If you have been following the blog for the past few months, you will know that I have been thinking a lot about accountability and sacrifice in the context of the United States’ current wars. Donald Trump recently drew fire for (among other things) comparing the sacrifices that he has made in the last fifteen years to the loss of a young Army Captain killed in Iraq in 2004. Trump’s comments may have been distasteful, but the truth is that the vast majority of Americans have not sacrificed anything in service of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, either. I have a new article at the National Interest exploring the implications of this fact for America’s foreign policy and for American democracy available here.
I am a little late to the party, but I just finished reading Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t (Penguin: 2012). On the whole, it is an excellent book that makes the fields of statistics and probability accessible to lay readers. Silver builds on his own work in baseball and in predicting election results to explore why it is so challenging to make predictions about the future across many fields, from meteorology to earthquakes to national security. One of the chapters I found most interesting concerned the behavior of “pundits,” or the people you might see on television on Sunday morning making predictions about political outcomes. Silver analyzed a particular group of pundits and found that their predictions were no more accurate than a coin toss—and yet they are still asked to return to the show every week.
Silver draws on fascinating work by Phil Tetlock to explore a number of reasons why political outcomes are difficult to predict and why television pundits in particular are so bad at making predictions. Silver highlights some major pitfalls that pundits (and we) fall into when making predictions about the future: failing to think probabilistically and failing to update predictions when we receive new information about the world. No one can be 100% certain about what the future holds. Making good and useful predictions requires us to be explicit about the amount of uncertainty attached to a particular prediction. For example, as Silver points out in a later chapter, we are much more accustomed to seeing uncertainty expressed in weather forecasts (40% chance of rain) than in forecasts of political phenomena (20% chance this intervention will succeed). Making good predictions also requires that we be willing to change our predictions in the face of new information. Political candidates, for example, are often criticized for changing their policy positions (“flip flopping”), but an unwillingness to update our assessments and predictions in the face of new information inhibits the development of sound predictions and sound policy. So, for example, if we predict that a certain football team is likely to win the Super Bowl (60% chance) and then the team’s star quarterback sustains a career-ending injury, we would be foolish not to update our assessment of the likelihood that the team will win. We should be applying the same logic to our public policy making, particularly in the realm of national security.
The authors of an open letter to President Obama published in the National Interest on June 3 commit both of these cardinal sins of prediction. They urge the president to freeze American troop levels in Afghanistan at 10,000, barring “emergency conditions” that might favor a modest increase. The authors identify themselves as the Ambassadors to Afghanistan and invoke the ghosts of 9/11 and the threat of IS to justify their prediction that keeping troop levels this high will make the United States safer. They do not include any estimate of how likely their recommendation is to achieve the desired outcome (which they do not specify with any clarity). Nor do they seem to have updated their prescriptions after fifteen years of failure for our current policies. Daniel Davis published a great rebuttal two weeks later. As he argues, “This open letter to the president on Afghanistan is like a group of NFL coaches who have led teams to last place finishes ten straight years while trying to convince an owner to take their guidance on how to run his team. Their advice would be immediately rejected.”
In my last post on accountability, I expressed anger about the fact that a generation of pundits and politicians and advisors who have been wrong repeatedly about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still invited to give advice about the future direction of American policy. There is one very good reason why these individuals are allowed to keep making public (failed) predictions: certainty sells. That is, it is much easier to sell books and make appearances on Meet the Press by overstating the confidence of one’s predictions than it is to be explicitly honest about the limits of one’s knowledge of a given issue and about the uncertainty attached to a policy prescription. I am tired of listening to people who brought us the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan tell us that we need to keep troops there, that we need to send just a few more Special Operations Forces, and that we need to stay just a few more years. The Super Bowls of Afghanistan and Iraq are over, and we lost. It’s not clear that anyone else won, but we definitely lost. It’s time to fire the coaches.
 The last chapter, in which Silver attempts to model the frequency of terrorist attacks like earthquakes, suffers from being totally atheoretical. I don’t think that this approach to predicting the distribution of a human behavior like terrorist attacks works as well as it does for understanding the distribution of natural phenomena like earthquakes.
As we approach the second great American summer holiday weekend, I am reminded of a moving piece that I read over Memorial Day. In a New York Times op-ed titled “The Graves of the Marines I Lost,” J. Kael Weston reflects on late 2004 when he was the State Department’s representative in Falluja and participated in the decision to send American troops to secure polling places in western Iraq during elections in early January. One of the Marine helicopters transporting troops for that mission crashed on January 26, 2005, killing all 31 on board. The accident remains the single largest-casualty incident for either the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.
Weston’s article details his quest to visit the graves of all the soldiers killed in this accident—an accident for which he feels he bears some responsibility for having pushed to send the soldiers to the polling stations on that day. Weston pays moving tribute to the sacrifices made by American soldiers in its current, seemingly never-ending wars and in the wars of America’s past. He also considers the lives of the tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians that have been lost over the years that the United States has been at war.
What is perhaps most moving about this piece is that the author feels responsible for what was a terrible accident at a time when the people who made the decisions to send our forces there and to keep sending them there do not seem similarly burdened by accountability. Foreign policy officials from the George W. Bush administration who orchestrated the Iraq invasion routinely appear in the media as “experts” commenting on current policy; academics who supported the war and the surge(s) find ready homes in think tanks and policy schools; former senators who voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 can secure the presidential nomination of a major political party. Meanwhile the military is stretched so thin and its personnel have been so beaten up by years and years and years of deployments that it is currently struggling to fill positions in Iraq and Afghanistan—positions where these individuals will be risking their lives to (at best) prolong the inevitable. Paying tribute to those who lost their lives in America’s current wars is admirable, but these tributes ring hollow when elected policy makers and expert thought leaders do not take responsibility for both the choice to start these wars and the choice to let them drag on with no end in sight, despite several promises to end combat operations.
I was seventeen years old when the United States invaded Afghanistan. My ten-year college reunion was a few weeks ago, and we still have troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. My generation has been at war for the entirety of its adulthood and has supplied the manpower to keep these foolish conflicts going. We have the right to demand accountability from the generation of policy makers that chose these wars and that asks that we continue to fight them without any workable strategy for or possibility of winning sustainable political outcomes there. As we celebrate our independence this weekend, let us remember both the sacrifices made by Americans in service of this independence and the recent policy decisions that generated these sacrifices.