‘Humans are great at self-delusion,” the polymathic 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 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-Qaeda. Nor could any serious threat continue to be posed by the supremacist, totalitarian ideology that al-Qaeda was created to advance — not to mention the closely related ideology that Iran’s rulers champion. And when I say “not to mention,” I’m speaking literally: Both the Obama administration and the Bush administration before it have assiduously avoided accurately naming such ideologies — e.g. jihadism, Islamism, or political Islam. Instead, “violent extremism” has been the preferred euphemism, based on the peculiar belief that any reference to Islam, however attenuated, would offend and perhaps radicalize Muslims around the world.
Among those most prominently writing and lecturing on al-Qaeda’s “defeat” were retired lieutenant colonel Thomas Lynch, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University, and Peter Bergen, a director of the New America Foundation, a CNN national-security analyst, and the producer of the first television interview with Osama bin Laden, which aired in 1997.
“I’ve devoted 20 years of my life to [this problem],” Bergen said during a debate 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 Benghazi and the murders of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on September 11, 2012. 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-Qaeda planned and carried out an assault on the anniversary of al-Qaeda’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 President Obama, who was in the home stretch of his reelection 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-Qaeda-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-Qaeda were confusing “absence of evidence” with “evidence of absence.” We had not suffered an attack on the scale of 9/11 in several years. On that basis, they theorized, neither al-Qaeda nor any other jihadists would ever again be able to stage such an attack, and attacks of lesser lethality need 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 “I 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, Captain Smith took command of the RMS Titanic.
There is a long list of concepts that shape — and distort — the way we think, analyze, and come to conclusions. Taleb explains that those who fool themselves with simple stories that satisfy a desire for easily comprehensible patterns are indulging in “narrative fallacy.” “Naïve empiricism,” he says, is the “natural tendency to look for instances that confirm our story and our vision of the world — these are always easy to find.” Closely related is “confirmation bias,” the habit of focusing on evidence that bolsters preconceptions while ignoring evidence that challenges them. Think of the people you know who pay attention only to those media that reinforce their prejudices, e.g., NPR and MSNBC for liberals, Rush Limbaugh and Fox during prime time for conservatives.
“Belief perseverance” is the tendency not to change one’s mind even in the light of compelling contradictory evidence, while “belief defense” is doubling down on incorrect conclusions for the “protection of self-esteem.” Taleb argues that many people, perhaps most, “treat ideas like possessions” and find it difficult to part with them.
The 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 policymakers 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 9/11/01.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.