Friday, April 23, 2010

The Difference between Policy and Narrative

Yesterday I suggested that President Obama was more interested in crafting narratives than in conducting policy. I offered the examples of Obama's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and his approach to Wall Street.

For today, I would focus on the first, and offer a link to a fascinating article by Eric Clemons and Elizabeth Gray. The article's title says it all: "Obama and the Middle East: Complex Systems, Poorly Planned Interventions, and the Law of Unintended Consequences." The article appeared in the Huffington Post, so you can rest assured that it is fair to Obama. Link here.

Clemons and Gray offer an excellent analysis of the extraordinary complexity of foreign policy. It is difficult to understand; it is complicated; it contains many, many moving parts. And President Obama, according to supporters Clemons and Gray, does not understand it.

It is worth reading their analysis because it is so far from the narrative that Pres. Obama is using to guide his own actions. Clemons and Gray also examine some of the possible outcomes of Obama's attempt to conduct policy by trying to sell the world a narrative.

But, some might be thinking here, isn't simplicity more fluent than complexity, isn't a simple concept better than a barely intelligible complexity? Yes, it is. But when simplicity represents a willful falsification of the situation it loses much of its value. If you want to find your way to a high concept grasp of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, then you have to slog your way through the complexity.

In fact, Clemons and Gray do arrive at a cognitively fluent, high concept conclusion about Obama's foray into the murky waters of the Middle East. It comes to us from medicine: First, do no harm.

They mean that if you do not know what you are doing, it is sometimes best to do nothing.

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