This was posted in a Duke security group in response to this article (not necessary reading) on opportunities presented by the proposed Authorization for Use of Military Force against ISISetc. I wish I could credit the author – it’s a secondhand quote, posted in a closed group from a hard copy of a paper he was grading – but I nonetheless thought it salient enough to both current proceedings and other unrelated foreign policy debates to be worthy of broader dissemination.
I do think it points to two problematic issues:
First, there seems to be a general consensus on foreign policy in Washington that extends across the isle and well into the Pentagon. That isn’t to say that there aren’t real differences, but those differences are less severe than that similarities in views about the appropriate US role in the world. Consider the initial overwhelming support for the Iraq War. Or the near universal support for the cliche of “American exceptionalism” and “American leadership,” often for its own sake.
Consensus, in itself, may not be bad if those views are the “right” views, but if they are wrong, it seems quite dangerous. Moreover, since these are difficult issues upon which intelligent people disagree, it probably is bad in the sense that opposing views are not seriously put forward and given a fair shake. If there is no robust debate – if the broad brush strokes of policy conclusion are foreordained – how could we possibly know if we are getting the best results?
Second, and related, there is no serious punishment or accountability for “defense intellectuals” and policy makers who “get it wrong.” Paul Wolfowitz was wrong over and over again in Middle East issues, but he advised a major Presidential candidate in the last election and is advising one now. With the exception of President Obama himself, every senior member of his foreign policy team initially supported the war. Considering how Iraq went, surely he could have found some really smart “defense intellectual” who opposed the war for his foreign policy team. (You know – like any one of the names on the New York Times ad against the war, many of whom were quite well respected as scholars but never asked to fill even the positions normally held by academics like heading Policy Planning at State. Instead, we got the supposedly liberal Ann Marie Slaughter, who was as wrong on Iraq as Wolfowitz.) Likewise, Libya is a disaster, but it’s chief proponents are still in positions of power.
One of our [Washington Institute for Near East Policy] speakers commented on the fact that while WINEP is often consistent in their positions (pro-Sunni, pro-Israel, etc.), it is not because they have a party line. It is because they look for people who have worked in the policy world and can have a real effect on policy – people who are unlikely to stray from the main stream consensus. That sounds nice, but what if the government-military-think tank revolving door just means that we maintain consistently bad polices and ideas by preventing serious debate?
In short, it seems that once you are “in the circle,” you no longer need to be right on big issues – you are in the circle near forever (unless you dramatically break with the consensus of the circle). Further, if you aren’t part of the consensus, you are unlikely to get into the circle in the first place.
Tl;dr: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee…I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee..”
I’m kidding. But this hits very well on something I’ve been stewing on lately: the detriments of over-siloing, and in particular the interplay of siloing and selection in foreign policy career paths (academia v. active policy v. international practice v. military v. whatever) and how those roles structurally counterbalance – or don’t – to impact decisionmaking. I don’t think there’s an easy way out of the cycle that isn’t structural or preemptive – and I’m not sure there’s one anyone will be happy with due to existing entrenchment.