10/09/2012 02:28 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Simplistic Slogans Won't Fix the World

How much information can you handle about global conflict and U.S. options for dealing with each crisis?

Back in July I saw a Reuters dispatch with this headline: "Turkey Could Act Against Kurdish Rebels in Syria." Earlier this month a list of stories on the daily Yahoo news roundup included "Russia Tells NATO to Stay Away from Syria" and "White House Widening Covert War In North Africa."

If those topics don't sound convoluted enough just toss in our military involvement in Afghanistan, growing violence in Iraq, and ongoing tension with North Korea and Pakistan.

Navigating a safe path through this enormous maze of international unrest can confound even the experts. A recent column by David Ignatius revealed that a simulated U.S.-Iran war game was filled with misjudgments and missed signals on both sides, and all the participants were former U.S. officials and other top foreign policy analysts.

The situation reminds me of a 1950s science fiction novel by Fred Hoyle entitled The Black Cloud. The plot is simple: a huge cloud swoops into our solar system and turns out to be an intelligent space traveler. A group of scientists makes contact and discovers the cloud is simply using our sun to get re-energized and isn't a menace.

Before leaving, the cloud generously offers to share all of its knowledge with the scientists by connecting directly with a volunteer in a sort of 'mental download.' But the procedure turns out to have fatal consequences. Belatedly, the scientists realize our human brains are too primitive to absorb the staggering amount of data the cloud possesses about all the mysteries of the universe.

Trying to keep track of the information flowing out of each new hot spot in the world now makes me wonder if my own brain is nearing its overload point. Separating fact from fiction and judging the veracity of myriad news sources is a puzzle that gets more difficult every day.

But even as global issues become more and more complicated the American media and our political leaders continue to offer simplistic responses. If I could issue one nationwide edict right now I'd prohibit all news outlets from ever doing another "person on the street" poll that ask, "Do you think the average Iraqi citizen is better off because the U.S. invaded and got rid of Saddam Hussein?"

First of all, the term "average Iraqi" is meaningless. The country is split along numerous ethnic, religious and political lines and alliances among the various factions are constantly shifting. How could an average American "person on the street" possibly have enough knowledge about the diversity and dynamics of Iraq, before and after Saddam, to make any kind of judgment on the quality of daily life there?

But pollsters keep asking ridiculous questions and politicians keep promoting platitudes that sound bold but have no substance. It's easy to say, "The U.S. needs to shape world events not just react to them" but what does that mean? Too often the words "shape events" are a euphemism for "boots on the ground."

The law of unintended consequences is now on full display in Libya, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria. Removing a longtime dictator does not automatically lead to a new era of peace, prosperity, and social justice. What role should the U.S. be playing as these countries wrestle with transitions of power? What consideration do we give to the interests of Russia, China, and our European allies?

These questions need to be studied carefully and thoughtfully by every American. There won't be any quick and easy answers. But what I'm seeing now is a dangerous amount of simplistic thinking and Cold War-era political rhetoric. It hovers over most of our national policy debates, very much like an ominous black cloud.