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Experts and “Experts”

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"Experts and “Experts”"

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I’m trying to think of what to say about Foreign Affairs Managing Editor Gideon Rose’s attack on bloggers but I think this makes for a good entry point:

The charges the bloggers are making now are very similar to those that the neocons made a few years ago: mainstream foreign-policy experts are politicised careerists, biased hacks, and hide-bound traditionalists who have gotten everything wrong in the past and don’t deserve to be listened to in the future. (Take a look at pretty much any old Jim Hoagland column and you’ll see what I mean.) Back then, the neocons directed their fire primarily at the national security bureaucracies — freedom-hating mediocrities at the CIA, pin-striped wussies at the State Department, cowardly soldiers at the Pentagon. Now the bloggers’ attacks are generally aimed at the think-tank world.

Rose sees an irony — there’s a certain structural similarity between the claims neocons made against one group of experts (professional diplomats and intelligence analysts) and the claims liberal bloggers are making against another group of experts (center-left think tankers). I see a different irony. When neocons were busy deriding the expertise of professional diplomats and intelligence analysts, where oh where were our precious think tankers?

Was Brookings holding panels on what to do about the fact that a group of dangerous radicals had taken control of the policy apparatus and was, against the advice of diplomatic and intelligence professionals, taking the country into a wildly misguided invasion of Iraq? No. Many relevant Brookings experts were saying nothing, and others were joining with the neocons to push the country, against the advice of diplomatic and intelligence professionals, taking the country into a wildly misguided invasion of Iraq.

And there’s the rub. Rose would, I think, like to make this a conversation about expertise and professionalism. But I’m not, and I don’t think anyone in the blogosphere is, against expertise and professionalism. The question is whether some of our country’s self-proclaimed experts — and media proclaimed experts — really deserve to be considered experts. What, for example, is the nature of Michael O’Hanlon’s expertise on the broad range of subjects (his official bio lists him as an expert on “Arms treaties; Asian security issues; Homeland security; Iraq policy; Military technology; Missile defense; North Korea policy; Peacekeeping operations; Taiwan policy, military analysis; U.S. defense strategy and budget”) upon which he comments? Obviously, it would be foolish to just let me speak ex cathedra as an “expert” on the dizzying array of subjects on which I comment, but it seems equally foolish to let O’Hanlon do so, especially since his judgment seems so poor. I made a stab at a systemic difference between think tank people and professionals in the public sector, but Rose raises some convincing points to the effect that this dichotomy isn’t as sharp as I wanted it to be. Still, we can certainly talk about specific individuals — particularly individuals who seem to be unusually prominent or influential — and whether or not they really deserve to be held in high esteem.

What’s needed isn’t less expertise, but better expertise and above all more honest expertise. To take an example, Rose accuses me of repeating “a silly canard about Foreign Affairs never having published anything opposing the Iraq war, which conveniently ignores this.” When I read that, I got worried. When I wrote that, I was just repeating something I’d read in the book, and maybe the authors were wrong. I clicked the link expecting to find out that I’d made an embarrassing error and I was going to need to post a correction. The full article is for subscribers only, so I actually can’t read it, but here’s Foreign Affairs‘ summary:

President Bush’s case for war on Iraq overlooks a very real danger: if pushed to the wall, Saddam Hussein may resort to using weapons of mass destruction against the United States. Such a strike may not be likely, or may not succeed, but attacking Saddam is the best way to guarantee that it will happen. And Washington has done far too little to prepare for it.

That was in the January/February 2003 issue of the magazine. If that’s Rose’s best stab at a refutation of the notion that Foreign Affairs didn’t provide a venue for opponents of the war to make their correct arguments about the Iraq debate, then I’m not sure I have anything to apologize for. At any rate, I’m actually quite encouraged by the fact that we now have members of the Dread Establishment engaging with their critics (O’Hanlon’s interview with Glenn Greenwald, etc.) since that in and of itself changes the pattern of consistent high-handed dismissals of everyone to their left. People should recall that the “Very Serious People” business is, at root, a joke about the habit of using the “serious/unserious” concept to unfairly marginalize people.

If we’re all talking now, then perhaps those days are behind us.

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