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Category: Robert Farley

Professional Education in Foreign Affairs

[ 21 ] August 11, 2011 |

Andrew Exum and Charlie Simpson wrote a post a few days ago on how wannabe policy professionals should approach Ph.D. education.  The post was written in response to a series of tweets that defined the parameters of the problem, but the absence of context led to a bit of misunderstanding. Let this be a lesson: Not everyone reads your twitter feed religiously, and as such a bit of context is helpful.

Although I have some issues with the general argument that Exum and Simpson make, the last paragraph really irked me:

A note on Master’s degrees: Charlie went straight through to a PhD program, skipping the MA. Abu Muqawama got his master’s degree at American University of Beirut, which he loved, but mainly because he was just out of the U.S. Army and was basically a sponge, intellectually speaking. (He thought it was really cool — and continues to think it is really cool — that he could just walk into Tarif Khalidi’s office hours and chat about the medieval Islamic world or about Beirut during the war.) He spent a lot of time on his Arabic and graduated a semester early so he could concentrate full-time on his language training. (He also learned French during this period, which has been really useful as a research language.) Perhaps then it’s not a surprise that neither of us are huge fans of the IR / Security Studies MA racket. Frankly, we just don’t think the training is that good. (If the training was good, maybe there’d be less demand for PhDs in Washington!) Look for MAs that give specific training – language + regional studies, focused research + analysis, or similar. Else, go to a PhD program for 2 years, complete your coursework, ask for the master’s, and get out of Dodge.

Ok. That’s not a breezy dismissal so much as a slap in the face.  Over twitter, Exum has defended the post with the argument that it was intended only for those committed to getting a Ph.D.  Were that true, the explicit denigration of the terminal international relations MA would have been unnecessary.

But there are also a few other things wrong with the paragraph.  Let’s start with the acknowledgement that, in fact, Ph.Ds from policy oriented schools will be better prepared for inside-the-beltway analytical positions that most MAs.  The Ph.D takes longer, is more rigorous, requires original research, and forces the analyst to get used to plotting out her own projects.  Note the caveat “policy oriented”; I’m actually very skeptical that doctorates from non-policy oriented schools leave the candidate better prepared for a policy position than a policy oriented MA.

But, before anything else, you have to take into account that doing a Ph.D. rather than an MA means you’re four years closer to dead. This sounds trivial, but think of it this way; the four year difference between a 2 year MA and a 6 year Ph.D. constitutes roughly 10% of your entire expected professional career. If you’ve served in the military, or taken a couple years off, or worked another job, the math gets considerably worse.  If you choose to pursue the Ph.D rather than the MA, here’s what you’re not going to do in those four years: Learn how government works from the inside, build a bevy of professional contacts within the bureaucracy, and (not least) make money.

Ph.D. programs also, invariably, experience a considerable amount of attrition.  Some of this comes at the beginning, some at the second year mark, and some along the long and winding road to a dissertation.  The sad story of the ABD is that until the dissertation is finished, you have an MA, and generally not a particularly useful MA.  More on that in a second.  What this means is that if you make it to year 3, 4, 5, or 6 of your Ph.D and then, for whatever reason, can’t finish the dissertation, you’ve wasted years that could have been put to good use in a professional setting.

That’s pretty bad, but it’s actually worse that all that; a MA that was acquired as part of a failed Ph.D effort is, contra Exum and Simpson, considerably less valuable than a terminal MA.  The latter is structured to create a professional, and faculty tasked to support the project of training an international relations professional capable of undertaking a variety of different jobs in the foreign policy universe.  The former is structured to create the foundation for an academic.  These are two very different things, and the terminal policy MA leaves you in a much better professional position than the “failed on your way to a Ph.D” MA.  As Exum and Simpson suggest, faculty in many Ph.D programs can be somewhat less than helpful in the pursuit of non-academic jobs; this goes double for students they regard as failures.  Faculty at a terminal MA program, on the other hand, have different expectations of their students, and different understandings of the role they’re supposed to play in helping students get public policy jobs. Moreover, graduates of terminal MA programs in foreign affairs can almost always rely on an extensive network of alumni, working in policy positions both inside and outside of government, for assistance in job hunting.  And from experience with my own students looking for work, most of these jobs aren’t limited to getting coffee and handling administrative duties. That said, no MA program can guarantee a good, interesting job, even for its very best students.

The bottom line is this:  Exum and Simpson include ample warning about the difficulties of pursuing a Ph.D. for professional reasons, but miss a couple of the most important problems.  The time consuming nature of a Ph.D., combined with the very real threat of attrition, makes the Ph.D. an extremely sketchy choice for someone who aspires to write about policy inside the Beltway.  Contra Exum and Simpson, terminal, policy oriented MA programs do offer a genuine alternative to pursuing a Ph.D., an alternative that is in many ways superior.  Of course, some people will successfully pursue Ph.Ds, find jobs in DC, and lead happy, productive lives.  Many will not, so be very careful when thinking about how you want to spend the next six years of your life.

See also Drezner

No, Seriously; What Price Defeat?

[ 89 ] August 10, 2011 |

My column this week calls for a more rigorous appraisal of US interests in Afghanistan, and gives some reasons why we’re unlikely to see it:

In other words, would it make sense for the United States to “lose” the war in Afghanistan simply to put an end to the steady stream of casualties and the ongoing political and military investment in the survival of the Afghan government?

Some argue that the idea of winning by losing is a contradiction in terms. If the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai fell and the Taliban returned to power, they say, U.S. interests around the world would suffer grave reputational harm. Defeat would also increase the likelihood of additional terrorist attacks. However, the idea that the United States must “win at all costs” isn’t very satisfying. Even maximalists will find some measures — a domestic draft, for instance, or the mothballing of the aircraft carrier fleet — too high a price to pay for victory.

Assessing the cost of victory is complicated by two factors. The first is that costs are most clear in hindsight. It is very difficult while in the middle of a conflict to project how long the current level of spending and casualties will continue into the future. This is doubly true of counterinsurgency conflicts, which most often lack clear victory points. Second, the measure of “national interest” is more complicated than it sounds, as not everyone in the United States has the same foreign policy interest. To take an obvious example, workers very often benefit from protection against international competitors, while capital benefits from mobility and the relatively free movement of goods.

“Improper Administrative Procedures”

[ 43 ] August 9, 2011 |

As the Libyan rebels seem finally to be making some tortuously slow military progress, the political front threatens to fall apart:

Rebel leaders dissolved their own cabinet on Monday, in an effort to placate the family of an assassinated rebel military leader and quiet discord in a movement already struggling to remove the country’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, from power.

A rebel spokesman said that the prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, the only member of the cabinet who kept his job, would have to present a new slate of cabinet members to the rebel legislative body, the Transitional National Council, for approval in the coming days. The cabinet was dissolved, the spokesman said, “for improper administrative procedures” that led to the arrest and subsequent killing of the military leader, Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, a former top Libyan commander who defected to the rebel side.

The move left the rebels without several of its leaders — including the ministers of defense, finance, interior and justice — as they try to fight a three-front war, run dozens of cities under their control and rein in armed militias that have multiplied since the February uprising.

In short, the fall of Qaddafi (if it happens) isn’t going to be the end of the mess. The best hope is that there’s a sufficient rump state left to be seized when/if the rebels arrive in Tripoli. I’m not particularly optimistic about that, though; Qaddafi seems to have eschewed strengthening formal administrative structures in preference for rulership through personalist ties. When/if he’s gone, the disparate, squabbling rebels may have to assemble state institutions from scratch.

In other news, I’m a touch skeptical that Assad is on his way out, but it would be rather rich if Qaddafi outlasted Assad, despite the NATO intervention.

Brief Thoughts on Mark Hatfield

[ 5 ] August 8, 2011 |

As Erik notes, Mark Hatfield has passed.  He was, from our current point of view, a remarkably odd political figure. I remember this quite well:

Senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, the only Republican to vote against the balanced-budget amendment when it fell one vote short of passing the Senate last week, offered to resign before the vote, the majority leader, Bob Dole, said today.

Mr. Dole said he had turned that offer down. But today, he did not rule out punishing Mr. Hatfield for his vote by taking away his committee chairmanship in the Senate.

Mr. Hatfield’s resignation from the Senate would have allowed the proposed constitutional amendment, which would have required a balanced Federal budget, to pass the Senate with the needed majority of two-thirds of those voting.

This was in the prelude to Dole’s final run for the Presidency, when he tossed aside a career long commitment to relatively responsible budgeting in order to appeal to the growing wingnut lobby in the GOP. It’s fascinating both that Hatfield offered to resign over what likely would have been a meaningless vote, and that Dole refused. Today, Hatfield would undoubtedly be subjected to a Tea Party driven primary challenge, and Dole would have come under brutal attack from the right for not accepting the resignation.

Hatfield’s role in national GOP politics is also remarkably interesting. He gave what amounted to an anti-Goldwater keynote at the 1964 Republican convention, and was taken seriously as a vice presidential candidate in 1968. Nixon obviously had sensible reasons for taking Agnew, but Hatfield would have made a very interesting choice. The presence of a strong anti-war voice within the Nixon campaign and the Nixon administration might not have changed policy much- Nixon kept fairly tight control of the foreign policy reins- but it would have been rhetorically interesting. Hatfield might well not have stayed for a second term, but of course if he had…

Hatfield’s position as a Northwest politician is also worth examining. Hatfield was a moderate/liberal Republican at a time and in a place where such creatures still existed. I’d say that the last of the species in Oregon was probably Dave Frohnmayer, who lost the 1990 gubernatorial race because of a right wing, anti-abortion third party spoiler. Cecil Andrus of Idaho argued that Northwest politics was characterized during the 1970s by collaboration between moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans, and he cited Hatfield, Bob Packwood, and Tom McCall as the major figures on the GOP side. It’s important to remember that while Hatfield was staking out a strong anti-war position in Oregon (along with Democrat Wayne Morse), Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnuson were prying open the spigot to flow military dollars into Washington. Of course, because Hatfield was right about the Vietnam War and Jackson wrong, Jackson has a school of international studies and a nuclear submarine named in his honor.

The anti-war aspect of Hatfield’s career also bears some examination.  He opposed the Vietnam War before it was popular to do so, and not quietly. He didn’t particularly like either defense spending or anti-communism, and supported ending the travel ban to Cuba.  He also voted against authorizing the Gulf War.  In Oregon at the time, it was said that he was one of the only genuinely consistent “pro lifers”; he opposed the death penalty, abortion, and war.  Of course, it’s kind of hard to square this career opposition to war with Hatfield’s late life support of the invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror more generally, especially because there was no meaningful institutional reason for Hatfield to shift.  ”He just got old,” is one explanation, but not a particularly helpful one.

In any case, Mark Hatfield had a remarkably long and interesting career as a public servant, one that could probably bear considerably more attention. Rest in peace.

A Survivor’s Tale of Survival

[ 2 ] August 5, 2011 |

In lieu of Daddy Blogging…

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Uncensored – A Survivor’s Tale of Survival – I Survived
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

Intra-Lobby Politics

[ 2 ] August 3, 2011 |

There’s good reason to wonder if the debt ceiling deal will result in significant defense cuts, as the current arrangement is sufficiently ambiguous to still allow some slow growth.  Nevertheless, I think that even this will be sufficient to produce some interesting politics within the military spending constituency:

Ideally, cuts to defense will reflect a careful, rational approach to maintaining the military means for accomplishing America’s foreign policy ends. The major players would debate and evaluate the grand strategic rationale for American military power and develop a somewhat more modest political framework for the Department of Defense.

In the real world, actual defense cuts will result in bitter bureaucratic infighting and interest group mobilization in support of particular systems and programs. While service amity in the United States has managed to hold across several previous rounds of defense cuts, most notably during the post-Vietnam and post-Cold War drawdowns, there are some indications that this set of cuts may shatter the norm of collaboration that has developed between the military services.

Unfortunately, the result of this intra-constituency battle will likely be messy. Programs that lack a rationale will survive, while weapons that lack an interest group will die. The connection between means and ends will be lost, because no specific constituency has a vested interest in a rational consideration of foreign policy values or the capacity to consider value trade-offs. Little consideration will likely be given to the notion of a meaningful drawdown of U.S. military commitments, resulting in a force even more badly overstretched.


[ 19 ] August 3, 2011 |
For the last five days I’ve been embroiled in the brutal, thankless process of moving self and family from the Queen City of the West to the Horse Capitol of the World.  In the interest of sparing you from a full understanding of the terrible toll that this undertaking has exacted, I prefer to direct you to these pretty pictures of London being destroyed from the air.

Won’t Someone PLEASE Think of the Children?!?!?

[ 5 ] July 27, 2011 |

In My WPR column this week, I think of the children:

It is almost too trite to point out that foreign policy professionals from around the world would agree in principle that the next 80 years should ideally be better than the past 80. Every analyst, diplomat, soldier and policymaker hopes to make a better world for his or her children. Unfortunately, this common hope cannot, in and of itself, solve most international disputes. People continue to disagree about both what constitutes a better world and how we should divide its fruits.



[ 52 ] July 27, 2011 |

Two updates to posts from last week. First, Colbert is absolutely brutal to Jennifer Rubin:

Second, Eli Lake has additional sourcing on the Georgia bombing. Two US intelligence officials describing a classified report ain’t gospel, but it’s a lot better than sole sourcing the story to the Georgian Ministry of the Interior. I suspect that the administration would prefer that the activities of the GRU not interfere with larger US-Russian relations, although of course the motives of individual intelligence officers will vary. If the US intelligence community believes that the GRU is responsible, them I’m inclined to give much more credence to the report. See also Spencer.

On the Exploitation of Mass Murder

[ 129 ] July 25, 2011 |

Jennifer Rubin didn’t have such a good weekend. As a general rule, it’s pretty easy not to use the murder of ninety-three Norwegians to shill for the defense industry.  For example, instead of leaping to the conclusion that Islamic terrorists were responsible for the attacks, then denouncing advocates of defense cuts as insufficiently attentive to “evil,” Jennifer Rubin could have gone for a walk.  She could have taken a nap, changed the oil in her car, read a book, watched a baseball game, or baked a cake.  Any one of those might have delayed her  contribution sufficiently to make clear that there was at least a chance that the attack wasn’t perpetrated by Islamic extremists.  Had she just waited a short while before publishing a post using ninety-three dead Norwegians as props to attack anyone who proposed cuts to the US defense budget, then she might not have been subjected to the cruel (if righteous) derision of her political enemies. To be sure, using fresh corpses to dress up a political position is always ethically sketchy, but the fact that Rubin got the particulars of the incident so strikingly wrong made for a noxious brew of amorality and stupidity.

Wait. Before. You. Post. If it helps, “WAPO” can be read as a shorthand reminder for WAit before you POst.

But of course she didn’t, and now we have a situation.  Here’s what she wrote on Friday:

This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists. I spoke to Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, who has been critical of proposed cuts in defense and of President Obama’s Afghanistan withdrawal plan. “There has been a lot of talk over the past few months on how we’ve got al-Qaeda on the run and, compared with what it once was, it’s become a rump organization. But as the attack in Oslo reminds us, there are plenty of al-Qaeda allies still operating. No doubt cutting the head off a snake is important; the problem is, we’re dealing with global nest of snakes…”

… Some irresponsible lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — I will point the finger at Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and yet backed the Gang of Six scheme to cut $800 billion from defense — would have us believe that enormous defense cuts would not affect our national security. Obama would have us believe that al-Qaeda is almost caput and that we can wrap up things in Afghanistan. All of these are rationalizations for doing something very rash, namely curbing our ability to defend the United States and our allies in a very dangerous world.


It’s clear she was either embarrassed by this, or a touch concerned about her job; there are clearly no worries on the latter front, since Fred Hiatt has ensured that there is no mortal sin but one that conservatives can commit under the Washington Post banner. Nevertheless, this is rich:

That the suspect here is a blond Norwegian does not support the proposition that we can rest easy with regard to the panoply of threats we face or that homeland security, intelligence and traditional military can be pruned back. To the contrary, the world remains very dangerous because very bad people will do horrendous things. There are many more jihadists than blond Norwegians out to kill Americans, and we should keep our eye on the systemic and far more potent threats that stem from an ideological war with the West.

In our own debates about national security, conservatives argue that national security spending is deserving of a higher priority than other expenditures. The defense budget is not numbers on a balance sheet as some of those on the left and right insist. Cutting defense spending is not the same as cutting domestic spending. That light rail project can wait, or states can do it, or we can decide it’s a boondoggle not worth doing even if we had the money. But national security is solely a federal function, and it can’t be put off.

There’s a certain risk in engaging too closely with this, as if it’s something that should be regarded as a “conversation starter.”  Nevertheless, if you pay careful attention you’ll note two things. First, upper class tax cuts appear to be more important than either the defense budget or domestic spending. There’s not even any consideration given to the notion that higher revenues might enable both higher defense and higher domestic spending.  Rubin has spent most of the weekend lauding John Boehner’s efforts to ensure that the federal government of the United States collects only a minimal amount of revenue; there’s no hint whatsoever that she considers the possibility that defense might be funded through additional taxes. That should be enough to demonstrate how serious Jennifer Rubin really is about defense spending; that next aircraft carrier is critically important, unless millionaires have to pay a slightly higher tax rate in order to finance it.

Second, Rubin doesn’t bother to defend any specific level of military spending. The argument made for defense cuts by just about everyone is that the military component of security is oversupplied in the United States; we spend more than we actually need in order to defend ourselves. A corollary of this argument is the (rather obvious) observation that aircraft carriers, F-35s, and armored personnel carriers are relatively inefficient ways of defending the United States from terrorists. Rubin doesn’t bother to engage with this argument. Aircraft carriers may be great at what they do, but Rubin makes the case for the defense budget specifically in terms of the fight against terrorism and the indefinite occupation of Afghanistan.

This goes to the greater irony behind Rubin’s initial argument.  The Oslo attacks do demonstrate rather conclusively that it is possible to launch mass casualty attacks without support from “safe havens” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.  Over the past ten years, ideologically committed individuals and groups have found it relatively easy to do tremendous damage without significant material links to terrorist camps and networks in the places Rubin thinks we need to bomb.  In a sense, the early Islamophobic reaction to the Oslo bombings actually makes more sense than Rubin’s account; if the problem really is bad people, then the real remedies are in immigration, assimilation, and domestic security policy, rather than the purchase of extraordinarily expensive military equipment and the conquest and occupation of “rogue” states.  Of course, given that illiberal assimilation policy and rhetoric appear to generate ideological committed individuals prepared to undertake both Islamic and right wing terrorism, the Islamophobe solution doesn’t really work, either.  However, it’s also worth pointing out that the  implications of the conquest and indefinite occupation of Islamic countries for domestic terrorism ought to be taken seriously.

But it’s not really as if Jennifer Rubin thought all of this through when she decided to decorate her paean to the defense budget with 93 dead Norwegians.  She was given a perch by the Washington Post, and she’s decided to use it to shill for the defense industry.  The particulars aren’t really relevant.  The only reason this specific case is notable is that she got the details so terribly wrong that she looks like a moron as well as a hack.   The editors of the Washington Post knew who she was and what she would do when they hired her.  They bear ultimate responsibility for the gross indecency of her writing.

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The Kind of Terrorism You Should Try to Understand

[ 30 ] July 24, 2011 |

Shorter Jerusalem Post: Just because the killer in Norway wasn’t a Muslim shouldn’t distract us from the important project of hating Muslims.

There is no way that a sentence that starts with “While there is absolutely no justification for the sort of heinous act perpetrated this weekend in Norway…” is going to end up anywhere that any civilized person wants to be.

This Wouldn’t Have Happened if We Had More F-22s

[ 59 ] July 23, 2011 |

Jeebus. It should go without saying that if you’re interested in the latest updates on the situation in Oslo, you shouldn’t be here.

And Jeebus. It’s one thing for nutcase wingnut bloggers to decide Oslo is the latest front in their jihado-crusader fantasy, quite another for a columnist at the Washington Post to suggest that terrorist attacks on Oslo mean we can’t cut the defense budget.

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