The think tank war machine

Published : May 21, 2004 00:00 IST

Think tanks in the United States, especially those aligned with the political Right, have evolved into formidable power centres that play a major role in the production of public opinion in the country.

IN March 2003, the journalist Jochen Blsche wrote an article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel entitled "The War Designed in a Think Tank". Blsche pointed out that the blueprint for the war on Iraq had been written not after 9/11 or even after the showdown between the Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix, the United States State Department and the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, but in 1998. Only a year old, a U.S. think tank, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), sent an audacious letter to President Bill Clinton to advise him to change the country's course on Iraq. No longer should the U.S. "contain" the Saddam Hussein regime, it asserted, but it should now seek to overthrow it. Why? Because "if Saddam does acquire the capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction, as he is almost certain to do if we continue along the present course, the safety of American troops in the region, of our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world's supply of oil will all be put at hazard". The argument from 1998 now appears verbatim from the George W. Bush administration.

The U.S. President receives a vast amount of mail daily, but this letter had to be taken seriously. Most of the 18 signatories of this letter had served in the Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, and many would return to government in the administration of Bush II: Donald Rumsfeld (Defence), Peter Rodman (Defence), Paul Wolfowitz (Defence), Richard Armitage (State), John Bolton (State), Robert Zoellick (U.S. Trade Representative), Zalmay Khalilzad (U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan), Richard Perle (Defence Policy Board), Elliot Abrams (National Security Council) and James Woolsey (former head of the Central Intelligence Agency). Each of these figures had signed up to be part of the PNAC, a "think tank" designed to offer a vision for the maintenance of U.S. power over the planet.

In a report from 2000, the PNAC noted: "The American peace has proven itself peaceful, stable and durable. Yet no moment in international politics can be frozen in time: even a global Pax Americana will not preserve itself." To safeguard this power, the PNAC proposed the creation of a new "cavalry on the new American frontier" to build "a secure foundation on unquestioned U.S. military preeminence." The U.S. public would not accept an increase in U.S. power, the PNAC report noted, and so "the process of transformation is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalysing event - like a new Pearl Harbour". September 11 provided the excuse for the PNAC's vision to drive the U.S. government.

However powerful today, the PNAC is a latecomer in the world of think tanks. The oldest think tank is the RAND Corporation, which emerged half a century before the PNAC. These vast "universities without students" play a very great role in the moulding of U.S. public opinion and in the provision of personnel for the U.S. bureaucracy.

IN 1939, Chief of the Army Corps H.H. Arnold got involved in a discussion with the War Department and with aeronautics faculty members at private universities. The consensus among them was the need for the creation of an applied aeronautical research laboratory. Arnold's note emphasised the need for coordination between the academies, industry and the government. The first money for rocket research went to one such partnership, between the California Institute of Technology and the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, which successfully developed techniques for liquid and solid propellants.

After the War, Arnold returned to that theme, writing to the Secretary of War that the U.S. government must create the framework for "teamwork among the military, government agencies, industry, and the universities. Scientific planning must be years in advance of the actual research and development work".

Arnold's idea for a think tank grew out of the experience he had had doing planning work for the military in the Second World War. An immense amount of strategic and logistical planning came before troops went out into the battlefield. The battle tank, in sum, followed the think tank. This approach to warfare enabled the troops to be on the ground with maximum efficiency. To do that sort of planning, the U.S. government called upon mathematicians and engineers and psychologists and anthropologists to think "outside the box" and to devise strategic visions. These ideas, the software of U.S. strategy, then had to find their corresponding hardware from the engineers and aerodynamicists. Arnold wanted such an entity to survive the end of the War.

What Arnold had in mind was far from the ordinary private research institutions that predate the two Wars. In the early 1900s, the major industrialists set up philanthropic foundations to protect their money from taxation and to craft their legacy for generations to come. Ford and Rockefeller are the best examples of such foundations. In addition, these magnates used their foundations to finance research institutions to play a role in the debates over policy. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1910), the Institute for Government Research (1916), the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace (1919), the Council on Foreign Relations (1921), the Brookings Institution (1927) and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (1943) emerged to influence the debates of the day with privately funded research - but not to work as an adjunct to the government.

In the early years of the Cold War, even these groups became "think tanks". They remained eager not only to influence debates, but also to work for the government as contractors and to craft policy documents that would go on to become laws. The RAND Corporation led the way. In 1945, Douglas Aircraft created Project RAND (or Research and Development). It reported directly not only to the company's senior management, but also to the newly created Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Research and Development in the U.S. Military. RAND's first report in 1946 catalogued the strategic value of satellites and the feasibility for their production. In 1948, RAND became a non-profit corporation, independent of Douglas Aircraft and of the government, yet with close links to both industry and the military. RAND grew in strength to become the main "government contractor" on U.S. security matters during the Cold War and beyond. Currently, with an annual budget of $100 million, RAND receives three quarters of its revenues from U.S. federal government contracts.

Today there are over 2,000 think tanks in the U.S. and RAND is the largest (it has 1,000 staff members). There are a host of other think tanks and most of them are either of the right wing or of what passes for the centre in U.S. political discourse. Apart from the crucial contracted work that think tanks do for the government, their staff also appears before congressional committees and in the public media to offer expertise on various subjects. These experts frame the dialogue on many issues that are before the courts, the legislature or the President. The liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in the Media (FAIR) produces an annual survey of citations from think tanks in the mainstream media. In its last survey (2002), FAIR showed that the liberal voices only accounted for 11 per cent of expertise, whereas conservatives garnered half the airwaves and "centrists" took up the rest. RAND had a fair share of the exposure, and it was joined in the winner's circle by two radical right-wing think tanks, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and by the libertarian Cato Institute. Furthermore, the fellows at these right-wing think tanks often win generous grants from the right-wing foundations and then produce a barrage of books that reflect their viewpoint on important issues of the day. As the liberal media critic Eric Alterman put it, "the thinking of these pundits determines the parameters of political discourse in the nation today."

NOT only has the think tank provided experts to craft public opinion, but it has also helped staff the government. State Department Director of Policy and Planning Richard Haass notes: "Think tanks provide a steady stream of experts to serve in incoming administrations and on congressional staffs." Since the U.S. does not have a professional civil service, "this function is critical". Every time a new President comes into office, an entire army of bureaucrats has to move out of its offices and make way for another lot. These people are sometimes hired from outside Washington, from industry or the academies. However, they are mainly made up of the class of professional bureaucrats who spend their hiatus out of their government offices by the exercise of power through think tanks.

The members of the PNAC, for instance, had all held office in the Ford, Reagan and Bush years. While out of office, many of them had gone into industry or finance for the money, but they remained in touch with Washington through their association with the think tank circuits. For critics, this is an illustration of a caste of rulers who remain in power whether in government or as a pressure group over government. Indeed, there is always a suggestion that people who have been in government may do favours for industry or think tanks and when they leave government, they will be rewarded with jobs in those firms or think tanks. In 1995, progressive members of the U.S. Congress put forward the Revolving Door Act to disrupt this smooth transition from public service to private gain. It was defeated.

In November 2002, Director Haass offered a justification for the Revolving Door: "In addition to supplying experts for incoming administrations, think tanks provide departing officials with institutional settings in which they can share insights gleaned from government service, remain engaged in pressing foreign policy debates and constitute an informal shadow foreign affairs establishment. This `revolving door' is unique to the United States, and a source of its strength." Haass' view is well within the established ethics of the U.S. government, because he follows the 2001 statement of Amy Comstock, Director of the U.S. Office of Governmental Ethics: "When people talk about the revolving door in a negative way, they also often refer to not the access, the actually communicating back, which is what our rules cover, but they also talk about people financially benefiting from having been in the government. I have to say, I don't really see what is wrong with that. Entering the government is not entering the priesthood. It is not a lifetime vow of poverty."

IN 2002, RAND invited former Prime Minister of Sweden Carl Bildt onto its Board of Trustees. It saw this as a start of the globalisation of RAND. RAND now has offices in the Netherlands, Germany and Britain. RAND also set up the Centre for Asia Pacific Policy, whose board is chaired by Ratan Tata. The RAND chairperson put it thus: "From India to Indonesia and from economic planning to nuclear policy, RAND's analysts [in the Centre for Asia Pacific Policy] have offered U.S. and Asian policymakers research-based advice," among which is the topic of "military competition between India and Pakistan". RAND's interest in the world is driven by its sense that the problems in the world are not necessarily governed by "state by state and bloc to bloc relations" but by "global concerns that cut across national and regional boundaries". RAND needs to intervene on the global stage, to harness the "talent, knowledge and methods" of people around the planet "to service our traditional clients in the United States".

Jochen Blsche closes his article in Der Spiegel with British Labour Member of Parliament Tam Dalyell's statement that the PNAC report is "garbage from right-wing think tanks stuffed with chicken-hawks - men who have never seen the horror of war but are in love with the idea of war". This is so, but what Dalyell and Blsche do not acknowledge is the structural role played by the think tanks, now largely of the right, in the production of public opinion in the U.S. Their views might be garbage, but they are also perfectly normal in this toxic public sphere.

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