Tag Archives: decision making

Rush to judgement

Going to war is generally a bad idea. I’ve long been interested, therefore, in analyses which provide some clues as to why political leaders make the almost certainly stupid decision to do so. For that reason, I’m grateful to RT for bringing to wider attention a report commissioned by the Norwegian government entitled ‘Evaluation of Norway’s Participation in the Operations in Libya in 2011’. RT gets a lot of abuse for publishing ‘fake news’, but it does provide a public service in producing stories which otherwise don’t get any attention in the English-speaking media. This is a good example.

Norway played a leading role in NATO’s 2011 campaign to topple Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The Norwegian Air Force contributed six jets to the NATO mission, and dropped around 600 bombs on Libya, accounting for about 15% of the NATO total. At the time, the military campaign had almost unanimous support among Norwegian politicians, but by 2017 some of them had developed doubts, and so the Norwegian parliament instructed the government to conduct an inquiry into the operation. The report of the committee of inquiry has just been issued (unfortunately only in Norwegian), and can be downloaded here.

Outside of Norway, the press has almost entirely ignored the report, but RT picked it up, publishing an article entitled ‘Norway didn’t know much about Libya yet helped bomb it into chaos, state report finds.’ The article goes on to tell us that:

A Norwegian state report says the officials “had very limited knowledge” of what was going on in Libya, but promptly decided to join the US-led intervention, turning the once thriving North African nation into a terrorist hotbed. Norway rushed to help its NATO allies to pound Libya with airstrikes in 2011, without understanding what was actually happening on the ground or the dire consequences the intervention might lead to, a new state report has concluded. The commission, chaired by former Foreign Minister Jan Petersen, found that politicians in Oslo “had very limited knowledge of Libya” when they dragged the nation into the US-led bombing campaign against the Libyan government. “In such situations, decision-makers often rely on information from media and other countries,” the report says.

This perked my interest, so with the help of Google Translate, I’ve given the report a read. In fact, it says a lot more than the RT article suggests, and covers matters such as the legality and constitutionality of Norway’s war against Libya, the conduct of Norwegian military operations, and the humanitarian and political aspects of Norway’s involvement in Libya. What interests me most, however, are the findings concerning the decision-making process, so I will concentrate here on those.

As RT says, the report notes that Norwegian politicians knew very little about Libya or the conflict which erupted there in 2011. This is stated several times: ‘When the uprising started in February 2011, the knowledge about Libya among Norwegian decision makers was very limited’; ‘The Norwegian authorities had limited Libya expertise’; and so on. To compensate for this, the Norwegians relied on two sources: their allies, and the media. The former painted a very negative picture of the situation in Libya. According to the report, once Norway’s French and British allies had persuaded the UN Security Council to authorize military action, ‘the Norwegian authorities did not find it necessary to verify the Security Council’s understanding of the situation.’ As for the media, its reporting was one-sided and pressured the Norwegian government to act forcefully. Consequently, the report concludes, the evidence

suggests that warnings from, among others, Libyan opposition groups in exile, some regional actors, and human rights activists were accepted without any kind of critical examination.

In these circumstances, Norwegian leaders assumed the worst. Fearing that a massacre of the people of Benghazi was imminent, they felt that they needed to act immediately. According to the report, ‘The decision was taken in a very small circle’, and was ‘taken very quickly.’ The smaller parties in the ruling coalition were then ‘exposed to relatively large pressure’ to fall in line.

The speed of the decision-making left no time to adequately consider not only the evidence, but also the pros of cons of action and inaction. What becomes clear from the report is that Norwegian leaders considered only the possible negative consequences of failing to act without considering the possible negative consequences of acting. In particular, the report notes that the Norwegian government feared that if nothing was done, ‘there was a real danger that the country would be divided into two … the conflict would lead to government collapse and further fragmentation of what was already considered a dysfunctional state.’ It was feared that this might lead to a flood of refugees from Libya into Europe. What’s ironic about this is that exactly the things the Norwegians feared would happen if they didn’t act are what did happen because they did!

It is quite obvious from the report, however, that nobody thought of this. The report is written in the sort of bureaucratic style which doesn’t directly criticize policy. Instead, it hints, making suggestions which if you read between the lines point out that something went badly wrong. It concludes:

Norwegian authorities should work systematically in order to ensure the widest possible decision-making basis, including building up an organizational culture which facilitates a more systematic analysis of different scenarios and unknown variables. Possible measures are:

  • The establishment of so-called red teams, who have a mission to point out the challenges and consequences of an intervention.

  • Use of checklists in connection with the preparation of decisions. Such lists can be of great use in crisis situations, where a one-sided interpretation based on incomplete facts can weaken the understanding of the situation.

The fact that the committee of inquiry felt it necessary to make such recommendations is revealing. It indicates in a subtle way that the Norwegian government did not carry out a ‘systematic analysis of different scenarios and unknown variables’, and did not consider ‘the challenges and consequences of an intervention’, but did follow ‘a one-sided interpretation based on incomplete facts.’ It’s well-hidden, but it’s a pretty damning conclusion. Simply put, the government didn’t consider alternative possible outcomes of their actions, let alone weigh the pros and cons of different options, but just chose one option on the basis of inaccurate information which it didn’t bother properly to check.

To be fair, the report does take pains to point out that the Norwegian government was operating under intense pressure in what appeared to be an emergency situation which required a rapid decision, and that it did so in an atmosphere of great uncertainty. For this reason, it doesn’t criticize what was done but treats it as understandable in the circumstances. I have some sympathy with this perspective – it’s quite easy to criticize from a distance when one isn’t under the same sort of pressure and when, with the benefit of hindsight, one has the relevant information at one’s disposal. But, while I have some sympathy, I can’t ultimately accept the argument. In the first place, time pressure isn’t a reason not to consider the possible consequences of what one is planning to do. And second, neither the Norwegian government nor any of its NATO allies acted as if they were in a situation of uncertainty. Rather, the problem was that they seemed all too certain that their analysis was right and said as much in the most categorical terms.

In short, there was a rush to judgement. Alas, this wasn’t a one off. It’s a story we’ve seen repeated in many countries on numerous occasions in recent years. I wish I could say that it is shocking. Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise.

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Is irrationality a bad thing?

For the next three months, this blog will track my university course ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, with a post each week on the subject of that week’s class. The aim will be to analyze what makes politicians act in what seem to be irrational ways in their dealings with other countries.

Is irrationality a bad thing? That depends in part on how you define rationality. For the purpose of this post, I will limit myself to a definition which relates to process. A rational decision, according to this definition, is one reached on the basis of evidence rather than faith or emotion, and one for which the evidence has been weighed against several hypotheses to determine which best fits it. This is called ‘analytical reasoning’, and it is the sort of rational decision making which is taught in business schools and military academies – don’t prejudge the answer, collect as much evidence as possible, compare it objectively to several possible courses of action, analyze the costs and benefits of each course, and then pick the option which has the best cost-benefit ratio.

The reason for teaching businessmen and military officers to reason in this way is that it supposedly leads to the best results. It seems obvious that it should: after all, a better informed, properly reasoned plan of action should be better than a snap judgement. In his 1989 book Crucial Decisions: Leadership in Policymaking and Crisis Management Irving L. Janis argued that when political leaders use analytical decision making, they make better decisions. For instance, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 was a product of poor decision making processes in the American government, with President Kennedy failing to consult widely, consider alternatives, or analyze the likely outcome of his plan. By contrast, Kennedy succeeded in navigating the Cuban Missile Crisis precisely because he did use analytical reasoning.

Not everyone agrees with Janis, however. In class this week, we shall discuss Gary Klein’s 2011 book Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making. Klein points out that experts rarely use analytical decision making. While data is important in making good decisions, the expert only needs a limited amount. Research suggests that anything beyond that actually undermines decision making. Horse racing experts, for instance, make better decisions about which horse will win a race if they have just four or five pieces of data about the horse and the race conditions than if they have many more. Also, good decision makers don’t actually consider lots of alternative courses of action. Generally, they consider only one or two. They follow not their reason but their ‘gut’, an instinct based on experience. The experienced fire fighter or pilot, facing a crisis, can act immediately and decisively, reasoning not analytically according to the model above but through analogy with his previous experience. Analytical reasoning, says Klein, has its place, but generally it isn’t the best way of doing things.

Is Janis or Klein right? It depends. The fire fighter encounters fires on a regular basis. He acquires enormous experience in a relatively predictable environment. He has numerous examples to compare to the one he is currently encountering. He also, quite probably, doesn’t have the time to engage in analytical decision making. Relying on his ‘gut’ may well be the best way to go.

That does not mean, however, that the same is true at the political level. Take, for instance, a finance minister tackling an economic recession: how many previous recessions has he experienced as finance minister? Given that these come around only once a decade or so, probably none. He doesn’t have the experience to rely on ‘gut’.  Moreover, economics is a lot more complex than fire: one recession is not necessarily at all like another.

Now, take things to the level of international affairs. Some more routine matters, such as international trade, may resemble each other sufficiently for a politician to gain real experience in them, but such matters tend to be extremely technical and not easily subject to instinct. Meanwhile, serious international crises are never the same twice. How much experience do Western politicians have which is relevant to dealing with the crisis in Ukraine? Not a lot – there haven’t been any cases similar to the Russian takeover of Crimea, and none of the current Western leaders were in power the last time there was a war in Europe (twenty years ago in the Balkans). Lacking experience of their own to refer to, politicians who fail to engage in analytical reasoning have to fall back on historical analogy. Modern Russia is thus the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union; Putin is Stalin or Hitler, etc. The problem is not only that these analogies are faulty, but that policies based upon them fail to take into account the actual circumstances of the present day. The result is policies which fail to achieve their stated aims.

In short, politics isn’t fire fighting, and politicians are not fire fighters. Politicians simply aren’t experts in the way that other professionals are, or at least their expertise is in politics and not in making decisions on specific issues. Their decision making instincts are not reliable in the way those of other professionals may be. I remain unconvinced, therefore, that relying on those instincts is better than relying on reason.