Minerva and the Terrorism Industry: “The rule of experts as a means to covert imperial rule”

First, a video. On 27 August 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense hosted a workshop about the Minerva Research Initiative. Among the speakers was Craig Calhoun, president of the Social Science Research Council, cheerfully calling for enhanced and widened collaboration between academia and the military. Thomas Mahnken of the Pentagon is also presented as he minimizes the opposition of academics, and especially anthropologists, to Minerva (indeed, following from the debate between anthropologists and the Human Terrain System, the Minerva website’s FAQs specifically mention that Minerva is not HTS). Then we see a questioner basically being edited by a speaker, in a rush to bring questions to a close. Finally, a passive-aggressive overview of the Pentagon’s “peer review” process of applications submitted for Minerva funding. See the video here:

Secondly, following from a previous post about Hugh Gusterson’s contribution to a collection of critiques of the Pentagon’s Minerva research program (see the official Minerva website), assembled on the website of the SSRC, I wanted to compile some notes from the other contributions for future reference as part of the “notes & quotes” section of this blog, an abridged way of reading the articles. No additional commentary is added here.


The Forgotten History of Knowledge and Power in British Iraq, or Why Minerva’s Owl Cannot Fly

Priya Satia, Stanford University

As in the era of British occupation of Iraq between the world wars, the Middle East expert is being called to arms as the fall-guy of failed imperial policy, to vaingloriously seize the helm of unending counterinsurgency in the Middle East….

During the First World War, when the British “liberated” Iraq from the Ottoman Empire and confronted those darn freedom-hating Arabs, they too made a beeline for academic expertise. Long enchanted by the Middle East as a place of fabulous knowledge, mystery, and empirical opacity, “area experts” like Gertrude Bell, David Hogarth, T. E. Lawrence, Mark Sykes, and sundry others, claimed a peculiar, almost inborn genius for understanding this bizarre region of the world….The imperial state relied on them to at once pacify, know, and administer its newest colonial charge. Clearly, if Iraqis could not recognize the British presence for the salvation it was, they were a queer people indeed; this was a case for SuperAnthropologists (echoed in today’s call for experts on the “social and behavior dimensions of national security issues”)…..

The academic’s, and especially the genius’s, Achilles’ heel is the lust for influence; hence the appeal of an initiative like Minerva….

The government’s apparent submission to the wise counsels of experts was held up as proof of its humility and earnestness – both at home and abroad….The empire was embarked on a social scientific mission, not a political one, the state protested, with some success: The British were not like other conquerors who had flowed into Iraq “with sword and torch”….The problems they faced existed apart from their presence. Invasion was reconfigured as a mission to bring order and development to an inherently fractious corner of the world….

Unfortunately for the Arabs, empathy and intimacy could not change the unequal political relationship that defines colonial occupation. Of course, the cynical reading of Arabists’ cooption by the state is that they were sought after merely for the veneer of legitimacy they could lend to otherwise unethical and inhumane counter-insurgency measures….

Today, too, embedded anthropologists will not rid our wars of “collateral damage” or remove the stigma of occupation; only the end of war can….

…the best of today’s anthropologists are practically paralyzed by their awareness of the way power shapes and corrupts knowledge; apparently the DoD is not troubled by the implication that the mostly likely applicants to their initiative will be the lesser talents of that discipline….

For the sake of American democracy, too, the academic’s place is in public, not in the hidden spaces of public bureaucracy, not so much because of his naturally adversarial posture towards government but because they are needed in the public sphere apart from the state where ordinary people discuss problems and influence political action (e.g. this web forum). The more academics appear beholden to the state, the less authority they will possess in the public sphere. That sphere is the very lifeblood of democracy; its abridgement or cooption is, as the British public discovered too late, the path to autocracy….

Having punished defiance by withdrawing the funding that once underpinned the social sciences’ prestige, the government is now trying to woo them back from the sidelines. Even the independent, more welfare-minded government agencies that have sustained the social sciences in the meantime, such as the NSF, have been roped into collusion with a “national interest” defined narrowly in terms of security….

…social scientists would do best to heed the lessons of the past and cold-shoulder this presumptuous research initiative. A wallflower might be an object of pity, but not, at least, one of contempt. Indeed, the very notion that the social sciences have been on the sidelines of public debate on Iraq is absurd; it is precisely the enduring prestige and relevance of the social sciences that attracts the DoD. Minerva might be framed as an attempt to tap intellectual resources that allegedly are not otherwise performing their public duty, but in fact they have been influencing the private sector, think tanks, the media, (often unpopular) members of government, and others admirably enough – just not to the precise tune that the DoD would like to hear….

The point is not that the state should not consult experts, but that it should not repeat the British mistake of seeking out congenial advice from experts whose very proximity to the state prevents them from seeing problems from any but the state’s already blinkered perspective….

In general, the notion of “security science” is intellectually unproven and depressingly defensive, signaling the DoD’s belief in the permanence of the hostilities known as the “war on terror.” It is the wrong mentality for a DoD trying to find a way out of our present discontents….


Skewing Scholarship

Conor Gearty, Centre for the Study of Human Rights-LSE

Minerva signifies a return to the world of propaganda, of efforts to produce outcomes in the US interest (as conceived by its promoters) via scholarship as well as military force, and to do so in a way which presents the appearance of independence of thought, reflective as this idea is of the American values that it is said are being defended….

The concession to freedom of thought is well below the minimum required for a project of this sort to have any kind of credibility: the money is to be thrown around but only on topics that the authorities choose and only for those research teams who meet their approval. The academics participating in these projects seem to be envisaged by the conceivers of Minerva in military terms, working with their minds under instruction to deliver intellectual outcomes analogous (if they were soldiers) to the effective dropping of some bombs or to the efficient destroying of an enemy position….

What is one to make of “Studies of the Strategic Impact of Religious and Cultural Changes within the Islamic World” and “Studies of Terrorist organizations and ideologies”? Which Islamic world is being referred to here, and what is meant by a “terrorist” organization? There are a whole set of separate ethical questions arising out of “3. Iraqi Perspectives Project” – what if this involves using research material taken from Iraq in breach of international and/or national law, for example? The NSF component in Minerva raises similar questions: there is a respectable academic argument that “1. Studies of Terrorist Organizations and Ideologies” should not be limited to sub-state violence or to violence sponsored by regimes inimical to US interests’ while among the more interesting aspects of “2. Studies of the Strategic Impact of Religious and Cultural Change” would undoubtedly be to track the impact of Evangelical Christians on the swing to the right of the American polity in the course of the past thirty years – but it hardly needs saying that these are not the sorts of projects that the funders are likely to have had in mind when they conceived these categories….

The Minerva initiative needs to be challenged – the risks attendant upon its success (a suffocation of scholarship in the interests of US Defense inspired research; an internationalization via Defense purchasing power of militarized scholarship; the distortion of academic work to meet the demands of military paymasters) are too great to sit by and merely hope that it will die on its own for want of intellectual integrity.


Pentagon Priorities and the Minerva Program

John Tirman, MIT Center for International Studies

Three of the five [Minerva research areas] are on terrorism, and this is the main source of trouble. The first of these is on “the strategic impact of religious and cultural changes within the Islamic world.” This assumes that religion is a proximate cause of terrorism. The first sentence of the official topic description provides the link: “Current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan highlight the need for a better understanding of the influence of and trends in Islamic and cultural norms … ” A few sentences later, a question is posed: “How can the West better understand the militant madrassah school and radical missionary movements and their messages … ?” Another, separate initiative regards “terrorist organizations and ideologies,” including research on “non-rational decision making” and “belief formation and emotional contagion.”

These two in particular are treading on thin ice. A considerable amount of research has been conducted, much of it via interviews with failed suicide bombers and others accused of violent acts. Most of this does not demonstrate a strong link between religious devotion and a propensity to commit political violence, nor greater likelihood of violence by those attending koranic schools, among other, similar results.

The loaded matter of emotional contagion and non-rationality is problematic on many counts, not least in assuming Western decision making is free of such influence….

More important is the larger question of whether or not the handful of terrorists worldwide truly constitutes the kind of security threat that warrants this scale of research effort….this looks like another triumph of what John Mueller piquantly calls the “terrorism industry.”

…each and every one mentioned above [HIV/AIDS undermining social fabrics, rising unrest over increased food and fuel prices, the potential strife over limited resources arising from climate change] is, in my judgment, far more serious than terrorism. It is essentially an American solipsism that is driving this definition of threats. In this, then, Minerva is a missed opportunity on a massive scale – investing heavily in the irrelevant or minor, ignoring the monumental and urgent. [see a related post on this angle of criticism here]



Faisal Devji, The New School for Liberal Arts

But what if the important issue here has little to do with compromising academic freedom and everything to do with the fragmentation of the army as a Cold War institution? And in fact the new relationship being created between scholars and soldiers is part of a more general realignment by which the military outsources its infrastructure and service requirements, from buildings and equipment to cooks, labourers, interrogators and even security personnel to outside contractors. The army, in other words, is increasingly operating on a civilian model, which former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld likened to venture capitalism. This de-militarization can even be seen in the army’s own regulations, which according to a recent article tend to converge with the standards of civil and criminal law even as they expand their scope to more and more subjects….

Instead of the militarization of civilian life we might equally see in such occurrences the army’s de-militarization, so that it becomes difficult to draw any clear line between these sectors….


‘Operations other than War’: The Politics of Academic Scholarship in the 21st Century

David Nugent, Emory University

One way to chart the changing relations between the military and the academy is in relation to periodic crises in capitalist accumulation practices, and the impact of these crises on strategies of imperial management. Such an approach would seem especially germane at present (the closing months of 2008), as an economic crisis that has been gathering steam for over a decade (Arrighi 1994) hits home with devastating force. But this is not the first time that economic crisis has generated a shift in the relations between the military and the academy. It was an earlier period of crisis – and of recovery and management – that spurred the military’s first major intervention into the social sciences….

The depression of the 1930s, and the World War that followed in its wake, brought military concerns directly into the halls of academia – and vice versa. It was the “area” concept – which dominated pure, disinterested social science for decades after the war, and subsequently became the focus of post-structural critiques of Cold War-era rigidities – which acted as the bridge between military concerns and academic conception and practice. The concept of “area” was a reflection of little more than military expediency. It grew directly out of the heat of WW II. About mid-way through the conflict, when it appeared that the US would eventually win, it dawned on military strategists that they were wholly unprepared for the peace that would follow the war. They realized that they where not ready to administer the vast territories scattered all around the globe that they would soon inherit from the Axis powers….

The point is … to indicate how difficult it is to draw any clear boundaries between military and academic concerns. Throughout this entire era, the “relative autonomy” of organizations like the NSF, the SSRC, etc., was deeply compromised by the origins of the area concept in the exigencies of military government, and by the de-militarization of area studies to serve the interests of Cold War stability. That is, for much of the Cold War the geopolitical concerns of the US military were constitutive of the conceptual apparatus used by social scientists to analyze and apprehend the world.

Since the end of the Cold War, and especially since 9/11, there has been a real convergence in the strategic concerns of government, foundation and military. From rogue states to the rule of law, from civil society to sustainable development, funders of all shapes and sizes betray a major preoccupation with issues of “security.” Indeed, upon reviewing a description of the MINERVA project what is startling is not how foreign are the research themes the military seeks to advance (authoritarian regimes; religious [especially Islamic] fundamentalism; terrorist organizations) but how familiar they seem. For the most part, one would be hard-pressed to distinguish them from the interests of non-military sponsors of research….

For the last several years the financial support for university research and training, especially in the social sciences and the humanities, has crumbled. Funding for NSF, NIH and NEH has been cut significantly – decisions made by civilian, not military decision-makers….Some schools have been compelled to combine or even eliminate entire departments. Hiring freezes and salary cuts are the norm. Work speed-ups of many different kinds are almost universal….At the same time, for the fortunate few lucky enough to be in tenure track positions, the research and publishing requirements for attaining tenure are going up. As teaching and service demands escalate, and as resources for scholarship contract, people’s professional survival depends on the ability to access funds for research and writing. In such a context, academics will inevitably look to what are now regarded as “non-traditional” sources of funding (like the Department of Defense)….

the threat of MINERVA does not stem from its origins in the Department of Defense….

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