TSG IntelBrief: Metaphors and Analogies: Short-Cuts to Geopolitical Failure
June 11, 2012
As of mid-June 2012, the international community is reaching the effective limits of its metaphorical approach to chronic geopolitical challenges. Its recurring mental construct, one shaped by a logic that suggests “B is like A and so therefore let us approach B as if it really were A,” continues to drive its attempts at solving intractably complex problems on a wide array of issues — to include what to do about Syria and Yemen. Complex problems, however, rarely yield to solutions driven by simple metaphor or poorly drawn analogy. This is especially true if those metaphors and analogies are based on inaccurate models of reality.
The chronic geopolitical challenges that currently occupy much of the international community’s interest include the events that may have been inappropriately branded as “the Arab Spring”; the true nature of the threat from, and effective counter-measures to, al-Qaeda’s enduring ideology; and the increasing destabilization that is occurring in various parts of Africa — such as in Mali and Nigeria — by both radical Islamism and a host of natural and man-made factors. Quite simply, the international community has been approaching these issues in terms of what they appear to be like or what they remind policymakers of…and not what they actually are: different issues with different ignition points and different methods for extinguishing them once inflamed.
Despite extensive arguments by strategists to the contrary, Syria is not similar to Libya, which was not similar to Egypt; nor is Bashar al-Assad a clone of Muammar Gaddafi who was, in turn, not the same as Hosni Muburak; Mali is not the same as Nigeria, which is most certainly not the same as Somalia; and Yemen remains simply Yemen despite efforts by the international community to approach it as if it were the next Afghanistan.
In sum, the international community cannot tackle current problems by labeling, linking, and then addressing them as if they were little more than reincarnated problems of the past that have already been solved. Or, to paraphrase Albert Einstein — a man who knew something about approaching and solving complex problems — the international community cannot hope to solve the problems it faces today with the same level of thinking it employed when dealing with those problems as they began to surface.
Metaphors and analogies are irreplaceable in descriptive writing, especially as vehicles for, respectively, capturing the essence of one thing by describing it as something more familiar and comparing relationships or connections between two separate sets of items such as people or processes. In contrast, the use of metaphors and analogies in policy and risk management is too often a byproduct of attempts to oversimplify a problem (which violates another of Einstein’s principles: things should be made a simple as possible, but not simpler) and are therefore counterproductive and costly. Metaphors and analogies in language save words and time; in policy and risk management, however, they cost money and time — and very often lives as well — by approaching issues from familiar (that is, comfortable), but fundamentally erroneous starting points.
Examples of how these constructs divert objective thinking nonetheless abound in both public debate and private strategy sessions. While clearly capable of heinous cruelty, al-Assad of Syria cannot be equitably compared to Saddam al-Hussein of Iraq, who was never Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany. Similarly, despite its seeming eloquence as a sound bite, Yemen of 2012 is not Afghanistan of 1840 or 1880 (British occupation), 1979 (Russian invasion) or 2001 (NATO intervention), nor is it Vietnam of 1965. However, approaching these geopolitical subsets as if they were the same only increases the probability of obtaining similar, unsatisfactory outcomes.
The purpose of metaphors and analogies in policymaking as a means for explaining a crisis — or to set forth a purported resolution — is twofold. First, it is easier to approach difficult issues when they can be made to appear as if they fit a familiar pattern. Second, they provide magnificent intellectual camouflage to hide a dearth of current and meaningful information (which is not at all the same as “intelligence”). Intelligence briefings presented to officials that lack deep, insightful, timely, and contextual information tend instead to be filled with historical analogies, such as Yemen is similar to Afghanistan, which will invariably remind someone in the room of the Malaysia wars of 1950, which, observes another, were eerily similar to Carthage and ancient Rome. History can be an exceptionally wise and useful compass, but it is not a GPS with which to steer a nation-state. And it shouldn’t be used to mask an incomplete understanding, to confuse correlation with causation, or to conflate a local insurgency with the French Revolution, and thereby doom officials to thinking the two are the same.
An example of how metaphor is paralyzing current policy initiatives is the recurring “Syria is Libya” refrain, which promotes the conclusion that the international response to the Libyan crisis is precisely the response needed to resolve the troubles in Syria. The air campaign in Libya authorized by the United Nations worked because it was, fundamentally, an applicable solution for the unique complexities of that crisis. The diplomatic initiative to garner similar support for intervention in Syria has stalled for months for one often overlooked reason: Syria in 2012 has nothing to do with Libya in 2011. While intervention in Libya ultimately led to regime change, Syria is not Libya, nor is it likely to be the next Arab Spring domino (anymore than Vietnam proved to be the next domino in the Communist takeover of Southeast Asia).
For policymakers with an interest in the unfolding dynamics of the Middle East, it is of critical importance to begin any strategic calculus with the stipulation that Yemen has never been Afghanistan, and never will be no matter how many counterterrorism briefings suggest otherwise in order to simplify the sheer complexity of the Yemeni issue and how it is influenced by issues and tactics observed in Afghanistan. Instead of trying to square the circle, policymakers would be better served by addressing Yemen as the current Yemen and not the next anything. Further to this point, Mali, while experiencing radical Islamic violence in part stemming from Libya, is not like Libya nor is it like Nigeria. Additionally, the way al Qaeda ideology infects Iraq is connected to, but not identical with, how it infected Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. This is not to suggest there is nothing to learn from other situations, but rather to reinforce a much-needed sense of humility and the insatiable thirst for local knowledge when connecting the dots.
We belabor the point here because a weary international community is facing a truly monumental array of issues that will need to ultimately be addressed — or not — through military, diplomatic, and/or economic means. Whether these events should be confronted internationally or better left to local and regional interests to sort out is, in part, determined by how the international community defines these issues.
Thus, if Syria is presented as Libya and Yemen is presented as Afghanistan or Somalia, then the international community has drawn the wrong conclusions from the past. If, however, policymakers are willing to strip away the poorly constructed metaphors and faulty analogies, they will be forced to confront each situation as it is — and not as it seems to be. Ideally, this will lead to an invaluable strategic pause, when deeper veins of meaningful information can be uncovered and far more realistic assessments of each country can be developed that will prevent the international community from once again acting on the self-deceptive belief that B really is the same as A.
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