This will be my last post on this blog for at least a year. I am about to start a fellowship program with the Council on Foreign Relations that will place me in the U.S. government for the next 12 months. Because this blog has become such a big part of my idenity, I want to use this last opportunity to explain why I blog and how social media has both amplified and enriched my policy work.
A few years ago, Steve Biddle, arguably the finest defense policy analyst of his generation and a valued mentor, gave me some particularly good advice. When you write a policy paper, he told me, you should always be thinking of the scholarly journal article version of the policy paper you are writing as well as the op-ed version of the article you are writing. The idea, of course, is to make sure you reach the widest audience possible and get the most out of the research you have done.
While subscribing to all of Steve's wise counsel, my approach to research is a bit different, and I have, since arriving at CNAS in 2009, encouraged our junior research staff to broaden the approach Steve first offered me. In addition to thinking about the ways in which one can turn one's policy paper into an op-ed for the New York Times or article in International Security, one should also think several layers down: how can one blog about one's research? How can one tweet, in real time, about the research one is doing?
The limitations of the old approach -- and of most research produced by think tanks and academia -- is the communication is largely one-way. The scholar in the ivory tower thinks deep thoughts, consults with his or her colleagues, locks the door and then emerges months later with a paper or book that he or she delivers to the masses. A "response" to a journal article might be published a year later. This is not an altogether bad thing. And if it's a choice between tweeting about college football and producing great books like this, by all means do the latter.
But an approach that incorporates social media into the research process has greater potential than the old approach. Note, quickly, that I am talking about the research process and not the marketing process. Lots of scholars, myself included, want to harness social media to publicize their latest reports and books. I get books from publishers in the mail on a weekly basis addressed not to "Andrew Exum" but to "Abu Muqawama" in the apparent hope that I will blog about a new book on the Middle East or Afghanistan. But I am writing here about using social media during the research itself.
The first great advantage that social media has over traditional media is that it is a two-way conversation. Although this can be quite scary for some policy scholars, social media requires one to climb down from the ivory tower and expose one's self to the slings and arrows of the unwashed masses. Once down among hoi polloi, one quickly discovers something: there is a rich and diverse community of amateur and professional scholars out there with interests and educations that complement one's own. Tweeting or blogging about a book you are reading on Afghanistan? Prepare for a barrage of tweets and comments telling you how good or bad that book is while offering other recommendations -- recommendations for books or articles that you, despite your fancy education, might not yet have discovered. Social media, then, exposes the policy researcher to immediate feedback on his or her bibliography and research methods. It can serve as a quick external validator -- or tell you where you're going wrong.
Second, policy research is also very much about a world of competing ideas. Whether you are opining about air-sea battle or health care, you must recognize that other scholars out there might have also been researching your issue and have reached different conclusions with regard to policy preferences. One of the most effective -- and without a doubt quickest -- ways I have discovered to identify weaknesses in my own arguments has been through social media. I am constantly wrestling with the comments on my blog or the tweets people send back in my direction. Some of them are silly, and others are ugly, but many more are valuable. I can also observe how other policy proposals are received. Filtering out the sarcasm and snark, one gets a sense for where other scholarship falls short.
Third, we at CNAS believe that one of our core missions as a think tank is to identify the next generation of policy professionals. In my short and young career, I have already benefitted from many great mentors, and like the Army officer I once was, I consider it my duty to seek out and mentor others younger than me. Social media -- especially Twitter -- has been a great way to identify and meet some of the most promising young people writing on issues related to defense policy. I "met" both of this blog's caretaker bloggers -- Adam Elkus and Dan Trombly -- over social media. Many others have made the jump from tweeting back and forth with me to having coffee in my office shooting the bull about jobs and careers. This is how it should be, because Lord knows, I have spent plenty of time in other people's offices seeking advice about my career.
The key ingredient to engaging with social media as a part of the research process is humility. You must be prepared, for example, for some 20-year old senior at George Washington University <cough> Trombly </cough> to systematically destroy your initial argument, thereby making your second draft better. You must be prepared to accept that you are not the "expert" your think tank homepage says you are. You are merely a student. And you can thus learn from the many other amateur and professional students around you. And you must be prepared to laugh at yourself. There is a reason the mascot of this blog -- and the avatar for my Twitter account -- is a Lego militant. It says, "I'm going to talk about serious things, but I'll be damned if I am going to lose my sense of humor in the process." The moment one loses one's sense of humor, an officer in the Special Air Service once told me before a mission in Iraq, is the moment one starts thinking of one's self as too good -- too cool -- to get killed. Researchers shouldn't take themselves too seriously either, for that's the road to embarassment. We are unbelievably privileged to be doing this for a living, and we should remember that as we engage as broadly as possible with the people that both consume and inform our work.
I had lunch with Amos Harel of Ha'aretz a few months ago in Tel Aviv, and he floated the idea of starting a blog on security issues in the Middle East that would reach a larger audience than his normal posts for Israel's newspaper of record. (Or is that Yedioth Ahronoth these days? I honestly don't know.) I normally enjoy the reporting Amos does with Avi Issacharoff, so I am enjoying their new blog, even if it reads less as a blog and more as just another section of Ha'aretz. Both guys are excellent journalists who would (and probably did) make the late Ze'ev Schiff proud. (Avi, in particular, earned kudos for physically protecting Palestinian families from crazy religious-nationalist settlers two years back.) The one thing that bothers me, though, aside from the format, is how isolated the discussion is. I mean, it's all about Israel and the Palestinian Territories. And that's fine, as that's the beat walked by Harel and Issacharoff. But it's less "the Middle East" and more "a slice of the eastern Mediterranean."
On a serious note, you wonder whether or not Israel's isolation in the region has made the perspective of its reporters increasingly blinkered. If I were the editor of Ha'aretz, I would send talented guys like Amos and Avi off to report from Washington or London or Tokyo for a year to get a more global view of security before returning home to report on the IDF and the territories. Have them do a fellowship at CSIS or RUSI or something. One of the things I thought was cool about Schiff is how plugged in he was with the policy debates taking place in Washington and Europe.
Another thing I would like to see -- and this is by no means the responsibility of any one journalist or newspaper -- is a good blog on Middle East security issues written by reporters from all around the region, with bloggers from Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, Tel Aviv, the Palestinian Territories, Yemen, etc. all joining in. Is that too much to ask for? Some newspapers have tried to do this, but with budgets shrinking, what you end up getting is two or three English-speaking journalists trying to cover an entire region with little coordination and too few resources.
That having been said, I think Amos and Avi have perhaps chanced upon the most appropriate name for a blog covering security in the Middle East. Middle East Security Survey. Or: MESS. I plan to be a regular reader and look forward to their future posts.
P.S. Speaking of Israel, followers of my Twitter feed will know I saw none other than Tzipi Livni wandering around 7th Street NW in Chinatown yesterday. Lady Muqawama spotted her first and made me walk into the Anne Taylor store to confirm. I walked in, started scanning the store, and was like, "Not famous ... not famous ... not famous ... woah, hey, it's Tzipi Livni!" The AIPAC conference, of course, is going on right now, which you can follow here if it interests you. (I'm personally not that interested, honestly, for pretty much the exact reasons Jeffrey Goldberg C'87 lists here.) Now if any of you want to leave comments below, by all means do so, and feel free to tell me whether or not I should have either given Livni a big hug and kiss or arrested her for war crimes. But let's keep the discussion free of ugly anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim or anti-Arab slurs, okay? Because those are not cool.
Ugh. This is a sad day for this blog. As many of you know, I am a bit of a fundamentalist when it comes to free speech. I have always supported an open comments policy on the grounds that it is better for ugly and offensive language to be exposed to the light of day than to employ some bound-to-be-arbitrary standard for moderating comments. And that policy worked for over three years. But some of my co-workers have recently complained, with justification, about the comments that were on this post, resulting in us deleting a few comments. Sadly, the comments threads on this blog have featured a lot of offensive, nonsensical language recently. What the heck is wrong with some of you people?
I have come to the conclusion that tasking a few CNAS interns with moderating the comments on this blog will not be too great an offense to the marketplace of ideas. A policy regarding offensive language in the comments is being drafted and will soon be posted. If you want to be ugly and write offensive comments using racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and/or anti-gay language, that's fine -- just do it someplace else. From today on, you will no longer be allowed to write them on this website and expect them to remain published in the comments section.
Again, this really makes me frustrated. We shouldn't have to do this, gang.
Update: Okay, here it is. I hate having to do this.
CNAS retains the right to delete comments that include words that incite violence; are predatory, hateful, or intended to intimidate or harass; or degrade people on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. In summary, don’t be a jerk.
Allow me to re-introduce myself: My name is Andrew Exum, and I have edited and authored the "Abu Muqawama" blog since February 2007. After much deliberation and consultation, I have decided to stop daily blogging. I owe it to the readership to explain both why and also how it will affect this site.
First off, I have steadily grown dissatisfied with blogging as a medium since returning fulltime in December of last year. The best bloggers I know -- the ones I read and enjoy, like Spencer Ackerman, Tom Ricks and Andrew Sullivan -- are either also journalists or started out as journalists. They are much better at offering on-the-spot commentary and analysis on the events of the day. My friend and boss Nate Fick, meanwhile, accurately described me last week as being someone who enjoys taking a more deliberate approach and digging deep down into an issue before offering comment. Blogging forces me into more or less split-second reactions to complicated policy events before I have had the opportunity to research and weigh opposing views. In addition, the AD/HD nature of this medium -- as well as its format -- has harmed both my research abilities as well as my ability to write in the long form. Blogging, like any medium, is one you get better at with practice. As I have become a better blogger, my long-form writing skills have atrophied.
Second, since starting at CNAS and taking up a more public profile, I have grown concerned over the reaction to my blogging and public commentary. A few months ago, Lady Muqawama, after reading one of the comments threads here, asked me, half joking and half serious, "Are you going to be assassinated?" And when I had my phone turned off today for a CNAS offsite event, I turned it back on to a text message from her asking if I had been kidnapped by a disgruntled reader. (Again, only half joking.) I know that sounds ridiculous, but unlike me, my girlfriend and my mother read all the comments on this site, and they also read posts on the internet like this one. Sorry, but this is simply no longer worth it. I may have a certain talent for writing clever 200-word blog posts and offering sound bites on television, but I enjoy neither doing so nor the effects of doing so. In my heart, I would much rather do research, read more books, play more rugby and take on a more active role in my community than be some public figure sprinting from television interview to radio spot, twittering in the cab along the way.
So how will this blog change? First off, let me tell you how it will stay the same. This blog will remain an active website hosted by CNAS, and it will remain a home for Londonstani's awesome field reports from such dangerous places as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the ends of the Victoria Line. Second, I aim to use this blog in a different way than I have so far done. I look to friends like Marc Lynch and Reidar Visser and admire the way they use their blogs to highlight ongoing academic and policy research. I aim to do the same, which means you can expect me to post far less often but in a more considered way.
I want to thank the loyal readership for all its support. I treasure the community of people who read this blog, offer non-crazed commentary, and have reached out to become friends and drinking partners. I appreciate your continued support and hope you stay in touch.
I'll be away from the blog today.
While it is true I am still heartbroken from this weekend's loss, I am also crashing on a writing assignment and thus not posting much today. I have a lot of links I am going to dump in the next 24 hours or so, though, so be patient.
You know that. So too is blogging about it. Scrooge McFick finances my own blogging, but our favorite blog and more responsible cousin -- Small Wars Journal -- relies on gifts from its readers. If you too are a regular reader of Small Wars Journal, click here and make a donation. The impact that little blog has had on defense policy debates cannot be overestimated. Thanks.
I will be out of the country and unable to blog for the next month. Expect guest bloggers -- hand-selected for their skills in sarcasm (and nunchuks, naturally) -- presently.
Oh, goodness, I have offended the Blackfivers.
I have absolutely no idea what I am saying here. Feel free to guess in the comments thread.