Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Rubicon Bridgehead: the utility of confidence and an aside on aesthetics

This morning Diana Wueger highlighted an article in International Security on the Rubicon Theory of War (.pdf), which posits that once we've crossed the Rubicon to war and war appears to be imminent, cognitive biases cause us to become overconfident about war, that this overconfidence increases the likelihood of war occurring, and that this same overconfidence causes risky military planning. I agree entirely with the fundamental conclusion of Diana's post (and the article) that we (meaning the populace, decision makers, military and civilian leaders) need to recognize these biases and approach war (or avoid it entirely) with a steely eye unjaundiced by hope and expectations that exceed reality.

However, I see two problems with the original article: one in the mechanisms of the theory and the second beyond. In the first instance I think the theory's creators did not thoroughly plumb the depths of the moral quantities (to use Clausewitz's term) of war and how that plays with confidence (over- or otherwise). If one assumes that war has become imminent, one must recognize the importance of confidence when partaking of events that require courage. It seemed to me on the eve of war with Iraq in 2003 that much of the overconfidence we were sold (shock and awe!) was merely optimism. It was bravado intended to inspire the troops. I can't say if this was intentional or a side-effect of the cognitive bias talked about Johnson and Tierney, but you don't want to send soldiers into harms way with expectations of a long, tedious, and violent war. Doing so would ensure you lose the moral quantities calculus right off the bat and possibly the war.

The Iraqis too had engaged in this sort of nonsense, preying on the fact that their armed forces and people didn't have a very good idea of the poor shape of their forces and the better shape of our own. Would their soldiers fight if they knew much of our equipment was impervious to their weapons? That we would, for the most part, run right through them? Of course they wouldn't. In the need to instill courage (in both the Clausewitzian/utilitarian sense and the Platonic/ Aristotlean sense of courage as virtue) we engage in nearly unbridled optimism when addressing our people and our army. These two functional elements of the wonderful trinity need to be sold on the policies already dictated by the third element or the policy is doomed to failure if it can ever begin. Is it poor military practice to engage in hope and optimism? Sure is. But sometimes it is necessary in order to achieve your political goals. Are these actions - this stoking the flames of easy, short, and victorious war - are they cognizant acts deliberately intended to fool the masses? Or are they unrealized biases of overconfidence? I'd argue a little of column A and a little of column B.

I also think that the authors get a bit into the "imminent war is imminent" meme without addressing how we got to and crossed the Rubicon in the first place. There is little definition around the term "imminent" with regard to the holder of these views, varying between "people" in the generic sense, populations specifically, and those that hold some position of official responsibility. Through a Clausewitzian lens, I would like to know if it matters for each part of the trinity when they become overconfident and how that all works. Does it matter that the U.S. population become overconfident before Operation DESERT STORM? Was their confidence exceeded by reality? Was war not really inevitable unless Iraq withdrew its forces - a variable not under the control of the U.S.? I don't believe the authors laid out the framework of their theory on how imminent came about and to whom, when and the subsequent effects of all that.

But beyond all of that, I'm more interested in looking at what caused this fording of the Rubicon in the first place (certainly beyond the scope of Johnson and Tierney). How did we get to that point and into the realm of "imminent"? It seems that we haven't gotten that far with Iran or Syria, but we're moving in that direction. I'd love to go on and on about the intersection of politics and aesthetics and draw parallels not only to Iraq (2003) but also the Athenian invasion of Sicily and how that all applies to the proponents of conflict between the U.S. and those two nations. But alas, that's a whole other subject for another day. But to wrap things up, I'll quote George Kateb in Patriotism and Other Mistakes: "Mass politics, for example, constantly is taken in and consumed as advertisement and entertainment, with the result that the demotic erodes the democratic. The tendency to get carried away with aesthetics is irrepressible." (If you haven't read that book, I highly recommend it.) Those that see beauty in a certain type of world - without repressive regimes, without our enemies possessing capabilities that we cannot control - are pushing us forward to the banks of the Rubicon for their own purposes, beginning with the people and then the elites. I don't see that Johnson and Tierney apply yet to Syria and Iran, except to those aesthetes who will imagine every possibility imminent for their own ends. How do we stop the feeling of imminent from spreading and avoid triggering the Rubicon Theory of War in reality?


  1. "How do we stop the feeling of imminent from spreading and avoid triggering the Rubicon Theory of War in reality?"

    I don't know and wish I did. It seems to me, as an outsider, that Washington is a town filled with those addicted to crisis, the system breeds it because it rewards it. Am I correct about this because I have a tendency to make things up and see what I want to see.

    A human quality which must have something to do with the Rubicon Theory of War.

    I am shocked that we are where we are, and Afghanistan still being negotiated and everything.

    Bizarre, but I suppose the world waits for no one and when we have so many fingers in so many pies there is always someone in DC worried that the world will end if we don't, "X, then Y, then Z...."

    - Madhu

  2. I would like to add gunpowderandlead to my blog reading circle, but I can't afford to add another site to my reading list. Aargh! There is so much talent out there in the world, it leaves me breathless sometimes.

    - Madhu

  3. Greg Scoblete makes a sobering point:


    - Madhu

  4. Jason:

    Great post. There is a obviously a reasonable amount of groundwork upon which Johnson and Tierney regarding the role of (faulty human) cognition in decision-making and the application of that groundwork to, and indeeds foundations of that work in, international politics. What I find interesting about your post is that it delves into emotions, which has heretofore so far as I know, with a few exceptions, been relatively neglected. What must be said or done to make soldiers fight with weapons that will not affect those of their enemies? What must be said or done to make a nation rally behind a cause?

    As somewhat, but only somewhat of a sidenote, I recall the William Wallace, post-Nasariyah, "This is not the enemy we wargamed" and also, reading that Bush was (certainly understandably) "snappish" with others when it appeared the initial invasion might not go as well as planned. I'm also a bit reminded of Byman and Pollack, "Let Us Now Praise Great Men," which highlights how Waltz's "first image" has been ignored, and of Fred Greenstein (presidential scholar), who noted that presumably the same factors which influence how we relate to others in general influence how we relate to presidential candidates (but that these factors have not been delineated). Referring to the latter (i.e., Greenstein), I imagine much of how we relate to others is emotional, not cognitive. Forget about decision-making on a cognitive level. And I think lastly of Churchill, and Anatol Lieven's attack on Eliot Cohen (regardless of what motivated it), and whether Churchill's flaws as a strategist on the cognitive level were surpassed by strengths as a *leader* in the emotional sense - rallying a nation, etc. What must be said and done to make things "work" - armies fight, nations rally, etc. - on an *emotional* level?



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.