September 13, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Year of Living Repeatedly: Conflating Events with Responses

As of mid-September 2012, the tragic killing of Christopher Stevens, the U.S Ambassador to Libya; U.S. Foreign Service Officer and Air Force Veteran Sean Smith; and two still-unidentified Diplomatic Security officers in Benghazi, Libya, has, among other things, brought to fore the analogy that what is being witnessed in the Middle East today is the return of 1979. According to this analogy-based response, 2012 is essentially a replay of 1979 due to a number of striking similarities: a U.S. ambassador was again heinously murdered in the region; violent protests with radical Islamist overtones again erupted at several U.S. embassies; and tensions with a resurgent Iran are once again increasing dramatically. (The profound and systemic problems inherent in this sort of analogy-based analysis were addressed in The Soufan Group's June 11th IntelBrief: Metaphors and Analogies: Short-Cuts to Geopolitical Failure.)

While this analogy understandably makes for compelling copy, it also makes for less-than-helpful analysis and problem solving because it focuses attention on precisely the wrong thing. In a very real sense, it causes an insidious institutional blindness to a more meaningful understanding. It is not the events of both 1979 and 2012 that are so troublingly similar; rather it is that decision makers find themselves in this familiar situation again without a qualitatively better understanding of the most effective responses, strategies and policies to advance their interests that is so similar and troubling. It makes it appear as if the West (and, perhaps, other members of the international community) has been asleep for 33 years.

During this long sleep the international community has frequently missed opportunities to solidify successes with forward-thinking polices while rarely missing a chance to either ossify gains with stasis-thinking policies or mishandle it completely and do nothing at all. This lack of analytical imagination evident in seizing upon foreign policy success while limiting failure once again reinforces the perception that successes are merely accidental and are fragile while failures are the result of hard work and are durable. This perception is self-created; as such, it can be effectively remedied only by a consciousness that is acutely aware of the fact that now is not then, that 2012 is not 1979. (Note: The Soufan Group's addressed the challenges and rewards of analytic imagination in its three part series on August 23rd, August 24th and August 29th.)


The Linear Disconnect

Just as 2012 is not 1979, it is just as assuredly not 1917, 1848, 1776 or 1066, or, for that matter, any other epochal year. It is simply 2012, a year both connected to and independent of the past. In this regard, it is connected to those other epoch years, but in a nonlinear manner; each involved deep conflicts, but each unfolded in a deeply unique manner. Thus, there are far more than a few important data points on the graph of history (and one must be ever mindful of taking a handful of data points and extrapolating to infinity). The events of this year have, in a fashion, happened before — many times — and will happen again in interminable fashion. It is in the preparation for, and responses to, these events that the value of history may be uncovered; it is acceptable, even desirable from a planning standpoint if history repeats itself (or rhymes) as long as the West, the international community, or the individual policymaker does not.

By definition explosive acts of violence are sometimes preventable but mostly unpredictable. And that is why cities have both police forces and hospitals. Because a government striving to prevent tragedy is not excused from dealing with its aftermath; just as preparing for the aftermath of tragedy doesn't replace the parallel responsibility of trying to prevent it. However, this obvious truism — and the balance it suggests — becomes all-too-often distorted in foreign policy discussions and decision-making, where violence can so easily derail both policy and decisions, that often the only predictable phenomenon from the policy planning perspective is the inappropriate response to unpredictable events.

Instead of focusing on the similarities in events (embassies were stormed in 1979, embassies were stormed in 2012), it would be arguably more effective in terms of problem solving and enhancing the odds of success to focus on the similarities in the only part of this equation that can be either controlled or predicted: preparation and response. Think in terms of weather forecasting: it will rain or not regardless of either preparation or response, but the ultimate effects of the prevailing weather — rain or sun — will certainly depend on both.


Forward to the Past

In terms of effective foreign policy, such an approach demands that both the preparation and the response be bound by their relationship with the overall, clearly stated, reality-based objectives for maintaining a diplomatic presence, conducting humanitarian support, or employing military force in Libya or Egypt (or anywhere) in the first place. And this is where the similarity to 1979 finally fits: in assessing today's outdated policies that ensure successes are marginalized while failures are magnified, it is the analysts and the planners who think this is 1979. Little wonder, then, that plans, preparations and responses are 33 years out-of-date...and counting.

Only in 1979 would today's Arab Spring be a complete failure and lead inevitably to crisis after crisis, because the policies at that time didn't have the benefit of 33 years of understanding the growing influences of globalization, instantaneous media, and the benefits of increased democracy even with the attendant hazards of expanding instability. In 2012, planners and policy makers have 33 years of hindsight over 1979, have learned from what worked — and, just as importantly, what didn't work — and thus should be capable of developing strategies that realistically apply optimism and talent and vision in the concerted effort to build upon the advances of recent decades instead of repeatedly applying the ill-advised 1979 vintage strategies to recurring, contemporary issues. A productive first step to preventing such ineffective planning involves more clearly determining and focusing on the end state desired instead of the outcome that is not. Once that is established, strategies can be put into place that diligently pursue the realization of an outcome rather than struggle valiantly to avoid one. The former is a far more profitable means of leveraging analytical talent.

Studies have shown that drunk drivers often crash into police cars parked along the side of the road — including those with their red lights flashing — precisely because the drunk drivers are focusing on what they want desperately to avoid...and not where they want to go. Doing so all but ensures the driver steers straight into trouble. Foreign planning and policy formulation based primarily on risk avoidance over goal achievement is almost guaranteed to produce the same result. 


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