Friday, November 07, 2008

Obama's intellectuals

David Milne has a piece on the various foreign policy intellectuals who may become part of the Obama administration. "In no other country," he observes, "do elected leaders take political scientists so seriously." After reviewing the leading academic candidates for senior roles in the administration, he then asks the money question, namely, Is having intellectuals in the cabinet a good thing?
The good news is that Barack Obama's intellectuals are fine scholars who have produced some thought-provoking books and articles on the best way to deploy American power. The bad news is that Walt Rostow and Paul Wolfowitz were also fine scholars who had produced interesting books and articles on the best way to deploy American power.

So how might this new generation of foreign policy thinkers avoid the mistakes made by their predecessors?

Well, one problem has arisen in cases in which the academic in question has a cherished "theory" to test, and therefore misreads evidence to suit intellectual preconceptions. Through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, for instance, Rostow believed that the thesis presented in his 1960 book, "The Stages of Economic Growth" -- that all nations are driven by economic self-interest in peace and war -- rendered North Vietnam's infrastructure critically vulnerable to American bombing. "Ho Chi Minh has an industrial complex to protect," he explained. "He is no longer a guerrilla fighter with nothing to lose."

But Rostow was wrong. North Vietnam's leadership was willing to absorb serious damage to further the overarching goal of reunification. Rostow failed to appreciate the power of nationalist ideology.

Similarly, Wolfowitz theorized throughout the 1990s that liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein would lead to the eventual democratization of the Middle East, a region better known for its authoritarian regimes than for participatory politics. It is perhaps too early to declare that the thesis was entirely wrong. But the last five years have not been encouraging.
I must say that I am vaguely gratified, in a bitter sort of way, that Paul Wolfowitz is becoming to this generation what Walt Rostow was to a previous one -- that is, a byword for a misguided arrogance that thinks good theory can be used to force other people to become free. I like to imagine that this blog has done a small part to contribute to that emerging consensus.

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