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When All You've Got Is an F-16...

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
June 13, 2014
Foreign Policy

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Just two days after the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured territory and military installations in Iraq, Washington foreign policy commentators and policymakers are considering options for responding. And unsurprisingly, the scope of the debate about what to do in Iraq has broken down into bombing, or not bombing. Sen. Lindsey Graham declared on the Senate floor, "I think American airpower is the only hope to change the battlefield equation in Iraq." President Barack Obama later said "I don't rule out anything," to which White House Press Secretary Jay Carney later explained, "We are not contemplating ground troops. The president was answering a question specifically about air strikes." The debate shrinks immediately around whether and how to use the tactic of force.

Though it is commonly referred to as Maslow's Hammer, the concept of privileging the tool at hand, irrespective of its appropriate fit to solving a problem, originated with the philosopher Abraham Kaplan. In his 1964 classic, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science, Kaplan discussed the issue of the abstract nature of techniques, particularly the scientific method, used by scientists, whether conducting surveys, doing statistical analysis, or deciphering foreign language inscriptions. He worried that, since "the pressures of fad and fashion are as great in science, for all its logic, as in other areas of culture," certain preferred techniques in which a scientist finds him or herself particularly skilled could predominate over all others. As Kaplan described this phenomenon:

"I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding. It comes as no particular surprise to discover that a scientist formulates problems in a way which requires for their solution just those techniques in which he himself is especially skilled."

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