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Problems in Counter-Terrorism

Stanford Historian Raises Red Flags about Dept. of Defense Counter-Terrorism Initiative

Priya Satia is a Stanford history professor whose research interests include British cultural and political history, the history of imperialism, and humanitarianism. At first glance, Satia’s research might not seem relevant to Department of Defense counter-terrorism strategy, but her recent book, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East, has made her a useful appraiser of current American surveillance and counter-insurgency strategies in the region. Satia’s area of expertise also happens to be pertinent to a project that is encouraging scholars to voice their concerns about a potentially detrimental DoD counter-terrorism initiative; ironically; it’s an initiative that seeks input from scholars like Satia in the social sciences and humanities.

In her book, published in 2008, Satia takes an unprecedented look into the British intelligence agencies’ history of surveillance and espionage in the Middle East in the era of WWI. The historical lessons to be gleaned from Britain's mistakes and successes are so pertinent to the current U.S. occupation of Iraq, that in 2007, at the request of the U.S. Directorate of National Intelligence, Prof. Satia presented her findings to officials from more than a dozen intelligence agencies and policy-making units, emphasizing that in the 1920s, much as today, “group think” about the Middle East as a particularly mysterious place produced dire consequences for both Iraq and its occupiers, laying the path to today’s latest chapter of misfortune

Satia’s research focus might seem to mark her as precisely the type of applicant that the Department of Defense hoped to hear from when they put out a call for research proposals for their aptly named Minerva Initiative. The Minerva Initiative, announced in 2008 and on-going for the next five years, is designed to promote humanities and social science scholarship in areas of U.S. national security policy. With a $75 million dollar budget, the DoD hopes the Minerva Initiative will help to forward research that the military can benefit from while at the same time opening the lines of communication between universities and the government.

The Minerva Initiative appears to be a project with worthy intentions. In theory, it will aggregate and then apply the insights of leading academics to both current and long-term terrorism scenarios. Add to that the fact that current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who initiated the project, is a former President of Texas A&M University, making this a moment when scholars might be particularly amenable to sharing their research with a government agency. But for a number of scholars, including Prof. Satia, the project was cause for alarm. To her, academics belong in the public, not the governmental sphere, for they serve us best as independent producers of knowledge and critics of government action, “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.”

The Social Science Research Council (SSRC), an independent, not-for-profit research organization, also recognized the flaws inherent to the Minerva Initiative. SSRC Program Officer, Thomas Asher, points out the key issues, “although the Minerva initiative will promote scholarship as a public resource, it is also fraught with the ethical issues of how the research findings will be affected by DoD funding, what standards should be imposed when scholars work with the Department, and who is in charge of vetting the researchers.  Scholars opposed to the initiative are worried about the DoD’s ability to only pay attention to the findings that support their existing agendas.”

To provide scholars with a discussion platform and to facilitate interdisciplinary discourse on the topic, the SSRC created a Minerva Controversy on-line essay forum. The SSRC solicited entries from Prof. Satia and professors from other universities including Harvard, Cornell and Duke. The SSRC also approached a number of public figures such as Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive.

In her essay for the SSRC’s Minerva forum, Professor Satia argues that an appeal to academics might seem to indicate the Department of Defense’s belated awareness that they are in over their heads. But, to Satia, the appeal is a misguided attempt to involve academics without fully considering the consequences of the act. Satia calls attention to a similar situation involving the British military in Iraq after the First World War.  The British government reached out for academic expertise in the area in order to validate its actions and to appease the public by engaging empathetic civilians to help with upheavals in Iraq.  Empathy was no guarantee of humanity, however; the British military continued to use forceful means to impose order on the country.

As Satia puts it, “Today, too, embedded anthropologists will not rid our wars of ‘collateral damage’ or remove the stigma of occupation; only the end of war can.” Rather than luring scholars to work towards the Department’s agendas with grants and fame, Satia suggests the DoD learn to access and make better use of knowledge already being produced by academics working on the Middle East situation.  

Asher said that Department of Defense representatives are reading the forum essays and he’s hopeful that the agency will take the scholars’ thoughts into consideration as the initiative moves forward.

Priya Satia is currently Assistant Professor of History at Stanford where she teaches courses on modern Britain and the British Empire. Her research has been featured in the American Historical Review, Past and Present, and elsewhere.  Her article, “The Defense of Inhumanity: Air Control in Iraq and the British Idea of Arabia” won the Article Prize of the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies for 2005-2006 and the 2007 Walter D. Love Prize of the North American Conference on British Studies.  

Satia is currently researching the manufacture, trade, and use of small arms in the British Empire for her next book project Empire of Guns: The British Empire and the Making of the Legal Trade in a Weapon of Mass Destruction, 1760-1960.

Read her entire SSRC essay, The Forgotten History of Knowledge and Power in British Iraq, or Why Minerva’s Owl Cannot Fly: