Thursday, August 4, 2016

Bah to a Council of Historians

Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson have an op-ed in the Atlantic calling for the president to appoint a Council of Historians. Hey, he has a council of economists, so why not? Well, for one thing, one of the authors is Niall Ferguson, who knows a lot about history but so far as I can tell is wrong about everything in contemporary politics. For another, they dwell on how ignorant most presidents are about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am on record as saying that the last thing the peace process needs is more dwelling on the past, and recommending that we find a mediator who knows nothing about the region at all.

They say things like this:
In 2003, to take one example, when President George W. Bush chose to topple Saddam Hussein, he did not appear to fully appreciate either the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or the significance of the fact that Saddam’s regime was led by a Sunni minority that had suppressed the Shiite majority. He failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of his actions would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East—Iran.
Really? I was a vocal opponent of Bush's invasion and I read every argument against it I could put my hands on, and my memory is that "experts" disagreed vehemently about the significance of the Sunni-Shiite divide. Some thought it would explode, but others called that old-fashioned colonial thinking and said the more sophisticated people of Baghdad had moved beyond it. There absolutely was no consensus among Middle Eastern historians and other experts that deposing Saddam would lead to a worsening Sunni-Shiite conflict.

More:
Start with the issue that the president and his national-security team have been struggling with most: ISIS. Recent statements indicate that the administration tends to see ISIS as essentially a new version of al-Qaeda, and that a top goal of U.S. national-security policy is to decapitate it as al-Qaeda was decapitated with Osama bin Laden’s assassination. But history suggests that ISIS is quite different in structure from al-Qaeda and may even be a classic acephalous network. When we searched for historical analogues to ISIS, we came up with some 50 groups that were similarly brutal, fanatical, and purpose-driven, including the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution.
Interesting, but I posted here a completely different analysis of the historical analogs of the Islamic State that focused on anti-colonial revolts like that of the Mahdi in the Sudan. Maybe Allison and Ferguson's analogies are better, maybe not. Which historical events provide parallel cases to each other is one of the topics on which historians never agree.

An even worse problem with relying on advice from historians is that most of them are too ideological to be trustworthy. All social scientists have this weakness; as soon as partisan politics rears its head, they toss empiricism aside and start talking nonsense like the Laffer Curve. Actually that isn't fair, there are lots of issues on which most economists (and most historians, and even on a few issues most sociologists) agree because they are firmly founded in fact. But there is always somebody who disagrees. And since Presidents will generally take the advice they find most congenial, they can always find some expert to endorse their own preferences.

Obviously I think our policies would benefit from a proper understanding of history; I write about these issues all the time. I just don't really trust the historical profession to provide useful advice about the big problems facing us. We just don't agree on enough.

6 comments:

Shadow Flutter said...

I'm all for a Council of Historians. It's something else the left and right can argue over while the president ignores them all. And, you know, just because it's a Council of Historians doesn't mean we have to appoint historians to it, right? Also, this way every identity group has an official place to lodge complaints when the Council of Historians has given their culture short shrift, which will be, like, always and ever.

Scratch that. Let's create a Council of Really Smart People. Journalists can keep us informed by seeking answers from the Council of Really Smart People. Every night the news anchor can say, and now let's hear what the Council of Really Smart People has to say about the latest crisis.

I think we should load up on councils and czars until the the Executive Building explodes from trying to fit to many expanding egos into a finite space.

G. Verloren said...

@Shadow Flutter

So what's the magic number of presidential advisors in your view? How many egos is too many, and how many is too few?

And why is it when it comes to things like voting for president, every single citizen's ego counts no matter how ignorant or demented they are, but when it comes to having that president pick people they trust to give them useful advice, suddenly we're concerned about too many egos being involved? Shouldn't that decision be up to the president, and the amount of input from others they personally are comfortable with?

And what's with America today and the popular hatred of experts? Why is it that the more experienced and knowledgeable someone is in their chosen field, the less many people want to trust them? Why do so many people recoil at the thought of a lawyer running for office, but then have no qualms about electing actors and wrestlers? Why is it preferable to be an "outsider" with no experience, rather than an established and proven veteran in a given field?

If we picked our brain surgeons the way we pick our politicians, the medical industry would be full of quacks rapidly piling up corpses and then shifting the blame to their personal rivals - or more likely to the "meddling" of "big government" via all those onerous regulations which clearly only exist to get in the way of honest, hard working, salt of the earth, regular Joes trying to make a living in the medical industry. We don't need fancy degrees and elitist intellectuals mucking up old fashioned, tried and true, traditional medicine! Now fetch me another hagstone and some more leeches, I've got work to do!

pithom said...

"I am on record as saying that the last thing the peace process needs is more dwelling on the past, and recommending that we find a mediator who knows nothing about the region at all."

-This is a recipe for a retread of all the old mistakes. Historical context is necessary for understanding the conflict and its potential resolution, to prevent old mistakes from being created anew. If someone knows nothing about the region, he'll offend both sides and solve no problem.

The Laffer Curve is not nonsense except to economic ignoramuses. The U.S. has more tax revenue per capita than the UK or Italy.

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2016/05/its_hard_to_rai.html

pithom said...

"And what's with America today and the popular hatred of experts?"

-There's "experts" and there's "experts".

Maybe it's because the people who most listen to them vote for people calling for much greater confrontation with Russia and the Syrian government like Rubio, Clinton, and Kasich, while less educated White Republicans generally voted for Trump, who rejects both these stupid doctrines.

"Why is it that the more experienced and knowledgeable someone is in their chosen field, the less many people want to trust them?"

-James Buchanan

"Why do so many people recoil at the thought of a lawyer running for office, but then have no qualms about electing actors and wrestlers?"

-Being a lawyer is a scummy field, the way acting and pro-wrestling isn't.

"Why is it preferable to be an "outsider" with no experience, rather than an established and proven veteran in a given field?"

-"Proven" at creating destruction, disaster, and overwhelming everyday Americans.

"We don't need fancy degrees and elitist intellectuals mucking up old fashioned, tried and true, traditional medicine!"

-Neither medicine nor politics are sciences. There can be such a thing as science-based medicine. The closest resemblance to science-based politics in the world today is Singapore. The USSR once had "scientific socialism", but that failed, and Singapore's system survived, and continues to survive to this day. Is it obviously superior to the American? Not that I can see. Despite a lower average IQ of its inhabitants, New York City is richer than Singapore, and was so since the 18th century.

A solid 50% of U.S. respondents could not answer more than one out of five basic questions about U.S. politics.

http://www.gallup.com/poll/185912/americans-know-congress-worse-rate.aspx

Shadow Flutter said...

Oh, Verloren, I'm just having a little fun.

David said...

A Council of Historians? Well, what do you do when you're Niall Ferguson and have tenure at Harvard, a no desire to be a university president? This sounds like an effort by a couple of overachievers to create another rung for them to climb.

I'm a little bemused, too, by the implied characterization of the Bolsheviks as an "acephalous" network.