Professor Smith goes to Washington

Author: Michael C. Desch

Campaigning in Virginia last August, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama promised to assemble a policy team consisting of “the best and the brightest.” Now in office, President Obama has begun delivering on that promise and in doing so is depopulating the Ivy League and other leading universities with his appointments. He has named former Harvard President Lawrence Summers as his chief White House economic adviser and other academics to high-level State Department positions.

Academics are ecstatic, believing that for the first time since John F. Kennedy’s Camelot we have a president who will come hat in hand, knock on the door of the ivory tower and seek our advice. Right after the election, I was at a conference organized by the Tobin Project, named in honor of the Nobel laureate economist James Tobin, an eloquent proponent of the proposition that leading academics ought to apply themselves to improving the lives of ordinary citizens.

The excitement among the 35 or so scholars who had come together to discuss “National Security in a New Era” was palpable in the expectation that the Obama Administration would be eager to seek our counsel about the new strategic challenges the country faces from a rising China, global religious terrorism and the further spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Like Yale’s Bernard Brodie, Chicago’s Albert Wohlstetter and Princeton’s William Kaufmann at the dawn of the nuclear age, some of us in academia still aspire to influence America’s post-Cold War national security policy the way these towering intellectual figures shaped America’s Cold War strategy.

It is not just heads-in-the-clouds academics who are nostalgic for this “golden age” of academia and government harmony. In a speech last April to the Association of American Universities, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates argued that “we must again embrace eggheads and ideas.”

The key assumptions of what he dubbed the Minerva project are that “throughout the Cold War, universities were vital centers of new research” and that U.S. national security policymakers were successful in tapping intellectual “resources outside of government” to guide them in formulating policy. In this sense, George W. Bush’s secretary of defense anticipated Obama’s effort to reconnect academia and the national security policy world.

Gates’ and Obama’s instincts are right that academics have much to contribute to formulating better national security policy. There is a rich history of academics influencing specific national security policies at particular periods in recent history. The three most significant areas in which social science has directly affected policy are nuclear deterrence theory, political development and nation-building, and the use of systems analysis to guide national security decision-making.

On the first, Brodie, Wohlstetter and Kaufmann played central roles in shaping how the Pentagon understood the implications of the advent of nuclear weapons upon warfare. Brodie made many important contributions to our understanding of the profound changes in world politics brought about by the advent of nuclear weapons in his seminal book The Absolute Weapon. Among them was that the core challenge the U.S. military would face throughout the nuclear age was to ensure that its nuclear deterrent force could survive an enemy first-strike.

Wohlstetter’s RAND study on the vulnerability of the U.S. Strategic Air Command’s overseas basing system reinforced Brodie’s message and led SAC to explore other ways to deliver nuclear weapons. And Kaufmann’s influential Princeton paper “The Requirements of Deterrence” helped open the floodgates of criticism that eventually swept away the Eisenhower Administration’s policy of relying solely upon nuclear “massive retaliation” to respond to a conventional Soviet attack on Western Europe.

While the Pentagon did not always embrace their policy recommendations, there is little doubt that these academics provided the conceptual frameworks which policymakers used to think about the nuclear revolution.

What Camelot?

But before we professors get swept away by the notion that, in Lerner and Loewe’s famous song, “there is not a more congenial spot” than Obama’s new Camelot, we should ask whether there was really a golden age where scholars and policymakers worked together seamlessly to formulate U.S. national security policy. If so, when and under what conditions did this happen?

In the early Cold War academics did have some influence upon American national security policy. That period was short-lived, however, and offers many cautionary tales which suggest that the link between sound scholarship and effective policy is indirect and hard to maintain.

As historian Bruce Kuklick concludes in Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War From Kennan to Kissinger, “Overall, the men who actually made decisions were least concerned with scientific ideas of any sort.” In his view, “Policymakers did what they wanted, though they had to come up with reasons for what they did. Defense intellectuals provided that talk.” In my view, Kuklick underestimates academic influence during the golden age, but his is a useful corrective to the majority who make the opposite mistake.

Another myth is that academic excellence and pedigree automatically translates into effective national security policy. Indeed, academic involvement in the formulation of national security policy has not been fully satisfactory to those either inside or outside the ivory tower.

The high-water mark of this influence was undoubtedly the Kennedy Administration. During his presidential campaign, Senator Kennedy assembled an Academic Advisory Group consisting of some of the leading faculty at Harvard and MIT. After the election, some members of the group, including McGeorge Bundy, Arthur Schlesinger, John Kenneth Galbraith and Daniel Ellsberg, headed to D.C. to join the new administration in high-level national security positions.

But as David Halberstam observed in his classic The Best and the Brightest, in the Kennedy Administration, “credit was given more readily for educational prowess and for academic achievement than for accomplishment in governance.”

Halberstam recounts how legendary Texas politician Sam Rayburn threw cold water on Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s blind faith in the intellectual horsepower the Kennedy Administration was assembling in the White House and the Pentagon. “‘Well Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.’”

So it is more than a little ironic that Obama would use the phrase “the best and the brightest” to signal that he would tap the substantial intellectual resources of academia. For Halberstam’s was a cautionary tale, in which he used the phrase ironically to make the point that appointing Ivy League pedigrees and Mensa-level IQs is no guarantee that an administration will do the right thing in terms of decisions about war and peace.

The Vietnam failure

A classic illustration of what happens when theory and reality are out of sync was the failure of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Harvard Business School model for managing the Vietnam War. Halberstam describes how “when the mathematical version of sanity did not work out, when it turned out that the computer had not fed back the right answers and had underestimated those funny little far-off men in their raggedy pajamas, he would be stricken with a profound sense of failure, and he would be, at least briefly, a shattered man.”

I heard echoes of this recently when former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Alan Greenspan confessed that he “did not fully understand” why the free markets did not prevent the current Wall Street meltdown, in contravention of the reigning economic models he so fervently believed in for his entire career.

Moreover, even before the end of the golden age, many academic defense intellectuals found that their home universities were inhospitable to their work. Brodie was eased out of Dartmouth’s government department on the grounds that he was too narrow in focus and too prominent in his specialty for his colleagues. He then moved to Yale until President Whitney Griswold abolished Yale’s Institute for International Studies. Rather than move to Princeton with Kaufmann and the rest of the institute’s staff, Brodie came to believe that he could better influence policy working at RAND or by going directly into government service, a conclusion Kaufmann soon reached as well.

Part of the problem in the academy was political: the study of war and nuclear weapons offended the prevailing liberal sensibilities. Another obstacle to academics doing policy-relevant research was the increasing theoretical abstraction of many of the social sciences. As University of Chicago Professor Hans J. Morgenthau lamented, they had retreated to “the trivial, the formal, the methodological, the remotely historical — in short, the politically irrelevant,” a problem that continues to this day.

Two other trends will make it hard for policymakers to re-embrace eggheads and ideas. First, a whole new class of defense intellectuals has risen to fill the void left by the retreat of academics. These are the “beltway bandits” in think tanks, for-profit consulting organizations, and quasi-governmental Federally Funded Research and Development Centers like the RAND Corporation, the Institute for Defense Analyses and the Center for Naval Analyses devoted, in whole or part, to defense analysis.

To be sure, much good policy analysis is done in federally funded centers, but the quality of it is often not as rigorous as academic scholarship, both because it is done under intense time pressure and because it is subject to security restrictions that limit the chances for peer review.

Think tanks are also subject to bias because so many of them — like the American Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise on the right, the Center for New American Security, or the Center for Defense Information on the left — are funded to promote an explicitly ideological agenda. Even the few explicitly nonpartisan think tanks like the Brookings Institution can become skewed when they take money from donors with a political agenda, as has happened with its Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Egghead enmity

The other trend that will make it difficult for academic defense intellectuals to have much influence on national security policy is the decreasing public confidence in academia as a source of alternative perspectives on national policy. The root cause of this is the resurgence of anti-intellectualism among the American public.

Skepticism of intellectual elites is long-standing in our culture. Todd Gitlin of New York University argues that World War II and the early Cold War marked an exception to the general American trend to dismiss academia as an “ivory tower” because scholars had made important contributions in both those conflicts. This may account for what influence the defense intellectuals had during the golden age of the early Cold War.

But as the author Susan Jacoby and others point out, anti-intellectualism has today become endemic in our society. Jacoby attributes this to a variety of developments, including the rise of the video/web/blog culture among young people; the paradox of the proliferation of 24-hour news channels, which make more news available but encourage its presentation in short sound bites with a distinct point of view; the erosion of general knowledge; and, finally, the rise of a theologically sanctioned anti-intellectualism due to the resurgence of religious fundamentalism.

This has directly affected national security policy, the economist Jeffrey Sachs argues, in that “America went to war in Iraq on the basis of Mr. Bush’s gut instincts and religious convictions, not rigorous evidence. Likewise, Governor Palin has called the Iraq War ‘a task from God.’”

None of this is to say that Obama’s and Gates’ efforts to rebuild the bridge between policymakers and the academy is misguided. But it does suggest that as we think about how to do this we need to find a way to overcome three major obstacles.

The first is that when academics address national security issues, we may be ignored by policymakers. In The Wizards of Armageddon, Fred Kaplan quotes former Air Force chief of staff General Tommy White candidly admitting that “in common with many other military men, active and retired, I am profoundly apprehensive of the pipe-smoking, tree-full-of-owls type of so-called professional ‘defense intellectuals’ who have been brought into this nation’s capital. I don’t believe a lot of these overconfident, sometimes arrogant young professors, mathematicians and other theorists have sufficient worldliness or motivation to stand up to the kind of enemies we face.”

Even policymakers with an academic background can lose sight of its value while in government. After she left the first Bush Administration and returned to Stanford University, I asked Condoleezza Rice ’75M.A. at a seminar what her academic training brought to her job on the National Security Council. Her answer was “not much,” which speaks volumes about what happened when she went back into government in the second Bush Administration.

The second cautionary lesson is that when we academics are listened to, it might only be because we are saying things government officials want to hear. After serving the U.S. government during the Second World War as a behavioral scientist, Alexander Leighton groused that “the administration uses social science the way a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination.” We ought to provide illumination, whether we also provide support or not.

Snubbing the scholars

The final cautionary lesson is that it will be hard to get the public to defer to us on weighty matters of war and peace. I have had some direct experience with this myself. As it became apparent in autumn 2002 that momentum for war against Iraq was building within the Bush Administration, 33 national security scholars, including some of the most eminent social scientists from such leading institutions as Berkeley, Columbia, Chicago, Harvard, MIT, Stanford and UCLA, published a statement on the opinion page of The New York Times that “War with Iraq Is Not in America’s National Interest.”

Despite this clear evidence that some leading academic experts on national security affairs thought a pre-emptive war against Iraq was unnecessary and would prove counterproductive, the Senate (77-23) and the House (296-123) voted overwhelmingly to authorize Bush to use force against Iraq in October 2002. Indeed, by the end of March 2003, more than 70 percent of the American public approved of the invasion of Iraq.

In autumn 2004, almost 650 scholars signed on to an open letter to the American people saying it was “Time for a Change of Course” in Iraq. Even though there was an overwhelming consensus among us that the Iraq war was a mistake, Bush handily won re-election. Rather than withdrawing troops from Iraq, he actually “surged” more in, leading the organizers of this massive effort to concede defeat. Clearly, the ability of the professoriate to influence the major national security policy decision of the post-9/11 era was minimal.

Academia can, perhaps, take some credit for the short-term success of the surge in damping down violence in Iraq, as its architect, General David Petraeus has a doctorate, as do many of his subordinates who helped him formulate the new counterinsurgency strategy. But given that the original rationale for the war has proven specious, and its conduct has diverted our attention from the real central front in the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, we will have to live for years with the deleterious policy consequences of ignoring academic advice about the original wisdom of the war.

I am not saying that we academics are any smarter than policymakers or that we are unbiased. I am simply suggesting that we have useful knowledge people in government do not have and our biases are different than those of policymakers. Academics ought to be part of the larger debate, as the president and secretary of defense recognize, because we have an important contribution to make to it. When we do so, I hope it will help policymakers make better policy.
The challenge for us is to determine when and how academic social science can better contribute to national security policy in the future. This is a challenge my colleagues and I are trying to meet in our own small way through our new Notre Dame International Security Program, which aims to help bridge the policy-academic divide here on campus.

In order to do this, three problem areas need to be addressed. First, we need to re-engage academia with pressing national security policy issues. This does not mean all of us should go into government; I think there is much we can contribute by staying in the academy. Second, policymakers need to be willing to really listen to us as they formulate policy, rather than just using us as intellectual window dressing. Finally, the public needs to understand that not all strategic wisdom resides in the Pentagon and the White House, and that they can also look to the nation’s universities for information and policy recommendations as our country faces the real strategic challenges of the 21st century.

Michael Desch is a Notre Dame professor of political science, fellow of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and author, most recently, of Power And Military Effectiveness .