I’d like to do something very unusual in this post: argue that a policy of George W. Bush, and not just any policy, but his policy of starting land wars in Asia, may have had a good effect.
I’ve been thinking this week about the death of Osama bin Laden, and in particular how it profoundly changes the narrative of the American military presence in central Asia over the past decade. Prior to this, there were plenty of stories about “the US is only there for their own interests” (which is undoubtedly true, and continues to be so) as well as a story about bin Laden as a sort of terrorist Robin Hood: he smacks the Americans in the nose and gets away with it, escapes to fight another day. Now, his political capital has greatly eroded over the past decade; after the disassembly of his logistical infrastructure in Afghanistan, and perhaps even more so after his faction’s behavior in Iraq (both their bloody-mindedness towards Iraqis and their inability to function against direct, prepared American resistance), he has long-since ceased to be a figure of much veneration, even among the bulk of the radical lunatic community. So his “Robin Hood” points are mostly evaporated.
But in the context of last week’s raid, there’s a new story: if you pick a fight with the United States, they will hunt you down. Even if it requires an absolutely absurd expenditure of human lives and resources, even if it means starting not just one but two wars which frankly make no logical sense. And this story has tremendous value to the US, quite independently of bin Laden’s actual significance; it’s the threat of disproportionate response, the visible reminder that the US has a truly tremendous range of assets which can be brought to bear on any potential enemy. And in an era when people may have believed themselves to be immune to such response because of their small size or non-state nature, while still capable of causing asymmetric harm by means of modern “force multipliers,” the vivid embodiment of that warning may have a powerful effect on the next few decades of our history.
Am I recanting my earlier opposition to these wars? Only in small part. There has been tremendous mismanagement of these wars at the policy level, and I shudder to think how many more people were killed than needed to be. There are going to be many other long-term consequences of these wars, such as increased regional power for Iran, which may be considerably greater in scope than we can guess today. But as time progresses and more consequences fall out, our analyses of these events will have to change, and of their rightness or wrongness in retrospect.
Perhaps more to the point, what we’re seeing here is the notion of the “enforcer” in repeated games. (See Boyd et al., “Coordinated Punishment of Defectors Sustains Cooperation and Can Proliferate When Rare,” and Posner, “Social Norms and the Law: An Economic Approach,” two classic papers on the subject) Humans seem to have evolved such that a certain fraction of our species is prone to disproportionate reaction in response to “cheaters” (i.e., violators of norms); even though these enforcers tend to win less on the whole than the average person, because of this tendency to spend more energy than they rationally (individually) ought to, the society as a whole turns out to win considerably from the presence of a certain number of such people. It’s the deterrence scheme of the madman; you never know when they might flip out and kill everyone in sight.
Our system of government seems to have found a unique method of amplifying this in political or military situations; when something sufficiently severe happens, the enforcers in society raise an outcry, and everyone else’s attempt to mute this is tepid or restrained at best. As a result, even if the sitting president isn’t an enforcer by nature, he will find himself under pressure to become one – or rapidly be replaced by someone who is. It’s a way of pulling enforcers to the fore on an as-needed basis, which acts as a tremendous boost to the credibility of the threat.
But there’s a problem, of course. To have the deterrent that the leader of the United States just might be a violent madman and capable of anything, you need to have (at least occasionally) as leader of the United States a violent madman who is capable of anything. Enforcers are fairly specifically chosen for their irrationality, not for their ability to make wise or reasoned decisions; and they tend to wrack up a tremendous body count (of their own people) in the process. The fact that we had an extreme enforcer already in office at the time of 9/11 actually strikes me as somewhat alarming; he went off for the right reason, but even so did it in far from the wisest way, and we as a society will be paying the consequences for a long time to come.
A side benefit of the fact that Obama was the president who ended this is that he isn’t known as an enforcer; he was hailed from the moment of his election as a wiser, more understanding (and more rational!) president. The signal that even if a “calmer” person is in office, the rules of an appropriately timed disproportionate response are still in play, is an extra and valuable booster to this policy of deterrence. Waiting for someone else to come into office is not a good strategy. This is a nuance which is particularly commonly seen in Israel; every time a new PM comes to the fore, Hamas &co. start trying some terror attacks, to see if this one will be easily pushed around. It never works, but it gets tried every time nonetheless.
With all this said, there was a deep and significant victory achieved this past week. It wasn’t a victory over a particular terrorist; it was a victory over hostile state and non-state actors as a whole. It wasn’t just the victory of the team that did it, and it wasn’t even the victory of one administration or the other; it was a victory for our society as a whole.
And with that I can say, to all those who sacrificed for this moment – in their lives, in their families, in their economies – this sacrifice has bought our country, and our world, something of great value which could not have been bought in any lesser way.
(Addendum: It occurred to me after posting that I should have mentioned that the fact that Iraq was completely irrelevant to 9/11, bin Laden, etc., doesn’t affect this reasoning. It’s the fact that the President might go off and lay waste to two countries which just happened to be in the wrong area, and to have pissed off the wrong people, just in order to make the point which is the deterrent. We live in a strange world.)