Paul R. Pillar
Iran, Middle East
Accountability in policy debate in the United States is sorely lacking. One reason is the casual use of hypothetical alternative histories and of related assertions that by their nature cannot be proved or disproved. Arguments that policymaker X would have gotten a better result if he had only done Y instead of Z get repeated with an air of certainty even though they often are nothing more than evidence-free and analysis-free “woulda coulda shoulda” rhetoric.
Another reason is the short attention span of the public and the shifting of attention away from a subject before events have a chance to confirm or undermine assertions made about it. An old piece of advice to those predicting some catastrophe is to use a time frame of a few years—close enough to get people’s attention and to sell books, but far enough in the future that most people will have forgotten the prediction when it turns out to have been untrue. The same thing goes for predictions of something good. In the era of Donald Trump, when almost every day there is something new and outrageous to grab attention and to steer debate—such as over which particular scatological term the president used in the course of insulting more than one-fourth of the world’s nations—the optimum time frame for accountability-free predictive analysis has no doubt greatly shortened.