Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Comment on US War Epistemology

Another piece on the Bush administration's efforts to find reasons for conducting wars: Cheney may have mulled Israeli pretext for U.S. attack on Iran. Sure, I have no doubt he has.

But note the epistemology here. It has been the same throughout Bush administration foreign and domestic policy. It goes like this: there is a fixed, a priori idea of a policy venture; the policymaker then goes around looking for reasons to subscribe to that pre-fixed idea; "good" reasons are largely intended as fodder for formulating a public justification for the initial policy idea and this guides the search for reasons; the more reasons accumulated (whether consistent with each other or not), the more rhetorical ammunition the policymaker has in making the public justification.

Here's the rub, moving backwards through this "methodology." More justifications do not necessarily mean good justifications. This is crude quantity over quality logic. It may serve as a way to confuse the public and the media and thus put the policymaker in the position of at least obscuring what he really wants to do. It serves to give the appearance that the policymaker is being publicly transparent by tossing lots of justifications, facts, data, at the public. And it may serve to have a set of public back-up reasons when one individual justification or another fails (it wasn't WMDs; it was democracy, etc.). But it also has little to do with good reasons for a policy. Why? Because good policy is a response to a problem perceived as such by a well-informed public. Much of public and foreign policy fails at this, but Bush administration policy seems to have very little to do with good policy in the first place. This quantity methodology has to do with political salesmanship for goods that the administration, not necessarily the public, views as goods.

What is being sold? This brings us into the initial step. This is the question for which I don't think we have a good answer, at least not in the case of the Iraq invasion and occupation. Of course, massive incompetence is always a possible explanation, but the lead-up arguments and deceit for the Iraq War were so carefully and expertly managed that I hesitate to take the easy way out by concluding that the chaos is all a result of incompetence. I don't doubt incompetence in some of the details of policies and even perhaps in their overall conceptualizations, and I don't doubt the limits to which a basic arrogance and sense of regal infallibility blinds members of the administration even to the obvious reality of failed policies. But this nevertheless suggests that the answer still runs to the epistemological issue here.

The important element of the initial step, however, is perhaps two-sided: either the original, a priori policy idea is generated through vague ideology-driven intuition or it has reasons that the administration wishes not to make public. Genuine critics of the actual policies - those who are trying to understand the reasoning behind the policies - often come up empty with this administration. Again, much of this has to do with the actual lack of transparency and the apparent secrecy fetish which, during the administration's halcyon days, the administration was not even at pains to conceal (concealing a lack of transparency by appearing transparent is a brilliant Machiavellian political trick - Rove was good at it from time to time). The latter version, then, of the a priori policy idea as based on secret reasons indicates fundamentally undemocratic practice. This is especially the case when the consequences of these policies in action are so dramatically negative for nearly everyone except those close to the administration.

How about what I called a "vague ideology-driven intuition"? First, don't put too much in store by the term "ideology." This is a shifty term with a history of academic disputes behind it. Further, we all have our own ideologies, if we mean by this something along the lines of unquestioned habits of thought and belief. This is a basic epistemological matter. At some level, we can't go around re-evaluating wholesale all of our beliefs. We use most of them like "black boxes" - they serve certain purposes and are only thrown into disarray when seriously challenged by new circumstances. In the case of the administration, when a policymaker is "standing on principle" or "unwavering," and so on, that's usually less an indication of deliberative reasoning on sound principles than it is promoting one's particular intuitions to the status of universality and then refuse to examine them for fear of inadequacy.

If we grant, however, that the process of policy reasoning is to be taken at face value, as in the steps I described above, then the epistemological question is, I think, this: US policy in this administration is driven by a kind of quasi-reasoning common to unreflective religious thought, authoritarians, and some forms of orthodox policy analysis. It begins with unquestioned ideology or doctrine and then seeks to act on it regardless of evidence contradicting the doctrine. In the face of surprising evidence, it doesn't attempt to revise doctrine, it attempts, rather, to adapt contradictory evidence into its doctrinal scheme (often by appeal to the threat of outside forces, which then justifies anything), and one way it does this is by rewriting the understanding of that surprising reality rather than dealing with it directly. Note that this has little to do with publicly perceived problems except to the extent that the public is either benighted or are fellow travelers.

Epistemologically, this is tantamount to taking the status quo ante as "natural" (and in this case, with the neocons, as the exclusive domain of the anointed). It looks to the doctrine to explain reality and how one ought to act on that reality, irregardless of the consequences of those actions. When real circumstances throw into doubt the doctrine, the doctrine itself is not questioned; the reality itself is questioned. Rather than seeking imaginative solutions by examining various possible outcomes of a policy and trying at least tentatively the option that might best resolve the policy problem without giving up other important values, solutions are only defined as such to the extent that they conform with and serve to reconfirm doctrine and the status quo ante. The doctrine itself is not a product of public deliberation, important in any policy issue, but a questionable ideology which, if clarified for the public and put up for public deliberation, may have very little support. Thus, much of the solution-finding is simply geared towards maintaining the exclusivity of the doctrine.

This is a major part of the problem we've been facing and continue to face. It's not merely a matter of ideological differences or of incompetence. It's a matter of the disastrous end (an end, one hopes) of a common yet specious approach to policy that is anathema to democracy. This end doesn't spell disaster for democracy, however. Rather, it confirms (tragically) the importance of further democracy in our institutions, policymaking, and collective problem-solving.


Anonymous said...

Clear analysis, helmut. Thanks.

It's what I intuitively thought and helps to support my preconceived notions.

Oh, wait...


Anonymous said...

I'll add that the previous comment was intended to be humorous.

I do appreciate the analysis, though. It seems to be sound, as far as this non-philosopher can tell.


MT said...

The eclipsing of real reasons by selling-points and slogans seems like what you'd expect when no policy makes more sense than any other either a) to the policy makers or b) to the public. "Sense making" takes time, which is scarce, not to mention expensive, so a competitor who persuades with slogans sells more policy faster, and a benign despot is liable to prefer an ignorant and/or highly distracted constituents on those grounds. Unchecked competition yields not just bad capitalism but bad science and bad politics, and "checking"--which is a kind of scruple--is self-imposed but also social/cultural. I'd liken the scruples or checks on ideological competition in science to Catholicism (organized and audited); and among fundamentalist believers in the Invisible Hand I'd hypothesize it's more like Pentecostals--more personal, friendlier to pure entrepreneurship. To sell your fellow fundamentalist on idea (say, that you're speaking in tongues and not merely babbling) you act earnest, and you become a believer so you can act earnest. I'm sure Brownie and Bremer put on a wonderful show of conviction. "Skills of leadership" as inculcated by the Army and the fraternities seems to be about the same thing. This is the culture that believes that what makes America great is believing that America is great, and would amend the Constitution to ban flag burning.

MT said...

"Protestant theology and the spirit of the CEO" you might call it.

helmut said...

I do get humor, CKR. Most of what I write includes my own brand - I laugh, anyway.

MT: if sense-making suffers from scarcity of time, then it seems to me we've got some fundamentally problematic institutions. Maybe living with them is sustainable in the short-term, but in the long-term it's self-destructive, and ultimately undemocratic. And maybe we're running quickly towards that short-term horizon.

MT said...

I don't mean that the available time is insufficient, only that, because it's not infinite, it's a factor that needs to be taken into account. Elections happen when they're scheduled to happen, not after an administration implements X new policies or after every voter has heard everything there is to know and be said about their options. Where speed matters to a competition, competitors are liable to make trade-offs to gain a speed advantage. Unless rules prohibit the trade off.

MT said...

I could have left out time and just talked about competition. Judging competitors on "results" or on "product" incentivizes corruption of the process--e.g. counterfeiting, adulteration, negligent workmanship/quality control, etc. Judging only on the process favors competitors who care less about productivity. A popularity contest is a product test. U.S. campaigns look like popularity contests. Fundamentalism and CEO-ism make charisma and self-assurance popular and take the spotlight away from better measures of competence.