Observations: How Experts Fool Themselves

Remember Louis, the police inspector (played by Claude Rains) in the movie Casablanca, announcing how shocked he was to find that illegal gambling was going on in Humphrey Bogart’s cafe, and later in another connection ordering his assistant to “round up the usual suspects”?

That is what I was reminded of when the usual experts in and out of government were rounded up to express their surprise at the discovery that the terrorists who had hijacked the Achille Lauro were under the control of the PLO.

There was, however, a difference. Whereas a cynical little smile was always playing on Louis’s face, the experts who professed astonishment when the “smoking gun” was finally traced to Yasser Arafat’s hand seemed as sincere in their surprise as Arafat himself had looked upon being asked during a television interview about the American passenger who had been killed on the Achille Lauro.

What!? exclaimed Arafat, someone was killed!? and immediately offered his condolences to the family, thereby incongruously and grotesquely adding a new dimension to the Jewish concept of chutzpah.

Yet unlike Arafat, or Louis for that matter, the experts were neither lying nor being cynical. They really had persuaded themselves that Arafat, whatever he might have been in the past, was certainly not a terrorist today.

But what about the hundreds of incidents of Palestinian terrorism in the last year alone? These the experts explained away by denying that Arafat had any responsibility for them. Either they were the spontaneous acts of lone individuals, or else they were committed precisely by factions opposed to Arafat’s “moderate” policies.

As George Orwell once said about intellectuals in general, only an expert could be so stupid as to believe a thing like that.

Nor is it only the Middle East that seems to engender such stupidity in the experts and the government officials who rely on their advice. Take, for example, the reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

The then President of the United States was by his own admission so astonished that the Soviets were capable of such aggressive behavior that he had to revise all his previously settled ideas about them. For in spite of the abundant evidence to the contrary, in the view of Jimmy Carter the Soviets had renounced their old imperial ambitions and had now become (in the phrase used by Professor Stanley Hoffman of Harvard and endorsed by practically all the authorities) a “status quo power.”

A third example of the same kind of thing occurred earlier this year when Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista president of Nicaragua, went to Moscow.

Though the Sandinistas had never ceased describing themselves as Marxist-Leninists and had over and over again affirmed their solidarity with the Soviet Union, virtually the entire Democratic membership of the Congress, a good number of Republicans and most of the liberal papers and magazines could hardly believe their eyes when Ortega landed in Moscow. What!? they all sang out in unison, you mean the Sandinistas are in league with the soviets!?

How is it that such obvious facts can be denied for so long by so many people who have every reason to know better? The answer is that facing the facts in all these cases means having to surrender certain comforting illusions and then being forced to confront dangerous or unpleasant choices.

In the case of Arafat, the comforting illusion is that the PLO has made its peace with the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East and will no longer serve as the spearhead of the Arab struggle to wipe Israel off the map.

In the case of the Soviet Union, the comforting illusion is that the Soviets have given up their determination to create a new international order in which they would be the dominant power and that they are therefore ready to coexist peacefully with us.

In the case of Nicaragua, it is that the spread of communism the Latin American need not contribute to the spread of Soviet influence or threaten important American interests:

But why, when so many other facts refuting these illusions are so easily denied, do certain episodes—the Achille Lauro, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Ortega mission to Moscow—suddenly cause the scales to fall from the eyes of the self-deluded experts?

The Achille Lauro hijacking occurred just when the illusions about Arafat had reached fever pitch with talk of a new partnership for peace between Jordan and the PLO.

The invasion of Afghanistan was launched just when the signing of SALT II was being heralded as the crowning achievement of a decade of detente.

The Ortega visit came only a day after Congress had cut off all aid to the contra insurgency against the Sandinistas on the assumption that doing so would keep them from the deadly embrace of Moscow.

It is almost as though the denial of reality has to reach nearly psychopathic proportions before the truth can be permitted to break through. But as we learn from the resurgence in recent months of all the old illusions about the Soviet Union, after a while the scales can also grow back on the eyes.

It remains to be seen how long it will take for them to grow back where the Sandinistas and the PLO are concerned.


  • Norman Podhoretz

    Podhoretz served as Commentary magazine's Editor-in-Chief from 1960 (when he replaced Elliot E. Cohen) until his retirement in 1995. Podhoretz remains Commentary's Editor-at-Large.

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