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Analogical reasoning strikes again

I know that Daniel Klaidman's Newsweek cover story on the Navy SEALs is supposed to make me feel all warm and safe because of the uber-competence of SEAL Team Six and President Obama's comfort with using them adroitly: 

This is a Special Ops moment. The Navy SEALs, in particular, have never appeared so heroic and effective. They killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year, and just last month rescued two aid workers held hostage in Somalia. At a time when many Americans think their government is incompetent, the SEALs are public employees who often get the job done. They’re a morale booster, and they know it.

The thing is, one of Klaidman's more detailed anecdotes actually gives me great pause about the decision-making process within the Obama administration about the use of force:

The CIA and military had been hunting Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan for years. He was a suspect in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and had been directly implicated in other deadly terrorist attacks in East Africa, including a suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Mombasa. He was an important link between al Qaeda and its Somalia-based affiliate, and a potential wealth of information on how the jihadist networks operate. Killing him would have been a significant victory, but capturing him alive could have been even better.

After months of patiently watching him, American intelligence officers suddenly learned that Nabhan was preparing to travel along a remote desert road in southern Somalia....

McRaven told the group that Nabhan’s convoy would soon be setting out from the capital, Mogadishu, on its way to a meeting of Islamic militants in the coastal town of Baraawe. The square-jawed Texan and former Navy SEAL crisply laid out the “Concepts of Operation” that had been developed in anticipation of this moment. Several options were spelled out, along with the military hardware that would be required for each, as well as collateral-damage estimates:

The military could fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from a warship off the Somali coast. This was the least dangerous option in terms of U.S. casualties but not the most precise. (Missiles have gone astray, hitting civilians, and even when they strike their target, they don’t always take it out.) Such missile strikes had been a hallmark of the Bush administration. For all of its “dead or alive” rhetoric, the Bush White House was generally cautious when it came to antiterrorist operations in anarchic areas like Somalia. The second option was a helicopter-borne assault on Nabhan’s convoy. There was less chance of error there: small attack helicopters would allow the commandos to “look the target in the eye and make sure it was the right guy,” according to one military planner. The final option was a “snatch and grab,” a daring attempt to take Nabhan alive. From a purely tactical standpoint, this was the most attractive alternative. Intelligence from high-value targets was the coin of the realm in the terror wars. But it was also the riskiest option.

Unstated but hanging heavily over the group that evening was the memory of another attempted capture in Somalia. Many on the call had been in key national-security posts in October 1993 during the ill-fated attempt to capture a Somali warlord that became known as “Black Hawk Down,” after a book of the same name. That debacle left 18 dead Army Rangers on the streets of Mogadishu, and inspired al Qaeda leaders to think they could defeat the American superpower. As Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, said during the meeting: “Somalia, helicopters, capture. I just don’t like the sound of this.”

As everyone left the meeting late that evening, it was clear that the only viable plan was the lethal one (emphasis added).

The mission was a success, and I'm sure that there's more to this decision than is in Klaidman's story.  That said, based on the story, this decison-making process seems flawed.  The deciding factor appears to have been that the more aggressive option had echoes of the 1993 Black Hawk Down fiasco.  Because the situations seemed analagous ("Somalia, helicopters") the worst-case outcome -- a botched raid -- also seemed likely. 

Here's the thing though -- as analogies go, this one seems somewhat ill-suited.  The most obvious difference was that this raid wasn't going to take place in a city but a remote desert road.  It was extremely difficult and bloody for U.S. forces to battle their adversaries in the urban anarchy of Mogadishu.  In the open, with no civilians to use as shields, I would think JSOC has the advantage.  Even if the snatch-and-grab option was the riskiest option, it does not seem as risky as U.S. efforts to rescue the downed Black Hawk crew back in 1993.  In this instance, the worst-case scenario would have been some JSOC soldiers killed -- but given the terrain, the lack of civilians and cover, and the likely firepower advantage held by the Americans, a Black Hawk Down II outcome sounds unlikely. 

Despite these differences, analogical reasong triumphed.  The mission succeeded in taking out Nabhan, but it sounds like the slightly riskier option would have yielded greater rewards.

Let me stress, yet again, that I'm not an expert on special ops.  I'd welcome commenters explaining to me why I don't know what the hell I'm talking about.  Still, based on this story, the guiding factor in this case appears to have been a poor analogy.  I hope this is the exception and not the rule for the current administration. 

Am I missing anything? 

Daniel W. Drezner

Leave Jeremy Lin's global significance alone!!!

Your humble blogger has, on occasion, opined about the intersection of sports and politics.  This topic is both tempting and treacherous.  Tempting, because a lot more people pay attention to sports than world politics, and so it's a way for the pundit to A) show how "in touch" s/he is with the mass p;ublic; and B) use the sporting moment-du-jour as a metaphor  to make a point that was already in the pundit's back pocket.  This is why most of my writings on this topic have been either to debunk the notion that sports really affects world politics, or just as another excuse to mock the Very Serious Foreign Policy Community

Which brings me to New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.  In a month Lin has gone from being demoted to the development league to leading the Knicks to a globally televised victory over the defending champion Dallas Mavericks.  It's a great story:  undrafted , devout Taiwanese-American Harvard graduate bucking the odds -- as well as numerous outdated stereotypes -- to seize his moment in the sun and turn what had been a lackluster Knicks decade season into something exciting. 

This is a narrative that one simply has to enjoy.  Professional basketball is, at best, my third-favorite sport, but I tuned in yesterday to watch the Kincks-Mavericks game.  Unfortunately, I've noticed that some ink has been spilled and some keyboards have been tapped about him -- and here we get to the treacherous part of this post.  Some sportswriters have used the opportunity to wax grandiosely about the Deeper Meaning of Linsanity.  Some politics commentators have tried to use Lin to make deeper arguments about the fabric of society and sports. 

Let's be blunt -- most of these efforts result in utter crap.  Unfortunately, too many sportswriters know too little about the rest of the world to even try to comment on the social or cultural significance of Lin.  Numerous idiots have not helped the sportswriting profession by writing things that result in apologies from said idiots for stereotyping Lin and amusing Saturday Night Live skits.  We're not seeing the second coming of Red Smith in most of this output.  As for the politics writers, well, the lack of actual sports knowledge in some of these efforts makes one almost  nostalgic for George F. Will's Sports Machine.  Almost. 

So I was all set to blog a request for everyone to leave Jeremy Lin and his family alone... but then Gady Epstein wrote something interesting about the whole phenomenon over at the Economist about China's reaction to Lin and why their own sports programs could never have produced someone like him: 

Mr Lin is, put plainly, precisely everything that China’s state sport system cannot possibly produce. If Mr Lin were to have been born and raised in China, his height alone might have denied him entry into China’s sport machine, as Time’s Hannah Beech points out: “Firstly, at a mere 6’3”—relatively short by basketball standards—Lin might not have registered with Chinese basketball scouts, who in their quest for suitable kids to funnel into the state sports system are obsessed with height over any individual passion for hoops.” Even when Mr Lin was still a young boy, one look at his parents, each of unremarkable stature, would have made evaluators sceptical. Ms Beech’s other half happens to be Brook Larmer, the author of the fascinating book “Operation Yao Ming”, which details how Chinese authorities contrived to create China’s most successful basketball star, Mr Yao, the product of tall parents who were themselves Chinese national basketball team players. The machine excels at identifying, processing and churning out physical specimens—and it does so exceedingly well for individual sports, as it will again prove in London this year. But it happens to lack the nuance and creativity necessary for team sport.

What of Mr Lin’s faith? If by chance Mr Lin were to have gained entry into the sport system, he would not have emerged a Christian, at least not openly so. China has tens of millions of Christians, and officially tolerates Christianity; but the Communist Party bars religion from its membership and institutions, and religion has no place in its sports model. One does not see Chinese athletes thanking God for their gifts; their coach and Communist Party leaders, yes, but Jesus Christ the Saviour? No.

Then there is the fact that Mr Lin’s parents probably never would have allowed him anywhere near the Chinese sport system in the first place. This is because to put one’s child (and in China, usually an only child at that) in the sport system is to surrender that child’s upbringing and education to a bureaucracy that cares for little but whether he or she will win medals someday. If Mr Lin were ultimately to be injured or wash out as an athlete, he would have given up his only chance at an elite education, and been separated from his parents for lengthy stretches, for nothing. (One must add to this the problem of endemic corruption in Chinese sport that also scares away parents—Chinese football referee Lu Jun, once heralded as the “golden whistle” for his probity, was sentenced to jail last week as part of a massive match-fixing scandal). Most Chinese parents, understandably, prefer to see their children focus on schooling and exams.

In America, meanwhile, athletic excellence actually can open doors to an elite education, through scholarships and recruitment. Harvard does not provide athletic scholarships, but it does recruit players who also happen to be academic stars. There is no real equivalent in China.

So China almost certainly has other potential Jeremy Lins out there, but there is no path for them to follow. This also helps explain, as we have noted at length,why China fails at another sport it loves, football. Granted, Mr Lin’s own path to stardom is in itself unprecedented, but in America, the unprecedented is possible. Chinese basketball fans have taken note of this. Mr Lin’s story may be a great and inspiring proof of athleticism to the Chinese people, but it is also unavoidably a story of American soft power.

Epstein is overreaching juuuust a bit with that closing -- if Lin is an example of American soft power, then all the galactically stupid puns and stereotypes that the Lin story has propagated is a demerit to that soft power as well.  Also, last I checked, the countries that dominate the top of the FIFA rankings are not exactly models of laissez-faire in sports. 

Still, Epstein has probably done the best possible job of trying to relate Lin to Deeper Global Meanings.  Let's hope the rest of the writing class reads him and gives up their own futile quest to do the same.