Bruce Kuklick: Presidents often lean on intellectuals for advice. But history says that's not always so smart.

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Bruce Kuklick, BRUCE KUKLICK is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the new book "Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War From Kennan to Kissinger."]

NO ONE HAS RECEIVED as much attention — or blame — for Washington's increasingly unpopular war in Iraq as the coterie of neoconservative intellectuals around President Bush.

The group — including the cerebral former deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, and such bookish colleagues as Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and Elliott Abrams — has been widely denounced for naively believing that Saddam Hussein's ouster would lead to Middle East democracy, for arguing that the road to peace between Israel and the Palestinians "runs through Baghdad" and for encouraging Iraqi and Palestinian elections that in retrospect seemed destined to lead to the victory of radicals and Islamic fundamentalists.

If these guys are so smart, their critics want to know, how did they get it so wrong?

But, in fact, Wolfowitz and his colleagues are part of a long tradition. Since the end of World War II, successive White Houses have repeatedly brought in intellectuals and scholars to provide thoughtful moral and theoretical underpinnings for foreign policy decisions — and the experience through the years has been a mixed one at best.

George Kennan, the brilliant young Sovietologist, was the first, immediately after WWII, and he was followed in subsequent years by, among others, the scholars affiliated with the Rand Corp. in the 1950s; President Kennedy's "best and the brightest" — including McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara and Walt Rostow — in the 1960s; and, of course, the famous house intellectual of the Nixon-Ford years, Henry Kissinger.

Although they generally professed deep understanding, these intellectuals who arrived in Washington with the imprimatur of the nation's greatest universities and think tanks often found themselves groping in the dark. Much of the time, fashion was more important to their thinking than validity, and often they lacked elemental political common sense.

All too often, they articulated ideas designed to exculpate policymakers — or themselves — or to provide politicians with the fictions that could be used to give meaning to policies for the public. It's no contradiction to say that they also, in some administrations, had little actual effect on policy — or less, in any case, than was widely believed.

One of the earliest and most curious cases is that of Kennan. In 1947, at the age of 45, Kennan became the first modern intellectual in residence in the Department of State after publishing his famous article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," which ran in Foreign Affairs under the anonymous byline "X."

The article painted a lurid picture of the pathological mental world of the Russian leadership, foretold a worldwide struggle between the West and communism and advocated "unalterable counterforce" to oppose a wicked ideology around the globe. As the creator of the Democratic Party's guidelines for the "containment" of Russia, Kennan became head of the planning staff in the department, a new position designed specifically for a thinker on foreign policy.

But the ideas that got him his job, it later turned out, were ones that Kennan himself barely believed. In his memoirs, he lamented the careless statement of his views and said his writing sounded like that of the strident right wing, which he detested. ...

In the long period of the Cold War, there is little evidence that the authority of intellectuals was benign. They usually offered up self-justifying chatter to the powerful. Sometimes they displayed a tin ear for politics and lacked elementary political sense. Academics in the corridors of the Defense Department often substituted what they learned in the seminar room for what only instinct, experience and savvy could teach.

One thing they did not lack was hubris. Scholarly strategists always thought that their education and expertise made them immune from error.

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Randll Reese Besch - 5/20/2006

Seems to me it was facade over substance to maintain position with the monied and powerful over actually doing the job. Studying the subjects,from all sides,making the judgments even if it was wildly unpopular with the leadership.
When the CIA was correct about the data on IRAQ concering weapons the Bush/Cheney axis funneled it through their own propoganda mill to recieve an answer to their liking. We see the results.Human emotions are a factor.