The propaganda machine-11: Becoming a think tank ‘expert’

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Part of the role of think tanks is to take people with a specific ideological viewpoint and transform them into ‘experts’ (at least in the eyes of the media and the public) on the cheap, without having them go through the hard work of studying a subject for a long time, doing original research, and publishing in peer-reviewed academic research journals. For example, who were the architects of the ‘surge’ plan in Iraq? It was a small coterie of war-hungry neoconservatives led by someone called Frederick Kagan at the American Enterprise Institute and backed by William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Kagan is the person credited with coming up with this plan that conveniently coincided with what the Bush administration had wanted to do all along. Glenn Greenwald documents how these two people relentlessly led the public relations effort to escalate the war in Iraq.

Kagan is often introduced in the media as a ‘military historian’ suggesting that he has considerable expertise with the kind of challenges currently faced by the US in Iraq. But what exactly is Kagan’s expertise? Is he a scholar of the Middle East? Of counter-insurgency? Of civil wars? A reader at Talking Points Memo looked into Kagan’s background:

Just a note on Fred Kagan – the guy is not an expert on insurgency, civil war, or stability ops. He has a Ph.D in history, with a focus on the 19th century Russian military. His major scholarly book is on Napoleon from 1801-5. From what I can tell, he has no serious background studying the issues that are at the core of his “surge” plan (his AEI bio page is below). So I am completely baffled by the extent to which the media has given him credibility as a “military expert”; one imagines how the surge would have been received if Kagan was accurately identified as “an expert on Napoleon and the early 19th century Russian army.” His CV reveals no publications in refereed history or political science journals in the last decade. Basically the intellectual architect of the surge is an oped/Weekly Standard writer whose only substantive expertise is on Napoleon.

A diarist at DailyKos did look closely at Kagan’s CV and concluded that the above critique had a couple of errors but that the main point was correct. Kagan definitely had not provided any evidence that he had the expertise necessary to take seriously his advice on the most serious military and political challenge facing the US today:

What makes Kagan’s different, is that virtually all of his work is not peer-reviewed (or, refereed). For those who haven’t suffered through graduate school, this means that his work has little to no academic merit.
. . .
First, Kagan has actually authored four peer-reviewed journal articles since earning his Ph.D. [in 1995], though this is a paltry number for any respectable academic. Three have been published in the last decade, but none have been published in the last nine years.

Of course, people can and do become very knowledgeable about areas outside their formal academic training. It is not at all rare in universities to find academics that have become specialists is areas far removed from their doctoral work. In fact physics Nobel prize winner S. Chandrasekhar used to change research fields every ten years or so in order to create new challenges for himself and to recharge his intellectual batteries. But again, they have to earn their credibility afresh in the new area by doing research and publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

While people can become knowledgeable in new fields even if they choose not to publish in peer-reviewed journals, they still have to struggle to earn their credibility somehow or other. The ideologically-driven think tanks, however, by virtue of their contacts in the political and media alone, can give the people who work there an easy route to credibility in the minds of the public, which is all that they care about. None of Kagan’s published works dealt with insurgencies or the Middle East. But because he was affiliated with the AEI, that provided the veneer of scholarly support for him to say what the Bush administration had wanted to do anyway, so his credentials as an ‘expert’ or ‘military analyst’ went unquestioned and no searching questions were posed by the major media as to why we should take his words with any degree of seriousness. No one seemed to ask what his track record was. In fact, he, his brother Robert Kagan, and William Kristol have a stunning record of being wrong on practically everything concerning the war in Iraq.

For example, on Monday, March 24, 2008 at an event hosted by AEI that also featured fellow war boosters Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution (another think tank), Fred Kagan began his speech by saying, “The first thing I want to say is that: The Civil War in Iraq is over. And until the American domestic political debate catches up with that fact, we are going to have a very hard time discussing Iraq on the basis of reality.” This was less than 24 hours before Iraq exploded in a renewed upsurge of sectarian violence.

But Kagan and other warmongers’ record of failed predictions is irrelevant to the administration, which can use him and the AEI ‘studies’ to suggest that what they are doing has been supported by serious people who have examined the issue in some depth. And the media, by giving uncritical credence to these people, are effectively accomplices.

Next: How think tanks influence the media

POST SCRIPT: The role of US military bases abroad

The US military empire continues to grow with new bases being created around the world and old ones expanded. Some time ago, I wrote about the protests over the US base in Vincenza, Italy that had been written about by Paul Iversen, a professor of classics at Case, who visits that town regularly.

In relation to that, Andrea Licata, President of the Center For The Research and Study of Peace at the University of Trieste, Italy will be giving a talk on War Without Limits: The Global and Local Impact of NATO and US Military Bases.

The talk is on Thursday, April 10, 2008, 4:30-6:00 PM in Rockefeller 309 at CWRU and is free and open to the public. The abstract of the talk is given below.

Andrea will speak about NATO’s new policies to wage what he calls “war without limits.” He will note the ways in which existing and planned US and NATO military bases in Italy are aimed at current and future conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. He will also talk about the local political, economic and environmental impact of foreign military bases, particularly the impact of a new controversial air base being planned to host the US Army’s 173rd Airborne in the northern Italian town of Vicenza, which is home to many of the masterpieces of the great neo-classical architect Palladio. He will also share with us the ways in which many diverse groups in Italy, Europe and the world are fighting the construction of new military bases and how they are proposing peaceful alternative projects and economic opportunities for existing ones. There will time for questions and discussion afterwards.

For more information about the speaker, see here.


  1. says

    This has been another eye-opening series, as your entries so often are. Today’s reminded me of when I was younger. I had this notion that it would be fun to work for a think tank because I could spend my days learning and analyzing in an effort to discern what would make for effective policy.

    Alas it sounds like that wouldn’t be the case at all, that the tail wags the dog, learning is moot and analysis must be reshaped to fit the preferred policy.

  2. Erin says

    Mano, what do you think of Noam Chomsky? He is a textbook case of someone making his professional name in one field and making a public splash in another. Does he publish policy papers in peer-reviewed journals?

  3. says


    As far as I can tell, Chomsky does not publish his political analyses in peer-reviewed academic journals. Chomsky and a lot of others like him fall into the category of “public intellectuals”. These are people who have decided to actively educate and influence public attitudes on a variety of topics because of their own passions. They go deeply into an area and try to talk directly to people through books, articles, and talks. Whatever credibility they have in these areas is what the public grants them for what they actually write and say, and not through any institutional affiliation.

    Of course the fact that Chomsky is an acclaimed linguist and tenured professor at MIT helps his credibility somewhat since he has shown that he is an original thinker and understands the requirements of academic rigor. But outside of linguistics, the only reason to listen to him is if you think he makes sense, not because of any institutional affiliation or title.

    The rise of the internet and blogs has broadened the range of public intellectuals that are available, which is a good thing in my opinion, but also means that the reader has to be more discerning about who is reliable and worth paying attention to and who is just a hack. Thus we need to look at their record over the long haul.

    I take Chomsky seriously because going back to the 1960s, he has been very perceptive about the nature and goals of US foreign policy and his analyses are data-based and historically accurate.

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