Listen to the Foxes, Not Hedgehogs, on Iraq

I have read the report on and parts of the (declassified) text of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s future, the official assessment issued by key American intelligence agencies. It outlines three possible scenarios for the U.S.-occupied country:

The emergence of a Shi’ite strongman to assert authority over minority sects;

A period of sustained and bloody fighting leading to the partition of Iraq along ethnic lines; and

An “anarchic” fragmentation that puts power in the hands of local potentates.

I read the NIE – don’t you love that Washington alphabet soup of acronyms? – and then reread it several more times and it all sounded, well, familiar. And what do you know? Thanks to the magic of the Internet I was able to replay the popular Talk of the Nation radio show that was broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) on Nov. 6, 2003, and which focused on Alternative Strategies in Iraq, and could listen to myself outlining three possible scenarios for Iraq that included:

The rise of a Shi’ite “user-friendly Saddam Hussein”;

The disintegration of the country into three mini-states “a la the former Yugoslavia”;

Or the continuing descent into anarchy.

That Leon Hadar Estimate (LHE) didn’t take a long time to prepare, didn’t include the hard work by a large group of analysts and spooks, and it was offered free of charge to anyone who wanted to listen more than three years ago. In fact, an almost similar assessment was offered in more detailed LHE outlined in my Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) in which yours truly warned (among other things) that what would happen in the Middle East “will not be the rise of the first liberal democracy in the Arab world but probably the creation of mini-Afghanistan (or mini-Afghanistans) in Iraq and perhaps in other countries in the region, in which ethnic, tribal, and religious groups would fight one another, with support from regional and global players” and that “at the end, the best-case scenario would, like the Yugoslavia today, be a collection of three or more protectorates.”

Pandora’s Box

In my talk to the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC) on Jan 10, 2003 – on the eve of the Iraq war – in which I suggested that “the best solution would be to have what I call a user-friendly Saddam Hussein, an Iraqi leader who would maintain order in Iraq and stabilize it,” predicted that “the minute you are going to have either an invasion or a change of regime in Iraq you are opening a Pandora Box and a lot of things are going to happen” and concluded that “the Middle East has proven to be and will prove to be once again a graveyard of great expectations.”

By recalling these and other earlier forecasts by yours truly, I’m not trying to brag about my good judgment in predicting future events (not that there is anything wrong about doing that). I am more perplexed by the fact that so many smart and talented pundits in Washington – people with high IQs and advanced academic degrees from prestigious universities – had gotten it all wrong Big Time on Iraq and related issues.

Remarkably, some of my colleagues, who once upon a time had dismissed me a “doomster” on the Middle East, and who continue now to prognosticate about world affairs, now argue that they had actually shared my views all the time.

Why do most political experts prove to be wrong most of time? For an answer, you might want to browse through a very fascinating study by Philip Tetlock, a political scientist and psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who in Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton University Press, 2005) contends that there is no direct correlation between the intelligence and knowledge of the political expert and the quality of his or her forecasts. If you want to know whether this or that pundit is making a correct prediction, don’t ask yourself what he or she is thinking – but how he or she is thinking.

Mr. Tetlock shares much of the skepticism about our ability to predict political developments, as the odd assortment of path-dependency theorists, complexity-chaos theorists (recall the Butterfly Effect?), game theorists, and probability theorists demonstrate that the fundamental complex properties of the world make it impossible to achieve forecasting accuracy beyond crude extrapolation.

At the same time, as psychologists point out, the fundamental properties of the human mind – preference for simplicity, aversion of ambiguity and dissonance, belief in controllable world, misunderstandings of probabilistic processes – make it inevitable that experts will miss whatever predictability has not been precluded “in principle.”

So dear pundit, acquire a sense of humility: The world is too complex to unravel; and even under the best conditions, your mind is not equipped to do that.

While this might sound like good advice as well as good common sense, Mr. Tetlock the scientist has tried to prove it by gathering and analyzing more than 80,000 forecasts by academics, journalists, consultants and professional “futurists” about a variety of global issues, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the apartheid system in South Africa, and the outcome of the first Gulf War (he explains the methodology he used in a long appendix to the study; it’s too, well, complex) and discovered – Surprise! Surprise! – that the experts were wrong more often than blind chance.

But quite frequently, Mr. Tetlock and his researchers did encounter an analyst who got it right more times than he or she got it wrong. And contrary to what the conventional wisdom would suggest, getting it right on, say, whether the Soviet Union would collapse or not, had very little to do with whether one had received a Ph.D. with distinction in Russian Studies from Harvard and had read Pravda every day.

In fact, knowing too much about a subject and having strong personal commitment to the issue can be a major obstacle to getting it right. Or to put it differently, Great Minds don’t necessarily make for Great Forecasters.

What Mr. Tetlock the psychologist considers to be an asset in figuring out What’s Up in Iraq and elsewhere is the style of thinking, as there seems to be a direct link between how people think and what they get right and wrong. He applies in his study the prototypes of the “hedgehog” and the “fox” that the late British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin had proposed as a way of classifying political thinking and behavior.

Mr. Tetlock demonstrates the usefulness of classifying experts along a rough cognitive-style continuum anchored at one hand by Berlin’s prototypical hedgehog and at the other by his prototypical fox.

The intellectually aggressive hedgehog knew one Big Thing and sought, under the banner of parsimony, to expand the explanatory power of that Big Thing to “cover” new cases. He or she toils devotedly within one tradition and imposes formulaic solutions on ill-defined problems.

The more eclectic foxes knew many little things and were contend to improvise ad hoc solutions to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. Drawing from a variety and sometimes contradictory array of ideas and traditions, he or she is better able to improvise in response to changing events and is more successful in predicting the future than the hedgehog.

Paradoxically, Mr. Tetlock notes, there is a perversely inverse relationship between the scientific indicators of good judgment and the qualities that the media most prizes in pundits – “expertise” (a lot of training and experience) in a specific field and the single-minded determination required to prevail in ideological combat.

Hence when it comes to the op-ed pages and the television news shows – it’s the hedgehog that rises to the top.

At this point, dear reader, I can see you associating the hedgehogs with the neoconservatives who assured us that the collapse of Saddam Hussein will usher a new day of democracy and freedom in Iraq and the Middle East – the Big Thing. And against the backdrop of the spreading of instability and violence in Iraq and the Middle East, they continue to point to the many “tipping points,” ranging from the fall of the statue of Saddam to the current military “surge,” that things have been moving in the right direction towards the realization of their Big Thing.

The good news is that as reality in Iraq and elsewhere seems to contradict the forecasts of the neoconservative hedgehogs, more Americans are paying more attention to the many foxes, with their call for readjustment and flexibility: Democracy is a great idea – but perhaps it won’t work in Iraq and the Middle East. There is a need for U.S. leadership in the world – but that’s very different than U.S. hegemony and unilateralism.

There are many unsavory regimes in the world – but sometimes you have to talk with them. Military force is an important tool in international affairs – but only as the last resort.

I’m a fox. You’re a fox. We’re all foxes now.

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