The Think Tank Arm of the Military-Industrial Complex

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An interesting article from Nathan Hodge starts with the observation that many of the think tank experts brought on to television or op-ed pages to opine about the merits of an Afghan surge were in fact part of the team that designed the surge. He moves on, however, to the more interesting point that a lot of the institutions that “analyze” national security policy in the United States are essentially branches of the military-industrial complex:

But there are still a lot of blanks to fill in here. Some think tanks do not disclose donor names (but if you look at the name of endowed chairs for scholars, you can figure out who is paying some of the bills). Big defense contractors — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing — also contribute to many of the defense-oriented think tanks, although getting specific amounts is tricky (Form 990 does not break down individual donations).

We here at Danger Room are not trying to knock the these think tankers — some of them, like Biddle, Cordesman and Exum, are as smart as they come. We’re as fond of quoting them as anyone. But it’s also worth asking who pays the piper.

While agreeing that Biddle, Cordesman, and Exum are all “as smart as they come” I think it’s also worth being a bit less polite about this. Smart, honest people have smart, honest disagreements about all kinds of stuff. But if it’s easier to get funding for smart, honest ideas about the need for more activist policy than for smart, honest ideas about the need for less activist policy, then each smart, honest person who has some smart, honest ideas implying the need for more activist policy is going to find him or herself primarily working on smart, honest ideas about the need for more activist policy. Even if you assume that nobody in the system is corrupt or dishonest, the system itself contains a systematic bias in favor of military action and against counsels of restraint. It’s a real problem, and it’s something that smart, honest people should be able to acknowledge.

A related point that both reflects and re-enforces the military’s extraordinary prestige and political influence is that having a good relationship with the senior military leadership is a very useful career asset for a defense policy analyst. This is a huge contrast to what you see in other areas. The fact that, say, EPI has a closer relationship with teacher’s unions than do other think tanks isn’t regarded as giving EPI extra credibility in analyzing education policy issues. That, again, serves to distort the terms of the debate. One-note guys like Bill Kristol or Robert Kaplan who think the answer to every policy question is “invade!” are treated as about a thousand times more credible than people who think countries shouldn’t be invaded or bombed for reasons other than self-defense.