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'Everybody knows' is often wrong


THE IMPORTANT lesson from the Hutton Inquiry in London has only incidentally to do with the war in Iraq. It concerns the dangers of unanalyzed and unquestioned ideas, and the terrible power of what "everybody knows."


The BBC, its editorial methods severely criticized by Lord Hutton, was victim of the journalistic version of these dysfunctions. BBC journalists, like most international affairs writers (myself included), took for granted that the British government had "sexed-up" the public presentation of its case for Saddam Hussein's possession of mass destruction weapons.

Every government "sexes up" whatever evidence it has to support its plans. This is known as making the best argument you can, short of lying. It is why political consultants, public relations specialists, and advertising agencies exist. It is also why journalists are cynical about what governments say.

Prime Minister Tony Blair had certainly spent anxious hours with his press relations people, political advisers, and intelligence officers developing how a weak case for war could be presented.

The BBC defense correspondent and his editors and supervisors, having been told by government science adviser Dr. David Kelly that he was uncomfortable with aspects of the government's case, went on the air with a report implying that the government was making claims it probably knew were untrue. Being in a corner, the government probably would, wouldn't it? Wouldn't you? Lord Hutton concluded that it hadn't.

The controversy took place in a context that presumed bad faith on the other side. What happened was actually banal. The British government, like the American government, made an argument about WMD in Iraq that turned out to be untrue. The government wanted it to be true. Would it have made the same argument knowing it to be untrue? The question is irrelevant.

One reason it is irrelevant is that when people in government really want something to be true, they and the bureaucratic structures that serve them block out information that would contradict what they want to believe. The contradictions are unexamined because "everybody knows" they must be wrong.

What "everybody knows" makes its way because it is the desired answer. It fulfills expectations, or seems the logical outcome of some series of events. It is convenient. Nobody wants it tested. What official in Washington or London would have wanted to come out and say last year that for all anyone actually knew, Saddam Hussein had given up his WMD ambitions after the Gulf War?

When a president or prime minister invests in an idea, the weight of government is thrown behind it. Anyone who questions it then is attacked as "unsound," if not a professional contrarian or a crank. Even Winston Churchill was whispered in Washington to be "ga-ga" when he challenged the Cold War orthodoxy of the mid-1950s. After Stalin died, the aging prime minister pressed for a summit meeting with the new Soviet leaders to explore "disengagement" in Central Europe. Orthodoxy said the Soviet threat was immutable.

Quite the opposite orthodoxy appeared in Washington when Boris Yeltsin became Russia's leader.

The American government, and with it much of the academic and journalistic communities, was seized with belief that Russia was being transformed into a capitalist and democratic society. Critics of this conviction were told they were mere unscientific "area specialists," rather than political scientists and economists in possession of universally valid principles of reform.

(Virtually the same simple-minded application of irrelevant American economic and social models now has begun in Coalition-controlled Iraq. Reconstruction of Iraq's stock market is being supervised by a 24-year-old Yale political science graduate, Class of 2001, with no previous knowledge in finance or markets.)

At the time of the Vietnam war, Washington was convinced of the domino theory.

In the filmed autobiographical interviews with Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense at the time, currently being presented in the Errol Morris film "The Fog of War," McNamara admits that he never questioned the domino theory.

It was just there. Anyone who challenged it as illogical, unhistorical, or politically naive, was dismissed in Washington as a "theologian," ignorant of the big picture. Millions died because of the theory of falling dominos. The communists won the war, and no dominos fell.

There is no remedy for this problem except historical knowledge, which suggests intellectual skepticism toward convenient ideas and courage to speak what others deride. But none of that means that those with power will be convinced.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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