Taking aim at the Best and the Brightest

At some point this week the meme about the incoming Obama administration switched from a discussion of the pitfalls of a "Team of Rivals" to a discussion of the pitfalls of "The Best and the Brightest."  Here's the Washington Post's Alec MacGillis
Barack Obama's chief economic adviser was one of the youngest people to be tenured at Harvard and later became its president. His budget director went to Princeton and the London School of Economics, his choice for ambassador to the United Nations was a Rhodes scholar, and his White House counsel hit the trifecta: Harvard, Cambridge and Yale Law.... [S]keptics say Obama's predilection for big thinkers with dazzling résumés carries risks, noting, for one, that several of President John F. Kennedy's "best and brightest" led the country into the Vietnam War. Obama is to be credited, skeptics say, for bringing with him so few political acquaintances from Illinois. But, they say, his team reflects its own brand of insularity, drawing on the world that Obama entered as an undergraduate at Columbia and in which he later rose to eminence as president of the Harvard Law Review and as a law professor at the University of Chicago.... The Ivy-laced network taking hold in Washington is drawing scorn from many conservatives, who have in recent decades decried the leftward drift of academia and cast themselves as defenders of regular Americans against highbrow snobbery. Joseph Epstein wrote in the latest Weekly Standard -- before noting that former president Ronald Reagan went to Eureka College -- that "some of the worst people in the United States have gone to the Harvard or Yale Law Schools . . . since these institutions serve as the grandest receptacles in the land for our good students: those clever, sometimes brilliant, but rarely deep young men and women who, joining furious drive to burning if ultimately empty ambition, will do anything to get ahead." The libertarian University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein, who is not related to Joseph Epstein, worries that the team's exceptionalism could lead to overly complex policies. "They are really smart people, but they will never take an obvious solution if they can think of an ingenious one. They're all too clever by half," he said. "These degrees confer knowledge but not judgment. Their heads are on grander themes . . . and they'll trip on obstacles on the ground." All agree that the picks reveal something about Obama, suggesting he will make decisions much as he did in the U.S. Senate -- by bringing as many smart people into the room as possible and hearing them out.... [Nicholas] Lemann said Obama's penchant for expertise seems tempered with a respect for people who had, like Obama, left the path to academic jobs or big law firms to run for public office.  
And then there's the New York Times' Frank Rich
The stewards of the Vietnam fiasco had pedigrees uncannily reminiscent of some major Obama appointees. McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, was, as Halberstam put it, “a legend in his time at Groton, the brightest boy at Yale, dean of Harvard College at a precocious age.” His deputy, Walt Rostow, “had always been a prodigy, always the youngest to do something,” whether at Yale, M.I.T. or as a Rhodes scholar. Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, was the youngest and highest paid Harvard Business School assistant professor of his era before making a mark as a World War II Army analyst, and, at age 44, becoming the first non-Ford to lead the Ford Motor Company. The rest is history that would destroy the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and inflict grave national wounds that only now are healing. In the Obama transition, our Clinton-fixated political culture has been hyperventilating mainly over the national security team, but that’s not what gives me pause. Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates were both wrong about the Iraq invasion, but neither of them were architects of that folly and both are far better known in recent years for consensus-building caution (at times to a fault in Clinton’s case) than arrogance. Those who fear an outbreak of Clintonian drama in the administration keep warning that Obama has hired a secretary of state he can’t fire. But why not take him at his word when he says “the buck will stop with me”? If Truman could cashier Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then surely Obama could fire a brand-name cabinet member in the (unlikely) event she goes rogue. No, it’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.
There are a few other examples of stories like this, but I think you get the drift.  These stories are just as overblown as the "team of rivals" meme.  Halberstam's "best and brightest" were known primarily as brilliant scholars before they joined the Kennedy administration.  While many Obama's major appointments are smart, none of them besides Larry Summers have any extensive experience working at an Ivy League institution.  Indeed, as Lemann observed in the Post above, Obama likes people who have stepped away from the academy. The other irony is that the undercurrent of these stories contradicts the overt theme.  The undercurrent is progressive dissatisfaction with Summers, Geithner, and others who worked for Robert Rubin.  The critics' suggestion for how to correct for this bias?  Apparently, they should hire more academics.  Rich writes, "In our current financial quagmire, there have also been those who had the wisdom to sound alarms before Rubin, Summers or Geithner did. Among them were not just economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Nouriel Roubini."  See Michael Hirsch and Josh Marshall as well.  So, really, this "best and brightest" critique is kind of an unholy alliance between conservatives grasping at straws to criticize the Obama transition and progressives who feel screwed over by the economic appointments.  [But aren't the progressives right?  Wouldn't Stiglitz be a smart pick for an administration position?--ed.  Um... no, because this overlooks the fact that, based on his DC experiences in the nineties, Joe Stiglitz's managerial, bureaucratic, and political skills are all really, really bad.  Furthermore, his writings since that time suggest that the DC experience has curdled rather than improved on these skills.] 

Daniel W. Drezner

Trying for the full Huntington

As I've said before, I've greatly admired Samuel Huntington's career. Huntington's gift as an academic is that he has been unafraid to make the politically incorrect argument, regardless of the consequences. This doesn't always mean he is right -- but it does mean he's usually interesting. I suspect that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are trying to copy the Huntington template in their essay, "The Israel Lobby" for the London Review of Books: Here's how it starts:

For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of U.S. Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only U.S. security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the U.S. been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the U.S. provides.

Instead, the thrust of U.S. policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the Israel Lobby. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. interests and those of the other country  in this case, Israel are essentially identical.

Well, that argument certainly won't rub anyone the wrong way. Interested readers should be sure to check out the longer, footnoted paper which is archived at the Kennedy School of Government. So do Mearsheimer and Walt achieve the full Huntington? No, not really. "The Israel Lobby" is the academic equivalent of waving a big red cape at one's ideological opponents, hoping they'll foam at the mouth and act stark raving mad because the authors cited Chomsky or CommonDreams, or because, "the Fatah office in Washington distributed the article to an extensive mailing list." [Or maybe they're pissed that they didn't crack the 100 Most Dangerous Professors in America!!--ed.] So let's avoid that bait. Reading the essay, I can conclude the following:

1) Mearsheimer and Walt make a decent case of arguing that interest group lobbying is responsible for some aspects of U.S. policy towards the Greater Middle East. Now this asssertion alone is enough to make people very uncomfortable at cocktail parties and other venues. Whenever I bring up ethnic lobbying in my American foreign policy class and mention Israel, everyone in the room tenses up. So kudos to Mearsheimer and Walt for speaking the taboo thought.

2) Shot through these papers are an awful lot of casual assertions that don't hold up to close scrutiny [Which makes it eerily similar to some of your blog posts!!--ed. True that.]. The authors assert that, "If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China or even a nuclear North Korea, it can live with a nuclear Iran. And that is why the Lobby must keep up constant pressure on politicians to confront Tehran." I'm pretty sure that there's more to U.S. opposition to Iran possessing nuclear weapons than the protection of Israel.

From the longer Kennedy paper, Mearsheimer and Walt make a fascinating logical assertion: "[T]he mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about. But because Israel is a strategic and moral liability, it takes relentless political pressure to keep U.S. support intact." What's fascinating about this quote are the implicit assumptions contained within it: i) the only interest group in existence is the Lobby, and; ii) in the absence of the Lobby, a well-defined sense of national interest will always guide American foreign policy. It would be very problematic for good realists like Mearsheimer and Walt to allow for other interest groups -- oil companies, for example -- to exist. This would allow for a much greater role for domestic politics than realists ever care to admit.

Finally, they argue that the U.S. invaded Iraq only primarily because Israel and the Lobby -- in the form of neoconservatives -- wanted it. I wrote my take on this argument three years ago:

The notion that such a conspiracy exists rests on the belief that the administration's foreign policy principals -- Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Bush himself -- have somehow been duped by the neoconservatives into acting in a manner contrary to their beliefs. But while critics have never lacked for accusations against these officials, being weak-willed is not among them. In the end, it's far more likely that Bush is exploiting the neoconservatives' ideological arsenal to advance his preferred set of policies than vice versa.

3) There are sins of omission as well as commission. Walt and Mearsheimer assert that Israel has been a "strategic burden." They do a good job of cataloging why that's the case -- but omit important examples of Israel being useful, such as the 1981 Osirik bombing. They also go into depth on the Bush administration's policy towards the Palestinian Authority, but never mention the arms shipment that Arafat lied to Bush about as a causal factor behind Bush's decision to freeze out Arafat.

4) The evidence is pretty thin in some sections. To demonstrate the current political power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, they cite a 1984 election where AIPAC was allegedly curcial. They argue that the Israeli-Palestine problem is at the root of Al Qaeda's beef with the United States -- which is funny, because I was pretty sure it was the presence of U.S. forces near the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina. They claim the Lobby is responsible for U.S. policy towards Syria, but that policy amounts to little more than some empty sabre-rattling.

After finishing the article, I began to wonder whether the paper is simple a massive exercise in explaining away a data point that realism can't cover. Most realists opposed the Iraq War, and Mearsheimer and Walt were no exception. They can and should take some normative satisfaction in being proven right by what happened after the invasion. However, I suspect as positive social scientists they are bothered by the fact that the U.S. invaded Iraq anyway when realism would have predicted otherwise. When realists are confronted with contradictory data, they tend to fall back on auxiliary hypotheses -- the cult of the offensive, the myth of empire -- that have very little to do with realism. Explaining away Iraq on The Lobby might have a whiff of the Paranoid Style, but it's certainly consistent with the literature.

In the end, I think Mearsheimer and Walt get to the full Huntington -- but alas, it's the Huntington of Who We Are? rather than The Soldier and the State. There's more I could write about, but I'm eager to hear what others think.

UPDATE: OK, I should have said, "I'm eager to hear what others think... after they read the article." Two final thoughts. First, I'm surprised and disappointed that the article has gotten zero coverage from the mainstream media in the United States. I completely agree with Walt and Mearsheimer that this is a topic that needs more open debate. Second, there's one non-event that keeps gnawing at me after reading the piece. If "The Lobby" is as powerful as Walt and Mearsheimer claim, why hasn't there been a bigger push in the United States for more fuel-efficient cars, alternative energy sources, and the like? After all, the only strategic resource that Israel's enemies possess is large quantities of oil. If "The Lobby" is so powerful and goal-directed, wouldn't they have an incentive to reduce the strategic value of their advesaries?

ANOTHER UPDATE: See this follow-up post on the Walt/Mearsheimer paper as well.