Friday, March 6, 2009

Eliot Cohen on punditry (and the implications for gaming)

I missed this when it was published, but Eliot Cohen had a great op ed in the Wall Street Journal in January, shortly after stepping down as senior adviser to SecState Rice. It doesn't directly touch on gaming, but it provides some very useful suggestions for pundits and policy commentators on the outside of government looking in:
Most commentators have a radically imperfect view of what's going on. Those on the inside, including at the very top, know more, though less than one might think. Government resembles nothing so much as the party game of telephone, in which stories relayed at second, third or fourth hand become increasingly garbled as they crisscross other stories of a similar kind ("That may be what the Russian national security adviser said to the undersecretary for political affairs on Wednesday, but it's not how the Turkish foreign minister described the Syrian view to our ambassador to NATO on Thursday.") Add to this the effects of secrecy induced by security concerns, as well as by the natural desire to play one's cards close to one's vest, and the result is a well-nigh impenetrable murk of policy making.

But it's even murkier on the outside. "Occasionally an outsider may provide perspective; almost never does he have enough knowledge to advise soundly on tactical moves," Henry Kissinger once remarked. Or as the White House correspondent of one major national newspaper once confided to me, "We really don't have a clue what's going on in there."

What, then, is a pundit to do? The best commentary has an impact, less because it offers new ideas (most ideas have been considered, however incompletely, on the inside) than because it clarifies problems or solutions that the insiders have only vaguely or incompletely considered. A tight, well-written, and carefully reasoned examination of a policy problem will bring into focus an issue that the officials have not had the time, or often the literary skill, to capture precisely. That kind of analysis is very much worth reading.

Invariably, a pundit will prescribe solutions. In doing so, he should follow the advice of the late Raymond Aron, the wisest French policy intellectual of modern times: Never criticize a policy unless you can convincingly depict a better course of action. Aron, like many of the greatest commentators on policy, had virtually no experience in government, but great empathy for those in a position to decide. Empathy -- the capacity for imagining what it is like to be the other -- is an essential quality for the thoughtful pundit. Policy makers, of course, prefer sympathy, which is soothing, unnecessary and often harmful.

There's more in the full op ed. It's not hard to see how this could relate to gaming. In a sense, the question of how games can have a policy impact is implicated in this line of thinking. If a game "clarifies problems or solutions that the insiders have only vaguely or incompletely considered" or provides the opportunity for outside commentators to develop the empathy with decision-makers that Cohen describes, that could be a valuable contribution. It is extremely rare for high-level decision-makers to participate in games; the time just isn't available. Cases like the Sigma II game in 1964 are few and far between. Therefore, the utility of games from a policy perspective is at best indirect. Cohen's piece provides some food for thought on maximizing the usefulness of games to current policymakers.

(Found this piece thanks to Wiggins at Opposed Systems Design)

Update: Rex Brynen has more thoughts on this, including an excellent example from his own experience (and some very kind words) at PaxSims. See also the comment by Wiggins.


Wiggins said...

Well put, Tim.

Something I've wondered about is whether high-level decision-makers could participate in simulations before they're appointed as training. It could be done, for example, with a new administration in between election day and inauguration.

Some sort of informal arrangement would probably be best, so that the choice of scenarios didn't become a political statement.


Tim said...

Thanks very much for your comment (and I greatly enjoy your blog). I've wondered the same myself. But you're right, if it was any sort of official setup there would be the risk that the scenarios would be parsed excessively by the press. That's too bad, because there would also be some real value in including lower-level career staff in this sort of game, giving them a better understanding of the way high-level decision-makers tick. I suppose we have (at least) four years or so before we need to worry about a transition again.