The Delusion of Certainty

August 12, 2014

There can be no doubt that the current low approval ratings for President Barack Obama reflect the desire of most of us to brand evil, identify enemies, and make complex situations seem simple. But the situations in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine, are not simple. Few situations, further, are as complex and many-faceted as that framed by the combat between the Israelis and the Palestinians and yet Israelis fault the American president for not being more forceful, more single-mindedly on their side. Similarly the Palestinians and liberal Americans fault the president for not being more single-minded on the Palestinian side. Whether in the Middle East, Afghanistan, or Ukraine, the president’s caution can be seen by all those who favor dramatic action as weakness and the president’s approval ratings decline.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney took us boldly into Iraq in 2003 failing almost criminally to understand the quagmire they were creating. Today Hillary Clinton and U.S. senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham follow the same theme urging the president to go back into a country where we should never have gone in the first place. They avoid the reality that if the United States intervenes militarily in these countries we not only run the risk of prolonged loss of life and treasure, we may likely foster increased hatred and recruiting by Al Qaeda, making matters even worse. To stop and think, however, before leaping into the fray appears to be doing nothing, and that may seem like weakness rather than prudence. So while Barack Obama’s approval ratings fall, Hillary’s rise, and this is all no doubt in response to the delusional belief that to be certain is to be right.

The record in history of those who simplify and act blindly is not encouraging. One hundred years ago this month, on the eve of WWI, the leaders of the Russian government decided to mobilize against Austria-Hungary. They dismissed—without evident consideration—the potential cataclysmic consequences of a general war in Europe. When the Tsar, Nicholas II, announced Russian mobilization he declared he must go to war to defend the honor of his monarchy. Within a week, his enemy in Austria, the Emperor Franz Josef, announced his intention to make war against Serbia—and therefore almost certainly against Russia—in order to defend the honor of his monarchy. Within that same week, the king of Belgium responded to German mobilization declaring the necessity to defend the honor of his monarchy. Across the channel, the English cabinet decided to go to war in order to uphold the honor of the promises that had been made to France by its governing class.

None of the conversations that were recorded in the memos and diaries of these ministerial principals, (reported in Christopher Clark’s extraordinary book, The Sleepwalkers), estimated in any detail the probable catastrophic loss of millions of lives and billions of dollars of property. The minutes of the pre-war deliberations record no concern for the people who actually would fight the war, the shopkeepers, farmers, street sweepers, and factory workers, or for women and children whose lives would be permanently scarred. These leaders were acting with the kind of boldness and simplicity that Clinton, McCain, and Graham now advocate, and, hauntingly, these three Americans had their exact counterparts on the eve of World War I.

Without question, situations exist in which it is necessary to be firm with an enemy. Weakness may invite attack. Sometimes, and maybe even often, one ought no longer to back down. Every leader’s responsibility, however, is to navigate between weakness and braggadocio, not to choose impetuously one or the other. In 1914, cabinets in Berlin, Paris, and St. Petersburg all decided that they must “be firm,” and in being firm, each rushed to be the first to mobilize. When they all mobilized at once, the wheels of action and counteraction meshed and Europe went mechanically to war. In hindsight, most historians are clear that in this case so much firmness was stupid. Estimates vary, but these were interacting stupidities that cost as many as 17 million lives.

History does not judge well those who are bold and also stupid. Engagement now of the United States in a military way in Syria, Iraq, or Iran, would be both. None of the monarchs in Russia, Austria, or Germany, in 1914 foresaw that when the war was over they would be gone. Their absence today proves the axiom that the only thing certain about the use of force is that its consequences are uncertain. Now, one hundred years after the Great War, the consequence of the use of force in Syria, Iraq, or Iran would be similarly uncertain and acting boldly in the midst of such uncertainty is likely to once again, prove to have been stupid. Americans might have learned that after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In these times of warring cultures and values all over the globe, it might be wise to sympathize with those who, like Barack Obama, try to see complexities. In spite of the temptation to see black and white, good and evil, history suggests that we would be better to support thoughtful, maybe even less “firm,” leadership. Leaders who are careful also need courage as they navigate and we might hope that they go slowly enough to see the rocks and shoals beneath the current.

It is perhaps also well to remember that in the course of the American Civil War, the most thoughtful and war-hating of American presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was pilloried and ridiculed for his deliberate slowness. Like Obama, Lincoln would not during those years have won any popularity contests. But in the long run history is apt to give such leaders the greater honor.