John McCain, Iraq, and the Eyewitness Fallacy

In a brilliant essay, Malcolm Muggeridge described public figures of strong conviction throughout history who, in eyewitness accounts, saw what they wanted to see, and became what they wanted to be.
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John McCain's glowing post-visit assessment of conditions in Iraq, and Hillary Clinton's hyperbolically harrowing recollections of her 1996 trip to Bosnia both stand as shining examples of what the British writer Malcolm Muggeridge dubbed "the eyewitness fallacy."

In a brilliant essay, Muggeridge described public figures of strong conviction throughout history -- many of them greatly admired and well-meaning -- who, in eyewitness accounts, saw what they wanted to see, and became what they wanted to be.

"They must believe a lie who see with, not through, the eye," Blake wrote. Muggeridge took this one step further, saying that many eyewitnesses see things with the glass eye they have fixed into their skulls -- and then fervently believe what this glass eye registers.

Surely McCain was seeing the "surge is working" glass eye he has fixed in his skull when he told a town hall crowd this week, "We're succeeding. I don't care what anybody says." And McCain backed up his claims with what he clearly considers his trump card: "I've seen the facts on the ground."

Well, he was just in Iraq for the eighth time since the war began, so he must know what he's talking about, right? Or was he merely seeing what he wanted to see, in order to become what he so desperately wants to be?

The most memorable example of McCain seeing what he wanted to see, of course, was his infamous stroll through Baghdad's central market last April, which he offered as proof of improved security. Remember the facts on the ground eyewitness account of his traveling companion, Rep. Mike Pence?

It was just like "a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime," reported Pence. Take away the 100 soldiers in armored Humvees and the three Blackhawk helicopters and two Apache gunships circling above and his comparison was spot on.

Rep. Lindsay Graham, who accompanied McCain and Pence ("I bought five rugs for five bucks," he said of the market), returned home and later predicted that, based on what he'd witnessed firsthand, "within the next weeks, not months, there will be a major breakthrough" on political reconciliation.

Given that Graham had seen the facts on the ground, it's shocking how that major breakthrough failed to break through.

Clearly, seeing Iraq with a glass eye is not limited to John McCain. Indeed, it seems that glass eyes are standard issue for most politicians and journalists visiting the war zone. You get a flak jacket, a pair of desert boots, and an implantable glass eyeball.

"About two-thirds of the country is in really pretty good shape," reported Sen. Joe Lieberman upon returning from a two-day visit to Iraq in November 2005. "Overall, I came back encouraged." So he was able to assess how things were going in a country of over 167,000 square miles in 2 days? And what were the keys to his being encouraged? According to AP, it was "a profusion of cell phones and satellite TV dishes on rooftops." McCain has his "facts on the ground." For Lieberman, it's all about the waves in the air.

His eyewitness observations empowered him with the same predictive accuracy that Graham demonstrated: Lieberman held out high hopes for a "significant" withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2006. It's now March 2008.

And it's not just pro-war cheerleaders like Lieberman, Graham, and McCain. Even anti-war Democrats are susceptible to the eyewitness fallacy.

"I think the surge is working," reported Jack Murtha after a November 2007 trip to Iraq.

"The military aspects of President Bush's new strategy in Iraq," said Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin in an August 2007 statement released jointly with Sen. John Warner, "appear to have produced some credible and positive results." Levin's assessment, like Lieberman's was based on "a very productive two-day visit to Iraq."

Then there is Hillary Clinton, who during a February 2005 trip to Iraq, said that a wave of suicide attacks was "an indication of [the insurgency's] failure." On her trip, apparently booked by Lieberman's travel agent, Clinton focused on what she at the time thought would help her be what she one day wanted to be, and saw what she wanted to see: "I think you can look at the country as a whole and see that there are many parts of Iraq that are functioning quite well."

But was she really able to "look at the country as a whole"? According to USA Today, Clinton made that assessment based on time spent only in the heavily fortified Green Zone. Prior to her appraisal, her only other glimpse of Baghdad "came from the relative safety of U.S. military helicopters that ferried [Clinton and other Senators] from the airport."

This is a huge part of the problem with these eyewitness accounts: they tend to be tightly controlled and, in the words of a former Army vice chief of staff, "very limited" in scope. According to an April 2007 story in the New York Times, "Members rarely spend more than a night in Iraq, often flying back to Kuwait or Jordan at the end of the day. The trips are heavy on meetings with American military and embassy officials, with almost no opportunities for unscripted encounters with regular Iraqis."

So, safely ensconced in the Green Zone, their eyewitness accounts deeply influenced by what they are being told by military officials, visiting politicians frequently start seeing Iraq through rose-colored glasses.

And when they do venture out of the Green Zone in armored convoys, they are often taken to showcase neighborhoods the military has spruced up and fortified -- the Iraqi equivalent of the bustling farms reporters were regularly taken to in Stalin's Soviet Union to mask the famine and deprivation afflicting the country.

Sheldon Whitehouse, the Democratic Senator from Rhode Island, whose first visit to Iraq was a 36-hour trip last March, managed to see without a glass eye, likening the experience to "drilling a tiny, tiny, little core sample out of some vast geologic mass and then drawing conclusions from it."

So our politicians hunker down in the Green Zone, pay drive-by visits to Iraqi Potemkin villages, and then make grand pronouncements about the state of the country and the success of the surge.

And we are expected to dutifully accept their eyewitness accounts as truth. After all, they, like John McCain, have "seen the facts on the ground."

"It is not surprising," wrote Muggeridge, "that Pilate did not wait for an answer when he asked his famous question: 'What is truth?' He, too, had doubtless been studying eyewitness reports, including, of course, that of Judas Iscariot."

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