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Cognitive consistency

April 8th, 2017

One of the few points on which I agreed with Donald Trump during the election campaign was on his statements to the effect that the US should not get involved in Middle Eastern wars. Of course, Trump being Trump, he made the contradictory promise to “have a plan to defeat ISIS within 30 days.” (There some ambiguity as to whether the 30 days was the time taken to produce the plan, or whether he already had the plan and would have ISIS beaten in 30 days. As of day 78, it scarcely matters). But one point that came across reasonably clearly was that Trump wasn’t going to do anything about removing Bashir Assad from power, and was going to increase co-operation with Putin, Assad’s patron.

All that has now gone by the board, but it is unclear what is going to replace it. Following the horrific poison gas attack a few days ago[1], Trump responded in thoroughly Trumpish fashion. His missile attack was big enough to mark a clear, and possibly irreversible, escalation of US involvement, but not big enough to have any military effect. A day after their airbase was attacked, Syrian Air Force planes were flying out of it to launch more strikes against their opponents.

I don’t have a solution to the current mess other than the Irish advice “if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here[2]”. But, at least I now have the cognitive consistency of knowing there is now no policy issue of importance on which I agree with Trump.[3]

fn1. Very probably, though not certainly, undertaken by Assad’s regime. I don’t want to be derailed by this and will delete, with prejudice, any comments seeking to ventilate alternative theories.

fn2. Obvious wrong turnings on the way to where we are start with the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1915 and go all the way to the Iraq war.

fn3. I was happy that he refused to sign TPPA. But it’s now clear he’s pursuing the standard corporate agenda on trade, including ISDS and strong IP.

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  1. rog
    April 8th, 2017 at 17:26 | #1

    Despite all his blather I’m not sure that Trump, or any other President, has that much power and must ultimately bend to the democratic process. Foreign policy appears to be one area where they do have some latitude although that maybe in rhetoric only.

    After the retaliatory air strike Trump appears to have won the bulk of mainstream approval while losing the alt.right mob. He may see that as a strategic win.

  2. jojo
    April 8th, 2017 at 17:35 | #2

    You’re banned

  3. David Allen
    April 8th, 2017 at 17:49 | #3

    More criminal warmongering from a recidivist country but again nothing will be done about it making international law quaint and irrelevant. He has united his country behind him because they all like a good war. It has come to define them.

  4. rog
    April 8th, 2017 at 18:41 | #4

    @David Allen “they all like a good war.”

    I wouldn’t assume that the US is any different to the rest of us. After a generation of neglect we now revere anzac day, it did take a while but its become a date of solemn contemplation.
    Survivors of our wars warn of the folly but we still willingly engage.

    We badly treated our pacifists in WW2 and then badly treated our soldiers after Vietnam. What singularity can be extracted from all this?

  5. ralph
    April 8th, 2017 at 19:37 | #5

    Nice of Trump to advise Russia in advance about the attack. That allowed Russia the opportunity to let Assad know about it, and then he promptly removed his planes. The clips on the news show holes in empty bunkers. Nice to know that gesture politics is alive and well.

  6. April 8th, 2017 at 19:52 | #6

    Anybody know the price of a Tomahawk cruise missile with an HE payload? Trump fired 69 of them by report.

  7. Peter T
    April 8th, 2017 at 19:55 | #7

    US policy on Syria has been a schizophrenic mess from the beginning, so the Donald has hardly made it worse.

    This piece of theatre was preceded by a few other commitments which went beyond the Obama lines – more special forces on the ground in eastern Syria, a looser rein on bombing (with more civilian casualties), some gestures towards some form of partition…Most of these are likely to go nowhere, for lack of effective local and foreign allies, but they all carry their risks.

    Note that Russia has now said it will put more forces on the ground in Syria, so effectively neutralising the more egregious US threats.

  8. hc
    April 8th, 2017 at 20:04 | #8

    I agree Trump is whimsical and careless. I wonder if he is concerned whether his claims make sense or not. He is totally contradicting everything he said and, in particular, his claim that the war in Iraq was a mistake that he condemned when it happened (he didn’t). He said he wanted to stop wasting money on ineffective wars.

    The difficulty with him as a lightweight thinker is that he is easily manipulable. This move has the smell of a military offering advice that Trump was eager to grasp.

  9. Other James
    April 8th, 2017 at 20:16 | #9

    I note from today’s Guardian that Malcom Turnbull has doubled down on his comments about Syria, and in particular, the role of the Assad regime in the demise of Syria. This despite the abundant evidence that the Syrian conflict is anything but simple, with multiple outside players contributing support to diverse factions, to the point where that denizen of wisdom, Tony Abbot, called the conflict ‘baddies against baddies’.

    What does Turnbull hope to achieve? He must know that diving head-first into any conflict is no longer a poll driver. I think John Howard destroyed that option. I note that even the good Professor has threatened to expunge any comments that breach the MSM consensus, implying that he sees this as a real possibility, despite nominal adherence to the principles of free speech.

    I, like many Australians, assumed that Turnbull was intelligent as well as canny, ruthless and driven. Hence his great wealth. But of late, far from seeing him being merely beholden to the right wing faction of his party, I think he has lost the first (and primary) attribute of his capacities. The first attribute of intelligence is circumspection, the ability to entertain opposing arguments. That is why real thinkers rarely mimic demagogues, even when their considered position is presented as incontrovertible.

    The Liberal Party has always been able to dog-whistle, and again I think Tony Abbot was the master exponent of this trait, but after seeing the review of the 2016 election, it has become apparent that this no longer is the case. Jobs and Growth had no traction, and was outflanked on the right by the cross-benchers in the Senate, and by the real disaffection of the electorate even while they have little regard for the alternative.

    And on Syria, Turnbull appears to be whistling into the wind.

  10. Svante
    April 8th, 2017 at 20:16 | #10

    Media management meant to trump coverage of Xi non event. Worked.

  11. jrkrideau
    April 8th, 2017 at 22:05 | #11

    @James Wimberley
    Cost of a Tomahawk per Wiki = UD$1.94 million each (2015). Wiki source that I have not checked was from US budget figures so roughly 114.5 million US dollars.

  12. Ronald Brakels
    April 8th, 2017 at 22:36 | #12

    The estimated cost of saving a life from malaria is around US$4,000. So that US$114.5 million spent on missiles could have save around 28,500 lives. But, as there is considerable expense in transporting cruise missiles around the world, maintaining them, and keeping them on station, their total cost would be much higher and so many more lives could have been saved if saving nameless foreigners was valued more highly than doing the opposite.

  13. Peter T
    April 9th, 2017 at 11:28 | #13

    The media has been consistently awful on Syria (and not much better on Iraq). No surprises there (with very few exceptions, “foreign correspondents” are some clueless journo sitting in a bar writing down anecdotes retailed by other clueless journos, interlevened with available press releases). But one effect of this steady diet of fiction is a near universal inability to formulate any sensible critique of policy. This inability has apparently now reached the higher levels of government.

  14. Smith
    April 9th, 2017 at 13:43 | #14

    Trump’s UN ambassador now says the Trump administration is going for regime change and Assad has to go. No, her name is not Hillary Clinton. It really is quite amusing.* And what of our own foreign minister, who said just days ago that Australia doesn’t want regime change in Syria? Her up-coming pirouette as the Turnbull government falls into line should be Fonteyn-like.

    * assuming this doesn’t lead to war between the US and Russia.

  15. John Quiggin
    April 9th, 2017 at 15:03 | #15

    Jojo successfully derailed the thread, despite my warning against this. I’m deleting all comments related to chemical weapons, which means just about the entire thread, and permanently banning jojo.

  16. Collin Street
    April 9th, 2017 at 17:52 | #16

    This despite the abundant evidence that the Syrian conflict is anything but simple

    The complexity you can recognise is limited by the complexity you can process.

    [and when the complexity that exists is greater than the complexity you can see/process, the actions of others become mysterious and unpredictable, and your own actions cease to have the effects you predicted/planned for. Frustrating, and if frustration builds enough you get a tantrum. There’s nothing particularly complex about what’s going on, it’s just that few of us are used to dealing with adults acting like this.]

  17. Peter T
    April 9th, 2017 at 18:27 | #17

    The Syrian conflict (like most civil wars) has in fact become simpler over time, When it started there were numerous political factions, with agendas ranging from genocidal salafist theocracy through the regime’s baathist dictatorship to vaguely democratic aspirations. Time and conflict have reduced these to essentially four factions – the regime, the Kurdish-led coalition, ISIS, and the al Qaeda-led groups in Idlib. ISIS is steadily being eliminated, and the regime and the Kurds show every sign of being prepared to find some modus vivendi. It’s come down to regime vs al Qaeda.

    Which makes the current outbreak of stupidity even more depressing.

  18. John Goss
    April 9th, 2017 at 19:53 | #18

    There are two issues here. One is Trump’s decision making process. David Pope captured this perfectly in this cartoon in which the general explained ‘the trick is to pitch it to his narcissistic streak’.
    http://www.smh.com.au/photogallery/federal-politics/cartoons/david-pope-20120214-1t3j0.html.
    The trouble is that it really is Russian Roulette. On any particular issue we don’t know which of his advisers will have the winning strategy for manipulating Trump.
    The second issue is Syrian policy. The bombing is not a surprise. Hillary Clinton called for it. And Obama called for it after the last chemical weapons use, (though he tried for a somewhat more correct process by trying to get Congressional approval). In the end he went for what I think was almost the best option which was an agreement with the Assad Government brokered by Russia in which Syria supposedly got rid of its chemical weapons, but he was heavily criticised by the neocons for backing down on military action.
    The best option for the US in Syria is I think the Quiggin option ie don’t intervene militarily anywhere in the Middle East, but unfortunately we’re not going to see that.

  19. April 9th, 2017 at 20:24 | #19

    @jrkrideau Your estimate uses the correct number of Tomahawks, 59 not my erroneous 69. But perhaps they were getting close to their use-by date.

  20. Henry Haszler
    April 9th, 2017 at 20:31 | #20

    @John Quiggin
    John

    I don’t understand. Is it that you want THIS PARTICULAR post to be confined to Trump and nothing else? Fair enough as it is your site and you can make the rules.

    Or is it that you disagree with alternative theories about the atrocity and with people proposing alternatives?

  21. derrida derider
    April 9th, 2017 at 20:41 | #21

    What Harry said – it’s Trump’s generals wot did it. It’s very hard for any US President to override them; look at the shellacking Obama has gotten for only partly doing so.

    Experience in many countries over many centuries is that if you have a huge military then that military’s self interest will soon drive all your foreign policy at the expense of your citizens’ interests. Which is why you should never have a huge military unless you really, really need it.

    I can understand JQ barring discussion of “its a deliberate attack by Assad” to avoid derailment. But lets flag it for the sandpit, because I don’t reckon you need arcane conspiracy theories to question it.

  22. D
    April 10th, 2017 at 01:01 | #22

    The US bombed Syria about 12,000 times in 2016. So, no big deal with a few more.

    Missed the comments of “jojo” and the now deleted followups, but perhaps the phrase “very probably” – in the absence of any evidence whatsoever to support degrees of probability – might have been, at the least, ambiguous for some readers.

  23. John Quiggin
    April 10th, 2017 at 04:27 | #23

    @Henry Haszler

    I didn’t want this particular thread derailed. As DD suggests, it can be discussed in the sandpit

  24. Julie Thomas
    April 10th, 2017 at 11:24 | #24

    Some of us may appreciate the cognitive consistency that comes from sticking to a principle and arguing for that principle unless or until the evidence that supports that principle changes, but other people achieve cognitive consistency by sticking to the ‘person’ rather than the principle and hence are able to negate the cognitive dissonance that Trump’s about face on this issue should create for them.

    If one is the type of person who looks to an idol and/or a great man to form their opinions there is no problem rationalising this sort of unpredictable behaviour and in fact believing as some seem to do that this is all part of a well thought out game that the Trump is playing.

    Unbelievable but true and I know it by reading the blogs on which this sort of person display all their cognitive disorders.

  25. AB Hobart
    April 10th, 2017 at 21:45 | #25

    Until such time that the US is prepared to act more in its own interest in the middle east rather than being captive to the Israel Lobby, ongoing war in the middle east and the threat of terrorism in western countries will continue.
    While the Iran nuclear deal was a win against the Lobby, it is currently under threat from the new administration.
    I don’t share prof Q’s certainty on recent CW attack, culpability is unclear but I am more inclined to believe the Russians.
    It would be nice to have some responsible and serious journalism out of ME rather than the government propaganda we get on MSM.
    I think there is good evidence Ghouta 2013 was false flag and no red line was actually crossed.
    Syrian proxy civil war would likely not have occurred without US support for regime change.
    US involvement in my view entirely predicated upon Israeli requirement to take down weak link in Iran-Hezbollah axis post 2006 Lebanon invasion.
    Simple answer, no peace in the middle east until Israel becomes a normal country and that is not going to happen any time soon.

    It would be nice if the US could actually present some of their intelligence data.
    We can’t accept what they say at face value because we know they lied over Iraq WMD.
    But we have been waiting two years over MH17 satellite data, so that isn’t going to happen either.
    Clearly an illegal act with little tactical and no strategic value.

    Despite attempts to cantonise eastern Syria by the US I suspect greater Syria will endure and that thanks to Russia, Iran and Hezbollah the Syrian people will have the opportunity to elect their own leader.
    Does the west actually believe in democracy or not.
    Like it or not Trump is the US president just as Assad is in Syria, although Assad enjoys greater popular support.
    Fake news is not a new phenomenon although the terminology is, and that’s what we’re getting in spades on MSM.
    Also require more honest debate on Israel Palestine without its being closed down by the Lobby.
    No actual evidence Russia had any influence on US election. Russian intelligence does nothing in the US that US intelligence does not also do in foreign countries, end of story – to quote Stephen F Cohen (emeritus Princeton/NYU) recently.
    Contrast that with recent al Jazeera expose of Israel embassy attempt to take down senior UK government minister and a foreign affairs select committee chairman.

    Just a few links which I believe are within the rules

    Interesting interview with one of the two MIT academics who debunked the NYTimes article on Ghouta delivery system

    http://21stcenturywire.com/2017/04/06/mit-researcher-syria-wmd-facts-were-manufactured-to-fit-us-conclusion-for-ghouta-in-2013/

    And John Mearsheimer and Andrew Bacevich on US ME policy

    http://lobelog.com/bacevich-and-mearsheimer-on-u-s-policy-in-the-middle-east/#more-37589

    Mearsheimer’s take on Martin Dempsey is interesting. Colonel Pat Lang (ex US Defence Intelligence Agency) credits Dempsey for not allowing Obama to get suckered in 2013. His blog has been quite good on the military side of things in my view, while the blog Moon of Alabama is more interesting on the political side.

    http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2017/04/i-told-you-so-idlib-province.html

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