Letter: Playing to the enemy’s hand
Niall Ferguson’s July 25 column in the Wall Street Journal, “The Iran Deal and the Problem of Conjecture,” attempts to explain (not excuse) President Barack Obama’s approach to the Iran nuclear situation.
Drawn from writings by Henry Kissinger in 1963, the “problem of conjecture” can be summarized thus: When faced with alternative policy assessments involving uncertainties, policymakers tend to choose the alternative requiring the least effort now. Neville Chamberlain at Munich is an obvious example. Applying the concept to Obama’s nuclear deal illustrates why the phenomenon repeats itself throughout history.
Obama could try to rally world opinion to continue, if not to strengthen, sanctions. He could try to mount military attacks on Iran or otherwise to cause regime change. But that would require a lot of work now. He isn’t lazy, but he can’t be sure all that effort will be worth it. Especially when he can relax the pressure on Iran and let history play out more or less unimpeded by any serious pressure on Iran. He can be pretty sure that eventually, either Iran’s aggression will be so egregious even the blindest optimists can’t ignore it (making it easier to take strong action then), or the world will get lucky and the problem will solve itself. The problem of conjecture dictates that, since the former alternative involves a lot of work now with an uncertain outcome, while the latter alternative requires a lot less work now and offers the hope that the world might get lucky, the latter alternative is the standard choice of policy makers. Certainly, it’s Obama’s choice.
With the problem of conjecture, Kissinger and Ferguson posited a plausible explanation why leaders such as Chamberlain and Obama (not to mention many other world leaders who have appeased tyrants) tolerate other countries’ bad behavior. But Ferguson didn’t address an obvious corollary of the decisions that result from the problem of conjecture.
The problem of conjecture does not arise from the behaviors of peace-loving countries. It arises only when countries act so badly that peaceful countries are faced with the difficult choice between (I) taking high-cost measures today to stop the bad behavior, or (II) taking no measures today, while hoping the situation will resolve itself over time. That dilemma was created by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and is created today by Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria (a satellite of Iran), ISIS and the like.
The corollary, therefore, is that the worse a country’s behavior, the more paralyzed the civilized world becomes; doing nothing seems much more attractive than taking on the hard work of resisting the bad behavior. Rather than provoking rebuke and punishment, really bad national behavior provokes obeisance (look up the word) from the civilized countries. This encourages even more abhorrent behavior from the bad actor, followed by more obeisance from civilized countries. If you don’t believe it, consider how Iran gained concession after concession while the West eased its stated goals again and again. We started by declaring Iran must never enrich uranium and the sanctions would not be lifted anytime soon; we ended by giving them a timetable for enrichment plus billions of dollars to expand terrorism. Russia has played the West similarly in its creeping reconquest of Eastern Europe.
But bullies emboldened by obeisant victims usually overreach. The cycle of aggression and obeisance will continue, peaceful countries giving more and militant countries taking more, until the civilized world cannot tolerate the bad behavior. That is when the wars break out. And nobody will be able to explain why.
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I express my concern about Pitkin County commissioner and chair of Pitkin’s Board of Health Greg Poschman’s statement at the Jan.13, 2022, Board of Health meeting.