Tag Archives: Rationality

The blob strikes back

Our semester starts today, with the first class in my course ‘Defence Policy and Military Affairs’. Early on, we’ll look at models of how a rational defence policy would in theory be made, and then we’ll go through each step of the policy process in more detail. Along the way, students (if they’re paying attention) should become aware that reality doesn’t fit the ideal model. Both process and outcomes can be decidedly odd.

As evidence, let’s take a look at some of the defence policy stories which popped up on my radar over the Christmas holidays.

The most recent, dating from yesterday, could be well titled ‘The Blob Strikes Back’ – the ‘Blob’ being a derogatory term for the American security establishment, an amorphous being which defies easy definition and is decidedly hard to pin down, but which exerts enormous power and which seems to be impervious to outside realities, continuing along its chosen path regardless of all the disasters it confronts, and causes, along the way. As alert readers will be aware, just before Christmas, US president Donald Trump announced that he intended to withdraw American troops from Syria. The reaction of the Blob was total outrage. Starting wars is something the American security establishment can cope with; ending them is something which causes it real difficulties. To be fair, the way Trump made his decision didn’t exactly fit with the rational policy making model. It seems like he was going to do one thing, but then spoke with Turkish president Recep Erdogan, and spontaneously decided to do something different. But that is his prerogative, and that part of the Blob which works for Trump couldn’t directly contradict him. Instead, we got what we might call ‘bureaucratic obstruction’. Officially, the policy remains in place, but the bureaucracy will enact it in such a way as to render it effectively null and void.

This became clear yesterday when National Security Advisor John Bolton declared that the US withdrawal from Syria is ‘conditional’. Bolton insisted that it depended on the final destruction of the Islamic State and on the US receiving assurances from Turkey that it would not attack America’s Kurdish allies. This means that US forces could remain in Syria for ‘months or years’. Trump – who gives the impression of being an extremely weak president, unable to hold his own against his officials – apparently caved in, declaring that he ‘never said we were doing it that quickly’. The result is that US policy is now apparently to withdraw, but also not to withdraw.

The Trump presidency would seem to be a paradigm of bizarre policy making processes – impetuous announcements from the leader followed by bureaucratic opposition, resulting in what can only be described as an incoherent mess. But it would be wrong to see this as a peculiar outcome of Trump’s unusual character. A quick look at defence policy in Canada, where I live, indicates that things aren’t much better elsewhere. The ongoing saga of Canada’s efforts to buy fighter planes is an indication. And then there was this story which appeared in the Canadian press earlier this week:

Nearly three years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to send weapons to Kurds in Iraq the armaments are still sitting in a military warehouse in Montreal. … The government went as far as arranging to have a military aircraft transport the weapons to the Kurdish region of Iraq, where Canadian special forces were to distribute them to Kurdish soldiers. … But the armaments, with an estimated value of around $10 million, got no further than the Canadian Forces Supply Depot in Montreal, where they remain. … A Department of National Defence official said no plans currently exist to distribute weapons in Iraq.

The reason for this fiasco? Before Trudeau announced that he would arm the Kurds he never bothered to check with the Iraqi government whether it was ok with that. As it turns out, the Iraqis weren’t ok with it, as they didn’t want Canada providing weapons to what they regard as a separatist force. As we used to say when I was in the army, ‘you don’t need the brains of an Archbishop’ to know that arming Kurds is somewhat incompatible with the objective of creating strong states in Iraq and Syria, likely to cause problems further down the line, and unlikely to be popular in Baghdad. As Canadian journalist David Pugliese points out, ‘ Some defence analysts warned the Canadian government and military from the beginning that providing the Kurds with weapons was a mistake.’ But I don’t think that anybody has ever suggested that Trudeau has the brains of an Archbishop. I don’t have insider information on how the government reached this decision, but it strikes me as likely that its zeal to be seen to be ‘doing something’ got in the way of rational analysis. This is defence policy as gesture politics. It’s not at all what it’s meant to be about. But it’s often what it ends up being.

Finally, we have an example of ludicrous policy making from British defence minister Gavin Williamson. For some time now, Williamson and his generals have been warning Britons about the terrible threat to their security posed by Russia. According to Williamson, Russia is ‘a bigger threat to Britain than were insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.’  According to the policy making models I show my students, in a rational world threats drive policy – you structure your defences to combat the dangers you perceive. So if Williamson really believes that Russia is the no.1 danger, his priority should be doing something about it. Instead, just after Christmas he gave a very bizarre interview to the Daily Telegraph in which he declared that he wanted to build new military bases in the Caribbean and the Far East!! Apparently, Singapore, Brunei, Montserrat and Guyana are on the shortlist.

Let’s return again to my policy planning models. In these, you’d come up with the idea of a base in  Montserrat, for instance, if when going through the process you determined that there was some vital national interest in the Montserrat area which was under threat and so required the presence of British military forces. Suffice it to say that this is not what Williamson has done. He mentions not a single reason why British security requires its military to be in Montserrat. Rather his logic is that post-Brexit:

This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world is expecting us to play. … This is our moment to be that true global player once more.

According to Williamson, foreign military bases would give the UK ‘influence’. Britons underestimate how other nations look at them, he claimed, adding that, ‘the rest of the world saw Britain standing 10 feet tall – when we actually stood six feet tall – Britons saw us standing five feet tall, not the six, and certainly not the ten.’ Williamson ‘also predicted Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Caribbean states and nations across Africa would look to the UK for “the moral leadership, the military leadership and the global leadership”.’

This really is preposterous nonsense. I know of no evidence that the world ‘is expecting’ Britain to play some enormous global role and is looking to the UK for ‘moral leadership, military leadership, and global leadership.’ This is just swagger – waving a big stick so that you can feel better about yourself. The giveaway is Williamson’s talk of feeling five feet tall when you’re actually six and others think you are ten. Simply put, his proposed military bases serve no military purpose. They’re just a means of letting Williamson feel that he’s taller than he actually is.

In all these cases – the United States, Canada, and the UK – we see utterly dysfunctional defence policy. There is a reason for this, I think. As I said above, in the ideal, rational model, the policy flows naturally out of analysis of threats. But Western states don’t actually face the sort of threats which require large-scale military establishments to keep them safe. If they were to follow the rational decision making model, they’d have to radically downsize their armed forces. But the Blob doesn’t like that. It’s wedded to the idea that military power is the measure of power. And so it goes around hunting for ways to keep the military’s profile high. Consequently, defence policy ceases to be about defence and becomes about ‘doing something’, prestige, and that extremely vague term ‘influence’. In all this, evidence that ‘doing something’ does any good, or that military activity really does bring prestige or influence is sadly absent. It should be no surprise, therefore, that so much defence policy is incoherent. We expect education policy to be about education; health policy to be about health; and so on. But for some reason, we don’t seem to worry that defence policy has so little to do with defence. Until that attitude changes, we’ll continue to get things wrong.

Selection and maintenance of the aim

Strategy, Clausewitz said, is about applying means to achieve ends. It follows that good strategy requires one first to select sensible and achievable ends, and second to ensure that one actually apply one’s resources in such a way as to advance towards those ends. This is what one might call ‘instrumental rationality’. Selecting objectives which don’t benefit you, or deliberately acting in a way which undermines your own objectives, is not instrumentally rational.

For good reason, therefore, the first ‘principle of war’ as taught to British and Canadian military officers is ‘selection and maintenance of the aim’. Pick a bad aim, or fail to maintain a good aim and instead get sidetracked into pursuing something else, and failure will almost certainly ensue.

This is pretty obvious stuff, but what is remarkable is how bad Western leaders are at putting it into practice.

Take, for instance, the so-called ‘War on Terror’. This began in 2001 with an invasion of Afghanistan designed to destroy Al-Qaeda. Having occupied Afghanistan, however, the Americans and their allies decided to shift focus to rebuilding the country, and so became involved in the longest war in American history, fighting an enemy (the Taleban) who don’t pose an obvious threat to the American homeland.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in 2003, the UK and USA got further distracted and decided to invade Iraq, on the dubious grounds that there was a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and that Saddam Hussein might provide Al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction. Once Iraq had been defeated, the Anglo-American alliance found itself fighting yet another insurgency. This involved not just Iraq’s Sunni minority, but also its Shia majority, which received support from Iran. Attention therefore now shifted yet again, with Iran being seen as the enemy no. 1. Commentators began stirring up fears of the ‘Shia Crescent’, stretching from Iran through Iraq and into Syria. American security was now associated with defeating those who made up this crescent. This meant undermining Iran and toppling the Assad regime in Syria. In this way, a war on terror originally designed to fight Sunni terrorists morphed into a war against Shia states.

The Arab Spring in 2011 then added yet another objective – democratizing the Middle East. Now the aim became toppling dictatorial regimes wherever they might be, in order to give a boost to the wave of democracy allegedly sweeping the region. Thus, NATO bombed Libya to ensure the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi. This, of course, then enabled Al-Qaeda to spread its influence in north Africa, most notably in Mali.

In short, Western states, especially the USA and UK, have changed the aims of their policies in the ‘war on terror’ multiple times over the past 16 years. And they are changing them backwards and forwards as I write. One day, their focus is on toppling Assad in Syria; the next, it’s defeating ISIS; then it’s back to toppling Assad again. It is no wonder that the Brits and the Americans have made such a hash of things. They are incapable of keeping their eye on the ball. They have no strategy worthy of the name.

The problem derives from their inability to choose achievable objectives in the first place. As they fail to reach each objective, they feel obliged to change their target in an effort to avoid admitting defeat.

This fundamental lack of realism can be seen in the Anglo-American approach to Russia, which is based on the assumption that Russia can be coerced into changing its policies in Ukraine and Syria. Boris Johnson’s efforts this week to drum up support for additional sanctions against Russia are a case in point. Yet to date, the policy of coercion has achieved no success, and there is no reason to believe that it will be any more successful in the future. Russia just isn’t going to abandon Donbass or Assad. It’s not going to happen. Wishing it won’t make it so. Boris can demand regime change in Syria all he wants, but he’s not going to achieve it. Regardless of whether it is desirable, by selecting this goal, he is dooming himself to failure.

So why do Western states persist in selecting unachievable objectives, in putting so much stock in what they would desire as opposed to what they can actually do? The answer, I think, is that they seem to be unwilling to admit that the days of their hegemony are over and that they are not the bearers of universal moral truth. Despite all the overwhelming evidence that they are not able to mould the world to their wishes, they fear the consequences of admitting this more than they fear the consequences of trying and failing. That is because the costs of the latter are borne by their publics and by the people at the receiving end of their interventions, but the former are borne by the politicians in the form of a humiliating reduction in prestige. Unsurprisingly, the politicians choose to transfer the costs onto others, aided and abetted by the media and the military-industrial complex, which have similarly invested in current policies and wish to avoid the backlash which an admission of failure would involve.

Things will only get better when our leaders start selecting sensible aims. When they do so, they will find that they can actually maintain these aims, and so achieve success. But that will only happen when the illusions of military hegemony and moral superiority vanish. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon, due to the psychological distress and political damage it would cause. Alas, therefore, I see no obvious way out of this mess for some time to come.

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.