Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Iraq War Myths: Academic Edition

Yesterday, one of the old myths about the Iraq war got circulated again with a spin of bad social science added on:
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt keep repeating the myth that they (and 31 others) were lone voices in the wilderness, as they made their opposition to the Iraq War in 2002/3 loud and clear.  Kudos for them for being on the right side of history, but they were not alone.  Far from it.  As I am exhausted by the dual challenges of resizing fonts in a 25 piece grant application and Carleton's email decided today would be a great day to have login problems, I will not go through the web to find all of the op-eds and other efforts by many, many scholars of International Relations who thought this was a bad idea.  You don't have to be a realist to figure out that invading Iraq was contrary to American interests.  Indeed, those of Liberal (caring about multilateralism/institutions) persuasion would be, and, indeed, were, critical of the war precisely because it undermined the international order and was not very multilateral.

The second part of the myth is that Mearsheimer and Walt were punished for being outspoken. Yeah, they surely have been denied ....  um, what?  They did not lose their jobs nor their ability to publish in academic outlets nor in non-academic outlets.  They still get TV time and media attention, so what have they lost?  This tweet suggests that they were denied opportunities to serve in government.  Oh.  Ok.  Really?  Of those on the letter cited in the tweet, many were beyond retirement age at the time or near it.  And, yes, the Bush Administration would not hire those who opposed their favorite project.  But M&W didn't get plush spots in the Obama Administration, which was surely punishment for writing this letter, right?  Didn't Obama oppose the war in 2003?  Woudn't he be disposed to hire critics of the war?  I am lost about the causal mechanism at work here. 

Which gets us to bad social science.  What are the odds that any group of 33 IR profs will get jobs in government?  Should we infer that if none of these profs got govt jobs that there was a conspiracy to exclude them forever from government positions?  How often were these folks giving talks at annual CFR meetings beforehand?  How do campaigns find academics to advise them? Or do academics find the campaigns?  Oh, and SELECTION BIAS: If we look at the academics who did go into government since 2003 and those who were consulted by campaigns, might we find some who opposed the war?

This tweet is typical of the post-Iraq war martyr complex that Mearsheimer and Walt continue to broadcast.  It is not clear to me why they obsess about this.  Take credit for being Cassandras and move on.  Nope, Mearsheimer has got to write a book about politicians having a tendency to lie.  They team up to write a book that is awful social science* about how certain groups dominate the American foreign policy process, imitating, alas, the worst tendencies of the uber-Realist George Kennan. And now Walt has a new book that seems to focus on being martyred for their Iraq stance.

* Bad social science because it does little in the way of research, and it does little to address/build on/challenge existing work that addresses interest groups and/or diasporas and foreign policy.

The reality is that policy-makers will not listen to academics when the academics tell them stuff they don't want to hear, that most academics don't get asked to do all kinds of stuff, and that one probably should not take it that personally.
Or, as the Eagles would say:


Frances Woolley said...

Steve, thanks for this perspective. I'd seen Dani Rodrik's tweet, but hadn't understood the context or background.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Steve. The claims by M&W are not only baseless but also hilariously self-pitying. Lots of us who spoke out against the Iraq invasion publicly and signed letters and more can attest to receiving reinforcing if late (sometimes a decade late) acknowledgments for having seen through the Bush/Cheney/Wolfowitz fog-generating machine. I see only two downsides: (1) not having the critical voices heard by enough people to help stop the madness, and (2) the failure of memory that has afflicted the drum-beaters for the invasion.