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September 19, 2007

what is this? stanford's rumsfeld controversy

DonaldRumsfeldonhisbike.jpg [image: former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on his unicycle; source: unicyclist.org]

Stanford University's Hoover Institution is the archetypal curate's egg. On its roster of fellows are a good number of very distinguished scholars, "public intellectuals" and former public servants. Most of these people are of a more or less conservative cast of mind, but that is no crime. Collectively, they would do credit to any institution of higher learning.

Amongst these figures at Hoover, one could single out as instances of exemplary intellectual seriousness the economists Gary Becker, Michael Boskin, Kevin Murphy, Douglass North, Thomas Sowell, Michael Spence, and John B. Taylor; Caroline Hoxby, a specialist on education policy; William Perry, a former Secretary of Defense; George Schultz, a former Secretary of State; the social critic and commentator Shelby Steele; the historians Robert Conquest, Mark Harrison and Norman Naimark; and the political scientists Larry Diamond, Timothy Garton Ash and Michael McFaul. (Many of these scholars are, not coincidentally, also members of one of Stanford's, or another university's, formal academic departments.)

Combine the Hoover Institution's magnificent collection of books and periodicals on economics and history with the presence of such figures and one can see how, as one senior and very distinguished faculty member pointed out to me, the Hoover, managed by someone purposefully wielding a large broom and shovel, could quite rapidly be transformed into one of the truly great centres of political and economic scholarship in the world, something akin to Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

(There would then be, incidentally, a pleasing historical symmetry to the paired names of Wilson and of Hoover. Both were once considered as "failed" Presidents of the country. However more recently their strongly humanitarian principles and actions have become much better appreciated. Hoover was head of the Committee for Relief in Belgium after the German invasion of that country in 1914. Then, at the end of the war, Wilson made him the head of the American Relief Administration, from which position he organized one of the great modern relief efforts, managing extraordinary shipments of food to Europe for millions of people who were close to starvation in Central Europe, including those in the land of the defeated enemy, Germany, and in the empire of the new foe, "Bolshevik" Russia.)

But there is also presently, alas, at the Hoover Institution a solid and stolid phalanx of tired and/or discredited Republican politicians, fixers and hacks, of no discernible intellectual substance, whose appointments, as far as one can judge, were made largely on the basis of ideological solidarity rather than analytic or scholarly accomplishment. The intellectual positions (if that is the right term) of these individuals look massively out of kilter with the energy, expertise and diversity of the rest of Stanford. Sadly and unfairly, the effect of this latter group has been to cast a long, distracting shadow across the achievements of the Hoover Institution's dynamic and creditable fellows. In some lights, one looks at the Hoover Institution and feels that it is, truly, the Party of the Elephant's mystical graveyard.

On 24 August 2007, the labour economist and statistician, John Raisian, the director of the Hoover, put out a press-release which struck a blow for the reputation of the less sweetly-smelling half of this curate's egg. He announced that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (1975-77, 2001-06), a man for whom even amoral, battle-hardened Republican pundits have few good words, would become a "distinguished visiting fellow" at Hoover for the coming year. "I am pleased that he will spend time during the coming year in thinking, writing and advising on important matters of public policy", Raisian said in a museum-quality piece of linguistic boiler-plate. "I have asked Don to join the distinguished group of scholars that will pursue new insights on the direction of thinking that the United States might consider going forward. I am delighted that he will participate in the deliberations of our task force".

In effect, Raisian dropped the news about the existence of this as-yet publicly unknown "task force" into his Rumsfeld announcement. Its task was (or is, or will be) to deliberate on such vast subjects as "national security, ideology and terrorism in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks."

In recent days, concern about the wisdom (and taste) of appointing Rumsfeld to a position of any kind at Stanford has increased as students return for the start of a new quarter, and as news of the decision has begun to percolate through the ranks of faculty, staff, graduate students and alumni. Thus, an online petition, started just last Friday, has (as of this writing) been signed by more than 1,900 Stanford community members.

An article in yesterday's Stanford Daily only made the Rumsfeld appointment seem odder still. In it, Hoover Public Affairs Manager Michele Horaney conceded both that Hoover had "not yet set a timetable for Rumsfeld’s appointment to begin" and that "no other members of the task force have been named." This Committee of the Indefinite is, according to the Stanford Daily, which was evidently relying on information from Horaney, "expected to convene infrequently, with members meeting from time to time then going back to other endeavors." How civilized!

How to defend this flagrant piece of ideological grandstanding? The same article cited Jeff Wachtel, the special assistant to Stanford's President John Hennessy, arguing, very temperately and reasonably, that "The University is a place of free expression of ideas, and there are some ideas that generate controversy, but that's not a reason not to have those ideas expressed." Wachtel also pointed out, again justly, that "Appointments and fellowships such as Rumsfeld's are the prerogative of individual institutions and departments."

My own reactions on reading the report were twofold. First, I thought: "But what a pitiful waste of resources and credibility this is for Stanford." And then I wondered: "What exactly is going on here?" The questions seem to spring up faster than mushrooms in a field where horses are pastured.

In fact, the more one thinks about it, the more enigmas arise:

I agree absolutely with Jeff Wachtel that all kinds of ideas should be expressed at Stanford. But in a university context, don't there have to be some basic benchmarks for the participants and the ideas; benchmarks to do with issues such as seriousness, credibility, content, honesty, accountability and transparency?

Indeed, to follow up on his point, it seems that the only way a free exchange of opinions can actually take place is if the task-force issues a report, signed by all participants. This would have the not-undesirable result of meaning that the report's ideas could, if necessary, be debated. Although that might only happen on one of those "infrequent" occasions when the writers of the report were actually at Stanford, it would surely be better than nothing.

It would also mean that the university as a whole could see what it got in intellectual return for invoking, presumably not lightly, a principle so fundamental as the principle of freedom of expression. It has done so on behalf of a man who has never bothered much about that principle where others are concerned. Moreover, it has done so on behalf of an individual who is also responsible for designing, administering, accelerating and defending what has become a nightmarish (and still unfolding) human, moral, social, economic, military and geo-political catastrophe for the peoples of the world.

Posted by njenkins at September 19, 2007 11:43 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins