Back in 2008 I wrote a 12-part series titled The Propaganda Machine in which I traced the rise of the right-wing echo chamber that we now see in full fruition, with its combination of newspapers and radio and TV painting a steady picture of an alternate reality that has persuaded a significant number of people that things which are factually false are really true.
Behind the scenes but playing a central role in this structure are the right-wing think tanks, the brain child of former US Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell who wrote a famous memo to the US Chamber of Commerce in 1971 (when he was still a corporate lawyer and just before he was nominated to the court by Richard Nixon) where he outlined what needed to be done to counter the influence of university academics who were respected for their expertise and reputation for independence but whom the business community viewed as not being sympathetic enough to business interests.
As University of California Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff said, “Powell’s agenda included getting wealthy conservatives to set up professorships, setting up institutes on and off campus where intellectuals would write books from a conservative business perspective, and setting up think tanks.” (For more details, see particularly #6: The Powell memo and its aftermath and #7: The rise of think tanks in that series.)
Because these think tanks are generously funded by right-wing business interests, their people can churn out books and articles without the distractions of teaching and research and other duties that university academics must deal with and they can appear at their own expense at short notice at any forum that cares to invite them, thus making them attractive speakers for cash-strapped organizations. Since they also have a ready outlet for their output in the right-wing media and publishing houses (and right-wing book clubs that purchase their output in bulk and thus help them make the best-seller lists), they can obtain high visibility without having their often shoddy ‘studies’ subjected to the rigors of peer review. What has been created is a welfare system for low-quality, right-wing academic wannabees who are pushing an agenda.
These people and the think tanks have become such an entrenched part of the landscape that their credibility is no longer questioned and they gain access to influential levels of government as ‘experts’, which they then turn around to benefit their own fundraising. The Washington Post recently had a disturbing article providing yet another example of how this system works to advance right-wing interests, in this case the military-neoconservative complex.
Robert Kagan works for the American Enterprise Institute which can be considered Neoconservative Central. His wife Kimberley Kagan runs the Institute for the Study of War. Both favor an aggressive US military posture, especially against those they see as Israel’s enemies. While continuing to work for their respective outfits, they spent an extensive period of time in Afghanistan ‘volunteering’ their services to General Petraeus. They could do this because they are on the right-wing welfare system.
Provided desks, e-mail accounts and top-level security clearances in Kabul, they pored through classified intelligence reports, participated in senior-level strategy sessions and probed the assessments of field officers in order to advise Petraeus about how to fight the war differently.
Petraeus allowed his biographer-turned-paramour, Paula Broadwell, to read sensitive documents and accompany him on trips. But the entree granted the Kagans, whose think-tank work has been embraced by Republican politicians, went even further. The four-star general made the Kagans de facto senior advisers, a status that afforded them numerous private meetings in his office, priority travel across the war zone and the ability to read highly secretive transcripts of intercepted Taliban communications, according to current and former senior U.S. military and civilian officials who served in the headquarters at the time.
The Kagans used those privileges to advocate substantive changes in the U.S. war plan, including a harder-edged approach than some U.S. officers advocated in combating the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction in eastern Afghanistan, the officials said.
The pro-bono relationship, which is now being scrutinized by military lawyers, yielded valuable benefits for the general and the couple. The Kagans’ proximity to Petraeus, the country’s most-famous living general, provided an incentive for defense contractors to contribute to Kim Kagan’s think tank. For Petraeus, embracing two respected national security analysts in GOP circles helped to shore up support for the war among Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.
As war-zone volunteers, the Kagans were not bound by stringent rules that apply to military personnel and private contractors. They could raise concerns directly with Petraeus, instead of going through subordinate officers, and were free to speak their minds without repercussion.
The Kagans did not hesitate to us their political influence in the Republican party and the media to push the previous commander in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal to adopt their preferred strategies, by threatening to publish an article that said that the war was not going well unless he invited them to Afghanistan and gave them access and information. He complied. And they rewarded him with a more upbeat assessment. The Kagans seem to have extremely close ties to McChrystal’s successor Petraeus and he seemed to have had little trouble agreeing to their requests for access.
Stephen R. Walt has more on the model of how quid pro quo arrangements like that between Petraeus and that Kagans work.
The main problem is that the relationship between Petraeus and his outside advisors was rife with conflicts of interest and perverse incentives, and it made it almost certain that a) Petraeus would mostly get advice he wanted to hear, and b) the people he was consulting would return home and write upbeat articles about him, and the strategy he was pursuing. And that’s exactly what they did.
Here’s the basic structure of the situation. If you’re a politically ambitious commander like Petraeus, you want good advice. But you also want to make sure that you and your decisions are portrayed in a positive light. So you invite some well-connected civilians to visit your operation, and you make sure you select people who aren’t known for being critical of the war and who will be easy to co-opt if need be. And when the consultants come to visit for a few days or weeks, you make sure they receive briefings that give the impression things are going well even if they are not.
Next, consider how this looks from the consultants’ perspective. If you’re an inside-the-Beltway think-tanker (and especially if you’re someone who depends on soft money), it’s a big deal to be invited to go to Afghanistan or Iraq and advise the commander. It makes you look more important to your colleagues, your boss, and your board, and you can go on TV and radio and write op-eds invoking your “on-the ground” experience. If you have to debate somebody on U.S. policy, you can sit up straight and pontificate about “what I saw when I was in Kabul,” or “what General Petraeus told me when we were discussing COIN strategy,” or whatever. Then you (or your organization) can write fundraising letters or grant proposals touting your connections and deep on-the-ground experience. And let’s not forget the role of ego: it’s just plain flattering to think a four-star general wants your advice.
That these unelected and unaccountable people with their own agendas can invent themselves as ‘experts’ and insert themselves into prominent policymaking roles while serving a partisan agenda is disturbing to say the least.