Simple Ignorance vs. Politically Slanted Ignorance

Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson flubbed a question about the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo but a more pervasive form of ignorance comes in the form of politically slanted “knowledge,” writes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

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 Sept. 8, 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 both host Joe Scarborough and the local U.S. term for coffee).

War damage in the once-thriving Syrian city of Aleppo.

War damage in the once-thriving Syrian city of Aleppo.

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.

Power of the Briefing Book

Do you think that this is 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, without adequate knowledge.

Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson.

Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson.

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 National Security Adviser, the Director of National Intelligence, the heads of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency 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 back story 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.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

14 comments for “Simple Ignorance vs. Politically Slanted Ignorance

  1. NBrady
    September 20, 2016 at 06:55

    I typically enjoy Davidson’s articles here, but there is no civil war in Syria. Hired mercenaries mostly from outside of Syria are paid to wage war against a legally recognized sovereign nation’s leadership to achieve regime change. Your USA is in direct violation of international law and is also committing war crimes. Iraq, Libya, Syria, and how long before Iran is next? Why, to protect U.S interests? Or, to serve the demands that a foreign state has made of your bought and paid for government requiring the blood and treasure of the U.S taxpayer?

  2. arnaud
    September 19, 2016 at 10:59

    “The Power of the Briefing Book” can be found in Sod’s Law, Murphys Law or the Peter Principle, in that the opposite of the desired outcome is achieved and rewarded.

  3. aaron roberts
    September 18, 2016 at 19:30

    ‘Calling me an isolationist is like calling me a hermit because I don’t walk over to my neighbors house and smash his window with a rock’ -Ron Paul

    • J. D.
      September 19, 2016 at 11:53

      Now that we have illegally trashed the entire region, unleashed chaos and evil, and destroyed million of lives, it is our moral responsibility to cooperate with other nations to rebuild it with a “Marshall Plan.” And then hope for forgiveness. It’s what great nations do.

      • J'hon Doe II
        September 19, 2016 at 12:32

        … those running for president are assumed to know everything about what is going on in the world as well as in their own country.

        Security Council Meets After US Coalition Strike Syrian Forces
        by Dr Vivek Kumar Srivastava — September 18, 2016

        The Syrian crisis has now moved into a serious zone where the next developments will bring the opposite groups, which were recently involved in a ceasefire deal, to a direct confrontation in more lethal way than the prevailing stage. The reason is not very hard to comprehend as in a strike by US led coalition forces; 62 Syrian soldiers have been killed. Though US regretted saying that it was nonintentional and was intended to target ISIS but Russia rejected the contention.

        The Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has said that ‘If previously we had suspicions that Al-Nusra Front is protected this way, now, after today’s airstrikes on the Syrian army we come to a really terrifying conclusion for the entire world: The White House is defending IS [Islamic State, formerly ISIS/ISIL].We demand a full and detailed explanation from Washington. That explanation must be given at the UN Security Council, immediately after the airstrike by coalition planes, Islamic State militants launched their offensive,[US coalition] strikes have cleared the way for ISIS fighters to take over Deir ez-Zor city now.’

        These developments show that in Syria the rivalry is quite heightened between two powers, USA and Russia have looked to the Syrian crisis from different lens. The major contention of US has always been to replace Assad which is contested by Russia. This is the crux of the problem. In the aftermath of ceasefire deal by both the countries a common understanding was that this will not hold long. It happened so as since Monday when ceasefire was implemented after 9 September deal, about 199 violations till yesterday had taken place. Russia has accused US and the moderate groups for the same whereas US accused Assad regime for not allowing the humanitarian aids, consequently US said it would not set up a planned joint US-Russian military co-ordination cell in Syria.

        The pro and anti groups of Assad cannot remain in silence because the US has concluded that removal of Assad is the final aim and the violations were mainly from the side of the anti Assad forces. Now the attack on the Syrian forces brings into open the US policies in Syria as the questions will be raised on several counts.

  4. Bill Bodden
    September 18, 2016 at 19:20

    It is not only the politicians. Several years ago there was a former beauty queen masquerading as a journalist on some network or “news” show who said she would like to do a piece/interview on “that Gandhi woman.” She was, presumably, referring to Indira Gandhi but was advised Ms. Gandhi had been assassinated some years before.

    Then there was Matt Lauer at the so-called commander-in-chief town hall who injected the canard about Russia’s invasion of Ukrain.

  5. Ken Ross
    September 18, 2016 at 14:54

    This article is based on the premise that Gary Johnson didn’t know what Aleppo was before appearing on Morning Joe. This is a false premise in the same way that it would be false to assume that President Obama didn’t know that there were only 50 states before he made the statement that there are 57 states. We don’t know what train of thought lead to that obviously false statement by Obama, but it has not been made the defining moment regarding his knowledge of the United States.
    During the Morning Joe interview of Johnson, the subject was suddenly changed by the interviewer so the question had no context. Johnson made a credible explanation of what his thought process was that lead to this understandable but incredibly overblown lapse of memory. He was thinking about the word in terms of an acronym and it took a bit of prodding before Johnson replied “got it” and gave a better answer regarding our policy in Syria than has been given by either of the major candidates.

    • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
      September 19, 2016 at 16:37

      I’ve heard it was jet lag in Obama’s case.

  6. Old Uncle Dave
    September 18, 2016 at 14:01

    Re “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?”

    It’s not really a civil war when the US hires jihadists to try to take out a government that refuses to be a US vassal.

    • Exiled off mainstreet
      September 18, 2016 at 17:01

      In light of the recent bombing of a Syrian army base which might possibly have been in coordination with ISIS attack on it, the US position on “terrorism” has indeed jumped the shark, especially in light of the fact Russians are involved. What will future historians (if any survive) make of yankee aggression on behalf of jihadi thugs?

    • J. D.
      September 19, 2016 at 11:46

      It is a “civil war’ in name only as the rebellion, as General Wesley Clark among others has indicated, was conceived, planned, organized, funded and armed from outside of Syria. Were Assad truly the “dictator” he is portrayed by the NYT, and not the revered leader he is in actuality, the little country of 23 million would have been overrun long ago and gone the way of Libya. Incidentally , by way of comparison, President Lincoln carried out a brutal 4 year war to put down a rebellion which was also receiving material aid from foreign sources and the loss of life was proportionate to that of Syria today, despite all the terrible advances in weaponry. As in our own war, the majority of casualties in Syria are being incurred by government forces attempting to re-establish its authority.

  7. Tom Welsh
    September 18, 2016 at 13:09

    Mr Johnson’s reply was very nearly right. What he should have said, of course, is “What business is Aleppo of mine, or of the USA?” To which the answer, of course, is “None at all”.

    • J. D.
      September 19, 2016 at 11:34

      One first has to know the meaning of the question before giving your suggested non-answer. Instead, Johnson showed his profound ignorance of vital foreign policy issues, such as the possible terrorist takeover or its crushing defeat in Syria’s largest city, by asking “What is Aleppo?’ To which the astounded interviewer shot back, “you’re kidding.”

      • Brad Owen
        September 19, 2016 at 12:05

        There’s a large group of us citizens out here, J.D., who have a very dim & cynical view of our “vital foreign policy issues” which amount to little more than an “MISC [S for Security] Full-Employment Act”, and THAT is mainly because we’ve permitted ourselves to believe the bogus proposition that ONLY military/security/industrial spending&production, and NOT civil/industrial spending&production, keeps away the Second Great Depression (which only threatens because of fraudulent financial practices that keeps a handful of financier oligarchs in power). THAT is the MOST important issue, J.D., and the ONLY NATIONAL parties that would have anything to say that might possibly pertain to THESE issues , are the Green Party, and the Libertarian Party. The D-party and R-party are completely useless in addressing the MOST important issues that threatens the continuing existence of our Nation.

Comments are closed.