Journalists and pundits are obsessing over the Jeb Bush’s various answers to whether he’d have invaded Iraq “knowing what we know now.” Everyone is up in arms and writing long essays about whether he misunderstood the question when first asked, what his ultimate answer (he wouldn’t) tells us, etc.
But this misses the point. While I can see what the question’s supposed to get at, I don’t think it’s a very interesting one to ask. None of us ever has all the information we need before making an important decision, and none of us ever knows all the future consequences it’ll bring.
The crucial question isn’t what would one do if one had all the information we have today — the crucial point is that the Iraq War demonstrated how wrong things can go when governments implement dramatic policies based on incorrect information. Indeed, the government never has all the right information, and politicians ought to know this.
The gap between what was projected to happen in Iraq and what actually happened — including the shift in public opinion about the war — occurred in part because President Bush didn’t weigh heavily enough the possibility that his information was incorrect; that things on the ground wouldn’t go as well as planned; that nation-building would fail as it almost always does; and that the American people wouldn’t be supportive of an effort that drags on way longer than expected. Of course, members of Congress did the same thing. And this isn’t unique to President Bush and the war in Iraq.
In fact, this pretense of knowledge is an important feature of political decision-making. Future presidents and members of Congress will be as poorly informed, and thus equally blindsided by the consequences of their actions, as Bush was — on both matters foreign and domestic.
A better question, therefore, would have been: ”What has the experience of the Iraq War taught you today that you, and most members of Congress, didn’t know back then? And how will this lesson inform your presidency?”
And a good answer to that, in my opinion, would be: “I’ve learned that we politicians often don’t have the correct information, and that our policies can have serious unintended and negative consequences.” Or if Bush wanted to really embrace his inner nerd, he could have said, “Forty years ago, the economist F.A. Hayek delivered a lecture called ‘The Pretense of Knowledge,’ in which he forcefully challenged all those who believe that government has the wisdom or ability to successfully plan the economic and social affairs of society accurately. Well, I have learned that the pretense of knowledge is one of the biggest problems we have in politics. It plagues both the executive and the legislative decision-making process, and the failures can be seen in domestic and foreign policy. The Iraq War experience has taught me that, on the eve of making big policy moves, we must be more humble about the possibility we’ll be very wrong about the consequences of our actions.”