Barbarians in the Gates

We left New York harbor on the Norwegian Gem cruise ship on November 23. It was a clear crisp evening and the view of the NYC skyline and points of interest was riveting. We were escorted down the Hudson, past the Statue of Liberty, and beyond the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by two gunboats and two armed helicopters. I don’t know if there was a particular threat to which the authorities were responding or whether this has become standard procedure for large passenger ships traversing the port of New York City. But it stood out to us as evidence that our world is not as it was just a short time ago. For me it underscored the importance of defeating terrorism.

The week before we left, Paris had been shot up by Islamic jihadists. The day before we were to arrive back home, a jihadist couple killed 14 people and injured many more in San Bernardino, California. Jihadist violence is and will continue to be on the march. Radical Islamists around the world rejoice as the rest of the world mourns the deaths, injuries, and suffering of the innocent. Our leaders, along with many media commentators, show their myopia about the nature of the challenge – none more starkly than President Obama and presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

Critics of Obama claim that he fundamentally underestimates and/or misunderstands the threat and persists with policy that helps the jihadist cause. This is evidenced by:

  1. His refusal to name the threat as Islamist
  2. His premature removal of American forces in Iraq, which led directly to the creation of ISIL and the establishment of a new caliphate (territory controlled by Islamists)
  3. The release of hundreds of dangerous jihadists from our military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, many of whom have returned to their cause and have killed and injured American soldiers
  4. His challenge and subsequent backing down to the Assad government in Syria which harmed our credibility, aided in jihadist recruitment, and opened the door for the expansion of Russian and Iranian aggression in the region
  5. His generous stance toward Iran, especially in freeing personal assets for known bad actors and clearing a path for their development of nuclear weaponry
  6. His antipathy towards Israel, the only true ally America has in the region
  7. A half-hearted prosecution of air attacks against ISIS targets, wherein American sorties run a meager 12-30 missions per day and release munitions fewer than 25% of the time
  8. His insistence upon bringing Syrian refugees to the United States despite CIA warnings that they cannot be properly vetted
  9. His refusal to tighten security along the Mexican border despite its use by jihadists to enter the U.S.
  10. His rhetorical response to terrorist actions whereby he constantly: a) downplays the scope of the threat, b) admonishes against discrimination toward moderate Muslims, c) uses the opportunity to push the politics of gun control , and perhaps most significantly, d) refuses to admit that policy changes may be prudent.

Those who see things the same way as does Obama look upon Donald Trump’s recent remarks, along with his overall political approach, with a mix of revulsion, incredulity, and amusement. Just this week Trump issued a statement calling for a moratorium on all Muslims entering America. In the resulting hailstorm of criticism from Democrat and Republican political rivals, he clarified that this only applied to non-citizen Muslims who do not currently live in the U.S. But he hedged that stance, citing a Real Clear Politics poll suggesting that as many as 25% of Muslims in America are sympathetic to jihadist goals.

Those familiar with Trump’s methods see what he’s doing here. He uses inflammatory statements such as this to: a) control the media cycle (he’s received more than double the coverage of his nearest competitor for airtime – Hillary Clinton), b) establish an extreme initial position as a negotiation tactic, and c) distance himself from rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, in this case claiming the ground that he is the candidate most serious about protecting American lives.

Critics of Trump (and others in the Republican presidential race) claim that their approach is inflammatory, would lead toward widespread war, promotes racial and religious discord, and violates the constitutional rights of many Americans. This is evidenced by:

  1. Their calls for screening and/or profiling American and non-American Muslims
  2. Costly, both in blood and treasure, policy proposals that would ramp up military efforts in ISIL- controlled Syria and Iraq
  3. Their alienating non-radical Muslims with harsh rhetoric
  4. Aiding jihadist recruiting efforts by increasing the profile of America as a natural enemy
  5. Their willingness to turn our backs to Muslims who are suffering the ravages of war in Syria by denying refugees sanctuary in America
  6. Their blind backing of Israel despite its aggression towards Palestinians
  7. Their seeming not to care about the plight of illegal immigrants in America and their U.S. –born citizen children
  8. Their vilification of natural rivals such as Russia and China which increases the risks of conflict

The space between these two polarities is quite an ideological gulf. Both have some rationale. But both omit important considerations. If we are to elect leaders with better developed worldviews and policies, we need to think things through ourselves. Among the things we all must consider are:

  • How prevalent is the jihadist view amongst the worldwide Muslim population?
  • What is the likelihood and scope of future attacks if we continue our current course?
  • What are the ramifications of a reduction of American influence and power in the Middle East?
  • What steps can we take to reduce the allure of the jihadist viewpoint?
  • Left as a viable entity, what threat does ISIL present to America over the long term?
  • Is there a way for Muslims, Arabs, and other non-American powers to address the jihadist threat without a major American commitment? If so, why isn’t it happening and what must be done to make it happen?
  • How much expense, in terms of resources and sacrifices in freedom and lifestyle, is appropriate to nullify the jihadist threat? If we decide to tolerate a small amount of threat, how much?
  • Can we afford a nuclear-armed Iran? If not, what are we willing to do to stop it?

These are not simple questions and there are no simple answers. As we established, smart people arrive at very different conclusions. In order to come to a more cohesive and effective policy stance, we must openly and honestly examine our values. Fortunately, elections are a perfect way to do this. Unfortunately, the Machine (the Democrat and Republican parties, media, and vested interests) are not interested in the discussion. It’s up to you and me.

In order to do so productively, we must understand the history and dynamics at play. Sadly, most Americans are not well equipped for this task, not because they are unable, but because they are unwilling or do not have the level of education needed to wrestle with the issue. This is okay. It’s why we’re a Republic, not a Democracy. But it does not relieve us of our responsibility as citizens is to know enough to choose our leaders wisely.

So we must familiarize ourselves with the basics. Here’s a quick rundown.

First, jihadist aggression is nothing new. Fundamentalist belief in the teachings of Mohammad means the intolerance of opposition and the call to bring sharia law to every corner of the globe. This worldview requires submission and is the near polar opposite of the values upon which America was founded. What is new is the means by which this goal may be accomplished.

We also must grasp the power dynamics in the Middle East. The nations that exist today were imposed upon the area in the wake of the fall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire by the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Great Britain and France in the wake of World War I. The Arabs longed for self-rule, and largely achieved it within the new nations. Complicating the picture is the enmity between the three major sects of Islam – Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd. These populations are not contained within the nations but are spread throughout the region. They represent the major factions that are fighting in Syria today.

Another irritant is the existence of the Jewish state of Israel. The area that Israel occupies was for centuries only important for religious reasons. The few Palestinians who lived there were nomadic and sparse and lived a hard-scrabble existence. Fleeing persecution in Europe, Jews began settling the region en masse throughout the late 1800’s and early 20th century. They lived a different lifestyle and held different values. Those values led to rapid economic development of the area, and the population exploded.

In the wake of the Holocaust, to protect the Jewish people from further aggression, the nations of the world recognized Israel as a legitimate nation of its own. This has never been tolerable to the Arab world, and has been a source of conflict over the past 70 years.

Another seminal event in the rise of modern jihadism was the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran under the feckless foreign policy of Jimmy Carter. Iran, despite inevitable abuse of power by the Shah, was well on its way to becoming a modern state ready to join the civilized world. Instead it became a terror-supporting Shi’a theocracy under Ayatollah Khomeini. That legacy plagues the western world to this day.

President Obama sees jihadists as a relatively minor threat. He believes that they are few in number and are not likely to amass significant destructive capability. Approximately 25% of Americans basically agree.

Donald Trump sees jihadists as a growing and significant threat. He believes that if they are not thwarted sooner rather than later, great harm will befall our country. Approximately 75% of Americans agree.

9/11 proved our vulnerability. It is much easier to destroy than create. If a perpetrator is willing to sacrifice him- or her-self, there is little a free society can do to completely prevent attacks. Some of these attacks are likely to be devastating, especially as chemical, biological, or radioactive weaponry becomes available. The reality is that a handful of people could possibly wipe out a city.

Whatever path we choose, we will not prevent all attacks. But it is the primary responsibility of the federal government to keep us as safe as possible.

There is no right for a non-American to enter America. They do so at our pleasure. Our values are such that we prefer to limit no one. We of course prefer peace to war. It’s unfathomable to us that there are people, both abroad and amongst us, who would like to cut off our heads, kill our children in front of our eyes, rape and torture – shoot, maim, and destroy – simply because we do not accept their worldview. But it is the truth.

The barbarians are in the gates. The question for all of is – what are we willing to do to stop them?

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Decision Matrix: What Should the U.S. Do About Syrian Refugees?

Many models have been developed to help us make the best possible decisions. In political matters, one sometimes wonders if our leaders ever use any of them! Nevertheless, let’s have a look at a hot political matter as a case study to see how, if politicians were to use an optimal approach, their thinking might go. Our aim is to use a topical issue, one in which we all have a vested interest, so that we might see how the use of a decision matrix could serve us in our important decisions.

The model you should use depends upon the nature of the decision. Are you able to reduce the decision to a simple yes/no? If so, the most common approach is to simply list pros vs. cons, apply a method to weigh them against one another, and whichever side the scale tips, that’s the way you go. That’s great, but life is usually more complicated. It’s actually helpful to retain multiple options because it opens up the universe of potential action. So how might you effectively weigh five or more options against each other?

To illustrate, let’s look at the question of how best to help the people in Syria who have been displaced from their homes because of ongoing armed conflict between as many as a dozen distinct groups. The agitators are polarized to varying degrees between the Shia government of Assad and Sunni rebel groups (which includes ISIS trying to expand its nascent caliphate.) There are Kurdish groups involved in the fighting as well who are friendly to neither. The whole area is now a powder keg as Russian and Iranian interests align with Assad, American interests most closely align with the Kurds, and the Sunnis employ terrorist tactics as a part of an expansionist vision that ultimately affects all of western civilization. For the sake of brevity, we will have to paint with a rather broad brush.

With that qualification, there are basically five responses available to the United States. At the extremes, we could either open the floodgates to as many as we can possibly relocate to America or refuse to take any action on their behalf whatever. Between these poles are three basic possibilities – bring as many as we can as long as they do not show up on intelligence reports as active in extremist or jihadist efforts, apply a much higher standard and bring only those who can be positively shown to be non-participants in jihadist activities or groups, or bring none here but expend American resources and influence to find them suitable refuge in surrounding countries.

To determine which of those five options is best, we must analyze the expected costs and benefits. Again, this picture in reality is complicated, but for the sake of our discussion, we’ll condense them down to four considerations. First, how does our action benefit the refugees? Second, how does our action benefit Americans and their interests? Third, what are the costs involved? Finally, we must consider the risks of each particular course of action.

Considerations like these are often difficult to quantify in absolute terms. But we may agree to and assign relative values. While such an approach doesn’t yield absolute answers, the resulting analysis offers insight as to which action would yield the best net result. The following chart is one such possibility:

decision matrix syrian refugees 1

Of course I can’t be certain that my calculus is accurate considering that I am not privy to intelligence reports, international negotiations, or detailed cost analysis. This is however, my best shot as a thinking American citizen who pays attention to current events.

In light of the high burden, risks, and cost of bringing Syrians in large number to the American homeland, it may not be surprising that Options 4 and 5, those which avoid this action, are preferable. But it is rather close between Options 2 and 3, conditionally bringing some of the Syrians to America and Option 5, simply taking no action. This warrants a closer look.

When you use a decision matrix, you should recognize that not all considerations are equal. For instance, is it a responsibility or obligation of the American government to see to the welfare of non-Americans? To the degree that you believe it so, is this consideration equal to the Constitutionally-mandated task of securing the defense specifically for American citizens? No. We should help, but not to the degree that it hurts Americans.

Likewise, how do we really determine cost and risk? We have the short term logistical cost of screening and moving Syrians. Then we have long term costs because they are not all going to be able to support themselves in a new country where they do not speak the language and have little to none of the skills in demand in an advanced country. So that means there will be an ongoing financial and possibly social drain.

It is also unclear whether moving these people to America is best for them in the long term. Refugees are desperate and vulnerable. As they stabilize, they’re likely to desire a return to normalcy. Is it unreasonable to anticipate that this might be more difficult in a country far removed in both distance and in culture from their home? I assigned the highest relative value, 5, to helping the refugees by bringing as many as possible to America. It could easily be lower.

The risks are perhaps the most volatile and controversial portion of the issue. The Obama administration thus far seems to downplay this part of the decision matrix. President Obama himself chided the Republican Presidential hopefuls critical of his proposed actions saying that they seemed to be as afraid of Syrian women and children as they were of CNBC moderators. I haven’t heard any say so yet, but his opponents might point out that not two hours after the President’s snarky statement, a woman blew herself up in a suicide bombing in besieged Paris in an attempt to murder police. They might also ask the President where these women and children to whom he refers are in the light that 72% of the Syrian refugees are thus far fighting-age men. This is a suspicious anomaly.

Regardless of degree, it is not reasonable to discount completely risk factors, especially considering that jihadists have admitted that infiltration through refugee groups is one of their strategies. We could argue about whether 5% or .5% of the refugees pose a serious threat. The fact is that the more who come to America, the greater the risk that more terroristic attacks could result.

In order to incorporate the disparity between risk factors, we can apply a weighting scale. In the following chart, we simply acknowledge that risks and American interests are, say, twice as important as costs and the interests of Syrian refugees.

decision matrix syrian refugees 2

An interesting thing happens when you take this deeper look. Yes, Option 4 retains the preferred spot. But Option 3, the selection of relatively fewer refugees under stringent screening vaults into second place. In both analyses, Option 1 remains a distant last place and should be removed from consideration. (Unfortunately, this seems to be the path that the Obama Administration prefers. One might wonder how their considerations and weighting would differ from this one, and why.)

Whether you gain consensus in your organization through a formal decision matrix, the process is worthwhile. It encourages the team to find answers in murky areas. It helps focus discussion on facts rather than invective.  As a leader, you both teach your team to see how you reach your decisions and you also learn from them as they shed light in areas you did not previously consider. This habit is good for organizational health.