Wonk Decency

I understand why critics of Bush-era interventionism, the military-industrial complex, etc. might be skeptical that anyone engaging specifically in “defense policy” would be altruistic in their motivations, as opposed to “foreign policy” specialists or other breeds of wonk. But sometimes it gets oddly paranoid. So when Andrew Exum sums up counterinsurgency theory in a sentence (though you should read the whole post) by saying “No one who really understands COIN wants to do it,” Matt Yglesias counters with the old ‘hammer theory’ :

…active engagement in counterinsurgency operations tends to boost demand for counterinsurgency experts while a foreign policy that aimed to avoid such scenarios might reach the conclusion that it can afford to simply ignore the subject. Thus you could see a certain structural bias in COIN circles toward wanting to see COIN-needed situations lurking under every rock.

The review that inspired Exum’s post makes a similar insinuation, describing at length the career trajectories of those to whom “the Long War has been good.” But I think that both of these attitudes fundamentally misunderstand the cognitive dissonance Exum’s trying to convey. It’s not that COIN experts understand intellectually that good news for them is bad news for other people somewhere far away, so they’re trained to nod gravely and intone “But it must be done” at the end of briefings to conceal their inner joy at getting more work. Like specialists in any other policy area, plenty of COIN theorists genuinely care about the problem they’re trying to solve — in this case, restoring order to violence-ravaged neighborhoods — and therefore they’ve acquired the expertise to help solve it. Sure, some of them may also harbor ambition, but ambition and compassion can go hand in hand. (This is one of the premises for republicanism, but I think people who make careers in politics and policy often forget it, which is sad. One has to wonder why they got into the business themselves.)

Part of the problem comes from the tendency to divide foreign-policy thinkers into ideological camps rather than specialties; certainly COIN operates from a particular set of beliefs about goals, but it would be ridiculous to mistake those beliefs for a Foreign Policy Theory of Everything. (This is actually the point of Exum’s post.) So it might be more constructive to analogize it to domestic policy, which suffers less from the confusion of ideology and content. There are plenty of people who have devoted their careers to studying health care, entitlements, single parenting, or any other “crisis” in domestic affairs, for example. In some cases, they tend to share a particular notion of what solutions should be taken. It would be weird to scrutinize them for attempts to “export” these tactics to other issues merely because of their initial success. Why is it different for experts who happen to study things with guns?

The implication is either that COIN theorists don’t know their own field well enough to understand when a situation falls beyond it, or that people who specialize in Bad Situations will always wind up succumbing to self-interest to perpetuate or invent circumstances that will keep them in demand. That’s just creepy, regardless of what kind of expert you’re talking about.