Sunday, July 03, 2005

Less is more: Gladwell, Bush, and foreign policy

Beach reading

There's something to be said for simplicity. Reducing complex problems can improve your results, provided you've reduced your complexities thoughtfully. In his book on the value of quick thinking, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell gives numerous examples that demonstrate the dangers of considering too much information when assessing a problem. One such instance involved Brendan Reilly, a doctor at Cook County Hospital in the mid 1990s. Reilly became concerned that his ER frequently failed to accurately diagnose chest pain, thereby wasting valuable time and energy on non-urgent cases and putting urgent cases at greater risk. To fix this, he implemented a diagnostic algorithm developed years earlier by a physician named Goldman. Goldman's strict statistical analysis of heart attack predictors had determined that the most accurate way to assess a patient's risk is to consider only three factors (angina, fluid in the lungs, and systolic blood pressure). All other factors were left out of the algorithm as irrelevant, since they would simply lead the diagnosis and subsequent treatment astray more often than not. Goldman's algorithm had been neglected for years because it argues that less is more, under certain circumstances. Many doctors and researchers simply couldn't accept that more information might increase one's confidence while decreasing one's accuracy.

According to Gladwell, Reilly was right, ER triage was improved, lives were saved. I believe we can extrapolate this point into a lesson in the world of foreign policy, where circumstances often require a paring down of information in order to achieve a workable focus. Gladwell might pull out a bit of his copious hair at the thought of his work being used to vindicate Bush administration policy, but the comparison seems clear to me.

Many on the American left would happily attach Gladwell's book's subtitle, "The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" to the Bush administration, and so will I, though for different reasons and with a much different conclusion. For most of the 1990s America possessed a foreign policy based on subtlety--careful and almost scholarly consideration of every aspect of every conflict. Clinton, Berger, and Albright would watch the sun rise on another three-pizza-pie White House bull session, and yet it wouldn't seem we were much closer to knowing what to do. Events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia illustrate the dangers of diddling around too long in foreign policy triage. The Clinton administration's lack of any algorithm informing it how to handle Somalia's Aidid, the ascendant Osama bin Laden, or the odious Taliban left me quite ready for a less nuanced approach. And when it comes to the war on terror, Bush and Co. aren't much for nuance. (That's not to say they're incapable of nuance. The administration's approach to North Korea has been nuanced to the point of inscrutability, but I happen to agree that China should be the major player in that game, so I'm fine with our reticence so far. The idea that the Bush administration simply has no strategy with regard to North Korea is absurd. Not all strategies involve the 82nd Airborne, or even saber-rattling.)

In "Giving Justice Its Due" in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace inadvertently exemplifies the dangers of inviting too much information into your mental algorithms. He suggests that by stressing the value of liberty and failing to consider the importance of justice, the Bush administration has hogtied U.S. foreign policy. Just because we don't say "justice" doesn't mean we've tossed it in the dumpster; achieving a goal often requires defining that goal carefully, reducing it to its essense so we don't get led off track. Perkovich provides a perfect example of overanalysis leading to mental stumbling by following up with the theory that the concept of justice must be more in evidence in our foreign policy statements because Muslims possess a particularly keen sense of this particular principle. Passing off Islamic justice as actual justice in practice is a favorite dissimulation of the muddleheaded multiculturalist left. Islamists use the word justice quite a bit, but a quick survey of the state of things in the Muslim world reveals a crucial discrepency. To quote Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Islamic "justice" is a theistic, top-down affair that invariably and demonstrably leads to what we in the west call "injustice."

Perkovich demonstrates further how losing focus leaves us open to all kinds of obfuscation. He refers to Robert Pape's analysis of modern suicide terrorist campaigns, which concluded that they are driven by seven "contentious issues":
[T]he presence of U.S. and French forces in Lebanon, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Tamil quest for independence in Sri Lanka, the Kurdish quest for independence from Turkey, the Russian occupation of Chechnya, the Indian occupation of Kashmir, and the presence of U.S. forces on the Arabian Peninsula.

Now this is an interesting list, in that the five examples that comprise the vast majority of bombings can be clearly connected to jihadis whose dreams are not so much nationalistic or liberationist as they are Islamist. Of the other two, the Kurdish fight against Turkey is somewhat the opposite (but the Kurds have never made suicide bombing one of their hallmarks), and the actions of the Tamil Tigers has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam (well, almost nothing). Fewer than twenty suicide bombings have been attributed to them since 1987. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have alone claimed responsibility for nearly 100 suicide bombings in the last five years. With the simplest answer staring them right in the face, Perkovich and Pape violate Occam's Razor and suppose that the lesson to be learned here is that this particularly heinous form of terrorism results not from warped morals but from a noble adherence to principle, to goals "widely supported by their nationalist brethren." You better say brethren, because those goals don't offer much hope for the sisters. Pape's reported claim that the Tamil Tigers are "leading purveyors" of suicide terrorism verges on doublespeak. In any event, whether or not the Tamil Tigers are keeping up with other mass murderers is irrelevant. This kind of thinking--attempting to assimilate more and more extraneous information into the equation--leads straight into a relativistic rabbit hole, and it tends to favor deliberation over action, ad infinitum.

Let's try applying the same fuzzy analytical method to a past issue that's recently received a well-deserved reexamination: the widespread and unprosecuted lynching of black Americans in the century following Reconstruction. Here's what we would get.
Attacks on blacks in the Jim Crow south were driven by five contentious issues: alleged sexual harassment of white women by black men, supposed degradation of community values, a perceived increase in crime and drug abuse attributed to black youth, anger over economic hardships blamed on competition from black workers, and lingering resentment over the outcome of the Civil War and the subsequent domination of the South by Northern interests and politics.

Now on the face of it, some of these statements might represent legitimate grievances, but they serve to lead us off the point, which is that lynching is an evil act unjustifiable under any circumstance, and the only way to address this evil is to prosecute, prosecute, prosecute. Toss the evildoers in the clink, throw away the key. And don't spend a whole lot of time trying to understand their motivation--it's irrelevant. Now that doesn't mean that Southern white resentment should not be explored, understood, and addressed, just as it doesn't mean that there was never a black man who raped a white woman. It just means that one's got nothing to do with the other. Lynching is wrong. Strapping a bomb to your torso and blowing up a falafel joint or a hospital--or even a marketplace that happens to have a few collaborationist cops in it--is wrong. It violates any reasonable moral sense, and it violates the Geneva Conventions (which many apologists for Islamist and Baathist violence hold in high regard).

Virtually all of the indiscriminate suicide attacks we see today are the logical outgrowth of an evil that had gone unacknowledged for a century: a highly politicized and intolerant form of orthodox Islam. The simplest answer to this problem is to say, bluntly, that our intention is to eradicate this evil. In circumstances that require consensus, however, it's best to frame actions positively rather than negatively, so let's not say that our goal is solely to kill the tumor. The fastest way to do that is to kill the patient. The opposite of cancer-ridden is healthy, and the opposite of Islamist submission (pardon the redundancy) is liberty. So the Bush administration has chosen for its banner what it sees--correctly--as the antithesis of our enemies' driving principle. Muddling around with the equation by dragging in other items from our "Favorite Things" list merely softens our focus.

In the history of liberty and justice, one has always preceded the other. For people without liberty, there has never been justice. And in lands where liberty has prevailed, justice has soon followed. In South Africa, for example, no sane person suggested that questions of justice should be addressed prior to the liberation of the people from Apartheid. In Zimbabwe, however, Mugabe has attempted to preempt liberty with justice, and the results have been tragic. I understand Perkovich's concern that justice not be set aside, but following his argument could make the list of what we hope to spread a little lengthy, requiring a banner the size of a mainsail, with "liberty" at the top and "iced chai latte" at the bottom. He suggests, weakly, that "justice" should be on our minds and tongues because it's in the Pledge of Allegiance. Okay, but do we go back and rename the Liberty Bell the "Liberty and Justice Bell"? Should Jefferson have penned the "Declaration of Independence and Justice"? Should Lincoln have issued the "Emancipation and Justice Proclamation"? Bringing the Pledge of Allegiance into it is disingenuous anyway, since the pledge itself is more theatrics than law. It's got "God" in it now--does that mean we should tell the Muslim world we're fighting for God?

There is certainly a good deal the Bush administration has mucked up in its attempts at planetary renovation, but it's message is still on the mark. Liberty comes first. Everything else--even the iced chai latte--will follow.


Anonymous smb12321 said...

One of the best synoposis of modern political mis-thinking I have ever read. Many on the Left continue to pick and choose their morality...violence against cops is acceptable, rough treatment of criminals is to be deplored. Or worse, Palestinian violence is not only acceptable but logical. Whereas Israeli counterstrikes against that violence is bad and illogical.

Another good point was that words have contextual meanings such as "justice" to an Islamist and a Westerner. You could add "liberty" which many on the Left interpret to mean "license" as opposed to a concept relating to freedom.

6:00 PM  

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