Horse Feathers and Horse Sense

Horse Feathers and Horse Sense

Ever since 9/11, commentators of a hawkish persuasion — and most recently the New York Times’ Thomas ("Suck on This") Friedman — have been fond of quoting Osama bin Laden’s statement that "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse."

Pundits like Friedman don’t normally embrace any of Bin Laden’s other views on world politics, but they like this line because it seems like a good reason for us to obsess about resolve, credibility, and the possibility that even the tiniest setback somewhere might have catastrophic consequences. It suggests that if third parties begin to suspect that the U.S. isn’t the "strong horse," they will abandon us in droves and leave the United States isolated and friendless in a hostile world. Conversely, it also suggests that one or two successes will suddenly trigger a similar wave of favorable developments: by this logic, we pass a Health Care Bill, and suddenly those mullahs in Tehran will start quaking in their turbans.  It’s the latest version of the old domino theory: a single setback somewhere might trigger a cascade of defeats and defections, but a minor victory in some other spot will have positive reverberations all over the world.

Bin Laden’s statement may be useful advice when betting on horse races, but it mostly reveals that he doesn’t know very much about international politics. This fact may explain why he’s currently hiding in a cave somewhere, instead of leading a triumphal parade to establish that caliphate he supposedly dreams about. In particular, Bin Laden’s statement (and Friedman’s column)  implies that "bandwagoning" behavior predominates in world politics: by this logic, as soon as countries sense who the "strong horse" is, they naturally flock to support it. 

But if that were true, why didn’t everyone leap to join Nazi Germany following its victories in Poland and France in 1939-1940? Hitler sure looked liked the "strong horse" at that moment, but instead of bandwagoning with him, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union joined forces to balance and eventually crushed him. The Soviet Union was the "strong horse" on the Eurasian landmass after the war, but Western Europe soon coalesced into a defensive alliance and allied with the United States in NATO. 

Even after the United States won the Cold War, you didn’t see countries like North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Serbia, or Syria suddenly fold their tents and rush to embrace the obviously "strong horse." Former Soviet bloc nations were eager to link up with Washington, of course, but not because they were bandwagoning: they mostly wanted to hedge against the possibility of a resurgent Russia. 

Even in the Arab world, this alleged tendency to embrace the "strong horse" is hard to find.  Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt looked like the "strong horse" back in the 1950s, and he clearly possessed a certain degree of charisma in the Arab "street," but his efforts to advance a pan-Arab agenda or otherwise throw his weight around were consistently opposed by other Arab leaders.  And you didn’t see a lot of Sunnis flocking to support al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006, while it was waging a successful campaign of sectarian violence.  Instead of moving toward them, Sunni tribes in Anbar and elsewhere aligned with the United States and the Shia-led government to contain this new threat.

It isn’t surprising that a revolutionary figure like Bin Laden makes this kind of argument, of course. As I argued in an earlier book, revolutionary movements face enormous odds, and the vast majority of would-be revolutionaries end up in retirement, in prison, or dead. In order to recruit and rally supporters in the face of such dim prospects, therefore, revolutionary leaders have to convince potential recruits that a small group of dedicated men and women can defeat the odds and triumph over far more powerful adversaries. So they routinely portray opponents as "paper tigers" (i.e., "the United States may look powerful, but in reality it is decadent and fragile") and they argue that one or two revolutionary acts spark a vast uprising against their opponents and sweep them to victory. Needless to say, Bin Laden’s belief that an event like 9/11 would rally millions of new supporters and help topple "corrupt" governments throughout the Muslim proved to be the purest fantasy.

To be sure, revolutionary movements sometimes do gain power  (think France in 1792, Russia in 1917, or Cuba in 1959), but not very often and usually because other circumstances aided their cause. And when some radical movement does luck out and gain power in one country, it is even rarer for it to trigger similar revolutions elsewhere unless it is able to impose them by force of arms. In short, revolutionary victories are rare, and the general tendency for states to balance against threats tends to contain them when they do occur.

Of course, if the U.S. power were to decline drastically (i.e., by 30 percent or more), then its international influence would also decrease. But that’s not likely to happen, unless we mismanage the U.S. economy, under-invest in future productivity, and squander our wealth on an endless series of costly foreign adventures.  

Notice that I am not suggesting that the United States pay no attention to reassuring allies when genuine security problems emerge. The proper step in such circumstances is to weigh the threat carefully and develop appropriate measures to deal with it, while making sure that the allies we are helping defend do their fair share too.

In other words, fighting foolish wars in order to convince people that we are the "strongest horse" is an obvious way to make Bin Laden’s fantasies more likely. After all, his greatest achievement to date is not the damage that al Qaeda inflicted on September 11. Instead, his real achievement was helping convince the Bush administration to adopt the neo-conservative program in the Middle East-most notably in the 2003 invasion of Iraq-a set of self-inflicted wounds from which we are still laboring to recover. And one way to avoid such blunders is to disregard Bin Laden’s ill-informed notions about equine diplomacy.