Ignorance is Bliss

Here’s the secret to the last seven years of foreign policy disasters coming from Washington. President Bush has become an acolyte of Timothy Ferriss.

Haven’t heard of Ferriss yet? He’s the motivational author who champions a four-hour work week. In order to slim down his schedule, Ferriss recommends a low-information diet. “I never watch the news or buy the newspaper,” he writes. “I read the headlines through newspaper machines as I walk to lunch each day. My selective ignorance has never caused a single problem for me.”

Ferriss has become a guru to many who are overwhelmed by the modern disease of TMI (Too Much Information). Even the lords of Silicon Valley, many of whom have helped make TMI an epidemic, are now putting up little altars to Ferriss in their offices.

No one has yet explored the impact of Ferriss on Washington. But “selective ignorance,” based on a cursory understanding of world events, is a powerful explanation for the failures of U.S. policy in Iraq. We knew so little about Iraq before invading it. We knew even less, it seems, when we tried to occupy it. And we continue to be ignorant of Iraqi realities as we desperately search for a face-saving way out of the debacle. The low-information diet also helps to explain the administration’s inability to understand the Israeli-Palestinian problem or why a hard-line policy toward Iran is such a disaster.

It’s not just the Bush administration, of course, that has gone on the low-information diet. Large swathes of the media have cooperated in this strategy by reducing the actual news content from their reporting. Ferriss doesn’t lose much by skipping the TV news, at least when it comes to international news. But newspapers, too, have closed down foreign bureaus as part of their own slim-fast regimen. So it’s no surprise that the Bush administration was able to gull the public into supporting the war in Iraq through manipulation of information. And if one only reads the newspaper headlines on the way to lunch, the perpetuation of myths–the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the link between Saddam and the 9/11 hijackers–becomes feasible.

Ferriss may be right. His selective ignorance probably hasn’t caused him any problems. By outsourcing his information management to high-skilled and low-paid workers in Bangalore–who read and collate his email, among other things–Ferriss is able to manage his sports nutrition company and spend most of his time tango dancing and kick-boxing. Of course, a prefrontal lobotomy might have done the same trick, but brain surgery sometimes has nasty side effects.

What might be a personal boon for Timothy Ferriss, however, is a collective tragedy for us all. The selective ignorance of the Bush administration–and its preference that the media and the public follow suit–has brought us to our current impasse. I can certainly testify to the challenges of TMI in my professional life. But when it comes to U.S. foreign policy over the last seven years, the United States and the world have suffered from the opposite syndrome: too little information.

Bush in the Middle East

The U.S. president is currently doing a tour of the Middle East. Talk about selective ignorance: it’s his first real trip to the region since becoming president. It would be understandable if the president waited until the final year of his two-term tenure to take a tour of the South Pacific or the Caribbean. But the Middle East? It’s like a mayor whose policies have ravaged the inner city and who decides on a quick tour of the blighted neighborhoods to lecture the residents on the importance of self-reliance.

At the heart of Bush’s problematic relationship with the Middle East is the uncritical support that the United States provides Israel. As FPIF contributor Ira Chernus writes in Bush’s Israel Problem–and Ours, the United States has helped Israel divide and conquer its opponents, only to discover that these policies inevitably come back to bite Israel in the butt. And it’s precisely these divide-and-rule policies that make a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine stand-off so difficult.

“A two-state solution might still win over the Palestinian public, if it requires Israel to remove all but a few of the settlements, gives Palestine full control over all of the West Bank and Gaza including all of Arab Jerusalem, and offers real independence, including a genuine army and full control over water,” Chernus writes. “And it would have to be ruled by the government the people elected, including the full complement of elected Hamas officials. But the fears of Israeli Jews are powerful enough to insure that no Israeli government that agrees to such a deal can survive. That is Bush’s Israel problem.”

Bush has also used the opportunity of this belated Middle East tour to harangue Iran. The violent extremism in the region, Bush asserted, is “embodied by the regime that sits in Tehran.” He called Iran the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. It’s not just rhetoric. Last week, a naval incident that was shaping up to be a Gulf-of-Tonkin type of pretext for war turned out to be a serious misinterpretation of Iranian actions and possibly the result of a heckler well known to ship drivers in the Straits of Hormuz.

Selective ignorance has plagued recent U.S. policy toward Iran. As FPIF contributor Nathan Gonzalez writes in For an Iran Policy, More Nixon, Less Bush, “President Bush’s vague outlook has led to some memorable blunders. Iran’s constructive role in rebuilding Afghanistan was answered by Bush’s 2002 ‘axis of evil’ label on the Islamic Republic. And the now-famous 2003 Iranian memo, which offered the United States comprehensive talks on its nuclear program and support for anti-Israeli terror groups, was met with silence.”

Iraq and the Dems

Meanwhile, last week marked the one-year anniversary of the “surge” in Iraq. As FPIF’s policy outreach director Erik Leaver writes, the United States is pursuing a short-range strategy to reduce violence that may sow the seeds for greater violence in 2008. “The dominant story in Iraq is the downward trend in casualties for both Iraqis and U.S. soldiers,” Leaver says in Iraq Outlook 2008. “The single-minded focus on casualties however, masks the internal problems in Iraq that could cause the violence to rise to new heights this year. Much of the decrease in violence is a result of the United States cutting deals with Sunni insurgents. The United States now has 70,000 ‘former’ insurgents on its payroll. At the same time, the U.S. military continues to recruit and train members of the Iraqi military and police-agencies heavily dominated by Shiites. Arming and training these two groups has quelled the violence in the short term but makes the chances of future fighting between the groups to be a very bloody affair.”

The administration’s mishandling of the Iraq War has certainly boosted the fortunes of the Democrats. The surprise winner of the Iowa caucus, Barack Obama, has been perhaps the biggest beneficiary. His early opposition to the war sets him apart from the other frontrunners.

But as FPIF’s Middle East editor Stephen Zunes argues, Obama is not exactly Mr. Change when it comes to Middle East policy overall. He has backed away from supporting a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, sent mixed messages on Iran, and taken a position on Israel-Palestine that is largely indistinguishable from the Bush administration.

Still, Zunes writes in Barack Obama on the Middle East, the presidential contender might shake things up if he wins the White House. “The Illinois Senator’s intelligence and independent-mindedness, combined with what’s at stake, offers some hope that at least for pragmatic reasons–if not moral and legal ones–a future President Obama would have the sense to recognize that the more the United States has militarized the Middle East, the less secure we have become. He would perhaps also recognize that arms control and nonproliferation efforts are more likely to succeed if they are based on universal, law-based principles rather than unilateral demands and threats based upon specific countries’ relationship with the United States. And that exercising American ‘leadership’ requires a greater awareness of the needs and perceptions of affected populations.”

Kenya Engulfed

Protests over recent elections in Kenya have left over 600 dead and 350,000 displaced. How did this otherwise stable African country descend into such chaos? FPIF contributor David Zarembka writes from Kenya that, like the violence in Rwanda, the divide-and-rule policies of previous colonial administrations are at least partly to blame. The British handed over administration of the country to the Kikuyu, who made a deal with leaders from other ethnic groups such as Daniel arap Moi. Those who have not benefited from economic or political change in the country have blamed the Kikuyu.

“The current wave of violence is seen by many Kenyans as payback time,” Zarembka writes in Kenya’s Violence: Britain’s Legacy. “It’s amazing how only Kikuyu shops and homes are being burned, leaving everyone else’s intact. Those at the bottom are taking it out on those whom they feel are on top. They have no contact with the Kikuyu tycoons and politicians, and so they are taking the pent-up rage of 44 years of independence out on the average Kikuyu in their community. The Kikuyu are then retaliating by killing the other ethnic groups that happen to live in their communities. This also explains why Kibaki (read the Kikuyu elite) wished to stay in power by rigging the election. Otherwise, they would be the losers.”

Lee Myung-Bak and Tom Lantos

This week FPIF says hello to South Korea’s new president and bids farewell to retiring head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Lantos.

FPIF’s Stephen Zunes looks back at the human rights record of Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress. “There’s no question that his personal history is both courageous and noble,” Zunes writes in Lantos’ Tarnished Legacy. “Nor is there any debate that he stood up in support for the International Criminal Court, the people of the occupied nations of Tibet and East Timor, and the victims of oppression in Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, and other countries. At the same time, most peace and justice activists have found Lantos–who has chaired the House Committee on Foreign Affairs since the Democrats regained their congressional majority–to be a very inconsistent advocate for human rights. Indeed, the congressman has openly challenged the United Nations as well as reputable independent human rights organizations when they have raised concerns about human rights abuses by certain key U.S. allies, even to the point of directly contradicting their findings. In addition, his leadership in support of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and his resulting culpability in the human rights tragedies that followed, will no doubt be the most significant negative mark on his legacy.”

Finally, I recommend that South Korea’s new president Lee Myung-Bak turn his country into the first truly Green economy in the world.

“South Korea’s new president underwent his own personal green revolution when he became mayor of Seoul,” I write in an op-ed for the Korea Times. “In charge of major construction projects at Hyundai for three decades, Lee Myung-bak reversed himself in the new millennium. He made rivers spring from concrete and grass grow where there had once been only cars. President-elect Lee now has a golden opportunity to accomplish this same trick for South Korea as a whole. South Korea led the world in information technology in the 1990s. It put a cell phone in everyone’s pocket and a flat-screen monitor on everyone’s computer. It is now time to harness the tremendous innovation and industriousness of South Korea’s workforce to meet the twin challenges of the 21st century: global warming and the looming energy crisis.”