Sometimes, It’s Complicated. Sorry.

There’s an old quote which is attributed to H.L. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” I’ve been reminded of this as I watch various people on both the Right and the Left trying to espouse their particular stand on Libya, and their reaction to the President’s speech. All of them seem to be trying to come up with a simple, easily repeated statement that justifies their particular stand, and “what the President really meant.”   Which usually isn’t what he actually said, or encapsulates what he very clearly said.  They’re trying to turn a complex situation into something simple – and they’re getting it wrong.

There’s a column in the NY Daily News which lays it out:

But now, in the first major test of a crisis rearing its head on his watch, many have derided Obama’s approach as the professor’s way of war. So the pundits were craving clarity Monday night when he took the stage at the National Defense University in Washington, clamoring for something like an Obama Doctrine, a few snappy sentences that encapsulate his foreign policy, a formula where you plug in the variables and get your answer each and every time.

It didn’t happen. It was never going to happen. Nor should it have happened.

Which might actually be the Obama Doctrine.  That is, a complex problem will require a complex solution, which depends on the variables at the time.  There are some overall principles which act as guides, but a simple, easy-to-understand formula is not going to work.  It’s sometimes hard, because people often want a simple answer.  Yes/No; If this then that;  black/white; good/bad.  Binary thinking.  The problem is that very few things actually lend themselves to that.  Instead of black/white the answer is often determining which shade of gray you’re looking at, and instead of Yes/No, the answer is Maybe, it depends.

I’m used to that.  My training, and most of my work has been in biology.   We don’t deal with simple things very often, and what may seem simple on the outside turns out to be incredibly complex.   There’s even a humorous law, called The Harvard Law:  Given optimum conditions, the experimental organism will do as it damn well pleases.  Which comes down to even when you control for all the variables, you still have some variability.  In ecology, the idea that there’s a “balance of nature” is not really in vogue, at least as various activists would have you believe.  It’s a dynamic balance, not a stable one, and there’s always the element of catastrophe which can change things radically.   Earth is not a stable system, as anyone who’s paid attention to the news over the past few years will testify.  Volcanoes erupt, earthquakes happen, hurricanes hit, and so on.  The mathematical field of chaos theory turns out to do a better job of understanding the underlying principles of ecosystems than the “simple models.”

Yes, it’s nice when there’s a nice simple explanation for something.  Yes, it’s nice when you get an obvious problem, and an obvious answer.  It’s human nature to want something like that, to have certainty.  But the real world doesn’t work that way, either in nature or in politics.  There are complexities, and a simple formula where you plug in the numbers and get an answer not only doesn’t work, the answer can be totally wrong.   We have a President who understands that, who is willing to deal with the complexities.  Will he always get it right?  No, because that’s unreasonable to expect.  But he’s going to get it right more often than not.

I know the pundits on the Left and the Right, and their followers, were looking for simple answers, a comforting certainty from the President’s speech.   Something they could use to show they had it right, that their “expertise” summarized everything.  Their problem is that the correct answer was:  It’s complicated.  Sorry about that.



Filed under Politics

19 responses to “Sometimes, It’s Complicated. Sorry.

  1. Alan Scott

    Ok , we can’t simplify why we are in Libya . Could we clarify ? Does complicated have to be murky ? Are we at war with Libya ? What the heck is a ” kinetic military action ” ? Are we trying for regime change, no but Quaddaffi must go .

    Why is the UN more important than the US Congress in getting permission to attack a Country that is no immediate threat to the US ? Why can’t everyone in the Administration get on the same page ?

    ” The mathematical field of chaos theory ” seems to describe US policy in Libya . Yes it is complicated and your explanation did not help my understanding .

    • OK,first off, you have to understand that we signed a charter (treaty) establishing the UN. As part of that – which, by the way, we insisted on being inserted – the UN Security Council can ask member nations to provide forces to back up its resolutions. There’s also a law which was passed at the same time, which gives the President the ability – without consulting Congress to supply or direct military forces to that purpose. You can read the legal analysis here. You can look over some of the history about it here. Now, it’s also important to note that while we supported the UN Security Council resolution (resolution 1973, btw), we did not initiate it. Britain and France did. So, really, if you want to get down to it, although he did consult with Congress, he didn’t have to at any point. Yes, by the way, there’s precedent for that – remember a little place called Korea?

      I also find it amusing that you’re claiming that Libya was no threat to us. If you look at the past, and in terms of training terrorists and terrorist attacks on US citizens and facilities, Libya was much more involved than Iraq ever was. The reason I’m amused by that is that you were perfectly fine with our attacking Iraq, and with far less legal justification.

      • Nathan Katungi

        Thank you Nobrook. First for your excellent article that warns us about the pitfalls of simple answers. Second for you excellent reply to Mr Scott who seemed to suggest that enforcing a U.N. Security Council Resolution violates U.S. Laws. As you ably stated people tend to forget that the U.N Charter (treaty) ratified by the Senate and signed by President is apart of the laws of the United States. Any president who participates in enforcing international treaties that the U.S. signed cannot be accused of violating the law.

        For me, the argument that “Libya was not a threat to us” is irrelevant. I am sure Libya was even less of a threat to Canada Denmark, and others participating in enforcing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. What is relevant is that the U.N. Security Council deemed Libya a threat to international peace, and called on member nations to take all necessary measures to protect the people of Libya from the potential of genocide and crimes against humanity. I thank you for referencing the law that authorizes the President to use force to enforce Security Council Resolutions without prior Congressional approval.

        I think people keep mistaking Bush’s unilateral invasion of Iraq, which was not authorized by the U.N. Security Council and could only be carried out by approval of Congress, with What President Obama did in Libya which was specifically called for and authorized by the UN Security Council. IMHO, Bush’s invasion of Iraq violated numerous international laws including the U.N. Charter. Obama’s military action in Libya is authorized by the U.N. and therefore does not violate international law.

        It is really sad to see Americans attacking the United Nations when it was the United States that was the major force behind its creation. It’s true that American conservatives have always been against the UN and the concept of International Collective Action to address world problems. What is distressing is to see many so called progressives, many of whom revere Presidents FDR and Harry Truman, the two Presidents behind the establishment of the UN, now bashing the U.N., just because they hate President Obama.

        • I agree that any potential threat that Libya posed was irrelevant in this case. I used it because it was one of the major arguments used in the past to justify the Iraq invasion. Looking at the past 20 years, Libya has often done what conservatives had accused Iraq of planning, so the idea that you can use the “posed a threat” argument to justify one action and wave it aside to be against another is … on very shaky ground.

          It’s also interesting how many conservatives have been leaping from one position to another with lightning speed. It wasn’t too long ago they were busy all over the airwaves, in print, and pounding various podiums to demand that America institute a no-fly zone and take military action in Libya. Now they’re against it. Consistency is not their virtue. 😀

          • Nathan Katungi

            I totally agree with you Norbrook. I did not mean to critique your highlighting of Qaddafi’s atrocities to expose the hypocrisy of conservatives who justified the no Fly Zone, and eventually the invasion of Iraq, by constantly reminding us of Saddam’s atrocities. I am glad you did that.

            I was merely trying to respond to the mantra, from both the left and the right, that Libya was not a direct threat to the United States. And therefore the U.S. had no business getting involved.

  2. Chris Andersen

    I think The Obama Doctrine, such as it is, is that you go into any situation with some basic principals, things you would like to see happen (e.g., preventing slaughter of civilians, getting everyone good healthcare coverage, etc.). You then see what you can actually accomplish given the variables of the situation and then do what you can, within those constraints, to satisfy as much of your principals as you can.

    The problem a lot of people seem to have is that they can’t separate the desire to see a certain result from the ability to actually make it happen. They just assume that, if Obama doesn’t try to do what he says he would like to do, than he must be lying.

    As much as some progressives derided Bush for black-n-white thinking it is amazing how often they fall into the same trap.

  3. I Love OCD

    Thanks Norbrook – once again you’ve nailed it. Life is complicated, it’s all shades of grey, the black and white dichotomies seem to spring from our need to have something, anything that’s clean and simple and easy to digest.

    One of the things I love about this president is that he seems to expect I’ll be able to figure some shit out on my own, do a little research, maybe, or stop and think about the reality of the situation. I’ve been “dumbed down” on all fronts for decades, it’s refreshing to have someone who thinks we can smart up if we try.

    • Even worse, is when we expect simple solutions. One of the things I learned early on as a biologist is that something that seems “simple” on the face of it, is actually enormously complex. Countering that, sometimes the complexity is underlain by a simple factor, but how that interacts with other things leads to the complexity. For example “cancer” sounds like a single problem, but it’s not. It’s a huge range of diseases, causes, and mechanisms. On the other hand, it turns out that how we develop – including the number of fingers, etc. we have is actually controlled by a small number of genes (the underlying simplicity), but how they turn on and off – and when – is the part that makes for the complexity.

      That’s the way things really are. The situation in Libya is a good example. Yes, there’s an underlying simple question: Do we let Quaddafi alone and watch him kill innocent civilians? It’s a yes/no question. Now, if we answered no, which we did, how we’re going to do that is the complexity. If we’d answered “yes,” then there’s another set of complex issues that arise.

  4. Alan Scott

    Norbrook ,

    I hold people to their own standards . I believe Obama, but definitely Biden said a President must go through Congress before going to war when there is not imminent threat to our Country . Bush got authorization before the Iraq war from Congress . Why is the UN more important to the President than the US Congress ?

    Oh , by the way, we are at war with Libya . Why won’t your hero call it what it is ???? When you shoot missiles and drop bombs on people , you are at war . At least the amount we dropped .

    And oh by the way again, when you go to war , aren’t you supposed to try to win ? We giveth and then we taketh away air support for the rebels . There hasn’t been so many changes in fortune in the Libyan desert , since Rommel and the British chased each other back and forth in WWII.

    • Actually, no he didn’t. That’s been rebutted too, as a statement taken out of context. It was a part of answer to a question. I might also note that Bush didn’t quite get authorization from Congress, he got a partial authorization which he ran with. I might also note that he lied through his teeth to get that. But you yourself have used the same “threat” as a justification for it. So, using your standards for yourself, this should be perfectly fine.

      Now, as I said, you can look it up, but there is no requirement for him to go through Congress. It’s a red herring. I might also note that the majority of the enforcement, that is, the use of fighters and bombers, have been from the start French, British, and Canadian. Our effort has been limited, and you might also note that in your bombast what we can do is limited by the UN Security Council Resolution.

      Now, if you want us to go ahead, jump troops in and declare an all-out-war to “win”, which is what you’re saying he should have done instead, well then, yes, he’d need to go through Congress. Which, of course, no one would support.

  5. Alan Scott

    Norbrook ,

    You are playing word games .How many cruise missiles have we used ? So in a limited war the President does not bother Congress, only in an unlimited war do we consult ? I’ll remember that when President Palin sends cruise missiles into Tehran .

    The thing is, if he wanted to intervene, why not 2 weeks before ? And if you do go to war, just maybe you should be in the country and not on a South American trip . Bombing people is serious business.

    • You’re being purposely obtuse. Again. BTW, I thought the new conventional wisdom from Republicans was that becoming President would be a “step down” for Palin?

      Number 1. There were diplomatic efforts going on during this, from the beginning. There still are.
      Number 2. You keep overlooking that this is not, nor has it ever been, a strictly US effort. This is a UN Security Council resolution which established a no-fly zone in Libya, ordered a cease-fire, told Qaddafi to cease attacking civilians, and authorized the use of force to stop him if he didn’t. This is an Article 42 action, under the UN Charter.
      Number 3. The UN Charter is a treaty approved by the US Senate back when the UN Charter started. There is a law passed with that treaty, which authorizes the President, on his own initiative, to provide forces to the UN in support of Article 42 resolutions without consulting Congress.
      Number 4. We are enforcing a UN Security resolution, which sets the limits.

      This isn’t Iraq, where Bush decided to say “screw it” to the UN (and the Congress) and put together a “coalition of the willing” which, as time has gone on turned out to be “countries that were lied to or had their arms twisted.” You have, in the past, stated that you were perfectly fine with that.

      As the title of this blog says, it’s complicated. Apparently conservatives can’t grasp that. You keep trying to make this into a ‘war,’ instead of what it is – a limited action to enforce a Security Council resolution. As to why we would care about the UN? Well, remember it’s a treaty? Look at the supremacy clause of the Constitution, and what constitutes part of the supreme law of the land. It’s educational.

  6. Alan Scott

    Norbrook ,

    ” As the title of this blog says, it’s complicated. ”

    When I was defending George Bush to your kind, when the Iraq war was going against America that was an argument that never occurred to me .
    I wish it had .

    ” You keep trying to make this into a ‘war,’ instead of what it is – a limited action to enforce a Security Council resolution. ”

    I think if someone fired over 100 cruise missiles into the US , the general opinion would be that we were at war . But I suppose it does matter whether you sendeth or receiveth said cruise missiles .

    ” As to why we would care about the UN? Well, remember it’s a treaty? Look at the supremacy clause of the Constitution, and what constitutes part of the supreme law of the land. It’s educational. ”

    I do not argue that legally we can’t do anything we want to . I just think that seeing how Obama and Biden ranneth their mouths over what Bush did , they could have given Congress the courtesy of going to them . Plus, how you get from the US Constitution and it being the Supreme law of the land, to the UN ,,,, well all I can say, you are right . ” Apparently conservatives can’t grasp that. ” As you say it is all very complicated .

    Probably best left to people like you and those who choose to govern simple folk like myself .

    • OK, let me break it down simpler. If we sign a treaty, that treaty becomes part of the Supreme Law of the Land. That’s what the Supremacy clause states, and you can’t even say that wasn’t “original intent.” In other words, by signing a treaty, it puts the requirements in it on a par with the Constitution.

      You might also want to note that he did consult with Congressional leaders. But, the main point is that he didn’t have to consult with them at all. I might also note that a lot of conservatives, including various Republican Senators and Congresspeople, where running their mouths all over the media screaming for the US to implement a no-fly zone, to start bombing, land troops, do any number of things, before the UN resolution. Once that was in place, and it actually started, they flipped right around and were against it. It’s basic hypocrisy.

      Oh, and you really should have looked at candidate Obama. He was very clear on his willingness to use military force in various situations, if absolutely necessary. Which is also what he said in his speech on Libya. He’s been consistent, despite all the conservative – and certain liberals – attempts to spin things.

  7. Alan Scott

    Norbrook ,

    The one thing President Obama never is, is clear . On every issue he takes both sides of the argument . Then no matter what happens he can say he was consistent .

    The man is in urgent need of an editor . Keep it simple stupid . KISS . Every speech needs an interpreter . Every line is misleading .

    • No, he looks at both sides of the argument, before making his decision. He doesn’t take both sides. I understand his speeches quite well, but then again, I had good teachers.

      • Alan Scott

        Norbrook ,

        ” I understand his speeches quite well, but then again, I had good teachers. ”

        Private school ?

        ” No, he looks at both sides of the argument, before making his decision. He doesn’t take both sides. ”

        Well , interesting . Is he for or against increased oil drilling in the US ? Sorry that I can’t find the relevant quotes, but I have heard him talk both sides of this .

        Wait, wait I got another one . Guantanamo and the military tribunals . The President said they were recruitment tools for terrorists and he would get rid of both of them . Now he has reversed course and kept them . So my point is ,,,,, if he admitted he was ‘Wrong ‘ and apologized to Bush & Co for his slander, then I would respect him . That did not happen .

        So I must conclude that he still believes he is right about Guantanamo and the military trials, but bowed to political reality . So he must believe that he himself is guilty of creating more terrorists, yet proceeds on .

        • Nope, public schools. Believe it or not, my family was poor. I went to college on scholarships and government grants.

          He has said that he’s for increased drilling, but that it must be done in an environmentally safe, responsible manner. I would think that you’d want that too, particularly after BP just demonstrated why the oil industry needs to be watched closely. Of course, in Pennsylvania, your environmental commissioner just told his enforcement wing to stop being so hard on the drillers, so I guess you may not agree that.

          I might point out that the political reality for Guantanamo was very much driven by conservatives. They refused to appropriate any money for closure, and did everything they could to block moving trials to this country and the federal courts.

          You keep wanting things “simple,” and real life isn’t that way. Sorry to keep breaking it to you.