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Q and A with Russell Crandall

by Ty Shaffer

May 9,2010

Dr. Russell Crandall is Associate Professor of Political Science at Davidson College, and currently is Director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, a position he also held during the Bush Administration. Before moving back to the National Security Council, Dr. Crandall most recently was Principal Director for the Western Hemisphere at the Department of Defense. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Dr. Crandall graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine, and took his Ph.D. in International Relations at The Johns Hopkins University

What sparked your interest in Latin America? Did you go to grad school intending to be an area studies specialist?

That was exactly it. I studied my junior year in Chile, but from a very young age I was interested in the world, and it was in college where I caught the Latin America bug. After my studies in Chile and a year teaching first grade in Honduras after college, I continued to be interested [in Latin America] during grad school.

You’ve been at Davidson since 2000, and as a student of Latin America I’m sure you’ve been attentive to links between the those countries and the Charlotte community. Are there connections between Charlotte and Latin America you have found particularly interesting or surprising?

Certainly. One in particular was the significant Colombian community, especially in Statesville. The situation has improved dramatically in Colombia, but during prior decades you had a brain drain from the country, and a lot of Colombians were ending up in the Charlotte metropolitan region. Unlike Central American and Mexican immigrants, who tend to be blue collar workers, in [the Colombian] case it tended to be the professional class that was fleeing because of the violence. That was an unexpected element I encountered when I moved down from Washington to Davidson.

Colombia is a country that you have written a lot about.

Yes, I don’t consider myself a “Colombianist” or an “Andeanist,” but I have written on Colombia, and I worked in human rights there for a year after my Master’s and before my doctorate. I certainly work on it a lot now in my current job.

How did you find the transition from being an academic to working on policy for the past two administrations?

You’re certainly drinking from a fire hose, and you’re sort of thrown right in. It’s not like when you take a job like this there will be training. You learn by trial and error, but certainly having done this previously in 2004 and 2005 and a couple other stints as a consultant and adviser working in government eased my more recent transition, first to the Pentagon and now to this job in the National Security Council.

I’m sure this experience has made you think a lot about the links between theory and practice.

Well, if there are links [laughter]... you sort of wonder. You see on a daily basis that so much of policy is driven by personalities, bureaucratic interests and predilection, so any kind of “rational” theory of how government works—you know, [that it works] in a rational or predictable manner—seems quite unconvincing. I wish we were that good.

It’s been interesting. We had the coup in Honduras last summer when I was at the Pentagon and, more recently, the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. So, we’ve been in crisis mode in the Western Hemisphere from almost the get-go.

Many academics seem to think that serious scholarship only can be produced at research universities, where scholars are relatively free from heavy teaching responsibilities.

Yeah, I reject that. Certainly it’s easier if you don’t have to teach, but I’m lucky at Davidson. One, I’m able to teach what I want, so I teach things that overlap with my research. And two, I’ve found in my ten years there that I’ve had remarkable students who have been very capable in assisting me in my research. So, I kind of exploit them as cheap (and preferably free) labor. But it’s been good. I couldn’t be happier. And it’s a good spot for me because if you’re at an orthodox research university, even the fact that you're doing policy and working for the government is suspect—you know, “he’s not a serious scholar,” or, "he’s not a real theorist.” But I’m sort of free from all of that.

What do you hope your experiences in policy circles will add to your work in the classroom?

It’s very sobering, I think, just how hard this is. It’s a series of least-bad responses, and identifying those [responses]. Even then, times you want to [choose between] the least bad, you end up [having to choose between] two really bad.

A lot of people on the outside do like to criticize what the United States does in the Americas. But it’s another thing entirely, I think, [to propose] how you do that. You need to isolate Chavez, you need to rebuild Haiti, you need to do all these things. Okay, well, how do you do that given that we have adversaries, [that you have to] manage this massive thing called the “United States government” and its “foreign policy apparatus,” and then how do you pay for it? Think of all the different agencies involved in any type of activity, like disaster relief in Haiti—military, National Guard, all of these elements. It’s extraordinarily difficult to manage. But it certainly is a privilege to be at the White House and National Security Council, coordinating that process of formulating the President’s policies and then implementing them.

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(Image: Accompanied by a Colombian police officer, Crandall observes training efforts for locating and destroying clandestine cocaine laboratories.)

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