Voice

Cass Sunstein Is Sleeping on the Couch Tonight

Cass Sunstein, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has long advocated the notion that people left to their own devices often make bad choices and that government has a responsibility to "nudge" people toward better outcomes than they would select for themselves. But now he argues that government, left to its own devices, also makes bad choices. (Wait, wasn't he supposed to fix this problem?) This is a welcome Damascene conversion from someone who advocates expanding the Bill of Rights to include the right to education, a home, health care, and protection against monopolies. Sunstein's realization is a damning criticism of the Obama administration's philosophy of government and, incidentally, of its approach to foreign policy, in which Sunstein's wife, Samantha Power, ambassador to the United Nations, plays a starring role. 

In an article in the Journal of Institutional Economics, Sunstein and his co-author, Reid Hastie, argue that the very process of deliberation serves to amplify mistakes. They argue that the process of deliberation often conveys to individuals disincentives for providing information that would produce better outcomes. Specifically, they highlight the way people self-censor "out of respect for the information publicly announced by others" or to avoid "the disapproval of relevant others." All this is a fancy way of saying that groups tend to reinforce their initial biases through selective information. Sunstein and Hastie conclude -- much as the butterfly flapping its wings causes a hurricane -- that these "micro mistakes" lead to macro policy failures, even catastrophes. And the Syria policy of Barack Obama's administration illustrates their arguments rather neatly. 

The authors argue that corroboration by other members of a respected group raises confidence in its own judgments and reduces the variance of opinion, whether or not their taken position is correct, leading to "sharing a view in which they firmly believe, but which turns out to be wrong." Groups actually don't defer to internal experts; they tend to adopt positions that the majority supports. Sunstein might have drawn from the vast data trove provided by a National Security Council staff that included his wife (one of America's leading human rights experts) yet consistently avoided values-based policies and prides itself on being "realist."

Read the rest here.

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Shadow Government

Obama's Disregard of Europe Haunts the Response to the Crimea Crisis

Even a strong leader with an unrivaled record of attention to European sensibilities and an unchallenged reputation for standing resolved in a crisis would struggle to marshal a robust response to Russia's provocation in the Ukraine. President Obama's ongoing struggles thus far to muster such a united front, despite a slow ratcheting up of sanctions, owes as much to Europe's own contradictory incentives as it does to Obama's weakness as a leader.

It is also true, however, as Scott Wilson underscores in his piece on Biden's trip to Eastern Europe, that Obama's contradictory record has complicated matters. And by record, I mean not only Obama's policy actions but also his campaign rhetoric, which he has allowed to contaminate his governing rhetoric.

In his piece, Wilson recounts Obama's campaign-era talking points about Bush-era foreign policy: "Obama believed upon taking office that it was his immediate predecessor's go-it-alone approach, particularly in Iraq, that worried traditional U.S. allies in Europe and beyond."

Wilson is right that Obama did, and has continued to, talk that way, and he may even be right that Obama believes it to be true. But, of course, that is not true -- President George W. Bush had the opposite of a "go-it-alone approach," especially in Iraq. Far from going alone, Bush mustered a large number of allies -- the much-derided "coalition of the willing" -- who actually risked the lives of their troops in Iraq and, in too many cases, paid the human toll with combat casualties. Yet Obama and his aides repeatedly mocked or disregarded these sacrifices by claiming Bush conducted the Iraq war unilaterally, without any allies.

What do the following European countries have in common: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey, Ukraine, and United Kingdom?

  1. 1. Their contribution to the Iraq war has been alternately mocked or ignored by the Obama Administration.
  2. 2. They are some of the countries that Obama must now persuade to impose serious sanctions on Putin.
  3. 3. They are most of the countries that Obama must reassure that he will stand firm with them against Russia, should Putin's ambitions range beyond seizing the Crimea.

Wilson also reminds us of Obama's boast about repairing transatlantic relations. As anyone who has interacted with European policymakers knows, those relations have in fact suffered considerably in the past five years, and well before the Snowden leaks took them to a new depth. Obama's personal celebrity boosted approval ratings but masked the underlying tensions, which were readily apparent and reportable.

Moreover, this is not the only bit of Obama campaign rhetoric that was rewarded back in the day but now, in hindsight, looks painfully unfortunate. The Post's Fact Checker was bestirred to call out Obama's mocking and tendentious dismissal of Governor Mitt Romney's concerns about Russia as a geopolitical foe. And, of course, Putin's actions now seem to confirm Republican complaints about Obama's fateful decision to sacrifice Poland's interests in missile defense on behalf of a pursuit of a pyrrhic strategic arms control deal with Russia.

That is a lot of self-inflicted wounds to bring into any crisis, let alone one as daunting as this one. Still, I wonder if the systematic misunderstanding about coalition politics that the tired "unilateralism" canard reveals might not be the most unfortunate.

For Obama to succeed in marshaling a united front against Putin, he may have to do more than just show uncharacteristic resolve. He may have to show an even more uncharacteristic willingness to admit where he has been wrong in the past. Getting Europe to take painful steps now is hard under the best of circumstances, but it is harder still -- and needlessly so -- unless he is unwilling to give greater regard to their earlier sacrifices.

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