Note: This is the second part of a guest post by Peter T. For the first part, see here.
The IR literature is not very good on how to recognise and deal with country-size pools of irrationality. This is not one deluded leader and associated sycophants being irrational, which is very common indeed and extensively explored, but a whole establishment going around with eyes wide shut. A good historical example is Wilhelmine Germany, whose diplomatic and military calculations were routinely made on the strategic equivalent of assuming, when convenient, that gravity does not exist. In our time, we have a large number of influential people having difficulty with a straightforward piece of high-school science (admitting that checking the conclusions involves some not-so-high school statistics. But, come on, these people read the Financial Times), while other influential people argue that, yes, the science is right, but can we afford to do anything? Meanwhile the plants have moved 100 kilometers or so poleward. At the collective level, these people are literally dumber than carrots.
Why is this so hard? One factor is that policy arguments more or less assume ab initio that things are, in fact, explainable in rational terms. “Everyone is mad” is not a helpful starting point. Another is that the policy mind exists to solve problems; it hiccups when it comes up against “This cannot be done”. These situations are labelled “wicked problems,” but it's mostly not the problem itself that's wicked, it's that the solutions lie outside the accepted boundaries, and that changing the boundaries is not on the policy menu. Very Serious People (VSPs) often wear quite narrow blinkers.
Really bad ideas get put off limits, after repeated experiences. The lessons become standard phrases: Do Not March on Moscow; Never Get Involved in a Land War in Asia. Do Not Put Boots on the Ground in the Middle East is not quite there yet. We Have Only One Planet will be up there in a few decades.
So what lessons might one draw from a long series of rational decisions that still ended up in a total mess? The first is about the limits of realpolitik. The presumption that everyone acts in their own interest, and that therefore all promises or commitments come with fingers crossed, is both old and very common. While it does not preclude playing for very high stakes indeed (Saddam Hussein knew that his lieutenants' professions of loyalty were not to be relied on, just as they knew that his professions of friendship and protection were similarly hollow. So they plotted his overthrow, and he executed one from time to time), it does rely on a general acceptance that this is actually the rule of the game. The Austrian Foreign Minister who remarked of Russian help in a critical moment that “we will amaze the world with the depths of our ingratitude” could be sure of getting an appreciative chuckle from his fellows, even in St. Petersburg. People lower down the social scale are less likely to be amused. Repeated bad experiences with a foreign power’s policy choices will get a lot of people thinking very hard about how to get out of the game: to lessen or annul their dependence on the foreigners (usually this involves a messy change of leadership. In which case the realpolitik practitioners lose all leverage. If they are indifferent to your viewpoint, why talk to them at all? See China 1949, Iran 1979, possibly Greece 2015?). When a state takes this route, it will come back into the game with a much stronger sense of its own interests and a good few red lines that are simply not negotiable.
Again, this comes back to the blinkers worn with pride by all the VSPs. A true realpolitik would think carefully about where other people were coming from; their national pride, their obsessions, their emotional commitments. It would try to gauge local and mass feelings as well as the preferences of the elites. It would ask “can we do this?” before it asked “how do we do this?”. What passes for realpolitik all too often counts tanks but not the will to drive them, money but not on what it is spent.
A related point is that pursuing a primary goal at the expense of other, secondary, goals is often counterproductive. This is more than finding the balance between the long and the short term. Number One on the little lists of the Rules of War found in the business section of the bookshop (“Leadership Secrets of [insert psycho war-monger of your choice]”) is usually “Keep your eyes firmly on the main game”. Unfortunately, Number Two is “Keep checking that what you think is the Main Game is, in fact, the Main Game”. For your adversaries and partners may not be playing your game. Rule Two is often sadly neglected.
The U.S. thought the point of the Vietnam War was to defeat the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese militarily. The VC and North Vietnamese thought the point was retaining enough allegiance among the Southern population to prevent the construction of a broad-based South Vietnamese state. In Afghanistan, the U.S. thought the main game was to bleed the Soviet Union (tellingly, one policy-maker wrote of the “ennui” of the international community towards Afghanistan in the ‘90s, as if Afghanistan were a toy one had become bored with). It gave no thought to the maintenance of an Afghan state, or the spread of radical Islam. If the First Gulf War was about oil, then the U.S. gave little thought to what the debilitation of Saddam's regime might offer to the various ethnic and religious groups of Iraq, or to Iran, or to wider Arab opinion. Whatever the Second Gulf War was about, there is little evidence that U.S. policy-makers gave much thought to anything other than the Vice-Presidential desire to get Saddam.
What is evident is that it cannot be presumed that policy-makers will pay attention to basic facts about the world unless really compelled to (and maybe not even then). It is often not so much that they are ignorant or ill-informed as often simply indifferent. Facts are there to support the policy, not to form it. When the facts involve foreigners, who can be presumed to be mysterious and irrational, they are of even less account. People who understand every nuance of domestic political culture blithely dismiss history when it comes to the Middle East.
The facts ignored are not esoteric: many of them are available in plain view on the helpful one-page overviews in the CIA World Factbook. Iraq: Kurdish 15-20%, Shi'ite Islam 60-65%. Hmm. If the CIA tells me this, maybe it's important. Perhaps I can type “Shia” into the search engine? Oh, look, Wikipedia tells me that Iran is Shia, that these guys take this really seriously, that the Saudis massacred lots of Shia back then, that the Iranian and Iraqi clerical leadership are very close and so on. And a further five minutes tells me that the Kurds are not happy with rule from Baghdad. So the Shia will help conditional on getting to govern, the Kurds will help conditional on autonomy, and the Sunni will fight. Maybe I had better think about what that word “conditional” implies, eh? A quick look at the page for Afghanistan tells me it's a melange of different groups held together by bribes and occasional shows of brute force. In others words, about as resistant to an influx of arms and foreign fanatics as a kid's cubby-house to a bomb. Current headline: $400 million of U.S. arms falls into Yemeni Shia rebel hands. Who could have known?
Alfred North Whitehead remarked that “it takes a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” It is the obvious -- that Moscow is a long way east, that China is too large and populous to subdue permanently, that religion is at the centre of political identity to most Middle Easterners -- that eludes the usual minds.
-- Peter T.