“You become a political scientist," a beloved teacher of mine once said, "because you're either afraid of power, or fascinated by it."
She, a refugee from the Europe of the 1940s, was most definitely of the former type, but that put her in the minority. Most academics interested in policy are in the latter category. Many of us have a desire, acknowledged or not, to influence the action from near if possible or afar if necessary.
For quite a few years now I have served on governmental advisory boards, written articles and op-eds, and watched the national security establishment from the Washington periphery. Two years ago, to my surprise and lasting gratitude, Condoleezza Rice asked me to become her senior foreign policy adviser. I welcomed the opportunity to serve, particularly in wartime.
It has, however, occasioned some unsettling reflections on the kind of commentary in which a professor in the foreign policy world indulges.
My first, sobering observation is that government pays only intermittent attention to talk on the outside. To a remarkable extent, in fact, government talks only to itself.
Officials in the foreign policy and defense worlds go through vast quantities of official data, briefing papers and talking points. They meet urgently with one another. They fly to foreign capitals and back in a few days. They telephone and e-mail incessantly. Every day in the office I spent hours reading a three- to six-inch stack of intelligence, plus all the other cables, messages and memorandums that are the lifeblood of the Department of State. I scanned the press clips, reading an opinion piece rarely, usually when it was written by someone who had a track record for good judgment. By and large, the buzz on the outside was just that — a background noise of which I was dimly aware, unless it was either unusually nasty, or unusually perceptive, which often merely meant that it fit my own views.
Most commentators have a radically imperfect view of what's going on. Those on the inside, including at the very top, know more, though less than one might think. Government resembles nothing so much as the party game of telephone, in which stories relayed at second, third or fourth hand become increasingly garbled as they crisscross other stories of a similar kind ("That may be what the Russian national security adviser said to the undersecretary for political affairs on Wednesday, but it's not how the Turkish foreign minister described the Syrian view to our ambassador to NATO on Thursday.") Add to this the effects of secrecy induced by security concerns, as well as by the natural desire to play one's cards close to one's vest, and the result is a well-nigh impenetrable murk of policymaking.
But it's even murkier on the outside. "Occasionally an outsider may provide perspective; almost never does he have enough knowledge to advise soundly on tactical moves," Henry Kissinger once remarked. Or as the White House correspondent of one major national newspaper once confided to me, "We really don't have a clue what's going on in there."
What, then, is a pundit to do? The best commentary has an impact, less because it offers new ideas (most ideas have been considered, however incompletely, on the inside) than because it clarifies problems or solutions that the insiders have only vaguely or incompletely considered. A tight, well-written, and carefully reasoned examination of a policy problem will bring into focus an issue that the officials have not had the time, or often the literary skill, to capture precisely. That kind of analysis is very much worth reading.
Invariably, a pundit will prescribe solutions. In doing so, he should follow the advice of the late Raymond Aron, the wisest French policy intellectual of modern times: Never criticize a policy unless you can convincingly depict a better course of action. Aron, like many of the greatest commentators on policy, had virtually no experience in government, but great empathy for those in a position to decide. Empathy — the capacity for imagining what it is like to be the other — is an essential quality for the thoughtful pundit. Policymakers, of course, prefer sympathy, which is soothing, unnecessary and often harmful.
To Aron's advice I would add a corollary. Do not prescribe a policy that the current group of officials cannot hope to implement because of who they are. I have had highly intelligent individuals — including some with senior government experience — sit in my office and lay out perfectly plausible policies that the current team, limited by time remaining in office, the pressure of competing and more urgent crises, and the all important mix of personalities, could never hope to put into effect.
Moreover, core beliefs and style constrain policymakers profoundly. So don't ask them to do something outside their range of psychological possibility by, for example, proposing cold-eyed realpolitik to a band of idealists or vice versa. There are no platonic ideal-type policies, valid no matter who is in charge. What may make sense for one administration may make no sense for another, not because of the external environment, but because of who has to execute the policy and live with its consequences.
High-quality commentary reaches audiences (including those overseas) who may not affect daily policymaking, but whose opinions matter in subtler and longer-term ways. Well done, it sharpens a larger discourse — and besides, it's more therapeutic than shouting at your television set. A prudent commentator should be modest in his aspirations, conscious of his limitations, and sparing with his exhortations.
Good advice. I hope I follow it.
Eliot Cohen was counselor of the Department of State in 2007-08. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.