Archive for July, 2005

David good, Goliath bad

Wednesday, July 13th, 2005

Biologists have come to recognize that the untrained human mind is not a reasoning machine, but simply a bunch of evolved heuristics that imitate reasoning. Good marketers already know this. Economists and politicians, take note.

Historically, the smartest politicians know that everyone loves the underdog. The smartest ones set policy to make themselves appear the underdog.

Recall Clinton’s self-anointment as the “Comeback Kid.” Why was that appealing? Fundamentally, and whether Clinton understood this or not, it was because human minds are predisposed to prefer the story in which a local boy overcomes the odds to win the title.

This applies in particular to war policy. If only Bush understood it. Unless given a good reason not to, people instinctively root for a plucky rebellion against imperial power. Smart policymakers try to position themselves as the underdog, the defender, or the offended party.

Abraham Lincoln understood this. In 1861, when he took office, much of the South had already seceded, and he had only tenuous support in the North to fight for the Union. A simple invasion would actually have galvanized opposition in both North and South, preventing him from being re-elected, and probably preventing the survival of the Union.

So what did he do? With much fanfare, he sent a supply convoy to the Union’s Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which had already seceded. But the ships did not land, and Lincoln did not attack. He simply waited offshore, looking threatening, until the South Carolina militia attacked the fort.

This was the pretense Lincoln needed. For the next 4 years, he managed to hang on to popular support for a bloody, divisive conflict, largely because he could argue the whole thing was defensive. The South had fired the first shot. They became Goliath, the Union David.

Fast forward to 2001. The United States invades Afghanistan, a sovereign nation, and no one complains. To the contrary, nations around the world are pouring their hearts out to support America. Why? Because there was a smoking-gun connection to the 9/11 attacks, so we could credibly claim that the invasion was actually defensive. The U.S. had managed to portray itself as the plucky defender against a global al Qaeda conspiracy.

Fast forward to 2003-5. Everyone suddenly hates American imperialism. Why? Because no credible case was made that an Iraq invasion was defensive. I’m not asserting that no credible case was made; I’m observing that no credible case must have been, given that most now perceive the U.S. as an aggressor. Iraq became David. America became Goliath.

The extent of America’s diplomatic foolishness here only comes into focus when you consider that this conflict’s David was one of the most reviled autocratic rulers on the planet. Yet we’re still the bad guy. There should be a signal here that we blew it in the PR department.

Note that nothing in this article argues against the invasion. It argues that the justification was amateurishly handled, given readily observable traits of human motivation.