Intellectuals and Foreign Policy

Michael Ignatieff has a rather bizarre piece in the New York Times Magazine arguing that pointy headed academics, such as himself, were wrong to support the Iraq War based on interesting theories and should, instead, have listened to the practical wisdom of those who operate in the real world of public policy and have to live with the consequences of their decisions.

Matt Yglesias observes that, contra Ignatieff,

Academics in the field of Middle East studies were overwhelmingly opposed to the war. Similarly, international relations scholars opposed the war by a very large margin. The war’s foci of intellectual support were in the institutions of the conservative movement, and in the DC think tanks and the punditocracy where the war had a lot of non-conservative support. People with relevant academic expertise — notably people who weren’t really on the left politically — were massively opposed to the war.

Quite right. I should add that the real world policy-makers took us to war, too, on a bipartisan basis.

Matt’s conclusion, though, needs more examination:

To imply the reverse is to substantially obscure one of the main lessons of the war, namely that we should pay more attention to what regional experts think and give substantially less credence to the idea that think tankers are really “independent” of political machinations.

While I agree that ideologically based think tanks often push scholars to publish research that supports the institution’s Official Position and that we ought pay attention to independent regional experts, I would stop well short of the idea that regional experts should have the predominant say in decisions on war and peace.

As I’ve often noted before, Area Studies scholars, especially Middle East Studies types, are often quite ideological and have their own axes to grind. That they got Iraq right was largely a consequence of there being only two positions (War-No War) and that “No War” has a far higher likelihood of being the safe bet.

IR scholars are overwhelmingly Realist and dubious of intervention for nation-building, democracy spreading, and other Idealist and Neo-Conservative rationale. Indeed, I opposed the idea of re-invading Iraq consistently when it was brought up by the Bill Kristols of the world during the 1990s and during the 2001-2002 run-up to the present conflict. The “regime change” arguments all struck me as unworthy of the risks of war until the DPRK got nukes and made the decidedly Realist “Saddam must not be allowed to get nukes” argument much more persuasive.

Middle East Studies profs opposed the war for a variety of reasons, good and bad. Many pointed to the regional implications of the invasion as well as the incredible complexity of nation-building in such a fragmented, sectarian state. Their concerns were dismissed too cavalierly by those advocating invasion for Spreading Democracy Throughout the Arab World.

Many other times, though, Area Studies types want to throw caution to the wind and have the United States use force to push their pet humanitarian projects. We would have been involved in even more nasty conflicts in the 1990s and gotten involved in the Yugoslav mess much earlier had we listened to them. Ditto the Africanists who wanted us to go into Rwanda and Burundi and the Congo then and Darfur now. They are too close to the people involved and too inexpert in the logistics of military operations to be of much value.

So, really, we should heed regional experts more closely only when we’re bound and determined to go to war to push a grand Idealist scheme and the experts are yelling Stop! Then again, Stop! should be our default position, anyway.

FILED UNDER: Education, Iraq War, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Of course, academics in the field of Middle East studies are no more or no less biased in their worldviews than academics in any other discipline and their opinions should therefore be provided a commensurate level of uncritical support. Right?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Of course, academics in the field of Middle East studies are no more or no less biased in their worldviews than academics in any other discipline and their opinions should therefore be provided a commensurate level of uncritical support. Right?

    In my, admittedly limited, experience, no. It’s true that academics across the board have as many biases as non-academics. With respect to their actual discipline, though, Area Studies people are generally about as objective as those in Women’s Studies and Afro-American studies. The nature of immersion is passionate bias. Conversely, pure IR scholars tend to view their subject matter based on the numbers or a macro theory.

  3. Bithead says:

    Middle East Studies profs opposed the war for a variety of reasons, good and bad. Many pointed to the regional implications of the invasion as well as the incredible complexity of nation-building in such a fragmented, sectarian state. Their concerns were dismissed too cavalierly by those advocating invasion for Spreading Democracy Throughout the Arab World.

    Perhaps. But it seems to me, that it is rather relate to be making judgments about whether or not the military option was the correct one, in this case. Let’s remember, that the perception of success or failure is changing rather rapidly, despite the best efforts of those who oppose our action to cast it as a failure.

    In my, admittedly limited, experience, no. It’s true that academics across the board have as many biases as non-academics. With respect to their actual discipline, though, Area Studies people are generally about as objective as those in Women’s Studies and Afro-American studies. The nature of immersion is passionate bias. Conversely, pure IR scholars tend to view their subject matter based on the numbers or a macro theory.

    Ward Churchill, anyone?

  4. M. Murcek says:

    Don’t think. Do.

  5. Tano says:

    Do what?

  6. NoZe says:

    >Conversely, pure IR scholars tend to view their >subject matter based on the numbers or a macro >theory.

    Good point…I knew there was a reason it was better to be an academic generalist! Besides the fact that its easier to get a job, of course!

  7. Paul Barnes says:

    Two things:

    First, Ignatieff strongly supports the general GWOT which has cost him much of his liberal support in Canada.

    Second, he is a prominent member of parliament for the Liberal Party of Canada and has a decent chance to actually run it in the near future. The Conservative and the cynic in me sees this as an attempt to garner the support of Canadians. In other words, this is a political ploy by Ignatieff to increase his support.

    However, I think that he deserves more credit than that. Charity in all things and such…