The Executive Branch Doesn't Need a New Ornament

If the president had a Council of Historical Advisers, what would it tell him about the idea of creating a "Council of Historical Advisers"?


Split Enz

Should the White House have its own History Squad? The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson and his colleague from the political science department, Graham Allison, think it should. Writing in The Atlantic, the duo calls for a federally funded "Council of Historical Advisers" modeled on the Council of Economic Advisers, with a chair, "two additional members," and "a small professional staff." These court historians would be charged with finding past parallels to current events and then using their discoveries to supply the president with advice:

In 2003, to take one example, when President George W. Bush chose to topple Saddam Hussein, he did not appear to fully appreciate either the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or the significance of the fact that Saddam's regime was led by a Sunni minority that had suppressed the Shiite majority. He failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of his actions would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East—Iran.

There were indeed historians who made this argument in 2003. But there were also historians who wanted Bush to invade, as Gene Healy points out in a devastating response to Ferguson and Allison. "In fact," he reminds us, "there was a top-flight Middle East scholar, fully up to speed on the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, who had the administration's attention in the run up to the war. That was Bernard Lewis, 'Bush's historian,' who 'deliver[ed] spine-stiffening lectures to Cheney over dinner in undisclosed locations' and pro-war thinkpieces in the Wall Street Journal." If a Council of Historical Advisers had existed in the Bush years, it's easy to imagine the president appointing Lewis to lead it. (As Healy notes, another historian who cheered for the Iraq war was none other than Niall Ferguson.)

Lewis, to be sure, is a significant scholar whose work is worth reading, and I say that as someone who often disagrees with him strenuously. But that speaks to a bigger issue. Bernard Lewis' considerable knowledge about what has already happened does not necessarily make him an expert on what will happen. One of the best things about history as a discipline is that it doesn't pretend to be a predictive science—or, indeed, to be any sort of science at all. That isn't a flaw; it's self-awareness.

History is certainly useful when making predictions. You can't make sense of the present without knowing about the past, and there is obvious value in finding historical analogs to current events. But Ferguson and Allison seem to be calling for something more: a new discipline they call "applied history," where scholars "find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences." The whole idea smacks of science envy, down to the models they cite: "You might say that applied history is to mainstream history as medical practice is to biochemistry, or engineering is to physics," they write. "But those analogies are not quite right. In the realm of science, there is mutual respect between practitioners and theorists. In the realm of policy, by contrast, there is far too often mutual contempt between practitioners and academic historians."

At any rate: If we had a panel of these applied historians at our disposal, and we asked them to look for past parallels to this council, what would they say the consequences of the Ferguson/Allison proposal would be? If they're frank enough to undermine a potential job opportunity—let's pretend, OK?—they may well conclude that the body wouldn't have much impact on the boss's decisions. As Healy writes, "Presidents have mostly used their pet scholars as ambassadors to academia and the chattering classes: they're valued less for their influence on executive-branch decisionmaking than for their ability to put an intellectual veneer on whatever it is the president's already decided to do."

And if the president does honestly want their advice? Then there's one more risk we need to keep in mind. Here's Healy again:


Presidents already have an unhealthy obsession with their legacies—wandering the halls, gazing at the portraits (sometimes even talking to them), and wondering how they'll stack up in the rankings game: "In 1996 Clinton privately grouped his presidential predecessors into three tiers, then spent a long Sunday morning with consultant Dick Morris discussing what he could do to join the top group."

The academic consensus on that question seems to be that, to become a great president, you need to dream big, break stuff, and "leave the presidency stronger than you found it." Given historians' generally demented judgments about which presidents belong in the top tier, we should probably be grateful Bill didn't have a Council of Historical Advisers around to consult.