The harder it is for Americans to find a country on a map, the more they want to bomb it

I’ve always figured that America’s most bullish interventionists were informed by ignorance. Now academic research provides the numbers to prove it.

On Monday, The Washington Post ran an interesting column written by three political scientists who are among the best and brightest when it comes to examining political psychology, large-N statistical analysis, and human behavior.

They co-authored the piece to preview the bulk of their research.

Here are the details.

Recently, they polled a national sample of 2,066 Americans to ask how our government should respond to the situation in Ukraine. They posed this question “with a twist.”

Instead of just measuring standard demographic survey replies about foreign policy preferences, they also asked their respondents to locate Ukraine on a map. In their words, “we wanted to see where Americans think the Ukraine is and to learn if this knowledge [or lack thereof] is related to their foreign policy views.”

The results were predictably disappointing—despite months of news coverage and frantic talk of a “New Cold War”, only one in six Americans can find Ukraine on a map.

What’s more interesting? The survey reveals that ignorance is related to preference: “the farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene with military force.“

To put this preference in perspective, the average geographic reply missed the mark by approximately 1,800 miles—that’s roughly the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles. Or from wherever you’re sitting right now and the center of the Earth. More ominously, that’s also the distance the Pentagon’s newest jet-propelled Predator drone can fly.

Of course, that’s just the median response—in other words, the most frantic proponents of armed intervention missed Ukraine’s actual location by more than 1,800 miles. (Seriously. Check out the cluster of guesses in Alaska.) Accordingly, “the more they wanted the U.S. to use force, the greater the threat they saw Russia as posing to U.S. interests, and the more they thought that using force would advance U.S. national security interests.”

In closing, the authors acknowledge that their findings are “disconcerting” but perfectly succinct—the less Americans know about where Ukraine is located, the more they want our government to summon its superpower.

map-pointingThe scholars confirm that their findings are statistically significant at a 95 percent confidence level. That means people who place Ukraine in Argentina or Australia are same ones who want to square off with Comrade Putin in a game of Global Thermonuclear War.

Understandably, this column has attracted a lot of attention. As Daniel Larison writes at The American Conservative, it seems to confirm that “those that know the least about the country and U.S. interests presumably would be more likely to accept arguments that exaggerate the threat to the U.S.” For their part, the researchers suggest that this ignorance strengthen the “ability of elites to shape [their interventionist] agenda.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Beltway elites often blend ignorance with arrogance to summon catastrophic outcomes. Beyond vanity and ambition, a willful indifference is responsible for many of America’s most disastrous adventures overseas.

The correlation between basic geopolitical ignorance and calls for military intervention winds its way to the high-wires of our elected officialdom.

Recall Mitt Romney’s recurrent geographical gaffe that “Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.” His handlers failed to inform him that while Iran does enjoy a large coastline on the Persian Gulf (offering ample access to international waters), it doesn’t actually border Syria (the imagined Mediterranean proxy).

Of course that didn’t stop Candidate Romney from repeating his error at every conceivable opportunity—observers count at least six times in public forums and debates.

Back in 2012, WaPo’s Max Fisher (then with the Atlantic) remarked “whether spinning wild conspiracy theories, casually suggesting new wars, or apparently confusing America’s enemies with its allies, the GOP race […] produced a diverse—and, if you pay close attention to U.S. foreign policy, a bit unsettling—list of odd and off-key statements.”

Much of the knee-jerk interventionism prevalent among Washington elites amounts to little more than demagoguery and jingoism from terribly misinformed people.

But there’s also terrific arrogance at play. It takes a special sort of hubris to ignore history, while pretending that this shipment of arms to that distant rebellion will produce a different result than every previous experience ever.

Or to conflate “foreign policy” with a preference that prioritizes bombing [insert country you can’t find on a map].


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