A Desperate Ploy for Relevance?

by Joshua Foust on 9/20/2009 · 26 comments

I saw this inanity at the “Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy” and wrote it off as a desperate ploy for relevance from an academic field that has tried aggressively to separate itself from the IRL implications of its theories. Seriously, when is the last time a major IR theory or study affected the policy decisions of the foreign policy establishment? You could argue it was the Walt/Mearsheimer book now beloved of Osama bin Laden, but that wasn’t a theory so much an ill-formed and poorly-phrased restatement of common knowledge about ethnic and national lobbying groups in DC.

But otherwise? When is the last time an IR scholar produced research that was remotely useful to a policy maker? The Clash of Civilizations? I don’t mean to disparage the whole field, because it does things that are relevant, but not immediately so: most of the big IR theories I know that policy types pay attention to need to be “filtered” and rephrased into English (usually at a think tank, though that’s a separate problem) to have bearing on actual foreign policy issues. For example, foreign policy makers remain obsessed with transnational terrorism and the rise of near-peer competitors and regional superpowers. The majority of IR scholars are obsessed with climate change. No wonder people don’t care about them.

But it gets worse. When a group of these scholars try to insert themselves into an actual and immediate foreign policy dilemma, we get… a strawman, a red herring, and little basic understanding of the situation. Seriously?

As with all foreign policies, this enormous effort must be weighed against the opportunity costs. Money, troops, and other resources would be poured into Afghanistan at the expense of other national priorities, both foreign and domestic…

Many of those urging you to deepen U.S. involvement in that country are the same people who promised we would encounter few difficulties in Iraq and that that war would solve our problems in the Middle East, neither of which proved to be the case. We urge your administration to refocus on al Qaeda and avoid an open-ended state-building mission in Afghanistan.

Weird. The hallmark of Obama’s stategy for Afghanistan was actually walking back our goals there, from a full-on Bush-type nation building mission to a much more limited plan of disrupting and degrading al Qaeda. Many of those urging deeper U.S. involvement in the area are actually NOT the same old Iraq crowd—the depth of my frustration at the celebrity pundits in this debate is driven by the fact that their interest in Afghanistan is as recent and shallow as this group of scholars’. And really? It’s expensive and it’s hard? That’s all they have for why we need to pull back?

What’s absolutely fascinating about this letter, at least going off Duck of Minerva‘s promotion of it, is the weird insistence on PNAS driving the concern. Equally fascinating is the very visible absence of Afghanistan scholars on the list. Much like my own complaints about the McChrystal review team this past summer, there is a marked ignorance of Afghanistan itself, and, for the most part, specialists in counter-terrorism.

So why now? Why only after the third escalation in two years do these scholars assemble to complain about costs? Why were they unable to wrangle any Afghanistan experts to back up that the mission was neither worth the cost nor worth the people to do so? And why can’t they even get some of the basic players in the debate right?

It’s bizarre, I tell you. This list doesn’t read as much about “enriching the public debate” as it does “leveraging one’s advanced degree for narrow partisan lobbying,” but then again I’m just some schmoe with a vested interest in the place.

Sadly, this just another data point for why IR remains irrelevant to actual international affairs.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Ian September 20, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Again, I’m going to chime in here because of your emotional outburst about some fairly reasonable concerns: are we being too ambitious? is the “safe haven” argument anything more than school lunches? are the costs greater than the benefits (expressed however you wish: human costs or material ones)? Surely expressing these kinds of concerns about an important policy shouldn’t be an occasion to answer so brattily as you do here? And surely you don’t think that policy-makers ignore scholarship (pull up State’s Policy Planning Staff, or the Defense Policy Board and read the bibliographies of their members)?

And, to continue:

Red herring: “The majority of IR scholars are obsessed with climate change.”

Actually, the article says, “According to the scholars in this year’s survey, a U.S. commitment to take the lead on international climate treaties is long overdue.”

Straw man: “Sadly, this just another data point for why IR remains irrelevant to actual international affairs.”

Actually, your reduction of scholarship to “relevance” is the data point for why blogs are less influential than other forms of knowledge production in the policy arena.

Of interest: “But then again I’m just some schmoe with a vested interest in the place.”

Joshua Foust September 20, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Ian, concerns are perfectly fine so long as they’re reasonably stated. Ambition is a relative concept, left to implication in both that letter and your comment is when ambition becomes too much. A fuzzy concept, I know, but if one is to level the charge one should at least do so convincingly.

And no, they don’t ignore scholarship, I’m addressing the field in general. I note that you gloss over my “why now, why this, why these people” questions. Those matter just as much.

And, unlike these scholars trying to use the weight of their PhDs in tangentially relevant subjects to dominate the conversation, I at least do my readers the courtesy of being upfront about my paper qualifications and biases. They (and you) could do the same.

Let’s think of it this way: what in that letter is a concern that demonstrates any understanding of the war in Afghanistan? There are vague complaints of cost, vague (and, in my view, misleading) concerns about scope, and vague concerns of the money and resources and people being better spent elsewhere (in that letter’s somewhat sloppy phrasing, I guess the DOD budget and its personnel should be devoted to unnamed domestic challenges?).

What that letter represents is concern out of principle—which is not an immoral thing, but it’s also not made relevant by having a nice resume and lots of concern. My complaint against it is they don’t actually address the problems beyond the vaguest of ideas—again, it’s too hard and costs a lot—without allowing for the possibility that the policymakers in charge have already decided it’s worth it.

Which brings me back to my original point: it’s a vague complaint, an opposition based on theory with little comprehension of practice.

Ian September 20, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Not that I have a vested interest or anything, but since when did having a tangentially relevent PhD disqualify a dude from making a good point? Oh, and god forbid people use the weight of their whatever to try to influence policy. That is the world. Deal. What I suspect is going on in this post, in a “the lady doth protest too much” vein, is that you recognize the anti-war crowd has an excellent and persuasive argument, which frustrates you.

What frustrates me even more is that, despite the fact that I know you possess an amazing degree of nuanced knowledge about the situation in Afghanistan, you have thrown your hat into the hawks vs. doves ring. Choosing a side in that fight may make you relevent, but in the process you discard what makes you knowledgeable and trustworthy about the conflict.

That, and your repeated misuse of the terms “straw man” and “red herring,” are why I am confronting you on this.

Joshua Foust September 20, 2009 at 4:29 pm

Ian, did I say there was anything wrong with someone trying to leverage their influence? There’s not. But you know as well as I do that a PhD does not confer auto-knowledge on something. And a number of people on that list don’t have PhDs (I know several)… and all that is tangential to my point anyway.

I really enjoy you reading motivations onto me. I do think the anti-war crowd has a seductive argument, but that’s not the same as “excellent and persuasive.” In fact, I think it’s downright dangerous—people who do NOT, in fact, understand what’s going on and what the stakes are, on both sides, since you seem to be forgetting all the times I criticize the pro-war types as well, are dominating the discussion.

That is what I find so frustrating. I haven’t thrown my hat into any ring—or are you ignoring the many times I complain about us having bad strategy, poor implementation, and arguing against any more troop increases? You’re the one trying to pigeon-hole me into a hawk vs. dove context—I find BOTH sides of that split maddeningly ignorant of the country.

As for the bit about policymakers—we should care, if we care about making an honest argument against the war. Simply stating that the administration has not made a cost-benefit calculation—one of the lynchpins of that letter—ignores the possibility that they actually have. If so, that complicates the case they’re making, since it stops being a vague “well, if we do a cost-benefit, then clearly we can all see it’s nor worth it” to “well, now we must persuade people that they’re underestimating cost and overestimating benefit.”

That latter bit is a substantially more complex argument than the platitudes I’m criticizing here, and it remains as curiously unsaid from the anti-war set as it does from the pro-war set.

I’m really disappointed you thought I’m so simplistic.

Ian September 20, 2009 at 4:23 pm

“the policymakers in charge have already decided it’s worth it”

Who cares.

Ian September 20, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Not pigeon-holing you, just telling you how it looks from outside.

You are ignoring the fact that the Afghanistan policy of the U.S. government is completely up for grabs right now. These decisions you think are done deals, they are not done, at all. This war may be over in a year.

Joshua Foust September 20, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Ahh, I see, criticizing both sides makes me objectively pro-war. Classy.

And no, I’m not ignoring that at all. If I thought these decisions were done, I wouldn’t be arguing so strongly against this kind of thing.

If you think it’ll be done in a year, I hope you’re ready for disappointment. It takes much longer than that.

Ian September 20, 2009 at 6:33 pm

I just said the opposite: not objectively, what it looks like from outside is that you’re pro-war. You deride perfectly reasonable critics as not expert enough (or as speaking out of turn, in this particular case) when those critics disagree with you and call for a change. Looks like you have an attachment to this war. Although maybe you don’t, objectivamente.

I wrote this before deleting it in my previous comment, but this much is clear from reading your posts regularly: you treat serious people on the critical side as crazies, and you treat crazies on the pro-war side in a way that you believe makes you balanced. As I’ve said before, Rory Stewart (or Paul Pillar, for god’s sake) is not Anne Marlowe. And as for nitpicking over tactics (a la your recent defenses of McKiernan), that’s a different order of discussion than “Is it worth is to stay in Afghanistan longer than another year.”

You may think “it” will take longer than a year, but I myself have serious doubts that the constituency that elected Obama will conclude that more dead Afghans and Americans in Afghanistan is worth it, come next September. That’s the audience for the open letter. So, keep an eye out for more of these little experiments in SF missions they’re trying in Somalia these days.

Joshua Foust September 20, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Oooh, right. So you’re referring to that time I said outright I have a vested interest in the war? Gotcha.

I don’t recall treating Rory Stewart as a crazy. I think his ideas are poorly thought through, but I don’t recall accusing him of craziness or being a hack, the way I do Ann Marlowe (and we’ve been down that path before and it kind of petered out) . I haven’t blogged about Paul Pillar’s latest piece, though I did tweet that I felt his distinction between real and cyber safe havens was arbitrary. How is that treating him as a Marlowe-esque crazy person?

Similarly, I have had substantive disagreements with people like Bernard Finel and Michael Cohen over the substance of the war that has not devolved into accusing them of or treating them like crazies. There is a fundamental difference in how I treat Ralph Peters and how I’m treating, for example, this letter in this post. “Irrelevant and misinformed” is not the same as “malicious and dangerous” which is how I would characterize my attacks on Peters and Marlowe (and the Kagans and Max Boot).

I think you’re a bit over-sensitive to criticism of the anti-war side, which I gather from the tone of your comments you are sympathetic to. Which I mean, whatever, but you can hardly call this post an example of me accusing people of being crazies. I did nothing of the sort.

I don’t disguise my belief that the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. I also don’t think you can read my posts on the topic and conclude that I hold any great confidence in the government’s ability to do so properly. Which is why I bristle at the attempt to shove me into one “side” of the debate or another — I attack both as being pretty ill-informed.

Oh right, the Left’s attack on Obama. Yes, that might tip the scales. Also, he and SecDef Gates have been explicit that if they don’t see progress in 12 months they’re going to scale back the war, and that was quite some time before this letter (and really? You think the Cato Institute is pandering to the Drawdown listerv crowd?).

And we all know there are going to be more SOF missions in Afghanistan: both McChrystal and Gates have been obvious they’re sending upwards of a thousand extra SOCOM guys and CIA paramilitary guys to the country.

Here’s the fun bit: I have vehemently opposed such a thing from the start. Why? Because I think trying to fight the war like it’s still 2002 is a ridiculous idea, and indicative of the paucity of creative thinking by our top leadership. I’m kind of surprised you’d be comfortable with such a decision.

Ian September 20, 2009 at 7:32 pm

I bring up Paul Pillar because he was a signatory on the letter, not in reference to some other article. If you think he and Michael Cohen are too irrelevant and ivory-tower, so be it.

Sunday Night Football is coming on, so I’ll be brief: in part, my private conversations with you about Afghanistan contributed to my view that there is no good solution; the only solution I see, and this is heavily influenced by your writings and our conversations, is that ISAF abandon areas it can’t control. Which is a lot of Afghanistan. I confess I have a hard time understanding why you still think that ISAF can have success in territories that it can’t control at night as well as day, given all you know about the country.

Joshua Foust September 21, 2009 at 3:31 am

Ian, I don’t have any good solutions either — especially with the way we still operate there (and I’m including the now-public revelations about the McChrystal Review). I don’t recall saying recently that I think ISAF can have success — I mean this honestly, have you not read my volumnious critiques of their operations? — but that doesn’t mean my thought process automatically goes to “let’s pull back and organize withdrawal.”

I still think we have a vital interest there, even if ISAF is proving incapable of fighting it. Umm, that’s why I remain involved with the military, to try to change things.

TCHe September 20, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Hmm, having acquired the role of an IR lecturer I ought to say something here 😉

Let’s start with the observation that the obsession of policy makers with near-peer competitors and regional superpowers may well be explained by the dominance of the realist worldview in the field of security policy—which is basically the constructivist argument of “Anarchy is what states make of it”.
In this case, IR theory helps understand why certain topics enjoy more relevance than, say global warming. Further, the constructivist subfield of securitization theory is quite useful in recasting how non-security issues become securitized (say, for example global warming).

The treatment of transnational terrorism by the discipline has been less sophisticated but once again constructivism shines when it comes to the role of ideas in international (or transnational) politics. Overall, however, regional expertise is necessary to fully grasp this phenomenon and most IR scholars (not only realists) lack this knowledge, which doesn’t exactly stop them from analyzing phenomena anyway.
(As I mentioned on Twitter already, the structuralists are especially guilty of this).

Overall, however, I share your sentiment that the IR discipline isn’t as influential and important as it used to be. Others like Joseph Nye have commented on this as well and they’re better suited than I am, but I believe this is—at least in part—my discipline’s fault. In part the problem might be that IR scientists prefer the ivory tower over actual questions of policy. Policy makers, on the other hand don’t necessarily care for scientific work that can’t be reduced to a view bullet points and fits to already held opinions.

It is important to note, however, that Neorealists in particular have always striven to actively influence policy decisions, see, for example, Waltz’s writings against the Vietnam war, or the open letter of various Neorealists against the Iraq war in 2003 (predecessor to the latest letter).
There seems to be a certain isolationist tendency within these scholars and, as I have always argued, at times it’s hard to separate science and political viewpoints.

This does answer your question regarding the timing of the letter, as well: Because the media’s focus now is on A-Stan and everyone feels compelled to write something about it. As you are well aware of, most of these commentators stick to what they’ve always said, they just dress their arguments differently.

Joshua Foust September 20, 2009 at 5:30 pm

I don’t want to detract from the main point you’re making, which is good, but look at the dates of the theories you’re discussing. Alexander Wendt wrote “Anarchy is what states make of it” in 1992. Kenneth Waltz practically invented Neorealism in “Theory of International Politics” in 1979.

I mean, if that’s what we’re basing this off of, then we’re dealing with discussions of a world that no longer exists.

TCHe September 20, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Granted, the discipline seems to have been dormant for quite some time. Then again, consider what I wrote in my annex. Basic ideas like the relevance of narration needed almost ten years before they gained some hold in the mainstream policy establishment.

Personally, I’m also looking forward to the further ramifications of chaos and complexity theory on IR. This could be the next break-through in the discipline (though I can’t say how it’ll affect it’s relevance to policy makers).

I’ll happily cede to you, however, that IR theory has been slow to grapple the post-9/11 world. Most of the discussion still focuses on issues like human security and the broadened definition of security in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War.
We really could do with some fresh thinking but let’s face it, creativity in science (every scientific discipline) isn’t exactly valued.

Joshua Foust September 20, 2009 at 5:42 pm

Well, it’s not about ceding. IR as a field doesn’t produce zero work, but it’s so inscrutable and immediately irrelevant that it requires intermediaries (often) to find ways to make it relevant—hence my dig at think tankers. I’ve had long, drawn out arguments about scholars whose work carries deep, real-world implications writing in a jargon-laden and difficult way, and not made any headway. So who knows.

TCHe September 21, 2009 at 1:50 am

re “ceding”—blame it on the non-native 😉

Written in a jargon-laden and difficult way: Yes, absolutely. This has been common for too long in Germany. In contrast, American and British scholars stood out by clear writing. It’s sad that the need to hide one’s arguments behind a veil of words is gaining foothold with them, too.

This might be a sign for a more general fault in the system. Pressure to publish is high and you don’t get published by promoting “crazy” new ideas. Instead you’ll stick to the “proven” (a word I’m very uncomfortable with in the realm of the social sciences) and attack or defend existing theories. (This in addition to my above claim that the field isn’t exactly encouraging creativity).

What’s more, there seems to be the need to prove oneself worthy to belong to the ranks of IR scholars by using the most elaborate and difficult language imaginable. Personally, I feel that to be relevant, one must be understood. If someone with a decent education doesn’t understand what you’re writing, you’re not doing it right. Public funding means that the public can actually understand what they’re funding.
Obviously, I’m not part of the mainstream here.

A final thought: Part of the reason may also be that the discipline has become more humble. Neorealism (and Neorealism, no less!) has always been about policy prescriptions, even if they turned out to be devastatingly wrong (favorite: Mearsheimer’s “Back to the Future” (IS 15:1)).

IMHO, scholars of the Constructivist kind are more concerned with understanding how the world works. How can we make serious prescriptions when we haven’t figured out so many things yet?

To put it bluntly, I think Neorealism, albeit it can explain certain phenomena, isn’t a theory of IR anymore. Rather, it’s a political worldview about how things should be. It’s theoretical assumptions have been challenged on so many fronts, I don’t think it can claim any relevance beyond the fact that—as mentioned before— many policy makers subscribe to a (Neo-)Realist worldview.

(Hmm, I think my explanation of the demise of relevancy of IR to policy makers features a combined structure-agency approach. How fitting.)

TCHe September 20, 2009 at 5:32 pm

I forgot another thing (it’s late in Germany 😉 ):

Given the fact that the US spends a good deal of thinking on countering enemy narration, another constructivist view seems to have taken hold in the security policy establishment as well: narration does matter.

While this isn’t an IR theoretic invention (propaganda is way older), I think it is nonetheless the merit of this particular strand of IR theory to highlight this fact.

Schmedlap September 20, 2009 at 6:16 pm


It seems that most of your blog entries start off by highlighting some idea that somebody has posed and you then commence to rip it to shreds by pointing out the poor assumptions, faulty reasoning, incorrect assertions, lack of understanding, et cetera. Just out of curiosity, is there someplace where you have laid out your recommendations for what we should be doing in Afghanistan (in one article, one blog post, or someplace else)? I am not suggesting that criticizing ideas creates an obligation for you to put forth your own, but I suspect that you do have some ideas in that regard that are probably far better developed that what we are subjected to by the punditocracy. Given your level of dedication to the area and your level of understanding, it would be interesting to read.

Joshua Foust September 20, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Yeah, I don’t want to do the “search the blog” ploy, but search. Here are a few I can link to without tripping the counterspam bot.

Security Solutions for Afghanistan (from early 2007!)

ADTs are one way forward

What “securing the people” actually entails

That’s one way to start.

Schmedlap September 20, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Awesome. Thanks.

Toryalay Shirzay September 20, 2009 at 8:35 pm

All the aforementioned arguments and counterarguments regarding the current war show lack of clarity.How did we get to this situation?Is it possible that this war on international terrorism is rendered ineffective by leadership coming from inexperienced persons coming from Texas and Wyoming?And the US/NATO must now pay for the painful consequences of such leadership,is it not so?Now that confusion abound regarding which way to proceed with this war,it is important to bear in mind this:if the US/NATO BLINKED in this war,the enemy will get bolder and stronger in the months and years ahead just as they have done so ever since the US diverted to Iraq under the aforementioned leadership and the ensuing consequences will be even more painful.

anan September 20, 2009 at 9:02 pm

Toryalay Shirzay, there are many ways to fight this enemy; some of them use less NATO blood and treasure than others. One way is to move to a long term ANSF advising/training/equipping/funding model and let them fight the Taliban over more than a decade. This strategy would involve ceding much of the South and parts of the East to the Taliban in the short term, and helping the ANSF gradually recapture these areas over many years. For this strategy to work, I think the Afghans will need $250 billion in international grants over the next 20 years (that are pledged right now) plus tens of thousands of combat embedded advisors and trainers for many years.

However you and Joshua are right that the lack of clarity and information about Afghanistan options and strategic implications is remarkable. How can anyone seriously argue that Haqqani isn’t a global terrorist, or that letting him capture Eastern Afghanistan let alone Kabul wouldn’t lead to a major increase in terrorist attacks against many countries (China, Chechnya, Stans, India, Europe, Shia population centers and America especially)?

Toryalay Shirzay, you are right that the international community cannot let up in the struggle with Takfiri extremists. The question should be how to do it. I am amazed that many westerners seem to de facto think that some time of a deal or accommodation with Haqqani is possible or desirable. For the record I support trying to flip as many “local Taliban” as possible. But we shouldn’t forget that there is a core group of many tens of thousands of people or more who genuinely believe that global terrorism advances God’s cause (most don’t live in Afghanistan.)

Ahad Abdurahmon September 21, 2009 at 4:22 am

I saw, a lot of very respected names as signatories and yet…..
I understand that an overwhelming majority of them are neorealists who are more closer with republicans on party lines, but they are scholars before anything!!! It is so sad that this letter whined so much and failed to give ONE alternative policy to replace the existing one.
Yes it is expensive, yes it is hard, and yes the same guy proposed to pull out of Iraq, so WHAT??? The REAL trouble is brewing there, dear REALISTS!!! Where were you all when the Bush government starting bombing the WRONG TARGET based on fabricated accusations??? Taliban hosted Al Qaeda who executed 9/11 attacks, refused to hand over Ben Laden, so US bombed them for couple of months and then suddenly turned around and began to bomb someone else……Only to let them regroup and regain their strength!!! Now, you guys show up and tell just LEAVE THEM ALONE???
WOW!! Just WOW!!!

David M September 21, 2009 at 10:05 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/21/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Alex September 21, 2009 at 12:16 pm

Neither Realism or Constructivism are “Theories.” They are paradigms. They consist of bundles of assumptions that derive from a particular ontological worldview.

Dan September 21, 2009 at 1:10 pm

After reading the letter, I’m surprised at how so many smart people could write something so vague and unhelpful. My experience with fellow IR folks is that the more wedded someone is to a “paradigm” or “theory” the more reality will undercut one or more of your assumptions. The world fights attempts at parsimony. That said, in looking over the article I’m revising, I don’t know that I point out any great solutions. However, I have been identifying some of the problems cited in this “letter” for years. If PhDs want relevance, we have to work a bit harder-myself included.

Paradigm and theory is just semantics when you’re trying to apply a view of how the world is to concrete policy.

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