Murphy’s Law and Occam’s Razor in Ukraine

Wednesday, the National Interest ran a piece by Gary Hart which begins with a dreary comment on the perpetual chaotic state of international affairs.

Crossing Murphy’s Law with the law of unintended consequences produces this: If the worst possible thing can happen it will, and it will probably happen to you.

He goes on to outline that “dabbling in destabilization” is, in general, a terrible idea. Though I take issue with Hart’s subsequent simplified version of American assistance to Afghans fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s (he perpetuates the “US armed the Taliban” myth) the larger premise remains intact. Even with a more nuanced view of US involvement in the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the conclusion that getting involved in other states’ conflicts can get messy stands. Just as concrete is the idea that the long-term consequences of political and military actions, regardless of intent,  cannot be reliably predicted at the outset.

Hart is hopeful that Russia has lost its gamble on the Ukrainian separatists. I am not so convinced. It’s too early to tell when Russia will reap Murphy’s inevitable fruits. As of yet, Russian behavior has not changed significantly and reports indicate that Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has done anything but abate. It is not clear how much control Russia has over the separatists.

US intelligence officials made relatively clear Tuesday the fact that they do not believe Russia had any “direct involvement” in the shooting down of the airliner. The unnamed officials claimed to not know if any Russians were present at the launch and would not comment on whether the crew was trained in Russia. Their statements are as much an American face-saving gesture as they are an indication of Russia’s level of involvement.

All major powers trade arms. And no one buys weapons to build plows with. The French are under extreme scrutiny for their long-in-the-works sale of two Mistral-class assault ships to Russia. One has been built, paid for, and is fully expected to be delivered in October. The French President, Francois Hollande, has threatened to cancel the second ship–but no one really believes him. In another deal illustrating that foreign policy can be awkward, the US recently closed on an $11 billion sale of Patriot missiles to Qatar, which has relatively good relations with Hamas.

The US intelligence officials did note that the most likely explanation for MH17’s downing was that it was a mistake.

Not only does this line of theory absolve Russia of direct culpability, it makes the fewest assumptions–something Ockham would admire. Occam’s Razor, a principle named after 14th century Franciscan friar William of Ockham, states that when choosing among competing hypotheses the one which requires the fewest assumptions should be selected. The concept does not imply that all solutions are simple, but that it is wisest to not make assumptions about complex systems. In the absence of certainty, simple dominates.

In other words, keep your theories simple, your considerations complex, and your use of historical analogies to a minimum.

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