Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Assumptions about foreign intervention dangerous

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In a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal (The Collapsing Obama Doctrine, June 17), former vice president Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz pin the blame the present chaos in the Middle East on U.S. President Barack Obama and his policies towards the region. They accuse him of willfully "sacrificing hard fought gains" won by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, allowing those countries to once again become safe havens for terrorists and other enemies of the United States.

This is not going to be a column attacking the Cheneys or doubting their right to criticize the current president's failed policies, given how directly Cheney's own decisions are responsible for creating the situation Obama is coping with. Nor is it a column defending their reasoning. There are plenty of other op-eds out there doing one or the other.

In fact, this column isn't about the Cheneys, their opponents, or even the present historical situation at all. It's about two premises that almost everyone writing foreign policy op-eds, position papers, and other international affairs-related advice share:

1) That the United States has the capacity to intervene effectively in other parts of the world.

2) That the United States understands the local situation well enough to intervene successfully (i.e. in a way that serves their own interests).

These premises are almost never examined, being assumed to be true in all discussions. The differences come down to each side denying that their opponents know how to intervene successfully. It's important to recognize them because they are assumed to be true and those assumptions are dangerous.

Let's grant the first premise -- that the U.S. has sufficient might to intervene effectively. "Effectively" here just means that they can make a difference in the situation, not that the difference is a positive one. Canada, by itself, would be hard-pressed to intervene to halt Iran's nuclear program. The United States, with its massive air force, could certainly intervene more effectively, but not necessarily be likely to achieve the result it wants.

It's the second premise where things get tricky. David Friedman, an American economist (son of Nobel laureate Milton Friedman), reminds us that just as governments find it difficult to centrally plan their economic activity they face even greater difficulties when they try to successfully plan a foreign intervention, whether economic, diplomatic, or military. For one thing, they will inevitably possess less knowledge about a foreign country than they do about their own country. The incentives for deep knowledge about foreign affairs are not there.

Even when significant resources are devoted to finding out what's going on in other countries, that information is never flawless: the people providing it (spies in the countries in question) have their own agendas. Worst of all, there is a significant lag between receiving information, deciding how to act on it, and getting news back about how well your chosen course of action worked. All this requires the government to be able to predict which way things are going. Couple that with the fact that, as the psychologist Philip Tetlock reminds us, experts are notoriously poor at making accurate, specific, and usable predictions about events in their own field, and the prospects are not high that any foreign policy that tries to change "facts on the ground" will have enough information to succeed by anything other than luck.

Friedman's argument is not a knockdown argument against the idea of any foreign interventions at all. What it does is set the bar very high for any meddling in foreign countries. Think of all the waste of blood and treasure the United States could have avoided if it had been a bit more willing to examine their premises before undertaking foreign adventures.

Whenever you feel tempted to say "we should do something about "X," where "X" is a war or genocide or other terrible event taking place in a faraway country, ask yourself just what you would need to know in order to intervene successfully. Be very specific and don't leave out or fudge over any details. Then think about how you would find out the answers to those questions, and how difficult that information would be to gather and verify. Pretty soon you'll see what a formidable task even a supposedly "easy win" in a foreign country can be.

Michael Flood is a writer and creative director at Arrowseed, an Edmonton-based marketing firm.

-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2014 A11

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