Pentagon Priorities and the Minerva Program

John Tirman, MIT Center for International Studies

The Defense Department’s Minerva program stirs many interesting debates, and among them should be what the program says about the government’s assessment of security threats to the United States. It is not a satisfying picture.

Of the five major program interests articulated by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the program guidelines, three of them focus on areas that are either irrelevant to national security or framed in ways that are likely to render the research results irrelevant or redundant. One program, on China, is broad based but still raises niggling doubts. The fifth, an essentially open category, has its problems, too. Let’s look at each of them.

Three of the five are on terrorism, and this is the main source of trouble. The first of these is on “the strategic impact of religious and cultural changes within the Islamic world.” This assumes that religion is a proximate cause of terrorism. The first sentence of the official topic description provides the link: “Current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan highlight the need for a better understanding of the influence of and trends in Islamic and cultural norms … ” A few sentences later, a question is posed: “How can the West better understand the militant madrassah school and radical missionary movements and their messages … ?” Another, separate initiative regards “terrorist organizations and ideologies,” including research on “non-rational decision making” and “belief formation and emotional contagion.”

These two in particular are treading on thin ice. A considerable amount of research has been conducted, much of it via interviews with failed suicide bombers and others accused of violent acts.[1] Most of this does not demonstrate a strong link between religious devotion and a propensity to commit political violence, nor greater likelihood of violence by those attending koranic schools, among other, similar results. The loaded matter of emotional contagion and non-rationality is problematic on many counts, not least in assuming Western decision making is free of such influence; in addition, it assumes weakly that such roots of behavior can be modeled and predictive with respect to political violence. Money from the Defense Department, moreover, will close off many of the most promising avenues of field research because of the apparent taint.

More important is the larger question of whether or not the handful of terrorists worldwide truly constitutes the kind of security threat that warrants this scale of research effort. While there are many quite interesting research questions in the field of terrorism studies, the supposition in Minerva is that these are so important to U.S. security that they consume 60 percent or more of these new, large research funds. (A third program, “Iraqi Perspectives,” is meant to delve into captured Iraqi documents, a significant objective of which is to describe Saddam’s links to terrorism.) At first blush, this looks like another triumph of what John Mueller piquantly calls the “terrorism industry.”[2]

Two other categories are on tap. One is completely open, it seems, and is therefore unreadable as a set of priorities. It is admirable that DoD has this, but will be even more interesting to see what is eventually funded. The fifth is on Chinese military and technology development. New Chinese documents will be made available to scholars, with the hope that broad trends in Chinese military thinking and strategy will be discerned as a result. It may constitute a new Kremlinology, which had been stirred by the Pentagon in the 1950s, and if it is the harbinger of a new kind of area studies, we should at least take note of the history of such an enterprise.[3] But in its current form, Minerva’s topic on China is an obvious and relatively benign notion — know thy enemy. For example, the request for proposal suggests some lines of inquiry, including “understanding [People’s Liberation Army] perceptions of China’s international role and military needs.” China scholars no doubt welcome more raw material to be made available to them, though the English-language versions apparently are often useless (because of poor translation) and very few scholars would want to do the translations for the archive. If one purpose is to create a larger community of scholars on China and security, now rather thinly populated, more direct ways would be preferable.

China aside, then, the new challenges to American security and interests appear to rest entirely with Muslim malcontents. This is not a plausible concept of actual security threats. I won’t argue some of the obvious points (for example, that the U.S. is creating more terrorists in Iraq than any other font), but merely point out that the transitory menace of political violence is now, as it has always been, a tiny fraction of the magnitude of other threats to our well being. We have a record of what Muslim terrorist organizations can do and have tried to do in the seven years since their one-off spectacle on 9/11. Even the 2006 London airline bombing plot, described as the most serious since 9/11, showed yet again how far away from actual operability such little gangs almost always are. While more damaging actions take place occasionally — Madrid, the London Tube — they are pallid by comparison to our own misdeeds in Iraq (which is what stimulates nearly all these attacks in Europe and elsewhere) or, more to the point, to the kinds of things we should worry about.

And what are these worrisome things? They vary from the quite specific (Iran’s nuclear program) to the very general (climate change). As an in-between objective, let’s consider “democratization,” or, in its threatening form, the lack thereof in authoritarian states on one end of the spectrum and failed states on the other. Considerable amounts of research have delved into authoritarian structures, as there also is with the more recent interest in failed states. But the potential impact of democracy building to transform either has largely gone begging as a research topic, even as it has become a cardinal element of U.S. foreign policy and is likely to persist as such for some years to come.[4]

Consider other possible priorities. A putative threat like Iran’s nuclear development could stir a useful set of inquiries about diplomatic innovations to contain would-be nuclear weapons states. The immigration imbroglio of 2007 might have convinced Minerva managers to propose how vast migrations from the global south affect everything from physical security to social security, presenting challenges to national identities, integration, and (in the sending countries) sustainability. The chronic violence in “post-conflict” societies might spark curiosity about why that is and what could prevent it. HIV/AIDS and other epidemical diseases can spur a political contagion of instability, as sudden and high mortality afflicts societies unable to cope or recover, yet relatively little is known about the actual social dissolution caused by disease or the potential and broader threats should the disease conditions worsen. Virtually the identical shortcomings in knowledge about climate change are apparent — the actual effects socially, politically, and economically at certain stages of warming are now a matter of nearly pure speculation.

Another recent development that goes nearly unnoticed in research funding: the rise of oil and gas prices worldwide has earned newspaper coverage of the pain and suffering of American consumers, but the impact of the precipitous price hikes on developing countries is not well known. Add to that the related crisis in food prices and distribution, and one has the recipe for wholesale disasters that have largely escaped the notice of U.S. elites. While recent in its current form, such crises have been brewing for many years. Food security, education, and health (as well as and economic stability generally) were buffeted by the World Bank’s and IMF’s structural adjustment policies (SAPs) in the 1980s and 1990s; bilateral conditions on aid often insisted on privatization as well. Privatization of land and other agricultural assets disrupted traditional farming and animal husbandry, while other policies undermined local farming. Health systems were also undercut by SAPs, either by insisting that state assets and budgets be reduced, or by pushing privatization (occurring simultaneously with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, undercutting local and national efforts at prevention). These policies not only failed to a significant degree, but likely contributed to conflict, as economic reform and political reform often were pushed on third world countries without sufficient attention to their destabilizing effects. Yet the academic literature on this debacle is sorely malnourished, for a variety of reasons, and we simply do not know enough to draw correlations, build knowledge, and inform policy.

So we have right before our eyes the simmering (if not exploding) mixture of instabilities that do indeed create threats to the United States and its allies, in addition to whatever tragedies beset the billions of people directly afflicted. Why are some of these matters not front and center on the Minerva docket? The simple answer is because they aren’t perceived as imminent threats to Americans — they are remote and they are in some sense eternal (contemporary versions of the Four Horsemen). They are, some of them, quite complex — all the more reason to marshal large-scale research consortia and Minerva’s admirable emphasis on interdisciplinary work and field-based studies. But another answer is that they involve past or present U.S. policies that in some major ways are responsible for the problems themselves, or the lack of an adequate response to them. The combination of this remoteness, complexity, and culpability places all of them in the dustbin of Pentagon concern.

Yet each and every one mentioned above is, in my judgment, far more serious than terrorism. It is essentially an American solipsism that is driving this definition of threats. In this, then, Minerva is a missed opportunity on a massive scale — investing heavily in the irrelevant or minor, ignoring the monumental and urgent.


[1] See, for example, Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) and Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2006); Jeroen Gunning, Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence (Hurst, 2008), among many others.

[2] John Mueller, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (Free Press, 2006).

[3] On this see Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Unintended consequences of Cold War Area Studies,” in Andre Schiffrin, ed., The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years (New Press, 1997); and Peter J. Katzenstein, “Area and Regional Studies in the United States,” PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Dec., 2001), pp. 789-791.

[4] I was dumbstruck a few years back when a government official came to SSRC to ask us to undertake an evaluation of democratization programs, which, she said, had never been evaluated systematically. The subsequent discussion among some scholars made it clear that such assessments, even understanding what democratization is, required serious attention among scholars as well.

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