A Professional Update and Some Thoughts on the Two-Body Problem in Academia

As of today, August 20, I have a new position – Visiting Assistant Professor at Miami University of Ohio, with a joint appointment in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Comparative Religion. I am thrilled to be joining one of the country’s leading universities and I am excited to work across two disciplines, especially given that my own research seeks more and more to speak to debates in Political Science.

I will deeply miss Georgetown University’s African Studies Program, where I spent four wonderful years as a Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP). My colleagues and students there were truly fantastic.

I am joining Miami as a spousal hire in connection with my wife, who was offered a tenure-track position there. Given that some readers may also be confronting academia’s famous “two-body problem,” I thought it would be relevant to say a little about our path.

As a first note, I should say that we very much wanted to live together after we got married and we were willing to prioritize that over other concerns. That became doubly true after our son was born; neither of us wants to live apart from him. Other couples may make different choices.

It’s also worth saying that I have never been offered a tenure-track position by any institution, and I always urged my wife not to leave her tenure-track positions, given how rare and precious those have become. So we never had to pick between two, mutually exclusive tenure-track jobs. Perhaps that has been a blessing in disguise. Even in that situation, though, I like to think I would prioritize togetherness over a job.

In any case, in chronological order, we went through the following steps:

  • Long-distance dating before we got married (2013-2015), with her at Saint Louis University (first as a VAP, then on a tenure-track line) and me at the State Department on a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship (2013-2014) and then at Georgetown as a VAP (2014-2015);
  • Living together while married, first with her spending a writing sabbatical in Washington (Fall 2015) while I continued to teach at Georgetown (where I had a three-year contract, which was eventually renewed), and then living together in Saint Louis while I commuted to Georgetown (calendar year 2016);
  • Living together with no commuting after our son was born, first with me on an unpaid paternity leave in Saint Louis (Spring 2017) and then all three of us together in Washington while my wife and I did one-year fellowships (Summer 2017-Summer 2018). During that time I was still on the faculty at Georgetown but I effectively stopped teaching there in December 2016;
  • Living together with jobs in the same city (starting now).

We hope that eventually we will have two tenure-track jobs together at the same institution (preferably at Miami) or at least in the same area.

All of this, of course, has come with significant costs:

  • Time: It’s not that fun going on the market every year, for starters, but we felt that we had to do that in order to maximize our chances of living and working together. It’s also not fun moving multiple times in just a few years.
  • Opportunity Costs: All of the time spent on applications (and on moves back and forth from DC to the Midwest) reduced the time we could spend on research, fieldwork, and other forms of collaboration. Also, in coming to Miami my wife lost a bit of the time she had accrued on the tenure clock.
  • Putting down roots and then tearing them out: My wife really loved her job at Saint Louis University and I really loved mine at Georgetown. We are equally thrilled now to be at Miami, but obviously there are some logistical costs to starting over in a new position. Meanwhile, we made a lot of friends at our past institutions whom we now miss dearly. It’s hard to join a community, immerse yourself in it, and then have to leave.
  • Money: Commuting from Saint Louis to Washington was not cheap – during calendar year 2016 I would guess I spent around $20,000 on travel. It was also, obviously, a big financial hit to take an unpaid semester so I could stay home with my wife and infant son in spring 2017. During that period, any extra paid work I took on went to offsetting those costs, meaning I was often fighting just to reach the level of what my salary would have given me under different circumstances. Fortunately I do have regular opportunities to take on outside work; for academics whose work is less relevant to policy-oriented institutions and the private sector, I can’t imagine how one would make up the lost income.

On the other hand, I have found it well worth it to pay those costs – I have been present for many precious moments that would have eluded me had I been in a long-distance marriage or long-distance fatherhood. I also benefited from the tremendous flexibility that Georgetown was willing to offer at various points, and we have now benefited from the great good fortune of getting a spousal hire, an outcome that many peers in our generation have struggled to find. So on the whole, things have steadily gone in the right direction for us, and we are thankful for that.

Far be it from me to offer anyone else advice, but I guess my takeaway would be that for us, not being academic royalty, we had to be creative and patient in trying to get closer to the outcome we wanted. It’s not always fun patching things together semester by semester, but we found that fellowships, leaves, and other short-term options helped us stay together while we sought a longer-term and more stable arrangement. And I think there’s a lot of value in that.


Quick Thoughts on the Cooptation of Peer Review by Think Tanks and Other Quasi-Academic Institutions

There are numerous, perennial debates over peer review within academia, most of which are above my pay grade. Academic peer review, as currently managed and exercised, has a number of serious problems – vicious and destructive reviewers, cumbersome and debilitating processes of submission and re-submission to meet the demands of a shifting cast of editors and reviewers at a single journal, journals that function as essentially closed shops, escalating demands on authors, and so forth.

But I have been thinking about another problem, in some ways external to academia, and that is the cooptation of peer review by other institutions. The core problem, as I see it, is the use of peer review to attach legitimacy to commissioned works that stand no chance of being rejected during the peer review process. In other words, if an institution commissions a paper (and promises payment for it), and then turns it over to internal or external reviewers, but essentially commits to publish the paper no matter what the reviewers say, then we have something less than peer review.

Of course, the reviewers’ comments, criticisms, and suggestions might drastically improve the paper, but if there is no chance of rejection, then it is just “peer input.” I have gone through this process myself with a few papers, and on my CV I do not list them as “peer-reviewed,” even though the commissioning institutions describe them as such. I have also been a reviewer in several such processes.

Admittedly, this can happen within academia too. Special journal issues can function this way, with no real chance of rejection for the papers included in the issue. I would also say that such papers are not fully peer-reviewed and I try to capture this distinction on my CV as well, although perhaps after writing this post I should re-categorize a few things. An even bigger question concerns books – I have to admit that in my experience publishing around ten articles and two books, I’ve found the review process much more “blind” with the articles than with the books, and I’ve found the chances of rejection to be much higher with articles. I do hear stories of book manuscripts being rejected by publishers because of negative readers’ reports, but I think a lot more of the rejection in the book publishing happens at the acquisition editor’s desk than in the review process.

There is something that bothers me much more, though, about non-academic institutions that co-opt peer review without any real risk of rejection for authors. The cooptation can give the illusion that a publication has been seriously vetted when in fact it hasn’t ever gotten an up-or-down vote from peers – rather, it is a commissioned work that reflects the priorities of those who commissioned it and their assessment of the author’s credentials, credibility, etc. The risk is that agenda-driven research that would not make it through a truly blind, unconstrained peer review will end up getting perceived by the wider public as somehow scientific, vetted, credible, etc.

More broadly, I’ve been thinking a bit about the two-way process whereby (a) academic institutions open their doors to non-academics as senior administrators, faculty members, and fellows, and (b) non-academic institutions adopt the language of academia to burnish their own images as objective, scientific, rigorous, etc. There are some real dangers here for academia, I think, in surrendering whatever independence remains to universities and in having the distinctions between scholarship and other forms of analysis get erased. No immediate solutions spring to my mind for how to address these dangers, other than to say that consumers (academic and non-academic) of “peer-reviewed” research need to be critical and open-eyed about that label really means. It would also be good, of course, for think tanks and other institutions to clarify what “peer-reviewed” really means to them.

Marcel Cardaire’s Figures for the 1952 Hajj

Very belatedly for someone who works on Islam in Africa, I read through parts of Marcel Cardaire’s L’islam et le terroir africain (1954) the other day. I hadn’t had much interest in the book before, given its implicit racism and the fact that it’s discussed extensively in more recent, secondary literature, but it’s now relevant to a project I’m working on, so I took a look.

Among various interesting bits, one thing that jumped out at me was Cardaire’s figures for the 1952 hajj (or, to take his phrasing, entry visas for Saudi Arabia in 1952, which I assume corresponds at least roughly to the hajj figures). He only lists figures for a few regions and countries, but here they are from largest to smallest. The total visas, he said, was 148,175

  • 27,611 Egyptians,
  • 18,314 Pakistanis,
  • 10,645 Indonesians,
  • 10,218 Indians,
  • 9,623 Turks,
  • 9,233 Sudanese (then “Sudanese Egyptians,” since Sudan wasn’t independent until 1956),
  • 6,101 Thai
  • 3,569 Iranians,
  • 1,634 Afghans,
  • 853 West Africans (called “Senegalese” by the Saudis but coming from across the region)
  • 30 Japanese,
  • 22 Chinese,
  • 1 American

Malley and Finer’s Foreign Affairs Article “The Long Shadow of 9/11,” Annotated

Robert Malley, president and CEO of International Crisis Group, and Jon Finer, former Chief of Staff and Director of Policy Planning in John Kerry’s State Department, have published an extremely important article in Foreign Affairs. Entitled “The Long Shadow of 9/11: How Counterterrorism Warps U.S. Foreign Policy,” the article makes a number of arguments that deserve wide amplification. To that end, I’ll make my small contribution by annotating some key passages from the article below. I also want to highlight a few areas where I think they could have gone further, and I’ll close with a critique related to optics. In my annotations, I’m working from the print edition (July/August 2018, pp. 58-69), because I do not believe the online version is up yet.

  • p. 59: The article’s central argument is that “An excessive focus on [counterterrorism] disfigures American politics, distorts U.S. policies, and in the long run will undermine national security.” I couldn’t agree more.
  • pp. 58-59: One of the article’s biggest strengths is its attention to how counterterrorism policies distort domestic politics. As part of establishing this argument, the authors note the significant policy continuities across the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump when it comes to counterterrorism: “In an era of persistent political polarization, countering terrorism has become the area of greatest bipartisan consensus” (59). One might add that despite a fetish for bipartisanship among elite newspaper columnists and centrist Senators, bipartisan consensus can actually represent a dangerous stifling of debate. It’s a bad sign that we don’t have a more robust national debate about counterterrorism, or even about foreign policy generally.
  • p, 59: Malley and Finer clarify that they are not advocating a complete de-prioritization of counterterrorism: “The question is not whether fighting terrorist ought to be a key U.S. foreign policy objective – of course it should. But the pendulum has swung too far at the expense of other interests and of a more rational conversation about terrorism and how to fight it.” This is well said, although I think they could have been more forceful here: if you go by hard numbers about what threats actually affect the largest numbers of Americans, counterterrorism should be a second-tier priority at best, and probably more like a third-tier priority, well behind climate change and pandemics.
  • p. 59: “Those privy to the constant stream of threat information generated by U.S. intelligence services – as we were during the Obama administration – can attest to the relentlessness and inventiveness with which terrorist organizations target Americans at home and abroad.” This makes some sense. But it would also have been worth stating that immersion in that kind of environment could actually cause policymakers to lose, rather than gain, perspective. That kind of atmosphere also makes political appointees a bit vulnerable to manipulation by hawks in the intelligence community.
  • p. 59-60: “Unlike most other foreign policy issues, terrorism matters to Americans. They may have an exaggerated sense of the threat or misunderstand it, and their political leaders might manipulate or exploit their concerns. But politicians need to be responsive to the demands of their constituents, who consistently rank terrorism among the greatest threats the country faces.” This is true as far as it goes, but I think it only captures one part of a three-way interaction between the public, politicians, and the media. Politicians (as Malley and Finer discuss later) and the media (as they mention at the very end of the article) play major roles in shaping public perceptions. I don’t think that most of the public has a self-generated fear of terrorism – I think they are led into that fear by elites.
  • p. 60-61: “Trump’s rise…cannot be dissociated from the emotional and at times irrational fears that he simultaneously took advantage of and fueled.” This is a key point, perhaps the key point, of the essay. Why did Trump win? There are probably dozens of reasons – the tactical and rhetorical missteps of the Clinton campaign, James Comey’s clumsy and perhaps malevolent rhetorical interventions during the campaign, the electoral college, Russian influence, racism and sexism, economic stagnation for many Americans, a culture of celebrity worship, etc. But I think the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks, and Trump’s exploitation of those incidents, have not been given nearly enough weight in analysts’ understandings of the 2016 election result. To put it more bluntly, Trump’s win is in large part a product of the War on Terror. In that sense, both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the “liberal” media, played significant roles in feeding public alarm about terrorism in ways that ultimately benefited Trump.
  • p. 61, “Trump is hardly the only [politician] who has hyped the threat of terrorism for political gain…It has become exceedingly rare for an elected official or candidate to offer a sober, dispassionate assessment of the threat posed by foreign terrorists. Obama tried to do so, but critics charged that at times of near panic, such rational pronouncements came across as cold and aloof.” I don’t know – I think Jeremy Corbyn’s approach after Manchester shows that there can even be a political benefit to leveling with the public. I think Obama could have done much more on this front.
  • p. 62: Here is where Malley and Finer pivot to their second main argument, namely that “The time spent by senior officials and the resources invested by the government in finding, chasing, and killing terrorists invariably come at the expense of other tasks: for example, addressing the challenges of a rising China, a nuclear North Korea, and a resurgent Russia.” Here I agree with the sentiment up to the colon, but I disagree with the other possible priorities the authors mention. The debate is too often framed this way – i.e., as counterterrorism vs. what I would call “great power bullshit.” If the point is to have a clear-eyed assessment of what actually threatens the United States, then trying to flex on Russia in eastern Ukraine or on China in the South China Sea are not priorities, they are problems partly of our own making. The big threat, again, is climate change.
  • p. 62: Here is a point I completely agree with – “The United States’ counterterrorism posture also affects how Washington deals with other governments – and how other governments deal with it…Washington’s willingness and ability to criticize or pressure the governments of Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, among others, is hindered by the fact that the United States depends on them to take action against terrorist groups or to allow U.S. forces to use their territory to do so.” In this connection, I will plug my wife’s book, which examines how Morocco has strategically benefited from the War on Terror.
  • p. 62-63: Malley and Finer go on to describe how American brutality in counterterrorism can feed and empower other countries’ brutality, in a kind of race to the bottom.
  • p. 63: Although this is not the heart of the article, the authors give a fascinating description of how counterterrorism distorts interagency policymaking within presidential administrations. “In one example from our time in government, in 2016, officials taking part in the more specialized counterterrorism side of the process debated whether to kill or capture a particular militant leader even as those involved in the parallel interagency process considered whether to initiate political discussions with him.” Unbelievable.
  • p. 64: Here is another critical point: “[The] policy distortion has produced an unhealthy tendency among policymakers to formulate their arguments in counterterrorism terms, thereby downplaying or suppressing other serious issues.” This crops up in the think tank world a lot, of course. It is an unfortunate trend with discussions of Africa, too – a lot of Africa watchers/think tankers, desperate to get more attention for Africa, play the national security card. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory, a lot of the time, if what you care about is actually another issue, like development.
  • p. 66: The final main section is really strong as well. “Paradoxically, fixating on counterterrorism can make it harder to actually fight terrorism. The intense pressure to immediately address terrorist threats leads to a focus on symptoms over causes and to an at times counterproductive reliance on the use of force.” Very well said. This goes back to some of the dynamics highlighted above involving publics, policymakers, and pundits – if we are to get out of those cycles, policymakers and politicians may have to be willing to accept some short-term political losses in order to do some long-term good.
  • p. 66: “Sometimes what’s needed is a far broader approach that would entail, where possible, engaging such groups in dialogue and addressing factors such as a lack of education or employment opportunities, ethnic or religious discrimination, the absence of state services, and local government repression.” I sure think so.
  • p. 67: “An overly militarized approach aggravates the very conditions on which terrorist recruitment thrives. The destruction of entire cities and the unintentional killing of civilians, in addition to being tragic, serve as powerful propaganda tools for jihadists.” Yep. The right will contend that jihadists are strategic masterminds whose expansion reflects their own brilliance, but I believe Malley and Finer are correct that a significant part of the proliferation of jihadism has to do with our own actions.
  • p. 68-69: Somewhat surprisingly to me, Malley and Finer see “a window of opportunity” now to change the conversation on terrorism. They see a “small crack” in the political consensus, with a big of skepticism coming from the Trump administration and from Bernie Sanders. I’m really not sure how much the conversation is changing. I think 2020 candidates will still have big incentives, or perceived incentives, to hype the threat of terrorism. But I am glad to see this article and I hope will inspire more thinking and writing in this direction.
  • A final note on optics: I think Malley should have written this article solo. That’s not a knock on Finer, but I think Malley needs to be careful that he is seen first and foremost as the head of Crisis Group, and not as a former Obama administration official. As a big fan of Crisis Group, I’m concerned that this is becoming a pattern – Malley co-authoring articles with other former Obama administration officials. It would be a real shame if Crisis Group came to be seen as just another administration-in-waiting, as a foreign policy version of the Center for American Progress. That perception could cost Crisis Group whatever influence it has with Republican administrations, and could weaken Crisis Group’s independence when Democrats are in power; it could even affect Crisis Group’s reputation in Europe and elsewhere. So I hope that in future articles Malley will not team up with his former colleagues.



“Tribal Dynamics” and Wannabe Gordian Knot-Cutters

Reading Crisis Group’s latest report on Yemen, two sentences jumped out at me:

Western analysis tends to explore [al-Qaida]’s relationship with local tribes but less often examines the group as a tool for Yemen’s political elite to resort to subterfuge for financial and military gain. Yemenis, by contrast, view domestic political dynamics as fundamental to understanding and countering AQ and similar jihadist groups.

This observation about Yemen can be broadened to discussions of “counterinsurgency” in general. At policy-oriented conferences and in my reading, I’ve repeatedly run into the idea that attending to “tribal dynamics” is the key to understanding and solving conflicts, particularly in terms of stripping away local support from jihadists. Western analysts who glom onto the “tribal dynamics” hypothesis tend to speak as though they’re Alexander ready to cut through the Gordian Knot – as though they can slice through complexity with a single analytical tool.

It’s also remarkable how superficial the analysis of “tribal dynamics” often is. Whether the subject is Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc., the template such analysts like to apply is simple and generic: a lot of talk about “honor and shame,” “revenge and feuds,” pre-modern societies, and so forth. Funny: if we’re talking about ultra-local dynamics, then how come the same framework can supposedly be applied in extremely different places? Are all tribes fundamentally the same? If analysts know the “local” so well, why do they so rarely provide any details about the specific tribes, situations, and customs involved? Analysts in this vein talk as though all you need to do is show up, find an old shaykh under a tent, remember not to eat with your left hand, butter him up about honor, and you can magically solve the world’s worst conflicts.

Additionally, as the quoted passage suggests, the emphasis on “tribal dynamics” is almost always a de-politicizing maneuver – a conscious or unconscious flight from the messiness of politics. It would convenient if conflicts could be solved just by appealing to shaykhs under tents, because that would eliminate the necessity to sort through the incredible complexity of state failures, elite infighting, ethnic and sectarian conflict, historical memory, etc.

At the end of the day I don’t think there’s a sword that can cut through these Gordian Knots. Conflicts are complicated. Societies are complex. Power is fickle and diffuse. Sometimes you don’t get a sword: you just have to try to pull the strings you can find. And sometimes you can’t even do that.

Peter Mandaville and J.M. Berger on CVE, Past and Present

The Centre on Religion and Global Affairs has published an interesting interview with Professor Peter Mandaville of George Mason University, who recently left the US State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. (There’s no relationship between the Centre and the Office, despite the overlap in names.)

One exchange stood out to me:

There is a tendency for the topic of religion to be only seen through the lens of a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) focus. Does such a starting point help, or should governments take religion seriously beyond CVE? 

Well this question takes us directly into an area that has been more challenging. With respect to groups such as ISIS, I think the default assumption of many national security policymakers is that the U.S. government should be partnering with religious leaders who can create and disseminate something like “theological antidotes” designed to discredit Salafi-jihadi interpretations of Islam. I think this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding both of how religious authority works in Islam and also a faulty analysis of the extent to which the “correctness” of how ISIS interprets Islamic teachings bear on the calculus of those looking to join or support such groups. There’s also just a basic credibility problem here insofar as I suspect that a religious scholar whose views are supported or promoted by the U.S. Government would have close to zero legitimacy in the eyes of many young and politically conscious Muslims. The Office of Religion and Global Affairs has therefore tried to emphasize instead the idea that religious actors who want to play a role in countering violent extremism are likely to be more effective by making their voices heard in the context of initiatives that deal with some of the underlying societal causes of terrorism – such as localized violence and conflict, corruption and other deficits in governance, and certain forms of socioeconomic deprivation and societal alienation.

Recently, there has been some well-placed concern the Trump administration’s plans to change CVE to focus entirely on Muslims. As J.M. Berger wrote earlier this month,

Theoretically, up to now, [CVE has] been targeting all forms of violent extremist ideology, from radical Muslim groups to domestic white nationalists. In practice, though, even under Obama, the focus was almost entirely on Muslims, aside from a tiny handful of mostly invisible grants and programs.

But there was still a powerful symbolic statement behind saying the government wanted to fight all extremists, no matter what ideology they espoused. And it would be an equally powerful symbolic statement if the Trump administration decides to drop all non-Muslim interventions and rebrand the effort as Combating Islamic Extremism…The administration is taking advantage of yet another opportunity to ratify white nationalism and white supremacy.

I see Mandaville’s and Berger’s points as entirely compatible. One might even sum it up as “old CVE, naive; new CVE, dangerous.”