Monday, February 26, 2007

Unintended Consequences

Have you ever heard the story of the man who was tired of being just another unknown, un-famous person? He hatched a plan, buying dozens of pairs of red socks with the idea of being known as "the guy who always wears red socks". His plan didn't quite work out as he had hoped. He became known instead as "the man who never changed his socks".
What we're talking about here is the law of unintended consequences, in which a course of action is taken to produce a certain results, but instead causes something else to happen. We all know people who have fallen victim to this principle: the young girl who wants control over her body, but then suffers from an eating disorder: the athlete who forgets that he will not always be able to excel in physical competition and neglects skills which can sustain him when his playing days are gone: a parent who raises his children to be independent, only to find himself alone when they grow up.
It shouldn't be surprising that the same thing happens to nations, both in the way they govern themselves and in their foreign policy. The presidential race is a good example. The demands of running are enormous, both emotionally and financially. Anyone who makes it through the partisan abuse and mano a mano confrontations of a campaign is by definition a tough, thick-skinned person. That in itself isn't bad, but what does this say about that same person's ability to relate to the most vulnerable, helpless members of that society? A guy like Dick Cheney can be a big help in an election campaign, but then whose job is it to see that the person in charge of disaster relief is a compassionate individual and not simply a party hack?
The US saw the opportunity to cement relations with two major oil producers in the First Gulf conflict by offering military protection to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The unintended consequence? A young Saudi oligarch, Osama bin Laden, vows vengeance for American troops occupying (even to help!) Saudi Arabia's sacred soil, bringing uncovered women and alcohol-drinking soldiers where they were not wanted. Al Qaeda is formed as an instrument of righteous retribution. Following the 9/11 attacks, US troops displace the government of Afghanistan, the ultra-orthodox Taliban. Unexpected consequence? The country reverts to cultivating its main cash crop, processed heroin, bringing down the world price and inadvertently helping recruit a new generation of addicts. The military occupation of Iraq produces the surprising results of distrust and fear towards the US by its longtime allies, squandering the sympathy we stood to benefit from after 9/11.
Is this a subtle concept requiring advanced levels of understanding at the highest decision-making level? Maybe, but how sophisticated can it be if I, a guy with an out-of-date BA degree, can explain it? It is government's job to the make the best decisions possible. You can't get it done by saying over and over that "all options are on the table", which means"We'll attack again when and where we damn well please". The Bush administration went through six years of a lay-down Congress willing to endorse pretty much any decision they made. Can we please finally find them responsible for their screwups? Please?


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