Global Challenges and Op-Ed Militarism, American Style: What are the Rules of Engagement?

Jeremi Suri, a former colleague whom I have always respected, came out with an op-ed in the New York Times a few days ago. Suri’s piece, titled ‘Bomb North Korea, Before It’s Too Late,’ has generated a lot of discussion and debate, which was no doubt one of his objectives. While academics sometimes get criticized for being vague when writing titles of articles or chapters, it’s hard to miss Suri’s main point!

Now, before you get me wrong, I am all for the idea of public service, including via engagement with various publics through the use of traditional media outlets and emerging social media platforms. I also believe universities and funding agencies/councils need to do a much better job addressing global/grand challenges, something Suri and I spoke a lot about here at UW-Madison before he was poached by UT-Austin in 2011. Moreover, who can’t help but wonder about the twisted nature of the current North Korean leader and regime.

Despite all of the above, I’ve been perplexed all weekend about Suri’s willingness to write an op-ed like this, and about the New York Times’ willingness to publish it. I have two broad concerns regarding the creation and presence of Suri’s op-ed in this particular newspaper (and I am putting the New York Times on a pedestal here, rightly or wrongly).

First, I personally believe you need to understand much more about the specific country on the other side of the world before writing about it in such a high profile outlet, and even more so proposing that it be bombed. To be sure, Suri has significant knowledge about key East and Southeast Asian regional historical developments (e.g., the causes and consequences of American foreign interventions including WWII, the Korean War (1950-53), the Vietnam War), not to mention the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. He also has deep knowledge on issues of nuclear proliferation, human rights violations, and regional conflict. Yet in the North Korean case, the primary base of knowledge to assert the US should bomb North Korea is a meta-reading of texts, primarily in English. Is this sufficient to engender the production of an adequate base of knowledge before firming up such a proposal? Perhaps it is all that is possible with respect to a country like North Korea. Still, how should academics judge themselves, and be judged, when it comes to the knowledge base question before their views appear in an outlet and form like this particular op-ed. In short, how substantial does an author’s knowledge base need to be about the region and especially country in question before proposing such an action?

Second, what are the ethical dimensions of writing, as well as publishing, such an op-ed. As we know, despite endless pronouncements about the legitimacy of concerns and likely efficacy of military action, there is a long track record of things going horribly off course when such theoretically focused action is launched. Have bombings and all these wars really helped the US demonstrate enlightened ‘leadership’ in the world over the last four decades? Does it ever go as smoothly as all the politicians, planners and propagandists say it will? Would the US (and op-ed writers) be willing to propose this type of action closer to home where hundreds of thousands of Americans might be killed or maimed if war were to break out? Do the advocates for such action have a responsibility to concurrently ensure their sons and daughters are groomed to enlist in the military? Are such advocates also willing to also advocate for higher tax levels to pay for such military action?

Jeremi Suri is a very bright, knowledgeable and committed scholar and citizen. Yet he has volunteered to play a role in advocating for military action. There are also patterns to this form of engagement; one that academics have played a key role in. As Micah Zenko put it in Politics, Power, and Preventive Action in 2012 (and I quote in length):

There is no body of civilians that more consistently makes unrealistic demands for the use of military force than editorial boards and opinion-page writers of major American news outlets. These appeals range from full-blown cockamamie schemes to semi-practical, tactical uses of force to resolve complex and enduring political problems of debatable relevance to U.S. national interests. This practice is a bipartisan exercise, ranging from the quixotic militarist, Nicholas Kristof, to the military-planning staff embedded inside the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Most of these editorials or op-eds follow the same format: characterize the current U.S. strategy toward the foreign policy problem as inadequate or (better yet) “weak;” highlight that the “international community” has allowed the issue to go on for far too long; describe the president as aloof or disinterested; and obliquely refer to one or two military tactics (no fly/drive/kill zones are particularly hot commodities these days) or objectives purportedly requiring minimal effort (often noting the size of the U.S. military) that might resolve the problem—and have the added benefit of demonstrating presidential “backbone” or American “will.”

There are also improbable psychological benefits ascribed to the U.S. military by these authors. For example, today, the Wall Street Journal claimed, “A show of preparation for intervention might prod Syria’s officer corps to solve the Assad problem on their own.” Last week, three members of Freedom House wrote: “Merely planning for serious military options would have an important psychological effect on the regime and its military forces, possibly prodding more defections.” Last year, the former chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force contended that discussing a no-fly zone in Libya would “change [the Qaddafi regime’s] calculation of who might come out on top. Just the mere announcement of this might have an impact.”

Having read hundreds of these “tactics-first” proposals for using the U.S. military over the past fifteen years, two underlying themes is that the authors are impatient and the current nonmilitary strategy is not having a demonstrable impact. There is a cognitive bias called hyperbolic discounting, which is defined as “the tendency for people to increasingly choose a smaller-sooner reward over a larger-later reward as the delay occurs sooner rather than later in time.” I suspect that the desire to resolve an enduring problem in the near term explains many of these tough-guy (or girl) proposals. Given that it costs nothing to propose sending someone else to bomb or occupy another country, it’s the least tough and most thoughtless thing for someone to write. Why should we take these proposals seriously?

I pointed this argument out to Suri today (14 April) and we had the following exchange via Facebook:

  • Jeremi Suri: Fair point, but the counter-bias also exists in the public and policy worlds: the assumption that you can always out-wait your enemy, that “history is on your side,” that it is better to put off the hard stuff for later. There are indeed contradictory biases to act fast for success and act slow to avoid risk. Every policy-maker and citizen chooses his/her comfort level. That is what this debate is all about.
  • Kris Olds: Put off the hard stuff for later? It’s a search for an ostensibly easy answer that rarely ever turns out to be easy, or quick, and often includes major costs, and usually not costs felt by the type of people floating the solutions. And easy answers, including about distant parts of the world one has never been to (nor has studied, including in relevant languages such as Korean and Chinese in this case), are always easier when spotted from the comfort of a nice office after a meta-read of texts. This is the humanities exposed, but not in a good way IMHO. And I say this as someone who really respects your work as an academic.
  • Jeremi Suri: Again, very fair points, Kris. I have thought about all of this and I have mixed feelings, honestly. These are difficult issues and we are all subject to serious limitations. I just wonder if you would object in the same way if I were advocating, say, a targeted intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds – also from the “distance” of my office and my “meta-reading of texts.” If we were replaying the Rwanda tragedy, wouldn’t you advocate quick and decisive action by the US, in spite of your own “distance” and “meta-reading of texts.” Our political biases – like our cognitive biases that we discussed above – obviously color our analysis, eh?

Suri makes a good point about the latitude of freedom I did not allow him regarding North Korea, but that I and many others might were he to write about Syria, another unfolding global challenge.

In the end, it is worth situating this more focused debate in the context of a broader debate about the role of academics in the public sphere and especially with respect to addressing global challenges. Universities and funding councils are pushing for more and more public engagement, and ‘impact,’ in countries around the world. The UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), for example, is prioritizing ‘impact’ in the public sphere (broadly defined) and has developed a case study methodology to assess how impact was generated.

This is a positive development trend on multiple levels and we need to encourage scholars like Suri to conduct research and speak out about global challenges and potential solutions. But what this case also points out is there are opportunities and constraints, pros and cons, and variable formats, regarding such engagement. I doubt we’ll agree on how to deal with the North Korean risk issue, but I do know that we both agree academics need to provide more public service on ‘global challenges’ and reach out on a broader multilevel basis.

But how should we ideally do this? What are the formal and informal rules guiding such engagement, and are these optimally configured? What type of background information should be provided to help people understand the relevant networks and affiliations of the person making such a significant case for intervention? And how do different disciplinary norms and conventions, not to mention epistemologies and ontologies, shape the willingness and ability of scholars to publicly engage about global, regional, and national challenges, especially those outside of home base?

Interesting times, indeed.

Kris Olds

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