Lizards are bad at Foreign Policy


Humans are great decision makers when they give themselves time to make decisions. The human mind is an incredible achievement of evolutionary progress.  Atop a limbic brain which focuses on immediate responses to danger sits a frontal cortex empowered to process information over time, see patterns, and compare alternatives for future opportunities.  The first part of the brain is the lizard mind, literally stemming from the origins of the human species millennia ago, before we developed the capacity for higher thought.  The frontal cortex - built atop that lizard mind - is what allows for the development of societies, relationships, the latest IPhone as well as Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters. So why is it when dramatic events take place, we humans with highly developed capacities for strategic thought, more often than not, react with Lizard mind? Simple, it’s the first to the party.

The Lizard Mind is the fastest reactive portion of our brain.  It’s able to act before we can think about action.  This mind is the one controlling the Fight or Flight function of our existence. It responds by releasing endorphins such as adrenaline and cortisol: speeding up the pumping of the heart, shutting down non-essential functions of the body, and streamlining our systems for the highest energy output over short spurts attainable.  It’s an amazing and remarkable system solely designed for survival.  It’s fast, powerful, and takes no thought on our part to operate. 

Such a brain was useful back when the early mammal had to run from predators.  Those who did not run did not exist for long.  Fight or Flight saved us, and thus was evolutionarily kept because it allowed people to adapt and survive. Today, though, we no longer have to fear most predators.  There are a small number of humans who may cause us harm, but these pale in comparison with the predators who hunted us in the past. Despite this amazing luck of overcoming our natural predators, we still possess the Lizard Mind.  We will probably continue to for some time to come.

Yet, the Lizard Mind is a horrible tool if you want to do anything that lasts longer than a few minutes. There is no capacity for fore-thought, no ability to recognize complex patterns, and the human body cannot stay on the chemicals released for long without dire consequences.  If a person is fighting or in-flight for too long, the body begins to breakdown, systems fail, and the person will die. Therefore, the Cerebral Cortex, the frontal lobe, is essential for anything requiring thought, planning, and continuing existence.  

Anyone who operates from fear is working solely in the realm of the Lizard Mind. Fear drives survival from predators, but it does not make good policy or enable sustainability over time.  Fear drives quick, hard, resource draining responses.  Fear of terrorism over the past 17 years has driven this country’s foreign policy into multiple cul-de-sacs of war from which we are still attempting to find paths out.  Fear drove the loss of lives for thousands of American and allied service members, the spending of immense national treasure, and the loss of focus on existential threats for the sake of focusing on fighting an idea.  Yet, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, what have we achieved?  Have we reduced Terrorism?  NO!  Have we made either country safe for Democracy? NO! Have we stemmed the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction? NO!

Fear is driving us toward war with North Korea. Fear over what North Korean missiles could do to the Continental United States. Rational minds, understanding intent and the motivation of authoritarian leaders, would better serve the interests of our country, and the world, than this fear-based response from our current leadership.

Fear drove us to knee-jerk (literally) action, whereas taking time to have thought through policy would have guided us on a very different path to address the threat of terrorism.  Only through realizing that a threat from an idea cannot be stopped unless everyone with that idea is killed, can we realize that wars will never stop terrorism. Terrorism stems from something far more complex (the Cerebral Cortex) than simply bombing for the sake of death or attrition (the Lizard Mind).

Looking beyond Terrorism, the Lizard Mind will also be a crutch as we deal with the real existential threats we face.  Peer-to-peer competitor conflict with countries like Russia or China will not be won if we rely solely on Lizard Mind reactions to provocations these countries incite.  Resolving the changing nature of our planet’s habitat, addressing planet killing asteroids, and dangerous new diseases will not be achieved if we act from fear.

Even more damaging to our long-term strategic planning is the fact that new technologies have enabled almost instant global information transmission and the rapid deployment of military capacities for destruction.  Due to this ability to see things instantly, and take actions almost as quick, we now have the capacity to act from first response, rather than being required to take time to commit our first action based off of information obtained about inciting events. It’s easy to look into the past to see that the lack of instant communication and deployment may have helped us not overreact, where the ability to take immediate action may have led us astray.

In 1898 when the Battleship Main exploded in Havana, Cuba the United States and Spain had already had a tense relationship for years.  The fear and anger incited by that mysterious event (never factually attributed to Spain) propelled the United States into a war in which we became an imperial power by taking the remnants of Spain’s once large empire.  Yet, in that war it took the United States almost three months to take the initial military action of attacking the Spanish fleet in Manila, Philippines.  The speed at which technology slowed the war allowed for some deliberation, but communication was so slow as well that orders were given in Washington far before action took place on the battlefield.  This war led to an occupation of the Philippines and Cuba, both of which resisted U.S. occupation.  A war of liberation eventually ended with forced occupation and pacification of the two countries we entered the war to help.

In 1917, after years of attempting to compel Germany to refrain from Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, the United States was terrified by the Zimmerman Telegram, which was an initiative by Germany to encourage Mexico to declare war on the United States.  This infuriated many Americans, and became a key justification for U.S. entry into World War I.  The U.S. took a long time to recruit, train, and deploy its forces in that war, eventually helping turn the tide in favor of the Allies.  The repercussions of that war, and its ensuing short period of peace were the result of fear and greed, rather than strategic planning on the part of the victors, leading to World War II.

The attack on Pearl Harbor terrified the people of the United States, and left the military feeling particularly circumspect.  The military decisions made in response to the attack were quick.  Some of them were strategically thought out: Our first offensive action against Japan would not take place until months later.  Some of them were against those we could do something to right away: The United States interned hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans based off of fear that they may be a 5th Column in the U.S.  The thought out actions eventually led to the destruction of the Japanese Empire.  The fear-based reactive actions led to a generation of Japanese Americans losing their belongings and livelihoods followed by an eventual public apology and some monetary compensation by the U.S. Government. Fear cost us. Strategic thought projected us to victory.

When the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel into South Korea on June 25, 1950 the United States was wholly unprepared for war.  Our initial reaction was to go to the United Nations to seek approval for action.  That approval was given, and we deployed with what we had available.  Not a lot of time for planning was available, so our initial response was faulty, leading to significant loss.  When we had time to plan, prepare, and deploy, our forces conducted a brilliant campaign.  The military then went beyond the political objectives outlined, compelling the Chinese to become involved.  Again, our reaction was fear and shock, leading to more disastrous losses. We never fully recovered from those losses. The war became a stalemate in which we are still officially a combatant.

Two events, two days apart, led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which began in earnest the U.S. military deployments to Vietnam.  This set of events was a minor incident that caused no U.S. military response, and then a technical malfunction on the USS Maddox, which led to the passage of the resolution.  False radar blips on the Maddox led its command to believe the ship was under intense attack, but the attack never really happened.  Congress was outraged, and the Resolution, which had been waiting for some time for consideration by Congress, passed quickly.  The U.S. went to War in Vietnam over an event that never occurred because we were preparing for war already and were fearful. As we know, that war did not turn out well for us.

Gulf War - In the first Iraq War (1990-1991) the time between Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the U.S. led coalition’s first act of war in response was almost 5 months, during which time a lot of planning was conducted and a coalition built to conduct a relatively simple action: removing Iraqi forces from Kuwait.  We deployed troops to the region in the five months, but only Special Forces missions were conducted against Iraq during that time.  Preparation was key. Planning well utilized. The Coalition was victorious; achieving its mission objectives.

There is an antidote to conducting a foreign and security policy with the Lizard Mind: Build resilience and flexibility into the international security apparatus of the country and into the training programs for those going into this field.  The founders of the country intended for this when they designed the U.S. Senate to be The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body; half of the equation in the process for a U.S. Declaration of War.  In this way, they hoped we would not go to war based on the whims of individuals, small groups, or a blood-thirsty public, but rather only based on the long-term debated national security interests of the country.  As we can see from the case examples above, things have not always worked out this way; especially in the most recent past when Declarations of War were not even issued.  Therefore, we have to rethink what should be required and built into our system of government before our nation gets into the next war.

-          First, within the government, a new system that forces deliberation upon an act of war should be established and written into the Constitution.   

-          Second, within the institutions that already exist (National Security Advisors, Departments of Defense, State, etc.) offices should be established that have the authority to reflect on the repercussions of actions before actions are taken.  These repercussions need to be built into any decision-making process leading up to a decision to use military force. 

-          Third, at the schools where future leaders are trained, curriculum on the decision making of going to war, the results and aftermath of war, the human and financial burden of war, as well as planning for war and its potential outcomes should be established and integrated with all international affairs, foreign and security policy study programs.

-          Finally, more study should be conducted on the decision making processes of past Politicians, Patriots, and Statesmen to understand how successful decisions were made as compared to those that led to failure in terms of acts of war.  I would posit the politicians and the patriots were far less successful than the Statesmen, but I’ll let the empirical research speak for itself.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right when he claimed that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  The human mind can overcome fear with contemplation, knowledge, and data.  The human mind can see beyond fear to possibilities.  The human mind can create answers to problems that once caused fear.  The human mind is resilient, flexible, and strategic: capable of so much more than a Lizard Mind can muster.   

On this Memorial Day let us honor those who served us in the past and who will serve us in the future by declaring our intent to not waste their lives and livelihoods on Lizard Mind based wars. Instead, we will dedicate ourselves to thinking through our actions, using force sparingly and with great care only on what really will make a positive long-term strategic difference to the world in which we live. We will most honor the War Fighter if we only ask him or her to fight when it matters, not just because something spooked us. We’re better than that. Our Service Members deserve better than that!