Obama’s Foreign Policy and the Nirvana Fallacy

By Jack Goldsmith
Wednesday, August 13, 2014, 1:03 PM

President Obama’s foreign policy appears in shambles.  Many of his major decisions – decisions to act, and not to act – seem to have turned out badly.  To take a few examples of prominent criticisms: If the President had not intervened in Libya, we would not now face the large terrorist threats and related disorder in North Africa.  If he had supported (the good) Syrian rebels earlier, he could have prevented the humanitarian disaster in Syria.  If he had not pulled out of Iraq, ISIS would not be as powerful or threatening as it is.  If he had responded earlier and more forcefully to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Putin would not have absorbed Crimea.   And so on.  Critics look at the bad things happening in the world, they look at President Obama’s relevant foreign policy decisions prior to those bad things, and then they (a) blame him for the actual outcome, and (b) argue that if he had acted differently (usually, in the opposite manner), the outcome would have been better.

This is a common form of criticism that all presidents suffer.  Most of these criticisms rest on some form of the Nirvana fallacy – the fallacy, that is, of comparing actual policy outcomes against hypothetical (and usually rosy) alternative outcomes, without considering the costs, downsides, harmful second-order effects, etc., of the alternate courses of action.  They also contain a good bit of hindsight bias – criticism made with full information about decisions made with partial information.

It is possible, for example, that a stronger reaction to Putin's aggression in Ukraine might have sparked a war in central Europe or some other more destructive confrontation with Russia.  If the President had supported Syrian rebels earlier and more robustly, the weapons might have fallen into the wrong hands with worse outcomes, or Assad might have fallen, creating (even greater) terrorist bedlam in Syria.  If the President had kept troops in Iraq, the country might have fallen apart in any event, many Americans might have died, and his domestic agenda might have been (even more) jeopardized.  Relatedly, just because a decision led to a bad outcome doesn’t mean that the most plausible alternative decision would not have led to the same or a worse outcome.  (This has been President Obama’s basic defense of his low-key approach to Syria.)

Presidents, of course, must make decisions based on relatively little information, and thus without knowing how various alternatives at the time of decision will pan out.  Moreover, as Arthur Schlesinger noted, “the statesman often confronts situations in which, if he waits too long to be absolutely sure about facts, he may lose the opportunity to control developments.”  In other words, there is often a tradeoff in foreign policy between information and room for action.  Professor Henry Kissinger wrote in 1966:

When the scope for action is greatest, knowledge on which to base such action is limited or ambiguous.  When knowledge becomes available, the ability to affect events is usually at a minimum.  In 1936, no one could know whether Hitler was a misunderstood nationalist or a maniac. By the time certainty was achieved, it had to be paid for with millions of lives.

To make matters yet more complex, a president does not know the marginal value of more information until he acquires it; it is unclear how much information to gather before acting.  Presidents must make foreign policy decisions in the face of these and other forms of informational uncertainty, but they are judged after the fact, on the basis of how things turned out, usually against a baseline of idealized counterfactual scenarios.

The point here is not that success in foreign policy is random – it is not.  Nor is the point to defend President Obama’s foreign policy decisions, or to argue that principled foreign policy criticism is impossible, or to deny that President Obama’s particular commitments might have led him sometimes to exercise bad judgment in assessing the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action.  The point is simply to call attention to the pervasiveness of the Nirvana fallacy (and hindsight bias) in foreign policy criticism, and to note how terribly difficult it is to make wise foreign policy decisions under conditions of uncertainty in our complex world.