September 22, 2009 10:16AM

The International Relations Academy and the Beltway “Foreign Policy Community”–Why the Disconnect?

Glenn Greenwald uncovers a very interesting sentence in Les Gelb’s Democracy essay [.pdf] on the Iraq war and the media:

[caption align=right]


Les Gelb on Charlie Rose[/caption]

My initial support for the war was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.

I had to read that two or three times to unpack all that’s going on in there. The question obviously being begged is where does the disposition, and where do the incentives “to support wars to retain political and professional credibility” come from?

Consider: There are two groups of people, the Foreign Policy Community (FPC) in Washington and New York, centered around the national‐​security bureaucracy and think tanks that produce orthodox foreign policy hands like Brookings, AEI, and CFR. There is a second group of people, international relations academics. The two groups have, in most cases, similar training (PhDs from top schools) and in the course of obtaining such training have been exposed to many of the same theories and topics.

Yet the two groups have been wildly at variance in terms of their views on important public policy issues. Take the Iraq war, for example. As anyone who was in Washington at the time knows, the FPC was extremely fond of the idea of invading Iraq. To oppose it was to marginalize oneself for years. Indeed, those who promoted the disastrous adventure have prospered, while those who (bravely or stupidly, depending on your point of view) opposed it remain huddled in the chilly, dusty alcoves of popular debate.

In the academy, meanwhile, there was hardly any debate over Iraq–almost 80 percent of IR academics opposed the war. [.pdf] To the extent academics did enter the public debate on the issue, it was to pay for an advertisement in the New York Times warning against the war. [.pdf] The only academics who spoke out in favor of the war (to my knowledge, anyway) were IR liberals like Anne‐​Marie Slaughter, who sought policy positions in Washington. (Slaughter, of course, was rewarded with a spot as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, while to my knowledge none of the academic opponents of the war have gained Washington policy jobs.)

So what is going on here? Why is there such a profound disconnect between the two groups that look so similar on paper? The first, most obvious answer is that the academy tends to be more liberal (in the domestic political sense), so academics tend to have more peacenik‐​y views. The problem with that argument is that the domestic‐​political liberals in the FPC supported the war just as strongly as their conservative brethren, which means that domestic political views don’t work as a determinant of support for war.

My sense is that the giant national‐​security bureaucracy in Washington that has emerged over the last 65 years has shaped incentives in a manner such that it is next‐​to‐​impossible to “get ahead” by advocating for restraint. Put differently, restraint isn’t in anybody’s interest except the country’s, and there’s nobody in Washington representing broad national interests as opposed to their own parochial ones. Every neoconservative or liberal imperialist in DC has someone’s interests behind them. The Don Quixotes like myself and my colleagues here, by contrast, want to cut the defense budget, slow the opportunities for rent‐​seeking among contractors, etc, etc, etc. As Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot once derisively referred to us, we’re just “four or five people in a phone booth.” But we were right about Iraq, which is more than Gigot can say for himself.

For the legions of IR journal editors who are reading this post, I am completing an article draft examining this idea in more detail. But for now you can cast an eye on a Steve Walt blog post that makes an argument very similar to my own:

…America’s role in the world today is shaped by two imbalances of power, not just one. The first is the gap between U.S. capabilities and everyone else’s, a situation that has some desirable features (especially for us) but one that also encourages the United States to do too much and allows others to do either too little or too many of the wrong things. The second imbalance is between organized interests whose core mission is constantly pushing the U.S. government to do more and in more places, and the far‐​weaker groups who think we might be better off showing a bit more restraint.

I’m open to different theories on this matter, but I think we should agree that at the very least, it’s an interesting puzzle.