Prelude: What to Expect in This Space

August 11, 2010 Topic: Public OpinionPolitics Region: North AmericaUnited StatesAmericas Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Prelude: What to Expect in This Space

The musings of a seasoned former NIO: perspectives that have been too often overlooked, considerations that have not been sufficiently weighed, and questions that have not been adequately answered or even asked.

Welcome. Thank you for being present at the beginning of this blog. (And thanks to Justine Rosenthal and the editors of the National Interest for furnishing the space and inviting me to fill it.) I want to describe some of what you should expect to read in this space.

It is easiest to specify what this blog will not seek to do. It will not promote any one doctrine. It will not sell any one identifiable ism or ideology. Others may categorize the content as characteristic of this or that school of policy analysis, and some such categorization may be valid. But my purpose is not to advance any particular school.

What I write is definitely not partisan. I spent most of my working life as an intelligence officer, steeped in the professional tenet of eschewing policy preference in deference to whoever were the policymakers of the day, and absolutely eschewing anything that constituted partisan preference. Some of my old habits as a civil servant have died hard. While in government service the only political act permitted under the Hatch Act that I ever performed was to vote (and I have never disclosed how I have voted, except perhaps to my wife). Five years after retiring from government service, it still is the only political act I ever have performed. I have never been involved with any political party, candidate, or campaign. I have declined all invitations to become involved in political campaigns, largely to preserve the principle that everything I say and write reflects solely my own thinking and is not a vehicle for advancing any partisan interests.

The partisanship that infects so much debate and discussion about national policy will sometimes be a target of critical comment in this blog. I always will try to see through the partisanship, and sometimes will specifically point it out. This goes not only for matters on which the two major parties have seen political advantage in taking different positions, but also for subjects where the same seeking of political advantage has led them to take the same position. Some of the most destructive policies have been propelled at least in part by such politically motivated bandwagoning.    

I write specifically and unapologetically from the perspective of what is in the national interest of the United States—appropriate, perhaps, for something on the website of an American journal called the National Interest. I take this perspective because I am a citizen of the United States and because national policy set in Washington has the most effect on the situations and events in which I am most interested and about which I write the most. Although the interests of different segments of U.S. citizenry often diverge, I do not seek to promote the interests of any one segment. And although U.S. national interests often converge with those of other nations, I have no interest in promoting the interests of any nation other than the United States.

A focus on U.S. national interests does not mean inattention to values that extend beyond the United States or insensitivity to the perspectives and interests of other nations and peoples. Indeed, such insensitivity has been an ingredient in some bad U.S. policies. A proper regard for broader, not just American, values and interests is itself in the U.S. national interest.

I have a nose for the unavoidable trade-offs—the conflicts among values and objectives that individually are laudable—that abound in the subjects in which I am most interested.  Often the value I hope to add to a debate is to highlight those trade-offs. I sometimes will be less interested in arguing about what is the best solution to a problem than in pointing out the drawbacks of even the best course of action.

I especially seek to offer perspectives that have been too often overlooked, considerations that have not been sufficiently weighed, and questions that have not been adequately answered or even asked. I do so as an analyst rather than an advocate, but I will state the policy implications of the analysis, which of course necessarily becomes a form of advocacy.

The collected postings on this blog will not add up to a comprehensive body of thought that covers all the important bases pertinent to the topics it addresses. If I leave something unsaid it is not necessarily because I do not support it, do not believe it, or do not consider it important. It may just be that enough other people already are saying it, and I see little value in adding one more voice to a chorus. In this respect my approach will sometimes seem contrarian. My principal criterion in deciding whether to say something is whether it will make the overall public discussion of a subject marginally more insightful and informed, not whether it makes my tiny portion of that discussion able to stand on its own.

The subjects I address will naturally reflect my professional and intellectual background, which includes training as a political scientist (and international relations generalist) and responsibilities in public service that focused on Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs, counterterrorism, and other strategic and political/military issues. I hold opinions, sometimes strong ones, on numerous other topics, but I would consider it an abuse of this space to stray far and often into areas where whatever I have to say would be simple pontification more than expert commentary.

My main measure of success will be less the number of converts to my point of view than the number who say to themselves “that’s a perspective worth considering” or “I hadn’t looked at that subject that way before.” I expect writing this blog will be both an act of self-discipline and a learning experience for myself. I hope you will read enough here that will sufficiently stimulate, educate, challenge, and even provoke you to make it worthwhile to tune in.