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Professors Respond to Bacevich’s ‘Hit Nerve’ Essay

Say writer 'is wrong on the merits,' engaged in 'ad hominem attacks.'

[Editor’s Note: Professor Hal Brands of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Professor Peter Feaver, Duke University, requested they may respond to TAC Writer-at-Large Andrew Bacevich’s article on September 20, “Foreign Policy ‘Realists’ Hit Nerve With Establishment Elite,” in which both scholars were featured and critiqued by Bacevich.]

We recognized that our article, “Saving Realism from the So-Called Realists” (published in the September issue of Commentary), represented a feisty critique of a prominent strand of academic thought. We are therefore not surprised that the scholars we critiqued, and others who are like-minded, do not fully accept our argument. That is entirely appropriate—vigorous, energetic intellectual debate is the lifeblood of the academic endeavor. To be clear, we do not believe that those who have critiqued our argument have fully addressed the claims we make, particularly regarding the intellectual linkages between a prominent version of contemporary academic realism and some of the Trump administration’s key policies and ideas. But we welcome reasoned, substantive arguments about these matters.

We are surprised and dismayed, however, to see that some of those who disagree with our argument have engaged in ad hominem attacks and even accused us of McCarthyism, most notably Professor Andrew Bacevich here in The American Conservative. As Professor Robert Jervis noted in a memo he sent to an email list of academics, Bacevich is wrong on the merits: We never claimed that there is a cabal of influence or other nefarious cooperation between academic realists and Trump; we did not use the term “Gang of Four” to describe the realists we critique. And it is doubly problematic because the use of such calumnies has precisely the chilling effect on intellectual discourse—particularly, one imagines, among junior scholars—that our critics accuse us of seeking to exert.

The stakes of debates about American grand strategy are high, and so it is entirely proper that these debates be conducted with passion and intensity. But it is equally vital that they be conducted without resort to the sort of baseless ad hominem attacks that impede intellectual discourse rather than encouraging it.