Shadow Government

The GOP should stick to practical debates, not ideological ones

By Peter Feaver The recent posts by Will Inboden and Philip Zelikow have got me thinking again about the difference between academic and policy debates. The Inboden and Zelikow posts were triggered by Dan Drezner’s provocation suggesting that Republicans in opposition should adhere to a particular school of thought, preferably one that has already been ...

By Peter Feaver

The recent posts by Will Inboden and Philip Zelikow have got me thinking again about the difference between academic and policy debates. The Inboden and Zelikow posts were triggered by Dan Drezner’s provocation suggesting that Republicans in opposition should adhere to a particular school of thought, preferably one that has already been labeled like realpolitik or neo-conservatism, and wondering which one it would be.

I was on the receiving end of a similar provocation from a good friend well-placed in the Democratic foreign policy establishment. He asked me to handicap the gotterdammerung which he was certain was about to take place within the Republican Party’s national security elite. He imagined the Republican party was rife with national security factions who hated each other more than they hated Democrats and he was almost gleeful at the prospect of the bloodletting to come. My off-the-cuff and too-flip response was that such a bloodletting would only occur if the Republicans actually expected to seize the White House again, which did not look likely for the foreseeable future.

But my more considered response was along the lines of Inboden and Zelikow’s, which is that there are indeed debates within Republican national security circles, but they do not seem to take the form of set-piece battles between clashing ideologies. That form, it seems to me, is far more common inside the Democratic party and seems to be playing outbefore our very eyesright now.

Rather, the debates within Republican circles that I recall from inside and that I have found most interesting outside tend to be fairly pragmatic — what works, what doesn’t work, what has been tried, what has the best chance of being sustainable. A quick way to drive those debates into a ditch would be to insist on invoking the kind of talmudic parsing that is so common in academic debates: "I am sorry, you cannot hold those two policy positions because the first is a tenet of offensive neo-realism and the second is a tenet of defensive neo-realism." The clash of paradigms may be a useful way to catalogue vast quantities of academic research for graduate and undergraduate pedagogy, but I can’t think of many cases when it was a useful way to navigate a policy debate.

Which is not to say that the tools of academic political science are of little utility. On the contrary, I found them very useful, just not in the ways that they seem to be most prevalent in academic commentary about foreign policy. Rather than trying to classify by paradigm, I found it most useful to use basic tools of social science analysis to evaluate the merits of various policy proposals.

For instance, during the debate that ended with the President Bush’s decision to do the surge strategy in Iraq, I found basic social science rigor to be very useful in sorting through the various proposals that the agencies and departments put forward. One even explicitly invoked some of the tough-mindedness of "realpolitik" in arguing that we should hunker down on the Forward Operating Bases while the Iraqis sorted out their sectarian differences with ever escalating violence. We should focus instead on our narrowly drawn long-term national interests, it was argued, and accept a number of very sub-optimal outcomes within Iraq.

In critically evaluating this proposal, I could have interrogated the authors’ use of "national interest" and other academic flourishes. Instead, I just focused on the internal coherence of the argument, and especially the implicit assumptions on which the proposal rested. Once those assumptions were identified and exposed to careful strategic examination, the proposal tended to rebut itself. While the proposal was framed as a hard-headed concession to realpolitik and a rejection of the fuzzy thinking of idealism, in fact the wisdom of that approach hinged on several very rosy (but entirely implicit) assumptions. If those assumptions were true, then other approaches (including the surge) would actually produce even better results. If those assumptions were not true, then that department’s proposal would likely usher in a worse disaster than alternative courses of action.

Because of this academic work of unpacking the theory behind the policy, the president had the benefit of hearing a range of forcefully argued positions and also the benefit of seeing the logic of the various positions carefully identified and evaluated. It was not unlike an academic exercise, but in the best sense of the term and without all of the labeling.

One further benefit of this type of academic debate (vice the clash of paradigms debate): I believe this sort of debate lends itself to more natural and progressive resolutions. It is possible for participants to lose certain policy fights without believing that their tribal fortunes have been put in jeopardy. And perhaps sticking to this sort of debate is the best way for Republicans to reclaim the one label that really matters: the competence label.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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