11 May 2011

More on War and the Pretense of Knowledge

Pat Buchanan offers some insight:
Lest we forget, Osama was once an ally of Ronald Reagan's America. We provided the Stingers, and he provided the money for the Afghan mujahedeen to administer the deathblow to the Soviet Empire.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to say that Reagan’s decision to arm Osama was more than likely wrong, seeing as how it contributed to the mess America has to deal with today. Now, some might argue that one should only analyze a decision in light of its context,* and so criticizing Reagan with the benefit of hindsight is wrong.

However, Reagan’s actions can lead us to this conclusion:  Reagan (and, implicitly, his advisors) failed to account for the uncertainty.  Sure, there is no way Reagan (or, I would argue, anyone else) could have anticipated at the time that arming bin Laden was going to lead to the September 11th attacks. But that’s precisely the point.  Reagan overestimated the damage that the Soviet Union could do and underestimated the negative consequences of arming bin Laden and the Afghan rebels.**

In essence, Reagan failed to properly account for uncertainty in his decisions, leading him to make a decision that was grounded in the pretense of knowledge.  He thought he knew more than he actually did.  The lesson for today is that there is more uncertainty in martial decisions than most would like to acknowledge.  As such, it is wise for leaders to exercise prudence and caution when making these sorts of decisions, especially given the incredibly negative consequences they can occasionally have.

* For what it’s worth, I generally subscribe to this argument.

** In the spirit of Dave Barry, wouldn't bin Laden and the Afghan Rebels be a good name for a band?


  1. I think a lot of past(and current) American Foreign policy mistakes were premised on the assumption that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

  2. @SP- A better premise to operate from would be: the enemy of my enemy is my temporary ally.

  3. I can't believe Blogger ate my original comment. That just sucks. Anyway, what I originally said was tha America's foreign policy should be "the enemy of my enemy is my temporary friend and after the conflict is over the enemy of my enemy is no longer considered my friend unless it is actually warranted." It's not as pithy, but it is a superior approach.