“Humans are great at self-delusion,” the polymath philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb has observed. I’m confident he’d agree that the humans who populate the foreign policy community are no exception.
Two years ago this month, Osama bin Laden was killed on President Barack Obama’s orders — a very good thing. Before long, however, sophisticated analysts were declaring that this was not just a battle won — it was a war ended.
If bin Laden was dead, they asserted, rigor mortis also must have set in at al-Qaida. Nor could any serious threat continue to be posed by the supremacist, totalitarian ideology that al-Qaida was created to advance — not to mention the closely related ideology that Iran’s rulers champion.
Among those most prominently writing and lecturing on al-Qaida’s “defeat” were retired Lt. Col. Thomas Lynch, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University, and Peter Bergen, a director of the New America Foundation, CNN national security analyst and producer of the first television interview with bin Laden in 1997.
“I’ve devoted 20 years of my life” to this problem, Bergen said during a debate last fall that the New America Foundation co-sponsored with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the think tank I run. “I feel like a Sovietologist in 1989, and that’s a good feeling.”
I’m recounting this not to disparage Bergen, Lynch and other smart people whose bold analyses turned out, unfortunately, to be incorrect. What I do want to emphasize is that ideas matter: Give a broken compass to a man in the jungle and chances are he’ll end up lost, if not in the jaws of a crocodile.
Which brings me to the murders of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi last Sept. 11.
Much of the commentary has focused on the State Department’s characterization of the attack as “a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet” by an individual seeking to “denigrate the religious beliefs of others” — specifically, a video made by an Egyptian Christian in California lamely lampooning Islam.
We now know what actually happened: Self-proclaimed jihadists linked to al-Qaida planned and carried out an assault on the anniversary of al-Qaida’s attacks on America’s economic and political capitals. We now know that the State Department, the CIA and the military were ill-prepared before the attack, did nothing useful during the attack and contributed to misrepresentations after the attack.
This has given rise to the suspicion that Obama, who was in the home stretch of his re-election campaign, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was positioning herself for a campaign in 2016, knew the truth but chose not to tell it — a conspiracy theory.
But is it not also possible that Obama, Clinton and other senior officials actually did buy the
al-Qaida-is-dead theory that Lynch, Bergen and others had proffered? The fact that this theory coincided with their interests would only have made it more persuasive. There are reasons why “humans are great at self-delusion.”
In his best-selling book, “The Black Swan,” Taleb endeavors to explain “everything we know about what we don’t know,” with particular emphasis on the impact of the unexpected (e.g. black swans). I suspect he’d say that those prematurely reporting the death of
al-Qaida were confusing “absence of evidence” with “evidence of absence.”
We had not suffered an attack on the scale of 9/11 in years. On that basis, they theorized that al-Qaida would never again be able to stage such an attack, nor would other
jihadists, and that attacks of lesser lethality should not be a source of great concern.
Taleb quotes a certain Captain E.J. Smith writing in 1907 about the safety of modern ocean travel, noting that in his entire career he “never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.” On April 10, 1912, Smith took command of the RMS Titanic.
Taleb’s larger points are these: It is harder than it seems for anyone, experts very much included, to predict the future because the most consequential variables are almost always unknown. We also know less about the past than we think — less about the causes and motivations that actually gave rise to the present.
All this provides no excuse for policy makers who fail to plan for a range of contingencies — be they icebergs in the North Atlantic or jihadists attacking in Libya on the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.