Golbal Agenda: Know your expert

Beware the biases of pundits, whether political, economic or otherwise.

iran protest demo 88 248 (photo credit: )
iran protest demo 88 248
(photo credit: )
It looks as if the mass street demonstrations in Teheran and other major Iranian cities are petering out - which means that the current government and regime have weathered this crisis. Even that assessment can only be made very tentatively, on the basis of such news reports as emerge from behind the wall of Iranian censorship and the inherently subjective conclusions that can be drawn from the very limited information available to outsiders. The stress should be on "subjective." The current crisis in Iran has served as an object lesson in the problems pursuant on keeping abreast of a major international news development, especially one in a repressive and closed country. The first problem is that we all come to the subject with strongly entrenched views and preferences. In this cases, obviously, all Israelis and most people in the West obviously want to see the Islamic Republic of Iran succumb to the very kind of popular uprising that brought about the downfall of its predecessor. We are therefore rooting for the guys out in the streets, who are not violent louts, but rather heroic young people ready to sacrifice their lives for the greater good - as were the students in Tiananmen Square in Beijing exactly 20 years ago. However, our cheering them on from our armchairs in democratic, Western countries, doesn't in any way guarantee their success. Rather, the brutal facts about would-be popular revolutions is that most of them fail, because the odds are heavily stacked against them. The Chinese students failed in 1989, as did the Burmese students and monks on subsequent occasions and as the Iranian students appear to be doing now. They may be contributing to a much longer-term process of erosion of the regime - but that is very small consolation. Subjective attitudes are only to be expected from armchair viewers, whether with regard to sports events or political developments. But you don't expect to come across them from "independent experts." These have been in great demand in the media - whether print, radio, TV, Internet or whatever - to provide guidance to the general public about who is doing what to whom, and why. They have had a field day sorting the "reformists" from the "conservatives," and explaining why the political conservatives are also the religious radicals, and so on. Those of them who are ex-Iranians are often part of the expatriate opposition to the ayatollahs and hence, inevitably and often unabashedly, subjective in their support of the protesters - even if their professional assessment is that they are unlikely to succeed. There is, however, another group of "experts" in the arena, commentating endlessly on the Iranian drama. These are - in Israel, at least - former senior intelligence officers, ex-spies and even ex-diplomats (not necessarily the same thing). Their analysis reflects an extraordinary phenomenon, which many readers will recognize from a different context. As Israelis, these people all want to see the back of the current Iranian regime. BUT, as professionals - diplomats, spies, army officers, etc. - they have a built-in predisposition to predict that the regime will succeed in crushing the protests and survive. They say this not because the statistical odds are strongly biased in that direction, but because they themselves are strongly biased in that direction. Their professions are rooted in loyalty and obedience to the government and constituted authorities which they serve and doing everything in their power to protect and defend against all threats and enemies. That is what all spy agencies, all armies, police - secret, regular and otherwise - and diplomatic corps do and how they work. Their mindset is the same in every country, irrespective of the kind of regime and political system/ideology. The president/ king/whatever will not be assassinated/deposed; the government will not fall; the mob will not destroy law-and-order. These "conclusions" are the same whether the subject is Iran or North Korea, Panama or the Philippines, the Soviet Union or Nationalist South Africa. The default scenario for the diplomat/spy /soldier being interviewed is that his peers, colleagues and opposite numbers in any other country will do what they are supposed to do - i.e., successfully protect their government. The alternative outcome implies professional failure, incompetence or even treachery. That is unacceptable and therefore is rejected as unlikely or even impossible. This mindset explains why the experts' assessments are so often wrong - their bias does not allow them to predict that their profession will fall down on the job. They therefore suffer from the where-you-sit-is-where-you-stand syndrome - their background predetermines their opinion. Now where have we heard and seen that before? Could it be with investment advisors whose default position is that now is always an excellent time to invest, and with central bankers and finance ministers whose default position is that the future is bright and that any problems that may have existed (or been thought to exist) have been successfully addressed?