In 1988, disgruntled former White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan revealed that since the 1981 attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life, Nancy Reagan had consulted a San Francisco astrologer for advice on scheduling the president. This went well beyond merely affecting the start times of meetings. As anyone who has worked for or covered a White House knows, where the president goes, who he meets with, and when, are ultimately matters of policy. The revelation understandably caused a firestorm. How could anyone possibly base policy on something so frivolous?
It is admittedly unfair to compare astrology to the estimates of the intelligence community and think tank experts—but since they share an important trait, let’s do it anyway. Case in point: The ever changing guesses about when Iran will field a nuclear weapon or a missile capable of delivering it to America.
For some time, the American intelligence community judged that Iran would have such a missile by 2015. Then they revised that upward to 2020—just in time to justify the Obama administration’s cancellation of two missile defense sites in Eastern Europe. Then, earlier this year, the timetable was revised back down to 2015, where it currently remains.
But only officially in Washington. This week, the International Institute for Strategic Studies—a respected London think tank—released a major report on Iran’s missile program that pours cold water on this assessment, concluding that an Iranian missile capable of hitting America is “more than a decade away.” It’s too early to know whether this report will have any effect within the American intelligence community. Given the administration’s eagerness to kick the Iran can down the road for as long as possible, however, it would be reasonable to expect political appointees to seize on this report as more evidence that the Iran problem is not that urgent.
Just yesterday, WMD czar Gary Samore made a similar claim about Iran’s nuclear program, when he told reporters that various setbacks—vaguely defined—had delayed Tehran’s pursuit of the bomb. “The nuclear clock is not ticking as quickly as some had feared,” he said. Not to single out Samore—who by all accounts is a conscientious public servant and a good man—but that talk appears to be a piece of the administration's efforts to use estimates like this to buy more breathing time for “diplomacy” and “sanctions” to work and to undermine domestic and international complaints that addressing Iran can’t wait.
What all this has in common is a reliance on the unknowable as the basis for policy. It’s not exactly looking to the stars, but its epistemological reliability may as well be the same. The fact is, while experts in and out of government no doubt do their very best to estimate when Iran may have what, they can’t possibly know. Iran is too opaque. And our ability to pierce the veil is too limited. There are too many—to cite the widely derided but nonetheless wholly accurate words of Donald Rumsfeld—“unknown unknowns.” Rumsfeld, without seeking to be, proved himself a finer and more nuanced epistemologist than the professionals in philosophy departments. His note of Socratic skepticism ought to have been embraced more widely in Washington.
Of course, it has not. Rather, policy makers continue to use their best guesses about “known unknowns” to justify what they want to do anyway, all the while ignoring the “unknown unknowns.”
At a debate in Manhattan last night, General Wesley Clark defended the Obama administration against the charge of abandoning allies in Eastern Europe by citing the (now outdated, a fact he failed to mention) estimate that Iran won’t field an ICMB for ten years. Even assuming that is true, the one thing we know is that Iran continues to develop missiles. Eventually, if Tehran continues course, it will have an ICBM. Given this “known known,” doesn’t it make sense to develop our defenses now? And what if our best assessment turns out not to be true? The 2020 estimate has already been revised downward. It could be again.
Moreover, thinking of this kind ignores the effect that American actions might have on the behavior of others. A robust defense against Iranian missiles lessens the value of those missiles as tools of intimidation. Its deployment could cause Iran to slow or even covertly abandon its long range missile program, as Tehran calculates that spending resources in that realm is a proposition of declining utility. Maybe that would have happened, maybe not. Now we won’t ever know.