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Many commentators have argued that neo-conservative intellectuals close to the Bush administration conceived the war in Iraq. Now it is clear the conflict has not progressed as expected, critics have questioned whether diplomatic savants are suited to make foreign policy or to direct wars. Senior military personnel – mostly retired – have also publicly begun to question not just the policies bequeathed by the so-called defence intellectuals but also the civilian leadership of the defence establishment.

Are the generals correct in their criticism of US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s arrogance? Is Francis Fukuyama, the author and intellectual, partly responsible for the war in Iraq? What does the past tell us about the role of public intellectuals and the military in policy formation? Their history in the cold war offers several instructive lessons for the present.

One of the more curious stories is that of George Kennan. In 1947, Kennan became the first modern thinker in residence in the State Department after publishing a famous essay, The Sources of Soviet Conduct. Creating the policy for the “containment” of Russia, Kennan 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 counter force” to oppose a wicked ideology around the globe.

But these were ideas in which Kennan himself barely believed. In his memoirs, he lamented the careless statement of his views, and said his writing resembled that of the strident right he so detested. Perhaps more important, Dean Acheson, who became secretary of state to Harry Truman in 1949, quickly relieved Kennan of his job. Acheson, the architect of early US cold war policies, said Kennan had an “abstract” sense of the national interest and a “Quaker gospel”. Kennan had a “mystical attitude” toward the realities of power, wrote Acheson, “which he did not understand”.

Other intellectuals who took a harder line than Kennan were equally oblivious to the jugular of international politics. During the 1950s, scholars in the Rand Corporation, the US air force think-tank, were influential in advising Democrats during the Republican administration of former general Dwight Eisenhower. Rand repeatedly urged increases in the US arsenal. Eisenhower fought these “theologians of nuclear war” for most of his presidency. Eisenhower, who had after all led the western assault on the Nazis and had extricated the US from Korea, said specifically that he did not want “a lot of long-haired professors” to examine nuclear policy. “What the hell do they know about it?” he exclaimed.

When Democrats took back the White House in 1961, many of the Rand thinkers went to Washington as assistants to Robert McNamara in the defence department. When the Vietnam war went awry, the military spoke out against McNamara and his “whizz-kids.” In 1967, the top brass helped push McNamara out of his job. Like the US generals of the Vietnam era, many historians have blamed the foreign policy wizards for the Vietnam debacle, and they are a tempting target. The civilian strategists advocated the “graduated incrementalism” that bec-ame the hallmark of the failed US policies in south-east Asia. The policy prolonged the war in tit-for-tat escalations.

But decision-making was more complex. Lyndon Johnson never wanted to make Vietnam a priority. His “Great Society” domestic programme was his main concern. Moreover, Johnson feared Russian or Chinese intervention should he be too belligerent. The fragility of the government of South Vietnam meant Washington had to move cautiously. Military logistics finally precluded the army from a rapid mass deployment of troops.

Johnson was uncertainly committed to Vietnam, and for any number of reasons he and the generals were only going to take America to war bit by bit. In the academic world, a man might make a career in a major university with a theory of graduated escalation – or of flexible response, or sustained reprisal, or controlled escalation, war-fighting or counterforce – or even quasi-guerrilla action. But in Washington, these principles all boiled down to going slow, and one or all of them might serve as a rationale for what would have been done on other grounds. Intellectual strategists in the 1960s merely provided the president and his military with a respectable label for what occurred.

Like other people, politicians elaborated a moral narrative in which their choices cohered. Policymakers did what they wanted, though they had to come up with acceptable explanations for it. Defence intellectuals provided that talk. There is little evidence that the authority of intellectuals was benign during the cold war. More importantly, they often had little authority at all. Men of mind often served to legitimise but not to energise politics. They usually offered up self-justifying chatter to the powerful. Sometimes they displayed a tin ear for politics, and lacked elementary political sense. Defence department academics often substituted what they learnt in the seminar room for what only instinct and experience could teach.

We should still acknowledge the benefits of advice from people of knowledge. But we must also remember that the universities that spawn the policy intellectuals are often havens for those whose sense of the world beyond the ivory tower is constricted. There must be a presumption against placing scholars in positions of real power. Un­elected intellectuals should not be making decisions that belong to elected officials. We should also favour statesmen whom we have reason to believe will not be beguiled by fancy phrases. In America, we are better off with Eisenhowers than Johnsons.

None of this means, however, that neo-conservative intellectuals are responsible for the war in Iraq or that the military ought to be making policy. The choice to go to war made by the president and his civilian deputies, such as Mr Rumsfeld, and it is more likely that the civilian strategists around the Bush administration served up verbiage for policies adopted on less cerebral grounds. When Mr Fukuyama recently recanted these sorts of doctrinal views on foreign affairs, he presumed they were crucial in the actual making of war and diplomacy. But cold war history suggests Mr Fukuyama has puffed up his own importance as an intellectual. We need to remember that politicians outrank scholars. We should also recall that in our democracies the military has a constitutional obligation to keep its mouth shut and take orders. If the generals want to make policy, they should get themselves elected to office, as did Eisenhower.

The writer, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, is author of Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger (Princeton University Press)

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