State of the Union – Additional Thoughts 1

January 14, 2016

I’m doubling back to the State of the Union address with some additional thoughts. They fall broadly into two categories. First up is the whole Do Something thing. (The second issue will follow, tomorrow.)

The Do Something issue arises with respect to ISIL / Daesh, Syria, and the Middle East generally. Kind critics claim the president has not done enough, and the slope gets steep as the Rs join in. I like the following words as well as any in the SOTU address, but many are not persuaded that we’re doing enough / anything:

If you doubt America’s commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done [regarding terrorists], ask Osama bin Laden. Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year, or the perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, who sits in a prison cell.

The Do Something meme raises three concerns for me. First, underlying Do Something is the notion that we’re doing nothing. Yes, we haven’t sent troops into Syria—look how well that worked out in Iraq and Afghanistan—but the situation is not a binary proposition, where it’s boots on the ground or nothing. Bombers and drones are killing lots of people, and while killing people may not be the wisest strategy, the Do Something crowd is not advocating for less killing.

I’m also sure the United States of America does plenty we don’t all know about. That leads to the second element of Do Something: the need to take action which regular people will understand and feel good about. Sure, talk about carpet bombing until we see if sand can glow in the dark makes some people feel good, but we ought to be very concerned about a foreign policy which has as a core element making us feel good.

From time to time I deal with clients in lawsuits who want to feel good. Feeling good often means throwing a hissy fit, filing a stupid pleading, or otherwise being tough. The bluster rarely works, and in many instances it has a significant downside risk, sometimes understandable and sometimes not. (More on the “sometimes not” below.)

Without doubt, the American public has a right to weigh in on our foreign policy. Active? Not so much? Etc. But we should not want our leaders to design a policy for the purpose of making us feel good. We are not the issue here, and while that fact might leave many of us, living on Planet Me, cold, it’s a fact we disregard at our peril.

Finally, the world in which we find ourselves circa 2016 is complex beyond any measure. (Cold War memories come to mind with fondness, for a we / they world, with good guys—us—and bad ones—the Russkies—met our need for a simple storyline.) Alas, sh*t got more complicated. Every action has consequences, and they can grow not geometrically, but exponentially. In my simple world of lawsuits, the consequences are mostly predictable. Not so much in foreign policy, but even when the outcomes can be determined to a reasonable degree, the number of outcomes are many, any choice will create a multiplicity of secondary, tertiary, etc. consequences, and then there are the wildcards. Think three-dimensional poker with an ever changing deck of cards, and a pot that really, really matters.

Regular people can’t begin to appreciate the level of complicatedness our policy makers and implementers face. Good, bad, or otherwise, we need to let people do their jobs, knowing that we live in extraordinary times, and that we have let mere mortals lead us forward through the thicket.


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