When Alan Wolfe isn’t writing about religion, I can apparently make it through one of his articles without being driven to utter distraction. I learned this the other day when I came across his piece in World Affairs about the longstanding rift between academics and security policy intellectuals. After his capsule history of the controversy, Wolfe offers a plea for reconciliation between the ivory tower, where Chomskyite disdain for government still holds sway, and the think tank, where wonks wait out political misfortune and plan their next wars. If each side gives a little, argues Wolfe, we might reintroduce needed expertise into the policy process:
…the division of expert labor between universities and think tanks serves the nation poorly. To be sure, the divide allows academics to avoid compromising their objectivity by working for the government, just as it allows think tank experts to avoid the tentativeness and obscurantism typical of so much academic scholarship. But academic research would be strengthened if it had more real-world attachments. And think tank policy recommendations would have more depth if they contained more academic distance.
I have my own problems with the bright line Wolfe draws between the university and the think tank, mostly because my most recent academic experience has been with a sort of “ivory tank:”1 a public policy school that feels like a Brookings franchise. Such analytical quibbles aside, though, Wolfe’s middle-of-the-road position strikes me as untenable once he describes how such collaboration would play out:
Does this mean that academics ought to overcome their long-standing opposition to working with the CIA? They should. The war in Iraq proves why intelligence matters, as does the broader interest the United States maintains in combating terrorism. Are terrorists primarily motivated by religious convictions? Is it possible to understand their psychology? Why does moving from a third world country to Western Europe seem to fuel religious belief? What will the lives of second and third generations of immigrants in the West resemble? [Emphasis mine.]
It is one thing to recognize that social scientists might responsibly explore the questions that Wolfe asks in his hypothetical list. It strikes me as dangerous, though, to assume that the answers to Wolfe’s questions can be effectively converted to security instruments. Even if a generation of engaged academics shrugs off the normative baggage of Chomsky and Said, there may be no effective way to apply their insights, however objective and accurate. The key failure of Orientalists in government service, whether they be Said’s strawmen or tomorrow’s counterinsurgency specialists, may not lie in their corrupt intent, but in their overreach. Scholarship is good at filling the reservoir of net human knowledge, but only a subset of that knowledge can effectively be turned into policy instruments.
I don’t mean to defend a policy of willful ignorance — tightened up to the tactical level, especially, some well-informed and motivated social scientists are badly needed if we want to effectively negotiate indigenous conflict. This process is already playing out at the tactical level in the military’s (infelicitously named) Human Terrain Systems program, which embeds anthropologists with combat units. The military calls the effort a success, while the anthropology field’s trade organization, predictably enough, is up in arms. When the dust settles, the military will probably have started a new discipline of applied anthropology from scratch. But if the anthropological approach means that we think we can apply force or, to use the military’s term, “non-kinetic means” to a new morass of exotic conflicts, we will be the poorer for it.
1 I hereby release this awesome term to the creative commons, that it might be used for the greater good of mankind.