Friday, December 21, 2007

Unintended Consequences

I am obsessed with the nature of consequences. They are as certain as the effect of the moon on the tide and as unpredictable as the effect of the moon on a woman. The older I get, the more I respect them... such that even when I behave badly, I do so very, very carefully.

Cause/effect... action/consequence. Surprisingly simple concepts that require the mental dexterity of a chess player to understand and anticipate.

It's also how I tend to look at most policy presentations. Since the depth of my knowledge in no way approaches omniscience, I do the best I can with what I know and whatever my research turns up. Usually it's enough to conclude that something is either worth the risk or a Very Bad Idea.

I have been accused of being in the "blame America first" club for saying that certain policies were a Very Bad Idea, or for noting their causal relationships. Of all the cute little quips employed by the right, that's the one that I find the most irritating and the most ignorant. The cop out of a jingoist mind.

But I digress.

Sometimes there are so many variables involved in an action that it's guaranteed to yield unpredictable results. i.e., It's a crap shoot. Alternatively, it could be that the little chess game you play in your mind doesn't get played far enough forward, or in enough directions, and you find yourself with unintended consequences.

It's the unintended consequences that make me crazy.

I have marveled many times, right here in this blog, that our meddling in the Middle East has routinely come back to bite us in the ass. I understand how tempting it can be... our interests are heavily invested in the region and the region itself is so unstable as to be relatively easy to manipulate.

For example, our support of the overthrow of the popular, democratic, and secular Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and subsequent support of the brutal dictator, the Shah of Iran, is generally considered to have led to the Islamic revolution.

Our financial and military support of Saddam Hussein, intended to serve as a counter-weight to Iran's power and to influence the outcome of the Iran-Iraq war, left Iraq with a brutal dictator and the world with a menacing megalomaniac.

Our financial and military support of the mujahideen in Afghanistan, intended to drive back the Soviets, included the recruitment of foreign Arabs to help fight the war. One of those Arabs, Osama bin Laden, found himself a new home among the Taliban, the powerful devil spawned from the post-war mujahideen chaos.

It's not that America's motives were bad or unreasonable in these actions. On the last point, the Soviet Union at the time posed the greatest existential threat this country has ever known. And, arguably, it was Afghanistan that proved to be the quagmire that brought the Soviets to their knees (without the political checks and balances of Democracy that saved the US from drowning itself in Vietnam, the Soviet's stubborn refusal to withdraw bled them out both financially and militarily). It's just that our actions sometimes have unintended consequences, and those consequences have occasionally marred the objective we sought to achieve.

Sometimes it's impossible to foresee the unintended consequences. I'm sure the CIA thought bin Laden was a handy guy to have around with his money and connections before he went batshit crazy and decided the US must die.

Sometimes it's more obvious. Plenty of people predicted with alarming accuracy what the result of invading Iraq would be, from the power void in the region, to the ethnic strife, to the imperialist, years long occupation it would require in the aftermath. That anyone would have been surprised by the results required an almost willful ignorance.

Whether the consequences of our actions are within our ability to anticipate and control or not, we are none the less burdened with ownership of them. To say otherwise is childish and irresponsible. And to say that people hate us for our freedoms when, in fact, they have plenty of reason to hate us for our policies, is just plain stupid. We act in our own self-interest -- as we must -- but what's for our good is not necessarily for everyone's good. That's a cold, hard fact.

This is why I tend toward a more hands-off approach whenever possible when it comes to foreign policy in the ME (or in Latin America, where we've created many, many domino-esque consequences with our meddling). We should act when we need to but only reluctantly. What I wish most for people to understand is that sometimes taking no action is just as legitimate an option as any other. It doesn't always mean you're weak... in the long run, sometimes it just makes you smart.


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