John Allen Gay offers a qualified defense of foreign policy ignorance:
First, they need to know how these expert communities work, and adjust their perceptions of what the experts say accordingly. They need, in other words, to be experts on experts. Second, they need to balance the competing interests their various expert advisers represent. In our Iran talks example, that means listening to the Iran experts, but also to experts on the regional, global and domestic implications of Iran policy. The policy-maker alone sits at the nexus of all these experts, and is alone in crafting a policy that balances them all. So Lane is right; knowledge is necessary for wisdom — but it isn’t sufficient.
Gay makes a number of good points, but he and Lane are talking about two very different things. The sort of ignorance Gay refers to is policymakers’ unavoidable lack of specific country expertise. He’s right that no policymaker or group of policymakers could possibly make themselves experts about every country with which the U.S. has dealings, and even if they could that wouldn’t necessarily make their policy decisions wise. He’s also right that there are good reasons that they don’t make policy purely based on what some regional experts think would be best. Lane wasn’t talking about any of this. He was insisting that it didn’t matter that that Americans least likely to know where a country was were found to be more likely to favor military action there. Both are kinds of ignorance, but the difference between them is like the one between informed disagreement about the meaning of the Bush Doctrine, for example, and Sarah Palin’s complete unfamiliarity with the concept. It’s true that policymakers can’t begin to know all of the details about every country, but Lane puts very little stock in knowing details.
It’s not as if U.S. foreign policy has suffered in recent decades from being too reliant on relevant expertise. On the contrary, many of the biggest blunders that the U.S. has made have been produced by policymakers that ignored well-informed skeptics and dismissed regional experts because of their presumed biases. The Bush administration assumed that it knew what most Arabists thought, and rejected their views because they were incompatible with their own goals. Especially when there is a lack of consensus among regional or country experts, that should be a warning to policymakers that they probably shouldn’t be pursuing ambitious goals in that part of the world in the first place. Unfortunately, it seems that administrations more often pick whichever set of experts (or “experts”) appears to lend credibility to what they already wanted to do for other reasons.
The limitations on what policymakers can know about another country or region should also temper and restrain what they try to do there. The less that policymakers know about a place, the less inclined they should be to assume that they can or should try to resolve a crisis happening there, and the more skeptical they should be about claims that the place is of vital importance. All of this should make policymakers especially wary of demands to “shape” complex political events, since it would be extremely difficult to “shape” those events in a constructive fashion even if they had sufficient knowledge, which they don’t.