Ideologues posing as impartial experts

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.


  1. says

    Don’t forget the Cato Institute and other Randroid/libertarian “think” tanks, who seem to have managed to insinuate themselves into economic policy debates so deeply that they’re now able to spew the most ridiculously obvious falsehoods and see them not only go unquestioned, but become the basic framework for nearly all policy discussion.

    The libertards’ fake expertise is further reinforced by the practice of literally buying whole university departments and dictating who gets hired to “teach” and what they’re required to “teach.” Offhand, I’d say these libertardian fake-experts are doing more long-term damage to our country than the neocon scum.

  2. slc1 says

    It’s rather amazing how General Patraeus’ reputation has gone to pot so quickly. Reminds me of what happened to J. Edgar Himmler after his death, although Patraeus is still alive to suffer the humiliation.

    By the way, it should be pointed out that Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is, apparently, unrelated to the neocon Kagan family.

  3. slc1 says

    Need we mention such phoney think tanks as the Dishonesty Institute, the George Marshall Institute, and the Heartland Institute as even more egregious examples. George Marshall must have turned over in his grave at the use of his name by that nest of thieves.

  4. machintelligence says

    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.

    These people have now learned that reality, when ignored, has a nasty habit of returning to bite them on the ass.
    If the lesson is repeated frequently enough, perhaps they will place a higher value on truth. Or not.

  5. Jay says

    “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.”

    While I appreciate your tracing the history of think tanks, this is clearly what you are (reasonably) concerned about, but I am not sure it has anything to do with think tanks. Without think tanks, before think tanks, did this activity not occur?

    Can you assure me that having a Ph.D and a professorship makes one immune to serving a partisan agenda or inserting oneself into a prominent policymaking role?

    And can you tell me that there aren’t members of think tanks that actually have far more expertise, wisdom, experience than an equivalent member of academia?

    And because I am ignorant, by your analysis, what is the difference, is there a difference, between say AEI and the Hoover Institution?

    And is there a difference between RAND, AEI, CEI, CATO, and Brookings. If I recall the runup to Iraq, there were several people at Brookings pushing war just as much as the neocons.

    (And semi-facetiously, isn’t the real problem the over production of history/political science Ph.Ds with little to contribute to society, since they refused to go into engineering at an earlier stage, and whose best job prospects are think tanks?)

  6. slc1 says

    The fact is that the “think tanks” I cited in comment 11 are quite different than many of the think tanks Mr. Jay cited, such as the RAND Corporation. For instance, the Heartland Institute was set up by the tobacco companies for the express purpose of spreading propaganda against the notion that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer (currently, it is heavily into climate change denialism, funded by the Koch brothers). The Dishonesty Institute in Seattle was set up for the purpose of spreading propaganda against the Theory of Evolution, among other activities (it also includes HIV/AIDS deniers, global warming deniers, CFCs/ozone depletion deniers, and cigarette smoking/lung cancer deniers). It is heavily funded by Howard Ahmanson, a billionaire crank, heir to an S&L fortune (formally known as Home Savings and Loan).

    1. Just for the information of Mr. Jay, the AEI was set up by business interests as a conservative counterpoint to the so called
    l “liberal” Brookings Institute

    2. The Rand Corporation is non-ideological and non-partisan and includes or has included scholars or all political stripes (e.g. Margaret Mead, Danial Ellsberg etc. on the left, Herman Kahn, etc. on the right). It was set up to provide expertise to the Armed Forces on various subjects. It bears no comparison to the likes of the Heartland Institute or the Dishonesty Institute which are intensely partisan with an anti-scientific agenda. In fact, many of the scholars at the Rand Corporation are or were on sabbatical from academia.

    And can you tell me that there aren’t members of think tanks that actually have far more expertise, wisdom, experience than an equivalent member of academia?

    I can’t speak for the humanities but the notion that any of these think tanks have “far more expertise, wisdom, experience” in the sciences then academia is total balderdash. Most of the Nobel Prize winners in physics and chemistry are from academia.

  7. Jay says

    “I can’t speak for the humanities but the notion that any of these think tanks have “far more expertise, wisdom, experience” in the sciences then academia is total balderdash. Most of the Nobel Prize winners in physics and chemistry are from academia.”

    That seems to be a non sequitur.

    I am not aware of any physics or chemistry think tanks.

    But I know plenty of think tanks that house ph.d economists, historians, political scientist.s, none of these fileds offer a Nobel Prize. Is there evidence the folks at the think tanks are objectively worse than the folks with professorships?

  8. slc1 says

    Mr. Jay moves the goal posts. Many think tanks employ, at least on a part time or sabbatical basis physicists and chemists.
    For instance, physicists Harold Brode and Herman Khan worked for the Rand corporation.

    By the way, there is a Nobel prize in economics. Winners include Paul Krugman, who writes a column for the NY Times and the late Milton Friedman. Both were academics, Krugman at Princeton, Friedman at the Un. of Chicago.

  9. slc1 says

    A number of Nobel Prize winners have worked or consulted for the Rand Corporation. Among others, they include Murray GellMann, one of the foremost physicists of the 20th Century, who spent most of his career at the California Institute of Technology and is currently associated with the Santa Fe Institute, which he co-founded. Another is the late Luis Alvarez who spent his career with the Un. of California, Berkeley. Interestingly enough, Prof. Alvarez, along with his son Walter, was the proposer of the asteroid collision theory which explains the demise of the dinosaurs 65.5 million years ago.

    Mr. Jay will find few, if any, prestigious scientists associated with phony “think tanks” like the Dishonesty Institute. Instead, he will find people like Jonathan Wells who fraudulently earned a PhD at UC Berkeley in the biology department by covering up the fact that he was a YEC and a follower of the late and unlamented fascist Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

  10. says

    Wait, you just told us that RAND is not the same as the other think tanks!

    And no, there is no Nobel Prize in economics, and Paul Krugman did not win one.

    The sad part is, if you had any ability to read my original comment without your head up your butt with partisan nonsense, you’d probably find we agree on more than we disagree on this topic.

  11. says

    (by the way, it’s not news that “jay” and “olivercrangle” are the same person, it’s that I first came and commented on Ophelia Benson’s blog which does not require logins, and then next, I had to have some sort of more official login to comment on PZ’s blog.)

  12. slc1 says

    Technically, Mr. olivercrangle is correct. The prize awarded for economics was not one of the original prizes established by Albert Nobel. However, it is commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize for Economics. And Paul Krugman won the prize in 2008.

    Wait, you just told us that RAND is not the same as the other think tanks!

    I have no idea what Mr. olivercrangle is referring to. I just got through showing why the Rand Corporation bears no resemblance to outfits such as the Dishonesty Institute. Apparently, it is Mr. olivercrangle who has his head up his nether orifice. And by the way, Nobel Prize in economics winner Kenneth Arrow is also a consultant to the Rand Corporation and has a faculty position at Stanford Un., as was Paul Samuelson, formally on the faculty of MIT.

    Apparently, Mr. olivercrangle shares the Rethuglican disdain for academics.

  13. says

    “Apparently, Mr. olivercrangle shares the Rethuglican disdain for academics.”

    No, I don’t. Not at all. That has been your fundamental and partisan misreading of what I have said this entire time. And it has biased your responses, and made them weaker. It has filled your responses with bile, and it has left them evidence free ways to push your agenda.

  14. slc1 says

    Re olivercrangle

    Just to try to sum up here, is Mr. crangle still trying to assert that think tanks such as the Rand Corporation are indistinguishable from the likes of the Heartland Institute, the Dishonesty Institute, and the George Marshall Institute or is he now conceding that they are fundamentally different, the difference being that the former has no political or ideological agenda while the latter three do?

  15. slc1 says

    Re olivercrangle

    Mr. crangle might want to consider the Chris Mooney authored tome, “The Republican War on Science,” which has a chapter on how “think tanks” like the Heartland Institute were set up and which complements the 12 part series authored by Prof. Singham.

  16. says

    Sorry, crankle, but your defensive hyperventilation in response to a fairly reasonable assertion by slc1 really undercuts your credibility. You may not be the sort of anti-intellectual Republican slc1 speaks of, but you sure do share their thin-skinned response to any serious questioning of their scams. (And if slc1’s volley was so far off-target, why did you act like you’d siffered a direct hit?)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *