Voice

Cass Sunstein Is Sleeping on the Couch Tonight

Is Obama's groupthink guru (and Amb. Samantha Power's husband) opening a window on White House dysfunction?

Cass Sunstein, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has long advocated the notion that people left to their own devices often make bad choices and that government has a responsibility to "nudge" people toward better outcomes than they would select for themselves. But now he argues that government, left to its own devices, also makes bad choices. (Wait, wasn't he supposed to fix this problem?) This is a welcome Damascene conversion from someone who advocates expanding the Bill of Rights to include the right to education, a home, health care, and protection against monopolies. Sunstein's realization is a damning criticism of the Obama administration's philosophy of government and, incidentally, of its approach to foreign policy, in which Sunstein's wife, Samantha Power, ambassador to the United Nations, plays a starring role. 

In an article in the Journal of Institutional Economics, Sunstein and his co-author, Reid Hastie, argue that the very process of deliberation serves to amplify mistakes. They argue that the process of deliberation often conveys to individuals disincentives for providing information that would produce better outcomes. Specifically, they highlight the way people self-censor "out of respect for the information publicly announced by others" or to avoid "the disapproval of relevant others." All this is a fancy way of saying that groups tend to reinforce their initial biases through selective information. Sunstein and Hastie conclude -- much as the butterfly flapping its wings causes a hurricane -- that these "micro mistakes" lead to macro policy failures, even catastrophes. And the Syria policy of Barack Obama's administration illustrates their arguments rather neatly. 

The authors argue that corroboration by other members of a respected group raises confidence in its own judgments and reduces the variance of opinion, whether or not their taken position is correct, leading to "sharing a view in which they firmly believe, but which turns out to be wrong." Groups actually don't defer to internal experts; they tend to adopt positions that the majority supports. Sunstein might have drawn from the vast data trove provided by a National Security Council staff that included his wife (one of America's leading human rights experts) yet consistently avoided values-based policies and prides itself on being "realist."

In evaluating whether groups correct for or compound the errors of the individuals that compose them, Sunstein and Hastie identify four particular types of error: amplifying mistakes, cascade effects, growing extremism, and the dominance of shared information. Let's take them one by one.

Drinking the Kool-Aid.
In this type of error, the biases individuals bring to the table cause them to give undue weight to corroborative information. The administration believes that the president was elected to end the wars in the Middle East, that military force achieves no political purposes, that intervention cultivates international hostility, and that international cooperation is the only means of solving foreign-policy problems. So it's easy to see that the administration would not have been open to data suggesting that problems in Syria would worsen absent early intervention, that discreet uses of allied force could affect the military balance between the Syrian government and rebels, and that countries in the region would welcome us dealing a setback to Syrian barbarism and Iranian proxies -- not to mention that there are compelling moral and practical interests in acting even when other states will not.

How can it be that the Obama administration has clung so long to a hopelessly failing policy on Syria? "Groups are more likely than individuals to escalate their commitment to a course of action that is failing, and even more so, if members identify strongly with the groups to which they belong," write Sunstein and Hastie. Political appointees generally identify with their administration, especially so if they consider the politician they work for "transformational," which the Obama appointees most certainly do.

Keeping your head down.
These occur when "participants ignore their private knowledge and rely instead on the publicly stated judgments of others." Take the example of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in March 2011, when she described Bashar al-Assad as a reformer. After Syrian security forces were killing peaceful protesters for months, this stated opinion carried administration policy. But experts like Ambassador Robert Ford in Damascus knew that things were going from bad to worse in Syria. Yet no clarion calls of "never again" rang forth from those who had successfully intervened in the Balkan wars or who compellingly chronicled the Rwandan genocide. Clinton had silenced the Cassandras. But the Cassandras were right.

A second type of cascade effect is said by Sunstein and Hastie to occur when people anticipate and seek to avoid censure within a group, an example of which might occur if, say, a prominent human rights activist and chronicler of an earlier administration that failed to act to prevent mass violence was previously denied a diplomatic post because of her impolitic description of she who would become secretary of state. One can see why someone like this might not want to speak up again. Such activity certainly disincentivizes correcting the mistakes of others.

Yet another type of cascade is caused when groups "draw an undue inference from some failure, thinking that similar plans will fail too." Like if the Obama administration concludes that all interventions must be like the Iraq intervention and therefore all outcomes of interventions will be like the outcomes of Iraq. Or that since the intervention in Iraq faced international condemnation, an intervention in Syria would be likewise received.

Sticking to your guns.
Sunstein and Hastie highlight research showing that "members of a deliberating group end up adopting a more extreme version of the position toward which they tended before deliberation began," and they argue that "the problem is especially severe for groups of like-minded people." Put simply, people reinforce each other's biases, leading to more extreme positions that reflect their "pre-deliberation tendencies" (i.e., their incoming beliefs before they even started talking). This goes some way in explaining the Obama administration's predilection for announcing policy reviews that serve only to confirm the previous policy. After allowing President Obama's Syria red line on chemical weapons to be crossed, the White House announced with much fanfare a review of Syria policy, which resulted in reconfirming for the president that he'd been right all along about doing nothing and that no good options are available.

It's on a need-to-know basis.
Institutions harbor knowledge that should lead them to accurate understandings, but because of their group dynamics, they suppress that knowledge. As Sunstein and Hastie describe it, "members tended to share positive information about the winning candidate and negative information about the losers. They suppressed negative information about the winner and positive information about the losers." So it is with the Obama administration's characterizations of the parties to the Syrian conflict: They overweight the concern about Islamic extremists that prevents us from giving them weapons or training to negate the advantages of the Assad regime. Assad's forces are the beneficiaries of Iranian weapons and the actual participation of Iranian soldiers who are also Islamic extremists, but that information is not considered relevant. Moreover, as policy became more opposed to intervention, administration sources increasingly drew attention to concerns about Islamist rebels, never acknowledging that these choices were affecting the pace of radicalization and the strength of the most virulent al Qaeda-linked groups.

Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations defends the administration's policy, saying, "President Obama has put in play every single tool in the toolbox, short of military action.... I'd be careful about suggesting we are not taking the atrocities seriously. This is something the president gets briefed on every day. He's always asking what we can do." She then gives context to the policy by explaining that "there are other interests at play," such as oil prices and the U.S. economy, and castigating the administration's critics for supporting a "single-issue" policy when it comes to Syria. Sunstein had a fine case study for his theories without even leaving home.

Samantha Power was once a veritable Delacroix Liberty Leading the People, crying "Never again!" She made her career saying that no longer would America stand by while governments committed mass murder. It was this ringing moral clarity that made her so valuable an asset to the Obama campaign and administration -- and that is precisely why its absence in the Obama administration's foreign policy is such a disappointment. 

Cass Sunstein's work in behavioral economics may shed some insight into why: the dynamic of policymaking in the administration itself. As Sunstein and his co-author say, "a confident, cohesive, but error-prone group, giving effect to the mistakes of individual members, is nothing to celebrate. On the contrary, it might be extremely dangerous, both to itself and to others."

John Moore/Getty Images

COLUMN

Burning Bridges and the Smell of Fresh Blood

Vladimir Putin says he doesn’t "need" eastern Ukraine, but it just might make sense for him to take it anyway.

In his speech to the Duma earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned directly to the people of Ukraine, who perhaps he had heard were feeling jittery. "Do not," he said, "believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that." One imagines that Putin would not offer such an explicit pledge if he planned to violate it. On the other hand, he also noted that, after the Revolution, the Bolsheviks -- "may God judge them" -- transferred historically Russian territory which now constitutes "the southeast of Ukraine."

Logic would dictate that Putin digest the chunk of Ukraine he's bitten off before opening his jaws again. But the smell of fresh blood may simply whet his appetite. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen just told Foreign Policy that he worries that Putin's "next goal will be the eastern provinces of Ukraine" -- the ones that the Bolsheviks inexcusably surrendered. Ukraine can live perfectly well without Crimea, but not without its own industrial heartland. The great question facing the West over the next few weeks is thus not punishment for past misdeeds, but deterrence of future ones.

Before going to the question of whether and by what means Putin is deterrable, we should ask ourselves by what right, exactly, the West is being called upon to punish and prevent. Realists implore us to come down off our high horse. The Ukraine crisis is not about territorial aggression, FP's Gordon Adams admonishes us, but rather "the realities of the interstate system." George Friedman, the Metternich of Stratfor, notes that since "Russia has historically protected itself with its depth.... The loss of Ukraine as a buffer to the West leaves Russia without that depth and hostage to the intentions and capabilities of Europe and the United States."

The reminder that Putin is defending Russia's national interests as he has defined them, and as all great powers defined them in centuries past, is a useful caution against the hysterical moralism which turns Crimea into Munich. But it matters that the West no longer casually annexes neighbors, as the United States did with Texas 150 years ago. States whose definition of national interest posits a zero-sum contest among hostile powers pose a threat to an international order which no longer accepts the logic of balance of power -- and not just a strategic threat, but a moral one as well. You don't have to mistake Putin for Hitler to believe that he must be stopped from seizing Donetsk.

But how? The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on a range of individuals surrounding Putin. President Barack Obama has announced a second set of sanctions targeting Putin's closest allies and financiers. But this may be the kind of pain -- against others -- which Putin welcomes rather than fears. Obama has, however, signed another executive order which authorizes the Treasury Secretary to exact punishments against Russian companies in energy, banking, metals and mining, and other key industrial sectors. Prohibiting Russian oil and gas companies from doing business with American banks and energy firms could do real damage to the Russian economy.

For all the abuse coming his way from the Putin-is-Hitler crowd, Obama has reacted firmly, tightening the screws in response to each new provocation. Unfortunately, Washington cannot, by itself, threaten sufficient harm to deter Putin if he really wants to reverse Lenin's mistake. Since Putin knows full well that NATO would not respond with force to any violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the only weapon he needs to fear is an economic one. And here Obama can only go just so far. He has been able to cripple the Iranian economy through sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, forcing Tehran to negotiate over its nuclear program; but of course Russia would veto any such effort. And the United States is not, itself, an important market for Russian products.

The key is Europe, which spends $100 billion a year importing Russian gas. (The oil bill is even higher, but Russia could sell its oil elsewhere more easily than its gas.) Nothing would deter Putin so effectively as the prospect of losing that market, which would wreak havoc on Russia's economy. The idea of a "gas boycott" has been the talk of European capitals. But so far, it's been just talk. I asked Stefan Meister, a Russia expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, what form such a boycott would take, and he said, "There's been no concrete discussion. In Brussels, nobody knows what it would be like."

The reason the discussion has remained so vague is because the prospect is so frightening. While Germany depends on Russia for only 36 percent of its gas -- and has stored up a surplus -- Italy, Poland, and Bulgaria, among others, are more dependent and have little or no storage capacity. Meister points out that Poland could switch to coal -- save that it now imports coal from Russia. While oil producers like Saudi Arabia have surplus capacity which can be tapped in a crunch, the gas market is tight; Qatar, the world's largest source of gas, has no additional capacity. Japan and China buy up whatever is available.

The good news is that, as Jason Bordoff, a former White House advisor on energy and climate, points out, "in four or five years there will be a lot more supply," thanks to the growing use of fracking technology in Europe as well as increased supplies of liquefied natural gas from the United States and elsewhere. The crisis with Russia has already begun to concentrate European minds on the issue of energy independence.

The bad news, however, is that Putin isn't thinking about five years from now; if he were, he wouldn't have invaded Crimea in the first place. If anything, the prospect of long-term economic decline may prompt him to seize eastern Ukraine's economic assets right now -- while he has an opening. He might hesitate if the cost were crippling Gazprom, the most formidable weapon he has. But Putin knows that Europe can't afford to stop buying Russian gas for the next several years. If the cost for eastern Ukraine is burning his bridges to the West and having his own and all his cronies' assets frozen, Putin just may consider that a price worth paying.

I could not find an energy expert who believes that Europe could do without Russian gas in the short term. Meister points out that even as the rhetoric of German Chancellor Angela Merkel grows harsher, she remains studiously vague on sanctions. When I observed that the situation sounded hopeless, he turned glum: "Yes, this is what I was discussing with my colleagues in Warsaw yesterday. We started drinking vodka." First Russian, he said, then Ukrainian.

In short, the only force that can keep Russian troops from drinking vodka in Donetsk is Vladimir Putin himself. Putin has so many lower-cost options available to him that a large-scale invasion -- even one limited to border areas -- still seems unlikely. Putin may calculate that he can destabilize Ukraine, and thus turn its dalliance with the West into a failure, by using Russia's immense economic power to squeeze Ukraine, by blanketing the east with propaganda from Russian media and by sending agents provocateurs to whip up popular discontent. Putin doesn't "need," as he put it, to divide Ukraine by force; he just needs to keep it out of the Western orbit.

It is a very, very unsettling thought that Ukraine's fate now depends on Putin's calculations of self-interest, or even his whims. The ringmaster of Sochi seems still to be glorying in the vast powers at his disposal. We can only hope that the vapors start to disperse in the harsh light of day.

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images