When The Tanks Come Rolling In

Nathan Hodge at Danger Room at Wired:

When ABC News, for instance, looks for someone to help explain the president’s decision to send more troops, they turned to Kimberly Kagan. In this segment, Kagan plays the role of Beltway policy wonk, describing how U.S. troops will initially surge to southern Afghanistan (”Those forces would go in, they would protect the population they would interact with local elders, village elders, try to figure out who those bad guys are in those communities and figure out different ways of making those communities safe,” she says). But there’s no mention of the fact that she played a role in shaping the strategy.

USA Today, by contrast, quotes Fred Kagan on the troop increase and the prospects for improved security (”the good news is the administration does not seem to be planning that a rapid turnaround will take place”), but also mentions that he helped McChrystal with the assessment. CNN, quoting Fred Kagan in this segment, does not.

It’s not unusual to wear different hats in Washington, and it’s up to the reporters to spell out when someone has interests at stake. That’s not always easy to do on deadline, but there’s a larger issue here about transparency in the marketplace of ideas, especially when it comes to national-security think-tanks.


I’m not suggesting here that there’s any funny business, but I do think we need to take a closer look at who’s paying the bills, especially when you consider the remarkable clout of a select number of national-security think tanks. The 2007 Iraq surge was at least partly cooked up at AEI (the photo above shows the Kagans on a visit to Basra). Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings helped make the case for the surge, and argued that it was working. Graduates of CNAS have occupied top posts in the new administration.

More importantly, think tanks served as a sort of advance guard for a troop increase, with some pundits pushing early — and hard — for an escalated involvement. Here’s Cordesman, arguing in early August for more troops and fewer allied caveats. And here’s a CNAS brief from back in June. Not everyone one McChrystal’s advisory team signed on to the surge — Shapiro of Brookings, for one, did not advocate more troops — but the panel’s bipartisan design helped lend more weight to the general’s recommendations.

Walt proposed rating think-tanks on their financial transparency and willingness to disclose sources of income. Some of that information is readily available: With a few hours to kill, and a Guidestar.org account, you can take a closer look at the financial side of things, by examining the groups’ “Form 990″ filings with the IRS. Some of the think tanks do contract research for the government (CNAS, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, or CSBA); others do not accept government funding (Heritage, AEI).

But there are still a lot of blanks to fill in here. Some think tanks do not disclose donor names (but if you look at the name of endowed chairs for scholars, you can figure out who is paying some of the bills). Big defense contractors — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing — also contribute to many of the defense-oriented think tanks, although getting specific amounts is tricky (Form 990 does not break down individual donations).

We here at Danger Room are not trying to knock these think tankers — some of them, like Biddle, Cordesman and Exum, are as smart as they come. We’re as fond of quoting them as anyone. But it’s also worth asking who pays the piper.

Matthew Yglesias:

While agreeing that Biddle, Cordesman, and Exum are all “as smart as they come” I think it’s also worth being a bit less polite about this. Smart, honest people have smart, honest disagreements about all kinds of stuff. But if it’s easier to get funding for smart, honest ideas about the need for more activist policy than for smart, honest ideas about the need for less activist policy, then each smart, honest person who has some smart, honest ideas implying the need for more activist policy is going to find him or herself primarily working on smart, honest ideas about the need for more activist policy. Even if you assume that nobody in the system is corrupt or dishonest, the system itself contains a systematic bias in favor of military action and against counsels of restraint. It’s a real problem, and it’s something that smart, honest people should be able to acknowledge.

A related point that both reflects and re-enforces the military’s extraordinary prestige and political influence is that having a good relationship with the senior military leadership is a very useful career asset for a defense policy analyst. This is a huge contrast to what you see in other areas. The fact that, say, EPI has a closer relationship with teacher’s unions than do other think tanks isn’t regarded as giving EPI extra credibility in analyzing education policy issues. That, again, serves to distort the terms of the debate. One-note guys like Bill Kristol or Robert Kaplan who think the answer to every policy question is “invade!” are treated as about a thousand times more credible than people who think countries shouldn’t be invaded or bombed for reasons other than self-defense.

Andrew Exum responds:

Oh, for goodness sake. Nathan Hodge starts by asking some fair questions about where defense and foreign policy think tanks get their money. (And has a kind word or two for this blogger. Back at you, Danger Room!) But Matthew Yglesias takes things a step too far. If he thinks this blogger — or anyone else advocating the U.S. military take population-centric counterinsurgency more seriously — is in the pocket of the military-industrial complex, he does not understand the acquisitions implications of an institutional move toward COIN, a form of warfare in which expensive weapons platforms like the F-22 have little utility.

On the other hand, I guess this is good news. After being accused of being a Luddite for the past three years, I must be doing something right if people are now tying me and my opinions to large defense contractors. I think you’re going to have a very tough time, though, arguing that those making the case for a fundamentally low-tech COIN campaign in Afghanistan are carrying water for Boeing, Lockheed Martin, & Co. I very much doubt big defense corporations are charmed by this researcher saying things like language and cultural training matter as much as or more than the latest and greatest piece of military hardware.

I think this is another case of “they disagree with me on policy, therefore they must be intellectually dishonest”. Or, hey, maybe we instead have a different set of assumptions, educations and experiences which lead us toward different conclusions. Maybe. (I’m just going to throw that out there as a possibility.) Anyway, I would ponder this question more but have to first go hop in the bathtub filled with gold Krugerrands donated to me by General Dynamics in thanks for my service to the evil military industrial complex.

Exum also updates and includes Matt’s response:

I feel like you’ve engaged in a really egregious misreading of my post. I don’t understand how you read the observation that “Even if you assume that nobody in the system is corrupt or dishonest, the system itself contains a systematic bias in favor of military action and against counsels of restraint” as an accusation of intellectual dishonesty. I also don’t know why you read the post as specifically about advocates of population-centric counterinsurgency. At any rate, it’s certainly true that spending $600 billion per anum on a military organized around COIN is less profitable for defense contractors than is spending $600 billion per anum on a military organized around heavy weapons systems. But my post was about a systematic bias in favor of military activism, rather than a foreign policy of restraint, which would be cheaper than either.

I think the headline hacked me off more than anything else, to which Yglesias replied, “Attention-grabbing headlines are perhaps not always the best way to make a point about a complicated issue.” Anyway, I’m probably being too sensitive. But I should point out that a) CNAS makes the names of its corporate donors public, b) CNAS has over 100 donors and c) no single one of those donors contributes more than 5% of our budget. (And d), donors don’t have editorial control. Obviously.)

Dylan Matthews at Tapped:

Whatever one thinks about the growth of private military contractors, it is hard to argue that even more mundane contracting groups — those that provide catering, laundry, base security, and other support services — do not benefit from troop surges. More troops in the theater means more support services are necessary, and thus more profits for these types of groups.

Now, we do not know that these are the types of groups financing pro-war think tanks like CNAS. As Nathan Hodge notes, many think tanks aren’t exactly enthusiastic about revealing their donors. But even if the kinds of contractors who directly benefit from the very escalatory polices that hawkish think tanks back aren’t the ones financing them, a cultural component still exists here as well. It could be true — entirely apart from self-interested considerations — that far more wealthy donors are interested in financing national security experts with more enthusiastic views about the use of force than in funding those urging restraint. It’s at least worth noting that, of the many Washington think tanks, only the Cato Institute’s fellows consistently offer skeptical views on the war in Afghanistan. The reasons could be more complicated than contractor self-preservation — the institutional prestige of the military, more general political patterns among the upper classes, etc. — but they still result in a systemic preference for pro-war experts within the vast majority of influential think tanks.

Hodge again:

Contractors have an enormous stake in population-centric counterinsurgency: The coalition depends on the private sector for logistics support, intelligence, equipment maintenance, translation services, even armed security. At this point, contractors match uniformed personnel on the battlefield, roughly one-for-one.

When most people think of the defense-industrial complex, they think of platform manufacturers: The companies that build carriers, jets and tanks. Post-9/11, however, the defense industry has undergone a major shift. The Pentagon now spends more money on “services” than it does on buying new hardware. Traditional defense firms have diversified: Think Lockheed Martin’s PAE Group or Northrop Grumman Information Technology. They see a good part of their future in supporting stability operations and counterinsurgency.

But I disagree with Yglesias on one point here. Defense firms aren’t “buying off” think-tankers. Exum, for instance, was arguing the same points long before CNAS started paying for his health insurance.

In a hearing this summer to consider the nomination of Kurt Campbell to be Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) noted the sudden emergence — and extraordinary clout — of CNAS, co-founded by Campbell just two years before.

“The question really revolves around the creation of the Center for a New American Security in ‘07 being heavily funded by defense contractors in government contracts,” said Webb. “And then … 11 former CNAS employees then migrating into the president’s administration, and whether there are appropriate firewalls between the formation of that.”

Webb, indirectly, was raising an important question: Why, exactly, do these firms bankroll national security think-tanks? CNAS, like many other Washington think tanks, bills itself as independent and nonpartisan. And CNAS, as Campbell pointed out, was a “bipartisan civil-military organization” focused on broad national security issues, not specific procurement programs.

Spencer Ackerman:

Since the guy included one of my favorite “Eastbound & Down” scenes and compared Ex to Scrooge McDuck, there’s not much I can add. I suppose I’d underscore that Ex might have acknowledged that in any institution there are incentives to toeing a line, and it’s on all of us to fight those tendencies. That includes those of us in the media, certainly. Access really is a curse. Not only is CNAS no exception, it’s in an especially privileged position as the premiere counterinsurgency think tank at a time of counterinsurgent ascendence. While the organization is diversifying as its personnel have gone into the Obama Pentagon and State Department, that fact remains its most distinguishing attribute.

But at the same time, Yglesias had a good post a few hours prior that tweaked Glenn Greenwald for suggesting in a different context that access was an unmitigated curse. (Glenn’s quote appeared in a piece about Jane. I can feel myself inspiring a diverse coalition against me, wall of death-like.) I would have liked it if Yglesias put some of that nuance into his post about the “military-industrial complex.” The mundane truth is that while there most certainly is an unhealthy confluence of interests that lead business and the military — and, we should add, the media — into a distorted view of American power, so too is there important internal diversity and counterpressures within that coalition. Not only, as Nathan notes, did Ex arrive at his perspectives long before CNAS put him on the payroll, so too does he take positions that don’t benefit that complex. His recent paper on what to do about increasing insurgency hotspot Yemen, for instance, explicitly swears off “large scale military operations as in Iraq and Afghanistan” in favor of development, diplomatic, financial and other soft-power tools. I daresay that the paper could have been published by the Center for American Progress. And I would echo Ex on the point about CNAS being possibly the least platform-enthusiastic defense think-tank around. What should people who favor the ground forces at the expense of the F-22 do, starve? (That last sentence is best read with a Yiddish accent.)

But, of course, I could just be saying that because I shill endlessly for CNAS. I’ve even RSVPd for their holiday party. So you can’t trust me on this, obviously. I look forward to discussing this further tonight when I meet up with Yglesias for beers…

UPDATE: Nathan Hedge

Spencer Ackerman



Filed under Go Meta, Military Issues

2 responses to “When The Tanks Come Rolling In

  1. In his Dec. 3rd blog post “Abu Muqawama Sells Out!” Andrew Exum wrote:

    “I think this is another case of “they disagree with me on policy, therefore they must be intellectually dishonest. Or, hey, maybe we instead have a different set of assumptions, educations and experiences which lead us toward different conclusions.”

    However, it would be nice if Mr. Exum actually extended the courtesy of assuming others have honestly reached different conclusions than himself. Before his short “retirement” from blogging, Exum has been quick to hurl ad hominum attacks at other writers instead of addressing the merits of arguments with which he disagrees. A couple of recent examples:

    “He Who Shall Not Be Fact-Checked” (Nov. 9th):

    “My theory is that [Seymour] Hersh’s journalism is a little like a 12-gauge shotgun. He just lets it go, and something is bound to hit the target. … such is his reputation that people only remember the articles of his that actually exposed something new and none of the articles that, in retrospect, turned out to be just crazy talk.”

    “On Martial Virtue … and Selling Jon Krakauer’s Crappy New Book” (Nov. 2nd):

    “A few months ago, I was asked to review Jon Krakauer’s new book by the Washington Post… Alas, the book was awful. I mean, it was really bad. … So Krakauer wrote a crappy book, and now he has to market it. And how is he doing that? By going after Stan McChrystal, who is probably the least culpable guy in Tillman’s chain of command for any of the stupid things that happened in the aftermath of his death. … in the eyes of Krakauer and on the fringes of the American left, soldiers are either victims of circumstance or war criminals in waiting.… Stan McChrystal is one of the finest men I have ever known, and I hope I have sons who serve under men like him.”

    I believe Mr. Exum is either woefully ignorant of the most basic facts of the Tillman story or is awfully good at feigning self-righteous anger.

    Previously, I’ve addressed McChrystal’s central role (as well as that of Senator Webb, NYT reporter Thom Shanker, etc.) in the handling of the aftermath of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death at feralfirefighter.blogspot.com [Note: I’ll be adding extensive updates to my Exum document and adding several new ones tomorrow at my fire station].

    In his September 13th Washington Post book review, Mr. Exum neglected to mention General McChrystal’s culpability in the Tillman case or disclose his close personal and professional ties with him (e.g. this past summer, Exum spent a month working closely with McChrystal in Afghanistan after being asked by McChrystal to join his Afghan war assessment team). Andrew Exum is a fellow at CNAS, “Washington’s to-to think tank on military affairs.” CNAS has spearheaded the advocacy of General McChrystal’s Afghan war “surge” and has close ties with McChrystal (meets with him weekly by videoconference) and his mentor General Petraeus.

    Quite possibly, Mr. Exum believes his own BS about the purity of General McChrystal. As the saying goes, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

    Guy Montag, SSGT Co. “F” (Ranger) 425th Infantry, MI ARNG 1983 — 1991

  2. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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