Iraq, Syria, & ISIS: Foreign Policy & the Hayekian Knowledge Problem

I have had few political “Eureka” moments – moments where, in an instant, I realisd the folly of my ways. Drug policy could be considered one, but my shift on foreign policy would is what sticks in my memory the most.

It was not the Iraq war that did it. I admit: Shamefully, I gleefully supported the Iraq war at the time, only later realising the error of my ways. However, my recognition of the error of that particular intervention was a practical one – it was not one that significantly changed the paradigm in which I operate.

Rather, it was a small conflict some time after involving Russia – a relatively minor story in the great scheme of things – that transformed the way I view the world.

Those who know me would know that I am of Russian background, and as such am well versed with not only the history of Russia, but in the mindset of the Russian people, both in the diaspora and at home.

And, watching this particular story unfurl – I was living in the United States at the time – it dawned on me that no-one, no-one in the Administration, no-one in Congress, no-one in the state department, no-one in think tanks, no-one in the media, knew what they were talking about.

An entire industry had developed calling for various foreign policy responses, where not a single person knew a damn thing.

This was a rather confronting prospect for me. Up until that day, I thought that the bureaucrats and academics and journalists actually had a basic grasp of the matters, but no. They say that everyone trusts the media until the day they read a story on a topic they know about. Well, the same applies for foreign policy.

Russia, rather obviously, is not an obscure area for policy wonks in the United States. So if everyone could get Russia, a country they allegedly knew so much about, so wrong – what does that mean for the rest of the world?

If we can’t trust the experts to get Russia right, how can we trust them on anything else?

And I realised – it all comes down to Hayek.

Hayek, in his transformative essay, The Use of Knowledge in Society, demolished the case for central planning with the argument that central planners can never really know all the information – they can never take into account all local knowledge – and so their attempts, no matter how scientific, no matter how well intentioned, are always doomed to failure.

So why should the same not apply to foreign policy?

Conservatives love to expose bureaucrats, journalists, and academics – so how can we still accept  that when it comes to foreign policy, these very same people, with the same flaws and fragilities, somehow become omniscient?

We decry mob rule and how economic planning, subsidies, picking and choosing winners, can never end well – yet are we not doing the same thing here?

Yes, we know many facts. In the same way that the central planners of scientific socialism knew many facts about the economy, we think that the knowledge of these big facts can be sufficient to compel us to act.

But I would suggest that while we may know many facts, when it comes to the total condition, we just don’t know. And if we don’t know the local conditions, we don’t know the consequences, we don’t know the blowback, we don’t know everything.

I remember well when so many conservatives were joining the Obama Administration in calling for military support for the anti-Assad rebels in Syria.

At the time it seemed so clear cut – Assad was evil, so rebels were good-  how could there be any doubt? Those who asked questions were mocked and derided as isolationists – and what do we see now? The very same rebels who all the experts, all our political leaders, were telling us to support – they are now the ones we are fighting in Iraq. The so-called ‘experts’ were flat out wrong – and had we listened to them, had we trained, armed, and supported Syrian Rebels, the ISIS genocide now would have been a hundred times worse.

Let that sink in for a moment: Not six months ago, the US Administration, supported by the media, academics, and many conservatives, were begging us to fund, arm, and train, the very people we’re are at war with now.

How can anyone take even remotely seriously the claims then that our foreign policy establishment have even the slightest clue what they are doing?

And so, it comes back to this very fundamental point: a government can never have all the knowledge it needs, and should never act as if it does. No matter how sure we are who the “goodies and baddies” are, we can never really know all the facts.

And from this we can only draw one conclusion – if we don’t know, we shouldn’t act.

The mass slaughter currently under way in Iraq is beyond a tragedy: it really is genocide. I would love with every fibre of my being to see every last one of those murderous barbarians sent off to the next world – and I would happily, were it legal, donate to make this happen.

But for a country to actively intervene with boots on the ground requires awareness of so many more factors that we just don’t have.

Of course, there clearly are times when we do know and it is obvious. The rise of Hilter is the clichéd example, but a valid one: a genocidal madman bent on world domination is beyond the point of doubt.

But in most cases, it is not clear cut.

I will not deliver the usual litany of anti-US foreign policy facts so beloved by leftists here (the US training Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, funding and arming Saddam Hussain in Iraq, etc etc). For I do believe that the “West” generally tries to do the right thing – but intention just isn’t enough. Similarly, I have only the greatest admiration for the brave men and women who put their life on the line for us serving in our military -they deserve nothing less than our full support and highest praise.

But I will say that my support and admiration does not apply to politicians and bureaucrats. Because while I certainly believe they intend for the best possible outcome – after all, no-one wants or loves war, and anyone who uses the term ‘warmonger’ to insult a political figure they disagree with is, quite frankly, an idiot – it is just a fact that they can almost never know enough to be able to make that decision.

If there is one thing we know from history, it’s that foreign intervention when you don’t know all the facts, can only lead to disaster. And in 99% of cases, we just don’t know enough.

I worry that we are once again repeating a very, very familiar pattern.

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One Response to “Iraq, Syria, & ISIS: Foreign Policy & the Hayekian Knowledge Problem”

  1. MK Says:

    “The very same rebels who all the experts, all our political leaders, were telling us to support – they are now the ones we are fighting in Iraq. The so-called ‘experts’ were flat out wrong – and had we listened to them, had we trained, armed, and supported Syrian Rebels, the ISIS genocide now would have been a hundred times worse.”

    Bullshit. The rebels we would have armed were different rebels. Our not arming them meant that the ones we liked were crushed by the ones that we didn’t like but who did have access to a lot of Gulf oil money.

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