After a few days of digesting the details the interim Iran deal, the uber-hawks in the American foreign policy community have cogitated and... completely ignored my advice to "chill" and are going all "worse than Munich" on the deal. I must concede that both Kevin Drum and Daniel Larison called this one correctly.
I was planning on vivisecting this kind of hyperbolic argument, but I see that Reason's Matt Welch beat me to the punch and thrashed this Munich analogy to within an inch of its life (and -- deservedly -- placing some of the blame on John Kerry). He concludes:
Bad historical analogies do not convert the targets of their criticism to good international decisions. But they do suggest an intellectual rot among those who are once again banging the drums for preventative Middle Eastern war. All recent history points to treating their most recent claims with a prophylactic skepticism, and recognizing their go-to analogy as a crude, ahistorical gimmick to escalate military confrontation.
I agree with Welch that the Munich analogy has been degraded to the point where #worsethanMunich deserves it's own Alanis Morisette song that permanently devalues the term. That said, I do wonder whether this sort of hyperbole really will devalue the reputation of foreign policy pundits who trot it out.
See, there's a curious but understandable asymmetry in foreign affairs punditry. Warning about an apocalypse that does not happen doesn't exact that much of a toll on a pundit's reputation. After all, it's the job of the pundit to warn about the dangers of world politics, to pore over the downside risks of every region, to spin tales of looming disaster in the air. That's perceived as prudence by readers. And if the predicted end of the world doesn't happen? Well, that's likely because the pundit's loud warnings prompted preventive action (or so they will tell themselves as they drift off to sleep).
On the other hand, predicting that a foreign policy negotiation will turn out well when it doesn't is tantamount to turning in your Very Serious Person card in the foreign policy community. It demonstrates naïveté and optimism, which are bad nouns when associated with foreign affairs commentary. Inevitably, Optimists Who Turned Out to be Wrong get matched up with Norman Angell or Francis Fukuyama in the "foolish Panglossians" category.
As someone who's putting the finishing touches on a like-minded argument, I've become keenly aware of this asymmetry. Indeed, I even understand it. Foreign policy pundits probably should be risk-averse, focusing on minimizing losses more than maximizing gains, because the losses can be irrevocable. That said, a price should be paid for debasing historical analogies worse than the interwar Deutschemark. It would be nice if, a few years from now, the people who claimed that an interim nuclear deal was worse than Munich earned a similarly ignominious label.
What do you think?
My FP column this month is about the Obama administration's ham-handed relations with U.S. allies. Why has a president so dedicated to restoring America's standing abroad pissed off so many allies?
[Keeping allies in the loop] isn't just a presidential activity -- it encompasses the whole U.S. foreign policy apparatus, from the secretary of state to the national security advisor to the Pentagon. But in order to consult properly with allies, each of these bureaucracies needs to be familiar with exactly what U.S. intentions are in a particular situation.
The reason that consulting with allies has gone so badly is that it's far from clear that the White House consults all that much with the rest of the executive branch. On Syria, for example, Obama's decision to seek congressional authorization to use force in Syria took his own staff by surprise -- not to mention Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. According to the New York Times, the new U.S. strategy in the Middle East came from a policy review conducted by National Security Advisor Susan Rice and "a tight group that included no one outside the White House." Obama and his staff insist that the White House didn't know the extent of NSA surveillance on foreign leaders, which not only beggars belief but begs the question -- maybe it would have been good to ask? As Dana Milbank snarked, "For a smart man, President Obama professes to know very little about a great number of things going on in his administration."
Of course the observation that Obama seems bad at communicating with other politicos is hardly unique to foreign affairs. Indeed, as Kevin Drum noted last month:
[I]t seems like much of this is an example of what Bill Clinton says he eventually learned about foreign policy: that it's basically the same as domestic policy. Everyone has their own interests, and you just need to keep plugging away at it. Unfortunately, this is, by common consensus, Obama's worst trait. He doesn't schmooze much with domestic leaders and he doesn't schmooze much with foreign leaders either. This is why all these stories about our foreign policy travails spend at least as much time talking about feelings as they do about actual policies. Foreign allies feel dismissed; they feel unconsulted; they feel like no one in the White House really understands their needs....
Obama is almost certainly suffering more from the latest round of disclosures than he would if he were a bit friendlier and chattier with his peers across the world. Unfortunately, that's not his style.
Now, as it turns out, there is one group that Obama does like to schmooze with. According to Politico's Dylan Byers:
President Barack Obama is often accused of being insular. He’s not a schmoozer. He doesn’t like meeting with lawmakers, and he doesn’t particularly care for talking to reporters, either.
But get him in an off-the-record setting with a small group of opinion columnists — the David Brooks and E.J. Dionne types — and he’ll talk for hours.
“He likes the intellectual sparring element of it,” a source familiar with the president’s thinking told POLITICO. “He likes talking to reasonable adversaries.”
He also likes talking to the people he likes to read. The president is a voracious consumer of opinion journalism. Most nights, before going to bed, he’ll surf the Internet, reading the columnists whose opinions he values. One of the great privileges of the presidency is that, when so inclined, he can invite these columnists to his home for meetings that can last as long as two-and-a-half hours.
“It’s not an accident who he invites: He reads the people that he thinks matter, and he really likes engaging those people,” said one reporter with knowledge of the meetings. “He reads people carefully — he has a columnist mentality — and he wants to win columnists over,” said another.
Hmm.... maybe Obama would be better at consulting with allies if the foreign affairs columnists he schmoozed with told him to consult more with allies.
So who does Obama invite among the foreign policy commentariat? Let's see, according to Byers, there's, David Ignatius, Jeffrey Goldberg, Tom Friedman, and.... uh... that's it. Truthfully, that's not such a bad group. It's terrifically small, however.
[This is just a massive throat-clearing exercise by you to wrangle an schmoozing invite, isn't it?--ed. So, three things: A) My day job ain't being a columnist; B) I don't live in DC, so it's not like I could accept; and C) It's not like Obama is a huge fan of bloggers -- though this might be due to pure envy.]
The problem I have is in trying to figure out who else to add to the list. The sad truth is that there ain't a ton of people whose primary job is to write a mainstream foreign affairs column. Nick Kristof? Fred Kaplan? The rest of the Washington Post crew? It's a very thin bench.
So, to sum up: we're in a world where the only cluster of people that the president of the United States wants to engage with are columnists. And the United States is a country that doesn't care about foreign affairs... hence there are very few foreign affairs columnists.
Am I missing anything?
There's an awful lot being written about the myriad ways in which political science and international relations scholarship skews this way and that way, but not the meritocratic way. To underscore that note, Peter Campbell and Michael Desch have an essay titled "Rank Irrelevance" over at Foreign Affairs. Their target is the National Research Council (NRC) rankings of graduate programs in political science. It's also part of their larger Carnegie-financed research project on policy relevance in the academy. As they explain at their website, a key component of their research program focuses on:
[H]ow traditional academic disciplinary rankings might skew the sort of work scholar undertakes and highlight how different sets of criteria based upon sub-field criteria and broader relevance could produce very different rankings. To illustrate this, we have ranked the top fifty political science departments based on 37 different measures of scholarly excellence and broader policy relevance of their international relations faculty. We have also done the same thing for the 442 individual scholars in that group.
So, how are the NRC's academic disciplinary rankings skewed? Campbell and Desch explain:
[T]he NRC measured academic excellence by looking at a variety of parochial measures, including publications per faculty member and citations per publication. But the NRC only counted work published in disciplinary journals, while excluding books and non-peer-reviewed magazines (like Foreign Affairs). The NRC also calculated faculty productivity and intellectual impact exclusively by tallying scholarly articles (and limited it to those covered by the Web of Science, the most well-known index of this type). In addition, the NRC considered percent faculty with grants, awards per faculty member, percent interdisciplinary faculty, measures of ethnic and gender diversity, average GRE scores for admitted graduate students, the level of financial support for them, the number of Ph.D.s awarded, the median time to degree, and the percentage of students with academic plans, among other factors.…
The NRC’s methodology biased its rankings against two kinds of scholarship: international relations scholarship, which is often book-oriented; and policy-relevant scholarship, which often appears in non-peer-reviewed journals. That leads to vast undervaluation of many leading scholars and, accordingly, their schools.… It also discourages ranked programs from promoting authorship of in-depth policy relevant work.…
[W]e believe that broader criteria of scholarly excellence and relevance ought to be part of how all departments are ranked. We are not advocating junking traditional criteria for academic rankings; rather, we urge that such narrow and disciplinarily focused criteria simply be balanced with some consideration of the unique aspects of international relations and also take account of the broader impact of scholarly work.
My FP colleague Stephen Walt has already praised the value-added of Campbell and Desch's approach:
Their point -- and it is a good one -- is that the standards and methods used to evaluate graduate programs are inherently arbitrary, and if you reward only those publications that are least likely to generate policy-relevant research, you are going to get an academic world that tends to be inward-looking and of less practical value.
I have a slightly different take. To be sure, Campbell and Desch raise one valid point: The NRC, by ignoring books, discriminates against fields that place more importance on them -- namely, international relations, political theory, and comparative politics. Incorporating university press books would seem to be a relatively quick and easy fix to that problem. Even here, however, it's not clear to me why international relations is particularly "unique" within political science. If anything, it's the Americanists who are unique with such an overwhelming emphasis on journal articles.
The thing is, Campbell and Desch do not want to stop there. They also suggest that an appropriate ranking system should include factoring in policy relevance. This could be done through counting policy publications (in Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs), serving in the government with a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship, or congressional testimony.
Now, I'm a big fan of policy relevance. I've published in both Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs. I've had the CFR fellowship. Hell, I even testified before Congress a few times. Throwing false modesty aside, if I were included in Campbell and Desch's individual scholar rankings, I'd kick ass and take names.
That said, incorporating all of these policy-relevant factors would be a pretty bad way to rank political science departments.
The obvious problem with these metrics is that they discriminate against the other political science fields way more than the status quo discriminates against international relations scholars. But let's assume that Campbell and Desch would include, say, testifying before state legislatures or advising foreign governments into their metrics as well. Logically, this proposal still doesn't hold together.
On the one hand, their definition of "policy relevance" is exceedingly narrow. It consists primarily of actions or publications that service the U.S. government. It's entirely conceivable that some international relations scholars, for ethical or normative reasons, might decide that they would rather not aid the state with their service, authorship, or testimony. Surely there are other ways scholars can become policy relevant: advising NGOs, jump-starting social movements or campaigns, or even, say, out-and-out partisan blogging. Unless one wants to create a bias that rewards scholars for cozying up to the state, Campbell and Desch would have to devise a much more inclusive formula to calculate "policy relevant activities."
The thing is, if you go that far, you've probably gone too far. You're ranking scholars and departments not for their scholarship, but for their ability to act in a political manner in the service of that scholarship -- or simply asserting policy positions from a position of authority. As Johannes Urpelainen observed:
Academic policy relevance should be defined as the ability to use the scientific method to contribute to policy formulation. Insightful commentary based on a gut feeling or authority is not academic policy relevance. It results from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the role of academic institutions is in the global society. International relations scholars who feel the need to comment on current events based on their personal views or experiences can do so, but their policy relevance must be evaluated based on their ability to use the scientific method to add value.…
[A]s an academic, I am more than happy to subject my work to peer review. If my arguments are logically flawed or my identification strategy weak, I should not be rewarded just because some policymaker out there wants to justify a policy by referring to an Ivy League academic who is of the same opinion. International scholars should work harder than ever before to do the kind of research that survives the difficult process of peer review.
See Steve Saideman on this point as well.
Supporters of Campbell and Desch's argument might say that such an attitude "fetishizes" peer review at the expense of, say, writing for Foreign Policy. And there's no denying that the peer review system is imperfect. But I have seen, up close, the gatekeeping system that operates in order to crack Foreign Affairs or the New York Times op-ed page -- as, I'm sure, Campbell and Desch have. I'm therefore a bit gobsmacked that any academic would claim that this kind of non-peer-reviewed system is somehow fairer than what operates in the academy. In actuality, these other publication outlets stack the deck heavily in favor of name recognition and the prestige of one's home institution. They might do that for valid or invalid reasons -- but those reasons have very little to do with scholarly achievement.
Focusing primarily on peer-reviewed publications is a lousy, flawed, and inefficient way of doing rankings -- until one considers the alternatives.
Campbell and Desch are correct that scholars should not be punished for trying to enter the public sphere. As biases go, however, I'd posit that the one against policy relevance has faded over time and is a far less disconcerting form of bias than, say, this one.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger continues to be interested in the divide between current/former policymakers and academics over the meaning and significance of "credibility" in international affairs. I have bent over backwards to suggest that maybe, just maybe, policymakers know something we don't. But increasingly, I'm wondering whether the Syria deal highlights just how much policymaker types need to gain a wider perspective.
For exhibit A, there's the New York Times' Thom Shanker and Lauren D'Avolio, who report that former Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta are pretty critical about the Syria deal because of concerns about... credibility with Iran:
Mr. Panetta... said the president should have kept his word after he had pledged action if Syria used chemical weapons.
“When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word,” Mr. Panetta said.
“Once the president came to that conclusion, then he should have directed limited action, going after Assad, to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word,” then “we back it up,” Mr. Panetta said....
Under questioning from the moderator, David Gergen, who advised four presidents and is now on the faculty at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, both former secretaries said that American credibility on Syria was essential to enduring efforts to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.
“Iran is paying very close attention to what we’re doing,” Mr. Panetta said. “There’s no question in my mind they’re looking at the situation, and what they are seeing right now is an element of weakness.” (emphases added)
Other former senior policymakers I've talked to this week have also stressed the Iran angle. Even if they acknowledge that what happened in Syria is not going to affect events in North Korea, they point out that Iran is in the same neighborhood and will undoubtedly process Obama's "climbdown" on Syria into their calculations on what to do with respect to their own nuclear program.
Now, that certainly makes intuitive sense. So the Iranians must be hardening their negotiating position on the nuclear question, right? Let's go to the Financial Times' Najmeh Bozorgmehr:
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, has advocated flexibility in talks with major powers in a rare public acknowledgment of his determination to find a solution to the dispute over the country’s nuclear programme.
Uh.... I don't think that's what Panetta meant. Hmm... maybe the FT got it wrong. Let's check the New York Times' Thomas Erdbrink's coverage:
A series of good-will gestures and hints of new diplomatic flexibility from Iran’s ruling establishment was capped on Wednesday by the highest-level statement yet that the country’s new leaders are pushing for a compromise in negotiations over their disputed nuclear program.
In a near staccato burst of pronouncements, statements and speeches by the new president, Hassan Rouhani; his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif; and even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leadership has sent Rosh Hashana greetings to Jews worldwide via Twitter, released political prisoners, exchanged letters with President Obama, praised “flexibility” in negotiations and transferred responsibility for nuclear negotiations from the conservatives in the military to the Foreign Ministry.
But... but... what about Syria?! Surely the Iranians have processed what happened in that crisis and have decided to double down in hawkishness, right? C'mon, help me out here, Erdbrink!
Mr. Rouhani, asked in the NBC News interview if he thought Mr. Obama looked weak when he backed off from a threat to conduct a missile strike against Syria over a deadly chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, replied: “We consider war a weakness. Any government or administration that decides to wage a war, we consider a weakness. And any government that decides on peace, we look on it with respect to peace.”
Son of a....
Now, if you read the Erdbrink story, it's clear that Iran's desperate, sanctions-induced economic straits are playing a key role in a months-in-the-planning rollout to reignite negotiations with the West. So it's not like compellence doesn't matter.
But I wonder if reaching an agreement on Syria might have also sent an unanticipated but useful signal to Iran. As I've blogged about in the past, the Obama administration has toggled back and forth between wanting to cut a nuclear deal and wanting to foment regime change in Iran. From Iran's perspective, this made it very, very hard to believe that the U.S. government could credibly commit to any nuclear agreement with the current regime.
As Phil Arena pointed out with respect to Syria, softening a hardline position on Syria might have enhanced U.S. credibility in negotiations:
[T]he most relevant obstacle to negotiation, up until very recently, might well have been a belief on behalf of Putin and Assad that the US couldn’t be appeased. That they faced a commitment problem stemming from the inability of the US to credibly promise to leave Assad alone if he ceased using chemical weapons. Once debate within the US made it clear that regime change wasn’t the goal, that the US really doesn’t much care how many innocent people are raped and killed so long as they aren’t gassed, everything changed. The lack of resolve signaled by the US might have served to convince Putin and Assad that the US could be bought off, and relatively cheaply.
One can extend Arena's logic to negotiations with Iran. Rather than accommodation on Syria signaling a weakening of resolve to Iran, it might have signaled something very different -- a willingness of the United States to accept the negotiations track. As Arena's analysis suggests, such deals carry policy tradeoffs. But it seems like the willingness to negotiate on Syria has, on the margins, bolstered rather than weakened Iran's willingness to negotiate a nuclear deal. This would be consistent, by the way, with Anne Sartori's research on the importance of credibility in diplomacy.
Now if you think the primary goal in Iran or Syria should be regime change, or if you think that Syria's concessions now and Iran's concessions later will be meager, then this post will be of little comfort. And as Arena points out, there are some sticky policy tradeoffs here for U.S. policymakers. But Iran's behavior vitiates the notion that Obama's policy reversals on Syria have somehow emboldened Iran's leadership into adopting a more hawkish position. If anything, the opposite is true.
Or, in other words -- and I mean this with all due respect -- policymakers treat credibility as this magical overarching concept that only applies to "resolve to use military force." It's possible that credibility is a more circumscribed effect... and applies to diplomacy just as much as force.
What do you think?
I've written enough for a public audience in my day to know the importance of the "hook" -- the clever metaphor, historical analogy, provocative statement, or autobiographical anecdote that will hook the reader into paying attention long enough for me to make my more substantive point about world politics. Hell, I've written a few things in my day that had a ratio of ninety percent hook and ten percent substance. A great hook combined with a great argument can make you proud that someone actually pays you to write things.
A bad hook, though... well, a bad hook causes the reader to feel manipulated by a writer with a hardened agenda and no knowledge of how to persuade. It's the difference between flirtation and harassment in social intercourse.
Which brings me to the opening paragraphs in Tom Friedman's column today:
I was at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, last week and struggling with my column. News of Russia’s proposal for Syria to surrender its poison gas was just breaking and changing every hour, forcing me to rewrite my column every hour. To clear my head, I went for a walk along the Aare River, on Schifflaube Street. Along the way, I found a small grocery shop and stopped to buy some nectarines. As I went to pay, I was looking down, fishing for my Swiss francs, and when I looked up at the cashier, I was taken aback: He had pink hair. A huge shock of neon pink hair — very Euro-punk from the ’90s. While he was ringing me up, a young woman walked by, and he blew her a kiss through the window — not a care in the world.
Observing all this joie de vivre, I thought to myself: “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to be a Swiss? Maybe even to sport some pink hair?” Though I can’t say for sure, I got the feeling that the man with pink hair was not agonizing over the proper use of force against Bashar al-Assad. Not his fault; his is a tiny country. I guess worrying about Syria is the tax you pay for being an American or an American president — and coming from the world’s strongest power that still believes, blessedly in my view, that it has to protect the global commons. Barack Obama once had black hair. But his is gray now, not pink. That’s also the tax you pay for thinking about the Middle East too much: It leads to either gray hair or no hair, but not pink hair.
So, a few things:
1) I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the United States also has pink-haired clerks flirting with girls (and boys) on the street. Maybe not where Friedman buys his nectarines, but still...
2) The logical proposition "pink hair = does not care about the rest of the world" feels a bit... wrong.
3) While U.S. military primacy does contribute to protecting and preserving the global commons, the extent to which it does so is a bit more complicated than Friedman suggests.
4) Maybe don't stereotype a country that headquarters the International Committee of the Red Cross and that, according to one well-respected index, appears to care just as much about the rest of the world as the United States.
5) Friedman's biggest sin is writing such a hackneyed opening that readers will drift away before reading the last two-thirds of his column, which is both contemplative and thought-provoking. This paragraph in particular suggests that the Syria debate will require America's foreign policy community to engage in some critical reflection:
The fact that Americans overwhelmingly told Congress to vote against bombing Syria for its use of poison gas tells how much the divide on this issue in America was not left versus right, but top versus bottom. Intervening in Syria was driven by elites and debated by elites. It was not a base issue. I think many Americans could not understand why it was O.K. for us to let 100,000 Syrians die in a civil war/uprising, but we had to stop everything and bomb the country because 1,400 people were killed with poison gas. I and others made a case why, indeed, we needed to redraw that red line, but many Americans seemed to think that all we were doing is drawing a red line in a pool of blood. Who would even notice?
I'm very curious about where mainstream foreign policy punditry will go after they recover from losing the argument on Syria and bewailing things like lost credibility and so forth. I'll be even more curious if Friedman's editors exercise a wee bit more discipline and tell him when his metaphors don't work. At all.
Sure, I could blog about the substance of Obama's Syria speech last night, but John Dickerson captured the problem with its political optics and Joe Weisenthal has captured the market reaction and Andrew Sullivan has the pro-Obama spin and Shibley Telhami or Micah Zenko has the anti-Obama spin.
So, instead... I'm going to risk the wrath of XKCD and talk about the role of social media:
What I found really interesting was what happened after the speech on Twitter. Namely, Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, took to Twitter in response to two influential foreign policy pundits, The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg and the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof. For example:
@NickKristof CW is in distinct category. Banned by international law - threat to civilians, global security, and international order— Ben Rhodes (@rhodes44) September 11, 2013
@JeffreyGoldberg Increased support for Syrian opposition. Regime cut off from global economy. Geneva process to transition to new government— Ben Rhodes (@rhodes44) September 11, 2013
I've never seen this kind of spin room dynamic play out on Twitter on foreign policy substance. Campaign stuff, sure, but not foreign policy substance.
Dylan Byers noted it too, and reports that Rhodes was part of a larger White House communications push:
While Rhodes worked on Goldberg and Kristof, White House press secretary Jay Carney tweeted quotes from Obama’s speech — “Getting the word out by all available means!,” he tweeted at one Time Magazine reporter — and Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s assistant and senior advisor, tried to counter journalists who argued that Obama’s speech was “old news.”
“[W]e don’t assume the public follows the news as closely as leading political columnists,” Pfeiffer wrote to The Las Vegas Sun’s Jon Ralston. And to Goldberg, he tweeted, “[P]residents don’t ask for time to address columnists who follow every minute of the news, it’s for the public that doesn’t.”
So, on the one hand, this is a New Thing -- which means that, like foreign cyber-espionage, there's a new way to measure status in the foreign policy community: If you're in power, are you important enough to be authorized to tweet in response to a Big Foreign Policy Event? If you're a pundit, are you important enough to have Ben Rhodes tweet at you? I mean, is he at least following you? Somewhere, Mark Leibovich is rubbing his hands together with glee as he starts his sequel, This Foreign Policy Town.
On the other hand.... if you read to the end of Byers' story, it doesn't seem like the spin had much effect:
Leading minds on foreign policy were unforgiving, and panned the speech as contradictory and inconsequential.
“He should have postponed,” Goldberg told POLITICO. “Basically he said — our military is ready; John Kerry is going to Geneva, and poison gas is very bad.”
In an email to POLITICO, Rothkopf called the speech “a string of his recent arguments culminating in a punt.”
“It seems clear he wishes this would all go away and that he is very uncomfortable with the spot he finds himself,” Rothkopf wrote. “The thing he feels strongest about is his own ambivalence.”
Ceding a little ground, though not much, Phillip Gourevitch, the New Yorker staff writer, tweeted: “That it’s pure rhetoric w/no substance may be understandable w/confused state of play but it clarifies nothing.” He added: “Obama did make strong case for likely ineffectiveness of action in Syria, while declaring its necessity.”
So, to sum up: XKCD is right about social media.
Am I missing anything?
As BuzzFeed's Miriam Elder has chronicled, the foreign policy community ain't too happy with Obama right now. Your humble blogger hasn't been quite as unhappy, but that's mostly because I've been distracted by conferences -- and genuinely unsure about what the United States should do in Syria in the two weeks since blogging on it last. This puts me in a decided minority.
But in honor of the traditional start-of-school day in the United States, it's worth pointing out a hidden reason for why foreign policy wonks are so displeased with the Obama administration's last two weeks on Syria. And believe it or not, it has to do with international relations theory.
As I've blogged previously, the Obama administration's approach towards the Syrian civil war has been pretty realpolitik:
To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that's been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible. This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished.... at an appalling toll in lives lost.
This policy doesn't require any course correction... so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources. A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict.
So far, so understandable. The thing is, the use of chemical weapons in Syria has triggered the liberal internationalist impulses inside of the Obama administration. The taboo against the use of chemical weapons has strengthened over time. This is a good thing. Humans are a pretty barbaric species, so on the whole I tend to approve of any small step towards more civilized behavior. The chemical weapons taboo is one such small step, so I value it a bit more than my FP colleague Stephen Walt.
The Obama administration clearly wants to segment intervening in Syria to enforce the chemical weapons taboo from intervening in Syria to aid the rebels. As both Charli Carpenter and Stephanie Carvin has pointed out, in theory these are different and separate policy goals.
I thought Carvin and Carpenter's distinction was an important one... until I read Adam Entous and Noru Malas' Wall Street Journal story:
In June, the White House authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to help arm moderate fighters battling the Assad regime, a signal to Syrian rebels that the cavalry was coming. Three months later, they are still waiting.
The delay, in part, reflects a broader U.S. approach rarely discussed publicly but that underpins its decision-making, according to former and current U.S. officials: The Obama administration doesn't want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate....
The administration's view can also be seen in White House planning for limited airstrikes—now awaiting congressional review—to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.
Pentagon planners were instructed not to offer strike options that could help drive Mr. Assad from power: "The big concern is the wrong groups in the opposition would be able to take advantage of it," a senior military officer said. The CIA declined to comment.
The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn't want it to prevail, according to people who attended closed-door briefings by top administration officials over the past week. The administration doesn't want U.S. airstrikes, for example, tipping the balance of the conflict because it fears Islamists will fill the void if the Assad regime falls, according to briefing participants, which included lawmakers and their aides....
Growing frustration with the slow pace of the CIA arming and training program has prompted calls from lawmakers and some Arab leaders to shift the effort to the Pentagon, said congressional officials who favor the move. White House and Pentagon officials had no immediate comment.
And here we get to the nub of the problem. The trouble with Obama's liberal desire to enforce the chemical weapons taboo is running up against his realist desire to make sure that Al Qaeda doesn't have a friendly regime running Syria.
The domestic politics of gaining congressional support make this even more complicated. For Obama to secure support for his stance on chemical weapons, he needs the approval of full-throated neoconservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They don't want Obama to stop with enforcing the chemical weapons taboo -- they want regime change in Syria on the table as well:
The White House’s aggressive push for Congressional approval of an attack on Syria appeared to have won the tentative support of one of President Obama’s most hawkish critics, Senator John McCain, who said Monday that he would back a limited strike if the president did more to arm the Syrian rebels and the attack was punishing enough to weaken the Syrian military.
Except that, as previously noted, the Obama administration doesn't want to weaken the Syrian military too much. This is an awfully hard balance to strike.
There are a lot of areas of foreign policy where different paradigms can offer the same policy recommendation, and there are a lot of foreign policy issue areas where presidents can just claim "pragmatism" and not worry about which international relations theory is guiding their actions. I'm increasingly of the view, however, that Syria is one of those areas where Obama is gonna actually have to make a decision about what matters more -- his realist desire to not get too deeply involved, or his liberal desire to punish the violation of a norm. If he doesn't decide, if he tries to half-ass his way through this muddle, I fear he'll arrive at a policy that would actually be worse than either a straightforward realist or a straight liberal approach.
[So which paradigm would you recommend that he choose?--ed. I'm not completely sure yet, but I confess to be reluctantly leaning towards the realist play right now.]
What do you think? Which paradigm will win out?
Earlier this year I remember reading a Wall Street Journal profile of Yale professor Charles Hill in which he said something rather extraordinary:
"Model U.N. is very deleterious. It has been educating now two or more generations of high school and college students about a U.N. that isn't really the U.N. Now when people talk about the U.N. they talk about something that doesn't exist. They talk about it as though it's a kind of untethered international governing body," [Hill] says. "So you've got 4,000 high-school students coming in for a weekend at Yale" and "you give them 45 minutes for a little problem like Iran's nuclear program, and they solve it! And they wonder why, if we solved it this morning before lunch, why can't you solve it?"
Now, I did Model UN in high school
to be close to a girl I had a massive crush on and found it pretty anodyne. What I remember is that the delegate from St. Kitts and Nevis had the most influence because he seemed the least afraid of speaking publicly. I noted that this seemed to not correspond to the actual distribution of influence in the world. Certainly, at my meetings, no great agreements were reached. So Hill's concern struck me at the time as, frankly, a little bizarre.
Then, this weekend, I read Anjli Parrin's New York Times story about the current state of Model UN... and it ain't like your daddy's Model UN. The good parts version:
This is not F.D.R.’s Model United Nations, that rigid simulation of General Assembly protocol and decorum. Conferences like this one in Philadelphia, hosted by the club at Penn, have turned MUN, as it’s called, into a full-fledged sport, with all the competitiveness and rowdiness that suggests. Today, there are official sponsors, a ranking of schools and, much to the chagrin of traditionalists, non-U.N. role play....
In classic MUN, students represent the positions and values of assigned countries, adhering to official protocols when speaking, negotiating and drafting resolutions. Consensus is important, and the process of arriving at innovative solutions to global problems the goal. That is still the prevailing model. But a new breed of Model U.N., popular among student-run clubs at elite universities, has a distinctly different philosophy. Their “crisis committees” focus on a single historical event (the 1929 Atlantic City conference of crime bosses, for example) and fantasy recreations (“Star Wars,” “Harry Potter”). Participants battle it out in four-day conferences in hopes of winning a coveted gavel, awarded to the strongest member on each committee, and schools with the most “best delegates” top the new rankings....
In Europe and Africa, where [Amandla Ooko-Ambaka] first became involved with Model U.N., she said the focus is more on the academic element of debating. After two years on the traveling team at Yale, she became frustrated with all the politicking and petty tactics. “Not only did I have to put together a good position paper and know one or two things about my topic,” she said, “but I had to worry about someone stealing my USB stick,” where delegates often store their work.
Parvathy Murukurthy, a senior at the University of Chicago and member of the college circuit’s first all-star team, isn’t pointing fingers but says that “entire sections of my resolution have been duplicated into other people’s resolution.” Delegates say backstabbing is less common in crisis committees because they’re smaller (about 20 people while a General Assembly re-creation might have 300), with more chance to distinguish oneself.
Underscoring just how extreme the competition has become, many students refer to a phenomenon known as the “golden gavel,” in which a delegate sleeps with the chairperson in the hopes of winning. Two students told me they are convinced they lost an award this way. Others I spoke with had only heard rumors — but, they added quickly, not involving regular competitors.
One thing is clear. Chairpersons, who are appointed by their clubs, are all-powerful. They run their committee, and often research and write up each character’s portfolio of powers. “Essentially, the chair decides what’s what,” Mr. Venice said, “and the chair decides what’s what without really any guidance. I can’t think of another sport where that would fly, to be honest.”
So... to sum up: the current incarnation of model U.N. has unequal distributions of power, competition for status, and accusations of skullduggery and sexual impropriety. I dunno, Professor Hill: this sounds like a pretty decent simulation of modern international politics. [Aaaaand... the premise for a semi-sequel to Pitch Perfect!--ed.]
So, in honor of Samantha Power's confirmation as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, let me salute this generation of Model UNers: may you continue to flummox your elders!!
Just before 4 p.m. today, your humble blogger handed in the manuscript for The System Worked: Global Economic Governance During the Great Recession to his publisher. Which means…
Now, book writing is a grueling process, so one of the things I save until the end is the acknowledgments. Now, of course, it's fun to say thank you to people, especially when they've made your book easier to write or better to read. But it got me thinking: What if, like author tag lines, a foreign-policy book's acknowledgments were just brutally honest? Here are some possibilities that came to me way too damn easily:
1. "I am grateful to Ted Feldstein, who wrote a really awful column about a year ago that was just the perfect straw man idea for me to take down in this book."
2. "I thank Margaret Collins, a titan in my field, who foolishly tried to write a policy piece that was an even easier straw man to take down. I expected this kind of thing from Ted Feldstein, but, Margaret, you gave this stupidity some heft, which is just awesome for me."
3. "I should acknowledge my editor, Cecil Longbottom, for sending me into paroxysms of guilt from even his most tentative queries about whether my book would be two years or three years late."
4. "I thank Timothy Bottoms III for his sage advice, especially since I blurbed his thinly sourced book a few years ago and, oh, now it's time to collect."
5. "I am grateful to Louis Cooperman for having absolutely no game, awkwardly and drunkenly hitting on me at a conference, and then pretending like it never happened. This is the best explanation for his gushing referee report."
6. "The Pepzi Foundation generously supported this project, and I can only hope that they don't read it, since I wound up in a very different ideological place after doing the research."
7. "Lily Romanova provided invaluable research assistance, and by 'invaluable' I mean I had to double-check her work and came damn close to pulling a Doris Kearns Goodwin cutting and pasting one of her memos."
8. "My colleague Michael Pfeiffer is a gasbag who never says a sentence when a long stemwinder will do. I'd like to thank him for finally reading my death stares accurately and staying the hell away from my office while I was working on this book."
9. "Joe McNiff is a tech support guy I yelled at for 10 minutes straight because I thought my computer had erased my files, when actually I had forgotten that I'd renamed them. I'm thanking him here as a pure act of appeasement."
10. "My family was my rock during the drafting of this book. And by 'rock,' I mean they guilted the living hell out of me while describing my book incorrectly -- every … single … time -- at neighborhood barbeques."
11. "I'm grateful to Peter Klugman, a Big Shot in my field who made a useful offhand comment to me once. People reading this will hopefully think I really know him and therefore be impressed."
12. "Neal Weisen is a hack writer who has no substantive knowledge about my topic but more than 100,000 Twitter followers, so people listen to him. My hatefire for him fueled this project."
13. "Helen Hiscox is smarter than me, better trained than me, and can write rings around my prose. I'd like to thank her for focusing her energies on other topics instead of mine."
14. "I would like to thank Vin Diesel, who made a God-awful film, The Chronicles of Riddick, that was playing late-night on HBO as I was putting this manuscript to bed. It was a galactically stupid film and the only thing my brain could process as it winded down from writing each night."
15. "Daniel Drezner is a senior colleague who, when I talked about this project, would start mansplaining it to me and close with things like 'you should totally read this essay of mine!' and then gave me a paper that was relevant -- back in 2002. I'm thanking him because I want to get tenure."
Readers are encouraged to come up with their own ideas in the comments.
Your humble blogger is heading off on a family vacation for the next week or so to a mysterious land of patchy cellular coverage and erratic Internet access. So blogging might be inadvertently light for a spell.
Before I go, however, I have a modest proposal: a lot of the foreign-policy community in Washington should also go on vacation. And perhaps not come back for a decent stretch.
I suggest a community-wide vacation because, right now, a lot of them are writing a lot of nonsense. The combination of perceived U.S. inaction on Syria and Snowden is leading to a lot of silly talk about how Russia is back and China is back and the United States can't do anything anymore and everything is going to hell in a handbasket.
I don't mean to go on a rant here, but this is just so much bulls**t.
OK, it's not all that. Advocates of humanitarian intervention are justifiably upset about inaction on Syria -- and they should be even more upset if the administration is actually doing what I think it's doing in Syria.
That said, there's not much that's new in these laments. China and Russia are opposing U.S. interests? Well, blow me down!! I haven't seen that kind of activity since … since … every year for the last decade. There's nothing new here.
One could try to argue that these countries are now relatively more powerful than they used to be. That's likely true for China, but less so for Russia. In fact, the energy developments of the past five years have hit at a core pillar of Russia's great-power status. Demographics will erode every other pillar. As for Russia's investments in propping up Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, it's worth remembering that the Russian Federation is playing defense here. Three years ago, Moscow had a stable ally in Damascus. Now it has a very unstable one that is more beholden to Iran and Hezbollah. This does not look like forward progress to me. Put bluntly, if Russia really is America's No. 1 geopolitical foe, then America's geopolitical position is friggin' awesome.
Of course, it isn't true - China is a far more powerful country than Russia. That said, China also has its own demographic and security challenges -- both of which pale besides the daunting economic reform project the current leadership appears hellbent on pursuing. The Chinese leadership is walking a tightrope between not allowing its financial system to fail and enacting reforms that rein in the shadow banking system. China is looking inward even more than the United States at this point.
As for the United States? Every time someone says U.S. power is diminished, I keep stumbling across charts like these, or data points like this one, that suggest that the foundations of American power are relatively stronger now than they were five years ago. None of this is to argue that the Obama administration's foreign-policy record is error-free. But the administration has gotten One Big Thing right -- the rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific. And a lot of the griping this week is coming from people whose foreign-policy worldview rises and sets with the Middle East.
I like it when America's foreign-policy community is operating in a less panicky mode. So perhaps a vacation is in order for everyone.
Hey, here's some light reading to suggest: I have the cover story in this week's Spectator magazine about … the renaissance in American economic power. Here's how it closes:
Plenty of dangers lie ahead. The United States could get trapped into another draining war in the Middle East. Partisan bickering in Washington could block any structural budget reforms and cripple America’s long-term finances. A premature end to quantitative easing, or another eurozone crisis, could induce another setback. But the United States has a remarkable ability to right its own ship. That ability, in and of itself, is one of the sources of its enduring power.
Read the whole thing. While on vacation.
Your humble blogger will be attending a ridiculously well-timed conference on "The Internet and International Politics" for the next few days, so blogging here will be light.
Before departing, however, I do feel compelled (much like last week) to blog about Edward Snowden, his NSA revelations, the scorn heaped upon him by much of the foreign policy community, and the furious pushback by other quarters against that scorn. This time, however, I'm going to resist blogging about Snowden himself, since that A) distracts from the larger question of whether the NSA revelations are truly scandalous; and B) leads to some really bad psychoanalysis-cum-social commentary.
Thomas Friedman captures the sentiments of a lot of the foreign policy community with today's column. This passage in particular pretty much sums it up:
Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another 9/11. That is, I worry about something that’s already happened once — that was staggeringly costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat.
I worry about that even more, not because I don’t care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.”That is what I fear most.
That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime.
You know what? Friedman's going to earn a lot of calumny for this column, but at least he's straightforward about his cost-benefit analysis. And it bears repeating that the revelations to date involve programs that have been signed off by the relevant branches of government.
That said, here's what I worry about:
1) Friedman allows that these surveillance programs are vulnerable to abuse but says that, "so far, [it] does not appear to have happened." Here's my question: how the f**k would Friedman know if abuse did occur? We're dealing with super-secret programs here. Exactly what investigative or oversight body would detect such abuse? What I worry about is that we have no idea whether national security bureaucracies abuse their privilege.
The last time I trusted intelligence bureaucracies and political leaders that the system was working was the run-up to the Iraq war. Never again.
2) The traditional ways to constrain government bureaucracies in a democracy -- transparency, legislative oversight and political control -- are weakened when we move to national security questions. The traditional way to compensate for this is to develop a strong organizational culture and powerful professional norms. This is one reason why, despite recent scandals, the military remains one government institution that still possesses the public trust.
I don't have deep insights into the organizational culture at Fort Meade, but I'd suggest that the norms there might not be as powerful as they are in the Pentagon. That might be due to the primary nature of their job, which is to keep information secret above all else. This is an organizational culture where the boss feels it within his prerogative to flat-out lie to Congress. So no, I really don't trust the NSA's organizational culture.
3) Based on what happened in the wake of the Boston bombings, I'd wager that Friedman's logic about public attitudes doesn't necessarily hold up. Indeed, public opinion polls showed greater concerns about civil liberties infringements. That's not a 9/11-level event -- if one of those happened, public opinion might very well shift in the way he predicts. Still, nearly twelve years after 9/11, Americans seem less "shockable" from terrorist actions.
There are valid policy grounds for some of the surveillance state, and I don't think I'm naïve about the threats against the United States. That said, a major personal legacy of 21st century American foreign policy f**k-ups is that I can't give these agencies or their political masters the benefit of the doubt. Threats have been overhyped and intelligence has been spectacularly wrong. Without much greater efforts by the intelligence community, the Obama administration, and Congress to restore trust in these institutions, that doubt will only grow.
The response is predictable: Don't be naive! Discussing secret national security programs will tip off the terrorists and make the United States vulnerable!
I don't buy it. There must be a way to shed a modicum of light on how far Presidents Bush and Obama stretched the Patriot Act. Surely, it's possible to start an open and honest conversation about drone warfare, domestic surveillance, and big data in general terms that don't expose cherished "sources and methods."
How do I know this? Because it's done all the time, usually when transparency suits a White House's political agenda. The Bush administration declassified (bad) intelligence about Iraq to sell the war to a skeptical public. The Obama White House opened intelligence files on the assassination of Osama bin Laden to promote the president's reelection bid.
And there is this Orwellian habit: Virtually every unauthorized leak, including the most recent ones about the prying eyes and ears at the National Security Agency, is followed by the release of classified information (an authorized leak) that supports the administration's case against leaks.
Most Americans want to give the president the benefit of the doubt on national security. They want to believe their elected representatives are fully briefed, as Obama dubiously claims, and committed to intensive oversight. They'd like the media to be a backstop against abuse.
But these institutions keep failing Americans. Why should we trust them?
I reluctantly agree. And if this gets me kicked out of the Respectable Foreign Policy Pundit Club, so be it.
As Dylan Byers reports, FP head honcho Susan Glasser will be leaving Foreign Policy soon:
Some truly game-changing news on the Washington media scene tonight: POLITICO has hired Susan Glasser, the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, to serve as editor of new long-form journalism and opinion divisions -- a move the editors call "the largest expansion of our company in three years."
"This next stage of POLITICO’s growth has two main components. The first is to add magazine-style journalism to our newsroom – the kind Susan has produced masterfully throughout her career," editor-in-chief John Harris and executive editor Jim VandeHei wrote in a memo to staff Sunday night. "Like all our journalism, these stories will aim to take full advantage of our digital platform and the enormous audiences available to us there. Susan will also oversee special glossy editions of this new POLITICO magazine, stocked with profiles, investigative reporting and provocative analysis."
"The second major component of this new enterprise – and Susan’s mission here – is to add vitality and impact to POLITICO’s daily report by marshaling the best outside contributors to produce analysis, argument and first-person perspectives on the news of the day. We imagine this content as melding the best of several traditional platforms – newspaper op-ed pages, for instances, or Sunday Outlook and Week in Review sections – and revitalizing them for contemporary times. The key to doing this successfully is to have a relentless editorial mind setting the agenda, with a creative sensibility for driving the conversation in Washington and beyond."
As Politico's Wonder Twins note in their email, Glasser was responsible for turning "Foreign Policy magazine into a fascinating and indispensable publication." I'd describe that as an understatement.
I recall my initial introduction to Susan as she was getting ready to expand FP's web presence in late 2008. That was not exactly a moment when most businesses were thinking about expanding their activities. The rational part of my brain admired the counterintuitive nature of the move and thought it made great sense. The rest of my brain thought, "well, this will be a lovely six months before everything goes belly up."
The fact that today, Foreign Policy is in such great shape is a testament to Susan's leadership. As a blogger, you would think that I wouldn't have had much interaction with Susan during my day-to-day activities. You'd be right -- but that's not all an editor does. Over the past four years, Susan's feedback has been enormously useful for my writing here and elsewhere. In our conversations, Susan taught me a lot about the peculiar folkways of Washington's foreign policy community. As an outsider to both the ways of glossy magazines and the ways of the Beltway, Susan has been an indispensable and wise rabbi. And also, anyone with the stones to publish this -- and this -- has earned my loyalty for life.
Your humble blogger wishes Susan many successes in her new organization -- it will be hard, but not surprising, for her to match her successes here at Foreign Policy.
Let's be clear at the outset of this post that its content is almost completely driven by envy. Total, abject, rage-inducing envy.
Now, with that in mind, I see that KKR is creating a fancy-pants new institute. And guess who's gonna head it?
Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. L.P. today announced the appointment of retired four-star General and former Director of the CIA David Petraeus as Chairman of the newly created KKR Global Institute.
Henry Kravis, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of KKR, stated: "I have long known and respected General Petraeus and, on behalf of everyone at KKR, I welcome him to the firm. As the world changes and we expand how and where we invest, we are always looking to sharpen the ‘KKR edge.' With the addition of General Petraeus, we are building on the work we have done to understand the investment implications of public policy, macro-economic, regulatory and technology trends globally. We are pleased to bring all of this expertise together under one umbrella, the KKR Global Institute, to deliver the best of KKR's insights for our investors."
Over the past several years, macro-economic and geopolitical considerations, including the heightened role of central banks following the financial crisis, new regulation and major changes in public policy, have led to KKR's increased engagement on these areas and on environmental, social and governance issues. At the same time, KKR is a global firm investing in new and emerging markets that have new risks and opportunities, The KKR Global Institute will be the nexus of KKR's focus on the investment implications of these issues. It will also further build on the firm's efforts to help KKR's portfolio companies expand globally, and it will periodically serve as an outlet for publishing the firm's thought leadership products, including views from portfolio managers and industry experts....
General Petraeus observed. "I am very pleased to join such a great team. I have watched KKR evolve as it adapted to the post-financial crisis world and became a go-to partner for companies worldwide. I look forward to supporting the investment teams in their pursuit of the best opportunities for clients and also being a part of a new initiative to provide additional insights to KKR's clients and companies."....
General Petraeus holds a PhD in international relations from Princeton University and has taught economics and international relations at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
So this, in addition to his CUNY post, suggests that Petraeus has successfully completed his soft landing (though this and his CUNY position are gonna lead to some interesting conversations on campus). Which, in the abstract, he pretty much deserves. He served his country in a variety of not-very-easy positions for a long period of time. Sure, there's accusations of self-puffery, but that's par for the course in Washington. No, Petraeus totally deserves to be the head of some Bigthink Institute devoted to assessing geopolitical threats in the world and the best way to respond to them.
[Um … did you actually read the press release? --ed.] Well, not carefully, but … but … wait, this institute is about global political economy??!! What??!!
No, that's OK; I'm still happy for Petraeus. Really. It doesn't matter that I've devoted my entire career to studying these issues; what matters is that General Petraeus once taught economics at West Point and has a lot of leadership experience, and that translates into cognate fields like "the heightened role of central banks following the financial crisis, new regulation and major changes in public policy" and SERIOUSLY, WHO THE F**K DO I HAVE TO DRONE-STRIKE TO GET A CUSHY CORPORATE THINK-TANK POST??!!
Sorry, I just needed to vent for a second about the unidirectional nature of security folk spreading into other disciplines. But it's not all bad. After all, I still get to rail at members of Congress in an unconstrained manner! [Just not as effectively as the military! --ed. If you excuse me, I'm going to spend the rest of the day in the fetal position.]
In an offhand tweet today, I believe Matthew Yglesias might have stumbled onto a heretofore undetected threat to the American way of life. Here's the tweet:
Cab drivers thinks new construction is creating too many traffic jams. #friedmaning— Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) May 22, 2013
Now #friedmaning refers to the common foreign affairs columnist trope of quoting a cabbie to get a "man on the street" feel to any kind of reporting.
But this tweet reminded me that another Friedman obsession is America's crumbling infrastructure. Which got me to thinking: What if the United States government started listening to Friedman? What if the government actually started to invest in shoring up its crumbling infrastructure, particularly in metropolitan areas frequented by Friedman? I think you'd face the much-feared Friedman Feedback Loop:
1) Tom Friedman calls for new infrastructure investment.
2) New investments in infrastructure inevitably lead to traffic snarls.
3) Cabbies, bearing the brunt of said traffic jams, start grousing to passengers.
4) Whether firsthand or secondhand, Tom Friedman hears about the clogged roads.
5) Worked up into a lather, Friedman pens many, many more op-ed columns dedicated to boosting spending to improve American roads.
6) Even more spending on infrastructure leads to even greater traffic jams.
7) Go back to Step 2 and repeat.
Unless infrastructure repair could somehow outpace Friedman's output -- highly unlikely -- entire cities would soon be awash in renovation projects and traffic jams, leading to the overuse of Amtrak, thereby crippling America's rail system as we know it.
One can only hope this looming threat is discussed at next month's Friedman Forum.
As someone who is pretty friggin' wary about the use of American force in Syria, and as someone who does not shy away from snark in the blogosphere, I found Steve Walt's top ten warning signs of liberal imperialism to be more alienating than endearing.
Part of it is the "liberal imperialism" label -- as I noted when Mearsheimer first coined the term, it obfuscates far more than it reveals. Part of it is the absurdity of claiming that those advocating for intervention in Syria turn a blind eye to U.S. government abuses of civil liberties. Part of it is the post-Arab Spring pooh-poohing of non-Western desires for democracy. And part of it is the abject failure to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, there are conceptual flaws contained within the realist worldview. Walt's failure to acknowledge fallibility makes the entire post an exercise in elite condescension.
There's a lot of that going around these days -- see, for example, Roger Cohen's New York Review of Books evisceration of Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett's new book Going to Tehran. If you read the entire review, it's clear that Cohen sympathizes with large chunks of the Leveretts' argument -- that current U.S. policy toward Iran is blinkered, a ratcheting up of the conflict will accomplish little, so maybe some kind of rapprochement should be attempted. Despite Cohen's sympathies to their logic, however, we get these passages in his review:
The eerie effort to whitewash the Islamic Republic in Going to Tehran is so extreme that it would be comical if it did not stray close to obscenity.…
The overarching problem is that the Leveretts’ urge to defend the Islamic Republic’s every act destroys their credibility. It makes them implausible critics of US policy at a time when new thinking on Iran is urgently needed and a third US war in the Middle East looms. Going to Tehran could have been a useful book but it is buried in heavy doses of one-sided drivel.…
The Leveretts write:
For most Egyptians and other Middle Easterners, the “main division in the world” is not between democracies and dictatorships but between countries whose strategic autonomy is subordinated to the United States and countries who exercise genuine independence in policymaking.
On the contrary, everything I have seen and heard in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia over the past two years suggests it is precisely the quest for freedom from despotism that has driven brave people to revolution—the freedom at last to write and say what they like, act to change their lives, and join the modern world. This does not mean they want societies that are secular clones, or lackeys, of the West. But they are saying they do not want to live any longer in cowed societies riven by fear under the sway of an unaccountable authority. Khamenei’s Iran, and his position itself, is on the wrong side of this political tide.…
The Leveretts might have made a strong case for such creative diplomacy. A pity, then, that they see dark conspiracy in every US failing—and no failings on the other side. They blame America’s “imperial turn” and even suggest that President Obama’s “attempt to salvage Washington’s failed drive for regional hegemony could wind up doing more damage to American strategic prospects than George W. Bush’s debacles did.” They blame “liberal imperialists” (John Mearsheimer’s phrase), who, in the Leveretts’s telling, seem to include everyone from Secretary of State John Kerry to Leslie Gelb and Tom Friedman. They blame the neocons, of course, and they blame the Israel lobby, embodied by institutions like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy where, as a note acknowledges, Hillary Mann Leverett once worked (and, as is not mentioned, wrote a paper in 1998 denouncing “Iranian links to international terrorism”).
They also blame the Iranian diaspora. And, in customary egregious style, they write that all four of these groups “use human rights issues as a tool to support American dominance over the Islamic Republic.” In the land of the Kahrizak Detention Center, scene of the worst abuses in 2009, and Evin Prison, human rights are a grave issue involving brutal mistreatment, not a “tool.”
Iran has been widely portrayed in the United States as an incarnation of evil. The Leveretts might have offered a counterbalancing account. Instead they have fallen prey to their own dangerous mythology of a benign Iranian order loved by its citizens. Their book is a disservice to truth and a betrayal of all the brave Iranians who, for more than a century now, have been seeking a political order that provides a genuine reconciliation of freedom, representative government, and faith.
This is the kind of review that makes it very easy to dismiss the entire book -- regardless of the merit of the policy argument.
What is it that causes Walt or the Leveretts (or Paul Krugman, if we're going to go there) to cloak arguments in self-defeating exaggerations and overheated rhetoric? I don't have a definitive answer, but I do have a hypothesis: This one of the lasting legacies of Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom altered the landscape in United States foreign policy about the use of force -- but those in the foreign-policy community who argued against the war (and failed to dent either public or elite attitudes) have not caught up with that fact. It's as if, over the past decade, prominent realists have adopted the worst rhetorical tropes of their ideological adversaries.
People who already decry the use of American force in Syria or elsewhere will enjoy Walt's essay and the Leveretts' book -- they're playing to their ideological base. As exercises in persuasion, however, they don't just fail -- they actively harm their cause.
So last week there was some interesting data clean-up in the foreign policy blogosphere, and some less interesting commentary on it. Let's dive in!
Max Fisher posted an item at the Washington Post relying on World Values Survey (WVS) data to generate a global map of racism. He found a Foreign Policy write-up of a Kyklos paper that two Swedish economists published that relied on WVS data. Fisher's map was based on a response to one question:
The survey asked respondents in more than 80 different countries to identify kinds of people they would not want as neighbors. Some respondents, picking from a list, chose “people of a different race.” The more frequently that people in a given country say they don’t want neighbors from other races, the economists reasoned, the less racially tolerant you could call that society.
Fisher constructed a global map based on the responses to that query, a map that contained some striking findings. Western countries seemed to be far more tolerant (or far savvier at answering this survey question). Countries such as Pakistan seeming to be way more tolerant than India and Bangladesh, for example.
Fisher's post generated a lot of attention (full disclosure: I tweeted about it) -- so much so that some social scientists started to look at the WVS data and found some serious issues with it. The Fletcher School's Ashirul Amin, for example, dug into the data found that the reason for the seemingly low tolerance of Bangladeshis was a data entry error on the World Values Survey site -- the number of "tolerant" and "intolerant" respondents were reversed for one particular year.
Other social scientists, including Steve Saideman, also weighed in with methodological criticisms.
Going further, Siddhartha Mitter pointed out ways in which different nationalities view "race" as a different kind of social construct, thereby making inter-country comparisons a problematic exercise.
The biggest problem, of course, is that “race” is impossible to operationalize in a cross-national comparison. Whereas a homosexual, or an Evangelical Christian, or a heavy drinker, or a person with a criminal record, means more or less the same thing country to country, a person being of “another race” depends on constructs that vary widely, in both nature and level of perceived importance, country to country, and indeed, person to person. In other words, out of all of the many traits of difference for which the WVS surveyed respondents’ tolerance, the Swedish economists – and Fisher, in their wake – managed to select for comparison the single most useless one.
The reason I'm blogging about this, however, is where Mitter went after lodging these criticisms. According to him, the fault lies not with the data entry, but with the foreign policy blogger:
The problem here isn’t the “finding” that the Anglo-Saxon West is more tolerant. The problem is the pseudo-analysis. The specialty of foreign-affairs blogging is explaining to a supposedly uninformed public the complexities of the outside world. Because blogging isn’t reporting, nor is it subject to much editing (let alone peer review), posts like Fisher’s are particularly vulnerable to their author’s blind spots and risk endogenizing, instead of detecting and flushing out, the bullshit in their source material. What is presented as education is very likely to turn out, in reality, obfuscation.
This is an endemic problem across the massive middlebrow “Ideas” industry that has overwhelmed the Internet, taking over from more expensive activities like research and reporting. In that respect, Fisher’s work is a symptom, not a cause. But in his position as a much-read commentator at the Washington Post, claiming to decipher world events through authoritative-looking tools like maps and explainers (his vacuous Central African Republic explainer was a classic of non-information verging on false information, but that’s a discussion for another time), he contributes more than his weight to the making of the conventional wisdom. As such, it would be welcome and useful if he held himself to a high standard of analysis – or at least, social-science basics. Failing that, he’s just another charlatan peddling gee-whiz insights to a readership that’s not as dumb as he thinks.
Cards on the tale: earlier in the post, Mitter indicates he doesn't think much of Foreign Policy bloggers either, so I'm pretty sure he won't think much of my own musings here. And I understand Mitter's anger about a misleading map coming from an outlet that generates a lot of eyeballs. That said, his critique is off-base for two reasons.
First, in this instance, the primary fault lies not with foreign policy bloggers, but with academics. It's not like Fisher commissioned a bogus survey and then wrote up the findings in a misleading manner. Rather, he relied on a survey that goes back three decades and has been cited pretty widely in the academic literature. He got to that survey via an academic article that got through the peer-review process. Almost all journalists not in possession of a Ph.D., going through that route, would have taken the data as gospel. It's not clear to me why Mitter thinks a full-blown foreign correspondent would be better versed in the "social science basics." Would Mitter have expected, say, Ryan Avent or Matthew Yglesias to have ferreted out Reinhart and Rogoff's Excel error, for example? I'm all for better education in the ways of statistics and social science methodology in the foreign affairs community, but methinks Mitter is setting the bar extraordinarily high here.
Second, the blog ecosystem "worked" in this particular case. Fisher posted something, a bunch of social scientists looked at the post and found something problematic, and lo and behold, errors in the data were discovered and publicized. As I've opined before, one of the signal purposes of blogging is to critique those higher up in the intellectual food chain. I understand that Mitter would prefer that the original error never take place. By its very nature, however, the peer review process for blogging takes place after publication -- not before. That's a bit messier than the academic route to publication -- and, because Fisher has a larger megaphone, one could posit that with great traffic comes great responsibility. Still, I suspect that anyone who titles a post "The Cartography of Bullshit" probably wouldn't want too heavy of an editorial hand to be placed on their prose.
At the heart of Mitter's lament is his untested hypothesis that foreign affairs blogging has caused the decline in research and international reporting. This strikes me as more correlation than causation, however. Furthermore, it implies that they are substitutes when in fact they are complements. The source material for a lot of foreign affairs blogging is academic research and in-depth international reportage. If Mitter wants to see a better informed public, then there needs to be as much focus on the quality of the primary source material as in the quality of the transmission mechanism.
Am I missing anything?
UPDATE: Mitter has responded in part here, and at more length in a constructive comment to this post. Both are well worth reading, and put some more context into his original post. He's getting to some interesting tensions about the nature of expertise and "publicity" in a changing media landscape that are worth mulling over before responding.
So last week was a pretty interesting one in wonkworld. Whether it was a disturbing week is in the eye of the beholder.
To recap: Last Monday the Heritage Foundation released a report claiming that proposed immigration reforms would cost north of $6 trillion. This report received a lot of pushback from liberal, libertarian, and conservative policy analysts.
As the debate fragmented into myriad sub-debates, one eddy focused on one of the co-authors, Heritage senior policy analyst Jason Richwine. As the Washington Post's Dylan Matthews unearthed, Richwine's Harvard University dissertation was titled "IQ and Immigration Policy." In it, he made the arguments that 1) Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than white Americans, 2) that difference is partly due to genetic differences between the races, and 3) these differences will not dissipate with successive generations. You can figure out Richwine's policy conclusions for yourself. Dave Weigel at Slate also discovered that Richwine had contributed to a "white nationalist magazine" on the side.
Needless to say, Heritage started backpedaling as furiously as possible from Richwine. They made it clear that Richwine's dissertation was not a Heritage work product and that they didn't endorse it. Then, last Friday, the final boom came: Richwine "resigned" from Heritage. I put that in quotes because, given the circumstances, there's no earthly reason he would have resigned without some serious pressure from those above him at the think tank.
So, what does this all mean? Three thoughts:
1) Hey, so it turns out that ideas do matter in public policy. Not just any ideas either, but the quality of the ideas. This isn't to say that politics aren't involved in what happened this past week -- this is totally about political self-interest as well -- but the incomplete and distorted analysis that Heritage provided left it very vulnerable to pushback.
2) A few immigration skeptics on the right, such as Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin, have decried what they see as intellectual PC-thoughtcrime run amok. Malkin in particular decries the "smug dismissal of Richwine's credentials and scholarship." Now, to be blunt, this is just a little rich coming from someone who has not been shy when it comes to smug dismissals of Ivy League credentials in the past. That said, whenever someone goes from anonymous to the focus of a white-hot media scrum to fired inside of a week, I get queasy. Was there a rush to judgment here?
I'd break this down into two steps: First, whether Heritage acted appropriately, and second, whether Richwine's work merits the mantle of brave truth-teller. On the former, well, this is a key difference between a think tank and a university. Think tanks are trying to influence public policy, and the taint of having someone dabbling with the racist fringe on the payroll is a difficult one to erase. So, yeah, it shouldn't be all that shocking that Richwine is no longer working at Heritage, whereas university professors who say or write controversial things stay on the payroll.
As for the quality of Richwine's dissertation, the primary defense that Malkin et al. offer appears to be the caliber of Richwine's dissertation committee. From Malkin's post:
No researcher or academic institution is safe if this smear campaign succeeds. Richwine’s dissertation committee at Harvard included George Borjas, Robert W. Scrivner Professor of Economics and Social Policy. The Cuban-born scholar received his PhD in economics from Columbia. He is an award-winning labor economist, National Bureau of Economic Research research associate, and author of countless books, including a widely used labor economics textbook now in its sixth edition.
Richard J. Zeckhauser, the Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Political Economy at JFK, also signed off on Richwine’s dissertation. Zeckhauser earned a PhD in economics from Harvard. He belongs to the Econometric Society, the American Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine (National Academy of Sciences).
The final member of the committee that approved Richwine’s "racist" thesis is Christopher Jencks, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard's JFK School. He is a renowned left-wing academic who has taught at Harvard, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He edited the liberal New Republic magazine in the 1960s and has written several scholarly books tackling poverty, economic inequality, affirmative action, welfare reform, and yes, racial differences (The Black White Test Score Gap).
The willingness of Republican Gang of 8'ers to allow a young conservative researcher and married father of two to be strung up by the p.c. lynch mob for the crime of unflinching social science research is chilling, sickening, and suicidal.
These are serious people doing serious work.
I must confess that Malkin's lament made me think of this:
This is not to denigrate Richwine's dissertation committee. Still, as someone all too familiar with the Ph.D. life, let's just say that an argument based solely on authority is not convincing. I've perused parts of Richwine's dissertation, and … well … hoo boy. Key terms are poorly defined, auxiliary assumptions abound, and the literature I'm familiar with that is cited as authoritative is, well, not good. It's therefore unsurprising that, until last week, Richwine's dissertation disappeared into the ether the moment after it was approved. According to Google Scholar, no one cited it in the four years since it appeared. Furthermore, Richwine apparently didn't convert any part of it into any kind of refereed or non-refereed publication. Based on the comments that Weigel and others have received from Richwine's dissertation committee, one wonders just how much supervising was going on.
3) This whole affair should be a cautionary tale to Ph.D. students and profs alike. For the grad students -- particularly those planning on going into the policy world -- your dissertation will follow you for the rest of your life. Don't think you can just grind one out barely above the bar and it won't matter. And if you're puzzled why your advisor or a member of your dissertation committee is acting all anal retentive about some aspect of your thesis, there's a good reason. Our dissertation students follow us for the rest of our careers. The last thing we want as advisors is to get a phone call from a reporter asking us why we let some dubious piece of work skate through. It's our asses on the line as well.
Am I missing anything?
Yesterday the New York Times announced a brand new conference called The Next New World. The URL gives the game away, however -- it's the Friedman Forum. The précis:
Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman hosts this timely forum, bringing together chief executive officers, tech pioneers, government officials, influential decision-makers and scholars to discuss the new world economy, opportunities and challenges. We will explore the complex dynamics of new-world infrastructure, especially the transformative electronic, digital and mobile environment. Attendees can expect invaluable insights into strategies for success in today’s new world order.
If you act before May 10, you can get the discounted rate of $995.00 to attend!
Why should you shell out that kind of cabbage to go to such a confab? Well, there's the speaker list of course, but even better, the Friedman Forum has a "Why Attend?" page that will answer this very question. The good parts version:
The New York Times Next New World Forum is an invitation-only, highly interactive forum that explains:
How this Next New World is changing your job, your workplace, and your competition...
How cyberattacks and monetary crises are the new national security threats—threats to global businesses as well as nations....
How brands are threatened as never before by new players, and why C-Suite executives are both more constrained and less likely to last....
How robotics and other cutting-edge technologies can increase productivity but also disrupt your office and workforce....
How everything from climate change to fallen infrastructure is threatening global supply chains and how the rise of a new global middle class is disrupting American global dominance—while creating new markets.
After reading this, as well as CUNY's announcement that former CENTCOM commander/CIA Director David Petraeus will lead a seminar on the United States and the global economic crisis, I had two reactions.
1) At what point does one decide, "Why, yes, I should lecture people on the New New Things in the Global Economy! And charge at least a thousand dollars for the privilege"?
This is a serious question. I get asked this a lot at various talks, and I'm always befuddled by the query. I mean, if I had the actual answer, I wouldn't be so low in the international relations speaker ecosystem.
2) Forget Davos, Aspen or TED -- the Friedman Forum suggests a whole new vista of conferences branded around the idiosyncracies of individual thought leaders. Friedman better nail this down fast, because the coming competition will be fierce. In the spirit of... er... alliteration and Robert Ludlum titles, let me predict some other possible confabs on the horizon:
A) The Gross Gaggle. Organized by PIMCO's Bill Gross, this would be a collection of the world's most florid investment letter-writers in the world, warning about risk and uncertainty.
The Big Finale: Gross doing a spoken-word version of his latest newsletter with Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" playing in the background.
B) The Slaughter Seminar. The new president of the New America Foundation will lead a highly interdisciplinary gathering to focus on the myriad ways that the 21st century is upending our static 20th century mindsets. Topics will include the role of social networks, social media networks, online networks, gendered networks, and networked networks.
The Big Finale: A three-hour break in the middle of the day for participants to bond with their families.
C) The Dowd Doohickey. Join the Red Priestess as she explains how leadership is supposed to be done in the 21st century. After the ritual flaying of a political scientist to appease the Social Science Gods, Dowd will explain exactly how politicians used to Get Things Gone back in the day.
The Big Finale: Dowd and Aaron Sorkin will re-enact some of the classic Josh Lyman-Donna Moss scenes from The West Wing.
D) The Taleb Teach-In. Just how fragile is your financial position in this time of massive geopolitical and geoeconomic uncertainty? The author of The Black Swan and Antifragile will unleash his crystal ball and stare deeply into your portfolio to see if you're really and truly prepared for a volatile century.
The Big Finale: Taleb unleashes an army of zombies into the auditorium to sort out the resilient from the posers.
E) The Morozov Mish-Mash. Everything is sh*t -- your beliefs, your ideas, your likes, your dislikes, and particularly your values. If you dare attend, Morozov will explain why Everything You Hope for is a Chimera.
The Big Finale. Morozov will glare out at the audience, grumble, "you all suck," drop the mic, and walk off stage.
[And what about your confab?!--ed. I'll let the commenters decide the contents of... the Drezner Deliberations!]
With each passing day, senior scholars that I did not expect to bump into on Twitter... are now on Twitter. Christian Davenport joined recently, as did Jessica Stern. And there are others out there, lurking, trying to make sense of all the craziness.
For those academics who are Twitter-curious, Jay Ulfelder has written a very useful primer on the do's and don'ts of microblogging [NOTE: "microblogging" is a fancy generic word to describe Twitter or Weibo]. All of his points are spot-on, but these three are particularly trenchant for academics:
Decide why you’re using Twitter. If your main goal is to use Twitter as a news feed or to follow other peoples’ work, then it’s a really easy tool to use. Just poke around until you find people and organizations that routinely cover the issues that interest you, and follow them. If, however, your goal is to develop a professional audience, then you need to put more thought into what you tweet and retweet, and the rest of my suggestions might be useful.
Pick your niche(s). There are a lot of social scientists on Twitter, and many of them are picky about whom they follow. To make it worth peoples’ while to add you to their feed, pick one or a few of your research interests and focus almost all of your tweets and retweets on them. For example, I’ve tried to limit my tweets to the topics I blog about: democratization, coups, state collapse, forecasting, and a bit of international relations. When I was new to Twitter, I focused especially on democratization and forecasting because those weren’t topics other people were tweeting much about at the time. I think that differentiation made it easier for people to attach an identity to my avatar, and to understand what they would get by following me that they weren’t already getting from the 500 other accounts in their feeds.
Keep the tweet volume low, at least at the start. For a long time, I tried to limit myself to two or three tweets per Twitter session, usually once or twice per day. That made me think carefully about what I tweeted, (hopefully) keeping the quality higher and preventing me from swamping peoples’ feeds, a big turnoff for many.
Read the whole thing -- and, while you're at it, I'd reference this International Studies Perspectives essay that Charli Carpenter and I co-authored, which seems to be holding up pretty well.
I'll close with three other pieces of advice. First, think of these rules are more like training wheels during your introductory phase on Twitter. You don't ever have to remove them, but over time, as you get used to the norms and folkways of the Twitterverse, you can indeed relax some of them.
Second, that said, if you're a senior scholar, keep those training wheels on for longer. If you have a "name" in the real world, there will be plenty of Twitter gnomes just dying to blog/tweet something to the effect of: "HA HA HA HA HA, look at the stupid old person trying to act all trendy. What a desperado."
Third -- to repeat a theme -- don't tweet at all if you don't want to. Just join and treat Twitter as an RSS reader. Contra Chris Albon and Patrick Meier, I find the notion that Twitter is the new business card to be faintly absurd. There are, no doubt, a small cluster of individuals that can parlay success at social media into something more significant. For that to happen, however, there has to be some serious substance behind the tweets. Simply excelling at social media does little except to route you toward jobs with a heavy social media component. If you're a budding policy wonk, think carefully about what you would like your career arc to look like before following Albon and Meier's advice.
Patriots' Day is a holiday in Massachusetts. In Boston it is known for two events -- the running of the Boston Marathon and the only Major League Baseball game of the year that starts at 11 a.m. Your humble blogger is in no danger of trying to run a marathon, so he and his family went to see the Red Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays in a thrilling walk-off win. And as we boarded the Green Line to leave Fenway, me and mine were happy that the day had gone well for Boston sports.
Soon after we got off the train, we learned that it had not been such a great day.
This is the kind of event where our monkey brains try to search for a deeper meaning, some moral or narrative or response that can sustain us through such moments of nihilism. In many ways, that's a mistake. Sure, the "helpers" and the response to the tragedy should be highlighted. Obsessing about the tragedy itself, however, won't do any good and will do much harm. As Bruce Schneier points out, the whole point of such an attack is to maximize the attention paid to the seeming breakdown in order -- although what actually happened was that emergency providers and ordinary citizens did their utmost to bring order back to chaos. In point of fact, terrorist acts on American soil have been very, very rare since 9/11. Furthermore, as John Arquilla observes, stopping this sort of thing can be next to impossible.
As President Obama and others have pointed out, Boston is a tough, resilient town. This sort of thing will shock us in the moment. As shock fades away, what is left is something stronger and more substantive, something that a few homemade bombs cannot destroy. That's the narrative that will hopefully emerge, and it's the one that does the best job of defeating the psychology of terrorism.
The next thing that will happen is foolish, uninformed speculation about who or whom was responsible. The Boston Globe's Todd Wallack and Andrea Estes have a story quoting lots of terrorism and foreign affairs experts on the question of who was responsible. I'm quoted as well, and I'll let that be the last thing I say on this subject until we have more information:
Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, cautioned that there is too little information to know who might be to blame. Some reports linked the Oklahoma City bombing to foreign terrorists, but it turned out to be the work of Timothy James McVeigh, an American seeking revenge against the government for its siege in Waco.
“Trying to speculate would be foolhardy,” Drezner said. “If anyone should learn anything from the past, it is that you shouldn’t speculate without more information.”
Your humble blogger has been knee-deep in chairing, discussing, and attending International Studies Association panels
all of which seem to have the word "diffusion" in the title and SOMEONE PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!!!
Now, naturally, with the global financial crisis and its aftermath there's been a lot of talk about debts and deficits. And with the defense sequester and what-not, there's been a lot of talk about rising levels of partisanship. And I've come to the reluctant conclusion that a lot of this talk need to stop, like, right now.
Here's the dirty truth about most international studies scholars: They know a fair amount about the high politics of international affairs and almost next to nothing about the rest of life. Of course, the rest of life does impinge on world politics, so there's some natural overlap. The problem starts when, in talking about non-IR stuff, we start to think that we have just as much expertise in these areas. Which we don't. At all.
Last night I tweeted a query about what areas IR scholars should be quiet about and got way too many answers to fit in a blog post. So, here are five things about which I'd really like 99 percent of international relations scholars to shut the hell up:
1) Macroeconomic policy. Should the United States cut its deficit further? Are budget cuts, tax cuts, or tax increases necessary? How can the eurozone escape its current macroeconomic malaise? Most of us have no friggin' clue what the correct answers are for the United States, and that goes double for the euro zone. So unless you're actually publishing scholarly work on global macroeconomic policy, shut up.
2) The role of money in American politics. Foreign policy scholars are far too often shocked -- shocked!! -- when they see interest group politics at work. The Citizens United decision has only amplified this lament. The reaction to this is to either bemoan the general health of the American polity or to start developing simple theories that argue that money or lobbies explain everything about politics. Now I might not be the biggest fan of the American politics subfield, but I'm pretty sure they know more about this topic than we do. So shut up and read what they have to say.
3) Partisanship in the United States. Did you know that it's getting worse? And that it's paralyzing the U.S. government? And that it's getting worse? One of the natural biases of foreign policy scholars is to think in terms of a national interest, and then act appalled when there are different partisan conceptions of that term. Basically, what applies to #2 applies to this point as well.
4) The Internet. As near as I can determine, when asked about this technology affects international politics, most scholars answer with some variation of "networks networks networks cyber cyber cyber." Some scholars do very good work on this subject. The rest of us should shut up for a spell and read them.
5) Diffusion. Never again. Ever.
What else, my dear readers, would you like to see less gabbing about from international affairs scholars?
Earlier in the week I blogged about Operation Iraqi Freedom's effect on the international system (not much) and its effect on American foreign policy (pretty significant). Moving from the systemic to the domestic to the individual level, this last Iraqi retrospective post asks a more solipsistic question. How has Operation Iraqi Freedom affected me as a foreign policy writer?
Ten years ago I supported the decision to invade Iraq. If you're looking for another of the many apologies that have been penned this week, don't bother. I offered my Iraq apology six years ago. Looking back, I'm just grateful that I wasn't all that influential a foreign policy pundit back in the day.
What gnaws at me is why my analytical assessment was so wrong. I can't really blame this on Beltway groupthink. Hell, at the University of Chicago, two of the leading anti-war proponents were just a floor below my office. As I was blogging during the debates in the run-up to the war, I'd like to thjink I engaged critics frequently and in depth.
After reading some of the self-reflections this week, however, I'm beginning to think that my flaw was generational in nature. John B. Judis wrote something interesting on this earlier in the week on why he was so dubious about Operation Iraq Freedom:
I opposed the war, and didn’t listen to those who claimed to have “inside information” probably because I had come of age politically during the Vietnam War and had learned then not to trust government justifications for war. I had backed the first Bush administration’s Gulf War, but precisely because of its limited aims. Ditto the Clinton administration intervention in Kosovo. George W. Bush’s aims in Iraq were similar to American aims in South Vietnam. During those months leading up to the war, I kept having déjà vu experiences, which failed to interest my colleagues. Still, I wavered after Colin Powell’s thoroughly deceptive speech at the United Nations in February 2003, where he unveiled what he claimed was evidence of Iraqi nuclear preparations. I had to have an old friend from the anti-war days remind me again of the arguments against an invasion.
Contrast this with Operation Iraqi Freedom supporter Jonathan Chait's recollections:
The Gulf War took place during my freshman year in college. It was the first major American war since Vietnam, and the legacy of Vietnam cast a heavy shadow — the news was filled with dire warnings of bloody warfare, tens of thousands of U.S. deaths, uprisings across the Middle East. None of it happened. And again, through the nineties, the United States intervened in the Balkans twice under Bill Clinton, saving countless lives and disproving the fears of the skeptics, which had grown weaker but remained.
These events had conditioned me to trust the hawks, or at least, the better informed hawks. They also conditioned me unconsciously to regard wars through this frame, as relatively fast attacks without a heavy occupation phase. People tend to think the next war will be somewhat like the last. That is a failing I will try to avoid again.
Age-wise, I'm a contemporary of Chait's and a generation younger than Judis. Ironically, for all the Gen-Xer tropes about irony and cynicism, the foreign policy arc of our generation looked pretty damn optimistic until March 2003. Indeed, reading the above paragraphs I can recall my attitudes about the use of force in 2002 and 2003. America's use of force during the 1990s -- and, at the time, Operation Enduring Freedom -- had been limited in scope and pretty efficient in its execution. Furthermore, the foreign policy principals who were planning the Second Gulf War had run the first one, which, again, had gone pretty well. So yes, I think I had a generational bias -- I badly overestimated the capacities of George W. Bush's national security and foreign policy hands.
How does this affect my thinking about the use of force now? I think so, but in a limited way. I'm more leery of arguments that the overwhelming use of force will change things for the better in places like Syria or Iran. I'm extremely leery about the creeping militarization of American foreign policy. I think to read people I disagree with on policy -- even, say, the Leveretts -- with a more generous eye than I did a decade ago, because I'm less sure I'm right.
That said, I was by and large supportive of U.S. actions in Libya, and I've been skeptical about the constant warnings from 2006 onwards that the United States is being pulled inexorably into a war with Iran. So I suppose that some of that nineties optimism still resides within me about the use of force as an adjunct to American foreign policy.
[Lest one think I'm doing this to maintain my "viability" for a foreign policy position in the federal government, let me assure you that for very good personal and professional reasons, there is no way I'll ever be serving the U.S. government in an foreign policy capacity in the future. Furthermore, I've got about as secure a sinecure as I can find in the academy. No, the views expressed here have nothing to do with any future career aspirations.]
In this, I'm more like Chait and less like the millenial generation that follows me. Indeed, as Chait observed:
I get the sense that their foreign policy worldview is dominated by the Iraq War in the same way the Boomer generation is dominated by Vietnam and the generation before them by World War II. The formative event of their adulthood is the reference point for all future conflict....
And I think if you look at the commentary leading up to the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya, you see the same pattern asserting itself. Anti-interventionists were treating it as Iraq redux, reprising every argument they wish they could have made in 2003. But Libya was not Iraq. I’d argue it was a success — not a perfect success, but a superior alternative to standing by as tens of thousands of people were massacred.
There's hard data that the millenial generation thinks about American foreign policy differently -- and given their formative experiences, I can't say that I blame them. Indeed, it's just punishment for the neoconservatives that they bungled Iraq so badly that their intellectual project might die out Children of Men-style because they're producing fewer and fewer young neoconservatives. Still, while this worldview might prevent another Iraq, I do wonder whether it also constrains more limited military actions that do yield foreign polivcy gains.
I'm definitely more risk-averse about the use of force than I used to be. And I hope I'm more generous with those who oppose the use of force as a foreign policy tool than I was a decade ago. Still, going forward, I'm still probably more hawkish than the median foreign policy wonk of the millenial generation. Which, I confess, is a very weird place to be ten years after Iraq.
On Monday I blogged that Operation Iraqi Freedom didn't affect the international system all that much. What about the second image, however? Ten years after Operation Iraqi Freedom, are there lasting effects on American foreign policy?
The answer here seems to be "yes." Intriguingly enough, the people making this argument the loudest are neoconservatives. William Kristol argued that "war weariness" was affecting American foreign policy decision-making:
Now we’re weary again. And there are many politicians all too willing to seek power and popularity by encouraging weariness rather than point out its perils. Foremost among those politicians is our current president. It’s hard to blame the American people for some degree of war weariness when their president downplays threats and is eager to shirk international responsibilities.
[Note to Kristol: When you or anyone else inside the Beltway says "war weariness," to the rest of the country it means either "prudence" or "a healthy distrust of the claims of Beltway advocates for the use of force."]
Here's the thing: Deep down, the American people are pretty realist. The legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom is that this realist consensus has cemented itself further in the American psyche. The American public has an aversion to using force unless the national interest is at stake, and a deep aversion to using force to do things like promote democracy or human rights. The current GOP civil war on the use of force demonstrates the extent to which this sentiment has become a bipartisan phenomenon. Indeed, if the GOP doesn't alter its rhetoric on the use of force, it will continue to bleed support from young voters.
Public opinion does not always form a powerful constraint on American foreign policy, but one of the biggest legacies of Iraq is that public attitudes about the use of force have imposed serious constraints on the United States. Sure, an administration can use force as in Libya, but now it needs multilateral support and a light footprint in order to avoid a public backlash. The curel irony of this for neoconservatives is that as secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld wanted a light footprint in the Iraq invasion, reflecting his own faith in the revolution in military affairs. By going in too light, however, Rumsfeld tarnished the RMA and the notion of using ground troops in anything but an overwhelming capacity.
Last year I closed out an essay in Policy Review with the following:
[T]he long, draining conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq have taken their toll on public attitudes about U.S. leadership in the world, as well as the use of force. In 2009 Pew found isolationist sentiments had reached an all-time high in the United States. A January 2012 pipa poll found that Americans strongly prefer cutting defense spending compared to either Medicare or Social Security. According to a January 2012 Pew survey, "Defending against terrorism and strengthening the military are given less priority today than over the course of the past decade." Seventy-eight percent of respondents to a December 2011 cnn poll approved of the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq. The growth of unrest in that country since the U.S. withdrawal has done nothing to alter public attitudes on the matter — which is why Republican challengers to Obama have been rather reticent to talk about it. By the beginning of 2012, majorities opposed the war in Afghanistan and favored a withdrawal of U.S. forces as soon as possible. On Iran, Americans strongly prefer economic and diplomatic action to military statecraft even as tensions escalate in the Persian Gulf.
As Libya demonstrated, presidents still have some latitude when choosing to use force. The political risks for presidents to invest political capital into foreign affairs have clearly increased, however. Unless foreign interventions yield immediate, tangible results, Americans will view them as distracting from problems at home. If far-flung military interventions bog down, public support will evaporate. This will make any president regardless of ideology more risk-averse about projecting military power and persisting with it should difficulties arise. For strategic culture, this means a reversion back to the days of the Powell Doctrine and a continued appreciation for economic coercion.
It took a generation and the end of the Cold War for the lessons of Vietnam to fade away. I'd wager that it will take at least a generation for the legacy effects of the Iraq War.
Indeed, in American history, the war that Operation Iraqi Freedom reminds me of isn't Vietnam -- it's the War of 1812. That was another war of choice that was launched in no small part because of War Hawks in the halls of Congress. It went disastrously for the United States save the Battle of New Orleans, which allowed politicians to put a gloss of victory on an otherwise calamitous conflict. The long-term political effects on some of the War Hawks were pretty severe however (see: John C. Calhoun).
Operation Iraqi Freedom's effects on the international system were minor at best. The effects on American foreign policy, however, are significant and will be with us for some time to come.
So it's the ten-year anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which means it's time for the obligatory commemorative blog posts and such. Go read Stephen Walt and Peter Feaver for some contrasting takes. Do wait five minutes in between clicking those two, however -- any quicker than that, and intellectual whiplash might result.
This was a Big Deal in American foreign policy, and a single blog post about it will not do it justice. So I think it's worth reflecting on the legacy of the Second Gulf War at three different levels -- the system, the country, and the individual levels. Today's installment: How did Operation Iraqi Freedom affect the international system?
The surprising answer is: not all that much.
I don't come to this conclusion lightly. You'd think that a conflict that cost more than $2.2 trillion and led to 190,000 deaths would have some systemic ramifications. Except that it didn't -- not really.
To understand why, consider what both standard realist, instiitutionalist, and neoconservative accounts predicted would happen.
Realists were convinced that the largely-but-not-completely unilateral act of preemption by the United States should have triggered significant amounts of blowback. The great powers that opposed the invasion should have formed a balancing coalition against a revisionist United States. That did not happen. Furthermore, all the realist yapping about "soft balancing" looks pretty absurd in retrospect. There is no doubt that the United States suffered a few years of some serious unpopularity -- but that temporary dent ended very quickly after the 2008 election.
Some realists fond of the "imperial overstretch" argument might try to posit that the costs of the Iraq war led to America's parlous fiscal state. Any serious look at the numbers, however, says this is not true -- the war didn't help, but the principal causes of U.S. budget deficits over the past decade were the Bush tax cuts, the rise in entitlement spending, and the decline in tax revenues caused by the Great Recession. The Iraq war played a supporting role -- not a leading one.
The institutionalists would focus on the U.S. defection from international regimes and international institutions. In the end, the U.S.-led coalition invaded without an imprimatur from the United Nations. In the run-up to the war, the IAEA was particularly scornful of U.S. claims. Institutionalists would also have predicted some kind of punishment of the United States for its defection from the rules of the game. Absent that punishment, institutionalists would predict a weakening of global governance more generally, given the toothless nature of enforcement.
Except that none of these things happened. Both the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council suffered minimal costs in the aftermath of the invasion. Within a few years, however, it was the United States leading the U.N.S.C. to successive rounds of sanctions against Iran and North Korea for doing things that had been used as a pretext for invading Iraq. A decade later, it turns out that global governance did a decent job in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
As for the neoconservatives, well, their predictions were straightforward. The invasion of Iraq was supposed to set of a tectonic shift in the politics of the Middle East. States contemplating the development of WMD should have been cowed by the might of American power. The creation of a stable democracy in Iraq was supposed to trigger a massive wave of democratic regime change across the Middle East.
Now, to be fair to the neocons, Libya did give up its WMD program, and there has been a wave of regime change across the Middle East. But let's be clear about a few things. The Iraq invasion played a supporting and not a primary role in Qaddafi's decision. And anyone who tries to connect the regime change in Iraq with the Arab Spring needs to read Harry Frankfurt again and again and again. The fact that no one judges Iraq to be a real democracy suggests the hollowness of the neoconservative argument.
At the systemic level, the Iraq invasion did not matter. Maybe one could argue that there was a mild acceleration of relative U.S. decline. The thing is, a lot of the metrics that people use to discuss relative power were shifting away from the United States regardless of Iraq. None of the major predictions of standard realist, institutionalist, or neoconservative models hold up terribly well a decade later.
So does this mean Operation Iraqi Freedom doesn't matter? Of course not. Affecting the international system is a really high bar. World wars, economic depressions, industrial revolutions -- these things matter at the systemic level. It's rare that a conflict smaller than that would have systemic implications (though the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan does come to mind). Rather, the conflict's primary effects were at the national level. Iraq did have a profound effect on American foreign policy thinking. Which is the subject I'll tackle in my next blog post.
Am I missing anything?
Let's face it, Americans do not understand the current state of either macroeconomic policy or foreign policy terribly well. According to Bloomberg, only six percent of Americans know that the federal budget deficit is actually shrinking. According to Gallup, just a bare majority of Americans believe that the United States military remains "number one in the world militarily." In a world of these kind of epic media fails, where significant numbers of GOP legislators seem "more concerned about 2% inflation than 8% employment," it's important to to have recognized experts try to clear the air.
Nobel Prize-winning economist and unusually-pithy-writer-for-an-economist Robert Solow has an op-ed in today's New York Times to offer a primer on the implications of U.S. debt. Here, in brief, are the "six facts about the debt that many Americans may not be aware of," in Solow's words. Let me number them here:
1) Roughly half of outstanding debt owed to the public, now $11.7 trillion, is owned by foreigners. This part of the debt is a direct burden on ourselves and future generations....
2) The Treasury owes dollars, America’s own currency (unlike Greece or Italy, whose debt is denominated in euros)...
3) One way to effectively repudiate our debt is to encourage inflation...
4) Treasury bonds owned by Americans are different from debt owed to foreigners. Debt owed to American households, businesses and banks is not a direct burden on the future....
5) The real burden of domestically owned Treasury debt is that it soaks up savings that might go into useful private investment.
6) But in bad times like now, Treasury bonds are not squeezing finance for investment out of the market. On the contrary, debt-financed government spending adds to the demand for privately produced goods and services, and the bonds provide a home for the excess savings. When employment returns to normal, we can return to debt reduction.
Some foreign pollicy experts think that Solow is being too sunny. Take Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass:
With respect, I think Solow is actually being too pesssimistic, and Haass is being way too pessimistic.
The problem is that, contra Solow, I suspect Americans are keenly aware of his points 1-5. The United States owes a lot of money to China, but I'd wager that any poll of U.S. citizens would reveal that the public thinks we owe even more to China than we actually do. Similarly, much of the policy rhetoric coming from Washington focuses on fears of incipient inflation that have yet to pan out.
It's Solow's last point that is the one Americans need to hear more: in an era of slack demand, bulging coporate cash coffers, and recovering personal savings rates, it's actually pretty stupid to have U.S. government spending and employment contract so quickly. I fear, however, that excessive concern about Solow's first, third, fourth and fifth points will swamp out the rest of his op-ed.
As for Haass, I'm not exactly sure what "rising rates" he's talking about, as just about any chart you can throw up shows historically low borrowing rates for the United States government. Indeed, the U.S. Treasury is exploiting this fact by locking in U.S. long-term debt at these rates. As for foreign governments pressuring the United States, the fear of foreign financial statecraft has been somewhat hyped by the foreign policy community. And by "somewhat hyped," I mean "wildly, massively overblown."
The bias in foreign policy circles and DC punditry is to bemoan staggering levels of U.S. debt. This bias does percolate down into the perceptions of ordinary Americans, which leads to wild misperceptions about the actual state of the U.S. economy and U.S. economic power. I'd like to see a lot more op-eds by Solow et al. that puncture these myths more effectively.
Am I missing anything?
Now Logan makes some compelling points to rebut me, such as:
It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number of academics writing about grand strategy are realists, so that’s coloring the ideological content of what the academics are producing. Drezner has complained about realist victimhood before, but grand strategy is an elite sport, and even headmits that “America’s foreign policy elites are more hostile to realpolitik – though even here, things can be exaggerated.” Drezner then points to Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft as bearers of the realist flag, but even if you would lump Kissinger and Scowcroft in with Posen and Walt (I wouldn’t), both men are in their late 80s. There is no realist faction in the FPC, if by “realist” we mean “person whose views on strategy comport with leading academic realists.”
Think about members of the FPC who work on strategy and scholars in the academy who do so. Is a potential strategy debate between, say, a Democrat like Anne-Marie Slaughter and a Republican like Robert Kagan very interesting? I don’t think so. It’s fought between the seven and nine-yard lines at the primacy end of the field. Then consider a debate between, say,Barry Posen or John Mearsheimer, on the one hand, and Kagan or Slaughter on the other. Pass the popcorn.
Now, ordinarily, this would get my intellectual juices flowing and I'd start trying arguing that Logan is conflating IR theorists with realists a bit or whatnot.
The thing is, this was my actual view (as opposed to my worldview) for much of today:
You know, with this kind of view, it doesn't take much to realize that the problems of a few international relations wonks doesn't amount to a hill of sand in this world.
So I'm conceding this round to Logan. Excellent points, and nicely done!! I'll read the paper when I'm back in a cold climate.
[So, basically, any author of an MS you refereed this week should be feeling pretty good right about now!!--ed. Pretty much, yeah.]
My Twitter feed has been abuzz with a 2009 Justin Logan blog post about the puzzling disconnect between the international relations academy and the foreign policy community in Washington:
[T]he two groups have been wildly at variance in terms of their views on important public policy issues. Take the Iraq war, for example. As anyone who was in Washington at the time knows, the FPC was extremely fond of the idea of invading Iraq. To oppose it was to marginalize oneself for years....
In the academy, meanwhile, there was hardly any debate over Iraq almost 80 percent of IR academics opposed the war. [.pdf] To the extent academics did enter the public debate on the issue, it was to pay for an advertisement in the New York Timeswarning against the war. [.pdf] The only academics who spoke out in favor of the war (to my knowledge, anyway) were IR liberals like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who sought policy positions in Washington....
My sense is that the giant national-security bureaucracy in Washington that has emerged over the last 65 years has shaped incentives in a manner such that it is next-to-impossible to “get ahead” by advocating for restraint. Put differently, restraint isn’t in anybody’s interest except the country’s, and there’s nobody in Washington representing broad national interests as opposed to their own parochial ones. Every neoconservative or liberal imperialist in DC has someone’s interests behind them.
Read the whole thing.
My take: I'm one of the 20% of academics who (regretfully) supported the Iraq War, so feel free to discount my take. First of all, I've always been dubious of that 80% figure -- it's based on a survey conducted in 2005 asking what their attitudes were in 2003. Maybe everyone was honest about this, but I recall a fair number of colleagues voicing some sympathy for Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2003. Logan is right to point out the divergence -- I'm just not sure it was as stark as he makes it.
More generally, methinks Logan is trying to fit a structural explanation onto a more transient divergence. My explanations for the divergence are based on a more prosaic three-step explanation:
1) All politicians want to be president;
2) All members of the foreign policy community want to be a foreign policy principal;
3) In 2002, what haunted the memory of politicians were the presidential candidates who self-destructed in 1991 for voting against Gulf War I. Immediately after 9/11, no politician who had a future wanted to be seen as soft on war.
On the other hand, if Logan is right, then the foreign policy community should be united in dispatching military force at every opportunity since Iraq. That's not how it's played out, however. A lot of think-tankers opposed the surge in Iraq, as well as operations in Libya. I don't see overwhelming support for action in Syria either.
Logan says he has a longer paper, which I look forward to reading. But I hope he's able to demonstrate that the gap between the foreign policy community and international relations academy has been long-lasting, and is not merely an artifact of 2002.
Your humble blogger was not kidding when he said he was on vacation. Furthermore, this isn't one of those vacations where I can just hide away in my hotel room for hours on end, composing the kind of artisanal, hand-crafted blog posts that make feel Wittgensteinian and all. No, this is the kind of vacation where I can feel the disapproving eyes of my family on my hunched shoulders every time I look at my laptop.
So, in the interest of making everyone happy, this week's blog posts will be of the more old school, "Hey, read this!" kind of link-o-rama that Twitter has made quasi-obsiolete. For each day, I'll focus on topics that revisit an old blog post of mine, to see if there's anything new of interesting out there.
1) Greg Ferenstein, "Former Political Scientist to Congress: Please Defund Political Science." The Atlantic. My take: In all seriousness, about 85% of all political science research can pass the "mother in law test" -- the question is whether political scientists are articulate enough to do this with their own research.
3) Jay Ulfelder, "Why is Academic Writing so Bad? A Brief Response to Stephen Walt," Dart-Throwing Chimp. My take: um... yeah, Jay's right. One caveat: Writing for a general audience requires some genuine craft and care with one's prose style, so those political scientists who want to write for a wider audience do need to care about the writing. Which leads to whispers and murmurs that if they write well, they're not focusing enough on their research. Which leads to a vicious cycle of bad writing.
4) Adam Elkus, "Relevant to Policy?" CNAS. My take: definitely worth a read, and an interesting counter to Ferenstein in particular.
And now... time to unhunch my shoulders!!
In the run-up to his confirmation hearings, both BuzzFeed's Ruby Cramer and the Washington Free Beacon have stories about secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel's days as a professor at Georgetown. At first glance, the spin on these stories seems to be at odds with each other. Here's Cramer:
Those who knew him at Georgetown remember Professor Hagel, whose confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee begins early Thursday morning, as resolute in his own views on foreign policy, and dedicated to his classroom at a level unusual for most lawmakers who take on stints as visiting professors....
Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, retired from the Senate in 2008 after serving two consecutive terms. He landed the Georgetown gig in February of 2009, and started work on crafting one course for grad students in the fall, and another for undergrads in the spring. Hagel chose geopolitical relationships as his focus, and with the help of his teaching assistant, wrote a syllabus aimed at examining the 21st century as a period of transition that is "shifting geopolitical centers of gravity and is recasting geopolitical influences as the world experiences an unprecedented diffusion," as stated in the syllabus for Hagel's first-ever course in the fall of 2009.
Shockingly, the Free Beacon interprets matters a bit differently:
As a professor at Georgetown University, secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel taught a foreign policy course based primarily on anti-Israel materials and far left manifestos that castigate America’s role in the world, according to a copy of Hagel’s 2012 course syllabus....
Constructed on the premise that America’s global supremacy is waning, Hagel’s seminar featured writings that criticize America’s standing in the world, advocate in favor of shuttering American military bases, and refer to Israel as guilty of war crimes.
If the poor defenseless reader were to try to synthesize these two articles on their own, they might come away convinced that Hagel was like Robin Williams' character in Dead Poets Society, if Williams' character was also a secret, anti-Semitic communist spy.
Fortunately, as a trained professor, I'm capable of scanning Hagel's syllabi, and the description of the syllabi, and render my own judgment. And I confess that, after looking at them, I have a few more qualms about Hagel than I did before.
These qualms are not due to the Free Beacon's story, which doesn't have an author appellation, which is just as well, since whomever wrote it has no f**king clue who makes what arguments in international relations. Among the "anti-Israel and far left manifestos" that the Free Beacon identifies is the following:
Other books featured on Hagel’s reading list, such as G. John Ikenberry’s Liberal Leviathan, argue that America’s influence is waning.
“Even if a return to multipolarity is a distant and slowly emerging future possibility, calculations about the relative decline of American power reintroduce the importance of making investments today for later decades when the United States is less preeminent,” wrote Ikenberry, a Princeton professor, in his 2012 book.
Let's take a brief pause here to allow the folks with some actual international relations knowledge a hearty chuckle. Because anyone who's read anything by John Ikenberry quickly learns two things: 1) he's about as centrist as one can get; and 2) he's quite upbeat about America's future (as a close reading of that quote would suggest). So we can safely ignore the Free Beacon's efforts to spin people like Ikenberry and Zbigniew Brzezinski as anti-Israel or far left.
There's also the rather obvious point that, as a general rule, professors will assign readings they disagree with. It's that whole, "give students competing perspectives on thorny issues so they can have an informed debate" kind of deal. As mysterious as this might sound to the Free Beacon, let me assure them that assigning provocative readings is a pretty common pedagogical tool.
On the other hand, a quick perusal of Hagel's syllabi reveals a far deeper concern: Hagel is addicted to ... hackery. The Friedmans make too many appearances in these syllabi, for example. He assigned Tom Friedman's The World Is Flat, which is pretty bad. He also assigned George Friedman's The Next 100 Years, which is far, far worse (don't take my word for it, take Philip Tetlock's). He also assigned liberal portions of Parag Khanna's work, which is unfortunate.
Now I'm not above assigning the occasional hack piece in a class to let my students chew up and spit out. That's actually a useful pedagogical exercise. Hagel, however, seems to think that the hack stuff is actually quite good -- at least that's what he told C-SPAN. For a graduate seminar at Georgetown, the chaff-to-wheat ratio is disturbingly high.
Besides the hack addiction, is there anything else to be gleaned from Hagel's syllabi? If there is a theme that runs through Hagel's syllabus choices, it's a pretty realpolitik one. Writers like George Friedman and Robert D. Kaplan don't really care about human institutions as much as geopolitics. He also assigned some interesting work by Joseph Parent & Paul McDonald, as well as Micah Zenko & Michael Cohen, on strategic restraint and threat inflation, respectively. That's what should terrify neoconservatives -- not the bogus anti-Israel charges.
Still, after reading his syllabi, I must acknowledge that Hagel picked up one academic trait very quickly: just like us lifelong profs, Hagel learned to assign his own book. Well played, Professor Hagel. Well played.
Dear New York Times:
As the paper of record, your op-ed page is a natural target for snark, derision, and other forms of criticism. I'll certainly plead guilty to these venial sins. I've found flaws in more than a few of your columnist's writings on foreign affairs. Thomas Friedman, in particular, has invited a fair measure of scorn from your correspondent over the years -- though I'd note that I'm hardly the only one guilty of that sin. Let me stipulate that I have no doubt that Mr. Friedman can polish off an accessible 800 word column on foreign affairs better than 99.5% of the foreign policy community. And Friedman has locked down a certain Greatest Generation demographic, the one that emails their children with Ph.D.s in political science to say "Tom Friedman said something interesting in his column today. You should read it."
Friedman's prose style invites a certain kind of satire, which is occasionally unkind but pretty harmless. I write now, however, because in his latest column he has migrated from the merely foolish to the ill-considered and dangerous. This is his advice to incoming Secretary of State John Kerry:
[W]hat’s a secretary of state to do? I’d suggest trying something radically new: creating the conditions for diplomacy where they do not now exist by going around leaders and directly to the people. And I’d start with Iran, Israel and Palestine. We live in an age of social networks in which every leader outside of North Korea today is now forced to engage in a two-way conversation with their citizens. There’s no more just top-down. People everywhere are finding their voices and leaders are terrified. We need to turn this to our advantage to gain leverage in diplomacy.
Let’s break all the rules.
Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public, but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.
He goes on to talk about Israel/Palestine, but let's keep the focus on Iran. To put it kindly, there are some serious problems with Friedman's advice. In no particular order:
1) There are many possible Secretaries of State who possess the necessary charisma, drive, and rhetorical skills to resonate with the ordinary citizens of other countries. I think we can all safely agree that, capable as he might be, John Kerry is not one of those diplomats.
2) Why not "negotiate with the Iranian people?" Well, to get technical about it, they're not the ones controlling Iran's nuclear program. That's not a minor issue. For all this talk about how states are irrelevant in the 21st century, on matters of hard security not much has changed. Lest Friedman or anyone else doubt this, recall that the Iranian state has proven itself more than capable of suppressing the Iranian people over the past four years. Why Friedman thinks that the Ayatollah Khamenei would listen to ordinary Iranians on the nuclear question is beyond me.
3) Friedman seems to think that ordinary Iranians are implacably opposed to the nuclear program. I have yet to read any analysis or on-the-ground reporting (including the NYT) that suggests this to be true. Rather, the common theme is that Iranians take nationalist pride in the technological accomplishments of their national nuclear program. Furthermore, in a propaganda war between the U.S. government and their own government, the U.S. is probably gonna lose even if it possesses the better argument. For all of Friedman's loose talk about the power of social media in a digitized world, he elides the point that one of the sentiments that social media is best at magnifying is nationalism. In the case of Iran, this would mean a more recalcitrant negotiating partner.
4) In the 35 years since the Iranian Revolution, and the 10+ years since Iran's nuclear program became a point of contention, is there any evidence that U.S. public diplomacy has had any positive effect in the country of Iran? Any? So why will it work now?
5) One last point. Iran's regime has been obsessed with the belief that the United States is trying to foment a Velvet Revolution in the country. They've been willing to arrest, repress, or harrass anyone vaguely associated with such a campaign. Exactly how does Friedman think the government in Tehran would respond to the kind of public diplomacy initiative that he's suggesting?
I could go on, but you see what I'm trying to say. Friedman's "break all the rules" strategy is as transgressive as those dumb-ass Dr. Pepper commercials. Worse, he's recommending a policy that would actually be counter-productive to any hope of reaching a deal with Iran. This is the worst kind of "World is Flat" pablum, applied to nuclear diplomacy. God forbid John Kerry were to read it and follow Friedman's advice.
Sure, 99.5% of foreign policy wonks might write something less punchy, but I suspect most of them wouldn't write something so obviously wrong. Friedman clearly needs a sabbatical from the rigors of column-writing to get his head back in the game. In the interest of raising our country's foreign policy discourse, I beg you to put him on leave.
Daniel W. Drezner
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.