Syria: Asking the Right Questions (Before and After)

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The recent U.S. decision to hit a Syrian air field with cruise missiles has triggered a flurry of questions, both in the United States and abroad. It reminds me of RTJ Red Teaming Law #34 (“Question”):

In many ways, the art of red teaming is actually the art of asking the right questions, from the right perspective, at the right time. Ask the wrong questions, and it almost doesn’t matter how well your red team performs.

In this context, it’s worth adding, “Ask the wrong questions or fail to appreciate the right ones, and it almost doesn’t matter how well your cruise missiles perform.”
      I’d like to think that the implications of the decision to strike—with all the obvious and not so obvious permutations that ensue—were fully explored with thoughtful input from “red team” thinkers. At the same time, I realize that this is yet another instance in which we cannot overlook Red Teaming Law #1 (“Jaunty Man”):

The more powerful the stakeholders, the more at stake, the less interest in red teaming. This law trumps all other laws.1


      So, what are some of the questions that I hope were asked (and should have been asked if they weren’t)? Here’s a quick, back-of-the-envelope list to get us started:

  • Who are the key stakeholders in this exchange? Are they limited to the stakeholders who are directly engaged in Syria?
  • What is the U.S. showing (to whom) by launching the missiles?
  • What is the U.S. hiding (from whom) while launching the missiles?
  • How might the various stakeholders (including the U.S.) perceive and misperceive what is shown and hidden?
  • Is it possible that another stakeholder induced us to take this action (and why might they have done so)?
  • Was this palette of possibilities fully explored and red teamed prior to launch?
  • What risks would the U.S. have accepted by not launching the missiles?
  • What risks does U.S. accept by launching the missiles?
  • What is the gap between these posited and actual risks?
  • How might the various stakeholders frame, perceive, and misperceive the various risks (knowing that risk is always to some degree subjective)?
  • Was this gap fully understood and red teamed prior to launch?
  • How much uncertainty applies to these questions?
  • How was this uncertainty characterized, and how was it addressed?
  • What new uncertainty have we added to the situation through our actions?

As I’ve said elsewhere, red teaming isn’t a “silver bullet”; sometimes it helps a lot, and sometimes it doesn’t help much—it depends among other things on the context and the personalities involved. One thing I can say for certain is that asking the right questions before acting almost never hurts the quality of the decision (even if it occasionally hurts the egos of the stakeholders). I can also say for certain that asking the same questions after acting almost never hurts the quality of the next decision. Let’s hope that all the stakeholders involved are able to put the “Jaunty Man” in his place before someone does something we all regret.

  1. I intend no pun here; I wrote this law long before Trump emerged as a candidate for President. []

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