The Action Bias of National Security Punditry


As unspeak­able hor­rors con­tin­ue to emerge from the areas con­trolled by ISIS, so too are the demands for the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment to “do some­thing.” Though under­stand­able, these demands actu­al­ly rep­re­sent a self-destruc­tive impulse in pun­dit­ry, and often lead to poor deci­sion-mak­ing that results in dis­as­trous con­se­quences after­ward.

The action bias is a phe­nom­e­non were peo­ple con­front ambigu­ous or com­plex sit­u­a­tions and assume that doing some­thing is bet­ter than doing noth­ing, even if doing noth­ing is the best approach. It is a base­line, often unspo­ken assump­tion that dri­ves the stereo­typ­i­cal DC op-ed: cri­sis x is bad, so there­fore Amer­i­ca must act! This dri­ving assump­tion is such a short­cut for sound think­ing that it is often found hand-in-hand with solu­tion­ism (the belief that com­pli­cat­ed prob­lems can have ben­e­fi­cial, sim­ple solu­tions).

The action bias and solu­tion­ism are stal­warts of the pub­lic debate over Syr­ia. In the pro­to­typ­i­cal DC op-ed I exam­ined last year, you could find those two cog­ni­tive bias­es paired with false his­toric­i­ty, and a caught-in-the-moment sen­sa­tion that essen­tial­ly obscured the glar­ing weak­ness­es and shock­ing blitheness of demand­ing Amer­i­ca bomb a coun­try it bare­ly under­stands.

Now, with the shock­ing video­taped mur­der of two Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists in north­ern Iraq by Islamist mil­i­tants, you can see all of these ten­den­cies rear­ing their heads. This week, retired four-star Gen­er­al Antho­ny Zin­ni sharply crit­i­cized the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion for his “dither­ing” on Iraq.

My God, we are the most pow­er­ful nation in the world,” says Zin­ni, who was wide­ly report­ed to have been passed over for the ambas­sador­ship to Iraq in 2009 by Oba­ma. “This is a moment we have to act. How many Amer­i­cans get­ting their throats cut on TV can we stand?” a ref­er­ence to jour­nal­ists James Foley and Flori­da native Steven Sot­loff, both behead­ed by IS.

Zin­ni, on tour pro­mot­ing his lat­est book, “Before The First Shots Are Fired”, says he would put as many as 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, that the U.S. should hit IS tar­gets in Syr­ia and that he would sup­port the use of spe­cial oper­a­tions forces or CIA oper­a­tives on the ground there to get detailed intel­li­gence need­ed to locate those tar­gets if nec­es­sary.

This is a moment we have to act.” To date, the U.S. gov­ern­ment has car­ried out over 100 air strikes on ISIS posi­tions in Iraq, has deployed almost a thou­sand troops to Iraq already, has been fun­nel­ing bil­lions of dol­lars of mon­ey and weapons and train­ing to the Kur­dish Pesh­mer­ga mili­tia and the Iraqi gov­ern­ment and some Syr­i­an rebel groups. Despite Gen­er­al Zin­ni’s com­plaint that he’d do more, it is dis­hon­est to say the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion has done noth­ing — and in the case of putting spe­cial­ized teams on the ground to locate tar­gets and even strike at spe­cif­ic tar­gets it is just inac­cu­rate, too.

That is to say noth­ing of the blink­ered pol­i­tics of send­ing an entire divi­sion of sol­diers (which is what those 10,000 troops would rep­re­sent) to Iraq. The action bias (“we have to act”) ends up shut­ting down any talk of ends (what do we want those sol­diers to accom­plish), ways (the meth­ods by which those sol­diers will do it), or means (the resources we are will­ing to deploy to enable them to do it). By ignor­ing all of the many details must be worked out before such a large com­mit­ment of mil­i­tary forces, Zin­ni chose instead to pout that the White House just needs to do some­thing.

The mil­i­tary is fond of talk­ing about strat­e­gy, but rarely enjoys actu­al­ly doing strat­e­gy.

Pun­dits, too. Think tankers and colum­nists demand­ing action seem blithe­ly unaware of the seri­ous costs that accom­pa­ny Amer­i­can med­dling, along with a qua­si-reli­gious belief in the inher­ent abil­i­ty of the U.S. mil­i­tary to accom­plish all things. There are nev­er costs, nev­er down­sides, and cer­tain­ly nev­er longterm con­se­quences — only imme­di­ate prob­lems for which the only solu­tion is more bombs.

You can see the clear­est dis­til­la­tion of this in Sha­di Hamid’s recent piece for the New York Times’ Room for Debate blog, where he bemoans Oba­ma’s “lack of faith” in Amer­i­can pow­er. (Ignore the weird Darth Vad­er-esque tones of that choice of words for the moment.) (Ignore, too, Hamid’s ear­ly sign­post­ing that what he was doing is tire­some.)

Oba­ma, far from the pru­dent tech­no­crat some assume him to be, is a believ­er in the lim­its not just of Amer­i­can pow­er (which would be under­stand­able) but Amer­i­can agency, col­ored by a lack of faith in America’s abil­i­ty to play a con­struc­tive role where reli­gious and eth­nic divides are para­mount.

Hamid presents this as a bad thing, as if not assum­ing Amer­i­can mil­i­tary force was an easy but­ton for dif­fi­cult cri­sis was a fail­ure, rather than a virtue. The thing is, Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pow­er has often played a malign role in civ­il con­flicts that involve reli­gious and eth­nic divi­sions — from Bosnia (where suc­cess is almost cer­tain­ly not due to the appli­ca­tion of bombs, but rather tedious and long-term diplo­mat­ic efforts), to Iraq the sec­ond time around, to Afghanistan. Put sim­ply, the U.S. mil­i­tary should be the last thing used to inter­vene in sec­tar­i­an or eth­nic con­flicts. Cer­tain­ly not the first.

But it goes deep­er than that. Hamid’s log­ic is back­ward: he assumes inter­ven­tion would have led to a bet­ter out­come than non-inter­ven­tion has. It is the embod­i­ment of the action bias — action is bet­ter than inac­tion, even if it can nev­er be proven. Hamid is angry Oba­ma has said there is no strat­e­gy for coun­ter­ing ISIS, even though there real­ly can­not be. Hamid’s pre­ferred goal, bomb­ing and maybe send­ing in con­ven­tion­al troops (he is coy about whether he real­ly wants a full inva­sion or not), will not resolve con­flict in Syr­ia and Iraq. It will not ease ten­sions, dele­git­imize ISIS, destroy the Assad regime, force the Mali­ki gov­ern­ment into ratio­nal behav­ior, end Iran­ian influ­ence, ele­vate less mil­i­tarist rebel groups, mar­gin­al­ize al Qae­da, restore the Sykes-Picot bor­ders, or lead to a last­ing diplo­mat­ic or polit­i­cal solu­tion.

It is just mil­i­tarism — an eter­nal virtue in Amer­i­can pun­dit­ry, nev­er a vice (in this case, paired to a relent­less tau­tol­ogy of force that is log­i­cal­ly and rhetor­i­cal­ly unas­sail­able through its sheer vague­ness).

The action bias is every­where, even when it’s unfair: in 2011, the most com­mon com­plaint about Oba­ma, espe­cial­ly from the Left, was that he was too mil­i­tarist thanks to an exten­sive cam­paign of drone strikes in Pak­istan, Yemen, and Libya that killed thou­sands of peo­ple. Even so, the pres­i­dent is accused of dither­ing by osten­si­ble experts in diplo­ma­cy who are angry he does­n’t drop more bombs.

Iraq, Syr­ia, and ISIS are incred­i­bly com­pli­cat­ed prob­lems with no clear answers. Pre­tend­ing oth­er­wise is just affect and polemic, not seri­ous think­ing. Yet that is what pass­es for far too much dis­cus­sion about what the U.S. can pos­si­bly do to improve the sit­u­a­tion.

And that’s a real loss. The lack of strat­e­gy under­pin­ning for­eign pol­i­cy think­ing is decades old at this point, and seems to be get­ting worse. Under­stand­ing ISIS in the con­text of oth­er hyper-vio­lent rebel move­ments is almost entire­ly miss­ing. Instead, blind mil­i­tarism, the urgent demand to do some­thing — any­thing — has dom­i­nat­ed the debate. We are left with less under­stand­ing of the con­flict in Iraq and Syr­ia, not more under­stand­ing, and pet­ty recrim­i­na­tions instead of strate­gic think­ing.

The pauci­ty of our nation­al debate harms us. It obscures sound think­ing and encour­ages sense­less vio­lence with no clear aim or end state. We should­n’t be sur­prised our lead­ers have no strat­e­gy and demon­strate such faulty think­ing when this is what is avail­able to them.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.