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Building that Bridge

This third dispatch from the International Policy Summer Institute is by Bruce Jentleson.


It’s been an intensive and valuable week for our International Policy Summer Institute (IPSI). Following on the panels and discussions of our first two days, here and here, today began with a panel on think tanks, with Dan Byman (Georgetown, Brookings) and our own Jim Goldgeier (Council on Foreign Relations and other think tanks prior to his AU School of International Service Deanship). It was a rich discussion of the role of think tanks, similarities and differences with university-based research centers, various opportunities for engaging with them, strategies for doing so, pros and cons of doing so.

Another panel focused on Congress’ role in foreign policy, with a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, an analyst from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), and a colleague who has both Hill experience and is a scholar on foreign policy politics and process.  This was a very useful discussion of how to bring one’s own research and writing to bear on pertinent issues through congressional testimony, dissemination to committee staff and policy entrepreneurs, drawing on CRS studies, and other strategies and avenues for bridging this part of the gap.

Over lunch, Paul Johnson from the AU Communications Office gave an extremely useful presentation on media outreach and services that most if not all of our universities provide.  Faculty often aren’t all that aware of how university media offices can facilitate and partner in efforts to place op-eds, do broadcast interviews, make press contacts, and other mechanisms for getting  policy relevant ideas and research findings out to the media in ways that are in the interest of both the individual scholar and the university.

And then the “fun” part: our BtG team member Brent Durbin of Smith College, who before grad school was a Senate press secretary, conducted Lehrer NewsHour-style on-camera interviews  with each participant, posing questions related to their research. We tape these, and then tomorrow with two media professionals (one from the Hill, the other from TV) we do group critiques.  It’s good that we’ve build good group solidarity and sense of community by this point in IPSI! There is no growth without pain . . . but growth there is!

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How Scholars Can Be Strategic Communicators

This is our second post from the Bridging the Gap Project about its International Summer Policy Institute (IPSI)—at which Henry and I spoke today about scholars-as-bloggers.  The first post is here.  This post is by Brent Durbin.


A core part of the IPSI curriculum is strategic communication. It concerns an important question: what are the components of an outreach strategy for scholars who want to influence policy (especially U.S. foreign policy)? We tackle that question in part via specific suggestions and insights from editors at leading policy journals, op-ed pages, and blogs.

As academics, we are not usually trained – or even encouraged – to seek an audience for our research beyond the world of peer review. This leaves us ill-equipped for the policy world, a competitive place in which scholars enjoy few advantages. Lobbyists and bureaucrats understand politics better than we do; journalists write better; think tanks have better access. The only unique resource we have as scholars is our expertise. To bring our ideas and findings into the policy arena, we must adopt a style of engagement that enable us to compete effectively with these other groups for the attention of decision-makers.

While there isn’t space for every nuance covered in the workshop, here is a basic two-step summary of how to get your work in front of policymakers.

Step 1: Develop an outreach strategy. This sounds simple, and in some ways it is. But it’s not something scholars do naturally, because for most of us it’s not linked to professional incentives. To start, consider a discrete part of your research – something that you feel might have something to say to policymakers. Not all political science research has clear relevance for current affairs, but most does if you can find the right frame. Now consider the types of outreach that appeal to you and have the greatest chance of influencing the policy space you care about. These generally fall into three categories:

  • Writing for policy journals, magazines, op-ed pages, and blogs;

  • Briefing policymakers, staffers, think tanks, and journalists;

  • Media Outreach to TV, radio, print, and online news sources.

Of course, you may not know the best way to reach your target audience. When in doubt, pursue as many approaches as you can. Remember that policymakers have very little time, so often the shortest output (op-eds, blogs) can often have the biggest impact.

Step 2: Execute the strategy. This is the hard part, and for most scholars the most mysterious. How do you place an op-ed? Whom do you brief? How do you get quoted in a news piece? Your most important resource here is the public relations or media office at your college or university. These people get paid to know how, where, and when to get your research into the world. Most professors ignore them, and they’ll be happy to hear from you. They may not know all of the details of the people or outlets you want to target, but they’ll help you get the information you need.

Since our sessions today focused mostly on writing, here are some additional tips culled from our meetings with editors from Foreign Policy, The Washington Quarterly, The Washington Post, and elsewhere:

  • Have a sense of what format works best for what you want to say. In all cases, your piece should be timely and concisely written, and should add something new to the debate. Look for hooks, whether anniversaries, crises, meetings, or other events that need some context and explanation. Just don’t stop with context and explanation – you’ll need an argument too (that’s the policy impact part). And look to cover upcoming events, not those that just happened. Editors are much more interested in scene-setters than post-mortems.

  • Policy journals look for 3500-5000 words, and usually have a 3-6 month delay before publication. So be timely but not reactive, and think more about strategic debates that will be around for a while. Op-eds and other short opinion pieces (usually 700-1000 words) should be much more current and should have a clear news hook. Sometimes, this means sitting on an idea – or even a full, pre-written piece – and waiting until the right moment to freshen it up and send it out.

  • Like academic journals, most policy and news outlets publish clear guidelines for submissions. Follow them. You don’t need to be famous to get published in the Post or Foreign Policy (sure, it doesn’t hurt); if your timing and writing are good, and you follow the submission rules, your piece will get a fair hearing.

  • Always include a short pitch along with your article, usually in the body of the email. This should include your argument, why it’s timely, and why you’re the right person to write it – all in three or four sentences.

These are just a few of the lessons covered by our panelists today. The big takeaway is simply to be strategic about your outreach. Just as you try to maximize the payoff for your academic work – say, by spinning off articles from a book – there are many venues to target when trying to impact policy. The more you pursue, the bigger chance you’ll have of influencing how people in Washington and elsewhere think about your issue.

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Saw Argo the other day, was impressed by the way it was filmed in such a 70s style, sorta like that movie The Limey or an episode of the Rockford Files.

I also felt nostalgia for that relatively nonviolent era. All those hostages and nobody was killed. It’s a good thing the Ayatollah didn’t have some fundamentalist Shiite equivalent of John Yoo telling him to waterboard everybody.

At the time we were all so angry and upset about the hostage-taking, but from the perspective of our suicide-bomber era, that whole hostage episode seems so comfortingly mild.

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Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?

The following is the first in our series of collaborations with journals to feature guests posts from authors of recently published political science research in conjunction with ungated access to the article that is being discussed.

The guest post is written by political scientist Roland Paris, of the University of Ottawa (@rolandparis).  An ungated version of his article is being made available temporarily by Cambridge University Press here.


In the June 2013 issue of Perspectives on Politics, I have a review essay based on four books that offer insights into “what went wrong” with the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan after 2001.

The books, which are all excellent, approach the subject from different vantage points.  Astri Suhrke’s When More Is Less: The International Project in Afghanistan examines the internal tensions and contradictions of the overall international effort.  Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan focuses more narrowly on the US military and civilian “surge” in 2010 and 2011.  In Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town, Noah Coburn conducts a micro-level analysis of the politics in one village near Kabul during the international mission.  Finally, Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is a macro-history of Afghan politics and governance from pre-modern times to the present.

In spite of their differences, all of the books point to similar, underlying dysfunctions in the international mission.  The first dysfunction was the interveners’ inadequate understanding and knowledge of Afghan society.  Again and again, the authors point to cases of international action rendered ineffectual or counterproductive due to a lack of familiarity with the political and social environment. From the highest levels of decision making to the micro-dynamics of military patrols and aid projects, foreign organizations and officials seemed to be almost handicapped by their own ignorance of the country.

The second dysfunction was the persistent short-termism of international policymaking.  At each major juncture, decision makers seemed to reach for the most expedient fixes without fully considering the context or consequences of their actions.  This pattern was already visible during the 2001 invasion, when the United States paid Afghan militias to intercept fleeing Al Qaeda fighters in the mountains of Tora Bora, rather than sending American forces—a costly decision, since the militias turned out to be less than fully committed to the task.  Then there was the Bush administration’s lack of interest in devising plans for Afghanistan’s post-Taliban transition, and its eagerness to delegate this task to others, based in part on the assumption that the “problem” of Afghanistan had been largely resolved by the defeat of the Taliban regime.  Next came the UN-sponsored conference at Bonn, which produced an agreement for a political transition process.  This agreement, however, was reached “hastily, by people who did not adequately represent all key constituencies in Afghanistan,” as Brahimi, who chaired the meeting, wrote in a contrite essay seven years later.  With US and UN backing, moreover, the Bonn plan yielded a highly centralized system of government that was ill-adapted to the country’s needs.  Meanwhile, Washington had rejected the idea of deploying ISAF outside Kabul and refused to allow US counterterrorist forces to be used for “nation-building” purposes.  All of these actions reflected wishful thinking— or, more precisely, a dearth of serious thinking—about the viability and long-term implications of these decisions.

This mind-set continued in subsequent years.  As conditions worsened and the scale and scope of the operation slowly expanded, there was little reflection on the underlying assumptions of the mission.  When the US government, long distracted by the situation in Iraq, shifted its attention back to Afghanistan in 2008, decision making became more urgent, but was no less short-sighted. “Again and again,” writes Suhrke, “it was hoped that the latest change in strategy and personnel or increase in aid would be the silver bullet.”  I saw this for myself during visits to Kandahar and Kabul in December 2008 and January 2010.  Activity was intense, almost frantic, and driven by a sense that little time remained to “turn the situation around.”  But exactly how this would be achieved, and to what end, were never clear.  Even after President Obama entered office and conducted a lengthy policy review that resulted in a sharp escalation of US forces, these questions remained largely unanswered:  How would the United States convince the insurgency to capitulate or negotiate?  How would it persuade Afghan villagers to side publicly with ISAF and the Kabul government?  What, in short, was the purpose of the surge?  More broadly, why did the international operation, with its minimalist start and late escalation, seem so strangely out of sync with conditions on the ground?

If “strategy” is a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim, there appeared to be little strategy guiding the international operation in Afghanistan.  Instead, reliance on a series of quick fixes seemed to substitute for strategic thinking—or tactics without strategy.  I conclude the essay by discussing the dangers of repeating these errors and drawing the wrong lessons from the Afghanistan episode.

You can access the entire essay for free until June 23, 2013.

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Revisiting the AUMF

During the April 2004 oral arguments in the Hamdi v Rumsfeld case about whether an American citizen could be detained indefinitely as an enemy combatant, Supreme Court Justice David Souter sought to probe the breadth of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which the Court ultimately held did support Hamdi’s detention, albeit with some procedural rights attached.

Souter asked:

“Is it reasonable to think that the authorization was sufficient at the time that it was passed, but that at some point, it is a Congressional responsibility, and ultimately a constitutional right on this person’s part, for Congress to assess the situation and either pass more specific continuing authorization or at least to come up with the conclusion that its prior authorization was good enough. Doesn’t Congress at some point have a responsibility to do more than pass that resolution? …. You come with an authorization that the President relied on and which I will assume he quite rightly relied on at the time it was passed. But my question is a timing question. Is it not reasonable to at least consider whether that resolution needs, at this point, to be supplemented and made more specific to authorize what you are doing?”

Congress has ignored this broad hint from the bench for nine years. During that time, the Bush and especially the Obama administrations have stressed that a wide range of executive actions are justified by the continuing statutory language of the AUMF. (Obama’s team has done this more explicitly, and sought to distinguish their rationale from the Bush administration, which sometimes relied instead on inherent executive authority grounded in Article II. Whether it is better to do the wrong things for the right reasons, or vice versa, I will leave to T.S. Eliot. )

The AUMF’s text is very broad, resolving “that the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” That last clause is particularly sweeping. Still, given the link in the resolution between the President’s authority and the 2001 attacks, is it broad enough to cover ongoing drone strikes (against American citizens, and not) in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan? Intervention in Syria?  How closely connected to the 9/11 attackers, or to Al Qaeda, or to its affiliates, does someone (who could have been of grade-school age at the time) have to be, to count as someone who “aided” those attacks? Could the AUMF apply to the Boston marathon bombers?

These are the kinds of questions Souter presciently raised, and the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing today at 9:30 am to start a potentially important conversation about their resolution. The list of those testifying is here. Today’s Washington Post editorializes in favor of a new AUMF; Lawfare has a useful summary of some of the arguments here.

UPDATE – 2:36 pm, 16 May – a webcast of the hearing (3 hours plus) can be found here.

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Is the US fighting one war, or four?

Linda Blimes and Michael Intriligator ask the surprising (relative to NYT, WP discourse) and interesting question “How Many Wars is the US Fighting Today?” in a short paper that is unfortunately gated.  The gist of it:

In addition to these two large-scale conflicts [Iraq and Afghanistan, as of late 2011] the US is also fighting a number of unannounced and undeclared “wars”. These unannounced wars are fought mainly with air power and increasingly with drones rather than ground troops. If we define war to include conflicts where the US is launching extensive military incursions, including drone attacks, but that are not officially “declared,” then the US is directly involved in at least three wars – in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia – in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan. These unannounced wars follow in the tradition of many previous covert US military incursions, such as in Chile, Cuba, and Nicaragua. The difference is that advanced military technology now enables the US to fight such wars in a different way, which is far less transparent, and to sustain operations over several years.

The comparison to Cold War covert “incursions” is apt, though I don’t think they were far more transparent than our current drone wars.  Moreover, they were arguably less “U.S. wars” than Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia today, because in these recent cases U.S. military (and CIA) personnel are actual trigger pullers on a scale much larger than they were in Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the like.

But is it a war if one side doesn’t have a lot of troops on the ground at risk of getting killed?  And what if the targets are technically civilians and not uniformed troops of the country where they live?  These are reasons why it’s at least not perfectly obvious that these conflicts should be termed “wars” in the traditional sense.   So yes, there are some differences, but as Blimes and Intriligator suggest, there is at a minimum a strong family resemblance as well.  At great cost and a high level of mobilization, the US military is engaged in killing large numbers of presumed combatants (with much collateral damage) who live in countries whose governments may object to the practice.  That’s plausibly described as a war.

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Why “Isolationist” Obscures More than It Reveals

We welcome this guest post by Ohio State political scientist Bear Braumoeller:


Yesterday’s New York Times included a brief summary of recent Times/CBS poll results on American foreign policy. The article, by Megan Thee-Brenan, lit up the Twittersphere not because of its substantive conclusions but rather because of its lede, which began, “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria.” Critics, like my colleague (and former advisor), Stephen Walt, have responded quite correctly that it takes more than skepticism of a particular intervention to qualify as an isolationist. I think the critics are right; moreover, the impact of this criticism is more substantial than most of them realize.

First of all, isolationism does not refer to abstention from only one form of internationalist behavior. Multilateralists, for example, prefer joint efforts to unilateral ones, but that hardly makes them isolationist. Moreover, the fact that the public doesn’t favor the costliest sort of intervention doesn’t mean that they don’t favor intervention of some sort: a year ago, a plurality of respondents favored the use of American air power in Syria to create safe havens, and nearly 40% favored the provision of weapons. Sending troops, by contrast, netted a slim 15% support. That hardly seems isolationist. Isolationism, I would argue, is better understood as “the voluntary and general abstention by a state from security-related activity in an area of the international system in which it is capable of action.”

Second, by that standard, isolationism is exceedingly rare. The Chinese in the later Ming Dynasty and, more famously, Japan in the Tokugawa era, fit the description quite well; America never has—not even in the interwar period—and true isolationists are scarce. The fight over ratification of the Treaty of Versailles was overwhelmingly a fight between unilateralists and multilateralists. Each commanded widespread support, but neither could muster the two-thirds majority needed for Senate ratification. American unwillingness to stand up to Hitler in the late 1930s was the result of a widespread perception that Germany posed little threat: When, to nearly everyone’s surprise, France fell in 1940, American isolationist sentiment all but disappeared, and defense appropriations, initially set at $1.7 billion, skyrocketed to $10.5 billion.

With those facts in mind, I would make a radical, and intentionally provocative, argument: Isolationism rarely if ever deserves a place in the analysis of American foreign policy. “Isolationist” is a term that, by virtue of its persistent imprecision, obscures more than it reveals. By blurring the line between a lack of desire for a certain kind of action and a lack of desire for any kind of action, it distorts our descriptions and skews our inferences. We are far better off utilizing a range of questions to determine, not whether the public is internationalist or isolationist in general, but rather, what costs they would be willing to bear to achieve a particular foreign policy objective and how easy or difficult they think it would be to achieve it.

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Getting More Development Bang for Your Foreign Assistance Buck

Below is a guest post by Brad Parks and Zach Rice from Aiddata and William and Mary. They discuss results from a survey of 640 Policymakers and Practitioners in 100 Developing Countries (edit: survey is here).


Wealthy countries and international organizations have created a wide range of policy instruments—incentive-based aid programs, moral suasion tools, and financial sanctions—to spur and sustain reform efforts in developing countries. The Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative make the provision of large-scale debt relief conditional upon the implementation of macroeconomic and public financial management reforms. The U.S. Government’s Millennium Challenge Account provides additional financial assistance to countries that meet certain eligibility conditions, such as the adoption of liberal economic policies and the administration of free, fair, and regular elections. The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the African Development Bank, and the Global Environment Facility have introduced similar performance-based resource allocation formulae. Governments and international organizations also lean heavily on moral suasion tools, such as the World Bank’s Doing Business Report and the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. However, there is relatively little evidence about the conditions under which these policy instruments are most effective.

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