Words to Make Policy By...

>> Thursday, November 19, 2009

Stephen Walt, following a rundown of ten "scary monsters" of foreign policy:

First, we are often told that international politics is a dangerous business, and that it makes sense to prepare for the worst case. This is nonsense, because there are real costs to exaggerating various potential threats. Not only may this policy lead us to ignore more likely and more legitimate problems and to waste resources addressing fantasies, but it can also lead a country to take active steps that either make minor problems worse or lead to enormous self-inflicted wounds (see under: Iraq). Fixating on scary monsters can leave you ill-prepared when real problems arise.

This point cannot be emphasized enough. In conversation, associating preparation for the worst case with responsibility makes a certain amount of sense. The risk, however, is that the costs of "worst case preparedness" will be ignored. As John Mueller put in in Atomic Obsession, the 1% Doctrine is sensible insofar as in preparing for high cost, low probability events is often a good idea. Unfortunately, we often de-emphasize the low probability in favor of the high cost. We then run the risk of suffering much higher costs than warranted. As Walt notes, paying higher costs isn't even the "worst case" of "worst case thinking"; sometimes, effort to prepare for low probability events actively makes the world more dangerous (invasion of Iraq).

Then, of course, there are the "worst cases" that really aren't that bad at all. I very much doubt that Al Qaeda will attempt to mount some kind of attack on New York during Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's trial, but damn, I hope that they do. There is very little that would make me happier than for the rump Al Qaeda to devote its time, manpower, and resources to attacking the United States at the point of its highest preparedness; indeed, if I really believed that Al Qaeda would try to attack New York because of KSM, I'd be even more heavily in favor of the trials. Terrorist attacks succeed because they're unexpected, and an attack straight into the teeth of the security and intelligence services of the United States is highly likely to result in nothing at all, apart from the death and destruction of whatever remaining assets Al Qaeda can call upon. Let's hope that the rump AQ is as stupid as the average contributor to NRO.


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