The asymmetry of policy succeses

A few days ago, Rob Farley made an interesting point about the asymmetry of policy successes and failures: Crisis prevention and effective crisis response… are inherently less interesting and less attention-getting than failed crisis response. If the 9/11 hijackers had been captured prior to conducting their attacks, very few people outside the intelligence community would ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A few days ago, Rob Farley made an interesting point about the asymmetry of policy successes and failures:

Crisis prevention and effective crisis response... are inherently less interesting and less attention-getting than failed crisis response. If the 9/11 hijackers had been captured prior to conducting their attacks, very few people outside the intelligence community would have much recollection of a crucial policy victory. If the Bush administration had conducted adequate preparation for Katrina and responded effectively, there’d be relatively little shared memory of the disaster.

Success and failure in crisis response, consequently, have asymmetric political effect. The Obama administration’s response to the Haiti earthquake, in my view, has been a resounding success for responsible, capable governance. No one will remember that in six months. Bush’s response to Katrina will endure in the political memory for decades.

A few days ago, Rob Farley made an interesting point about the asymmetry of policy successes and failures:

Crisis prevention and effective crisis response… are inherently less interesting and less attention-getting than failed crisis response. If the 9/11 hijackers had been captured prior to conducting their attacks, very few people outside the intelligence community would have much recollection of a crucial policy victory. If the Bush administration had conducted adequate preparation for Katrina and responded effectively, there’d be relatively little shared memory of the disaster.

Success and failure in crisis response, consequently, have asymmetric political effect. The Obama administration’s response to the Haiti earthquake, in my view, has been a resounding success for responsible, capable governance. No one will remember that in six months. Bush’s response to Katrina will endure in the political memory for decades.

I bring this up because of the attempted Times Square bombing, and the rather bizarre effort by the Pakistani Taliban to claim credit for it.  This is bizarre for two reasons:  1) There appears to be no evidence to support their claim; and 2) All reports suggest this was a pretty amateurish effort.  Jonathan Chait captures my view of this:

Rushing to take credit for a bungled attack is fairly pathetic. It’s another piece of evidence of al Qaeda’s severely degraded capability of launching attacks on American soil, where leaving a smoke-filled car in Manhattan is an operation worth boasting about. The Christmas bombing likewise failed on account of miserably low quality.

I’m not making an argument for complacency. It’s obvious that al Qaeda wants to kill as many Americans as possible. But it’s equally obvious that our counter-terrorism strategy is actually working. We should not feel hesitant to celebrate success.

It’s worth noting that both the Bush and Obama administrations — not to mention the NYPD — deserve credit for the eleven thwarted attacks in New York City alone.  But, as Farley notes, you don’t get credit for things when the counterfactual is not observable or verifiable. 

Of course, the policy is seen as working until a bomb actually goes off in the United States. 

My question to readers:  what precise combination of skill, will and fortuna has permitted the U.S. homeland to be relatively secure?  How much credit does the U.S. goverment deserve? 

UPDATE:  Megan McArdle and Matthew Yglesias are worth reading on this point as well.   

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.