Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Importance of Making Good Sub-Optimal Decisions

David Rothkopf has an interesting blog post up right now about the reshuffling of deck chairs on the Obama national security cruise ship. He seems to like the decision and goes to some length about a quote from the ubiquitous unnamed source, breaking it down piece by piece. The quote in question is, “the strongest possible team to exercise our strategies and policies. I stress the word team.”

Rothkopf makes the observation that the important word, the really important word isn’t strongest or team, but instead possible. In doing so, he opens up a conversation on an important aspect of formulating any kind of policy, but particularly those having to do with international affairs. I agree with Rothkopf’s general idea that an important aspect of any president’s decision-making—whether it concern staffing, plotting a new course in an ongoing conflict, or evaluating other foreign leaders—is the need to make really good suboptimal decisions. By that I mean, having to look at your preference ordering (i.e. the way you’d really like things to unfold) and immediately have to jettison option one or maybe even option two for something lesser because any number of externalities interfere with the ideal.

Doing this effectively can be hard work. Just think about recent history of appointees, whether they are related to domestic or international policy, and a number of stinkers from both Bush and Obama come to mind.

Rothkopf really goes into detail about this, but what I got from it was an emphasis on the notion that preferences cannot be formed in a vacuum. Once allowed to “burn in the sun or rot in the humidity,” a policy or appointment that looked great in optimal conditions doesn’t respond well to crosscutting interests/policies or domestic political conditions. Thinking about your ideal fix to any problem isn’t difficult; most savvy international policy observers could do that. The challenge is actually two fold: first, one must line-up good “least bad” options, and second, the decision maker must know what external considerations are truly important and grounds for disqualifying one policy in favor of a another.

Take the always-treacherous subject of U.S. policy towards Pakistan for example. I struggle to think that our Pakistan policy is exactly what we’d like it to be…no regrets. Clearly we are forced to work a sub-optimal policy but deciding how far down the order of preferences to slide is the true challenge. One important question is actually how badly will the Pakistanis react if we favor India on more substantive issues? Answering that incorrectly could stymie future relations with India or It could create a truly violent backlash from Pakistan’s proxies.

Presidents never have perfect records on these things. I think I agree with Rothkopf that Obama got the most possible out of these appointments, given all of the externalities. I don’t however believe we worked the synergy between interests, strategies, and preferences very well in crafting our Libya policy. But both decisions highlight the importance of maximizing possibility and not dreaming about perfect solutions.

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