Monday, February 27, 2012

Rolling the National Security Dice

God does not roll dice, and neither should political scientists. Even less should senior national security decision-makers roll dice, yet they do, repeatedly, at the cost of thousands of lives destroyed and millions more ruined every year. We can do better.

The core problem is that humans do a very poor job of estimating any change that is not linear. Even curvilinear or exponential (a steady, smooth curved rate) change is hard for humans to estimate (yes, MIT tested this!). Add interacting variables with varying time delays, and you will discover, too late, all manner of unforeseen tipping points. Given that nothing of interest is linear in this world, especially when it involves humans, and you can see that analyzing the future is a fool’s errand. Yet we will and perhaps, in our complex world, must continue to make life-or-death decisions based on our predictions about the future.

Threatening Iran will not persuade its militant Shi’ite supernationalists to militarize its technical knowledge, produce weapons of mass destruction, and then use them in a desperate first-strike attempt at self-defense, we are told by confident national security thinkers who assert the ability to analyze the future. Overarming Israel and giving it a blank check will not persuade its militant Jewish supernationalists, who already have a first-strike capability, to expend it in a desperate attempt to shore up a threatened position of strategic superiority, we are told. Slaughtering innocent Pakistani women and children with drones will not drive Pakistan into an alliance with Iran and the Pakistani-Afghan Taliban, we are told. Attempting to control the Mideast will not provoke a new wave of anti-American terror, we are told. Relying primarily on brute force will neither make the world hate and conspire against the U.S. nor will it drive Moscow and Beijing into anti-American collusion, we are told. The list of fundamentally important assertions about the future made by powerful people who have no idea whatsoever of how to predict the future is breathtaking.

How to do it right remains a non-existent science, and there are good, cutting-edge scientific reasons to think that science will never exist (no, Mr. Physicist, I am not hinting at quantum effects but “simply” referring to complexity). That said, we can do better. The future may be unknowable, but it is not incomprehensible. We comprehend that security fears provoke irrational behavior. We comprehend that force provokes counterforce...and that the weak will employ asymmetric means. We also comprehend that the morality of drone attacks is right there in the gutter with the morality of what we are pleased to call "terrorism." In the meantime, don’t believe everything you hear; in fact, don’t believe anything. Think about it for yourself.

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