Saturday, December 03, 2005

A week in the life...

I saw four pretty incredible speakers at SAIS this week.

First, on Monday, Marc Sageman guest lectured in my History of Irregular Warfare class. Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist who now teaches at UPenn, was one of two CIA case officers stationed in Afghanistan during its war with the Soviet Union in the 1980's. He is short, bespectacled, mostly bald, has a white beard, and speaks with an accent that I could not identify. He began his lecture by saying: "I love war. I enjoyed killing. I am not proud of that, but my time spent in Afghanistan was the most thrilling period of my life." He went on to explain the political dynamic in Afghanistan at the time and how he actually spent most of his time in Pakistan negotiating very shady weapons deals with many different foreign countries. He worked very hard to plant stories in the press that were favorable to the Afghani rebels, and ironically, he lamented the U.S.' current inability to manipulate the foreign press like they could "in the good old days." The things Dr. Sageman said were shocking, and a lot of the students reacted with gaping jaws, but as he said, "What I'm saying may not be P.C., but it is the truth, and this was war."

On Wednesday, I attended Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns speak at SAIS. He was speaking about United States policy toward Iran. Dean Einhorn described him in her introduction as a "matinee idol," which I found uncouth. In any event, it was billed as a big policy speech, and there were a long line of television crews and loads of press, but I didn't notice anything particularly new about what he said: that Iran is very bad, and that the statement of its recently elected president that Israel should be "wiped off the map" was very bad. Secretary Burns is a SAIS grad himself, and when he took questions from the audience, a Rolling Stone reporter interrupted him and accused him of not answering the questions he had asked. Burns replied: "Sir, I respect your right to ask any question you'd like in any way you'd like. And in turn you should respect my right to answer your question in any way that I'd like. I learned that when I was at SAIS." I would have rather Burns answered the questions more directly too, but that's a funny thing for a career diplomat to say.

On Thursday, Paul Frandano spoke about what it's like to be an analyst at the CIA. He was awesome. The main thing I took away from him was his insight that what the intelligence agencies provide is not and should not be considered "the truth." Information is imperfect, and intelligence analysts do their best to extract something meaningful from the information they have and then present their analysis to policymakers. What policymakers then do with that information is their choice and is outside the domain of influence of intelligence professionals (as it should be). It was an honest assessment of the limits of what can and should be expected of intelligence agencies. My conclusion is not that the agencies are bad things or that they are unnecessary, but rather that policymakers and citizens alike would benefit from being educated about the role that intelligence agencies play, lest they expect too much.

Finally, I saw the eminent political scientist and current Undersecretary of State for Policy Planning Stephen Krasner speak about what its like for an academic to work in government. He said that the ideas generated in academia do influence policymaking, and listed a few theories that had had a large influence specifically during his tenure at the State Department. He concluded, though, that academic training can benefit you in government in that it teaches you to write concisely and to communicate effectively which are very important skills when you are writing two-page memos on very complicated subjects to be read by people who are already well-informed and do not have a lot of time. I asked him, "as an academic, how do you feel about the Bush administration's description of our current war as a `Global War on Terror', specifically whether those words precisely describe the war we are fighting?" He argued (sort of half-heartedly) that changing the terms to a "War on Islamic Fundamentalism" (which is much more accurate) could have disasterous political ramifications, in that it could be perceived as a crusade against Islam. He added "and what happens when it is inevitably distorted in the foreign press, and `fundamentalism' is dropped from the name?". A fair point, I think, and he assured me that a lot of people at high levels were thinking about it, which is not at all surprising.

Monday morning Secretary Rumsfeld will be speaking at SAIS. I'll be there.
-- Eric