On Tuesday, Cornell’s Tom Pepinsky made a provocative point about the relevancy of political science to policymaking:

There does, though, seem to be something of an unstated agreement of how to measure policy relevance: breadth of influence, usually of big ideas. Impressionistic accounts abound about how few Congressional staffers read the APSR. Most systematic data collection efforts look to see if some major theoretical perspectives have been taken up by lots of policymakers (the TRIP Policymaker Survey is one example). The basic presumption is that research is relevant if lots of policymakers know about a Big Theory or a Grand Paradigm….
But what if this is exactly wrong? What if it’s the murky, quirky, small-bore, nuanced analytical work — that does not have Broad Disciplinary Implications, and is not designed to Shape Basic Thinking about Our World — that policymakers want? What if this is the stuff that actually influences how they make decisions?

In suggesting that policymakers are eschewing Big Theory in favor of Big Data (or, if you prefer, local knowledge), Pepinsky is making a provocative point that has been roiling the international relations discipline as of late.  On the one hand, you have increasingly prominent scholars arguing that the “isms” of theoretical paradigms are of little use, and that policymakers don’t think much of them anyway.  On the other hand, you have war horses like John Mearsheimer arguing at an APSA panel earlier this month that “theory is king” and that any intellectual debate between a Beltway policymaker and a theoretically informed political scientist is tantamount to “Bambi vs. Godzilla.” 

But if we apply this debate to a current policymaking problem — say, oh, I don’t know, what the Obama administration should do in response to the rise of the Islamic State — then we quickly see that this is a pretty silly debate, because both sides are actually correct.

If you read the New York Times front-pager by Tim Arango on this question, you quickly see that any response to the rise of the Islamic State will involve a welter of regional actors, which in turn requires a deep knowledge of local schisms and preferences.  That problem is an order of magnitude more difficult when thinking about the Syria portion of this strategy, as Mark Landler and Jonathan Weisman note in their companion story:

Mr. Obama is still wrestling with a series of challenges, including how to train and equip a viable ground force to fight ISIS inside Syria, how to intervene without aiding President Bashar al-Assad, and how to enlist potentially reluctant partners like Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
In a prime-time address on Wednesday evening, Mr. Obama is to explain to Americans his strategy for “degrading and ultimately destroying the terrorist group,” the White House said in a statement. People briefed on the president’s plans described a long-term campaign far more complex than the targeted strikes the United States has used against Al Qaeda in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.

So score a big point for Pepinsky.

That said, big theories of international relations and political science can also bring something to the table.  Take, for instance, Jack Goldstone’s ISIS primer.  It contains some useful granular data on Syria, including a link to this very useful survey of why Syrian rebels choose to join ISIS or a different anti-Assad militia.  But there’s also this paragraph:

ISIS is not just a terrorist or jihadist group; it is a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow governments to create a new regime (the Islamic caliphate) that it views as more socially just than the secular dictators it is fighting. The power of such revolutionary radicals should not be underestimated. Both conservatives and moderates in Russia dismissed the Bolsheviks as a small group of terrorists; but in the chaos following World War I they created an expansionist communist state that lasted almost a century.

I’d go even further — the strategy that separates the Islamic State from Al Qaeda is the fact that it wants to keep, hold, and rule territory.  In other words, it wants to act like a revolutionary state.

This is actually good news for the United States and other actors opposed to the Islamic State’s further rise.  We know a little bit about how revolutionary states act.  The great powers in the international system don’t always cope with networked non-state actors terribly well, but they are pretty adept at containing and combating state-like entities.  As Goldstone notes, the easiest way to sow dissension in the ranks of the Islamic State is to puncture its perception of invincibility.  This, in and of itself, will not defeat the Islamic State.  It does, however, point towards the elements of a strategy to combat the movement.

Furthermore, the simple balance-of-power logic of Realism 101 does seem to be at work in the Middle East right now in response to the Islamic State’s rise, as Arango notes:

The jihadist group known as ISIS has so far thrived in part because its enemies are also enemies of one another, a reality that has complicated efforts to muster a strong response to its rampage. That factor has been a crucial consideration in war planning in capitals as diverse as Tehran and Washington, London and Damascus. But the potential threat has also forced a re-examination of centuries old tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and Turks.
“Everyone sees ISIS as a short-term nemesis,” said Vali Nasr, a former senior adviser at the State Department who is dean of the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, adding that ISIS had thrust the region’s traditional set of rivalries into a “momentary pause.”

In selling his strategy, we know that Obama has met with a bunch of foreign policy community heavy-hitters.  I do hope, however, that those who craft the strategy also talked to/read up on some political scientists.  Because policymakers could learn a lit, big and small, from the political science community.