Will a Muddled Barack Obama Get Lucky on Syria?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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As I watched President Barack Obama 's speech last night, I couldn't stop asking myself: "What was the president thinking?"

The president made the case for authorizing military action, so that we wouldn't have to take military action. His words were confused, delivered with the half-hearted effort of a high school debater who has been called upon to defend "Resolved: Genocide is good for people."

After he had spent a few minutes stumbling through the war-is-peace argument, he turned to persuasion-by-insult:

"And so to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America's military might with the failure to act when a cause is so plainly just.

"To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough."

Maybe this convinced some left-wing Democrats, though you wouldn't know it from my Twitter feed. But only at the expense of backhanding Republicans. His argument was, in essence: Republicans, you may not care about the freedom and dignity of foreigners, or children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor. But you sure do love war and the military! We're going to restore dignity, freedom and life to some foreigners by bombing them -- couldn't you overlook the fact that foreigners will benefit, as long as we get to blow some stuff up?

I don't think that argument is what he meant to make. That's why it's so breathtaking. Presumably our tin-eared president, and his blinkered speechwriting staff, didn't even hear him juxtaposing people who care about freedom, dignity and dead children, on the one hand, and bitter clingers who are committed to military might, on the other. If Obama does need to go to Congress to get authorization, this lead balloon of an appeal will weigh him down every step of the way.

Keep that in mind as the revisionist history begins emerging from some quarters -- i.e., our patiently brilliant president once again demonstrates his mastery of n-dimensional policy chess. This may end up coming out "right," in the sense that the U.S. will have been delivered a face-saving way to back down from a threat on which Obama never seriously intended to make good, and Syria may give up some of its chemical weapons, forcing the government to rely on unreliable methods such as bullets to slaughter thousands of its own citizens.

But if it does turn out "well," this will be because the president was lucky, not brilliant. If Russia had not stepped in when it did -- and anyone who thinks that this result was somehow foreordained is either a lunatic, or someone who has not been paying much attention to other countries for the last few decades -- then the president would have been committed to one of two horrible courses: an unwanted military excursion into the Middle East or a congressional vote that repudiated the president's threat and dared him to go to war without congressional authorization. Even if you think that this was only 30 percent likely -- and I myself think that the risk was much higher than that -- this was an appalling risk to take for little apparent benefit.

Human beings tend to judge failure or success by outcome, rather than process. It's an easy heuristic, but as in so many things, the easy way out is often disastrous. Having unprotected sex with a short-term partner isn't a good idea just because you didn't get pregnant last month, and neither is launching a space shuttle with faulty O-rings because hey, the shuttle didn't explode last time. In an uncertain world, good decision-making heuristics sometimes have bad outcomes (people get pregnant even if they are using birth control perfectly); bad decision-making heuristics sometimes -- maybe even often -- produce perfectly fine results. A doctor or nurse who doesn't wash his or her hands consistently will usually not kill the patient. But failing to wash your hands consistently will kill many patients every year.

Like everyone else, I pray that the president will get lucky -- that a bad process will produce a good outcome. But we should not applaud the muddled thought process by which the president almost got us into a military action that no one wanted -- a process that was neatly mirrored in last night's muddled speech.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net