Outgoing director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn shocked the U.S. political establishment by telling them something they already thought but would never dare say. “Is there going to be a peace in the Middle East? Not in my lifetime.” Flynn offered up other predictions that most individuals would agree with. He also prophesied that if Hamas were destroyed, a much worse, ISIS-like entity would probably take its place.
Prediction occupies much of what high-ranking decision-makers (like Lt. Gen. Flynn), government analysts and social scientists do. While Flynn’s predictions seem on the mark right now, forecasting is difficult to do successfully- especially in the new Middle East.
Status-Quo and Hindsight Biases
History is filled with intelligence failures, from the Hitler-Stalin Pact to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and 9/11. Intelligence analysts and their political masters are not (necessarily) idiots, but they are human. We have a status quo bias, or a tendency to “project the present into the future.”
Just as we are caught off-guard by Black Swan events, we often fail to acknowledge alternative or counterfactual paths to the present. The famed historian E.H. Carr was dismissive of counterfactuals in his book, What is History? Carr argued that anyone who asked whether the English War of the Roses was “inevitable” would be mocked. However, many outcomes that are deemed impossible before they happen- such as Nixon going to China, the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement of the late 1970s or the fall of the Soviet Union- are seen as inevitable after they occurred; only a fool did not see them coming in the first place.
Re-Fighting the Last War
Politicians running for office- or pushing a preferred policy- will directly refer to analogous cases in order to make a point. Throughout the Cold War and the run-up to the second war in Iraq, politicians reminded mass publics of the “Lessons of Munich”: a failure to demonstrate strength and resolve today will abet dictators’ aggression tomorrow.
However, this is not purely instrumental. Decision-makers are influenced by historical analogies. They want to avoid repeating the same mistakes their predecessors made. So, they choose the opposite course of action. Just as the Munich Crisis has been informative for multiple generations of Western leaders, the horrors of World War One informed the choices that Neville Chamberlain made.
To make things easier, we tend to group highly dissimilar events together to learn lessons that will shape policy. Policymakers and experts can take some lessons from past experience and apply them to current problems. The problem is that many of these events are only similar in a very abstract sense. Or, trying to apply what we know from successful instances of denuclearization in South Africa, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus to the ongoing talks with Iran.
Decision-makers act as though history will unfold the same way for them as it did for their predecessors. All they have to do is change one variable and success will be theirs. This kind of thinking lead to the Maginot and Bar-Lev Lines. David Welch points out, “Unlike astronomical events, the underlying patterns of state behavior are constantly in flux as decision makers react willfully to history.”
Events Have Multiple Causes
We rely on cognitive shortcuts in order to make sense of the world we live in. However, the world we live in is complicated. Rarely are events caused by a single variable. While we all look for “parsimony and elegance” (or a theory that is simple enough that it can explain a lot of phenomena but you can put it on a t-shirt) events can be attributed to multiple interconnected causes. Many times, causes are so interconnected that the historian can only with great difficulty determine causation by finding cases that are identical along all the relevant dimensions but one.
Are intelligence and policy failures inevitable?
Richard Betts of Columbia once wrote an article in 1978 entitled, “Analysis, War, and Decision: Why Intelligence Failures Are Inevitable.” More than being organizational, intelligence failures are primarily political and psychological. So in a word, yes, intelligence and policy failures are inevitable, especially in the changing Middle East.
However, recommendations have been made and steps undertaken to lower the likelihood of failures. For example, Philip Tetlock and Michael Horowitz, have written about steps that can be taken to mitigate signposting into the future, such as scenario generation. Others in the private sector have sought to take advantage of the predictive advantages of the “wisdom of crowds” to mitigate experts’ shortcomings.
No peace in our time?
With Hamas continuing to fire rockets at Israel and a Palestinian uprising on the move in the West Bank, it is hard to see a path for peace. With the Supreme Leader of Iran calling for the arming of Palestinians until Israel is destroyed, or Iranian President Rouhani referring to Israel’s war with Hamas as an act of “genocide,” it is hard for some to imagine a two-state solution with the Palestinians right now, much less ever cutting a deal with Iran. Yet, many made identical predictions about bringing about a rapprochement with Sadat’s Egypt in the 1970s, or the Sinn Fein joining the peace process in Northern Ireland.
What do you think? Are these failures inevitable? Share your views on Twitter: @albertwolf82