Obama Admin Decision Making; Iran/Syria Policy Paralysis Part 2

A source in the Obama Administration refers to a C.I.A. internal study doubting the effectiveness of covert arms programs. Take a look at the New York Times article, or, if you’re blocked by the pay wall, the Georgetown Law brief,  “CIA study finds arming rebel groups is rarely effective.”

The study was used as justification for the decision not to provide the Syrian moderates with lethal aid. As a knowledge base for the decision,  in my little table of types of knowledge, this falls under the category of “expertise”.

People think they know lots of things, but rarely make the distinction of “how” they know them, unless there is an argument. Then it comes out as reason versus intuition, intuition versus expertise, expertise versus common sense, etc. After it is established that the “truths” are irreconcilable, there ensues a brief argument about which type of “how I know” is more valid, flummoxed expressions, followed by disengagement and, inevitably, amnesia. The dispute which underlies is not about the “truths” subject to debate, but in a meta-domain of how people come to identify things as “truths.”

Let’s see how this works. The table below is a mix of labels, some of which are qualities, while others may be useful in a system of categorization. We have:

  • personal judgment

  • consensus

  • widely held (preexisting consensus)

  • expertise (provided by third parties, and accepted as truth because of the elevated opinion of their judgment)

  • non rational (faith based, idée fixe, delusion)

  • belief (assertion of fact without reason, or reason that has not recently been examined by the one making the assertion)

  • intuitive (the product of unconscious cognition)

  • instinctual (producing a response yet without cognition)

  • scientific (observational )

  • common sense (derived by rudimentary logic from primitive beliefs)

  • factual (indisputable, the repudiation of which occur with great advances of knowledge)

  • logical, capable of formal derivation

  • probabilistic (opinion)

  • operational (practical)

  • theoretical (compromised by lack of application)

  • contradictory

  • falsity (a form of truth which is not)

The above is actually the anchor of a system useful to the practitioner with the need to justify a decision. It is a Chinese menu of  17 modalities, of which only a single arbitrary choice is required to trump all the others. If this were a card game, it would be a gambler’s delight.

Let’s take an example. Suppose Obama were afflicted with a heartrending desire to help the poor Syrian moderates. He need only pick and assert “personal judgment”, which immediately knocks “expertise”, the C.I.A. study, out of the game.

On the other hand, suppose Obama had been afflicted with the Tea Party, and a lingering desire to be a great domestic President, while   the wolves, both domestic and international, attempt to fasten their jaws into various parts of his anatomy. (I don’t know how he slept at night.) In this case, he picks “expertise”, the C.I.A. study, from the list, which immediately knocks “consensus” out of the game.

If Obama wishes to pursue some course other than the above two, he need merely pick “contradictory” from the list. All the cards are available to be picked, without requiring sleight of hand. Of course, one of the rules of this game is that while the selection of cards is arbitrary, the choice  must be justified by “spin.”

If it seems that this simple list of 17 labels facilitates believing anything you want, this is because the list embodies something akin to what logicians call a “domain error.” There is also an interesting analogy to the “principle of explosion”,  that from a contradiction, anything can be proved. Since the list of 17 is not a formal system, we can’t go further, but it should give you some idea where the weakness lies.

The table appears useful to illustrate fallacies, but it is equally useful for real-world paradoxes. The novel The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil, is set in Austria prior to World War I, illuminating a precocious modernity lost to all but specialists or readers of the book. Arnheim, a sophisticated, assimilated German Jew and successful industrialist, has an earthy father, who created the waste-management industrial empire that Arnheim seeks to manage for the benefit of mankind. Arnheim the younger is a sophisticate who would be entirely at home in our age.

As a hybrid of older practices and modern management, Arnheim the elder commissions studies on business opportunities that embody scientific risk taking. Then, in contradiction to the studies, the board, and his son’s advice, he proceeds with his instinctive choice. And he is always right.

Invincible intuition may not be a myth, but neither is it a fact. More people think they have it than do. It is always subject to repudiation. But it has a dark companion, that goes with you into a solitary state, where you sort things out, not caring if all the details of the process are communicable to others. Only the result counts. When the result is good, it’s called genius. But it requires that solitary place.

Henry Kissinger, in his book, World Order, section “Cyber Technology and World Order”, expresses concern for the availability of that solitary state. The absence, according to Kissinger, results in displacement of thought, which is solitary, by data, which is communal. Quoting, “Great statesmen…had these qualities of vision and determination; in today’s society, it is increasingly difficult to develop them.”

I feel some sympathy. One of the reasons for this blog is the apparent disappearance of the fifth of the Five Ws of news gathering, “who,what,when,where,why”,  from the most popular news sites. Why? In the jargon of databases, human knowledge, the way it is actually stored in peoples’ heads, is flattening out. The zeitgeist seems to be “ditch the why, everything is phenomenological.”

But Dr. Kissinger’s nostalgia for the great thinkers of the past neglects the dark heritage of those thinkers. The “isms” of the 19th Century that caused the great wars of the 20th were the products of those solitary minds. One advantage of a flat knowledge structure is that it prohibits the construction of those piles of ideological sophistry, of dizzying height and weight, that the 20th Century bore as an unsheddable burden.

President Obama, and other people of similar age, are of just the right age to be conscious of the enormity of those solitary thinkers, and to be desirous of avoiding repetition. If you’re a good guy, and don’t want even the chance of authoring another historical monstrosity, this is what you do. You ignore the solitary option entirely, and go with the collegial.

Most history, when separated from advances in knowledge, fails to justify itself. Ever since Plato’s Republic, people have wished that, by some magical social system, they could throw some sand in the gears of the history machine. This desire is my interpretation of Obama’s apparently simplistic dictum, “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Unfortunately for all those who would prefer to concentrate on the improvement of domestic society, the world won’t leave us alone.  Other world leaders, fiddling in solitude while their  societies and economies drift in darkness, are the sureties of this.

 There are always many ways to draw the problem, in this case, the analysis of the Obama Adminstration’s decision processes. But even Leon Panetta’s memoirs, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, indicate the intricacies are closely held. According to Panetta, the “college” of the decision process has not been inclusive of  expertise existing inside the government. But if what is there had worked to prevent the ascent of ISIS, who would care?

 The outsider has the luxury of not having to make bad history. What would I have done, had I been in the room with that classified C.I.A. report? Perhaps, to free my conscience from inaction, I would have first picked “personal judgment”. Then I would have attempted to show that the C.I.A. study, and the contemplated action, were based on different domains of discourse. The post “ISIS & Calls for U.S. leadership & Growing the Ideal Lawn”, contemplates novel actions, based on a strategy without a defined endpoint.





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