Walt: Townhall Crazies Worse than Taliban?

Okay, my heading is definitely sensationalist, but over at Stephen Walt’s FP blog, he has two recent posts that should really get people questioning the blinders that go hand in hand with committing oneself to a particular IR theory.

Last Friday, he wondered about the international implications of the messy healthcare debate going on in the U.S. this August.  Walt wrote, “When I see some of these folks in action, even a realist like me begins to question the validity of the ‘rational actor’ assumption.”  Whenever a realist talks that way, it grabs my attention.   And he’s right, but then of course, that’s why I’m not a committed realist and why I am a fan of behavioral economics and any discipline embracing advances in psychology. 

But then Tuesday,  Walt really stirred up a debate by questioning the “safe haven” argument for the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan.  He made a number of points, but one in particular relied on the assumption that the Taliban, if it were to regain control of the country or a significant portion of it, would act rationally.  Essentially, Taliban leaders would be unlikely to provide extensive refuge to al-Qaeda because they would be assured of military defeat, just like after 9/11. 

On FP’s new AfPak channel, two scholars– Peter Berg and Paul Cruickshank– quickly pounced on Walt’s post.  It’s remarkable how similar their rebuttals of Walt’s six major points are, and I think it’s fair to say that they demolished his argument.   Both emphasized, however, that neither history nor current trends give credence to the notion that the Taliban should be considered a rational actor in any future scenario. 

I think another of Walt’s points demonstrates not merely a problem with realism but with the exercise of analyzing current events through a single theoretical prism.  Simplifying for the sake of modeling is not what I’m attacking.  It’s necessary in economics, IR, and other fields.  But when applying a model to a given topic, an analyst has to be careful not to force departures from the model to fit.  Walt was not with his first point, that the Taliban was not, is not, and will not likely be an ideologically unified force.  Both responses to Walt emphasized that the current trend among the Taliban fighters is unification, exactly the opposite.  Walt ignored this. 

Challenging widely accepted notions of strategy is a valuable exercise to force policymakers to rethink and defend foundational assumptions.  I made an effort, though admittedly not one from an expert, to do that with respect to the administration’s Russia/Ukraine/Georgia strategies. But it becomes something entirely different when a scholar overplays his hand.  It becomes advocacy. 

My final question, though, is this.  Do realists live up to the rational actor assumption if uninformed, screaming Americans receive more skeptical treatment than the Taliban? This week, at least, Stephen Walt didn’t make a great case in the affirmative.

Photo from CNN.


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