Voice

The odd utility of Richard Holbrooke

In light of Hamid Karzai's agreement to go forward on a run-off election in Afghanistan, I was curious about special envoy Richard Holbrooke's role in this denouement.  Jon Western links to this Nukes & Spooks McClatchy blog post chock-full of some inside dirt

Three administration officials, who asked not to be identified by agency, told us that, while Holbrooke is laboring away hard behind the scenes, he's received direct orders from the White House to cool it publicly while Washington desperately tries to unscramble the Afghan electoral mess between President Hamid Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

"This process is so sensitive. He'd love to deal with this. The White House thinks ... it's not the time for him" to be out front, one of the officials said of Holbrooke...

To be fair -- and we do try to be fair here at N&S, we're told that the White House orders are not directed at Holbrooke alone. Everyone involved in Af/Pak policy has been told to keep a lid on it while President Obama deals with the difficult decision of how to keep the situation there from dropping into the abyss and whether to send more American servicemen and women to Afghanistan.

Everyone did keep quiet... except Senator John Kerry.  The Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon and Peter Spiegel explain why: 

According to one Western diplomat, the Afghan president was more comfortable dealing with Sen. Kerry than with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry or the administration's special representative to the region, Richard Holbrooke. Mr. Holbrooke angered Mr. Karzai when he suggested shortly after the Aug. 20 election that a runoff might be needed.

I'm beginning to wonder if Hoobrooke is simply the exemplar of the bad cop in foreign affairs.  For his sake, I hope so.  Otherwise, he's stuck being an envoy to a region in which the Indians won't talk to him, the Afghans won't talk to hi, and the Pakistanis that will talk to him are feckless. 

Daniel W. Drezner

The renaissance of political science

Following up on the Tom Coburn saga, Patricia Cohen has a round-up in the New York Times about whether the study of political science contributes to the public good.  Some excerpts: 

Much of the political science work financed by the National Science Foundation is both rigorous and valuable, said Jeffrey C. Isaac, a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, where one new winner of the Nobel in economic science, the political scientist Elinor Ostrom, teaches. “But we’re kidding ourselves if we think this research typically has the obvious public benefit we claim for it,” he said. “We political scientists can and should do a better job of making the public relevance of our work clearer and of doing more relevant work.”

Mr. Isaac is the editor of Perspectives on Politics, a journal that was created by the field’s professional organization to bridge the divide after a group of political scientists led a revolt against the growing influence of statistical methods and mathematics-based models in the discipline. In 2000 an anonymous political scientist who called himself Mr. Perestroika roused scores of colleagues to protest the organization, the American Political Science Association, and its flagship journal, The American Political Science Review, arguing that the two were marginalizing scholars who focused on traditional research based on history, culture and archives.

Though there is still jockeying over jobs, power and prestige — particularly in an era of shrinking budgets — much of that animus has quieted, and most political scientists agree that a wide range of approaches makes sense.

What remains, though, is a nagging concern that the field is not producing work that matters. “The danger is that political science is moving in the direction of saying more and more about less and less,” said Joseph Nye, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, whose work has been particularly influential among American policy makers. “There are parts of the academy which, in the effort to be scientific, feel we should stay away from policy,” Mr. Nye said, that “it interferes with the science.”

In his view statistical techniques too often determine what kind of research political scientists do, pushing them further into narrow specializations cut off from real-world concerns. The motivation to be precise, Mr. Nye warned, has overtaken the impulse to be relevant.

[Full disclosure:  I'm not now on the editorial board of Perspectives on Politics, and therefore am obligated to link to Isaac's Chronicle of Higher Education essay on this topic.]

Coburn's focus has been on the past ten years, and I think the biggest irony of that focus is that, compared to a decade ago, there's more policy-relevant research and less paradigmatic navel-gazing. 

[Got any hard evidence, smart guy?--ed.]  This is very tough to measure (if only we had an NSF grant!), but consider the following:

I'm planning on posting why I think political sciece is in better shape than it was a decade ago later in the week.  But for now, a question to readers:  are these examples persuasive, or do you need to see more evidence?