I wrote earlier about the fairly widespread erroneous belief that the Bush administration advocated the invasion/liberation of Iraq due to the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the 9/11 attacks.
As a sociological phenomenon, this error fascinates me. The liberation and democratization of Iraq is the major political event of our times, yet we see that a significant minority of lay people and cognoscenti alike honestly do not understand the rather clearly stated rationales for attempting it. Why do so many people make such an important decision based on an erroneous premise and what does this say about the overall quality of our general political decision making?
[Note: I am not talking about the debate over whether Saddam did or did not support, direct or coordinate with Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. Instead. I am talking about the perception that the Bush administration and other major advocates of the liberation based their case on the claim that he did. We will likely never resolve the first issue but we can easily verify the second.]
I think the error arises from a very basic fault in human perception. Put simply, the brain perceives new information based on what it already knows and expects to perceive. If we hear or see a new pattern that looks similar to a long-known pattern, we mistake the new pattern for the old. We see what we expect to see, we hear what we expect to hear.
The same bias interferes with our more-complex reasoning as well. Anyone who has made a novel argument on a post thread has seen others reply as if arguing against some old trope. We expect others to make certain arguments about certain events so when they make a novel argument we mistakenly believe they made the old argument we expected them to make.
Historically, most advocates of any particular war based their rationales at least in part on the idea of just retaliation. They hit us, so we must hit them back. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan fit this mold perfectly. Al-Qaeda, then a de facto arm of the Afghan government, attacked the U.S., so we hit them back. Even if a lot of other factors came into play, the well understood practical and moral imperative to retaliate stood at the center of the justification.
When the Bush administration made its novel new case for the liberation of Iraq, many people expected that the case centered on the idea of retaliation for 9/11, just as the case for invading Afghanistan had. When Bush et al argued for armed invasion as part of a long-term strategy based on transforming the political and social incubators for terrorism, many people misinterpreted it as a call for retaliation.
The secondary debate — i.e., debate by others in the media, academia, the blogosphere etc. — played a significant role in amplifying the initial mistaken misinterpretation. A critical mass of mistaken individuals reiterated the misinterpretation to the point where others pro and con simply accepted it as an accurate representation. (I’ve actually had people make an argument along the lines of, “if it’s not true why do so many people say it?”)
Unfortunately, I don’t think this particular widespread error represents much of an anomaly in political affairs. If we looked at any major public-policy debate in detail we would find that a significant segment of the electorate, media, academics and politicians mistakenly believe that one party or another in the debate makes an argument they did not.
People who support Bush’s liberation of Iraq because they believe that Bush argued that Saddam was somehow responsible for 9/11 make just as grievous an error as do those who oppose the liberation for the same reason. In both cases, people misunderstand the rationales and goals. If they do not understand the goals, they cannot evaluate the effectiveness or justifications of the methods employed.
I personally advocate a libertarian minimal state in large part precisely because I have come to understand that the political system cannot process information accurately. Indeed, the system seems biased to do just the opposite. The very process of public debate corrupts the information we seek to evaluate. Seldom do we face a rather clear-cut situation like Afghanistan. More often we face more-complex situations in which the ideas of the past do not apply. In many cases, we have no option but to rely on political decision making, but I think it clear that we should always use the political process as the last option in a long list.
[Note: I will delete any long winded post on whether Saddam was or was not involved in 9/11. I don’t care in this context because no one seriously ever advocated policy based on the premise that he was.]