How Think Tanks Think

When liberal Americans find themselves at a loss as to why Democrats appear to walk, talk and gurgle like Republicans on national security issues — especially during election season — they honestly need to look no further than the powerful think tank apparatus in Washington for the culprit.

First of all, it is important to understand that Washington is place that breeds and feeds only on power — power ordained on seemingly endless revenue sources, charitable, political and the kind you and I send to Uncle Sam in a thick white envelope every April 15. One’s power is determined by their placement in the pecking order and every four years elections determine who is in the big house parlor holding the purse, and who is stewing in the guestroom, plotting to take over when the other dies.

Everything else — the non-profits, lobbyists, unions, trade associations, and all the agencies that make up the massive federal bureaucracy, are the animals in the barnyard, fighting for slop and supremacy. Not surprisingly, the military rooster is usually bullying everyone around, including the thin skins in the house.

Therefore, federal elections that determine members of the House and Senate and who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are not — contrary to what were taught in grade school — a near-religious American ritual that determines the kind of ideas and principles that will guide the Republic, but an extremely expensive, often cut-throat contest to see who gets to drive the car (further into the ditch).

Thus, after endless campaign slogans calling for “reform” and “change” and “getting the money out of Washington,” there’s never any real effort at doing any of those things when the time comes, because no one, once in Washington, wants to alter the stakes. Locked into this timeless struggle, Republicans and Democrats know that money is power and vice-versa. The man who once said “I hate a Roman named Status Quo!” never sat in the Roman Senate.

Which brings us to our vaunted think tanks. The most influential ones in Washington have the most money (tons of contributions from corporations, foundation grants, individuals and associations) and with few exception play the biggest role in advancing Republican and Democratic agendas, though for tax purposes most will call themselves “non partisan” or some such hooey. Those more obliquely partisan still fall along “liberal” or “conservative” lines (with Cato the only major libertarian vessel).

Think tank success requires fealty to certain principles that tether thinking and general policy-making to the establishment hive, or better yet, the barnyard mentality. For sure, the Washington think tank world at second blush is a rather bland cultural orthodoxy that while allowing for seemingly stark shifts in ideology and method, belies a clubby landscape in which the same chief actors set tone and prioritize issues, blessing those who prove themselves “of the body,” and quietly boxing out those who don’t.

Thus, they are as parochial as they are loyal to the duopoly that dominates the nation’s politics and its centers of power: Congress, the White House and the Pentagon establishment, otherwise known as the military industrial complex (MIC).

I’d like to concentrate on one such think tank because not only does it exhibit everything we’re discussing in spades, but because and its audience is particularly interested in the MIC, and how war has become a corrupt and supremely political business that has made a lot of people inside the Beltway rich and many more outside of it, dead.

Last week, Josh Rogin of wrote what could only be described as a press release for the aptly named Truman National Security Project. Calling it “a major arm of the progressive foreign-policy establishment in Washington,” that “does not self-identify with either political party,” Rogin went on to report that the group had released its new “Truman Security Briefing Book,” a “comprehensive collection of suggested messaging, issue framing, and policy options for Democratic officials and candidates to use this summer and fall.”

Don’t choke on the chicken scratch yet. It gets worse. Rogin calls the group “left of center,” which it is decidedly not. To maintain this non-partisan fiction, the Truman people call themselves “progressives,” but while the rest of us in the 21st century are thinking this means liberal “reformers,” their “blueprint” for success suggests they are reliable foreign policy hegemons with a humanitarian interventionist philosophy harking further back from their namesake to Wilsonian progressivism itself. In their world, neoconservatives are much preferred over foreign policy “realists” or non-interventionists, which they casually refer to as pitiable isolationists anyway.

Whatever they are, with the number of Clinton era retreads, Democratic operatives, corporate suits, defense contractors and current or former congressional and administration staff attached to this outfit, no one should confuse the Truman Project with anything other than a re-election campaign that promises to keep the war machine humming no matter who is elected to office.

The People

One need to go no further to understand the dynamic at work here than the advisory board, on which sits former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who once infamously said while advocating the bombing of Bosnia, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” She also said, when asked in a 1996 interview about the estimated half a million children dead due to Clinton’s Iraq sanctions, that “we think the price is worth it.” She now stewards her own lucrative “global strategy” consulting firm, The Albright Group LLC.

Then there’s Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which makes him a made man in the purest embodiment of the foreign policy establishment there is. Gelb confessed in 2009 that he supported the Iraq War because the hive made him do it. You may not have heard of Robert Abernethy, head of American Standard Development Co., but he sits on the board and serves as trustee at dozens of schools, associations, colleges and think tanks, including Brookings, the RAND Corporation, CFR, the Pacific Council and Johns Hopkins University. He’s also raised some $80,000 in campaign contributions for Democrats since the beginning of 2011 and tens of thousands more over the past decade. He also sits on the Truman board.

He joins old Clinton friend and former White house lawyer Greg Craig (who was canned for wanting to close Gitmo; he’s since represented Goldman Sachs on their Securities and Exchange Commission issues and former veep candidate John Edwards in court), former Clinton Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, who is now at the conservative Hoover Institution, former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, who now runs the very successful (and admittedly less hawkish) Center for American Progress, and Will Marshall, head of the Progressive Policy Institute, Clinton’s old centrist “idea mill.”

Also advising is Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, who recently served as director of policy planning in the State Department. She is widely known in foreign policy circles as a vocal proponent of R2P (responsibility to protect), which has replaced COIN as the new raison d’être for liberal interventions across the globe, hence her recent support for intervening in Libya and now in Syria. In a 2004 article for Foreign Affairs called “A Duty to Prevent,” she argued, “the international community has a duty to prevent security disasters as well as humanitarian ones—even at the price of violating sovereignty.”

The senior fellows list includes a who’s who of the foreign policy elite, mingled with active and ex-military, politicians, legislative staff and assorted beltway bandits, not to mention the necessary moneybags. There’s bland war supporter Michael O’Hanlon from Brookings, Peter Beinart, who wrote The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, and Larry Diamond, another conservative from Hoover. There is Janine Davidson, a former Brookings fellow and DoD policy official who was a major player in the now-failed COIN enterprise, and Mark Jacobson, who until 2011 served as a senior U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan. He’s also worked at the Pentagon and the Senate Armed Services Committee and is now a defense policy wonk at the German Marshall Fund.

The shop is run by President and CEO Rachel Kleinfeld, a super-educated thirty-something who seems to have spent most of her working years building her resume in the hive. She counts President Truman as her chief “political inspiration” and says things like “neoconservatives do care about people in other parts of the world, and they give real weight to ideas, ideologies, and civil society,” though they are not as righteous and sensitive as “progressives” in their intentions. Ideals aside, Kleinfeld spends these days shilling for Obama, writing tired op-eds that talk to voters as if they were middle school students.

To my mind, this crew is about as “progressive” as a hamster on a wheel — to nowhere.

The Hypocrisy

There are a couple genuine liberals tucked in for style, but the overall measure of the outfit is plain: the Truman Project mobilizes Democrats who serve the conventional interventionist agenda. Beyond that, they are part of a broader orbit of not so dissimilar foot soldiers on the other side of the aisle.

Of course these Democrats attempt to define theirs as an interventionism less concerned today with Big State diplomacy and more about people-centric, “bottom up” culturally sensitive development — and it’s never, ever messianic.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who addressed the Truman crowd for the briefing book’s launch April 18, described the “moronic” Republican foreign policy as “speak incoherently and hit somebody with a stick.”

“We have to let the rest of the world know that we want to use our power and influence not only to protect and advance our interests, but also to protect theirs,” Smith said to his fellow Democrats progressives.

The Truman Project insists that “rights-supporting democracy cannot come at the barrel of a gun,” and that military force alone cannot make peace and dispose of threats, which of course, says Truman, include “terrorists, belligerent states, and the proliferation of weapons that can cause unimaginable, massive destruction.” Not to mention, “less obvious foes such as pandemic disease, weak and corrupt governments, and the spread of anti-Americanism.”

This of course is quite ironic since President Truman in 1945 was responsible for using weapons of “unimaginable, massive destruction” to kill upwards of 150,000 Japanese and other civilians instantly, and an estimated 430,000 more from post-bomb radiation and other injuries. He also invaded Korea in a badly executed war that left 128,000 of our own soldiers killed and wounded, and an estimated 2 million civilians dead, started the Cold War and set the stage for U.S. involvement in Indochina.

Nevertheless, the Truman Project promises that progressives will “use all the tools at our disposal: development aid and trade; our military and our allies’ forces; our reputation, diplomacy, and negotiation, to create a stronger, more stable, more just world.”

This could have been pulled right out of the Center for a New American Security’s briefing book, which helped to get Obama elected four years ago. At that time, CNAS’s Big Idea was that a muscular national security position, coupled with the advancement of an “all of government” COIN strategy, would not only win the wars, but win us back our entitled position as leader of the free world.

None of that has happened by the way, though it has made CNAS the most lucrative and sought-after national security think tank in town (check out its donor list), and helped to funnel 14 of its top fellows and staff, including its co-founders, into senior positions in the Obama DoD and State Department. CNAS gives Obama cover on military issues, and clearly has an impact on overall policymaking in favor of the Pentagon establishment.

The rub is, these think tanks don’t quite know how to square their humanitarian pose with their overriding obligations of keeping the military and their donors happy.

The strongest indication of this is the sheer lack of interest in civilian casualties in our current wars. While early on, CNAS writers legitimately questioned the long-term value of drone warfare in a population-centric counterinsurgency, they’ve been all but silent on U.S. attacks in Pakistan and Yemen today.

As for the Truman Project, there is only one single reference to Obama’s heightened use of drones in its briefing book, with a throwaway line about drones in Pakistan leading to civilian deaths (after bragging that “the U.S. killed more extremists with drones in 2010 than in the previous six years”). But Truman says nothing more about attacks in Afghanistan and Yemen that have left scores of civilians dead, including a deadly cluster bomb attack that has prompted several human rights investigations and this recent Freedom of Information Act inquiry.

This not only suggests that Democratic candidates are being dissuaded from talking about Obama’s lethal legacy, but despite all their high rhetoric, the greatest humanitarian mission of all — keeping populations alive — appears cynically low on the priority list.

On Iran, they are even worse. The briefing book actually says “Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability and supports terrorists who attack Israel and our allies in the Middle East,” adding that “war with Iran to end these threats may appear tempting, but Iran’s retaliation could be disastrous for the U.S. and Israel. We must keep Iran isolated and deterred from using its weapons.” Therefore negotiating a “grand bargain” with Iran is “no solution” — “it has shown it will not negotiate in good faith,” and stiff sanctions “are the best option.”

Of course, no evidence of this weapons capability, and no explanation on how isolating Iran and imposing tougher international sanctions will help promote democracy in that country. How does starving people and putting them out of work fit in with “fostering societies?” And note, not a word about how bombing Iran might be a wee be disastrous for the Iranian people, not just U.S. and Israeli interests.

The entire document is fatuous in this way. When it is not garbling geopolitics and history with political bias, it triangulates or cops out on the military issues. Truman spends an entire section “teaching” candidates about the military, how members of the military are more educated than the rest of us, and have superior values. In this patronizing vein, they suggest how to “connect” with members of the various services.

Nothing about mission creep, the corruption of politicizing war, the waste and abuse involved in privatizing the war.

In fact, according to the briefing book, “the number of (military) contractors is increasing, but it is not all negative.” That’s easy to say when you have members of Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin on your senior fellows’ list.

On Afghanistan, as always, the neurons are really popping: “strike a balance between leaving too quickly and staying too long.” Truman suggests a “responsible transition” out of Afghanistan, more commitment to development, to training, more shopworn solutions that have already been discredited in practice.

“If this is ‘left leaning,’ it shows the near total corruption of the progressives on the question of war and interventionism,” said writer John Walsh who once counted himself a progressive. “In general it seems like a fairly bellicose text … mostly a rehash of what pours out of the mouth of Obama or Hillary or Mitt (Romney).”

No surprise here. While Truman holds “boot camps” to teach Democrats how to talk about national security, the Republican think tanks are no doubt doing it too. Unfortunately for the rest of us, they will all be mouthing the same tune.

“Progress” in the big house, as it were, will have to wait.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.