It’s always useful to have a clear understanding of the kind of problem before one, and misclassifications are especially common when we are desperate to be seen throwing the right kind of slogan at an issue in time for a news cycle or an election. For example, political habits of thought make a lot of conflicts look as though some sort of Aristotelian mean between extremes should be sought, though many of these actually demand complete ‘victory’ by one side or the other, and others can lead to solutions with a lot of what both sides want, rather than two half-loaves.
Chancy situations put managers in a mood to reduce or eliminate risk, but Bob Leone used to point out correctly that most of these actually require us to choose the right risk rather than trying fruitlessly to have less or none. Every production or sequential process has a bottleneck, and it’s usually better to assure that the bottleneck is in the right place than to “remove it”, which of course just creates another somewhere else.
Terrorism and the occupation of Iraq are two opportunities to misunderstand the nature of the challenge with dire results. The press and the blogs have been alive with demands that the Democrats present their ‘plan for Iraq’, often packaged with constraints that the plan not lead to defeat, chaos in the region, or any other really distasteful outcome: the implicit model of the problem is that we find a way to undo the catastrophe orchestrated by the Republicans’ unfettered management of the enterprise over five years.
No sane person would demand a plan to reverse our wasteful use of petroleum over a century and put all that nice oil back in the ground to use again; it’s gone, burned, finished. The Iraqi Titanic is holed and passing the hundred-fathom mark on its way down (just today, for example, we have forty more bodies in the street, Al-Sadr’s militia breaking up into groups he doesn’t control, the police academy we built needing a wrecking ball ) . Following it into the whirlpool is a boatful of constitutional rights and moral principles that were, at least until recently, immensely important to Americans. The navigation of this latter vessel is of course on Republican principles that defy summary, but seem to include (1) we want to be able to torture people and imprison them indefinitely to get intelligence, (2) actually we don’t use or respect intelligence unless we already knew it, and we especially reject (3) intelligence from experts to the effect that information obtained by torture and mistreatment is likely to be wrong.
The reasons to vote Democratic have to do with not making more mistakes like Iraq, mistakes assured by the Republican intention to stay the course or to bravely steer more vessels into the same iceberg…or the one just east of it. There is no more reason to expect Democrats to have a way to extract a good outcome from Iraq than for them to turn Katrina (or even the next big hurricane) into a nice breeze and a rainy day. Just because the Iraq invasion was man-made doesn’t mean it’s reversible or fixable. The costs of that bungle are sunk, the dead are dead, the old political and cultural structures are landfill. The only plan to fix Iraq now requires that we suspend the second law of thermodynamics: don’t invade it.
Terrorism is deeply misunderstood when it attracts metaphors like war: a war is a program to cause a unitary decisionmaker to take specific actions of which he is capable, such as surrender, acceptance of occupation, division of a territory, and the like. The war metaphor entails a bunch of nice associated values like courage and determination, but it completely misrepresents a task like coping with terrorism (or drugs). Terrorism is a condition of ongoing risk that is much better approached with the metaphors of preparedness, planned response, and containment that we use for natural disasters than those of war or anything like it. It’s a risk that has to be managed, and for a long time, no matter that its agents hate us or offend our gods or won’t play fair (though getting these insights right has some predictive value). Would we deal with the San Andreas fault differently if we discovered the geology of California really disliked humans and buildings?
Democrats have to do what they have to do to get elected by a voting population profoundly misinformed and alienated by a ghastly alliance of willful ignorance, greed, power mania, and prejudice. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. But they should be careful not to paralyze their time in power with dysfunctional commitments to make water flow uphill, even if voters and columnists desperately want to hear something soothing.