Hindsight isn't Necessarily 20/20

It is conventional wisdom that hindsight is 20/20, but is that really accurate? I get the feeling that when people speak of clarity in hindsight, what they are really talking about is creeping determinism. They aren't really examining the varied and complex details of a scenario so much as they are rationalizing an outcome perceived to have been inevitable (since it has already happened, surely it must have been obvious). This is known in logic as "begging the question" or "circular logic."

In the creeping determinism sense, hindsight is liberally filtered to the point where only evidence that leads to the scenario's conclusion is seen. All other evidence is dismissed as inaccurate or irrelevant.

Which leads me to an excellent article by Adam Garfinkle called Foreign Policy Immaculately Conceived. In it, he argues:
The immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy operates from three central premises. The first is that foreign policy decisions always involve one and only one major interest or principle at a time. The second is that it is always possible to know the direct and peripheral impact of crisis-driven decisions several months or years into the future. The third is that U.S. foreign policy decisions are always taken with all principals in agreement and are implemented down the line as those principals intend - in short, they are logically coherent.
When these premises are laid out in such a way, one can't help but see them for what they really are. And yet so much of what passes for commentary these days is based wholly upon this immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy .

Case in point, the American liberation/occupation of Iraq is often portrayed as a failure. They say that we are not "winning the hearts and minds" of the Iraqis, or that we have "gone into the God business" and that "we want the Iraqis to love us for destroying their orchards too." (Never mind that this is emphatically not what we're doing, but I digress) These people are engaging in creeping determinism before the situation has even played out! They've started with a conclusion, that we have failed in Iraq, and they then collect any and all negative aspects of the occupation and proclaim this outcome inevitable (some perhaps hoping for a form of self-fulfilling prophecy).

But even this is hardly new. Jessica's Well points to a pair of magnificent historical examples. Do you remember that other time when we were mired in a quagmire, failing to win the hearts and minds of our occupied foes? The one in Europe, circa 1946? Yes, you know, the one that resulted in Europe's longest unbroken peaceful period since Charlemagne? These articles are amazingly familiar. Replace "Hitler" with "Saddam", "Nazis" with "Baathists", and "Germany" with "Iraq" and you'll see what I mean.

Naturally, since the overwhelmingly positive results of the US military occupation of Europe are generally acknowledged, these articles are pushed by the wayside, dismissed as irrelevant and forgotten forever (or until an intrepid blogger takes the initiative to post it). Success in Europe was by no means inevitable, both during and after the war, and in a certain respect, these articles are a great example of creeping determinism or Garfinkle's immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy.

They're also an example of just how shortsighted pessimistic reporting on a lengthy process can be. As Garfinkle notes:
American presidents, who have to make the truly big decisions of U.S. foreign policy, must come to a judgment with incomplete information, often under stress and merciless time constraints, and frequently with their closest advisors painting one another in shades of disagreement. The choices are never between obviously good and obviously bad, but between greater and lesser sets of risks, greater and lesser prospects of danger. Banal as it sounds, we do well to remind ourselves from time to time that things really are not so simple, even when one's basic principles are clear and correct.
Indeed. Hindsight isn't necessarily 20/20, but it always purports to be.

Update 10.21.03 - I don't remember where I found this, but I had bookmarked it: That Was Then: Allen W. Dulles on the Occupation of Germany provides some more perspective on post-war Germany. He outlined many of the difficulties they faced and lamented, despite his obvious respect for those in charge, that "the problems inherent in the situation are almost too much for us." It's an excellent piece, so read the whole thing, as they say...