Paul Pillar

How to Debate Policy Without Claiming Omniscience

I commend the excellent article about Hamas by my Georgetown colleague Dan Byman in the newest (September/October) issue of Foreign Affairs.  Dan makes a case that it is in no one's interests (except for some extremists) to continue trying to strangle Hamas into irrelevance.  The blockade of the Gaza Strip has not worked, and Hamas is not going away.  It is in Israel's interests, and those of the United States and everyone else interested in peace in the Middle East, to find ways to deal with this entity, however disagreeable one may find that entity.  Those ways include reaching a clear cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, entailing a complete ending of rocket firings and an end to the blockade of Gaza, with a real chance of the cease-fire laying the groundwork for larger understandings and a favorable evolution of Hamas.

Dan's article is rich in information as well as insight, and I will not try to do justice to it with any further summary here.  The one aspect of it I especially like is that it is an all-too-rare example of policy analysis that does not rest on a single image of the adversary or problem being dealt with but instead seeks to maximize benefits and minimize costs even if the dominant image--or the hopes or fears that most motivate our policy--turn out to be wrong.  Dan acknowledges that the hoped-for evolution of Hamas--achieved largely by a reshaping of its incentives--may not materialize and the organization may in the end prove to be hopelessly intractable.  But that worst case can be dealt with (through renewed Israeli military action if necessary) and the overall costs would not be appreciably greater than what they are now.  The alternative of simply assuming intractability means an indefinite continuation of those costs and lost opportunities for something better.

Too many topics in foreign policy (how to deal with Syria or with Iran, to name two prominent ones also in the Middle East)  are plagued by single-image argumentation.  Different sides in a policy debate throw at each other different images of what, say, a troublesome regime is really like and what it can be expected to do, when what the debaters instead ought to be doing is acknowledging that anyone's image of the regime might be wrong and considering how to maximize gains and minimize costs (including opportunity costs) given that any of several different images might turn out to be right.  That type of analysis is more complex and thus more difficult, but it recognizes that none of us is omniscient.  It also recognizes that something like the character of a group or a regime not only may be unknowable; it also may be changeable.  Even if our current image conforms with reality, the reality may change if we give it an opportunity to change and incentives to change.