single place, although I do, on occasion, try to write longer, more developed ideas.

I wonder if the instant communication age is somewhat to blame. In a world of powerpoint slides (I’m sure military readers will feel my pain here), emails and IMs it is all too easy to forget that developed thought has its place too. Creating a direction for action to be broadly followed under a certain set of circumstances would be no bad thing.

To put it in context, one abiding frustration of mine is that most companies really struggle to get to grips with new business. A brief comes in, you’re expected to respond to it. Who should be writing that response? What tools should you offer the potential client? Are their vendors you need to speak to? If there was a doctrine, the process would become profoundly easier.

I realise this is a rant, and I’m still trying to figure out how this would actually work, but I feel like theres something there. How do we take the best of the concept of doctrine, without losing the freedom to act?


Monday, 7 February 2011

Book Review: Brute

The first of my birthday book selection to be read was Brute, The Life of Victor Krulak. Its a little odd that I read the biography before I read his own book First to Fight, but I've enjoyed Coram's writing style before and I wanted to give this book a good read.

Its a difficult one, Victor "Brute" Krulak is undeniably as interesting a character as Boyd (although his ideas were not as revolutionary outside of the USMC), he is in some ways less likable. For all that though the story of his life is extremely engaging and a fascinating study of how the Marine Corp has evolved since the Second World War, seen through the lens of one key figure's life.

The USMC is a particularly fascinating institution, always being driven to do more with less, it has evolved into an extremely effective and impressive institution. The fact it has remained under attack even in peacetime due to interservice rivalries, coming mostly from the Army, there is almost a sense of paranoia which comes across in this text quite palpably.

The spirit of the USMC, the "first to fight" attitude is also written large in every page, and although that is excellent and laudable, it means the book is a little too keen to champion the Corps, without focussing on the life of the protagonist.

The other slight problem, which the author notes, is that Krulak was often willing to twist, embellish or indeed plain make things up. Although we're all guilty of that from time to time, even Coram is forced to admit upon occasion that this might mean certain aspects of the book should be considered suspect. I dont for a minute believe that Coram didnt do his due diligence however, and I wouldnt say this overly detracts from the book.

I'm not sure I enjoyed this book as much as I enjoyed Boyd. Its a perfectly good read, but there is a strange sense of a lack of direction, as if the book doesnt know quite what it wants to be and do. Thats a shame, because there is a great story here, which occasionally gets lost in the details. Maybe thats just me being fussy though.

Overall, this is an engaging and enjoyable study of a fascinating and largely unrecognised character in US military history. I would thoroughly recomend taking the time to read it.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Some thoughts on Egypt

I've been glued to Al Jazeera's live feed this week, its been incredible television, and I've found myself musing on it a great deal. I'm genuinely angry about that fact that puny and unworthy Western leaders are not able to embrace the fact that Egypt and other states in the region are, for the first time, begging for real democracy. My family has lost friends in the two wars which we are still fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, wars which we primarily fought, it seems, to instill democracy.

These people want the democracy we've been unable to force on other states, and yet our leaders stand back, our media barely informs, and our public couldn't care less. But there you go.

Charles Cameron at ZenPundit has referenced a point which has been on my mind for a few days, jihadi's have gained no traction in Egypt and thats got to be a good thing. Here's a quote he's used, which appeared on ISCR:

A large group of the ones organizing them yesterday were people in galabeyas and long beards shouting "Al Jihad fe Sabeel Allah (Jihad in the name of Allah), you have to continue fighting, we will win this war, if you die here today, you will be a martyr and go straight to heaven, don't stop, fight, fight, fight".

NO! This is NOT why we werein the streets on Friday being tear gassed and dodging rubber bullets and it is not why we have been going to Tahrir everyday to be heard. The reason why this revolt went through and became successful was because it was not religiously or politically charged. Don't let the ones who have been watching this unfold in the shadows ride this wave and hijack what you have been fighting for. I saw on Monday Taalat El Sadat (a dodgy fame hungry politician) ask people in the square to get aggressive. He was met with one loud message by everyone, "Selmeya, Selmeya" (Peaceful, Peaceful) - which is how all of us want it.

Here's an image which I think summed up the emotion in Egypt for me:

According to The Atlantic, where this picture appeared (it was sourced from here):
A soldier of the Egyptian Army cries in front of one of the demonstrators after they were attacked by thugs. He cries because he was unable to protect them.
These beautiful, peaceful protests have caused me a lot of emotion this week, and no picture has hit me harder than this one.

The fact that jihadi violence hasnt polluted this movement is something which we should all feel blessed about. Its an incredibly positive sign. It shows that the power of the jihadi movement is waning, at least in Egypt, and (we can all hope) is not able to regain its momentum and sieze control of the situation. Certainly that doesnt seem to be what the protesters want. Every time I turn on Al Jazeera English I hear the cries of "Selmeya" from the crowd.

I'm afraid I dont have any great or worthy thoughts on this topic, its enormously, almost strangely emotional for me. I only hope that the next few days will bring on the first parts of a new dawn in the region.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Did Google just develop a foreign policy?

Some really interesting stuff about Google and Twitter working together to get around the internet takedown in Egypt. Its a pretty novel service:
Google and Twitter have launched a service to allow people in Egypt to send Twitter messages by leaving a voicemail on a specific number after the last internet service provider in the country saw its access cut off late on Monday.

The new service, which has been created by co-ordination between the two internet companies, uses Google's speech-to-text recognition service to automatically translate provides an online voicemail service and tweets a link to each message, which is sent out on Twitter with the "#egypt" hashtag.

Its a pretty gutsy move. They're going head to head with an established Government which right now, isnt going anywhere, so why would they do it? Theres obviously some great PR here, its gotten loads of press, and ultimately its the right thing to do.

I wonder if its something more carefully thought out however. Google's business model (and Twitter's) does well in democracies and struggles in dictatorships for obvious reasons. The Google experience in China being the best example. Would it be beyond the company to decide that they want to start promoting the types of Government they want as part of their long term business strategy? I honestly don't see why not, its only lobbying on steroids, and they do plenty of lobbying.

Plenty of other companies already do it, why shouldnt Google?