Introduction: New Challenges to Public and Policy Engagement

Marc Lynch, George Washington University and POMEPS

*This memo is part of POMEPS Studies 24: New Challenges to Public and Policy Engagement. Click here to download the entire publication as a free, open access PDF and to see each of the individual memos.

Engaging and influencing public policy debates on areas of their expertise is a core part of the mission of academics. The last decade has in many ways been the golden age of academic policy engagement. Social media, the proliferation of online publishing platforms, and a generational change in disciplinary norms and practices has unleashed an impressive wave of writing by academics aimed at an informed public sphere. The Project on Middle East Political Science has worked to promote such public and policy engagement, with hundreds of academics each year contributing their expertise on the Middle East on publishing platforms such as The Middle East Channel and The Monkey Cage and through direct policymaker engagement.

President Donald Trump’s administration poses a sharp challenge to this model of policy engagement on the Middle East. Trump himself has shown little interest in policy issues, and his White House is stocked with individuals whose careers and rhetoric speak to a fundamental disrespect for academic expertise. Cornerstone policies such as the executive orders restricting immigration from Muslim-majority countries demonstrate a profound disregard for academic arguments or data-driven analysis. The White House seems to prefer right wing media outlets as a source of information to America’s own professional intelligence agencies, to say nothing of outside academics.

Is it still possible to effectively engage with public policy debates in such an environment? The answer largely depends on the conception of the purpose and process of policy engagement. Some forms of policy outreach, particularly those involving direct interaction with the executive branch, have indeed become deeply problematic. Other forms of policy engagement have only become more important, however. There continue to be ample opportunities to support and engage with the residual bastions of professional policymakers within the federal bureaucracy. The need to provide rational, reasoned, fact-based analysis to the broader public sphere has taken on profound urgency. And rapidly evolving social movements and civil society initiatives offer ways for academics to engage well beyond traditional policy environments.

Some within Middle East Studies would likely object that little has actually changed. While Trump’s ideas may be to the extreme, they might argue, previous administrations (including Barack Obama’s) carried out deeply inimical policies in the Middle East. Many within the field view policy engagement in general as complicity in empire, especially given that academic engagement rarely leads to meaningful policy change. From their perspective, policy engagement is necessarily corrupting, leading to co-optation or self-censorship. My experience is that policy engagement can make a difference under certain conditions, if academics understand how the policy process really works and are realistic in their expectations. The ability of some academics to influence the initial U.S. response to the Arab uprisings suggests both the potential and the limits of such engagement.

The Trump administration, to this point, appears to be qualitatively different from previous administrations in its hostility to outside expertise and its cavalier approach to the policy process. This may well change, as its policies fail and personnel change. The rapid dismissal of Lt. General Michael Flynn as national security adviser suggests that Trump may follow the example of the Bush administration, which made such a significant adjustment in early 2007. In the interim, however, there does not seem to be a great deal of value in attempting to influence foreign policy at the White House directly.

Other agencies are a different story, however. Within the State Department there continue to be a large number of dedicated, nonpartisan professionals who have never had greater need of external ideas and information. Those beleaguered desk officers and issue experts across the agencies offer an appropriate vehicle for academics to remain engaged with – and informed about – U.S. policy in the region.

The case for public engagement, by contrast, is even stronger. Our voices as political scientists have never been more important in the public sphere. This is a time for insisting on fact-based, empirical and rigorous analysis, offering reasoned argument and modeling academic norms for an anxious public. Offering a rational, rigorous alternative to partisan websites and social media is perhaps our most effective mode of engagement as political scientists. I continue to believe in the ideal of rational critical public discourse, despite all of the pathologies of the contemporary public sphere. Creating and sustaining forums for informed public discourse such as The Monkey Cage and POMEPS is, in my view, an important contribution in its own right. Protecting and nurturing spaces for reasoned discourse can help the public to avoid drowning in a sea of crap.

This public engagement includes working across diverse communities and engaging with the many new social movements and civil society initiatives working on issues relevant to Middle East Studies. The response to Trump’s January 27 executive order on immigration offers a powerful model for such effective action. Academic analysis played a critical role in supporting the social movements and judicial action that forced Trump to back away from the initial order. They worked within their universities to help administrations craft responses, within professional associations such as the Middle East Studies Association, and with civil society organizations coordinating the response. Academic public engagement at this social level should be sustained and expanded.

This will always have risks and costs. Public engagement, especially when effective, invites counterattacks. Scholars would expect persistent, egregious campaign of targeting academics who speak out in public. But they should not shy away. Remaining engaged with the public continues to be one of the most critical dimensions of the academic mission. We should continue to build on the palpable successes of the last decade and build resilient networks and platforms with which to engage broadly and inform deeply.

This POMEPS Studies collection brings together analysis of these new challenges facing Middle East political science. Lisa Anderson looks for the lessons of earlier politicized assaults on Middle East Studies, while Laurie Brand surveys efforts to defend academic freedom at home and abroad. I provide original empirical evidence on the response by universities and colleges to the first immigration executive order. Sarah E. Parkinson examines security challenges faced by those who research the Middle East. Asli Bali provides a close reading of new immigration policies, while Wendy Pearlman considers our ethical and professional obligations to refugees in a harsh new climate. Shibley Telhami presents new survey evidence on how Trump has changed public views of Muslims and Islam. The potential implications of the possible designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization for research on Islamist movements is discussed in essays by Abdullah al-Arian, Nathan Brown and Michele Dunne, and Andrew March. Shervin Malakzadeh considers how the administration might affect research on Iran. Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman evaluate the significance of the post-inauguration women’s march as a model for sustained mobilization. Finally, Nathan Brown offers a primer on “shari’a” as a model for how academics might more usefully engage and inform public audiences.

We hope that this special edition of POMEPS Studies helps to inform a new era of academic engagement in the public realm.

Marc Lynch is a professor of political science at the George Washington University and is the director of the Project on Middle East Political Science.