Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Rosy Image in the Retrospectoscope

I saw two experts on TV yesterday talking about their experiences in Iraq. Paul Bremmer appears still proud of the accomplishments of his staff when he directed the Coalition Transition Authority. He made me realize that some of those staff members indeed deserve the greatest admiration. The effort to replace the prewar currency with new dinardenominated currency, for example, was an enormous undertaking and its completion in a few months speaks well of some of the logistics workers. Thousands of small reconstruction projects were completed successfully, and the people responsible for them too deserve our respect. We are mistaken to believe "that all good things go together"; it is equally fallacious to assume that "all bad things go together". We may conclude that Bremmer's program as a whole was unsuccessful, while also crediting many of its components with success.

Col. H. R. McMaster, one of General Petraeus' brilliant colonels, gave a remarkably clear retrospective view of the evolution of the conflict in Iraq. He made some points with which I agree very clearly. He said that the right tactics at one time may well not be right at a later date, since circumstances change and the opposition changes tactics in response to our successes. He said that it is impossible to predict the course of the war in detail in advance with any accuracy (noting that one never fully understands the enemy at the beginning of a war, and I would suggest that one may equally not understand your own side).

In listening to McMaster, I was reminded that the human mind imputes a rationale on past experience that is convincing but that is not necessarily correct. If you put people to the task of predicting a sequence which (unknown to them) is being produced by a random number generator, they will impute a chain of purposeful reasoning to rationalize the past sequence. Of course the opponents in Iraq have motives, but they may not be the motives that we impute to them subsequently. The post hoc interpretation of history is unscientific in that it can not be effectively tested and falsified. Only further experience, information and/or analysis can prove an interpretation of the past to be incorrect. Col. McMaster is obviously brilliant and articulate, which makes it all the easier to believe his analysis, but that analysis may of course still be incorrect.

Paul Bremmer too is a brilliant and articulate man. I think he is honest in his belief in the successes of his efforts in Iraq, and I also think that many of his decisions had very unfortunate results. He too is seeking to put a rational explanation of the past experience in Iraq, and his analysis must be affected by biases, of the kinds he shares with all people. He went to Iraq with a strong ideological position which had made him successful in his earlier career, and committed more of his personal capital to Iraq than any but a very small number of Americans. How could he not interpret his experience in terms of that ideology and commitment?

We have little choice but to try to understand the past and project its meaning as we plan for the future. To do justice to Col. McMaster, I think he understands that projection of past trends is always subject to new departures from those trends, and that while one tries one's best to understand the situation, one must always acknowledge that one's understanding may be inadequate and try to be prepared for the unexpected.

Of course, in criticism of the reconstruction of the past by others in light of our own reconstruction of the past, we must realize that we too are subject to the same kinds of biases and uncertainties in our own reconstruction, and indeed Bremmer and McMaster are men to be credited with insight and experience who have spent a huge amount of time thinking about Iraq.

There is a reason that the scientific method depends on falsifiable hypotheses, the collection of experimental evidence to test hypotheses, replication of results, peer review of the experimental process and of the analysis of results, and considerable effort to assure that the interpretation of the data does not extend too far into the hypothetical. Scientists are fortunate that they do not do their experiments with an opponent seeking to lead them astray and to assure that the results of future experiments do not replicate those of past experiments.

No comments: