I wanted to say a bit more on Matt's post on careerism in the foreign policy community, particularly this passage:

There are plenty of positions for people interested in foreign policy and national security issues that aren't like that -- there are career jobs in the foreign service, the intelligence agencies, and the military. There's also academia. But if you aren't as interested in serving your country or pursuing disinterested scholarship as you are in trying to get a political appointment, it might be a great idea to secure a post as a Brookings or CSIS fellow. Which is fine on one level, obviously, those jobs need to be filled ... But what I didn't understand years ago, and that many people still don't understand today, is that this means these people are, in fact, politicians rather than scholars or analysts



He goes on to write that "you find a much higher level of candor and intellectual honest[y] when you look for experts who aren't life-long job seekers," and cites as examples "guys like Rand Beers and Richard Clarke and Flynt Leverett who were all professionals who had jobs until they quit them because the Bush administration was determined to steer the ship of state into the rocks." I think you can debate the extent to which Clarke and Leverett, in particular, might have had careerist motivations for quitting their jobs (and even Beers' resignation, while impressively principled, ended up setting him up to be National Security Adviser in a hypothetical Kerry administration), but even granting their intellectual honesty, these guys are well known precisely because it's so rare for career bureaucrats, whether in the foreign service or the intelligence community or wherever, to break ranks with whatever administration they're serving. If anything, the pressures of careerism seem stronger among the professionals than in the world of office-seekers.

As a friend with experience in the foreign-policy world wrote to me, after Matt's post:

While he's absolutely right to train a focused and skeptical eye on the motivations of the foreign policy circuit, I think he lets his moralizing about it get in the way of an accurate picture of the role of the permanent bureaucracies, the appointees, and academia. The fact is that all of these sectors are characterized by career-mindedness, ambition, and the taking of cues from senior figures. This is both bad and good. The bad reasons are pretty plain - institutionalized and conformist thinking, discouragement of dissent, etc. What Yglesias seems to miss is that these are probably far more common in the other sectors than in think tankery. (The good reasons, by the way - disciplined effectiveness, coherence, etc. - are often underemphasized.)

The permanent civil service ranks, for instance, are intensely influenced by careerist considerations: Their field of regard is limited largely to issues within the bureaucracy except at senior levels; they have limited options outside of the government as they put more time in; there are promotional, discretionary, and disciplinary mechanisms to enforce conformity, etc. The problem of careerism in the military has been amply documented. There are similar patterns in the State Department, where people tread very carefully around certain hot-button issues, and the intelligence agencies ... And academics have their own cultural and professional incentive structure as well, one that, for instance, prevents political conservatives from getting tenured much throughout academia. And much academic work has very little utility for actual policy formation. Sure there's Robert Pape, and the group at Columbia (Jervis, Betts), etc., but that's not necessarily the rule.

Policy experts attached to various NGOs, think tanks, lobbying efforts, journals, etc. play a potentially very useful role in this mix. They are the (relatively) free agents, who can take much more "edgy" and original policy positions and argue for them in a policy-relevant way. Like academics, they are incentivized to be original, but, unlike academics, they are also incentivized to be relevant. This gives you Anthony Cordesman and Nicholas Eberstadt and Charles Murray, policy wonks whom, whether you like them or not, add a lot to the discussion that doesn't seem to come from the other quarters.

As Yglesias points out, think tankers are susceptible to careerism, ambition, going with the winds, etc. Is that news? Why they should be different than everybody else I don't know. But the set of incentives for think tankers is not only political appointments - many of these guys actually seem to enjoy not being in government. Sure you get your safe centrist types who always have their thumbs in the wind, but they hardly constitute the whole conversation. What about foreign policy at CATO or urban policy at the Manhattan Institute? These are places that are making a really original contribution.

The reality is that the whole foreign policy establishment seems to have gotten Iraq wrong. That includes the permanent bureaucracies, which went along, as expected and as is their duty, with the President's marching orders. Most of the press and the punditocracy was off base, too. And so, naturally, were many of the think tankers. But think tankery also housed many of the war's most perceptive critics - Brzezinski at CSIS, Odom at Hudson, De Borchgrave at CSIS, the CATO scholars, etc.

Career incentive structures are an important interpretative tool, but Yglesias significantly overestimates their use here. And thinking that some of the "heroes" he mentions are not infected with this bug means that he is not only off base, but a bit naive too.

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