This is an “I don’t know” post. I don’t know.
Unlike a lot of people, I have no crystal ball and don’t know if Iran has a program to make a nuclear bomb. I know they have a nuclear program and that it is believed by us and our partners in negotiating with Iran that they have a bomb breakout time of a few months. Personally, I don’t believe any of us know what they have and, as we learned during the Iraqi war, neither we nor Saddam knew what he had or didn’t have, could or could not do. And though I do not want Iran to have a bomb (and they profess they do not want to have one) I do believe they want us to believe they are planning on it because it makes it easier to negotiate with us.
It’s not that I’m unsure of absolutely everything in world affairs. Generally speaking there are those countries and groups I consider bad guys and others good guys. We are good guys, though occasionally we do bad things like most every country at one time or another. So are most of Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan, much of the former British Commonwealth like Australia and Canada, Israel and a few others. Russia, China are countries we work with and trade with, but they are bad guys in many regards as is of course Iran, North Korea, ISIS, al Qaeda, etc. You know them without me saying who for the most part. Some it is hard to tell and sometimes it depends what the issue is, as with Pakistan and Turkey.
I read a lot of history, politics, laymen’s science and the like. It hasn’t helped me be decisive, that’s for sure. Quite the opposite. If anything, though I enjoy predicting as much or more than the next guy, I actually feel as if it is very difficult to have a reasonable guess as to what might happen with anything. Not surprisingly, I am delighted when I’m right and am sure that it is because of some analysis (except for this year’s Kentucky Derby when I just picked the only three good horses in the race). Not just history, but science and almost every field of study shows us that not only are we pretty hopeless at guessing what is going to happen, but we never seem to learn our lesson. Two books came out in the last few years, written by mutual admirers, the first Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, and the second Daniel Kahnemann Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow. The Black Swan tries by various methods (some of which are just dumb), that you can’t predict the future by what happened in the past, at least for a whole range of topics. Kahnemann’s book, using psychological studies, explains how we have an intuitive side that operates really fast making broad and often irrational judgments and a contemplative side which operates more slowly using reason. I have some criticisms of both books, more so The Black Swan, which acknowledges there are many things we can predict but I think understates just how much that is (pretty much everything in our day to day lives – we wouldn’t even go to sleep or get out of bed if we didn’t rely heavily on experience that everything will be fine when we do).
But, my big problem with the two books is neither authors’ fault. It’s that we all should know that stuff without resort to a book, because most of it is just human nature. Of course you can’t predict the future from the past, at least with complicated stuff. And of course, we both have intuition and reason, and one is more useful than the other. Still, as with Steven Pinker’s older book, The Blank Slate, in which he felt the need to show that we are not a blank slate but programmed to act in certain ways, apparently we need reminding.
But, there are parts of the two books I love, if only because they make some arguments out for me that I am constantly harping on (at least here on this blog – in real life, no one wants to hear my philosophies of life – that’s why I have the blog).
Here’s one of them. Experts very often suck. Not just those who predict the weather either. And I don’t mean that you shouldn’t go to a doctor when you are sick, but in a whole host of things, so called experts are as bad as we are (financial advisors who tell you anything but diversify, make a lot of money in your job, and buy low sell high as much as you can should be liable for their fraud. Taleb points out how often experts are wrong because they seem to be immune to the common understanding that just because something happened before doesn’t mean it will happen again and Kahnemann shows through studies (which I wish he’d summarize better) that experts rush to judgment, avoid simple statistical facts (I’m not going to explain reversion to the mean, but it explains so many studies and facts that are attributed to all kinds of other things, that it would be funny if it wasn’t so counter-intuitive and also boring to think about). But, the best part is that they – experts - do this even when they have made the same mistake over and over again and even when acutely conscious of what they are doing. Hence – experts suck. At least many frequently do.
And, of course, we all do this to some degree, because no matter how many times we pick the wrong stock, think it’s going to rain when it doesn’t, bet on the wrong team and so on, we still apply the same useless rationales over and over again as to why we will be right the next time. And we believe “experts” when they tell us they know what they are talking about, even though we should know they don’t.
I have a bit of an anti-expert fetish and at least a few of my posts have had something to do with this. But, I was really excited last week when I came upon called The Experts Speak by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky. The Experts Speak has one quote after another by experts on important things in which they were entirely wrong. I had spent some time arguing online and with other people face to face about the Iran deal. My main point is that based on my reading of history, treaties and pacts between countries have little to do with whether they go to war. Also, the predictions of our foreign policy experts are also useless. The countries that don’t want to go to war probably don’t need an agreement and those that do, don’t care if they are in one. It’s not that it’s not a worthy goal to work for peace – of course it is. But, in the end, who the leaders are and how they think about things, and sometimes dumb luck, are often far more important than any past agreement. For example, any number of treaties were entered into between and among Germany, Russia, France, Italy and Britain between the two wars. Those agreements didn’t mean anything.
Anyway, I quickly ordered The Experts Speak, hoping it would have a WWII section, and it did. Mostly I was happy because it saved me from having to do a lot of research to write this post, and I’m hoping their quotes are accurate. I won’t copy all of them here, but some examples in this section are worth repeating. Keep in mind, it doesn’t seem to matter who the experts are, from what country they come, how close to the event they were in time or place, or how certain they were. They just thought they knew:
Here’s a former chancellor of Germany and vice chancellor under Hitler, von Papen, who was also largely responsible for bringing Hitler into government in 1933. It’s not that he was a Nazi. It’s that he was sure there was –
“No danger at all. We’ve hired him for our act. . . . Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far in the corner that he’ll squeak.”
That same year, FDR’s Secretary of State, Cordell Hull –
“Mistreatment of Jews in Germany may be considered virtually eliminated.”
Same year from one of the most respected political journalists ever, Walter Lippman, and certainly no fascist –
“[T]he outer world will do well to accept the evidence of German goodwill and seek by all possible means to meet it and to justify it.”
Same year, this one from Britain’s Prime Minister, James Ramsay Macdonald –
“I do not doubt Germany’s motives. I have never doubted them, and I hope that I will never be hasty enough to doubt them.”
Another former British Prime minister during WWI, David Lloyd George, and so of course many would think he knew best, stated in an 1933 interview –
“Believe me, Germany is unable to wage war”
and in another interview the same year -
“Germany has no desire to attack any country in Europe . . . .”
This from another WWI hero, France’s Pétain in 1934 (and depending on your point of view, a savior or traitor to France in WWII; he was Prime Minister of Vichy France after Germany defeated her; he returned to France for trial after the war, was condemned to death and served a life sentence instead). The bottom line, is that this military expert from WWI was just plain wrong when it came to WWII, though you’d think his experience would have given him some valuable insight –
“On leaving Monmédy, we come to the Ardennes forests. If certain preparations are made, these are impenetrable. . . . This sector is not dangerous.”
Of course, Prime Minister Chamberlain is famous for being spectacularly wrong about Hitler in signing the Munich Agreement just the year before the actual war, 1938–
“For the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time. . . . Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”
“In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that there was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”
Don’t think our own heroes of the war necessarily knew better. When the Munich agreement was signed, FDR telegrammed Chamberlain -
Jan Smuts, a South African Prime Minister, wrote - “He risked all and I trust he has won all.”
France’s Prime Minister, Daladier, who also signed the agreement, was as badly wrong as Chamberlain and everyone else –
“I am . . . . certain today that, thanks to the desire to make mutual concessions, and thanks to the spirit of collaboration which has animated the action of the four Great Powers of the West, peace is saved.”
It’s not just politicians of course who were constantly wrong. This from Time Magazine in June, 1939, just a little before Germany Blitzed Poland –
“The modern German theory of victory by Blitzkrieg (lightning war) is untried and, in the opinion of many experts, unsound.”
And then this gem –
“The French army is still the strongest all-around fighting machine in Europe.”
Charles Lindbergh is now vilified in modern times as an anti-Semite, but at the time he was a heroic figure, and someone people looked to for what to believe about war and air power in general. He said about Britain in 1938 –
“This country has neither the spirit nor the ability needed for a modern war.”
Before we entered the war in 1941, he said in a speech –
“It is not only our right but it is our obligation as American citizens to look at this war objectively and to weigh our chances for success if we should enter it. I have attempted to do this, especially form the standpoint of aviation; and I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England, regardless of how much assistance we extend.”
After France was defeated in 1940, a famous French military figure, Maxime Weygand (also considered a collaborator with Germany by many) famously said -
“In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken” which led to Churchill’s famous comeback after Germany’s invasion failed – “Some chicken - Some neck.”
Our Ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy was just as wrong -
“I have Yet to talk to any military or naval expert of any nationality who thinks. . . that England has a Chinaman’s chance.” (I actually looked up “Chinaman’s Chance”. The saying, now obviously considered racist, was “a Chinaman’s chance in hell.” There are a couple of suggestions about how it originated, but possibly from their railroad work in the 1800s when they used nitroglycerin to make tunnels or from the Gold Rush when they got the bad land claims and weren’t thought to have a lot of chance to make a killing). Of course, he also predicted his son could not win the presidential election.
Here’s another from FDR. Maybe he was lying. It’s nicer to think he was just wrong –
“And while I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
Don’t think Hitler knew any better. He was, after some initial victories, won through intimidation and surprise, almost always wrong. But, this one was my favorite remarks of his in 1940 –
“The United States will not be a threat to us for decades—not in 1945 but at the earliest in 1970 or 1980.”
Up there for the funniest comment is General Douglas MacArthur, who said the night before it was announced that Japan had joined the Axis -
“Japan will never join the Axis.”
Even the legendary William Shirer author about Germany, wrote soon after that country turned on The USSR -
“It is hardly too much to say that the campaign against Russia has been won in fourteen days.”
Of course, what about Churchill? Well, it turned out he was right about Germany, and seemed like a prophet before the war. Of course, it is important to point out – his voice was virtually ignored and at those years for him are best known as The Wilderness Years, because he was not in government. But, when they started listening, he was also wrong about a lot of things. Most famous is his WWI decision to invade Turkey in the Dardenelles which resulted in a slaughter for his side and his loss of his position (he quite bravely and unnecessarily went to fight at the front lines). A book review of Tuvia Ben-Moshe’s Churchill: Strategy and History states:
“Ben-Moshe . . . says Churchill’s strategy was consistent. It was also consistently wrong. Whether in the First World War, when he urged a landing on the island of Borkum in the mouth of the Ems on the Dutch-German border, or in the Second, when he planned the invasions of Norway, Greece, and Italy, he was always trying to evade the only place where the main German forces could be defeated. So he dragged America into his Mediterranean campaign and did all he could to scupper plans for the invasion of France. He failed to appreciate that the best way to destroy the German army was to bring the enormous weight of American industrial production to bear upon it. Obsessed by the string of British military failures in the Middle East and Far East, he lost faith in his generals and in the courage of their soldiers, and in so doing underestimated the fighting spirit that American troops had already displayed in the Philippines and at Guadalcanal.
Unlike Clausewitz, Ben-Moshe argues, Churchill forgot that war is related to politics. He became so engrossed in military operations that he neglected the Soviet threat to postwar Europe. When at last Churchill became alarmed by the Soviets, he wanted Allied forces deployed to take Vienna, an operation quite beyond their power. He later blamed America for allowing the extension of communism over eastern Europe, although he himself had agreed to it at Yalta. And had he not decided to back Tito in Yugoslavia? Churchill’s history of the Second World War is a long study in self-exculpation. The best that can be said of him is that he knew how to avoid defeat: but not how to win.”
And so on. He was also spectacularly wrong about Gandhi and Empire too.
I’m talking history here, but I could point out that after his so-called miracle year, Einstein was pretty much proved right in a significant physics matter only once more a few years later but was wrong about almost everything for most of his life. Most physicists feel he lost the long debate with Bohr and his followers over quantum physics and what underlies reality (still undecided, of course – and they are experts too, so, what do they know?) and he was even wrong about the impossibility of the atomic bomb until Szilard explained it to him. To be fair, Einstein was dealing with some of the most difficult questions known to man and was a great genius. In any event, we could make the same argument in every single field. What makes progress is constant correction after failure (if not dumb luck) which became a great deal easier after mankind’s greatest historical invention, writing.To get back to Iran and the controversial or historical or bad agreement, depending on your point of view, I have not yet made up my mind. I find laughable the objection from the right that 24 days notice to inspect military sites is too long because Iran will hide everything (one candidate said even a child would know better than to agree to this). I do believe the IAEF and our Department of Energy, which say it is not remotely enough time to hide from the technology which will easily show if there have been nuclear sites present far longer than 24 days. Admittedly, I am relying on experts in my belief, and they may be completely wrong.
Moreover, we have constant surveillance of manufacturing and processing sites (or you could say, those ones we know about). And I also find laughable the right’s argument that the only reasonable agreement is the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear facilities completely, because Iran is a member of the International nuclear non-proliferation treaty which gives them the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.And, on the left, I sneer at John Kerry’s insistence that they raised Iran’s hostages at every meeting because obviously Iran didn’t feel the need to care and that means a major goal of ours went unfulfilled, whereas Iran seems to have gotten precisely what it claims it wanted. Nor do I understand if we were bothering to have this long a negotiation anyway, why other topics weren’t on the table, like Iran’s support of terrorism, but, the truth is, Iran is forbidden from doing a number of things already by the international community that it does anyway. It is going to support Shiite causes, whether Hizbollah, the Houthi or the Syrian government and we actually do want them to combat ISIS (without getting any benefits from it, of course).
In all, from what I know so far, it looks like the issues were fairly closely split as to which side got what they wanted, unless, of course, Iran has a secret program we don’t know about, in which case, none of this was worth it. I disagree with those who say that there are other possibilities between war and an agreement, that is, a better agreement. We have to keep in mind that Iran has stayed the course over crippling sanctions all these years. They hurt, but they were not just giving in. Nor would China or Russia likely support a war against Iran, and they are part of the negotiating teams. More likely they would supply it with weapons. In fact, I doubt very much the U.N., war weary itself, and with many countries much more afraid of ISIS, would support war either.Of course, we would likely win an air war and cripple Iran’s navy (or so the experts think). That would be fun and satisfying. But, we are just not invading that huge country, particularly with Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan ongoing. It is possible that we could beat Iran into submission with a sustained war of six months. What damage they could do to their neighbors (and probably some to us) in the meantime is not calculable. Eventually, like Serbia I believe they would have to fold. But, at what cost? These things almost immediately become unpredictable. Whatever it is, the cost is likely not one we or Israel is willing to pay. And, in the meantime, it would seem likely that Iran would go all out for a bomb and perhaps achieve it.
In the end, my complaint against the agreement is not that which many people have. As far as I can tell so far, and I read most of it, is only with our failure to get our citizens back. However, I do not think it inconceivable that that goal was made a part of a secret agreement or that with a wink and a nod, our team knows it is going to happen suddenly without apparent negotiation. This may be completely wishful thinking on my part.And, of course, there is also intelligence. It’s not something any country wants to do without, but, it is always highly flawed. After all, they are just one more type of expert and faced with incalculable variables. We know that with Iraq in 2003, all of the intelligence services who gave an opinion were as wrong as we were about WMDs. That doesn’t mean they always will be, but the history of success is very spotty. Perhaps the most respected of military writers, John Keegan, has written in Intelligence in War that intelligence in time of war is highly ineffective and probably irrelevant much of the time, even when it is right. I had trouble agreeing with him (he is, after all, an expert). But, he challenged any scholar who disagreed to show him he was wrong, and to my knowledge, no one has come forward.
As I said at the beginning, I can’t guess whether this will work out or lead to war or just decades more of hostility. Others can and will make those prediction. Those who by chance, and it is likely that, turn out right, will have bragging rights. Those who were wrong, but also by chance, will be defeated and have it raised against them in the future.
When you are a cynic and skeptic, when you tend to not believe experts (though I, of course, rely on many too), you also tend to end up with your blog posts saying something like – I just don’t know. Feel free to mock me, but you don’t know what is going to happen with Iran either. Nor do any of the experts we all rely on. I just don't understand why so many people think they do know against so much evidence.