Professor Richard H. Immerman

It’s hard for me to accept that a semester has passed since my return from London. Then again, it’s growing harder for me to remember my stay there. That’s sad. Yet there’s a positive side as well. Fall was so busy, and the weeks flew by so rapidly, that the events of last spring receded to the distant past. Because of CENFAD’s responsibility for so much of the busy-ness, I interpret my fading memory as a good thing. Not only did we resume our series of colloquia with uniformly outstanding presentations, but also, with Thomas Davis Fellow in Force and Diplomacy Eric Klinek providing yeoman assistance, Regina Gramer and I met with each of our Faculty Associates individually (for the list go to our website and click the “People” tab) to discuss potential subjects for CENFAD research projects and/or for a speaker series. The aim was to identify areas of inquiry that would allow for us to exploit the expertise of particular faculty and graduate students yet engage our collective interests.

I cannot exaggerate how stimulating the experience was for Regina and me. Better yet, we made great strides toward formulating a game plan, albeit one that remains somewhat inchoate. We met as group in November to debate, discuss, and refine a variety of possibilities. At the end we reached a consensus on pursuing two. Beth Bailey and Jay Lockenour will co-direct a project that will go by the title “Transforming Militaries in Democratic Social Orders,” or “Soldiering and Citizenship in Post ’45 Democracies,” or “Soldiering, Citizenship, and State Power.” We still have a number of t’s to cross, but you can get the gist. Petra Goedde, Todd Shepard, and I will take the responsibility for organizing a series of speakers on “Comparative Empires,” broadly defined. Intersecting both these projects will be the International History Workshop. Will Hitchcock has defined this year’s topic as “Occupation/Liberation” and already lined up some amazing participants. You will be hearing about these programs over the next months as each evolves. We are very excited.

Of course CENFAD was not the sole reason the fall months were so full. There was the national election, and what an election it was. 2006 was one of the rare instances in U.S. history when foreign policy played a pivotal role in an off-year election. Sure there was scandal, corruption, and rising prices at the gas pump. But looming above everything was Iraq. For that reason many of us at CENFAD spent more time than we could afford answering questions from the media. Some of the questioners were quite good. My personal favorite was a reporter from Boston whose query regarding the pros and cons of bargaining with bad guys (i.e., Iran and Syria) provoked my holding forth on America’s secret negotiations with the People’s Republic of China during the 1950s and 1960s. The reporter was surprised; she did not know about these talks. She wondered out loud whether Bush did.

I am frequently asked (granted, mostly by members of family) why my “expertise,” and that of my colleagues, is solicited by the media but not by the White House or State Department. In keeping with the spirit of the question, I try to answer with something beyond an awkward shrug. I fall back on my profession as a historian. My study of the past informs my perspective and assessment of the present. Still, I don’t study the present. I cede the arena of contemporary events to political scientists, whose scholarship tends more toward the instrumental and prescriptive.

I have always felt that this response is a little disingenuous. It’s absolutely true. Nevertheless, on occasion historians do advise presidents, secretaries of state and defense, and others who directly influence and even make policy. What is more, I have tried to offer my advice, although I concede no one asked for it. In fall 2000 I co-authored with Fred Greenstein (who is a political scientist) an article published in Political Science Quarterly (a journal more likely to be read by the public policy community than, say, the Journal of American History). Entitled “Effective National Security Advising,” its goal was to “enhance the ability of the new administration [regardless of who was president; we timed the article to appear shortly before the election, a serious miscalculation considering it took the Supreme Court to determine the outcome long after the polls closed] to structure its [national security] operations in a productive manner.” In light of the “global demands of a new century,” we wrote at the time, “it is crucial to establish priorities and minimize the danger of being caught flat-footed by emerging developments.”

Not surprisingly given the authors, for this purpose we recommended an advisory mechanism modeled after Dwight D. Eisenhower. Not surprisingly given its author, in a rejoinder Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. criticized our recommendation and presented John Kennedy’s administration as a better model. There is no need to reopen the debate. But I have been thinking about this exchange a lot since “emerging developments” in Iraq and elsewhere so gravely degraded U.S. national security that they contributed significantly to the Republican loss of both houses of Congress. I have been thinking about it more than a lot in the aftermath of the release of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report and the Bush’s administration’s hasty effort to gain competing perspectives from other sources (which included a meeting with Stephen Biddle, who spoke at our CENFAD colloquium last year). Had Bush accepted the Immerman-Greenstein advice, or for that matter Schlesinger’s, he would have put in place a system to provide him with this kind of, and I’d wager much “better,” advice at the beginning of his first term. Only now, half-way through his second term and with America’s security interests in incalculable danger, is he making a haphazard effort. And so public is this effort that it certainly raises suspicions that Bush has politicized the policy review process much as he did the intelligence collection and analysis process previously. “Effective National Security Advising” highlighted the Solarium exercise. Simply an awareness of what it was could, or should, have deterred Bush from outsourcing his strategy review. What do Sandra Day O’Connor and Vernon Jordon know about strategy anyway?

A good advisory system doesn’t guarantee good decisions. But history shows that a bad one almost guarantees bad decisions. George Bush, like all presidents, can learn much from historians. Like most presidents, he cherry picks his history (e.g., his current references to Harry Truman). Bush claimed the mantle of “decider,” but he lacked the information to make a good (meaning informed) decision. Now there are no longer any good decisions to make.