What is an Expert?
Phillip Weiss offers a scathing attack of Persian Puzzle author Kenneth Pollack over at HuffPo.
[I] was shocked on flipping to page 429, the Author’s Note at the end of the book, to read that Pollack has never been to Iran and doesn’t speak Persian, has only dribs and drabs of Arabic.
This is one of the problems with our arrogant war policy. People who are experts on a place they’ve never been to. The intellectual equivalent of the smart bomb — you judge without ever having to hit the ground. Maybe we ought to do more to actually look around the countries we’re thinking of invading. Because, surprise, we might end up living there for a long time.
Tristero likens this to writing a book on brain surgery without having been to medical school or been in an operating room.
So, people who have never been to a place can not be experts? So, never having been to Ancient Egypt, all those historians and archeologists are frauds? Those astronomers studying Jupiter don’t know what they’re talking about?
Surely, people can gain expertise on a place without actually having been there. After all, few people who actually do live in a place lack expertise about it. Expertise is gained, generally, by intensive study rather than sheer osmosis.
Ron Beasley thinks Pollack is “bloviat[ing] on a subject about which [he] knows basically nothing” and is given “faux ‘mainstream’ credibility” because of his progressive credentials.
Here are Pollacks’ bona fides:
Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1996; B.A., Yale University, 1988
Previous Position(s): Director for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations (2001-2002); Director for Persian Gulf Affairs, National Security Council (1999-2001); Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs, National Security Council (1995-1996); Senior Research Professor, National Defense University (1998-99, 2001); Iran-Iraq Military Analyst, Central Intelligence Agency (1988-1995)
One can take issue with Pollack’s analysis. But to argue that his geographic location disqualifies him from commenting is absurd.
Furthermore, the Persian Puzzle is not and does not purport to be about Iranian culture. Indeed, the book’s full title should have been a rather strong clue in that direction: The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America . Here’s a brief precis:
[I]n The Persian Puzzle, published to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Iran hostage crisis, he examines the behind-the scenes story of the tumultuous relationship between Iran and the United States, and weighs options for the future.
Here, Pollack, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council official, brings his keen analysis and insider perspective to the long and ongoing clash between the United States and Iran, beginning with the fall of the shah and the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. Pollack examines all the major events in U.S.-Iran relations—including the hostage crisis, the U.S. tilt toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, the Iran-contra scandal, American-Iranian military tensions in 1987 and 1988, the covert Iranian war against U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf that culminated in the 1996 Khobar Towers terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, and recent U.S.-Iran skirmishes over Afghanistan and Iraq. He explains the strategies and motives from American and Iranian perspectives and tells how each crisis colored the thinking of both countries’ leadership as they shaped and reshaped their policies over time. Pollack also describes efforts by moderates of various stripes to try to find some way past animosities to create a new dynamic in Iran-U.S. relations, only to find that when one side was ready for such a step, the other side fell short.
With balanced tone and new insight, Pollack explains how the United States and Iran reached this impasse; why this relationship is critical to regional, global and U.S. interests; and what basic political choices are available as we deal with this important but deeply troubled country.
Why would one need to go to Iran to write that book?
The next thing you know, people will argue that those who have never been to war are unfit to write about it. . . .
Update: Jazz Shaw, not Beasley, wrote the post in question. I interpreted his opening line, “When I want to bloviate on a subject about which I know basically nothing, (and long time readers can probably confirm that’s a high percentage of my writing) I will generally at least make the effort to consult the work of somebody who is a subject matter expert in the field,” in the context of a discussion about Pollack’s credentials, as drawing a contrast. In the comments below, he explains that was not his intention.