Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Spiraling Out of Control: The Dangerous Fallacies of General Mattis

by Nomad

Contrary to what the Defense Secretary apparently believes, there's a lethal risk in basing American foreign policy on the belief that other nations will pull back from the brink.

Red Lines and Spirals

On April 11, 2017, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and General Joseph L. Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command held a press conference. It was a comparatively sedate and well-mannered meeting with the press. Mattis came across as a wise and disciplined type of leader, something solely lacking in the Trump administration.

However, there was an exchange that stood out for me and worth a bit more attention.
Q: Secretary Mattis, you're a student of history. You're a student of strategy. You've talked about red lines. The president has talked about red lines. The Russians have talked about red lines. At what point is there a danger of this spiraling out of control and to conflict between two nuclear-powered countries?

SEC. MATTIS: I don't believe I've talked about red lines. I generally shy away from it myself. I recommend Assad be rather cautious about violating international law with chemical weapons. I suppose that could be considered a red line. So I won't argue the point.
It will not spiral out of control. As you know, Secretary of State Tillerson is in Moscow. We maintain communications with the Russian military and with the diplomatic channels. It will not spiral out of control.

Q: What gives you that assurance? I mean, the Russians have been very clear in their rhetoric. If you -- I'll take your point that you have not said the word "red lines." The Russians have. They're saying that another response like the one you launched on April 6th would be a red line for them. How are you so confident that this isn't going to spiral out of control?

SEC. MATTIS: Well, I'm confident the Russians will act in their own best interests, and there's nothing in their best interests to say they want this situation to go out of control.
It was a  stunning dismissal by General Mattis. There's no doubt his assurances were genuine. I am sure he believes that things will not spiral out of control.

Relying on a nation- whether that nation is Russia or Iran or Pakistan - to act according to it best interests is extremely simple-minded.   

Syria, North Korea and the Suicidal Urge

War may be a breakdown of diplomacy but it is also a breakdown of logic and rationality. 

Take the conflict in Syria. Logic would seem to dictate that a leader- any leader- could never find a rationale for dropping barrel bombs on his own cities and for launching chemical attacks on the children of his own citizens.
Logically, the love for his country, his people, and his own cultural heritage would, it would seem, overrule Assad's apocalyptic policies. The best interests of his nation would make such crimes impossible.

Yet in Syria, at this minute, a different kind of logic- the logic of madness- prevails. As one analysis of Syria points out:
The targeting of refugees, schools and hospitals, and even the potential use of chemical weapons follows a dark kind of logic.
In effect, Assad is communicating with rebel sympathisers that their support for the opposition will only garner them woe, misery and scorched earth. Their only option, the message goes, is to surrender, accept their fate and return to the fold of the regime.
And the same kind of illogic holds true for North Korea. Few could plausibly argue that that nation's leader Kim Jong Un cares about his people's best interests.

Dictator Un presides over one of the weakest, most ramshackle economies in the world. US News recently noted that North Korea is one of the most miserable places on earth.
"The standard of living has deteriorated to extreme levels of deprivation in which the right to food security, health and other minimum needs for human survival are denied," according to a recent report by the Korea Institute for National Unification, a research group based in Seoul.
That hasn't stopped the leader for expending vast sums on military hardware, nuclear programs, and rockets.
As the UK Guardian pointed out the other day, there's a problem with applying a military threat against North Korea. Kim Jong-un has nothing lose if his strategy fails and his nation goes up in flames.
For him, the most appropriate response to outside threats could just be to find a way to take out as many hapless victims as possible before the end. And he has the power to do it.

As Assad and Jong-un demonstrate, war (and the urge to make war) is a form of insanity. The rules that operate in peacetime simply do not apply in war. One cannot apply the rules of sanity to insane situations.
That's where Mattis' assurance that things will not spin out of control falters.

A Parallel from our Past

History provides us with a lesson of how quickly and inescapably things can get out of hand. The First World War: an international conflict in which all participants had thought couldn't happen. Every nation had had a special interest in preventing it and yet, once the delicate balance was lost, smaller nation pulled more powerful nation into conflict.  
For every nation, the war seemed to be one of national self-defence as well as national pride. Opportunism and the dread of losing prestige on the international stage were two factors the military professionals failed to take into account.

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, author Margaret MacMillan points out that, had Europe’s leaders in 1914 been a bit more realist and more far-sighted, the world might have been spared both grief and ruin.
The greatest irony of that war was that none of the key decision-makers wanted it to happen.
And indeed, they had had plenty of opportunities to pull back from the brink, and yet, they have seemingly compelled the logic of self-interest.
In her book, MacMillan asks,
“Given such power and such prosperity, given the evidence of so many advances in so many fields in the past century, why would Europe want to throw it all away?”
A failure of leadership to imagine what might happen if their meticulous calculations were wrong.
Twenty million civilian and military lives were lost. A further 21 million were wounded. Such losses had seemed unthinkable when the war began. A world order- a golden age- was literally obliterated and replaced with something so unstable that a second world war became only a matter of time.  

And, in light of General Mattis' remark, the very same dynamic is at play today. The stakes are even higher.

A New York Times review of MacMillian's book contains this anecdote:
President John F. Kennedy once remarked that “in 1914, with most of the world already plunged in war, Prince Bulow, the former German chancellor, said to the then-chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg: ‘How did it all happen?’
And Bethmann-Hollweg replied: ‘Ah, if only one knew.’

If this planet is ever ravaged by nuclear war,” Kennedy went on, “if the survivors of that devastation can then endure the fire, poison, chaos and catastrophe, I do not want one of those survivors to ask another, ‘How did it all happen?’ and to receive the incredible reply, ‘Ah, if only one knew.’ ”

Incremental Decisions and Unintended Consequences

There's another reason why Mattis' assurance is dangerously flawed. It is captured by a quote by the late social psychologist, Leonard Berkowitz. If that name isn't familiar to you, Berkowitz became famous for his “weapons effect” theory.His experimental studies suggested that people would be more combative and cruel in the presence of a gun.
“Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger.”
That could very well be true when it comes to weapons of war. The fact that both Russia and the United States are in possession of vast armies (including nuclear arms) is a factor that must not be discounted. Just because the two nations have not engaged in direct conflict until now is no guarantee that it will not take place at all.

In 2014, former U.S. Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright attended a forum on World War I and she made an observation which ought to serve as a warning to Mattis and the Trump administration.
"There are a lot of incremental decisions and then they add up to something that you have not thought through the unintended consequences of."
That cautionary remark underscores the danger of relying on logic, rationality and upon any nation to consider its self-interest as a proper deterrent to war.
Hopefully, General Mattis- the only apparently sensible member of the Trump administration will take heed.