All Too Human
The powerful are subject to the same flaws and follies as the rest of us.
It’s risky to assess major events that have only begun, but based on the evidence so far, the rough outline of Vladimir Putin’s plan seems clear.
It would be quick. Paratroops seize airports, a few armoured thrusts, and the Ukrainian government is decapitated. The Ukrainian military, if it fought at all, would soon be immobilized. The people would mostly hunker down and passively accept their fate.
The operation would be less an invasion of a foreign country with 40 million people and as much land as Spain and Portugal combined and more like the surgical removal of a rebellious provincial government. Less Germany plunging into France in 1914. More the Soviet Union slapping Hungary back into line in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Repercussions would be predictable. More Western sanctions. Lots of tut-tutting in the United Nations. But presented with a quick fait accompli, the West would not do much more than it had when Putin seized the Crimea.
Now, if I were a Kremlin planner asked to think about this before the fateful decision had been made, I’d note that it rests on three key forecasts:
1) The military operation will swiftly and smoothly remove the Ukrainian government.
2) The Ukrainian military and population will offer little resistance and accept defeat.
3) Western countries will impose sanctions, but nothing too painful.
I would break these down and judge them individually. (Simply using base rates, I would conclude that the probability of 1 and 2 are worryingly low. Especially one. Military operations that go neatly according to plan are as rare as photos of Putin smiling in a way that isn’t creepy.)
But perhaps more importantly, I would combine them. Remember, when an outcome depends on three rolls of the dice, the probability of the outcome is roll 1 x roll 2 x roll 3.
Here, let’s say we decide the chance of success is strong for each. Specifically, let’s say it’s 75% for #1, 80% for #2, and 65% for #3. (I’m just plucking numbers out of the air for purposes of illustration.)
Looks good, right? But what is the probability of nailing all three? It is 39%. Or to put that another way, there is a 61% chance we will not get the happy outcome.
And that’s with unrealistically high probabilities. If we say instead that the odds are, say, 65%, 50%, and 35%, the probability of all the conditions for success being met is … 11.4%.
That’s bad. Very bad. (Addendum March 12: As reader Benjamin Pond notes below, I kept this illustration simple by assuming the three probabilities are entirely independent. They almost certainly aren’t. A strong Ukrainian military response would, eg, encourage a strong Western sanction response, raising that probability. So the reality is highly likely to be, from Putin’s perspective, even worse than portrayed.
So I would then ask, well, if the train goes off the rails, how bad will the crash be?
A quick eyeball study leads me to conclude that if any one of the three conditions failed, Moscow would feel serious pain – whether in terms of military, economic, or diplomatic losses.
If two of the three failed, it would be a disaster. A quick and easy operation would likely become the final fight between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier -- a grinding, brutal, 14-round hell.
If all three went up in smoke, it would be nothing less than a catastrophe. Short of ignominious surrender and retreat – putting the regime at risk -- there would be no way out. It could easily become a combination of America in Iraq and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, with a little Yeltsin-era economic collapse thrown in.
There would even be a non-zero probability that a Russia shorn of both its empire and its Warsaw Pact allies would finally find itself in a shooting war with a NATO that now includes many of those former allies. That’s the stuff of Kremlin nightmares. It would be Red Dawn set in the Ural Mountains.
As the world now knows, all three conditions of success failed.
I won’t claim this was all foreseeable. But I do think it should have been obvious to any reasonable analyst that this plan was insanely dangerous. There was very little margin for error. And the potential consequences of failure dwarfed anything success could have delivered.
Set aside international law, morality, and basic human decency: On the basis of Vladimir Putin’s self-interest alone, going ahead with this plan at a time when sitting back and doing nothing was a perfectly acceptable option was a horrendously bad decision.
How did a canny leader with decades of experience, surrounded by analysts and advisors and a vast intelligence apparatus, make such a foolish call? I expect we’ll be talking about that for weeks and months, maybe years. Political scientists and historians will keep at it for decades. I hope to live long enough to read the definitive study.
Naturally, I have my own pet theory. I suspect Putin had so internalized his ideology of Ukraine as part of Russia, and Ukrainians as Russians, that he really didn’t think he was invading a foreign country. He was slapping down a rebellious province -- as the Soviets did in 1956 and 1968. By seeing the operation exclusively through that lens, he blinded himself to the dangers. For now, however, that’s just barstool hypothesizing.
But there is one fact I’m confident is both true and important to what really happened. It’s simple: Vladimir Putin and the people advising him are human and they are subject to all the same flaws and follies as the rest of our species.
To a reasonable person, that will sound like a truism. It hardly needs to be stated.
Unfortunately, it does have to be stated, because the idea of decision-making as a process of rational calculation with the goal of maximizing utility – I’m jamming in the jargon there – is still far more widespread than it deserves to be. That’s particularly true when the people making the decisions are rich and powerful, have access to boundless resources, and are making decisions with enormous potential consequences for themselves and others. The paradigm of this is when a leader of a major nation is deciding whether to start a war. Or escalate. Surely, many people will assume, in such a situation the decision will be made on the basis of vast analysis and calculation so careful it would bring a smile to the lips of a Vulcan. If Vulcans smiled.
Robert Jervis, a Columbia University political scientist, spent much of his career pushing back on that notion (Jervis died in December). The people who make decisions of state are human, he insisted. Perception and misperception matter. Psychology matters. It’s a message that still needs to be repeated.
A good way to do that now – in light of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine -- is to look at the two greatest American military debacles, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the 1964 decision to escalate American military involvement in the Vietnam War.
The invasion of Iraq is still portrayed by many as a calculated stratagem, with the goal being, in the usual telling, to seize control of Iraq’s oil. Many experts who have looked closely see something very different.
In a book called Leap of Faith, RAND Corporation political scientist Michael Mazarr interviewed the major players, studied all the available documents, and laid out a compelling case that there was shockingly little calculation behind the decision to invade. Mazarr noted that the National Security Council’s – the White House’s lead body on national security – never even formally debated the decision to invade. “One of the great mysteries to me is exactly when the war in Iraq became inevitable,” one member of the NSC later wrote.
Officials beavered away on how to invade. But whether the United States should invade was just there. It wasn’t questioned. It wasn’t investigated. It was a given. “There was no single meeting at which the decision to launch a global war on terror, or invade Iraq, was openly, consciously, and rigorously debated,” wrote Mazarr.
So where did it ultimately come from? Mazarr argues that it emerged from a collective perception of morality. After 9/11, a righteous mission was called for, Saddam was a monster and removing him was a righteous mission. A morally driven conviction is a powerful conviction, particularly where it is shared by a well-defined collective. It’s not the kind of thing people are naturally inclined to subject to critical analysis. Pile on a vast heap of motivated reasoning and you get tanks rolling across the desert.
Let me throw my own gloss on Mazarr’s conclusions: In 1972, three social scientists studied how organizations actually make important decisions and used what they saw to develop a model of decision-making that deserves to be better known today. They called it “the garbage can model.” It’s a strange but appropriate name.
In this model, problems pop up when they do for reasons outside the control of the organization. Whichever decision-makers happen to be in the appropriate chairs at that moment get tapped to deal with them. They look for whatever solutions happen to be on hand. That’s a whole lot of happenstance. So the social scientists imagined a bin – the garbage can – into which people, problems, and solutions are tossed. They jumble together. Decisions emerge out of this. They are not the product of evidence, analysis, and careful comparison of an array of options. They are what comes together in the jumble.
So 9/11 explodes. The decision-makers who happened to be in the chairs at that time face a problem. One solution on hand was to invade Iraq, a solution that has been kicking around since the Gulf War. There is a strong moral component to that solution – Saddam really was a monster – at a time when a strong moral component is demanded. Problem meets solution and the machinery of government slowly grinds into motion.
Should we pin this on the unique incompetence of the Bush administration? Hardly.
The man principally responsible for the decision to escalate in Vietnam was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In a book published in 1995, McNamara noted that the decision was based on the “domino theory,” the conventional wisdom in Washington which held that if Vietnam fell to the Communist north, one country after another in south-east Asia would fall to the Communists, dealing the United States a major blow in the Cold War. But McNamara and Company also knew that escalating in Vietnam risked getting the United States into a terrible quagmire – like the terrible quagmire in Korea that killed 40,000 Americans. The United States had extracted itself from Korea a mere decade earlier. So McNamara and company saw the danger vividly. But they escalated anyway. And the rest is history.
Robert McNamara was an indisputably brilliant man. At Ford, he helped revive the company by relentlessly questioning the status quo and reforming processes. McNamara and his colleagues asked so many questions that they annoyed old hands, who called them the “Quiz Kids.” The kids changed that to “Whiz Kids” and the name stuck. McNamara became CEO of Ford. When John F. Kennedy became president, he wanted a rigorous, unsparing thinker to shake up the military. So he got McNamara.
If any leader — ever — would make decisions like the calculating Vulcans imagined in old-school decision theory, it was Robert McNamara. so you may think he analyzed the Domino Theory within an inch of its life and looked fiercely at the implications of escalation. Research. Analysis. Multiple teams examining every assumption, poking every calculation. And only after digesting all that voluminous work did the principal players sit down and have a long, careful discussion before making a decision.
That’s how it must have happened. Right?
Nope. They didn’t do any of that. All the key assumptions went unexamined. Basic analysis was never done. “We never carefully debated what US force would ultimately be required, what our chances of success would be, or what the political, financial, and human costs would be if we provided it,” McNamara wrote. “Indeed, these basic questions went unexamined.” He repeats variations of that statement several times in the book. Over and over, he says, they just didn’t think carefully.
It seems impossible. McNamara himself – who carefully combed the archives before writing his book – occasionally sounds astounded by the shoddy process. How could they have been so negligent? To his credit, McNamara faced that question squarely. And this is the best explanation he could come up with:
“One reason the Kennedy and Johnson administrations failed to take an orderly, rational approach to the basic questions underlying Vietnam was the staggering variety and complexity of other issues we faced. Simply put, we faced a blizzard of problems, there were only 24 hours in a day, and we often did not have time to think straight.”
It was complicated. They were busy. So they went ahead with a plan that produced disaster — and killed, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of people.
Even at the highest levels of statecraft, however brilliant the minds at work, the people involved are, to put it in Nietzsche’s terms, human, all too human.
By the way, near the end of his 1995 book, Robert McNamara talks about visiting post-Soviet Moscow and learning what his adversaries were thinking when he was Secretary of Defense. Among his sobering discoveries was the realization that the Americans had seriously underestimated the danger they faced in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 because the Soviets had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba and were authorized to use them in the event of an American attack. The White House’s initial response to the crisis was to authorize just such an attack. If it had gone forward – Kennedy pulled back at the last minute – the Soviets would have used battlefield nukes and the Americans, McNamara says, would surely have responded in kind. “And where would it have ended?” he wrote. “In utter disaster.”
McNamara offered advice for future officials, including this, written in his characteristic technocratic style:
“Because of misinformation, misjudgment, and miscalculation … it is not possible to predict with confidence the consequences of military action between Great Powers. Therefore, we must direct our attention and energies to crisis avoidance.”