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There is Nothing Unusual About Ignorance

The vast majority of people “live locally.” Wherever they are residing, that is the arena of their life, and it is that environment that they know best. Even up-and-coming American political leaders are subject to this rule. This became embarrassingly obvious when, on 8 September 2016, Gary Johnson made his now famous faux pas.

Gary Johnson, who once was governor of New Mexico and therefore knows a lot about that state and its strengths and weaknesses, appeared on MSNBC’s weirdly named, but widely watched, a.m. program “Morning Joe” (the “Joe” referring, I assume, to the local U.S. term for coffee). The principal reason Mr. Johnson was on the show was that he is running for president of the United States on the Libertarian Party ticket. And, of course, the president of the U.S. is the world’s most powerful leader and his or her awareness level is expected to reflect that.

Therefore, those running for president are assumed to know everything about what is going on in the world as well as in their own country. This is of course impossible, though there is always a short list of issues that are center-stage. So, what happens is that leaders have “briefing books” prepared on these priority issues. But again, the priorities are judgment calls and can be different for different leaders. Unfortunately for Johnson, foreign policy issues were low on the priority list for the Libertarians – who are more or less isolationist.

That is why, when Gary Johnson was asked by another guest on that “Morning Joe” show, what he would do, if he where president, about the crisis in Aleppo, he answered “And what is Aleppo?” It was a real gaffe, and Johnson was almost immediately taken to task by the “pundits” of social media for being a dummy.

One might ask why would anyone expect an ex-governor of New Mexico to know anything about a Syrian city mostly wrecked by civil war? Well, again, because he is running for president. And Aleppo should, many assume, be on his short list. Be that as it may, it was not on Johnson’s, whose ideological outlook puts Syria in someone else’s local venue. His is New Mexico and maybe, eventually, the rest of the U.S.

Do you think that this unusual? Unfortunately it is not. What is unusual is that Johnson got caught in his ignorance. Fear of just such exposure is one of the reasons leaders now give so few press conferences. Yet history has also shown us that recent presidents have been unafraid to make foreign policy decisions which impact millions, often fatally. As we will see, these decisions almost always reflect their own conditioned ignorance but are made in a way that allows them to be obscured and rationalized after the fact. It just so happens that such decisions helped lead to the Syrian civil war and the destruction of Aleppo.

In the time since his gaffe on “Morning Joe,” Johnson has had created the appropriate briefing book and is now speaking in a seemingly authoritative way about Aleppo and the Syrian civil war. For him, the transformation has worked like magic. The gaffe itself increased the level of attention he has received from the official mass media, and given his new level of superficial knowledge, there are even calls for him to be included in the upcoming presidential debates. Go figure!

Johnson’s situation points to the power of the briefing book, so it is important to ask where these analyses come from.

They are put together by the leader’s staff as well as alleged “experts.” For instance, in the case of the president, that would be department heads. When it comes to foreign policy, that would include the Secretary of State, the Director of National Security,  the heads of the CIA, the DIA and other “intelligence agencies.” Of course these folks are also political appointees who may know next to nothing about particular topics. So they have their own versions of briefing books prepared by people down the line who may actually know something about what is going on.

In fact, as this process goes on, you do usually reach a level of staff who are real experts in, say, both the history of and the state of the crisis in Syria. They speak and read the local language, have in-country intelligence sources and so can produce a fairly accurate, unbiased assessment of the situation. They make their analysis and pass it up the ladder.

Here comes the problem. At some level of this process the relatively accurate analysis comes to people, usually those department chiefs or their immediate assistants, who are working in and responding to a preexisting political and ideological environment. Consciously or unconsciously they begin to censor the analysis of the experts so as to reconcile it with the prevailing groupthink of the leadership.

The ignorance of the leadership, superficially hidden by what turns out to be censored analyses, is by no means unique to U.S. politicos. Vladimir Putin of Russia, Ali Khamenei of Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Xi Jinping of China – and the list can go on and on – all see the world as through glasses darkened by cultural, ideological, political and historical preconceptions. And they all have their experts who do their best to give the boss a more or less accurate picture of the world. And, also, they all have their own versions of department heads who censor the picture to support the present preconceived worldview.

I offer this account of policy making to the reader not as an excuse for the near-sightedness of almost all of the world’s politicians, but as an explanation, the backstory so to speak, out of which so many bad policies come. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once commented that “false knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance.” Actually, the two are so tied to each other that most of us can’t recognize false knowledge when we are confronted with it. There are too many panes of dark glass in the way.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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