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Surge of Think Tanks Blurs U.S. Policy Lines – Part 2

WASHINGTON, Jun 18 2010 (IPS) - There has been a growing tendency in recent years for think tanks and military brass to jointly pursue policy objectives, some of which are opposed by the public or the White House.

Recent examples have included the campaigns to promote troop “surges” in Iraq (2007) and Afghanistan (2009). Both of these campaigns involved seemingly coordinated efforts by generals and policy wonks to articulate to the public and policy-makers why they should support costly military policies in increasingly unpopular wars. This trend in joint civilian-military public relations, say critics, raises important questions about the appropriate role of the military in promoting particular policies and whether there is enough transparency and accountability in the work of policy groups.

It is a time-honoured tradition, especially – though not exclusively – on the political right, for think tanks to pack their advisory boards with retired officers (many of whom also segue into defense industry jobs after leaving the military), who despite their apparent conflicts of interest provide an apparent sheen of seriousness and credibility.

Examples include the Centre for Security Policy (CSP) and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, two neoconservative organisations whose boards are chock-a-block with defence industry executives and retired military brass.

In addition, as the New York Times reported in 2008, some of these retired officers -like Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, a CSP advisor, and Gen. Barry McCaffery, a board member of the defunct Committee for the Liberation of Iraq – have developed reputations as “impartial” experts, appearing on TV news programmes while surreptitiously receiving talking points from the Pentagon.

There have also been cases in the past where generals shunned the chain of command to promote tactics and strategies that were opposed by the White House or Congress – for instance, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s criticism of President Harry Truman’s limited war strategy during the Korean War and, more recently, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley Clark’s advocacy for direct U.S. military involvement in the Kosovo conflict.

However, say observers, the Afghanistan and Iraq public relations campaigns represent a troubling new trend in efforts by military officers to actively court (or co-opt) organisations – both on the right (for example, the American Enterprise Institute) and the centre (Centre for a New American Security) – in an effort to shape public policy.

One source interviewed for this article, a Washington-based foreign policy writer who asked to be quoted in background so as not to jeopardise his relations in government and the non-governmental policy community, claims that there has been a “structural shift” in civilian relations to the Pentagon that to some extent was initiated by Democrats in the late 1990s.

Concerned over poll numbers showing that the public did not trust Democrats on national security and hoping to cure the “allergy” many liberals had felt for the military since the Vietnam War, some elements of the Democratic Party started actively courting uniformed officers in various policy venues, including at the Council on Foreign Relations, which began a military fellows programme around that time.

As a result of this effort, says the Washington-based writer, many Democrats “became Pentagon huggers instead of Pentagon reformers” (a mantle that was left to Republicans, like the much maligned Donald Rumsfeld, to take up).

These civilian-military collaborations are not all negative, he says, and they can include cooperation on a range of issues, such as how to best address piracy and confront North Korea. The problem arises when the military is shown too much deference. It was out this milieu, he says, that Democratic Party-aligned hawkish think tanks like the Centre for a New American Security were born.

Critics of this trend highlight two main problems. On the one hand, they say, military officers have an obligation not to bias the policy process. Says Bernard Finel of the American Security Project, “In an ideal world, this is a top down situation – civilians make policy decisions, the military implements them. But the military has expertise, so they should be involved in the decision-making process. There needs to be some back and forth.”

“The problem is where to draw line,” he noted. “We reify military figures when it comes to questions of war and conflict, so they should be very careful how they impact the process.”

Other critics highlight the actions of think tanks. Says the Washington-based foreign policy expert, “The problem is that the public thinks these organisations are there to pursue the public good, to challenge public officials, not get co- opted by them.”

But when you see these groups parroting military arguments to promote operations that involve a staggering amount of resources, he says, it is difficult to argue that they are fulfilling their self-defined roles, especially given the current economic crisis.

Brian Katulis of the Centre for American Progress agrees, highlighting the issue of money. When these experts are paraded on television pushing the military line based on their tours of war zones, he says, the public “doesn’t realise that these people were paid to go on these trips”.

More importantly, he says, there needs to be more “transparency and accountability with respect to how these groups are financed” and what their supporters’ financial stakes are with respect to defence policies.

Adds Finel, “Sure, anyone who has a financial stake in the policies promoted by a think tank should be forced to disclose its support. But there will always be this situation of using celebrities, big names, to generate interest and, ultimately, to raise money. Everyone does it, on the left, the right, the centre, thinks tanks, universities.”

“The bigger question is how some groups and individuals game the system, generate influence through connections to the military or government, receive loads of money from corporate sponsors, and then use these connections to become enormously influential in the policy process,” he said. “I mean, who elected CNAS?”

As next year’s deadline to begin troop withdrawals from Afghanistan approaches, questions about the legitimacy of joint military-wonk policy campaigns will likely resurface.

As IPS reported in mid-June, military leaders like Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus may “be counting on pressure from the Republican Party to force President Barack Obama to reverse his present position.” John Nagl, head of CNAS, said as much after his organisation’s recent annual conference, arguing that unless the president changes policy to give Gen. McChrystal more time he will be vulnerable to partisan attacks during the 2012 election campaign.

*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 second of a two-part series on the relationship between think tanks and the U.S. military.

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