Carol Platt Liebau: The Limits of Knowability

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Limits of Knowability

When I first started practicing law, all the practical stuff I didn't learn in law school fell into three categories: What I knew, what I didn't know, and what I didn't know I didn't know.

The first, no problem. The second, no problem, really, either -- if you know what you don't know, you know what you need to find out. The really scary stuff is what you don't know you don't know, because that leads to the big mistakes.

Michael Barone's piece at Real Clear Politics today talks, in a sense, about the limits of knowability in a world where we must deal with hostile regimes and flawed intelligence. Even at its best, using intelligence to piece together reality is more like trying to interpret a poem than read an instruction manual. There will always be conflicting reports, ambiguities, questions whose answers we don't know -- and possibly, questions we don't even know to ask.

Part of being a grown up -- and a mature citizen -- is learning to deal with the fact that sometimes, one has to cope with uncertainty and make decisions without having every piece of knowledge that would be optimal. On occasion, policy, like everything else, requires the exercise of judgments that carry substantial risk once all the facts that are obtainable have been obtained. The issue isn't how one avoids risks, because that's impossible. The question is how one balances them.

In Iraq, given what we knew, the President decided that it was riskier to possibly leave Saddam Hussein developing or sitting on WMDs than it was to take him out, notwithstanding the risks that such a course of action also entailed. It's easy to judge and blame in retrospect, but at the time, there was no other reasonable course of action, given what we knew.

Now we are confronted with Iran. And it's worth noting that, sometimes, making no decision is making a decision. If, in the wake of the difficulties in Iraq, the American left succeeds in paralyzing the government's ability to address threats, we're not just restraining President Bush from exercising his judgment. We are, effectively, entrusting the world, and our own lives, to the like of Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

6 Comments:

Blogger wile e coyote said...

Iran was and remains by far the greater WMD threat.

WMD were a pretext for an offensive against fundamentalist Islam, to be accomplished by deposing Saddam Hussein and transforming Iraq into a modern, pluralistic state.

The invasion of Iraq was a massive strategic gamble by a President who likes to think big and to take risks. It was sanctioned by the Congress, which has the sense and responsibility (if not the fortitude) to question the President's case for war.

Better we should quit arguing how we got into the war and focus on how to win it.

11:36 AM  
Blogger wrabkin said...

Let me accept your premise, for the sake of argument, and say that Bush decided it was riskier to let Saddam stay in power given the honest belief he had WMD.

I don't believe this for a second, by the way. I believe he and his administration knowingly lied about the intelligence they had, and covered up any evidence that contradicted the case for war. But that's an argument for another day -- let's take on yours:

Bush faced a choice. He had to gamble one way or the other.

And undeniably, he guessed wrong.

You don't disagree with that, do you? He gambled that Saddam was so dangerous to America that we had to go to war. In retrospect, this was clearly not true. He had no weapons, he was no threat. But Bush had to make a decision based on what he knew and believed, so we shouldn't blame him if he chose wrong.

And this is where you lose me.

Because in our system, we all make this kind of decision all the time. The fund manager guesses that this stock will rise and this will fall. The studio exec guesses that people will want to see this movie with this star and that director. The quarterback guesses that the other team will not be prepared to defend against this play.

When those decisions turn out to be the right ones, the people making them are rewarded. But if the fund manager puts all his money into stocks that plunge in value, if the studio exec gambles on a big-budget turkey, if the quarterback calls plays and gets knocked back time after time, they are all fired.

This isn't a moral judgment. It's not an accusation of evil intent. It's simply the result of the equation -- when you throw the dice, you're rewarded for choosing the right numbers and punished for choosing the wrong ones.

But for some reason, we're not supposed to apply this most basic reasoning to the Bush administration. They had to make a choice and they chose wrong -- and not a single person responsible for the bad choices is fired. Or reprimanded. And we're supposed to keep going back to them to make more choices, when they won't even admit they were wrong the last time.

If your broker put all your money into stocks which then dropped by 90% and insisted that he was right to do so... would you continue to let him handle your investments?

12:32 PM  
Blogger The Flomblog said...

Wrabkin:

You and I disagree on some basic premisses.

Saddam was giving $10,000 to the families of suicide bombers.
Saddam may not have had nukes (yet?) however Gas is easy to make. He DID use it on the Kurds
If Israel had not interceded, he would have had nukes.
Saddam was a very public face for a very dangerous man. He was using money from the "Oil for food" program to arm and support international terrorism. His people were starving. The public utilities - electric, gas, water, road, etc, were being ignored, (Long before we started bombing)

OK , I'll give you the fact that the entire world was wrong about SOME WMD's. However any decent high school chemistry student can make poison gas! It's been around for about 100 years. He had it and more importantly - He Used It on his own people.

He was indeed a great threat. We're better off with him out of power. I honestly think that history will look upon the war positively.

3:39 PM  
Blogger wrabkin said...

Wow -- any high school kid can make poison gas... so we'd better invade Iraq!

If that's our reason, we would have been better off invading New York. Lots of high schools there.

Or we could get real -- poison gas, even if Saddam was making it -- was never a serious threat to us.

And despite all the nasty things Saddam did, the reason we were told we had to go to war was that Saddam's WMDs were a direct threat to the United States.

Not that he was a bad, bad man. We all knew he was a bad man, many of us even back when the Reagan administration was arming him.

We can keep arguing this point, but why? Even Bush has said THEY WERE WRONG about WMD. Give it up.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Dr Faust said...

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7:12 PM  
Blogger Dr Faust said...

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7:02 AM  

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