In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama told the world, "America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal." The decisions the U.S. president must make to attain this end are extraordinarily difficult, and whatever policy he chooses will have a profound and lasting effect on global politics and U.S. foreign policy. For some, the answers lie in history. Yet the best response to the Iranian threat may emerge not by looking to the past but by transforming the way experts and policymakers interact.
The decision on the table is remarkably complex: Should the United States launch a preventive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities or encourage its Israeli allies to do so? To answer this question, one would need to, at a minimum, imagine and make judgments on plausible scenarios that could emerge from each choice. If the United States chose not to bomb Iran, would countries in the region eschew their own nuclear weapons and work with the United States to balance against and contain a nuclear Iran? Or would Iran's nuclear capability drive neighboring states to "bandwagon" and ally with Iran or even seek their own nuclear weapons, undermining U.S. influence while destabilizing the region? And if the United States did successfully strike, what would be the chances that such military action would lead to an overthrow of the regime and its replacement with a government both friendly to the West and willing to forgo nuclear weapons? Or could a military strike provide a lifeline to an unpopular regime, inflame anti-American sentiment throughout the region, and unleash a wider military conflagration? And how would other global powers, such as China and Russia, react to these scenarios?
Based on our experiences -- one of us a former senior policymaker, the other a historian of U.S. foreign policy -- we are convinced that the "right" answer, but the one you will never read on blogs or hear on any cable news network, is that we simply cannot know ahead of time, with any degree of certainty, what the optimal policy will turn out to be. Why? Even if forecasters could provide probabilities about the likelihood of a narrow, specific event, it is simply beyond the capacity of human foresight to make confident predictions about the short- and long-term global consequences of a military strike against Iran.
In fact, as Philip Tetlock demonstrated in Expert Political Judgment, a 20-year study that looked at over 80,000 forecasts about world affairs, self-proclaimed authorities are no better at making accurate predictions than monkeys throwing darts at a dart board, and they are rarely held accountable for their errors. (According to Tetlock's research, knowing a lot about an issue can actually make you a worse political forecaster than knowing very little.) Policymakers and elected officials, on the other hand, not only face public condemnation and the potential loss of their jobs if a decision turns out poorly, but they also carry the often heavy personal burden of responsibility for a failed policy. Understanding the different environments in which the expert and decision-maker operate is critical to understanding why expert ideas have less influence on policymaking than might be ideal.
This gulf is tragic, as there is much each world could learn from the other. We believe that if different types of experts -- the best strategists and historians, for example -- were brought together with statesmen in an environment that encouraged honest debate and collaboration and not point-scoring, where participants were encouraged to acknowledge how little anyone can actually know about the future effects of U.S. actions, the possibility to achieve both greater coherence and greater humility in the U.S. foreign-policymaking process would be greatly enhanced.
In such an environment, both camps might be tempted to explore the past to find examples of policies that can guide their decision-making. Although at first blush this seems wise, it is not fail-safe. And the deliberations over Iran provide a case in point.