Monday, February 25, 2008

Hope is Not A Prediction

Jim Henley flags an interesting passage in a recent LA Times piece (emphasis his):

And the United States, which backed Kosovo’s separation from Serbia and was among the first countries to recognize it as a new nation, will receive the brunt of Serbian fury.

Far from stabilizing the region, as the Bush administration had forecast, the move by Kosovo has launched a period of volatile uncertainty.

Henley responds appropriately:

Surely, surely even the Bush administration can’t have forecast that a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo in the face of Serb objections, outside the UN process and opposed by Russia, would "stabilize the region" - particularly when, and maybe you’ve noticed by not noticing, the region has been relatively quiet for years.

Right. It's one thing to accept the costs of a given policy yet still conclude that the benefits outweigh those costs (a plausible argument in the present example). It is another entirely to suggest that the costs don't exist at all - and that, in fact, benefits will emerge on the pivot of those very costs. So it is that Kosovo's push for independence was not expected to lead to destabilization - not even the status quo ante in terms of stability. No, actual stabilization will result! Or not.

Yglesias is right that there has been some level of neglect for the situation in that region, leading to reactive rather than proactive policy (partly due to the fact athat Iraq has voraciously been hording the limited supply of resources and attention of US government policymakers).

At the end of the day, recognizing Kosovo['s] independen[ce] was probably the best choice to make, but it's a very problematic path. It's the kind of thing that, before you do it, you need to lay the most groundwork possible and also have plans in place for dealing with the fallout. Instead, the administration seems to have kind of wandered into it as a kind of afterthought.

Neglect might have forced policymakers into a reactive posture in this example, leaving them to make due with a bad situation after the Kosovar's moved faster than anticipated and without our taking the steps suggested by Matt. Thus, we get some ex post facto spin about expected stabilization in order to justify the outcome and appear in control (though highlighting one's ignorance is a method of dubious value when seeking to bolster confidence in one's ability to guide events).

That doesn't tell the entire story, however. Even with respect to developments in regions that are fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of the Bush administration's unblinking focus and planning, similar mistakes have been made, and they fit a pattern.

Early on in the electoral process in Iraq, the Bush administration was flummoxed by the success of the UIA - predicting, instead, strong showings for candidates like Ayad Allawi and Ahmad Chalabi (though with respect to Chalabi, pre-war analysis pegged him as popular enough in Iraq such that elections wouldn't really be necessary for several years as he could be implanted as a friendly leader almost immediately). As the actual levels of Allawi and Chalabi's popularity (nil) have become clear through successive elections, we have been left to cobble together an incoherent and contradictory patchwork of policies whereby we are stuck in the peculiar position of defending allies of Iran in the Iraqi government from former-Baathist and insurgent groups that we are now arming, funding and training as well.

Then, after pushing democratic elections as the panacea for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and promising cooperation once the Palestinians embraced democratic reforms (and, presumably, the Fatah party) via elections, the Bush team was caught flat-footed by a Hamas victory that ran counter to predictions. Condi Rice admitted:

"I've asked why nobody saw it coming," Rice said Sunday, speaking of her own staff. "It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse." [...]

Rice said that the election results surprised just about everyone. "I don't know anyone who wasn't caught off guard by Hamas's strong showing," she said on her way to London for meetings on the Middle East, Iran and other matters. "Some say that Hamas itself was caught off guard." [...]

"There is a lot of blame to go around," said Martin Indyk, a top Middle East negotiator in the Clinton administration, referring to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and his Fatah party. "But on the American side the conceptual failure that contributed to disaster was the president's belief that democracy and elections solve everything."

As a result, punitive measures taken against democratically-elected Hamas, and a refusal to engage that party's leadership, has greatly tarnished efforts of democracy promotion in the region, casting extreme - and justifiable - doubt on our intentions.

Most recently, the Bush team invested its "capital" in Pervez Musharraf, expecting him to do well enough in elections to maintain his role as president. In banking on a Musharraf victory (or strong showing), the Bush team failed to cultivate relationships with other candidates/parties - you know, the ones that would actually be receiving the votes and thus be in the driver's seat. In the process, we have also become closely identified with an extremely unpopular political force in Pakistan. Well played.

This wishful-thinking-as-policy-making is symptomatic of serious flaws in the Bush administration's larger policy-making process. The Bush team tends to pick a desired policy first, and then seek out supporting evidence, data, intelligence and planning (rather than letting the policy grow out of a clash of ideas/debate with all data on the table). This is an inversion of the empirical-based, dialectical approach that, historically, tends to generate superior results (or at least results that comport with reality). It was in this mode of policy-making that the vast literature on Iraq (and many actual experts) was cast aside in favor of pollyannic predictions, ideologically pure (or biased) sources and true believers.

At its root, there is a hubristic overestimation of the ability to shape events and bend them to our will, regardless of what the empiricists report. The problem, of course, is that the rest of the world has this crazy notion that they get a say. Ignoring what the target population is likely to say or do simply because it contradicts the favored narrative, or because our leaders believe that America can run roughshod over the will of the target population, is not only sophomoric, it has devastating real world effects.

In all of the above cited examples, we would have been in a better/stronger position to achieve positive outcomes if we had built plans around likely outcomes, rather than desired ones. It is frequently said in response to Iraq war plans that are based largely on luck and hope as a means to deliver increasingly ephemeral "victory," that "hope is not a plan." Relatedly, the Bush administration needs to remember that "hope is not a prediction.

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