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Academics and Counterinsurgents

- July 20, 2010

Well I’m back for one more long post. One of John Sides’ grad students sent him this quote from a David Kilcullen article about counterinsurgency and John has asked me to comment:

bq. Find a political/cultural adviser from among your people — perhaps an officer, perhaps not (see article 8). Someone with people skills and a ‘feel’ for the environment will do better than a political science graduate.

This is also relevant because, based on his Twitter feed, it’s clear that I was too snarky in response to an Abu Muqawama post about academics and counterinsurgency, for which I apologize (my visceral reaction was: “why exactly would anyone begrudge people doing their jobs?” but that was unfair).

Is Kilcullen right that a political science graduate is useless? Well, sometimes – you wouldn’t want anyone in that role to lack people skills, a feel for local environments, or basic competence. If a political science graduate is going to be bad at the job, then obviously it’s a bad idea to make him or her your adviser. And I’m under absolutely no delusion that a world run by political scientists would somehow be a utopia, as opposed to an extremely protracted committee meeting. Kilcullen’s advice is aimed at people who are mixing it up on the ground and it’s quite sensible.

But political science, and academia more generally, at its best provides skills and knowledge that can be useful both on the ground and back in DC. Kilcullen himself has a PhD, after all, and the various agencies of the federal government annually inhale huge numbers of political science BAs and PhDs and public policy masters graduates. Studying abroad, learning languages, acquiring statistical analysis skills, and knowing history often come out of this background. These can be incredibly useful, in Afghanistan or on the Hill. Many of the best think-tankers in the South Asian security world have academic training, whether as professors (like Stephen Cohen, Stephen Biddle, and Marvin Weinbaum) or political science PhDs (like Vanda Felbab-Brown, Seth Jones, and Ashley Tellis). Barnett Rubin’s brilliant, extremely relevant The Fragmentation of Afghanistan was written while he was in a political science department, and his acknowledgments include various political scientists and other academics. There are lots of ways to get useful knowledge and skills, and academia certainly seems to be one of them.

What of those who stay in the academy? Based on limited experience, it appears that some academics view involvement in policy discussions as degrading “journalism” that necessarily undermines scholarship. This is part of the consolidation of expert professions: the creation of barriers to entry that limit competition on terms most suitable to those trying to advance a particular vision of a discipline. In addition, there have been strong trends militating against regional focus and fieldwork that leave political scientists at a disadvantage when it comes to providing detailed information about particular places.

I see no reason why this should be the case. There are academic standards that must be met to get tenure and be published in refereed journals, but op-eds, TV appearances, and government work need not undermine those standards. Instead, new ideas and insights can emerge from confronting policy issues. Much of the seminal work on deterrence, coercion, and conventional war in international relations that now populates our graduate syllabi, for instance, came directly out of trying to figure out contemporary Cold War dilemmas (loosely similar dynamics seem to be at play in development economics – see this profile of Esther Dufflo).

Ideas, evidence, and theories can also emerge from fieldwork, language study, and regional knowledge – how can we know what questions to ask about politics and society (much less their answers) if we don’t know anything about politics or society? Some of the best recent research in insurgency has come from deep field studies, including both quantitative and qualitative work, that provide data and insight difficult to extract from a library cubicle or computer screen (though such research is also hugely valuable and usually complementary). That strikes me as a comparative advantage to be embraced rather than shunned.

And what of policy makers, analysts, and the press? I have a ton of sympathy for policymakers – they have a brutally difficult job, facing life and death decisions under intense pressure. A lieutenant in Afghanistan doesn’t have time to ponder the finer methodological questions raised by States and Social Revolutions; Hillary Clinton has enough on her plate that expecting her to write memos about the implications of Identity in Formation for Afghanistan’s ethnically mixed areas is totally absurd.

That said, given how massive and wealthy it is, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect engagement with academic work on the part of at least some of the government apparatus. In my very limited experience (and that of friends and colleagues), this engagement is highly uneven. Overseas, I’ve found people from the military, State Department, and USAID quite receptive to new ideas and interested in real dialogue. But back in the States, I’ve sometimes observed an uncomfortable dynamic in which academics are told to be relevant, but then when they present arguments at odds with what policymakers find affirming or convenient, or that are complicated, academics are dismissed as “just not getting it” or being irrelevant (even when they’re obviously not being irrelevant). This can strike academics as a very disingenuous kind of engagement, and creates more barriers rather than fewer.

Providing quick and convenient recommendations and conclusions isn’t what academics are paid to do, nor should it be. The job of academics is to do first-rate research and teaching. As John and others have noted in a different areas, many arguments made by academics focus on big structural variables that are frustratingly hard to manipulate, or rely on assumptions and evidence that policymakers find disconcerting. But if those arguments are important and will shape the likely outcome of policies, academics should be able to say so without being ignored or dismissed. Only taking professional research seriously when it agrees with you, or after you’ve realized your policy is in really bad shape, is not the best way to draw on academic expertise.

I have less sympathy for the roving packs of pundits, analysts, thinktankers, consultants, and journalists who fill out the policy community and have provided much of the discourse around contemporary US foreign policy. They have a lot more time on their hands to get into the intellectual weeds on COIN, state-building, and other important topics. A lot of academic work is certainly abstruse, inaccessible, and policy-irrelevant, but there’s also a lot of good, accessible research out there that goes almost totally unmentioned. Instead of using it, thinktank reports, op-eds, and pop-foreign policy books often toss in a couple citations of some “lesson learned” pieces, make sweeping assertions about the nature of counterinsurgency, and highlight aspects of a couple cases that nicely fit in with the argument being advanced. While there are important exceptions, it’s generally a recipe for fuzzy thinking, dubious analogizing, and platitude reproduction (see: David Brooks).

For this group of people, I can’t think of a good excuse for not picking up a copy of At War’s End, Guerrillas and Revolutions in Latin America, Terror, Insurgency, and the State, or a bunch of other serious, accessible, relevant pieces of academic research (I’m happy to provide more examples in comments) and using them to clarify arguments, probe assumptions, and find more appropriate historical cases. That should be done before making policy recommendations and before pontificating on the topic of the day. If self-proclaimed expert authorities aren’t willing to do some very basic due diligence, I’m not sure why we’re supposed to listen to them. I would never write an op-ed about, say, the Japanese economy without reading a lot of serious research on the Japanese economy, and COIN and security issues aren’t any different.

Academic-policy relations should be a two-way street, not just a venue for academics to look down their noses at “applied” work or the policy community to lecture academics about how useless they are. Both sides can certainly do better.