The Role of 'Experts' in US Foreign Policy

DURING the months of the Gulf crisis and the war, President Bush and his advisers seem rarely to have sought or listened to the advice of Americans who, through living, working, and studying in the region, have direct experience in the Middle East. The circumstances of this crisis illustrate the extreme difficulty of establishing a dialogue between the policymaker and the regional "expert" in Washington. Such a problem occurs because presidents and experts have different considerations and objectives. Presidents think in domestic, political, and global terms. In the case of the Gulf crisis, Bush wanted to be certain that he was seen as a strong leader. Beyond that, he was concerned with the maintenance of a fragile coalition, including Arab and European allies, and the management of the relationship with the Soviet Union. The president saw the crisis less against the backdrop of the Middle East than of World War II; there was to be no "Munich" in the face of another "Hitler."

It is now increasingly clear that from the beginning the administration concluded that the crisis would be resolved not through diplomatic action, where experts can play a role, but through military power that would alter the previous realities of the region.

Against this single-minded, action-oriented attitude in the administration, the views of those knowledgeable about the area appeared mixed and inhibiting. Their voices, if the past is any guide, may also have included persons in the official intelligence community who may have counseled patience. In such cases, intelligence failures come, not from lack of available information or accurate assessments, but from the rejection of such data and projections by higher officials with different priorities and a different mind-set.

Outside the government, the assessments of former officials and scholars of a region such as the Middle East are varied. They depend upon where a person has lived and worked and the nature of contacts that person has had in a society. Among those familiar with the Arab world, however, some common views existed: that, although Saddam was ruthless and unpredictable, Iraq had justifiable grievances against Kuwait; that a Western-led war could cause serious damage to US interests; and that, in any resolutio n of the crisis, some link with the Palestine issue was inevitable.

To those who saw an opportunity for the United States to exhibit its power, however, such assessments represented unwarranted qualifiers of what was seen as an issue of good versus evil. To the small circle of policymakers in Washington, the insistence of some experts that negotiations should be tried that might include some recognition of Iraq's grievances and of the Palestine issue appeared not only as folly in domestic political terms, but smacked, as well, of advocacy for the enemy and appeasement. Some advisers to the president have commented openly that, had the administration listened to "experts," the US would not have had its great success.

Further, US presidents have traditionally paid more attention to the voices of friends in power than to those scholars and diplomats who warn of contrary attitudes beneath the surface. To the administration, the credible views were those of the Arab coalition partners, especially the Saudi Arabians, who felt directly threatened by Saddam. In their eagerness to have the US force an Iraqi withdrawal, the Saudis and the Kuwaitis, in particular, reversed their prewar caution, discounted the predictions of s erious trouble, and encouraged the administration's perception of the issue.

In the post-crisis period, new opportunities should arise for conversations between the government and the community of Middle East specialists. The experts must present specific ideas that have a chance to be acceptable domestically in the US and among the parties at conflict in the region; some hard thinking about such proposals is already taking place among experienced scholars in the Brookings Institution and elsewhere. But, for their part, the administration must also exhibit a willingness to put a side the innate skepticism toward regional specialists and listen seriously to those who have lived and worked in this volatile but critical region.

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