by | Jan 10, 2014 | Book Reviews

National Security through a Cockeyed Lens: How Cognitive Bias Impacts U.S. Foreign Policy
Steve A. Yetiv
Johns Hopkins, 2013
155 pages, $24.95

When we reviewed Old Dominion University Professor Steve Yetiv’s 2011 book, The Petroleum Triangle, it was our opinion that it was “scholarly but readable.” The latest monograph from the intellectually creative Yetiv is even more scholarly —yet still readable thanks to a desperately needed glossary, without which even the “educated general reader” would be adrift.

In The Petroleum Triangle, Yetiv frequently referred to the “distorted lens” or the “distorted prism” through which Islamic radicals viewed American actions. In like manner National Security through a Cockeyed Lens analyzes five U.S. security crises from 1979 to the present and applies the results of cognitive bias research to demonstrate how bias influences the highest level decisions impacting U.S. National Security.

The reader need not enroll in a behavioral psychology course to understand Yetiv’s application of a variety of cognitive biases to an understanding of the decision-making processes in the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the American reaction; the Iran-Contra affair and the rise of al-Qaeda leading to the 9/11 attacks; the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq; and the development of U.S. energy policy. There has been a surfeit of books dealing with these behavioral issues, from the somewhat simplistic work of Malcolm Gladwell to the very solid work of Nobel Laureate Danny Kahneman. Most notable is Kahneman’s recent Thinking Fast and Slow, which, while acknowledging the need for quick decision making (stepping back from an approaching automobile) to the application of heuristics (shortcuts of thinking) by jumping to conclusions.

Yetiv’s wish that by the end of the book the reader will “understand better how foreign policy decisions are made, the biases that may undermine good decision-making, and also perhaps how to at least try to avoid these errors as leaders and laypeople.” As a case in point, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is cited. Moscow’s self perception was as an entity much less hostile than seen by Washington. The U.S. view was that the Soviets had the potential for dominating South Asia and the Persian Gulf in its decision to invade Afghanistan. The Soviets, on the other hand, are now believed to have had far more limited intentions and mistakenly assumed other countries would not be greatly concerned. The United States, perceiving a greater danger than was probable, responded vigorously.

The tendency to assume that others see us as we see ourselves appears to be fed by several biases one of which is the illusion of transparency, wherein it is believed that our internal state is more apparent to others than is actually the case. The other is the fundamental attribution error, in which leaders of nations in conflict perceive themselves as significantly less hostile than their adversaries. The result: Whereas the Soviet Union probably had little intent other than propping up a distressed Communist government without posing a credible threat to the Persian Gulf oil fields of Iran and the Gulf states, Washington, while not unreasonable in fearing the worst, perhaps went too far in its response. Convinced that it faced an “evil empire,” a wily and implacable enemy bent on world conquest, America committed $4–$5 billion in aid to the mujahedeen, with Saudi Arabia matching that amount, and with the unintended consequence of financing and building the al-Qaeda organization.

By now the confirmation biases, which lead to the Bush administration’s false interpretation of information, and the illusion of control, which overestimated our influence over outcomes, are textbook illustrations of our folly in attacking Iraq in 2003.

Yetiv has successfully applied much of the recent spate of scholarship to the high level governmental crisis management in recent decades. One can only imagine the scholarship that could describe our decision- making at the highest level of each branch of government, executive, legislative, and judicial, as we stumble through a decade of economic crises.