Blogs: Paul Pillar

The Bias for Action in U.S. Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

A “bias for action” has long been a buzz phrase in the business world. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their best-selling book In Search of Excellence put the phrase at the top of their list of attributes of what they considered to be outstanding firms. For an individual hoping to make it big in business, it's not a bad phrase to keep in mind. Ambitious executives do not make names for themselves by saying they will take whatever organization they are responsible for and try not to screw it up. They make names by shaking things up. Moreover, the businesses with the most dramatic and admired garage-startup-to-behemoth histories necessarily had a bias for action.

Even in business, however, the behavior implied by the phrase has limitations. What is good for the rising career of an individual executive is not necessarily good for the firm. And for every Apple or Amazon we have heard about, there are many more companies we have not heard about in which the leader's bias for action led to unprofitable business lines, financial overextension, or other failures that caused the firm to crash and burn.

Applied to foreign policy, the soundness of behavior implied by a bias for action is even more questionable. Perhaps it is most valid when trying to build an empire. Otto von Bismarck, for example, had a bias for action when using wars against other European states as a means for putting together the German Empire. But for most states at most times, that is not the case. It is not the case for the United States today. The United States has a responsibility, to itself as well as to world order, less to build a bigger empire than to avoid screwing things up. And when the United States screws up, things can get very bad, not only because as the world's only superpower it is more powerful than anyone else but also because with global involvement it has a lot of vulnerabilities that other states do not have. Crashing and burning is not an option.

Even without the influence of business gurus such as Peters and Waterman, a bias for action is nonetheless at least as apparent in U.S. foreign policy as in commerce. One reason is the political pressure on leaders to be seen to be “doing something” about overseas problems. The partisan incentive to criticize opponents for doing nothing intensifies this pressure. In the United States the tendency is further exacerbated by a broader inclination to believe the United States ought to be able to solve any problem overseas.

We need to remember that a bias for action is exactly that: a bias. That means it is antithetical to an objective, unbiased assessment of what would be best for the United States to do or not to do. And that is not good. A bias for action has some of the qualities of the “ready, fire, aim” method of approaching a problem.

We can see some of these tendencies in the development of recent policy toward the turmoil in Iraq. The Obama administration's dispatch of a few hundred U.S. military personnel, although they will be serving legitimate purposes, is probably best understood as a response to the pressure to do something. It probably was the minimum military measure the administration could get away with without incurring intense accusations of doing nothing.

I was asked the other day to define U.S. objectives regarding the situation in Iraq. There are two ways to answer a question like that. One is the conventional way, which is the way any president or senior official would be expected to answer it. That way would mention things such as seeking regional stability and quashing terrorist threats against Americans.

The other way is to ask ourselves what are the most significant respects in which U.S. interests have been affected, for better or for worse, by developments in the Middle East over the past decade or so. Then our objective should be to repeat or build on what has affected our interests for the better, and to avoid repetition of the sorts of things that have affected them for the worse. By far the most consequential development for U.S. interests in the region was the Iraq War—and its effects on U.S. interests were overwhelmingly negative, with the thousands of Americans killed, the tens of thousands injured, the trillions of dollars in economic costs, and the stimulation of sectarian warfare and terrorism that we face today. The number one objective for dealing with a situation like the one in Iraq is to avoid doing anything that could lead to a mistake similar to launching the Iraq War.

No president, of course, could get away with defining U.S. objectives that way. It would sound too passive, and it would not embody a bias for action. It would not pass muster with Peters and Waterman, and it certainly would not pass muster with political critics. That's too bad, because it is a very legitimate way to define a prime objective. It takes account of the most important ways in which U.S. interests have been affected, and it takes account of how in any unbiased analysis of how to pursue and protect those interests there is no reason either action or inaction should be favored.                 

Image: Wikicommons.