Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A puzzle or a mystery? 

A colleague in my department -- one with whom I share almost no opinions about the world at large and politics in particular -- has written about the Iraq conflict in a way that I think is interesting, though in the end I disagree with the conclusion. I think this is his premise:

Mistakenly [Bush] has defined his objective as victory. A convergent problem, call it a puzzle, is one that has a clear, even unique, solution, like a crossword puzzle or a math problem. Building a bookshelf or sewing a quilt are examples of convergent problems.

A divergent problem, call it a mystery, is one that has many solutions, none of which is definite and absolute. Marriage is a divergent situation; there is no unique solution. International diplomacy is a divergent problem.

He states that convergent problems are easier to solve and therefore that the word "war" is wrong to use to describe Iraq. There's nothing new in that statement, and really nothing with which I would disagree. But the word "war" isn't applied to Iraq by Bush but by his detractors. Bush's war is against global terror.

That, my colleague would say, doesn't help matters much.
But there is no war against terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic in a divergent struggle, like the "troubles" in Northern Ireland or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A war against terrorism is like a war against chemical weapons; the phrase doesn't make sense.
True. Of course there isn't a war against terrorism. There is a war against terrorists, though, particularly those who do so in the name of Islamism (as opposed to Islam.) To make the war one on Iraq is to say that the insurgency there and the insurgency and counterinsurgency in Somalia are separate -- they of course are not.

I wonder whether it is correct, though, to say that a divergent problem has only divergent solutions. Since the conflict is about fundamental values -- and indeed, my colleague says in his last sentence we need to first understand that make terrorists take up arms, a statement easy to say from an office at SCSU but a little more difficult in a Humvee on patrol in Iraq -- and since those views are apocalyptic, there is for both Islam and Christianity a point where there is convergence. The Second Coming is not a multiple-equilibrium solution, and Islam has its own end-times predictions. There are many paths to those endpoints, but there is a separating hyperplane between them. Each side will only accept solutions on opposite sides of that plane.
The solution then is a matter of waiting for both sides to weary of conflict, as Thomas Sowell has pointed out in his work on ethnic conflicts and civil wars such as that in Sri Lanka. That too is a convergent solution. It is the one in fact for which the insurgency waits, that America's patience wanes first. Attrition, too, is a convergent solution.

That doesn't obviate the article's conclusion, that Bush's use of the word "war" defines the problem badly. On this in fact I agree. But I don't believe it's a mystery; what the US seeks is global security. I would suggest that Andy read the transcript of Hugh's interview on the first chapter of Tom Barnett's book. Is this Bush's strategy? I don't think so, and to the extent it is not it is a problem. One can hope that new generals will persuade Bush of that strategy, and not care so much whether the solutions are solving puzzles or mysteries.