A stylish Syrian epistemological nihilism

By Razib Khan | June 18, 2013 3:18 am

To know is to not know

Over ten years ago I began writing on the internet about sundry things. Mostly science. But sometimes policy, politics, and history. I still do so on occasion veer away from science (see some of the books I’ve reviewed and read to get a sampling of my interests). After the travesty of Iraq I vowed that I would never take for granted that those who speak with authority truly have the grounds to speak with such authority. This is one reason I occasionally post factual corrections about presuppositions in pieces in The New York Times. Presumably most of the reporters at that journal are well educated, but for whatever reason they are often not broadly and deeply knowledgeable in the fields they cover, and rely on transparent and superficial “cliff notes.” For example, consider how frequently the mainstream media asserts that Iran is an Arab nation. The unintelligent or ignorant may feel that this is a trivial correction (this regularly crops up in comments when the correction is made!), but Persian antipathy and resentment of Arabs has long been a sublimated tension in regional geopolitics(for their part Arabs occasionally make veiled allusions to the Persian past by referring to modern Iranians as Zoroastrian “fire-worshippers,” terminology which Saddam Hussein used explicitly). Ignoring the details of reality is informational malpractice, but one which reporters regularly slip into for whatever reason.

Me, I’m a details person. I dislike making grand and confident claims in domains of knowledge where theory is weak to non-existent, and the diminishing marginal returns to information are not always clear. When it comes to Syria I feel deja vu. What occurred in 2002 and 2003 is repeating itself. The bluffers are coming out in full force. Most of them lie to themselves and lie to you. They don’t know anything. I know because I know more than most of them, but I don’t feel I know enough to say much with any confidence beyond what my irrational ego can support. All I can truly do is assert that others do not know. Modern Middle Eastern geopolitics is a complex phenomenon, a palimpsest of exotic past and prosaic present. To a first approximation there are simple rules of thumb (everyone against Israel in public, more complex dynamics under the surface). But there are also deep local and regional tensions which require “thick” knowledge informed by the broader historical context. Most people clearly lack that context from what I can tell.

Where do we go then? Unfortunately the only option left I feel is that we should man up and simply align ourselves with our norms, facts be damned! Neoconservatives and liberal internationalists can argue for interventionism on ethical grounds. Old school isolationists like myself can keep repeating “do no harm.” Let’s abandon appeals to specific details and facts, because the reality is that the final decision isn’t going to be grounded in the specific details. Rather, it will be the outcome of the social and political consensus of the elites, which is rooted in broad general principles and fashion.

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Comments (18)

  1. http://www.newamericancentury.org/iraqclintonletter.htm
    Once I read this it all became more clear. But what is the *true* motive here (and for the rest of the “interventions”)?

  2. highly_adequate

    Just a niggling detail — shouldn’t that bust be of Socrates (who is bald)? Wasn’t it his quote (or a paraphrase of his statements) that went, “All I know is that I don’t know”?

  3. chris_T_T

    From a coldly realist point of view, maintaining a stalemate would be the best possible course of action for the US. Iran and Hezbollah’s direct intervention in the conflict is drawing the ire and attention of the radical Islamists and away from the US. By supplying weapons to the rebels, the US can maintain the steady attrition of both sides and continue to redirect anger from itself. This could end up largely solving the problems of radical Islamists and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Of course, this only works so long as the US does not intervene directly.

    Unethical? Absolutely.

  4. chris_T_T

    It would not impact its ability to produce nuclear weapons physically. However, by removing its key regional ally, draining its military resources, and severely damaging Hezbollah a continued Syrian civil war severely weakens Iran’s strategic position. Also, by turning popular sentiment in the ME against Iran, the potential consequences of a potential military strike by Israel or the US may be perceived to be lowered.

    With a much weaker hand, Iran may well decide it has no choice, but to cave to international pressure on its nuclear program.

    • gcochran

      You have no idea what you’re talking about. In particular, you have no idea of the cost of Iranian efforts in Syria (low), nor have you any idea of how easy it would be for Iran to make a couple of gun-type U-235 bombs – pretty easy, at this point.

      And they have to, if they want to be a sovereign state.


      • chris_T_T

        Reading comprehension apparently isn’t your strong suit.

        A prolonged Syrian Civil War isn’t about physically damaging Iran’s nuclear capability, but undermining its ability to hold out against international pressure. Even if the direct costs to Iran were zero, losing Assad and Hezbollah would be a geopolitical catastrophe.

        • Anthony_A

          The likelihood of Iran deciding to cave on its nuclear program is rather low, as the more likely end game appears to be that Iran will decide that with no friends left, nuclear weapons are the *only* thing they can count on. And while Iranian support for trouble in Syria might mean that Arab countries wouldn’t care if Israel or the U.S. attacked Iran, having nuclear weapons would mean that Iran wouldn’t have to rely on Arab support for its retaliation.

          • chris_T_T

            This is true, but the Syrian conflict has already disrupted the regional balance of power enough that Iran may go for actually obtaining nuclear weapons anyway. Besides Iran, there is also the the opportunity to get two of our adversaries to fight each other (Syria has become a top destination for Sunni militants). Basically fighting them over there without us actually doing the fighting.

  5. Elias Chan-Sui

    “Presumably most of the reporters at that journal are well educated, but
    for whatever reason they are often not broadly and deeply knowledgeable
    in the fields they cover, and rely on transparent and superficial “cliff

    Mark Twain comes to mind: “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story…”

    “…it will be the outcome of the social and political consensus of the
    elites, which is rooted in broad general principles and fashion.”

    I have an issue with your using the word consensus. It isn’t used incorrectly, but for me (I don’t know for anyone else) it implies a mutual agreement or meeting of the minds. Often, domineering personalities are what drives political events and outcomes.

  6. I reviewed Triumph Forsaken here. I was not convinced, although he certainly does a better job than Hilaire du Berrier in “Background to Betrayal”. The book is supposed to be one part of a two-volume whole, with the second book covering the war after 1965, but maybe he forgot about that since he’s published a couple other books instead.

  7. It seems pretty much all the people who make policy are nation-building interventionists.

    • Under Bush II, they were. Under Obama it is different. As far as I understand it, Obama tried to shift focus of US policy to east Asia, only to see the middle East blow up in his face after making some very, very bad and basic policy mistakes.

      That said, what the US can realistically achieve in Syria is to shift the balance of power. IMHO, Syria is no more a unified state, but a battle ground of various factions. This battleground overlaps into the territories Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.

      In the ME, the pro-democracy liberals have been on the losing side for decades – at least from the time of the pan-Arab nationalist governments. The US cannot hope to change this.

      Hopefully, US intervention will shift the balance slightly in favour of pro-Western elements. These may be Kurds, Sufis, moderate Sunnis, Assyrian Christians, the Druze and even Alawites – who despite Assad’s posturing are viewed as apostates and heretics by Sunnis and Shias alike.

      If the US doesn’t get involved, the Brits and French are already poised to.

      On one last depressing note, I don’t see any positive outcome for Syria. All directions lead to catastrophe. The Syrians I know as refugees, have accepted that they will never be able to go home.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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