Saturday, May 14, 2005

Ignorant About Ignorance

The Cannes Film Festival has screened The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis, a senior producer for the BBC. It is already being called the British Fahrenheit 911. From the CNN article
The film, a non-competition entry, argues that the fear of terrorism has come to pervade politics in the United States and Britain even though much of that angst is based on carefully nurtured illusions.

It says Bush and U.S. neo-conservatives, as well as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, are exaggerating the terror threat in a manner similar to the way earlier generations of leaders inflated the danger of communism and the Soviet Union.

It also draws especially controversial symmetries between the history of the U.S. movement that led to the neo-cons and the roots of the ideas that led to radical Islamism -- two conservative movements that have shaped geopolitics since 1945.

Curtis's film portrays neo-cons Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld as counterparts to Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri in the two respective movements.

I haven't seen either movie, but I will take the opportunity to write about one of the characterizations of the movie, namely that concerns about terror and communism were overblown. Essentially, that statement is entirely hindsight. One of the stories about the end of the Cold War was that the CIA was surprised by the collapse of the Soviet Union because it was reading the best intelligence available: the economic statistics that the Politburo was seeing. What was unknown at the time was how much the underlings were lying in those reports as shooting the messenger was a tradition that went back to the czars.

Anyway, my point is that it is easy to say that the danger was overestimated. Unless the movies can show that government agencies knew, and not just had information that said otherwise among information that supported the conclusion, then any examination is happening with hindsigt.

Donald Rumsfeld understands the imposition ignorance makes on strategic assesments, even if he is mocked for not being concise or articulate.
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

If I may come to the SecDef's defense and attempt a translation:
Known knowns: We have the answers we need for these.
Known unknowns: We have the questions, but the answers are yet elusive.
Unknown unknowns: These are the questions we don't know need to be asked.

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