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Surge of Think Tanks Blurs U.S. Policy Lines – Part 1

WASHINGTON, Jun 17 2010 (IPS) - In early May, Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, was awarded the American Enterprise Institute’s Irving Kristol Award, which is given to individuals who have “made exceptional intellectual or practical contributions to improved government policy, social welfare, or political understanding”.

During his acceptance speech, titled “The Surge of Ideas”, Petraeus lauded a number of neoconservative “scholars” associated with AEI, in particular “Team Kagan”, for their work in preparing the intellectual ground work that led to the “surge” in Iraq.

He said, “In the fall of 2006, AEI scholars helped develop the concept for what came to be known as the surge. Fred and Kim Kagan and their team, which included retired general Jack Keane, prepared a report that made the case for additional troops in Iraq. As all here know, it became one of those rare think tank products that had a truly strategic impact.”

Three months earlier, in January, Petraeus offered a very similar speech about the “surge of ideas” during a talked organised by Kim Kagan’s Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a “non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organisation [that] advances an informed understanding of military affairs through reliable research, trusted analysis, and innovative education.”

During his ISW presentation, which was devoted largely to discussing U.S. military priorities in the greater Middle East, Petraeus argued that “far more important than the surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops was the surge of ideas that helped us to employ those troops.” He said that a number of think tank “heroes” like “Fred” and “Kim” were responsible for developing a “study and analysis that did indeed have a strategic impact unlike that of any other study or analysis that I can think of”.

Petraeus was referring to “Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq”, a study sponsored by the AEI and led by Fred Kagan and retired Gen. Jack Keane (an ISW board member), with Kim Kagan and a host of AEI scholars serving as advisers. The group’s report, released in early 2007, played an instrumental role in shaping the surge and building public support for it.

Petraeus extolled his think tank “heroes” for providing “the rationale for the additional forces that were required [and] describ[ing] how they might be used in Iraq”, claiming that their work “serendipitously” made its way into “the West Wing and ultimately even into the Oval Office. …I think it played a very significant role in helping to shape the intellectual concepts and indeed, in helping to shape the ultimate policy decision that was made.”

Petraeus’s “surge of ideas” speech highlights an issue that has drawn increasing attention and criticism from commentators and foreign policy experts. In recent years, there has been a tendency for like-minded think tanks and military officers to jointly pursue policy objectives, sometimes in opposition to the stated preferences of the administration.

According to some observers, this trend raises questions about the appropriate role of both military officers, who are part of a chain of command, and think tanks, which present themselves as “non-partisan” appraisers of public policy.

The Iraq surge public relations campaign is often highlighted as a case in point. Commenting on this case, Brian Katulis, a fellow at the liberal Centre for American Progress, argues that when military officers get involved in policy advocacy, it can have a “narrowing effect” on debate.

Katulis points to Petraeus’s support for the work of Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the centrist Brookings Institution. In a July 2007 article for the New York Times titled “A War We Might Just Win” – a “propaganda piece”, says Katulis – the two analysts cited their military- sponsored tour in Iraq to claim that, as a result of the surge, “morale was high”, the bad guys were on the run, and while the situation remained “grave”, the military escalation merited continued congressional support.

Exactly the message, says Katulis, that Petraeus hoped to transmit.

Bernard Finel, a fellow at the American Security Project in Washington, agrees, arguing that Petraeus’s decision to give a “window shield” tour to analysts like O’Hanlon was patently deliberate. During the months before his Iraq tour, O’Hanlon had helped promote the surge ideas pushed by the Kagans, coauthoring a paper with Fred Kagan and inviting him to talk at a Brookings event.

“Petraeus knew that the Bush administration’s credibility was low, that it was going to have trouble selling the surge,” said Finel in an interview, so he hand-picked a number of civilians who he knew were behind this policy and helped turn them into media “experts”. This effort sidelined critics of the surge, says Finel, who were viewed as “outsiders, people without access, and thus not to be believed”.

Just as importantly, say writers like Foreign Policy’s Laura Rozen, the successful effort to promote the Iraq surge appears to have had an impact on Petraeus, who realised the persuasive power of getting “influence makers” to present situations on the ground “from the command’s perspective”.

Wrote Rozen last year, “It’s a lesson perhaps from the Petraeus team’s famous counterinsurgency doctrine: In the campaign to win hearts and minds, don’t forget the home front.”

This “Petreaus Model” was updated late last year by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. During much of 2009, in an effort to overcome resistance from the Obama administration and push through his preferred war plan, McChrystal waged a public relations campaign that relied in part on a “strategic assessment” team made up of several policy wonks whose views happened to be largely in line with his own.

Team members included the omnipresent Kagans, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Andrew Exum of the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), and Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution.

Some of these civilian experts – as well as several additional high-profile wonks like O’Hanlon, who has a knack for getting invited by the U.S. military to visit conflict zones – began appearing in the media promoting ideas largely in line with McChrystal’s, defending his decision to publicly contradict the administration in a speech, or pushing an optimistic view of the Afghan situation.

Meanwhile, by late 2009, think tanks like CNAS and ISW had begun holding a series of events featuring military brass discussing progress in counterinsurgency campaigns. In September 2009, for example, several CNAS scholars joined Gen. Petraeus at a National Press Club event entitled ‘Counterinsurgency Leadership in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Beyond’, which “explored ways to improve counterinsurgency leadership, with particular attention to the leaders of American, Afghan, and Iraqi forces.”

Comments Finel, “When people like McChrystal and Petraeus come out and argue for controversial polices, they turn the debate into one of patriotism and not policy. It is no longer a debate about the merits of the policy, but about how much respect you have for the military.”

*Michael Flynn is the director of IPS Right Web and the lead researcher of the Global Detention Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. This is the first of a two-part series on the relationship between think tanks and the U.S. military.

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