Monday, May 4, 2009

Cognitive Consistency is the Hobgoblin ....

Robert Jervis's Perception and Misperception in International Politics was one of the key readings that got me hooked on IR as an undergrad. Or at least, that is what I think I remember. As a consequence, my default expectation of others is that they will look at reality through a particular lens and ignore information that does not fit, or squeeze that info into their mental boxes (lens, box, yes, mixing my metaphors). Of course, the problem is that a lens or box (a theory, that is) is only suitable part of the time, so if you only have a limited repertoire, you are going to wrong much of the time. My focus in my Intro to IR class is to present a bunch of theories so that students will be armed with multiple lens and hopefully shift to more appropriate ones as circumstances change.

For instance, there has been a debate the past few years about why the US invaded Iraq and did it so badly. This was particularly galling to those whose theories focus on countries responding rationally to threats as maximize power (Mearsheimer) or security (Walt). Because US behavior appalled them so, they ended up jumping far from their comfort zone of systemic forces to domestic politics and came up with a controversial argument about the Israel lobby (accused of being anti-semitic, but my concern is the quality of their social science). The problem is that neither was trained nor inclined to think systematically about domestic interest groups or diasporas and did not rely upon existing work in these areas to build a good argument about why one set of interests was able, they asserted, to trump the national interest.

Had they been my undergraduate students, they might have considered other theories of decision-making, especially groupthink. The most clarifying statement Bush ever made about his role as the "Decider" was when he said that he didn't read the newspapers, but relied on his advisors to keep him informed. This, plus my experience in Rumsfeld's Pentagon, where he ruled through fear, suggest that the key dynamic was not AIPAC or other interest groups drove Bush Foreign Policy, including the bungled Iraq expedition, but that administration lived in an echo chamber where new information was only useful insofar as it supported pre-existing preferences and plans.

Why does this matter now? Because we should not hold onto groupthink as the rosseta stone for understanding the Obama Administration. We don't know enough yet about how decisions get made, but it seems pretty clear that this group is far less insulated and far less ideologically committed than its predecessors. So, what can we predict? This administration is far less likely to be consistent than the previous one as it is probably more sensitive to new information, to domestic interest groups, and international pressures. After all, this is a reality based group, unlike its predecessors.

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