In my own write: Zeal for a deal

Even those of us who don’t avidly follow the news cannot escape the fact that we are living through a historic moment.

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March 31, 2015 21:52
rumsfeld

rumsfeld. (photo credit: FACEBOOK)

 
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Even those of us who don’t avidly follow the news – because most of it is bad, anyway – cannot escape the fact that we are living through a historic moment; or perhaps a hysteric one, if you view as delusional the feverish drive by US-led negotiators to sign a nuclear deal between the P5+1 nations and Iran by a self-imposed deadline and, it seems, at virtually any price.

Delusional? Well, maybe there’s a gentler, more diplomatic term to describe the US administration’s aversion to challenging Iran about its lies concerning the nature of its nuclear program, its stonewalling tactics visà- vis international inspections and its involvement in terrorism and destabilization of the region – all in the name of not angering the Iranians and thus preventing a deal.

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As I followed the media reports of the negotiations’ developments this week, I turned away from the immediate question of “will they, or won’t they sign?” to try and gain some new perspective on the Western powers’ stance as they confront Iran’s unabating nuclear ambitions.

What suddenly came to mind was a response given in February 2002 by then American defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a Department of Defense news briefing. The question he was asked concerned the lack of evidence linking the government of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. Replied Rumsfeld: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.

“But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult one.”

This statement gave rise to a great deal of commentary, some of it mocking.

The Plain English Campaign, which presents itself as a leader in plain language advocacy with the goal of ensuring that “public information is delivered in a clear manner,” gave Rumsfeld its annual Foot in Mouth Award for “a baffling comment by a public figure.”



In a New York Times opinion piece titled “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld” which ran last month, writer and filmmaker Errol Morris characterized the verbal exchanges that followed Rumsfeld’s 2002 statement as “providing an excursion into a world no less irrational, no less absurd, than the worlds Lewis Carroll created in Alice in Wonderland.”

British-American linguist Geoffrey Pullum, in contrast, viewed Rumsfeld’s response as “completely straightforward... impeccable, syntactically, semantically, logically, and rhetorically.”

And as to the substance of Rumsfeld’s response at that 2002 Defense Department briefing, Canadian columnist Mark Steyn termed his description of knowns and unknowns “a brilliant distillation of quite a complex matter,” while Australian economist John Quiggin felt that its basic point was “both valid and important.”

THE ISSUE of what we know and don’t know – and what we don’t know we don’t know – does, indeed, stand out as valid and crucially important when Western negotiators, bringing to the table their Western mentality, find themselves facing Iranian officials, who represent a set of aims, beliefs and modes of thinking that are quite different from theirs.

Whatever one’s views about America’s decision to go to war in Iraq, the point Rumsfeld made in 2002 about unknown unknowns seems cogent and germane to the West’s stance vis-à-vis Iran and its pursuit of nuclear power.

Parallel to the nuclear development that the West knows about, what other nuclear advancement sites exist buried deep in the topography of that vast country, just slightly smaller than Alaska, working away silently beneath the radar? In a recent interview, Yukiya Amano, chief of the nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency, said that while a number of Iranian nuclear facilities were being monitored by the IAEA, additional verification regarding other sites had long been requested but was not forthcoming.

“We don’t know whether they have undeclared activities or something else,” he said. “We don’t know what they did in the past. So, we know a part of their activities, but we cannot tell we know all their activities... whether all their activity is for peaceful purposes.”

Olli Heinonen, a former No. 2 at the IAEA, has warned that outsiders really can have no idea where and how fast Iran could build a nuclear weapon unless they know what Iranian engineers have accomplished up to now. Without “go anywhere, anytime” access for IAEA inspectors and a thorough accounting of Tehran’s weaponization research, outsiders will be blind to the Iranians’ nuclear capabilities.

THE AMERICANS and other Western negotiators can hardly be ignorant of Iran’s well-honed practice of dissembling or outright duplicity concerning its nuclear aims. In their eagerness to nail down a deal at all costs, therefore, these negotiators may be exhibiting a yet further inversion of Rumsfeld’s thesis: the “unknown known” – in other words, something they know, but willfully refuse to acknowledge; just as they ignored Iran’s proxies overthrowing the Yemeni government even while negotiations continued in Lausanne.

ABOUT UNKNOWN unknowns, Rumsfeld has this to say in the Author’s Note to his autobiography, titled Known and Unknown: A Memoir.

“There are many things of which we are completely unaware – in fact, there are things of which we are so unaware, we don’t even know we are unaware of them....

“This category of unknown unknowns – gaps in our knowledge that we don’t even know exist – is the most difficult to grasp,” Rumsfeld writes, warning that it is a category out of which genuine surprises tend to arise.

“Nineteen hijackers using commercial airliners as guided missiles to incinerate three thousand men, women, and children was perhaps the most horrific single unknown unknown America has experienced....”

Rumsfeld stresses that the idea of known and unknown unknowns recognizes that the information available to those in positions of responsibility in government is almost always incomplete.

This idea highlights the importance of intellectual humility as a necessary attribute in decision-making and in formulating strategy. While accepting that there may be important unknowns is difficult, he says, “the best strategists try to imagine and consider the possible, even if it seems unlikely.”

The image that Western negotiators have regrettably projected in the current negotiations with Iran, however, is a humility of weakness rather than of intellect. Despite brave-sounding declarations, they seem to be giving in on one crucial point after another in their bid to avoid failure and political embarrassment at this late stage in the talks.

April Fool’s Day feels like an unfortunate date for a landmark in what Jonathan Tobin wrote last week in Commentary has become “a march of folly in which the president’s zeal for a deal is watering down an already weak agreement that is a gift to the Islamist regime.”

TO RECENTLY reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, relentless and passionate vocal critic of the Western powers’ rush to sign the nuclear agreement with Iran that is shaping up, one major known known far eclipses all others. It is, as he told Congress in his address on March 3, that in leaving Iran with a vast nuclear program, then lifting the restrictions on that program in something like a decade, the proposed agreement “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

And the result of that would be a known known with frightening consequences for the civilized world.

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