President Obama, You’re the Fish in this Morbid Game of Poker

I believe the Obama administration’s planned punitive strikes on Syria are wrong for larger reasons (see here for a 2012 post that’s still relevant today), but I’m also convinced that they’re likely to be ineffective for the narrower goal of deterring the use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond. I don’t mean to make light of a horrible situation, but I think a gaming analogy can help show why.

Think of the repeated interactions between the Assad regime and the U.S. as a single game of poker with several hands. In 2011, President Obama said Assad had to go, and the U.S. hinted that it would intervene to support the Syrian opposition. That was a raise, Assad called it, and the U.S. effectively folded that hand by not following through on its initial raise.

More recently, President Obama declared the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that Assad’s forces must not cross, and then they crossed that line, apparently more than once before the massive attack near Damascus on 21 August. Again, the administration made a raise in hopes of driving Assad off his hand, but again Assad re-raised.

Now the Obama administration is threatening to strike Assad’s forces to punish him for the CW attack. While making this threat, though, the administration is simultaneously signaling that a) the attack will be limited and b) the administration hopes not to have to do more. These terms are more or less written into the authorization Congress is now considering, and they are being reiterated every time a member of the administration makes a public case for a military response.

In poker terms, this approach is like trying to drive your opponent off a pot with a modest bet when you hold a weak hand. Unless your opponent has really weak cards, that kind of bet is usually more effective at enticing that opponent to stay in the hand, not encouraging him to fold. In the Syrian case, the Assad regime has repeatedly signaled that it will play every hand to the end, so this kind of bet will almost certainly not have the desired effect.

That outcome is even more likely if the opponent has good reason to think your hand is weak. When the Obama administration can’t muster much domestic or international support for its punitive strikes and whatever support it can muster is predicated on those strikes being very limited in their scope and intent, then I’d say that’s easy to read as a weak hand. It’s a bit like waving around a pair of eights and threatening to make a small raise. To drive a committed rival to fold, you need to really change the expected value of the pot, and this approach simply doesn’t do that to a regime that has shown itself to be deeply committed to playing every hand to the end.

Some supporters of punitive strikes seem to think the effect those strikes would have on Assad’s forces is less important than the signal this action would send to potential future violators. The goal is not to hurt Assad as much as it’s to reinforce the norm. Unfortunately, the same problem extends to future hands with other players, too. If I were a ruler considering using chemical weapons at some later date, the lesson I think I’d have learned from Syria so far is that the rest of the world actually isn’t willing to pay a steep cost to reinforce this supposed norm for its own sake. In fact, we’ve developed a tell: if the stakes are high for other reasons, our initial raise will probably be a bluff, and it probably won’t be that costly to stay in the hand and see if that’s right.

I can see two paths out of the current situation. One is to acknowledge that our tepid raise has failed to drive Assad off this pot and go ahead and fold this hand. The outcome is essentially the same, and we don’t incur bigger losses getting there. The other is to change the hand we’re playing by committing to do whatever it takes to prevent Assad’s forces from using chemical weapons again. In other words, we commit to regime-defeating war if necessary and we signal that stronger commitment to Assad’s forces and their backers as clearly as possible.

If this more aggressive approach isn’t both feasible and desirable—and I believe it’s neither—it’s hard for me to see what’s gained by continuing to pretend that’s the hand we’re playing when everyone knows it isn’t and calling yet another of the Assad regime’s horrible raises.

A Faith-Based Initiative of Another Kind

According to AP, the U.S. government is considering deepening its ties with Myanmar’s military again, to include a re-up of the human-rights training programs American soldiers and lawyers do with scores of other countries and have done in Myanmar before.

With the backing of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, U.S. defense legal experts last week made their second trip to Myanmar in two months, scoping out what help they can provide on teaching about human rights and the rule of law…

With a quasi-civilian government in place and national elections due in 2015, the Obama administration argues that talking “soldier-to-soldier” with Myanmar on issues like military justice and military-civilian relations can encourage reform and help the U.S. build ties with a military it knows little about…

Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. charge d’affaires in Yangon, says standing on the sidelines doesn’t serve U.S. interests. “We need to reach into the organization of the military and help educate people and expose them to new ideas,” she said.

The idea that these training programs deepen the recipient military’s commitment to democracy and human rights is essentially a matter of faith. As a GAO report referenced in the AP story makes clear, we have no idea how effective these programs are because we haven’t really tried to measure their impact.

Since 1976, the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program has provided education and training to foreign military personnel. The program’s objectives include professionalizing military forces and increasing respect for democratic values and human rights…

State and DOD’s ability to assess IMET’s effectiveness is limited by several weaknesses in program monitoring and evaluation. First, State and DOD have not established a performance plan for IMET that explains how the program is expected to achieve its goals and how progress can be assessed through performance measures and targets. Second, State and DOD have limited information on most IMET graduates, due to weaknesses in efforts to monitor these graduates’ careers after training…Third, the agencies’ current evaluation efforts include few of the evaluation elements commonly accepted as appropriate for measuring progress of training programs, and do not objectively measure how IMET contributes to long-term, desired program outcomes.

Even in the absence of rigorous monitoring and evaluation, a cursory review of relevant cases makes it hard to accept the premise that these programs are having the presumed effect. Egypt’s military has been the beneficiary of these programs (and much, much more) from the U.S. for many years, and they’ve just perpetrated a coup and a mass killing in the span of a single summer. As the Washington Post reported last year, the leader of Mali’s 2012 coup, then-Capt. Amadou Sanogo, “received military training in the U.S. on ‘several occasions’,” as did many of his compatriots. A high-profile murder trial underway right now in Indonesia involves a dozen troops from a special-forces unit that received training and assistance from the U.S. for many years, even as they were committing gross human-rights violations. So far, I haven’t even mentioned the School of the Americas. The list goes on and on and on.

And, of course, there’s the profound irony that the U.S. did exactly this kind of training in Myanmar before, for eight years. As that AP story notes,

The U.S. financed $4.7 million in military sales delivered to Myanmar between 1980 and 1988, and trained 167 officers at American military schools under [IMET].

Why did those sales and training suddenly stop in 1988? Oh, yeah

Near the start of this post, I claimed that American officials’ and officers’ belief in these programs’ effectiveness is a matter of faith. A cynic might point out that effectiveness depends on the goal. If the goal is to discourage military partners from intervening in their home countries’ politics and committing gross human-rights violations, the litany of historical counter-examples makes it hard for a civilian social scientist like me to understand how that faith is sustained. If, however, the goal is to provide a fig leaf for partnerships our government pursues for other reasons, then IMET seems to be working just fine.

What Should the U.S. Do in Syria: Survey Results and Lessons on Process

A few days ago, I used the All Our Ideas platform to create a pairwise wiki survey asking, “Which action would you rather see the United States take next in Syria?” I did this partly to get a better sense of peoples’ views on the question posed, and partly to learn more about how to use this instrument. Now, I think it’s a good time to take stock on both counts.

First, some background. A pairwise wiki survey involves a single question with many possible answers. Respondents are presented with answers in pairs, one pair at a time, and asked to cast a vote for one or the other item. The overarching question determines what that vote is about, but the choice always entails a comparison (more, better, more likely, etc.). Respondents can also choose not to decide, and they can propose their own answers to add to the mix. Here’s a screenshot from my survey on U.S. policy in Syria that shows how that looks in action:

syria wiki survey respondent interface screenshot

You vote by clicking on one of the big blue boxes or the smaller “I can’t decide” button tucked under them, or you propose your own answer by writing it into in the “Add your own ideas here…” field at the bottom. Once you vote on one pair, you’re presented with another pair, and you can repeat this process as many times as you like. To make each vote as informative as possible, the All Our Ideas platform doesn’t select answers for each pairing at random. Instead, it uses an algorithm that favors answers with fewer completed appearances. This adaptive approach spreads the votes evenly across the field of answers, and it helps newly-added answers quickly catch up with older ones. The resulting pairwise votes are converted into aggregate ratings using a Bayesian hierarchical model that estimates a set of collective preferences that’s most consistent with the observed data.

I’m already experimenting with pairwise wiki surveys as a way to forecast rare events, but this question about how the U.S. should respond to events in Syria is closer to their original purpose of identifying and ranking a set of options that aren’t exhaustive or mutually exclusive. In situations like these, it’s often easy to criticize or tout each option on its own. Comparing them all in a coherent way is usually much harder, and that’s what the pairwise wiki survey helps us do.

So, what did the respondents to my survey think the U.S. should do now about Syria? The screenshot below shows where things stood around 8:45 AM Eastern time on Tuesday, September 3, after more than 1,400 votes had been cast in nearly 100 unique user sessions. (For the latest results, click here.)

syria wiki survey results 20130903 0842

Clearly, the crowd that’s found its way to this survey so far is not keen on the Obama administration’s plan for military strikes in Syria in response to the chemical-weapons attack that took place on 21 August. The two options that come closest to that stated plan—limited strikes on targets associated with Syria’s chemical weapons capability or limited strikes to degrade various aspects of its military—both rank in the bottom half, below “Do nothing” and “Strongly condemn the Syrian regime.” The idea of military strikes targeting Assad and other senior regime officials—the so-called decapitation approach—ranks last, and increased military aid to Syrian rebels, another option the U.S. government is already pursuing, doesn’t rank much higher. What this crowd wants from the U.S. instead are increased humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians, broader and tighter sanctions on the Syrian regime and its “enablers,” and more pushing for formal talks among the warring parties.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that the results of this survey accurately capture the contours of public opinion in the U.S. or anywhere else. Frankly, I don’t really know how representative they are. As implemented here, a pairwise wiki survey is a form of crowdsourcing. The big advantage of crowdsourcing is the ability quickly and cheaply to get feedback from large group, but that efficiency sometimes comes at the cost of not knowing a lot about who is responding. I know that the participants in my Syria survey come from six continents (see the map below). but I don’t collect any information about the respondents as they vote, so I can’t say anything about how how representative my crowd is of any larger population, or how the characteristics of individual respondents relate to the preferences they express. All I can say with confidence is that these results are probably a reliable gauge of the views of the crowd that became aware of the survey through my blog post and Twitter and other social-media shares and were motivated to respond. I think it’s reassuring that the results of my wiki survey generally accord with the results of traditional public-opinion surveys in the U.S. (e.g., here and here) and elsewhere (e.g., Germany), but it would be irresponsible to make any strong claims about public opinion from these data alone.

Syria wiki survey vote map 20130903 0908

I hope to put this instrument to more ambitious uses in the future, so I’ll close with a lesson learned about how to do it better: respondents really need to be given some explanation about how the survey works before they’re asked to start voting. I rushed to get the Syria survey online because I was trying to get out the door for a bike ride and didn’t include anything in my blog post or tweets about how the voting process works. From the things some people wrote in the submit-your-own-idea field, it quickly became clear that many visitors were confused. Some apparently thought the initial pair presented were the only options being considered, so they either complained directly about that (“This survey, I hope, is designed to demonstrate to takers the way questioners of surveys control the outcome with push-polling”) or proposed adding ideas that were already covered (e.g., “Neither” when “Do nothing” was already on the list, or “Aid to refugees and camps” when “Increase humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians” was an option). I also think the “I can’t decide” button and the options it offers (press it and see) are a really important feature that respondents may overlook because it can be hard to see. Next time, I won’t share a direct link to the survey and will instead embed the link at the bottom of a blog post that describes the voting process and calls out the “I can’t decide” feature first.

What Should the U.S. Do Now in Syria?

You tell me.

To help you do that, I’ve created a pairwise wiki survey on All Our Ideas. Click HERE to participate. You can vote on the options I listed or add your own.

Results are updated in real time. Just click on the View Results tab to see what the crowd is saying so far.

Before you add an idea, make sure it isn’t already covered in the existing set by clicking on the View Results tab and then the View All button at the bottom of the list.

Yes, Forecasting Conflict Can Help Make Better Foreign Policy Decisions

At the Monkey Cage, Idean Salehyan has a guest post that asks, “Can forecasting conflict help to make better foreign policy decisions?” I started to respond in a comment there, but as my comment ballooned into several paragraphs and started to include hyperlinks, I figured I’d go ahead and blog it.

Let me preface my response by saying that I’ve spent most of my 16-year career since graduate school doing statistical forecasting for the U.S. government and now wider audiences and plan and expect to continue doing this kind of work for a while. That means I have a lot of experience doing it and thinking about how and why to do it, but it also means that I’m financially invested in an affirmative answer to Salehyan’s rhetorical question. Make of that what you will.

So, on to the substance. Salehyan’s main concern is actually an ethical one, not the pragmatic one I inferred when I first saw the title of his post. When Salehyan asks about making decisions “better,” he doesn’t just mean more effective. In his view,

Scholars cannot be aloof from the real-world implications of their work, but must think carefully about the potential uses of forecasts…If social scientists will not use their research to engage in policy debates about when to strike, provide aid, deploy troops, and so on, others will do so for them.  Conflict forecasting should not be seen as value-neutral by the academic community—it will certainly not be seen as such by others.

On this point, I agree completely, but I don’t think there’s anything unique about conflict forecasting in this regard. No scholarship is entirely value neutral, and research on causal inference informs policy decisions, too. In fact, my experience is that policy frames suggested by compelling causal analysis have deeper and more durable influence than statistical forecasts, which most policymakers still seem inclined to ignore.

One prominent example comes from the research program that emerged in the 2000s on the relationship between natural resources and the occurrence and persistence of armed conflict. After Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler famously identified “greed” as an important impetus to civil war (here), numerous scholars showed that some rebel groups were using “lootable” resources to finance their insurgencies. These studies helped inspire advocacy campaigns that led, among other things, to U.S. legislation aimed at restricting trade in “conflict minerals” from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, several years later, other scholars and advocates have convincingly shown that this legislation was counterproductive. According to Laura Seay (here), the U.S. law

has created a de facto ban on Congolese mineral exports, put anywhere from tens of thousands up to 2 million Congolese miners out of work in the eastern Congo, and, despite ending most of the trade in Congolese conflict minerals, done little to improve the security situation or the daily lives of most Congolese.

Those are dire consequences, and forecasting is nowhere in sight. I don’t blame Collier and Hoeffler or the scholars who followed their intellectual lead on this topic for Dodd-Frank 1502, but I do hope and expect that those scholars will participate in the public conversation around related policy choices.

Ultimately, we all have a professional and ethical responsibility for the consequences of our work. For statistical forecasters, I think this means, among other things, a responsibility to be honest about the limitations, and to attend to the uses, of the forecasts we produce. The fact that we use mathematical equations to generate our forecasts and we can quantify our uncertainty doesn’t always mean that our forecasts are more accurate or more precise than what pundits offer, and it’s incumbent on us to convey those limitations. It’s easy to model things. It’s hard to model them well, and sometimes hard to spot the difference. We need to try to recognize which of those worlds we’re in and to communicate our conclusions about those aspects of our work along with our forecasts. (N.B. It would be nice if more pundits tried to abide by this rule as well. Alas, as Phil Tetlock points out in Expert Political Judgment, the market for this kind of information rewards other things.)

Salehyan doesn’t just make this general point, however. He also argues that scholars who produce statistical forecasts have a special obligation to attend to the ethics of policy informed by their work because, in his view, they are likely to be more influential.

The same scientific precision that makes statistical forecasts better than ‘gut feelings’ makes it even more imperative for scholars to engage in policy debates.  Because statistical forecasts are seen as more scientific and valid they are likely to carry greater weight in the policy community.  I would expect—indeed hope—that scholars care about how their research is used, or misused, by decision makers.  But claims to objectivity and coolheaded scientific-ness make many academics reluctant to advocate for or against a policy position.

In my experience and the experience of every policy veteran with whom I’ve ever spoken about the subject, Salehyan’s conjecture that “statistical forecasts are likely to carry greater weight in the policy community” is flat wrong. In many ways, the intellectual culture within the U.S. intelligence and policy communities mirrors the intellectual culture of the larger society from which their members are drawn. If you want to know how those communities react to statistical forecasts of the things they care about, just take a look at the public discussion around Nate Silver’s election forecasts. The fact that statistical forecasts aren’t blithely and blindly accepted doesn’t absolve statistical forecasters of responsibility for their work. Ethically speaking, though, it matters that we’re nowhere close to the world Salehyan imagines in which the layers of deliberation disappear and a single statistical forecast drives a specific foreign policy decision.

Look, these decisions are going to be made whether or not we produce statistical forecasts, and when they are made, they will be informed by many things, of which forecasts—statistical or otherwise—will be only one. That doesn’t relieve the forecaster of ethical responsibility for the potential consequences of his or her work. It just means that the forecaster doesn’t have a unique obligation in this regard. In fact, if anything, I would think we have an ethical obligation to help make those forecasts as accurate as we can in order to reduce as much as we can the uncertainty about this one small piece of the decision process. It’s a policymaker’s job to confront these kinds of decisions, and their choices are going to be informed by expectations about the probability of various alternative futures. Given that fact, wouldn’t we rather those expectations be as well informed as possible? I sure think so, and I’m not the only one.

The Quixote, er, Magnitsky Act Kicks In

The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, a.k.a. the Magnistky Act, went live yesterday, when the U.S. government imposed visa bans and asset freezes on 18 Russian citizens, most of them government officials, over their alleged involvement in gross human-rights violations. Less than 24 hours later, the Russian government responded in kind, releasing its own list of American citizens who would be barred from entering its territory because they had been “implicated in human rights violations.”

I happen to think the Magnitsky Act is a mistake, a well-intentioned but quixotic and ultimately counterproductive attempt to express anger over the horrible things Russia’s sistema is doing to its own people.

If David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova are right, then my frustration with the Magnitsky Act makes me a “staunch supporter of Kissingerian-style realpolitik.” Last December, Kramer and Shevtsova wrote a piece for The American Interest endorsing the act and laying out the case for its importance and potential effectiveness.  They acknowledge that the Act’s chief aim is to express certain values, to reject the “transactional” version of international politics in favor of a “normative” politics grounded in universal human rights. At the same time, they also argue that, “by limiting their external resources and hindering their elites’ personal integration into the West,” the act can have some practical effect on the durability of Russia’s authoritarian regime. For this “Magnitsky factor” to kick in, Kramer and Shevtsova acknowledge, the European Union will have to adopt similar measures, “since Europe is the main recipient of Russia’s corrupt exports.” Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen, and I’m dubious that it will.

Even if that doesn’t happen, though, Kramer and Shevtsova believe the Act is a good thing because it pushes international relations in the correct direction.

Incorporating the Magnitsky approach into the West’s foreign policy does make it more complex. The West will have to abandon its traditional methods and stereotypes and move on to a multi-step diplomacy that may not yield immediate results. But this is no loss: current Western diplomacy no longer involves strategic thinking. The West may boast of its tactical successes, but these come at the expense of strategic failures. The question is whether Western diplomacy will be able to move on to normative politics.

As they see it, diplomacy should serve above all else as an instrument for affirming and promoting liberal democratic values—which, they presumably believe, are self evident and universal. To promote these universal values, Western diplomats should stop cooperating with corrupt autocrats and should instead reach out directly to other countries’ citizens, who, they argue, would welcome the West’s overt repudiations of their corrupt elites.

For the life of me, though, I simply can’t understand how this “normative politics” is actually supposed to work. Politics is the name we’ve given to the process of people trying to work out how to get along in shared spaces with mutually desired but finite resources. If everyone agreed on what the proper means and ends are, we wouldn’t need the word.

When people in that shared space disagree about how to accomplish a shared objective or, more fundamentally, what the proper objectives are, there aren’t a whole lot of options. Basically, you’ve got coercion, persuasion, transaction, or failure to cooperate, which could mean either walking away or fighting. The U.S. and Russian governments bump into each other in many issue spaces, and they don’t always agree on proper ends and means in those spaces. For the U.S. government, coercing Russia isn’t really an option, and persuasion doesn’t always work, either. That leaves bargaining or failure, and between those two, I prefer the former.

Kramer and Shevtsova apparently believe that this kind of transactional politics is the antipode of normative politics, but I don’t think that’s so. Steven Spielberg’s recent retelling of the passage of the 13th Amendment in Lincoln nicely illustrates what I have in mind. I don’t know the history well enough to vouch for its authenticity, but in Spielberg’s account, Lincoln engages in several forms of normatively sketchy politics to accomplish his larger objective. As an experienced politician, Lincoln knows he can’t simply will his way to the world he desires, so he makes difficult choices that involve trade-offs between competing goals. In his push to abolish slavery, Lincoln doles out government jobs, twists the arms of fence-sitters, and even stalls on talks to end the horribly bloody war. He does these things in pursuit of an objective that is morally just but, in his mind, also has its own instrumental purposes. There simply is no purely righteous path, no cost-free choice.

I think world politics works the same way. To say, as Kramer and Shevtsova do, that Americans must chose between having our government punish corrupt Russian elites or letting those elites act with impunity is a false choice. Like all things political, the relationship between the U.S. and Russian governments involves many things, and that relationship is just one of many relationships in international politics. Instead of expecting our government to prioritize the promotion of certain values above all else, I would prefer to see that government flexibly pursue a wider array of objectives, because we know that’s what it will take to get at least some of those things done. I welcome efforts to shame Russian authorities for the terrors and indignities they inflict, and to help Russian citizens who want to organize in an attempt to transform their country’s politics. I just happen to think those efforts are better pursued by non-governmental organizations, or through international legal structures to which the Russian government has willingly acceded.

Assessing the Risks of Risk Assessment

Tuesday’s Washington Post reports that a U.S. government task force now recommends “men should no longer receive a routine blood test to check for prostate cancer because the test does more harm than good.”

After reviewing the available scientific evidence, the task force concluded that such testing will help save the life of just one in 1,000 men. At the same time, the test steers many more men who would never die of prostate cancer toward unnecessary surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, the panel concluded. For every man whose life is saved by PSA testing, another one will develop a dangerous blood clot, two will have heart attacks, and 40 will become impotent or incontinent because of unnecessary treatment, the task force said in a statement Monday.

This recommendation will sound familiar to any American who was within earshot of a TV or radio a few years ago, when the same task force updated its guidance on breast cancer to recommend against routine screening for women in their 40s. That recommendation raised a ruckus in some quarters, and the new guidance on prostate-cancer screening may do the same.

Whatever you think of them, these recommendations are useful reminders that applied risk assessment can have a downside. Because no screening system works perfectly, attempts to identify high-risk cases will always flag some low-risk cases by mistake. In statistical jargon, these mistakes are called “false positives.” For mathematical reasons, the rarer the condition–or, in many policy contexts, the rarer the unwanted event–the larger the number of false positives you can expect to incur for every “true positive,” or correct warning.

This inevitable imprecision is the crux of the problem. To assess the value of any risk-assessment system, we have to compare its benefits to its costs. In the plus column, we have the expected benefits of early intervention: lives saved, suffering averted, crimes preempted, and the like. In the minus column, we have not only the costs of building and operating the screening system, but also the harmful effects of preventive action in the false positives. The larger the ratio of false positives to true positives, the larger these costs loom.

In the case of prostate cancer, epidemiologists can produce sharp estimates for each of those variables and arrive at a reasonably confident judgment about the net value of routine screening. With political risks like coups or mass killings, however, that’s a lot harder to do.

For one thing, it’s often not clear in the political realm what form preventive action should take, and some of the available forms can get pretty expensive. Diplomatic pressure is not especially costly, but things like large aid projects, covert operations, and peace-keeping forces often are.

What’s more, the preventive actions available to policy-makers often have uncertain benefits and are liable to produce unintended consequences. Aid projects sometimes distort local markets or displace local producers in ways that prolong suffering instead of alleviating it. Military interventions aimed at nipping threats in the bud may wind up expanding the problem by killing or angering bystanders and spurring “enemy” recruitment. Support for proxy forces can intensify conflicts instead of resolving them and may distort post-conflict politics in undesirable ways. The list goes on.

If a screening system were perfectly accurate, the costs of those unintended consequences would only accrue to interventions in true positives, and we could weigh them directly against the expected benefits of preventive action. In the real world, though, where false positives usually outnumber true positives by a large margin, there often won’t be any preventive benefits to counterbalance those unintended consequences. When we unwittingly intervene in a false positive, we get all of the costs and none of the prevention.

Improvements in the accuracy of our risk assessments can shrink this problem, but they can’t eliminate it. Even the most accurate early-warning system will never be precise enough to eliminate false positives, and with them the problem of costly intervention in cases that didn’t need it.

We also know that social scientists still don’t understand the dynamics of the political and economic systems they study nearly well enough to speak with confidence about the likely effects and side-effects of specific interventions. (That’s to say, we shouldn’t speak with great confidence on cause and effect, but that doesn’t stop many of us from doing so anyway.) As Jim Manzi surmises in a brilliant 2010 essay, the problem is that, with social phenomena, “the number and complexity of potential causes of the outcome of interest”–what Manzi calls “causal density”–is fantastically high, and the counterfactuals required to untangle those causal threads are rarely available. As a result,

At the moment, it is certain that we do not have anything remotely approaching a scientific understanding of human society. And the methods of experimental social science are not close to providing one within the foreseeable future. Science may someday allow us to predict human behavior comprehensively and reliably. Until then, we need to keep stumbling forward with trial-and-error learning as best we can.

In short, we’re stuck in a world of imprecise early warnings and persistent uncertainty about the consequences of the interventions we might  undertake in response to those imprecise warnings. It’s like trying to practice medicine with a grab bag of therapies and nothing but observational studies of one small population to guide choices about who needs them when, and what happens when they get them.

So what’s an empiricist to do? It’s tempting to throw up our hands and just say “fuggedaboudit,” but, as PM observes in a recent post at Duck of Minerva, “The alternative to good social science is not no social science. It’s bad social science.” In the absence of systematic risk assessment and cautious inferences about the consequences of various interventions, we won’t forego risk assessment and preventive action. Instead, we’ll stumble ahead with haphazard risk assessment and interventions driven by anecdote or ideology. Confronted with this choice, I’ll take fuzzy knowledge over willful ignorance any day.

That said, I do think the breadth of our uncertainty in these areas obliges us to concentrate our preventive efforts on two kinds of interventions: 1) ones that we understand well (e.g., vaccinations against infectious diseases), and 2) ones that are so small and simple that any side-effects will be inherently limited.

It’s tempting to think that bigger interventions will yield bigger benefits, but the benefits of these big schemes are often unproven, and the unintended consequences are likely to be larger as well (Exhibit A: U.S.-funded road-building in Afghanistan). There are a lot of ways that international politics isn’t like medicine, but the ethical concept of “First, do no harm” is undoubtedly relevant to both.

Today’s Democrat, Tomorrow’s Tyrant?

Nobel Peace Prize winner and president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has popped onto my radar screen three times in 2012, and none of the stories involved has done much to bolster the prevailing image of her in the West as a heroic liberal democrat.

First, in January, a New York Times op-ed called attention to a series of land grants Sirleaf has made over the past several years that have effectively put more than one-third of her country’s land under the control of foreign corporations while dispossessing the rural Liberians who live there. According to op-ed’s author, conservation prize-winner Silas Siakor,

More than a million people live in the regions where the palm-oil concessions were granted. And roughly 150,000 will be directly affected in the first five years of plantation development. Many could lose access to their homes, farms, cemeteries and sacred sites as well as the forest and water resources they depend on for survival. Yet the government negotiated these deals without consulting those who would bear the greatest burden.

Then came a mid-March interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper in which President Sirleaf defended laws in her country that effectively criminalize homosexuality. “We like ourselves just the way we are,” she said. “We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve.”

Meanwhile, President Sirleaf continues to resist calls to remove her son, Robert, who also serves as her senior adviser, from his post as chairman of the country’s national oil company, NOCAL. According to Africa Review, President Sirleaf has repeatedly dismissed complaints of nepotism from watchdog groups who have questioned his motives and qualifications. “What’s wrong with me appointing my son on NOCAL Board as chairman?” she reportedly asked on a recent radio call-in show. “He is qualified. Why should I deny him the opportunity to work for his country?”

These stories have got to be causing some headaches among Western diplomats, who have frequently touted Sirleaf as the kind of little-d “democrat” of which Africa needs more. Indeed, when asked about President Sirleaf’s comments on her country’s anti-gay laws, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland reiterated Secretary Clinton’s position that gay rights are human rights and expressed concern about the president’s remarks.

Viewing these stories through a wider lens, I think Sirleaf’s slippage illustrates the risks we take when we personalize democracy promotion. For as long as I’ve been watching, Western governments have tended to view democratization as a Manichean struggle  between camps committed to “democratic” and “autocratic” values. These groups are usually identified in sociological terms, if not by proper name, and their identities are thought to remain fixed over time. Where the democrats gain the upper hand, democracy consolidates. Where the autocrats prevail, transitions stall or fail, and authoritarian rule continues.

What gets missed in this personification of democratization is how the interests of political elites often evolve with changes in their status. Checks on government power that sound like common sense to outsiders sometimes don’t always seem so appealing when you finally make it to the inside and are trying to get things done. Actions that seemed dubious when taken by someone else can make perfect sense when you know and trust your own motives.

As I discussed in a previous post, human psychology probably also plays a role. According to prospect theory, when considering possible courses of action, humans weigh potential losses more heavily than comparable gains, and we evaluate both against a subjective reference point–usually the status quo. Psychologists call this pattern loss aversion, and it’s easy to see how it might strengthen the temptation for one-time “democrats” to cling to the spoils of power once in office.

I don’t know Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and I don’t know enough about Liberian politics to predict with confidence where all this is heading. What I can say is that promoting democracy by picking heroes is a risky game. If our governments want to support democratic consolidation in places like Liberia, they would do better to eschew the search for “soulmates.” Far more important than these shiny personalities are the humdrum agencies tasked with protecting civil rights, channeling citizen participation, and constraining authority no matter who’s in power. If you’re going to champion someone, don’t make it the charming leader who spouts the buzzwords diplomats and bankers want to hear. Instead, make it the honest cop, judge, or civil servant who sounds like her neighbors.

The Ambiguous Morality of Foreign Intervention in Syria

As the atrocious violence in Syria intensifies, more and more people seem to be saying that the outside world–the United States, the United Nations, the Arab League, the “West,” the “international community”–has a moral obligation to intervene, with force if need be, in order to stop the killing there. I don’t think the moral case for intervention is nearly as clear as those calls presume it to be, and I’d like to explain why.

I’ll start with two moral principles. First, murder is wrong. Second, when choosing among various possible courses of action, we should select the one that will produce the greatest happiness without violating any fundamental rights. The first of these principles is virtually universal. The second is more specific to modern liberalism, but I suspect it is accepted by many of the people calling for more forceful intervention in Syria.

Now, bearing those two principles in mind, let’s think about the morality of intervening in the following situations. Assume that there is no police force to call, and that you are better armed than the neighbor in question.

  • Your neighbor is murderously abusing his wife and several children. This is obviously wrong, and you have a moral duty to try to stop it.
  • Your neighbor and his wife are murderously abusing their several children. In moral terms, this isn’t really different from the first scenario, and you still have a duty to try to stop it.
  • Your neighbor and his wife are murderously abusing their children, but your intervention might also lead to the deaths of some or all of the people involved, including your own. For example, some of the children might get caught in the crossfire or be executed by the parents before they can be freed, or you might get killed in the attempt. Aware of this, you might decide to intervene without direct force–say, by cutting off his utilities and supplies–but these actions are not selective and could harm the children as well as the parents. This is a more difficult call. In the worst case, you lose three more lives (the parents and your own), while in the best case, you save several. If you believed the parents are eventually going to kill the children, intervention may still look like the right thing to do, but only if you think it stands a decent chance of succeeding.
  • Your neighbor and his wife are murderously abusing their children, but your intervention might lead to some or all of their deaths, and it will probably start a wider, violent feud among families in the neighborhood. This situation is far more complicated, and it is no longer clear at all that intervention is the best course of action. If you don’t act, several children will die. But if you do act, those children still might die, and so might many other people involved in the ensuing feud. As awful as it sounds, it is be morally right not to intervene in this situation, or at least not to intervene in ways that would set off the wider feud. In this case, action motivated by one moral principle (murder is wrong) would end up violating a second (greatest happiness), and partly through more transgressions of the first.

When I look at the current situation in Syria, I see the last of those scenarios. Foreign military intervention–to include arming the Syrian opposition or attempting to establish humanitarian corridors or “safe zones” without permission from the Syrian government–could save some lives, but it would cost others, and it stands a good chance of starting (or intensify, depending on how you look at it) a regional conflict that could kill many, many more.

What’s more, the scenarios I’ve described so far leave out two important elements of international politics that only complicate things further. The first is the problem of opportunity costs–the other things you can’t do once you commit to a particular course of action. Imagine that you’re a doctor, and that while your neighbor is murderously abusing his wife and several children, many other children in your neighborhood are dying from a disease you can usually cure.  What if intervening to stop the abuse meant you no longer had the time and money to obtain and deliver the cure for that disease?

In the real world, there are diseases like malaria and diarrhea that are preventable and curable and kill literally millions of people every year, yet we do not demand that our governments do all they can to stop those deaths. The more of our governments’ resources we tie up in wars, the less those governments can do to address these quiet crises that clearly transgress the second of the two moral principles I outlined at the start of this post: to seek the greatest happiness.

The second added element is time. All of the scenarios described so far involved a single situation, but the real world involves countless situations unfolding over time.

When time is added to the equation, it becomes clearer that what you do now will set a precedent that will affect the future actions of others. On the one hand, intervening forcefully now might deter other regimes from doing similar things in the future, for fear that they will be punished in a similar way. On the other hand, intervening now might lead future resistance movements to believe that they will receive comparable international protection. That belief might encourage them to rise up in strategically unfavorable circumstances, creating more Syria-like situations in a world that is not well prepared to handle them.

It will rarely be clear which way this balance tips, but the fact that a mass killing is happening in Syria so soon after international intervention in Libya shows that it does not lean decisively in favor of intervention. Certainly, the Libyan intervention was not sufficient to deter future atrocities. I don’t know nearly enough about the Syrian opposition to judge whether the Libyan intervention had any effect on their decision-making, but I gather that it might have emboldened some of its elements, especially ones outside the country (for evidence, see the last paragraph of the section called “The Struggle” in this excellent essay).

Taking all of these aspects into consideration, I conclude that the moral course of action in Syria today is not to intervene militarily–by attacking government forces, attempting to establish “safe zones,” or supplying arms to rebel groups. I’ll admit that I’m not 100% certain in this judgment. I hate what it implies for civilians under fire or imprisoned in Syria right now, and I am sure that some reasonable people who accept the same principles will reach a different conclusion. All I’m hoping to do here is to show that the morality of this situation is far more ambiguous than a simple “The killing must be stopped” statement allows.

And, if it were my family that was being killed, I would be screaming at the world to stop it now.

Threat Inflation

Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen have a smart piece in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs in which they argue that threats to American security are overblown. They write:

Within the foreign policy elite, there exists a pervasive belief that the post–Cold War world is a treacherous place, full of great uncertainty and grave risks…There is just one problem. It is simply wrong. The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before. The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful, and even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S. economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive. Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and, to a much lesser extent, military tools.

Zenko and Cohen blame “threat-mongering” for the sense of insecurity that pervades in spite of these positive trends, and they see a few reasons for it (emphasis added):

The disparity between foreign threats and domestic threat-mongering results from a confluence of factors. The most obvious and important is electoral politics. Hyping dangers serves the interests of both political parties…

Warnings about a dangerous world also benefit powerful bureaucratic interests. The specter of looming dangers sustains and justifies the massive budgets of the military and the intelligence agencies, along with the national security infrastructure that exists outside government — defense contractors, lobbying groups, think tanks, and academic departments.

There is also a pernicious feedback loop at work. Because of the chronic exaggeration of the threats facing the United States, Washington overemphasizes military approaches to problems (including many that could best be solved by nonmilitary means). The militarization of foreign policy leads, in turn, to further dark warnings about the potentially harmful effects of any effort to rebalance U.S. national security spending or trim the massive military budget–warnings that are inevitably bolstered by more threat exaggeration.

That’s a good list, but I think Zenko and Cohen’s focus on active “threat-mongering” overlooks the crucial role of innate flaws in how we (humans) think about risk. In fact, cognitive psychologists have shown that we’re pretty lousy at it, and our perceptions of risk are routinely led astray by a subconscious process of substitution. When contemplating rare but scary threats, our minds substitute readily available answers to questions of emotion (How scary is the idea of a terrorist attack?) for hard-to-find answers to questions of fact (How likely is a terrorist attack? How much damage would it actually inflict?). As a result, “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.” (That’s psychologist Jonathan Haidt, as quoted by Daniel Kahneman in Chapter 13 of Thinking, Fast and Slow, my source on this cognitive bias.)

This problem is amplified by incentives inherent in the media marketplace we inhabit. Kahneman (p. 138) makes this point in talking about our misperceptions of the risks of various causes of death:

Estimates of causes of death are warped by media coverage. The coverage is itself biased toward novelty and poignancy. The media do not just shape what the public is interested in, but also are shaped by it. Editors cannot ignore the public’s demands that certain topics and viewpoints receive extensive coverage. Unusual events (such as botulism) attract disproportionate attention and are consequently perceived as less unusual than they really are. The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.

It’s easy to see how stories of things like terrorist sleeper cells, “dirty bomb” attacks, global pandemics, and nuclear strikes from Iran would appeal to editors and consumers seeking novelty and poignancy, and it’s easy to see how those stories would, via substitution, distort our perceptions of the threat those things pose.

Whatever its precise causes, the threat inflation described by Zenko and Cohen has serious consequences for our actual security. Here again the authors:

The most lamentable cost of unceasing threat exaggeration and a focus on military force is that the main global challenges facing the United States today are poorly resourced and given far less attention than “sexier” problems, such as war and terrorism. These include climate change, pandemic diseases, global economic instability, and transnational criminal networks — all of which could serve as catalysts to severe and direct challenges to U.S. security interests. But these concerns are less visceral than alleged threats from terrorism and rogue nuclear states. They require long-term planning and occasionally painful solutions, and they are not constantly hyped by well-financed interest groups. As a result, they are given short shrift in national security discourse and policymaking.

Here’s hoping the publication of their article will help move the needle ever so slightly in a more positive direction.

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