The Washington Post has a long piece today gushing over the “new generation of think tank leaders.”
DC think tanks have been wildly overrated – at least as far as their intellectual impact – for at least 15 years. Here’s a piece I wrote in 2006 for the Globalist on the failure of DC think tanks.
Globalist Perspective > Global Governance
Washington Vs. New York
Think Tanks: Wonks Vs. Courage?
By James Bovard | Friday, November 17, 2006
Washington has long had a reputation as being the place for serious political thinkers. By contrast, New York was seen as a place where people go to earn bushels of money. Yet, the reaction of Washington and New York organizations since 9/11 richly illustrates how these stereotypes have become outdated, argues James Bovard.
Around the world, Washington think tanks have a reputation as the home of the best and brightest.
Washington think tanks pride themselves on respectability, and as it stands there are certain subjects which should not be discussed if one wishes to retain status within the Beltway.
Think tank pronouncements are often treated with the respect of elder statesmen.
Unfortunately, since 9/11 Washington think tanks have been in the forefront of cheering on almost all of the Bush Administration’s power grabs.
During the last four years, President Bush has ritually gone to military bases to proclaim his most sweeping doctrines of preemptive attacks and “us against them” foreign policy.
No one in a military audience can heckle the president without having his career ruined. Thus, there is no danger of the television clip of the president’s speech being marred by non-groveling responses.
But blind support from people sworn to obedience is sometimes not enough to varnish the administration’s doctrines. The Bush team is also relying heavily on appearances at think tanks to give the impression of intellectual respectability to its message.
When President Bush needed an craven audience for a speech just before he invaded Iraq, he went to an American Enterprise Institute dinner — where his absurd rationales for the war were received as divine truths. AEI, one of the wealthiest Washington think tanks, has done back flips to advocate preemptive attacks on Arab and Muslim nations. Attorney General John Ashcroft kicked off his 2003 Patriot Act Salvation tour, replete with denials that the government was violating anyone’s civil liberties, at AEI.
Dick Cheney, probably the most unpopular vice president in American history, continues to receive statesmanlike treatment in his appearances at AEI and other Washington think tanks.
Sadly, too many think tanks have become as servile as military bases, as far as providing applause for lies from the highest level of government.
In fact, two decades ago, many people expected think tanks to revolutionize politics in Washington, bringing ideas and principles to sordid political clashes. Instead, some think tanks have become nothing more than props for politicians.
Take on torture
The contrast between Washington and New York is perhaps clearest on the issue of torture— the policy that may have done more to define the Bush Administration in the eyes of the world than any other policy. The think tanks have followed, usually at a safe distance, from newspaper coverage that itself was usually very deferential to the Bush Administration.
New York-based organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have doggedly pursued and courageously exposed the Bush Administration’s torture policies.
The ACLU has put a huge amount of resources into its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to compel the disclosure of internal documents detailing interrogation policies and abuses.
Thanks to a courageous federal judge, Alvin Hellerstein, the ACLU has managed to snare thousands of pages of documents that have destroyed the Bush Administration’s false denials that torture was institutionalized and widespread throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and elsewhere.
In May 2005, Amnesty International’s William Schulz declared that the United States had become “a leading purveyor and practitioner” of torture, and compared Guantanamo Bay to the “gulag.” At the time, there were widespread rumors about how the U.S. government had been involved with vigorous interrogation practices in numerous countries.
The Bush Administration savaged Amnesty. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denounced the “gulag” charge as “reprehensible,” Vice President Cheney announced that “I was offended” by the charge. (The Washington Post’s Dana Priest won a Pulitzer Prize for a story a few months later detailing the network of U.S. secret interrogation centers in East Europe and elsewhere).
Compare and Contrast
President Bush said it was “absurd” because Amnesty “based some of their decisions on the word and allegations by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people had been trained in some instances to disassemble [sic] — that means not tell the truth.”
Perhaps New York intellectuals commenting on U.S. policy have no aspirations for government jobs or sinecures on U.S. government commissions.
Amnesty was widely denounced for the gulag comment — and few, if any, of the critics have apologized after subsequent revelations vindicated Schulz.
Human Rights Watch has also vigorously pursued the torture scandal, issuing report after report on specific abuses in Iraq and elsewhere, and continually raising issues of U.S. law, international law, and moral principle in its challenges to U.S. policies. HRW’s Detainee Abuse and Accountability Project has laid out the facts for anyone to see — if anyone gives a damn.
Avoiding the issue
No Washington think tank has vigorously opposed or condemned torture. John Yoo, a high-ranking Justice Department official who wrote the memo saying that the president was above the law and not bound by any restraints on interrogation methods, is a fellow at AEI and was recently feted at the Heritage Foundation for a new book declaring that Congress can impose almost zero restraint on a president’s war-making.
The Brookings Institution, the premier “liberal” think tank, has generally avoided dirtying its hands by even touching this issue. The Cato Institute, the premier libertarian think tank, avoided the torture issue until last spring — nearly two years after the Abu Ghraib photographs surfaced, and three and a half years after newspaper reports indicated that the Bush Administration was using severe interrogation methods widely seen as torture.
Much of the think tank activism in Washington is donor-driven. Apparently, there was little or no money to be raised by coming out against torture. Even the Washington Post editorial page — which supported Bush’s war on Iraq — has done far more to condemn and oppose torture than has any Washington think tank.
Perhaps something as grisly as torture repels policy wonks — it is a subject on which it is much more difficult to show cleverness than on capital gains tax rate reform.
The vast majority of other Washington think tanks have simply ducked the issue. Even the Washington Post editorial page — which supported Bush’s war on Iraq and continues to whitewash some of Bush’s falsehoods leading up to the war — has done far more to condemn and oppose torture than has any Washington think tank.
Think tanks have legions of analysts and researchers. They could have easily done much of the heavy lifting on the torture subject. Instead, they busied themselves far too long cheerleading whatever Mr. Bush did or suggesting marginal reforms on foreign policy.
Washington think tanks pride themselves on respectability, and as it stands there are certain subjects which should not be discussed if one wishes to retain status within the Beltway. Yet, if the federal government is able to consecrate its right to torture, any other limit on government power becomes practically irrelevant.
The failure of the Washington think tanks is in part a natural failure of intellectuals involved in politics and government policymaking. The think tanks have accepted most of the paradigms that the Bush Administration proclaimed. Criticism of the war on terror was almost non-existent in the first two years after 9/11 — at a time when the Bush Administration was seizing power left and right.
Call for courage
The think tanks have followed, usually at a safe distance, from newspaper coverage that itself was usually very deferential to the Bush Administration. Think tanks busied themselves far too long cheerleading whatever Mr. Bush did or suggesting marginal reforms on foreign policy.
When news of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretaps broke in December 2005, several Washington think tanks — including AEI, Heritage and Cato Institute vice president Roger Pilon — came out in defense of the administration’s trampling of both federal law and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (which prohibits this type of warrantless searches).
Perhaps New York intellectuals commenting on U.S. policy have no aspirations for government jobs or sinecures on U.S. government commissions. Perhaps New York organizations are more forthright — because they do not depend on high-profile photo opportunity visits by administration officials to use to loosen donors’ wallets. Or perhaps New York-based organizations have enough distance that they can still recognize an atrocity when they see it.