Thursday, January 25, 2007
A few weeks ago The New Republic devoted an entire issue to Iraq under the theme, "What Next?" Fifteen or so public intellectuals wrote essays with titles such as "Talk, Talk, Talk" (Michael Walzer) to "Bribe The Insurgents" (Niall Ferguson) to "Admit It's Over" (Richard Clarke). I read some of them before I misplaced the magazine.
In the current issue, there is a letter to the editor from one Sandeep Puri (New York City) responding to all of this. I thought it was so good that I reproduced it below:
Reading the Iraq issue provided a sense of what is going on there. It also provided a sense of the notions held by a few upper-middle-class people who earn their living thinking and writing in comfortable neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.; Princeton; Cambridge; Palo Alto; and other non-war zones in the United States where water, food, rule of law, and utilities are taken for granted. What one wonders after reading the issue is, of the 16 views published, why the editors chose not to publish any perspectives by a) Iraqis -- Sunni, Shia, or Kurd; b) American military personnel who served in Iraq; or c) anybody who lives and works in the neighboring countries. Wouldn't Iraqis and American military personnel be in a position to test the viability of the ideas expressed in The New Republic by writers who have negligible direct experience with the realities of this war? What your magazine does is publish articles by people with fine academic credentials who believe in the superiority of their thoughts and who do not realize how limited they are by the combination of their privileged experiences, their inadequate knowledge of the region and circumstances, and the influence of the safe cities in which they reside. The ability of author after author to reference the terminology of the region is impressive. Yet this capability amounts to a faux authority -- kind of like someone who can weave into his language references to musical terms but cannot play a melody. By publishing this issue, the editors conveyed the message that the only important views are those of people who are like the editors in professional background, temperament, and geographical comfort. Next time, dare to try the unconventional tack of asking Iraqis, American military personnel, and other affected people what they think should be done.
Moreover, it is striking that, in all the essays published, no author wrote a single sentence exploring why none of the recommendations expressed have been put into action. What is the point of holding a dinner party in which you serve dishes to which the guests are allergic? Finally, it is interesting to see the editors apologize for their espousal of the war, because this apology gives rise to the question: If reason alone (in contrast to reason coupled with the experience of people who are confronting the realities directly) led the editors to a wrong conclusion, what basis is there to believe that, this time around, reason alone -- from people far removed from the realities of the war -- will lead to the write conclusion?
General Lucius Aemilius Paulus would have seen eye-to-eye with Mr. Puri, I think.
Mr. Puri was both correct and polite. The number of people who pontificate on the broad subject of the Middle East without any actual knowledge -- meaning historical study, language arts, physical presence and experience -- is actually hilarious. I find myself at these NYC cocktail parties with people raging aboout Israeli actions or US actions in the Middle East, and beyond the superfical knowledge they derive from the NYT and their emotional reaction to conflict, they literally have no idea what they're talking about. Ask them about how Israel came to be, or the Ottoman Empire, or the British Mandate, Arthur Balfour, and they don't know what you're talking about. They tend not to know about 1948, 1956, 1967 or 1973. They barely know about the Muncih Olympics. They barely know about 1991. They know nothing about the undeclared Naval War with Iran.
They aren't on the ground. They've never been there. They don't speak the languages. They don't even know anybody who lives there. They have no idea about the nature of the governing bodies in each of the relevant places.
And yet, they repeat the nonsense that the New Republic guys Puri appropriately disrobes.
The situation points up the problem in Washington. Politicians are generalists. They listen to advisors. Many of the advisors don't have the skills, knowledge, and experience necessary to give good advice. Garbage in, garbage out.
There needs to be far greater utilization of academic-military groups like this one to bridge the gap: US Military Veterans of Columbia University.
Most Columbia milvets, by now, are war veterans and also members of the intellectual academic community. Choosing between intellectuals and soldiers who've been there and done it is a false choice insofar as the Columbia MilVets is the union of both communities.
The solution to this problem already exists in New York City - folks just need to take advantage and use it.