August 23, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Value of an Analytic Imagination: Part One

As of late August 2012, policymakers across the globe, in both the public and private sectors, are confronting a very practical question: In a time of increasing complexity and escalating tensions — and an era of decreasing budgets and diminishing capabilities — is it possible to develop strategies and models that might enhance their nation's or organization's interests without creatively speculating about probable, even possible outcomes? Perhaps the most realistic construct for addressing this challenge might be found in a proper merging of experience with imagination.

Over the last several months, in addition to providing insight on pressing geopolitical issues such as the Iranian nuclear issue and the ongoing crisis in Syria, The Soufan Group's team of analysts has written about the less obvious, but looming geopolitical ramifications of a wide array of vital strategic events:

• The insufficient global power grid as it relates to current and future stability;
• The impact of the ongoing drought in the grain-producing regions of the world on social unrest through rising food prices;
• The need to reset the rules of engagement for proxy warfare in modern conflict;
• The influence of social media propaganda campaigns in Syria not only on the decisions of policymakers today, but also on the future of information operations as a whole;
• The unfortunate trend of using misleading metaphors when addressing similar but unrelated crises (as in "Syria is Iraq' or "Yemen is Afghanistan"), and how this trend misinforms policy formulation;
• The challenge of designing effective plans when "once-in-a-lifetime events" now happen yearly; and
• The manner in which the most denigrated of organizations —  the modern bureaucracy —  is likely the best and most achievable solution for problems facing rapidly modernizing societies.

What links these questions is not a magic unifying solution but rather the nonmagical unifying way in which the questions are asked, and that is through the deliberate use of what can best be termed an analytical imagination approach. Such an approach allows one analyst in April to forecast the probability of a dramatic increase in "green-on-blue" attacks in Afghanistan that are now occurring, and another to forecast in early August that it would be the loss of electricity to societies long used to its benefits that could lead to social tension of the scope now seen in Egypt.

An analytical imagination approach to policy suggests  — even promotes — something very different than the longstanding concepts that remain immovably ensconced on either extreme of the probability scale: the "one-percent doctrine"" that equates possibility with probability, or the "analyst-based analysis"" that seeks to diminish the "subjective influence" of imagination in order to render an accurate assessment of reality. Any policymaker or analyst, for example, who prefaces an assessment with "I find it hard to imagine" is very likely confusing the limits of their imagination and experience with the limits of reality (something cognitive neuroscientists suggest all people do on a fairly regular basis). In contrast, the analytical imagination approach constructively leverages the potential of imagination to glean more value from experience. While much is rightfully made of the value of experience in designing a rational reaction to situations that appear similar to ones previously encountered, experience — when combined with imagination — may also expand the realm of what is considered possible (and adopt that vital perspective in a very practical fashion).

This IntelBrief, part one of a three-part series, will systematically examine how a decision-making approach such as an "analyst-based analysis" increases the likelihood of not only being caught unawares by well-known yet still unanticipated geopolitical events, but also of generating an overreaction that exacts steep costs both in terms of financial loss and opportunities lost. This is perhaps best understood through the lens of a real world example.

The 9/11 Commission, in their 2004 final report, called the failure to prevent the attacks, in part, a "failure of imagination" in that analysts commonly asserted that they couldn't "imagine someone flying a plane into a building." Their analysis stopped at the edge of what had been observed in the past instead of wondering if — and how — a "someone" could do such a thing in the future.

Another graphic example of such "personal experience-based analysis" unfolded in February 2003, when then deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz observed in his senate testimony on the potential challenges that would follow an invasion of Iraq, "First, it's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine (emphasis added)."

In these and, regrettably, many other instances, it is a failure of the analysts or the policymakers to disconnect what they can personally imagine from what is actually possible. No analysis is based on a crystal ball offering 100% accuracy, but if the analysts can't even begin to imagine a possible scenario, then there is a 100% probability the final analysis will be lacking (perhaps severely so).

Just as important is the delayed and often lingering overreaction that fails to prevent the loss of life and destruction of facilities all while it wastes money and opportunity in equal measure. This can be meaningfully explored by returning again to the 9/11 attacks, which, while not unimaginable, were clearly a devastating outlier and not the beginning of a long-term trend. (Note: This is not an observation made with the benefit of decade-long hindsight, but rather an acknowledgement of the events that unfolded on United flight 93 that were widely reported soon after the tragic incident took place. In that case, passengers fought back and ultimately brought down the plane in a Pennsylvania field instead of its likely target in the U.S. Capitol region.) The deep understanding drawn from this event — one immediately and widely acknowledged — was that the public would never again sit passively in future threat situations.

Yet still today, more than a decade later, the U.S. Government annually spends US $960,000,000 on an air marshal program that was quickly rendered unnecessary by fortifying both the cockpit door and enhancing passenger awareness. This persistent overreaction then creates a feedback loop in which the lack of future attacks is seen as validation of expensive preventive policy even in the face of evidence that the only two actual attempts by a passenger to blow up an airplane (the December 2001 shoe bomber and the December 2009 underwear bomber) were both stopped by other passengers without official assistance. This is not to say expensive preventive measures are never warranted — the increased screening measures at airports have very likely deterred additional attempts — but rather to highlight the negative consequences inherent in making a decision largely, or exclusively, on what the decision-maker can or cannot imagine.


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