On Ethics and Implications

By Jason Brownlee, University of Texas at Austin.

* This memo was prepared as part of the “Ethics and Research in the Middle East” symposium

Since the late 19th century the United States has tried to escape vexing social and economic problems at home through military adventures abroad.[1] When U.S. leaders could not resolve racial, gender, and class inequity among their own citizens, they took the fight against injustice overseas. Whereas domestic politics defied simplification, foreign policy could be depicted in Manichean terms. Waging wars on Evil proved more satisfying than battling white supremacy, patriarchy, or poverty. Hubristic interventions thus swallowed up spectacular amounts of resources, as well as countless lives.

From the conquest of the Philippines to the invasion of Iraq, these projects left Americans profoundly disappointed but never fully disillusioned. Catastrophic failures were blamed on lousy management: not enough troops had been sent, the occupation ended too abruptly, the right local leaders had not been chosen. Rather than questioning the idea of intervention itself, U.S. politicians propagated a mythos of exceptionalism. Absolved from self-criticism, they could then conceal the stark evidence that externalizing America’s shortcomings hardly rectified them.

The history of American empire weighs upon the ethics of contemporary Middle East political science research. Our field, to borrow from Antonio Gramsci, is “a product of the historical process to date which has deposited… an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.”[2] In other words, most of us are operating with assumptions and priorities that we unconsciously inherited from our advisors and senior colleagues and that we are set to impart, just as unconsciously, to our students and peers. Of course, we are not destined to be intellectual couriers for prior belief systems. Indeed, it strikes me that a core obligation of our work is to challenge what we are given, question what is taken for granted, and attend to what has been ignored.

This premise leads to two suggestions on ethics. Both ideas are guided by a belief that our most important audiences are public ones, for it is in public where communities can debate ideas openly while contesting, if not eliminating, power asymmetries.[3] First, Middle East political science scholars should turn away from proposing policy implications and aspire to be less implicated in programs that are inimical to basic desiderata of freedom and equality. Second, to the extent that we become less enmeshed in the private interests behind government policymaking and more connected to publics at large, we should use that distance to identify the hierarchies and injustices that we aspire to rectify but that, without intense self-reflection and collective deliberation, we are likely to reproduce.

The demands of empirical research seldom allow us to ponder our intellectual lineage, the “traces” that constitute who we are as researchers. Fortunately, anyone seeking a Gramscian inventory of our field has numerous works to draw upon, including by scholars who were trained in political science but still managed to critique it. Brian Schmidt has chronicled how concerns about disorder legitimated colonial exploitation; Robert Vitalis has shown that the field of international relations emerged from a Jim Crow worldview; and Ido Oren has established that social scientific judgments about democracy and dictatorship conform to subjective perceptions of Washington’s allies and adversaries.[4] The contributions of Schmidt, Vitalis, and Oren (as well as incisive studies by Roxanne Doty and Timothy Mitchell), raise a hopeful antinomy.[5] They juxtapose a tradition of political science serving the powerful with the potential for the field to address the vulnerable instead. That potential can guide our pursuit of more ethical scholarship.

Historically, when the United States intervened abroad, political science followed the flag. As U.S. leaders “externalized” their troubles, political scientists helped refine the techniques for correcting other societies. Academics adopted research agendas made in Washington – on counterinsurgency, political order, economic takeoff, and democratization – and diligently sought to answer their leaders’ questions. Invariably, earnest efforts yielded meager returns. The public generally ignored political scientists’ results, while scholars of neighboring disciplines disdained them – either for a lack of scientism or from an excess of it. Most importantly, the primary audience, power holders, proved largely indifferent. On occasion, academic arguments crept into prominent political speeches, yet they seldom tipped debates, much less provoked radical rethinking.[6] Today, when we present the “policy implications” sections of our work we risk lapsing back into this role: the scholar-turned-policy-technician, who hones prevailing doctrines instead of replacing them.

There are alternatives. Rather than offering new lessons for the very circles that have defined the agendas of our field, we can actually reduce our implications: the ways our intellectual activity is implicated in the projection of U.S. domestic dilemmas to the Middle East and the ways the knowledge we generate is implicated in the conflicts and inequities we aspire to end. In this sense, ethically minded scholarship would entail rescinding our participation in and our assent for programs like extraordinary renditions, nation building, drone strikes, as well as the national security regime from which they hail.

Such a course is not cost free. It would mean, for starters, turning down off-the-record consultancies and retrenching the other chummy relationships with U.S. officials and private firms that skew academic research and circumvent public debate. Nonetheless, the sacrifices of being less implicated in U.S. interventionism are, I reason, more than compensated by the intellectual and ethical perks of aligning our private behaviors with the normative commitments we profess to colleagues, friends, and students.

Consider the foibles of earlier technocrats in the Middle East, wonderfully exposed in books by Vitalis, Mitchell, and Toby Jones.[7] It is hard not to laugh (and gasp) at the cluelessness of the ARAMCONs, the USAID workers in Egypt, and the anthropologists who served the Saudi ruling family. What is more, in my seminars at least, these figures draw not just ridicule but disdain. Looking back from a safe historical distance, we reflexively condemn the ways experts abetted violence and exploitation.

But the issue is larger and more troubling. Academicians tend to reproduce the hierarchies of their times. Are we more self-aware than prior cohorts? Will our behaviors seem any less blinkered to future generations? I suspect not. As a rule of thumb we can expect that our well-intentioned works will be as constrained by the biases of our age as our predecessors’ were in theirs. It is easy to see injustice in hindsight, after activists and movements have boldly dismantled the ideologies shielding base interests and insecurities. The more difficult task is identifying present-day oppression, when the façade is intact and enticing.

We will never enjoy the temporal distance from the atrocities committed in our names, the historical perspective that allows us to look back and recognize the obscenity of “civilizational uplift” and “separate but equal.” We can, however, strive for a political distance that will help us push back against ideological constraints; that will maximize our ability to look skeptically at official narratives.

The less implicated Middle East political science is in policy, the more likely the field will be to move from technical tinkering to critical thinking. By this I mean that we will be better positioned to interrogate the provenance of our research agendas, formulate our own questions, and reconsider what audiences we intend to inform. Less occupied by the quandaries of the powerful, we will be free to become more implicated in the communities we cherish.

Jason Brownlee is an associate professor of government and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin.


[1] William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1959).

[2] The full quote is available in Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978).

[3] See Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (New York: Pantheon, 1994).

[4] Ido Oren, Our Enemies and US: America’s Rivalries and the Making of Political Science (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003); Brian C. Schmidt, The Political Discourse of Anarchy: A Disciplinary History of International Relations (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996); Robert Vitalis, “The Noble American Science of Imperial Relations and Its Laws of Race Development,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 2010, 52(4): 909-938.

[5] Roxanne Lynn Doty, Imperial Encounters: The Politics of Representation in North-South Relations (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 1996); Timothy Mitchell, “The Middle East in the Past and Future of Social Science,” in David L. Szanton, ed., The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004).

[6] Examples abound of political scientists taking positions in government (Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Condoleezza Rice), and achieving varying degrees of influence.

[7] Toby Craig Jones, Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002); Robert Vitalis, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007).

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