Things I know to be true that aren’t

One of my fundamental beliefs about life on the planet is that something between a third and a half of what we know to be true isn’t. This is based on the fact that a ton of your childhood memories, to which you would testify in court, actually didn’t happen and were planted in your ...

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588579_090212_84717404_resized2.jpg
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (R) shakes hands with new US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad on February 10, 2009. The US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan met key leaders in Islamabad as part of a major US policy review aimed at turning around the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in South Asia. His visit came as US President Barack Obama called for a combined effort to eradicate Al-Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan and the border region with Pakistan, and expressed concern about Afghan government efforts. AFP PHOTO/ Aamir QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

One of my fundamental beliefs about life on the planet is that something between a third and a half of what we know to be true isn't. This is based on the fact that a ton of your childhood memories, to which you would testify in court, actually didn't happen and were planted in your brain via family stories, your own distortions and the process of piecing fragments together inaccurately. Many of the facts we learned in school are also not true -- Pluto, as it turns out, is not a planet, for example. Lots of what we believe to be true is just urban legend -- George Washington didn't cut down the cherry tree, Madonna is not actually wearing the mummified body of Marlene Dietrich. Many of our deeply held religious beliefs may also turn out to be untrue or based on bad translations of the Aramaic (Moses' face "shone" he didn't actually have antlers.) 

So it is in foreign policy, too. For example, the biggest foreign policy challenge the Obama administration may face is the war in Afghanistan. The two going in assumptions there are that the war is in Afghanistan and that the Pakistanis are our allies. As it happens, and as we've discussed here in the past couple of weeks, both are wrong.

One of my fundamental beliefs about life on the planet is that something between a third and a half of what we know to be true isn’t. This is based on the fact that a ton of your childhood memories, to which you would testify in court, actually didn’t happen and were planted in your brain via family stories, your own distortions and the process of piecing fragments together inaccurately. Many of the facts we learned in school are also not true — Pluto, as it turns out, is not a planet, for example. Lots of what we believe to be true is just urban legend — George Washington didn’t cut down the cherry tree, Madonna is not actually wearing the mummified body of Marlene Dietrich. Many of our deeply held religious beliefs may also turn out to be untrue or based on bad translations of the Aramaic (Moses’ face “shone” he didn’t actually have antlers.) 

So it is in foreign policy, too. For example, the biggest foreign policy challenge the Obama administration may face is the war in Afghanistan. The two going in assumptions there are that the war is in Afghanistan and that the Pakistanis are our allies. As it happens, and as we’ve discussed here in the past couple of weeks, both are wrong.

Other examples could be called failures of truth in labeling. For example, the Non-Proliferation Treaty doesn’t actually seem to be stopping proliferation, does it? There’s no such thing as really “free” trade. (And I say that as one of the last five Democrat free traders in America.) Certainly the term “United Nations” is a gross overstatement. “The Organization of American States” is just an impossible goal.

There are also theories of foreign relations that have entered into this realm, the most broadly accepted of which may be: if only Israel and the Palestinian territories solved their problems we would be well on our way to solving the rest of the problems of the Middle East. (Sunnis and Shiites were fighting a thousand years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.) The Israel-Palestine issue needs to be resolved on its merits, but the day after it is, Iraq and Iran still have issues, Iran and Saudi Arabia still have issues, radicals still threaten Egyptian stability, Iran still will threaten Israel’s existence (with help), and so on. Heck, for that matter, in the modern era, it’s hard to see how the Middle East is either that Middle or that East. You get the idea.

As a step in the direction of formulating good policy, we might take some time to sort out urban legends, misunderstandings and stuff that’s just wrong. More examples welcome.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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