The Silence of the Think Tanks

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The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy Is Failing by Stefan Harper and Jonathan Clarke is kind of a mixed bag, much weaker than their previous book America Alone, which I think never got as much attention as it deserves. Still, it's discussion of the behavior of the think tank establishment during the run-up to the war is fascinating and directly relevant to recent blog conversations about the "foreign policy community":

Brookings, for example, can certainly not be described as reflexively acquiescent to the Administration. The organization contains a spectrum of views. Yet the bulk of material specifically on Iraq being produced at Brookings in this period was coming from those, like Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack and others, whose international views had steadily evolved to accept neoconservative solutions.

In late 2001, for instace, O'Hanlon and Phillip Gordon, another Brookings scholar, had been writing cautiously about Iraq, noting that "for now, the costs and risks of Containment appear lower than those of attempting to overthrow Mr. Saddam." [here] As it became clear that the United States was moving toward war, the same two scholars, now joined by Martin Indyk, a former Ambassador to Israel, seemingly underwent a change of heart: "with sufficient American leadership, commitment, and sacrifice, the military, diplomatic and nation-building challenges involved in regime-change in Iraq can all be met." [PDF here] As the administration's line grew harder, so did Brookings's. Speaking about the fall of Saddam, Indyk said: "Wednesday, April 9, 2003, will be a day that will go down in history. You will probably remember and even tell your grandchildren what you did on this day." A year later his tune had changed: "failure is not only an option but a likelihood.

In sum, they observe that the "post-9/11 period indicates that institutions such as Brookings are as much a product of the public space as their are a mechanism for its quality control." This is, really, about the reverse of what elite institutions should be doing. Instead of shading commentary to align with the prevailing political wisdom, one looks to elites of this sort to provide a check on the fashions of the day. Instead, they tended to re-enforce it. Most skeptics kept quiet, those who didn't tended to be ignored by the mass media.

Whole institutions just ducked and covered. "In 2002, for example, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found time in its eighty-six events to discuss China six times, India four times, and Nepal and Kyrgystan twice each." Iraq? One event in November 2002 where the "discussion was largely technical, concerning the possible ramifications of the use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq." They next discussed Iraq "on February 3, 2003, when its main conclusion was that war seemed likely."

CSIS did not hold a single event on Iraq in 2002. In January 2003, CSIS published a long analysis "A Wiser Peace: An Action Strategy for Post-Conflict Iraq," which, while it anticipated many of the problems which in fact occurred, included the point that "it takes no position on whether there should be a war." A month later, open-mindedness was gone. At a time of intense public consternation about the unfolding course of American policy, CSIS provided a forum for Senator John McCain to make the case for war.

They observe that between the fall of 2001 and the spring of 2003, Foreign Affairs didn't see fit to publish "a single article that raises moderate skepticism, let along fundamental questions, about the looming decisions." Last, they say that "Scholars did not fail to notice that certain institutions, like Carnegie, engineered the departure of internal critics; others, such as Cato, which stood out against the war, had to deal with sharp questions from their supporters" which is something I wish they had said more about.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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