Sunday, November 17, 2013

Don't trust civil war predictions. Including mine.

Last week I listened to a Commonwealth Club podcast about Syria from early September, where I heard their invited speakers make retrospective fools of themselves as they poked fun at how the Obama Administration "boxed itself in" on chemical weapons in Syria.

Hearing their predictions of a fiasco on that issue prompted me to write about my own predictions on the outcome of civil wars, which don't seem that great. I can give myself some slight credit in the summer of 2011 when the mainstream said the Libyan war was at a stalemate, I thought that temporary victories by the government obscured a long term advance by rebels. That's pretty much it in terms of good predictions (written down somewhat late) - I could see an existing trend but not a change in trend. Seven months before that I said Qaddafi would be out within a week. My Libya wrap-up concluded that Assad would win in Syria. By July 2012 I acknowledged my pessimism about Assad was wrong but then thought it looked like the rebels were slowly winning. That too was wrong, as we see in the screwed up stalemate today.

My only defense is that I don't think my predictions are worse than what you'll find in the MSM. I welcome links to someone who got predictions consistently right, and made them early. Meanwhile I think it's still useful to make predictions - the people who make policy recommendations without predicting what results will come from those recommendations aren't adding any value.

Keeping track of those predictions and eating some crow as appropriate is still required, though.

UPDATE:  more Commonwealth Club, more foolishness about Syria and chemical weapons. This time from the moderator, Janine Zacharia, former Wash Post Bureau Chief. Even more depressing was the Israeli consul, who outright refuses to believe that the Arab Spring could be remotely about a drive for democracy as opposed to basic instincts of an honor-driven society.

10 comments:

Fergus Brown said...

This is something I've been fiddling with for years. It's possibly comparable to hurricane prediction - it is possible to identify the conditions and 'expect' a probable outcome from initial conditions, assuming that the initial information is accurate, but then chaos takes over and it all goes to pot.
For reliable predictors, on the basis of the number of time one is reminded of one's errors, the only certain predictors are mothers and spouses, who always knew best after the event...

Anonymous said...

"Don't trust civil war predictions"

or predictions about nuclear accidents

Especially when the information is extremely limited and-or not subject to independent verification.

But at least Brian admits to a mistake. Some folks never do.


Anonymous said...

"My only defense is that I don't think my predictions are worse than what you'll find in the MSM."

My, my what a stellar defense.

Is that what they teach in law school these days?

cRR Kampen said...

Forget it. Predicting the outcome of a war is essentially impossible.

You are trying to predict a relatively small variable within a huge, complex system. What you see is battle & tragedy. What you don't see is the big thing containing economy, politics, ideology, corruption and never forget the match fixing.

Example of match fixing. Israel helped prolonged the war in Sri Lanka by like a dozen years. Israel would sell weapons to the underdog of the moment. When they got stronger, Israel switched sales to other.
You can feel in your gut how totally unpredictable that kind of war is. And how the actual fighters and victims have no bearing on the proceedings at large.

Who'd have thought the USA would lose the Vietnam slaughter? A reread of Sun Tzu on the strength of cornered cats is simply not sufficient to explain that.

Anonymous said...

"Who'd have thought the USA would lose the Vietnam slaughter?"

Well, to name just a "couple": the CIA and the war's "architect" Robert McNamara, as early as 1966.

"On Aug. 26, 1966, Mr. McNamara read a book-length C.I.A. study called “The Vietnamese Communists’ Will to Persist,” which concluded that nothing the United States was doing could defeat the enemy." - NYTimes

The problem was not that no one thought the US would lose, the problem was that the people making the decisions adhered to an ideology that simply denied and subverted the truth, no matter the cost.

Same as it ever was.

cRR Kampen said...

So, Anon, in 1966 the Rabett would've predicted the hasty retreat from the unwinnable war? That lasted 10.000 days instead, with a number of crazies with power actually still insisting the war could be won while the heli's bolted from the embassy in Saigon.

"... the problem was that the people making the decisions adhered to an ideology that simply denied and subverted the truth, no matter the cost."

Sure. But that is one big factor in the unpredictability of any war outcome!!

History is even worse. Superior Russian forces entered the battle of Tannenberg, August 1914, and should've won and marched into Berlin less than two months later. There would've been no WW I, and no WW II at least as we know it now.
But the arrogant generals of the Russian army corpses bungled, bungled, bungled again and the bungled some more. How is this to be predicted? How is to be predicted what the result of such bungling would be, given that it does occur in many armies? How is the suprised German response that put her army temporary in a totally lost position to be predicted, and how do you predict that the Russians would not seize on the chance?


Butterfly effects galore.

Anonymous said...

but you asked "Who'd have thought the USA would lose the Vietnam slaughter?"

not "who would've predicted the hasty retreat from the unwinnable war?"

notice any difference?

Cheers!

cRR Kampen said...

Thank you for your constructive response, Anon, now go back to topic and read "Don't trust civil war predictions."

Then you can nitpick on the fact I brought in two wars of which one was asymmetrical (with the usual genocidal acts) and the other regular (Tannenberg, WW I). Never mind the theme: general unpredictably of war outcomes.

Meantime I hold point re topic :)

Anonymous said...

I was responding to your specific question.

Even quoted you to make that clear.

Now go back and review your Vietnam history.

Cheers!

cRR Kampen said...

Thank you for your constructive response, Anon, now go back to topic and read "Don't trust civil war predictions."

Then you can nitpick on the fact I brought in two wars of which one was asymmetrical (with the usual genocidal acts) and the other regular (Tannenberg, WW I). Never mind the theme: general unpredictably of war outcomes.

Meantime I hold point re topic :)