Same job, different uniform.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Iron Law of Unintended Consequences

Newton’s Third Law of Physics states that any action will have an equal and opposite reaction. Shoot a cannon: the ball goes one way and recoil sends the barrel smashing back against the gun carriage. Rockets, for instance, are nothing more than mechanisms for shoving energy towards the ground, thereby sending the rocket upward in reaction.

In the area of human interaction, something entirely different occurs. I refer to this as the Iron Law of Unintended Consequences, which states that while every action necessarily causes a reaction of some sort, secondary consequences inevitably eventuate that cause as many, or more, problems than the original difficulty. An outstanding example of this would be the Second World War against Germany. The allies (the US and Great Britain) knew that the defeat of Germany would require Russian assistance, and so they made a series of deals intended to keep the USSR in the war. With the final German collapse came the realization that Russia’s agenda was somewhat different than our own, and that they had no intention of disbanding their forces. Churchill’s Iron Curtain descended across Eastern Europe and the Cold War was on.

An unintended consequence of the Cold War was that both sides, in enlisting allies, made few fine distinctions in terms of freedom or something rather less than that. The US found allies among such folk as the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos and Anastacio Somoza, not really caring about the citizens of small countries, but rather caring about how the countries fit within the East/West polarization. The same was true for the USSR. Ultimately, the support of strongman governments cost the US dearly as those strongmen fell from power. Iran is still a significant problem for US diplomacy, as is Venezuela, Vietnam, Nicaragua, the Philippines and various other places here and there around the world.

Perhaps the most enduring unintended consequence of the Cold War evolved from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. United States operatives, most notably from the CIA but also from other intelligence agencies, provided weapons, sophisticated training, command and control and technological assistance to the Mujahedeen fighting the Red Army. Using increasingly coordinated command and control amongst the various factions of the resistance as well as the latest in missile technology, the Muj found ways to confound, confuse and finally conquer the Soviet military, inflicting on the USSR a Vietnam-like defeat that helped in the dissolution of the Soviet state.

The unintended consequences of the Mujahedeen and the defeat of the USSR include the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamicist movement throughout the Middle East, all of which we are having to deal with now. I cannot help wondering if our policymakers have given any thought to the unintended consequences of our “War on Terror.”

If they have not, the one suggestion I would offer is that we should take care of our allies, both during the war and afterwards, regardless of the ultimate outcome, and that we must be perceived as the friends and allies of particular countries and their citizens, and not just as partners or cronies of any particular government or faction.

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Blogger girlfriday said...

Well put. And it doesn't make you a nutcase of any political persuasion to suggest it.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


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