“The strange charm of its primitive political vitality”

It is difficult to see how these deficiencies can be corrected at an early date by a tired and dispirited population working largely under the shadow of fear and compulsion. And as long as they are not overcome, Russia will remain economically as vulnerable, and in a certain sense an impotent, nation, capable of exporting its enthusiasms and of radiating the strange charm of its primitive political vitality but unable to back up those articles of export by the real evidences of material power and prosperity.

George Kennan, The Sources of Soviet Conduct

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Irregular, Hybrid, Political Warfare

metal gear solid 3 the boss colonel volgin bridge

A deep dive into Russia’s motivations.

In Episode 48 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast, we discuss the historical motivations and modern methods behind Russia’s use of hybrid warfare on the international stage. Our guests begin today’s conversation discussing how significant historical events and Russian cultural memory shape the Russian worldview, with particular emphasis on the role that the collapse of the Soviet Union had on the psyche of Vladimir Putin himself. They explore Russian motivations and methods since the end of the twentieth century and then pivot to potential Western responses to an increasingly aggressive Russia. Our guests conclude with implications for both the public and the practitioner.

THE MOTIVATIONS AND METHODS BEHIND RUSSIAN HYBRID WARFARE, Irregular Warfare Podcast

Ok, but what is hybrid warfare?

In Putin’s mind, America is the country that has been waging hybrid warfare, political warfare, irregular warfare, against Russia for decades.

Dr. Rob Person, ~21:55

It’s not political warfare and it’s not irregular warfare. It is its own thing, apparently.

We know what irregular warfare is (and what it is not), and we know that irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.

So where exactly does hybrid warfare fit in?

I’m going to take a look, but my gut tells me that it’s just another hodge-podge of sub-terms that gets lumped together to form a new, different, more confusing term.

In the episode, I particularly enjoyed this breakdown of Cold War tactics and the splitting of terms done here.

There is stuff we throw in the hybrid warfare bucket that I really don’t think belongs in that bucket. For example, a lot of Russian cyber activity is indeed routine espionage. Now, you don’t have to like it, but I’m afraid it is routine espionage that most major powers do against one another.

Shashank Joshi, ~31:00

“A Cold War, fought with information and espionage.”


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Another definition of irregular warfare

washington dc at night

Recently, I pulled out the books to define irregular warfare.

There’s more than one definition, as it turns out.

Courtesy of Dave Maxwell who flagged this.

From the 2018 NDAA.

(i) Irregular Warfare Defined.–In this section, the term “irregular warfare” means activities in support of predetermined United States policy and military objectives conducted by, with, and through regular forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals participating in competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.

If I am reading this correctly, the key element of irregular warfare (as defined here) is the use of a partner force.

Gone is the emphasis on “violent struggle” – instead we have “activities.”

Additionally, these activities occur in “competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.”


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What is irregular warfare?

lawrence and arab warriors in a line holding rifles

There are so many terms that sound similar but actually have distinct meanings, that it is helpful to pause occasionally and make sure you know what you’re talking about.

irregular warfare – a violent struggle between state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). Also called IW. (JP 1)

DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, November 2021

A simple definition. What does JP 1 say?

A whole lot more.

Irregular Warfare. This form of warfare is characterized as a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). This form is labeled as irregular in order to highlight its non-Westphalian context. The strategic point of IW is to gain or maintain control or influence over, and the support of, a relevant population.

(1) IW emerged as a major and pervasive form of warfare although it is not a historical form of warfare. In IW, a less powerful adversary seeks to disrupt or negate the military capabilities and advantages of a more powerful military force, which usually serves that nation’s established government. The less powerful adversaries, who can be state or non-state actors, often favor indirect and asymmetric approaches, though they may employ the full range of military and other capabilities in order to erode their opponent’s power, influence, and will. Diplomatic, informational, and economic methods may also be employed. The weaker opponent could avoid engaging the superior military forces entirely by attacking nonmilitary targets in order to influence or control the local populace. Irregular forces, to include partisan and resistance fighters in opposition to occupying conventional military forces, are included in the IW formulation. Resistance and partisan forces, a form of insurgency, conduct IW against conventional occupying powers. They use the same tactics as described above for the weaker opponent against a superior military force to increase their legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.

(2) Military operations alone rarely resolve IW conflicts. For the US, which will always wage IW from the perspective of a nation-state, whole-of-nation approaches where the military instrument of power sets conditions for victory are essential. Adversaries waging IW have critical vulnerabilities to be exploited within their interconnected political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure systems.

(3) An enemy using irregular methods will typically endeavor to wage protracted conflicts in an attempt to exhaust the will of their opponent and its population. Irregular threats typically manifest as one or a combination of several forms including insurgency, terrorism, disinformation, propaganda, and organized criminal activity based on the objectives specified (such as drug trafficking and kidnapping). Some will possess a range of sophisticated weapons, C2 systems, and support networks that are typically characteristic of a traditional military force. Both sophisticated and less sophisticated irregular threats will usually have the advantages derived from knowledge of the local area and ability to blend in with the local population.

(4) To address these forms of warfare, joint doctrine is principally based on a combination of offensive, defensive, and stability operations. The predominant method or combination depends on a variety of factors, such as capabilities and the nature of the enemy.

Doctrine of the Armed Forces of the United States, JP 1, March 2013

This is all good. But even more useful is the definition of “traditional warfare” which is a term that I rarely hear used at all these days. If the above is irregular warfare, then traditional warfare is by definition what irregular warfare is not.

Interestingly, there is no definition for traditional warfare in the DOD Dictionary, so again we turn to JP 1.

Traditional Warfare. This form of warfare is characterized as a violent struggle for domination between nation-states or coalitions and alliances of nation-states. This form is labeled as traditional because it has been the preeminent form of warfare in the West since the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that reserved for the nation-state alone a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The strategic purpose of traditional warfare is the imposition of a nation’s will on its adversary nation-state(s) and the avoidance of its will being imposed upon us.

(1) In the traditional warfare model, nation-states fight each other for reasons as varied as the full array of their national interests. Military operations in traditional warfare normally focus on an adversary’s armed forces to ultimately influence the adversary’s government. With the increasingly rare case of formally declared war, traditional warfare typically involves force-on-force military operations in which adversaries employ a variety of conventional forces and special operations forces (SOF) against each other in all physical domains as well as the information environment (which includes cyberspace).

(2) Typical mechanisms for victory in traditional warfare includet he defeat of an adversary’s armed forces, the destruction of an adversary’s war-making capacity, and/or the seizure or retention of territory. Traditional warfare is characterized by a series of offensive, defensive, and stability operations normally conducted against enemy centers of gravity. Traditional warfare focuses on maneuver and firepower to achieve operational and ultimately strategic objectives.

(3) Traditional warfare generally assumes that the majority of people indigenous to the operational area are not belligerents and will be subject to whatever political outcome is imposed, arbitrated, or negotiated. A fundamental military objective is to minimize civilian interference in military operations.

(4) The traditional warfare model also encompasses non-state actors who adopt conventional military capabilities and methods in service of traditional warfare victory mechanisms.

(5) The near-term results of traditional warfare are often evident, with the conflict ending in victory for one side and defeat for the other or in stalemate.

Doctrine of the Armed Forces of the United States, JP 1, March 2013

That’s helpful. Too often, we hear the term “near-peer conflict” as a stand-in for what we should be calling traditional warfare.

Critical to both definitions is the emphasis on a violent struggle. In traditional warfare, the violent struggle occurs between states with an aim of domination. In irregular warfare, the violent struggle occurs between state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over a relevant population.

When I first read through this, I thought that the emphasis on violence might have been misplaced. After all, there are lots of things that can be done within the sphere of irregular warfare that don’t appear to be violent (the use of propaganda, for example). Couldn’t we drop the violent aspect of the definition?

We could, but we shouldn’t. These are military definitions, after all. It is the military that engages in irregular warfare in support of national objectives.

When you remove the violent aspect of this, you are moving outside of the military sphere. You are in the world of political warfare. And other parts of the national security apparatus contribute to political warfare using other elements of national power.

But, irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.

Next up: a post on what it is the military does in irregular warfare.


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The Non-Kill Chain

shadowrun decker on snes

Spoiler alert: It’s PSYOP, but that’s a post for another time.

Recently finished ep. 46 of the IWI podcast with the very ominous title THE KILL CHAIN: WHY AMERICA FACES THE PROSPECT OF DEFEAT.

I haven’t read Christian Brose’s book yet (it’s on the list) but from the description, I think I get what he’s talking about.

America must build a battle network of systems that enables people to rapidly understand threats, make decisions, and take military actions, the process known as “the kill chain.”

The Kill Chain (Amazon)

A couple of things struck me in the episode. The first is the role of offensive cyber operations (OCO) at the tactical level. There was a good back and forth on where that capability ought to be. And if you’ve listened to Andy Milburn on other podcasts (which you should), you know that this is one of his chief interests.

Is OCO something that needs to get “pushed down” to the Brigade or below level?

Should platoon’s have a designated “hacker” assigned?

I’m getting serious Cyberpunk / Shadowrun vibes.

The second thing that struck me was the way that Christian closed out the episode. Really, everything from ~47:00 on is great but I want to focus on the below, where he is honing our attention on what actually matters if we want to be successful.

What are the things that we actually want our military to do? What are the things we’re prepared to fight for? What are the actual ends of strategy? What are we trying to accomplish?

Competition is interesting, but it’s not an end in itself.

This is exactly right.

One of the toughest things for military leaders to grapple with is the fact that if the ends are not clearly defined by the most senior leaders (military and civilian) then all of the thrashing done at echelons below add up to nothing.

It’s being sent overseas to divide by zero.

It’s how you get the GWOT effect.

Matt Armstrong argues the same when it comes to “information warfare” (a term he wouldn’t use). It’s not about the tactics or getting the right words and images together. All that is about as interesting as deciding to flank left or right.

No – instead, it is about having a clear vision, a direction we are headed, or a commander’s intent. Then, eveyrone below can march in step.

And what we’re talking about is political warfare.

How does the military fit into that?

To quote David Maxwell: “Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to poltical warfare.”

It all starts to fit together if you can take a breath for a moment and let it sink in.

Lastly, this piece by Colonel Steven Heffington takes the strategy argument even further. He argues that what is needed is a “theory of success.”

…a theory of success, when clear, explicit, and well considered, is the strategic version of commander’s intent. It provides subordinate or lateral actors and institutions a strategy heuristic, allowing them to make decisions about the development of their own innovative, timely, and tailored responses to the evolving context. Simultaneously, a theory of success helps limit the play of operational and strategic creativity to the logic path set forth in the founding strategy, which facilitates rapid, tailored responses and iterative evolution of strategy while reducing the likelihood of line-of-effort or iteration fratricide.

CHANNELING THE LEGACY OF KENNAN: THEORY OF SUCCESS IN GREAT POWER COMPETITION

All good. I’m on board.

Here’s the rub. Leaders – at every level – have a responsibility to ask for that intent. To demand it.

Ask for that theory of success. If it isn’t clear, if doesn’t make sense, or if it is non-existent, it must be clarified.

Otherwise, we’re not going anywhere.


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“Tactical things don’t matter for big-picture deterrence”

reagan receiving a brief about the middle east

Get smart on the Russia-Ukraine developments.

Over the past several weeks, tens of thousands of Russian troops have gathered in the area near Russia’s border with Ukraine. But what does it signify?

Michael Kofman joins this episode of the MWI Podcast to discuss all of this and more. The director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, he is a longtime observer of Russia and specializes in the Russian military. You can listen to the full conversation below, and if you aren’t already subscribed to the MWI Podcast, be sure to find it on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss an episode!

MWI PODCAST: A LOOMING SHOWDOWN OVER UKRAINE?

I’m not a Russia-guy, so this was a good episode to get me up to speed on what is (and isn’t) going on on the border with Ukraine.

The whole episode is good – and Michael Hoffman clearly has firm control over his material (Russia and Russian military capabilities).

I love this quote:

“Most of the cockamaney ideas about sending some more weapons or things to Ukraine – fine, if you want to increase military costs but you have to just appreciate that it’s going to make no difference in the calculus.”

~26:00

And he goes on.

“Tactical things don’t matter for big picture deterrence. Javelins, drones, are completely irrelevant to political leaders. They don’t know and don’t care about the stuff.”

~26:30

I appreciate this take, and I tend to agree. It’s what I was getting at the other day in regards to culture and other aspects of the human dynamics in strategy. These are interesting things to consider, but at the political and strategic level, they ultimately don’t matter.

Should they? I don’t think so.

Even when it comes to military strategy – the input of this or that tactic or weapon system may make a difference on the margins, but if they don’t alter the overall endstate, then it’s an exercise in futility.

It doesn’t matter how smart you are on the capability. There are limits to military power – and if you are using any of these “things” in service of the military, they are also limited – mostly by the strategy you’re operating under.

Then again, maybe it’s worth just rolling the dice? What’s there to lose?


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The USA, China, and the “Whole of Society” approach

composite shot of all marvel stuff

Still catching up on the backlog of podcasts. I listened to episode 34 of the Irregular Warfare podcast weeks ago – and jotted down a few notes. This episode was on “China’s Strategically Irregular Approach.”

Before I even listened to it, I opined that there would be a discussion or comment about how “good” China is at irregular warfare and how “bad” we are at it.

The discussion was more nuanced than that, thankfully. But there is one area in which I think we (the US) continue to get a bad rap.

And that’s on the topic of the “whole of society” approach.

In any discussion on China’s approach to competition, their ability to marshal their entire society in lockstep towards their political goals is touted as a huge advantage. A top-down approach, where the CCP dictates the direction, and often the pace and style.

To the outside observer, it can appear as if they’re “doing it well” or “doing it better.”

Wolf-warrior diplomacy, banning video games, social credit systems. It’s all in the name of winning.

And what do we have to counter that?

A system that appears (to outsiders and insiders) to be falling apart, constantly at odds with itself, and seemingly incapable of coming together for a common purpose.

If you believe the above and swallow it whole, you’re missing the bigger picture.

The USA already does the whole of society approach – and does it incredibly well.

Here, we trust our people with free speech, to make decisions in their best interests and pursue what makes them happy. This is mission command at a societal level.

We don’t need to tell our people that they need to go out there and counter adversarial aggression. Instead, we provide the space and the means for people and organizations to thrive.

And they create things. Entertainment. Sports. Fashion. Philanthropy. Finance.

Hollywood. College sports. Non-profits. The iPhone.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe – an American media franchise – is worth billions of dollars worldwide, but more importantly, carries the power of American culture, creativity, innovation, and humor across the world.

If you’re on the outside looking in, American society, with all its cracks and fissures, is a behemoth. It is worth envying.

We don’t need to try to recreate something that “gets everyone on board.” We don’t need to force it.

Do the right thing, speak the truth, and trust your people.


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Smith-Mundt as Counter-Political Warfare

a jacked senator armstrong standing in front of an american flag

Glad to see Matt Armstrong on a recent Cognitive Crucible podcast – this one on his passion project, the much-misunderstood “Smith-Mundt Act.”

If you’ve been around the “information operations” space, the Smith-Mundt act is usually taught during a class on “authorities.” There will be a slide that usually includes some text lifted from the act and then a “bottom line” that the US government is prohibited from informing/influencing/targeting/propagandizing/etc domestic American audiences.

Next slide, please.

Once that nugget buries itself into someone’s head, it gets carted out usually as a bulwark to doing anything in the info-space.

“Yes, but don’t forget the Smith-Mundt act…”

The history of the actual legislation is much more nuanced. Instead of “prohibiting” domestic dissemination, it was actually intended to “allow” dissemination abroad (by the State Department) as a direct counter to burgeoning Soviet political warfare.

“…we have nevertheless been too preoccupied in the past with feeding the stomachs of people while the Soviets have concentrated on feeding their minds.”

1947 European CODEL (MountainRunner)

If we’re going to conduct political warfare effectively, we have to understand this history. This is wonky territory, but that’s ok, because as Matt states in the episode, this stuff starts with President of the United States. It should be wonky – it’s incredibly important.

Anyway, the episode is worth your time – especially if you are an information warfare practicioner, or more importantly, if you are (or will be) in a position to make command decisions in an operational environment. You, more than anyone else, can make a huge impact if you understand what you can do – which is a lot.

Some interesting tidbits in this episode:

  • Opening: Defining “public diplomacy” and why that even matters
  • ~18:00: Smith-Mundt as a way to counter Russian political warfare
  • ~19:00: “We feed stomachs, the Russians feed minds…”
  • ~19:30: The importance of strategic vision – “We used to have an idea of where we were going…”
  • ~23:00: Our system is obsessed with bueracractic responsibility as opposed to methods, means, and outcomes – and this is bad
  • ~28:00: On the “terminal limits” of PSYOP leadership – if PSYOP officers terminate at the O6 level, can we really make a difference?
  • ~28:30: It is an unfortunate truth that the person who is most likely to influence an operational commander’s decision making is not the PSYOP officer giving advice on the psychological impacts of activities and operations, but the PAO, or worse, the JAG
  • ~37:00: “Stop it policy” – we are too reactive. Instead of seizing or defining the narrative, we are constantly reacting to nonsense in an attempt to “make it stop”
  • ~41:00: We need to get way more comfortable making mistakes – let subordinates fail in the IE – it’s ok – our adversaries are doing it every day
  • ~45:00: What even is “propaganda?”

Also, towards the end Matt references the fascinating topic of a PSYOP officer who wrote a book shortly after WWII arguing that influence operations should be banned via treaty. I’m now officially on the hunt for it.

It’s a great episode. Check it out.


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Weaponization of benign activities

chinese tourist selfie stick
Chinese tourists take a ‘selfie’ at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on November 14, 2016, as Sikh devotees mark the 547th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev. Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion and the first of ten Sikh gurus. / AFP / NARINDER NANU Getty Images

Late last year, the Marine Corps released MCDP 1-4 ‘Competing.’ It’s a great pamphlet that captures the nature of the global competition we find ourselves in today. I would recommend it as a primer for anyone who wants to know more about what ‘great power competition’ looks like. It’s well-researched and well-written.

Over the summer, I plan on lifting a few things from Competing to explore a little further. The first of these is mentioned on page 4-10 as a part of the ‘common characteristics of our rivals approach to competition.’

‘Weaponization of benign activities.’

While a definition isn’t offered, if you have been paying attention, the concept is almost immediately apparent.

Competing provides a short vignette two pages later which discusses the idea in the context of tourism.

Weaponization of Benign Activities: Tourism in Targeted Countries

Palau is an island nation strategically located east of the Philippines, has only 20,000 citizens, and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. About 2014, China put Palau on its approved list for overseas tourism.

By 2015, Chinese tourists flooded Palau, created a Chinese- funded hotel construction boom, and bought up buildings and apartments. Chinese-owned restaurants and small businesses also started, displacing local enterprises. Chinese tour groups were typically self-contained, staying in Chinese-owned hotels and bringing their own tour guides, which froze out locally owned tourism businesses. The influx of Chinese tourism created divisions between Paulauans benefiting from the tourism and those threatened by the displaced businesses, increased living costs, and damage to the local environment brought by the tourism flood.

In late 2017, Beijing placed Palau off-limits for package tours, dramatically affecting Palau’s economy. The off-limits order was reportedly an effort to put pressure on Taiwan via their relationship with Palau. China used tourism to create an economic dependency and then manipulated it to help them achieve their aims.

MCDP 1-4 Competing p. 4-12

If you follow the footnotes, you’ll land on a 2019 assessment from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail.’ This is what they have to say about the subject:

Weaponization of benign activities. In conducting their political warfare operations, Russia and China have weaponized many normally benign activities. These include but are not limited to diplomatic discussions; conventional and unconventional media operations; tourism into targeted countries; flows of students; visit diplomacy; the establishment of “friendship societies” and similar front organizations; the purchase of well-located pieces of land, key infrastructure, and strategically important companies; accessing, often by stealing, protected intellectual property; managing trade and investment flows; exploiting education systems, and manipulating immigration arrangements.

Ross Babbage, ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail

The weaponization of benign activities will serve as the constant, slow-burn tactic of great power competition. These are events and processes that unfold over years and will be a nuisnance to military, diplomatic, and political leaders who will feel compelled to “do something” in response.

There is a related tactic that we already see every day – and that’s the weaponization of benign information. If you spend any amount of time on social media, you see this when someone includes a screenshot that provides ‘evidence’ of some transgression, however slight or implied. This is a tactic employed by provacateurs and trolls alike. Irrelevant personal details might be tossed on the fire to smear someone. Those details may not add anything useful, but they work as an accelerant with the target audience, carrying unseen weight.

You also see this tactic when headlines are contorted by different organizations to feed a certain narrative.

And of course, you see this when conspiracy theorists posit that some trite piece of information contains hidden meaning.

Words are already loaded with history and stories behind them. Arranged in the right way, they can convey the meaning you want to the right audience and they won’t even have to read the article. Important here, is that this technique is not likely to shift global opinion or ‘win the war.’ Rather, it might nudge the dial just a little bit over time.

More consequently, the weaponization of benign activities/informtation could result in an overreaction, which is why I argue we all need to be a little more patient and let the dust settle when there are bombastic information flare-ups.


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Information Warfare Leadership: Less Don Draper, more Colin Powell

don draper presenting hershey's chocolate

I shared this great article from Matt Armstrong yesterday:

Matt, who has been researching and working in this field for decades, focuses his attention not on the tools of “information warfare” but on the policies and goals that drive it. His analysis (and I’m in agreement here) argues that it’s not about “crafting combinations of nouns and verbs for some medium,” but instead about crafting the right policy and setting a course for others to follow.

Much of the discourse on information warfare/political warfare is centered on mediums, means, and platforms. That misses the point. As Matt writes, this stuff changes all the time and there are plenty of experts out there that now how to use it.

When dealing with massive bueracracies, it is critical to staff key positions with effective managers and leaders – not flashy pitch-men or media stars.

The article focuses on the post of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the fact that since 1999, the position has been vacant for 41% of the time. While I’m not an expert on the workings at State, if it’s similar to the military, we know that there’s a sense of “that’s not my real boss” when a position is held by a temporary (often junior) place-holder.

And that place-holder doesn’t carry the same weight in the rooms where decisions get made.

What should this leader look like? Matt writes:

In my opinion, the right person for the job is a leader, manager, facilitator, and integrator with experience in government and at least practical awareness of the realities of foreign policy on the ground abroad. A focus on platforms – an expert in social or broadcast media, for example – is wrong, not just because every “market” is different but because there are professionals within the department (the number of which must increase) and agency partners, in addition to ready access to the private sector, to advise or handle the specifics of how to engage.

W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy – MountainRunner.us

I joked on Twitter that this person would be more Colin Powell than Don Draper. Colin Powell, although well-known as a military leader, was actually most effective as a Washington-insider. He spent most of the last decade and a half in and around the White House. He understood how the system worked, and people trusted him. Even as Secretary of State, he admitted in his most recent book that he often felt like he needed to stay in Washintgon (as opposed to constantly traveling) to make sure he could get things done.

My sense is that many folks think we need Don Draper in this position. A flashy ad-man who understands the media and can brief well. Don Draper needs to be way further down on the food chain – making ads.

It’s exciting to be living in a time where information warfare/political warfare is gaining attention, but I can imagine this can be frustrating to those who have been deep in the research and work for decades. Too much attention on the tools – the nouns and verbs – and not enough attention on the staffing and strategy.


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