TCS Daily


Hating the Solution

By Arnold Kling - April 14, 2004 12:00 AM

"So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent."
-- Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936

Suppose that you are a middle manager in a big company that faces a problem that requires an innovative technical solution. Two firms come to you, one offering to solve the problem for $300,000 and the other offering to study the problem and produce a plan for $500,000. Which do you recommend to senior management?

I can say, based on personal experience, that the only career-enhancing move is to recommend hiring the firm that will study the problem. That is Churchill's "strange paradox" as it applies in the corporate bureaucracy. Fortunately, I learned my lesson inside a large firm, before I started my own business. It taught me that when you pitch a product or service to a big company, you should position your offering as a tool for analysis rather than as a solution. I know many bitter entrepreneurs who have clever solutions and no profits to show for it, because they failed to appreciate the strange paradox.

Hating the Solution

What Churchill found is that when a group of leaders is confronted with a problem that makes them uneasy, they take out their frustration on those who suggest ways of dealing with the problem. Discomfort with a problem leads many people to develop a passionate hatred for the solution.

In 1936, the problem was Adolf Hitler's military occupation of the Rhineland and massive re-armament, in blatant violation of several important treaties. As Hitler grew more brazen, the solution of confronting the dictator and forcing him to back down came to be despised by the British elite, including Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain.

Today, it seems to me that the elites in this country and elsewhere are responding to terrorism by hating the solution. As columnist Suzanne Fields points out, they are expressing anti-war sentiment while trying to project male strength. Howard Dean was angry for pacifism. Senator John Kerry has become all-macho for pusillanimity.

A couple years back, Steven Hayward wrote,

Churchill's central idea or insight was that the distinction between liberty and tyranny, between civilization and barbarism, is real and substantial...

The necessary ferocity of warfare represents a departure from the normal conditions and inclinations of democratic civilization, while it represents the normal condition of barbaric nations and peoples. Barbarism may be regarded, in a nutshell, as lacking in any reasoned principle of justice or progress or moderation.

The left is unable to see that when civilization is confronted by barbarity that we must fight back. Hating the solution, they insist that "war is not the answer."

The current media circus, the commission looking into the 9-11 attacks, is best understood in this context. A constructive, nonpartisan commission would be looking for systemic failures, and it would propose reforms to enhance security in the future. This commission's main task appears to be assigning personal blame for what happened in the past. In theory, a commission could come up with recommendations for thwarting terror attacks. Instead, the focus is on how to thwart President Bush.

The Bush critics would have us believe that the Administration could have prevented the attacks with immaculate pre-emption. Assuming that we had discovered and disrupted the hijacking plot, there might have been no war in Afghanistan, much less in Iraq. It is as if the critics see the alleged preventability of the attacks as justification for acting as if they never happened. Confronting the Islamic death cult would have been unnecessary. In that sense, the real agenda of the left on the 9-11 commission is to justify hating the solution.

Alternative Histories

The absurdity of the 9-11 recrimination exercise has been captured in the "alternative history" approach of Gregg Easterbrook and Kathleen Parker (also more recently). Their point is that however justifiable in retrospect, going to war against Al Qaeda before 9-11 would have gotten President Bush condemned and probably impeached.

The "alternative history" approach might be applied to ask "what if" the left had been in power in the United States on 9-11. I could imagine the following story appearing in the New York Times in December of 2002:

After more than a year of intricate and skillful diplomacy, the Gore Administration's efforts were rewarded, as the United Nations passed a resolution expressing its "concern with terrorism." Gore's victory comes nearly fourteen months after planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "Terrorists now have received a clear and unambiguous message," the President said.

The Administration was disappointed that the final resolution contained no provisions for economic sanctions against the Taliban regime. The U.S. withdrew the sanctions provision out of concern that it would have resulted in an economic boycott of Israel, which was branded a terrorist state as part of an amendment pushed by Arab and Muslim nations.

Vice-president Joseph Lieberman was dispatched to help mollify American Jewish groups, some of whom were upset by the amendment equating the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza with terrorism. "The resolution does not mention Al Qaeda or Afghanistan," one prominent Jewish leader complained. "The only country that it condemns by name is Israel."

Despite Israel's opposition, most diplomats pointed to the overwhelming vote that the resolution received as a triumph for the Administration. "It's the centerpiece of their response to 9-11," one source remarked. "They had to have a UN resolution, and even though it's not perfect, now they've got something they can point to."

Fortress America

In order to evaluate the Bush Administration's overall strategy for dealing with terrorism, we need an alternative with which to compare it. However, there is no natural left-wing alternative. Instead, an option that is plausible is one that I call Fortress America.

The idea of Fortress America is to try to keep Americans away from Islamic terrorists and to keep Islamic terrorists away from America. It would combine withdrawal from the Middle East with strong policies to seal our borders and deport illegal immigrants at home.

The appeal of Fortress America is that minimizing contact between America and the Islamic world could reduce the potential for conflict between us. The thinking is to leave the Muslims alone to fight their internal battles as well as their wars with Hindus in India, Jews in Israel, and Christians in Malaysia, the Philippines, Africa, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, and western Europe. Here in the U.S., we would try to live in peace.

There are a number of objections to Fortress America that would be raised by elites. The first objection is that it would reverse a fifty-year tradition of America trying to help solve the problem between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Leaving the two parties to work things out themselves is considered anathema by our elites.

The second objection to Fortress America is that we depend on Middle East oil, so that we have an interest in maintaining regional stability. However, as I pointed out in Oil Econ 101, oil is oil. Other countries have oil reserves, consumers everywhere can respond to price fluctuations, and markets find their equilibrium.

Finally, elites would object to a massive roundup and deportation of illegal immigrants, and I would tend to share their concern. I believe that over 99 percent of illegal immigrants are here to improve their lives and are not a threat to participate in terrorism. I prefer a softer approach to the immigration issue.

Moreover, the "throw the illegals out" aspect of Fortress America misses a couple of important points. One is the dramatic expansion in surveillance that would be required to achieve enforcement, which probably would not be handled Constitutionally. The other is the fact that there probably are enough bad guys here legally to cause trouble, particularly if we leave Islamic terrorists abroad free to hatch plots, raise funds, and acquire weapons.

I think that Fortress America would fail. If we keep our armed forces at home, eventually some foreign entity will develop enough weaponry to threaten us with massive casualties. Like Britain in the 1930's, to remain at peace we would be forced to make concession after concession, until finally we are backed into a corner and compelled to fight.

In any event, Fortress America is not on offer by either political party as a platform for the 2004 elections. Fortress America is an alternative that might emerge from the populist right, but not from John Kerry and the elitist left.

Forward Strategy

The appeal of Fortress America is that we would not get into the swamp of nation-building in troubled regions. The alternative to Fortress America is a Forward Strategy, in which we try to re-shape the Muslim world away from the death cult of terrorism. This is a daunting task, and we have only just begun. At this early stage, it is impossible to guarantee victory. At the moment, democracy in the Muslim world is rare. Expectations are low for civilized behavior on the part of Muslims.

Mark Steyn wrote recently that "The Iraqi people don't want to be on the American side, only on the winning side." That is a true observation about human nature, and not just in Iraq. As long as the Nazis were winning, Hitler was popular in Germany, and for every opponent at home he had hundreds of supporters in the U.S. and other countries.

The reality is that much of the Muslim world will not renounce terrorism until they are certain that the terrorists are not on the winning side. This will take a long time. Meanwhile, although most will remain on the fence, some additional Muslims will become more radicalized.

One question concerning a forward strategy is how many Muslims will become radicalized before we turn the tide in favor of democracy. The writer Adam Cadre describes the potential for a Connecticut Yankee scenario. In Mark Twain's novel, a 19th-century American is transported back to the Middle Ages. Seeking to civilize and modernize King Arthur's citizens, the Yankee instead ends up warring with and slaughtering them. The novel's grim and dismal ending is a model for the downside risk of the forward strategy.

Once you choose a forward strategy rather than Fortress America, the question becomes how best to deploy diplomatic and military means to defeat Islamic terrorism. It is a large, complex problem.

Some critics argue that Saudi Arabia is at the heart of the problem, so that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. However, if we had left Iraq alone, what leverage would we have had with the Saudis? The Saudis could have argued that Saddam Hussein was in a position to take advantage of any instability in their country, so that we need to leave them alone.

Some critics argue that we should only work under the auspices of the United Nations. However, most countries in the UN have a stake in the existing order, in which thug regimes are treated as legitimate and it is easier to try to accommodate rogue states than confront them. If Churchill thought that his own parliamentary leadership in 1936 was "resolved to be irresolute," imagine how he would have felt attempting to exhort action today at the UN.

Vote of No Confidence?

What would a Democratic Party victory in November mean for our foreign policy? Senator Kerry himself writes, "Our country is committed to help the Iraqis build a stable, peaceful and pluralistic society. No matter who is elected president in November, we will persevere in that mission."

However, it seems to me that on the whole the Democratic Party would like to see victory interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the policies of President Bush. I believe that would in fact be the result. A Kerry win would have to be treated as a repudiation of the forward strategy, rather than as an endorsement for a more nuanced tactical execution. If the American people choose to question our involvement in the struggle to remake the Muslim world, it will not be out of conviction that the UN or other international institutions are better suited to the task.

Churchill said that in the dark days when England fought alone against Hitler, he found it a "tonic" to escape the defeatist atmosphere in the London offices and get out among ordinary people. I hope that everyday Americans prove equally able to rise above the defeatists among their would-be leaders. In a life-or-death struggle against the darkest forces on earth, the strange paradox seems to afflict the elites much more than the masses.

Arnold Kling is a TCS Contributing Editor. He recently wrote for TCS about Pandora's Bundle.


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