I was asked at a conference recently what is one takeaway I have from my experience working on national security issues for the past three decades. I’ve thought about this issue a lot of late and my answer is always the same: It’s the complexity of the challenges we face.
It’s the growing number of crises across the globe with no easy solution. And it’s policymakers struggling to make decisions in the face of imperfect or incomplete information, foreign leaders misunderstanding our intentions, real or perceived time constraints, resource limitations, competing interests and values, and the potential unintended consequences of our actions.
Consider the crisis in Syria. At various points over the past several years, a number of policy initiatives have been intensely debated and promoted as the best way to help end the crisis. They have included: imposing increasingly tough United Nations sanctions against the regime of Bashar Assad, arming and supporting the moderate opposition, creating no-fly zones and refugee safe havens along the Syrian border, and launching missile strikes (and even direct U.S. military intervention) against Syrian regime forces and facilities.
This policy debate has occurred against a backdrop of almost unimaginable human suffering from the conflict. Since the war began in 2011, more than 400,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, and 6.5 million displaced, including 2.8 million children. Meanwhile, the damage to Syria’s infrastructure has been estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Yet, seven years on from the start of the civil war, it’s still not clear whether any of the proposals considered, even if adopted in the 2011 to 2013 timeframe, would have fundamentally altered the conflict’s tragic course. It’s at least debatable, in my view, given the confluence of multiple factors, including Assad’s overwhelming determination to cling to power, the opposition’s understandable unwillingness to ever accept his legitimacy, Assad’s military support from key allies such as Iran and Russia, the competing self-interests of multiple foreign countries in Syria, the presence of extremist groups, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, who were also trying to oust Assad, and the chaotic nature of the fighting itself. At one point there were reportedly as many as 1,500 armed groups fighting inside the country.
In but one example of the chaos in Syria, consider the fighting around the city of Al Bab in 2016. The city, which was an important ISIS stronghold at the time, was fought over by separate Kurdish groups, the Turks, Syrian regime forces, the Russians, Iranians, Iranian-backed militia groups, and Hezbollah. All of these forces were operating in extremely close proximity to each other, and many were not even wearing recognizable uniforms. So, to call this a complex operating environment would be an understatement.
Or consider today’s campaign against ISIS and the situation we now face in Afrin, Syria. In recent weeks, U.S.-backed Kurdish units — critical to the broader effort against ISIS — have been diverted from eastern Syria to Afrin to protect fellow Kurds from an offensive launched by a key NATO ally, Turkey. We now have two U.S. allies squaring off against each other, potentially undermining our collective efforts against ISIS.
This complexity even extends into the Western Hemisphere, where successive U.S. administrations have imposed increasingly punishing economic sanctions on the government of President Nicolás Maduro to signal our displeasure with his efforts to undermine democratic norms. In my view, these sanctions have been an entirely appropriate policy response, and a far better option than a military intervention.
However, it’s also clear by now that the sanctions are not loosening Maduro’s grip on power, and are occurring against a backdrop of economic collapse, mounting social woes, and a flood of people fleeing the country. Further complicating the situation, Maduro is refusing to accept U.S. offers of humanitarian assistance, despite his public’s glaring needs. If there is an easy policy answer in Venezuela, it has yet to reveal itself.
So, why do I highlight these challenges? Simply to reinforce the point that with the type of crises we confront today, there are rarely simple solutions and only varying degrees of complexity to wrestle with. I don’t mean to suggest that paralysis in the face of these challenges should be our preferred course of action, but instead to highlight the need to avoid impulsivity in policy formulation and public messaging, and to urge policymakers to instead pursue a rigorous, well-informed, and deliberate decision-making process that is inclusive, creative, and carefully weighs the potential unintended consequences, and second and third order effects, of our actions. That won’t guarantee a successful outcome, but it will certainly buy down the risk of making poorly considered and executed decisions.
America’s recent history of foreign engagements teaches us to beware the lure and promise of easy solutions, such as preemptive military strikes with limited blowback, limited troop surges that will decisively shift battlefield momentum, lasting diplomatic breakthroughs absent the careful work of seasoned diplomats, and easily resolved trade wars. By now we should recognize that once embarked upon, the assurances of such outcomes quickly fade into the mist like Brigadoon, and the final resolution of these endeavors is almost always considerably more complicated and painful than we had anticipated at the outset.
Michael P. Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He is the former acting director of national intelligence. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely the views of the author.