Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: Government — Rick Moran @ 9:45 am

One of the more fascinating blogosphere discussions in recent weeks is happening over on the left regarding foreign policy “experts” and their responsibility for our current situation in Iraq and elsewhere.

It started with a post by Gideon Rose over at the Economist Blog that skewered the netroots for bashing the “foreign policy community” for their perceived failures in getting us into Iraq. Rose compared the netroots attacks on these “experts” with those carried out by neo-conservatives in the late 1990’s:

The lefty blogosphere, meanwhile, has gotten itself all in a tizzy over the failings of the “foreign policy community.” The funny thing is…hell, I’ll just come out and say it: the netroots’ attitude toward professionals isn’t that different from the neocons’, both being convinced that the very concept of a foreign-policy clerisy is unjustified, anti-democratic and pernicious, and that the remedy is much tighter and more direct control by the principals over their supposed professional agents.

The charges the bloggers are making now are very similar to those that the neocons made a few years ago: mainstream foreign-policy experts are politicised careerists, biased hacks, and hide-bound traditionalists who have gotten everything wrong in the past and don’t deserve to be listened to in the future. (Take a look at pretty much any old Jim Hoagland column and you’ll see what I mean.) Back then, the neocons directed their fire primarily at the national security bureaucracies—freedom-hating mediocrities at the CIA, pin-striped wussies at the State Department, cowardly soldiers at the Pentagon. Now the bloggers’ attacks are generally aimed at the think-tank world.

This piece drew a response from Mathew Yglesias where he tried to change the parameters of the discussion from “expertise and professionalism” to whether many of these so-called “wise men” are in fact, experts in the first place:

And there’s the rub. Rose would, I think, like to make this a conversation about expertise and professionalism. But I’m not, and I don’t think anyone in the blogosphere is, against expertise and professionalism. The question is whether some of our country’s self-proclaimed experts — and media proclaimed experts — really deserve to be considered experts. What, for example, is the nature of Michael O’Hanlon’s expertise on the broad range of subjects (his official bio lists him as an expert on “Arms treaties; Asian security issues; Homeland security; Iraq policy; Military technology; Missile defense; North Korea policy; Peacekeeping operations; Taiwan policy, military analysis; U.S. defense strategy and budget”) upon which he comments? Obviously, it would be foolish to just let me speak ex cathedra as an “expert” on the dizzying array of subjects on which I comment, but it seems equally foolish to let O’Hanlon do so, especially since his judgment seems so poor. I made a stab at a systemic difference between think tank people and professionals in the public sector, but Rose raises some convincing points to the effect that this dichotomy isn’t as sharp as I wanted it to be. Still, we can certainly talk about specific individuals — particularly individuals who seem to be unusually prominent or influential — and whether or not they really deserve to be held in high esteem.

Kevin Drum weighs in with some considered thoughts about group think as it relates to why so many “experts” were in favor of the invasion while some in the intel community (not as many as many on the left would have us believe) opposed the Iraq adventure:

My own view is a little different, though. Sure, the war skeptics might have been afraid to go against the herd, but I think that was just an outgrowth of something more concrete: a fear of being provably wrong. After all, everyone agreed that Saddam Hussein was a brutal and unpredictable thug and almost everyone agreed that he had an active WMD program. (Note: Please do some research first if you want to disagree with this. The plain fact is that nearly everyone — liberal and conservative, American and European, George Bush and Al Gore — believed Saddam was developing WMDs. This unanimity started to break down when the UN inspections failed to turn up anything, but before that you could count the number of genuine WMD doubters on one hand.) This meant that war skeptics had to go way out on a limb: if they opposed the war, and it subsequently turned out that Saddam had an advanced WMD program, their credibility would have been completely shot. Their only recourse would have been to argue that Saddam never would have used his WMD, an argument that, given Saddam’s temperament, would have sounded like special pleading even to most liberals. In the end, then, they chickened out, but it had more to do with fear of being wrong than with fear of being shunned by the foreign policy community.

At any rate, it would be instructive to find out who these closet doves were and invite them to a Foreign Affairs roundtable to talk about why they knuckled under to the hawks prior to the war. To the extent they were willing to be honest, it would be a pretty interesting conversation. I won’t be holding my breath, though.

Finally, Ilan Goldenberg makes some interesting points about the difference between true “experts” and the self proclaimed variety who show up on TV constantly:

It’s not that the entire VSP community is bad. The question is how do you tell the difference between a hack and someone who is a genuine expert? This actually isn’t too hard to figure out. First, regional experts generally tend to be more well informed than functional experts because of their narrower focus. There is a long list of foreign policy experts who specialize in the Middle East (And did so before 9/11 came around). Jon Alterman, Brian Katulis, Mark Lynch, Ray Takeyh, Steven Simon, Flynt Levrett, Vali Nasr, Steven Cook, Rob Malley to name just a few. Most of these people speak Arabic or Farsi. Most have spent sigificant time in the region or spent a great deal of time studying the history of the region and the intimate details. They know much more than you, me, Matt Yglesias or Gideon Rose do about the Middle East. Not surprisingly a large majority of these regional experts were opposed to the Iraq War. The problem is no one listened. The issue became so main stream that many functional experts who knew very little about the region stepped in and start calling themselves Middle East experts and make assertions as “experts” on what the U.S. should be doing. During the Cold War everyone was a Soviet “expert.” Today everyone is a Middle East “expert”. (Ken Pollack is the clear exception to the rule. He has rigorously studied the Middle East, but was just flat out wrong about Iraq).

What fascinates me about this entire discussion is the confluence of politics and policy and how the media, academia, and political parties play a dominant role in making, shaping, and promoting our foreign policy.

A couple of caveats are in order. First, I make no claims to being an “expert” in anything save distilling and writing about the ideas and policy prescriptions of others. That’s what most of us bloggers do on a daily basis. There are probably times when my enthusiasm gets the better of me and I attempt some independent analysis - with mixed results I’m sure. The point is, I am perfectly happy to feed off the knowledge and expertise of others as long as what they are proposing or their analysis makes sense to me in the context of what I already know about the subject.

Secondly, by its very nature, blogging is hazardous to elites. Therefore, one would expect the loudest yelps of indignation about “know-nothing bloggers” to come from those whose work is constantly criticized by people not recognized as “peers” by the foreign policy establishment. And while they may have a point about some writers not having the breadth or depth of knowledge about a particular subject when compared to an “expert,” to dismiss their critiques out of hand smacks of an intellectual elitism not uncommon in academia or politics for that matter.

That said, I find fault in the general critique being advanced by these lefty bloggers about “experts” and why they perceive an institutional failure in resisting the war tocsins prior to our invasion of Iraq.

Their problem (and I agree with Rose about a similar attitude presented by the Neocons in the past) is in misunderstanding how foreign policy is made. For a good contemporary look at the sausage making, I recommend Ole Holsti’s fine group of essays on the subject. For a little more depth and historical background, one could do no better than reading Richard Russell’s excellent critique of George Keenan’s “strategic thought” and the evolution of our policy toward the Soviet Union.

Both books reveal how various “experts” impact policy making. Looking at the left’s critique of who gets to give input into the process and whose opinions receive more weight than others fails to take into account the real role of politics in this process as well as the small but significant part played by the media and public opinion in formulating, shaping, and implementing our policies.

Clearly, a distinction must be made between purely academic experts whose writings are well respected in their tiny corner of academia and their counterparts who fill the ranks of various “think tanks” (I hate that term!). A place like Brookings brings together those who shuttle between the academy and government as well as those who may have an academic background but who serve as in house experts for political campaigns or involve themselves in politics in other ways. In this respect, “think tanks” are clearinghouses for ideas and analyses that bubble up and make their way from the academy to politics.

The criticism by the leftosphere of “experts” like Michael O’Hanlon and, to a lesser extent Kenneth Pollack, the two Brookings Fellows whose Op-Ed in the New York Times was offered as “proof” by many on the right that things were going better in Iraq and that it was still “winnable,” points up this confluence between politics and policy. O’Hanlon/Pollack may have gone to Iraq to analyze the situation based on their knowledge and expertise as academic experts. But clearly, their conclusions immediately entered the realm of politics once they broadcast their findings on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. The only goal one can assume from these actions was a desire to affect the political debate in Congress.

Is this the proper role for “experts?” Clearly, some on the left question this foray into politics by the two Brookings fellows. And the belief by many that it was disingenuous of the two to claim they were “war critics” when they supported the invasion has something to do with the virulence with which they have been skewered by the left. One wonders if they had come back saying the surge was a failure and we should withdraw immediately, would the left be attacking the messengers so strenuously. Perhaps not. But it is a minor point compared to the larger issue of what is an “expert” and who do we believe when trying to form an opinion about any issue.

Goldenberg’s attempt to define a “real” expert is fine as far as it goes. He slips up a bit here:

Another of indicator of expertise is the think tank bio page. As Matt hints at, there is an inverse correlation between the number of areas of expertise listed in your bio and your actual expertise. What also matters is whether the listing of expertise makes any sense and whether the various areas are related. For example, Tony Cordesman, who quite frankly knows more than you, me, or just about anybody else about the Middle East, only lists four areas of expertise on his bio: Energy, Middle East & North Africa, Defense Policy, and Terrorism.

His point being that Michael O’Hanlon is a charlatan because he lists a dozen areas of “expertise” on his bio page at Brookings including unrelated foreign policy subjects like the Middle East and Taiwan. I agree that on the surface, it would seem to be a good yardstick to determine if someone was really an “expert” on a given subject. Does O’Hanlon know more about the Middle East than Cordesman who only lists 4 areas of expertise in his bio? Or does he know more than a scholar/professor like Juan Cole?

Even if he doesn’t, I think adding up the number of areas where a scholar like O’Hanlon claims sufficient knowledge to be considered an “expert” and trying to determine the right or wrong of it is in and of itself a foolhardy venture by definition. O’Hanlon must be judged by his peers. Given that Goldenberg rightly points out that bloggers know less about the Middle East than a Cordesman or a Cole (even though his scholarship has been questioned by his peers), it would seem that Mr. Rose is making a good point about misdirected or poorly formulated criticisms directed against experts.

This doesn’t obviate blog criticisms of O’Hanlon or any other expert. Rather, it points up the problem in determining how much weight we give to an analysis of any issue based on an expert’s opinion. Do we agree with the political implications of an analysis? Do we generally agree with the underlying assumptions in that analysis?

If we see an expert on TV all the time, are we more likely to agree with him when he publishes a paper? And finally, what role does the opinions of the political class play in all of this?

The left uses as a basic assumption in their critique of these experts that there was a “consensus” among them (even a lockstep mindset according to Drum) that the war was right, necessary, and would be a cakewalk. Only a precious few experts crying out from the wilderness were opposed to the adventure. I don’t recall it quite that way although in sheer volume, the Neocon view outshouted the more cautious analysts who urged waiting a few months. The problem there was more a tactical military problem in that delaying the invasion two or three months to give the inspectors more time would have meant our forces attacking during the summer and the additional problems of brutal heat and sun.

But how persuasive were the experts in getting the bulk of the American people to go along with the President in attacking Iraq? Not very, I daresay. If it is true that the political class was affected by “expert” opinions on whether to invade then it was equally true that politicians saw the huge numbers in support of the invasion and felt going against the grain would be political suicide. In this way, there is little doubt that public opinion, only tangentially affected by the pronouncements of experts, led the way to war.

One might more readily ask how influenced the Bush Administration was by these experts. The fact that most of the Neocons who came into power with the Administration were already in support of taking out Saddam should disabuse anyone of the idea that outside experts at think tanks or academia held much sway with that crew. If not 9/11, some other causus belli would have been used as an excuse to get rid of the tyrant.

In general then, I tend to come down on Mr. Rose’s side in this debate. The way foreign policy is made in America utilizes the strengths of academia and scholars with experience in government along with political and media elites who turn ideas into policy. The fact that there so few involved in the process may, as Mr. Rose intimates, be undemocratic. But there really isn’t much of an alternative.


Michael van der Galiën also weighs in:

Now, certain bloggers know a lot about certain subjects. Therefore, it would be wise to listen to them. However, bloggers too should not have the ultimate say (thank God we don’t). Some bloggers know far more than Joe Doe does, albeit less than the superexperts do, at least in theory. This means that, on the one hand people should listen to those bloggers (I will not name the ‘good’ bloggers), while on the other hand those bloggers should listen to experts in order to learn and to make up their minds. In a way, one could say, that in my world a blogger has quite some in common with a politician or a leader: in the end, bloggers (the bigger ones) are opinion makers - thus opinion leaders.

The mistake many netroot bloggers make, however, is that they do not look at experts as much as they look at John Doe: as if John Doe knows all. The result is that - although they should be able to come up with good ideas - they more often than not come up with utter nonsense. The result of that, in its turn, is that they lose credibility (resulting in articles as the one by Gideon).

I think Michael makes an excellent point. As I say above, the vast majority of Americans were not swayed by “experts” who were urging war with Saddam (or agreeing that it was necessary). It was politicians who made the case - using arguments advanced by some experts - that swayed public opinion.


Daniel Drezner echoes some of my points about the establishment and the Iraq War while adding this:

The moment George W. Bush decided he wanted to oust Saddam Hussein, the debate was effectively over. Nothing the foreign policy community did or could have done affected the outcome (Pollack is a possible exception — his book The Threatening Storm did play the role of “useful cover” for many Democrats, but if it wasn’t Pollack’s book it would have been something else). The members of the “foreign policy community” were not the enablers of Iraq, because no enabling was necessary.

The good news is that conditions a-f no longer apply. So, contra the netroots, I don’t think what happened in the fall of 2002 will happen again.

And I also appreciate how he deconstructed Lambchop’s nonsense that the establishment is predisposed to war mongering.


  1. The netroots’ foreign policy calculus…

    Matthew Yglesias responds to Gideon Rose’s critique of the netroots critique on the foreign policy community (discussed here). The highlights: Rose would, I think, like to make this a conversation about expertise and professionalism. But I’m not, and…

    Trackback by Daniel W. Drezner — 8/19/2007 @ 1:08 pm

  2. Anyone who has served in an intelligence role will realize how frgile intelligence is and how relative a thing so called expertise is. Unfortunately so called experts seldom seemed to have actually lived in the lands they are expert about; served in the military; and actually been in a position to have actually used the intelligence they provide.

    Commonsense is a commodity that seems to be in relatively short supply and the ability of policy makers and those who supply the policy makers ability to filter those facts which do not fit the conceptions of decision makers is frightening.

    Its a shame that intelligence is required to provide a pro-con report for all intelligence with the officers being responsible for their analysis.

    This doesn’t happen now and it will not as long as risk taking and initiative are required. And in bureaucracies it is never about how many you get right, its about what you get wrong, hence screwed up estimates that are rarely on the mark or even close to it.

    Comment by Thomas Jackson — 8/19/2007 @ 7:14 pm

  3. Well everyone has an opinion. We have to judge the soundness of that opinion based upon logic and facts, but also by the experience of the person giving the opinion. A person who has been around the world and has done a lot of research is going to have more credibility over those who do not. It’s up to each individual to decide who to listen to.

    Personally, I was not looking for what the pundits said. I drew my own conclusions, but I consider myself a pretty informed individual. It can be interesting though for people to debate each other and then that can produce the weaknesses and strengths of each side of the debate. Blogs, a political forum, message boards are all good places to discuss the issues and become more informed on them.


    Comment by roger — 8/31/2007 @ 12:55 am

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