America’s first think tanks developed in the early 1900s and grew out of a desire to improve government and to help government think, according to McGann. The first kind of think tank was the academic model, such as the Brookings Institution, founded in 1916 by reformers devoted to fact-based studies of national public-policy issues. Experts at Brookings played a role in shaping plans for the United Nations and the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. The next model, McGann says, was the RAND Corporation, established in 1920 as a consulting agency for the government.
The advocacy think tanks emerged in the 1960s. These new-style organizations, which campaigned actively for their policy preferences, tended to reflect that decade’s swing to the political left. But the next two decades saw what McGann calls “a sort of conservative counter-revolution,” leading to a “war of ideas,” with openly ideological or partisan think tanks proliferating on both sides.
In 1963, during the period of the Vietnam War and the Great Society, the first advocacy institution was the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies. The neoconservative Heritage Foundation was founded in 1973.
Conservative think tanks have more power and influence today in U.S. politics, McGann says, adding that there is “increasing criticism and worry over the domination of the right on policy.” David Callahan wrote in the Washington Monthly in November 1999, “The big development of the 1990s is that conservative institutes have had spectacular new success in tapping business money to fund ideologically charged policy research.” According to Callahan, “Corporate giving to right-wing groups has steadily increased as private sector leaders have seen the effectiveness with which conservative think tanks, and their armies of credentialed ‘experts,’ advance business interests in the political arena. Money, it turns out, can buy scholars as well as politicians.”
Callahan wrote that the “current gusher of corporate funding for right-wing policy work has its roots in the 1970s, when leading conservative thinkers appealed to corporations to fund intellectuals who supported their economic interests.” He pointed out that corporate leaders make up the overwhelming majority of board members at most conservative think tanks. “Even the American Enterprise Institute, among the most scholarly of conservative think tanks, has some two dozen corporate leaders on its board and only one academic, James Q. Wilson.” Wilson, who taught at Harvard, died in 2012.
One of the most powerful underwriters of far-right-wing conservative causes is Koch Industries, the oil and chemicals conglomerate based in Wichita, Kansas, with annual revenues estimated to be $100 billion. The conglomerate operates oil refineries in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota and controls some four thousand miles of pipeline.
Writer Jane Mayer described the political activities of Koch’s owners, David and Charles Koch, in an August 30, 2010, issue of The New Yorker magazine. Since the 1980s, the Koch brothers have provided more than $30 million to George Mason University, in Arlington, Virginia, much of it for a think tank called the Mercatus Center, which describes itself as “the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas and real world problems.”
Mayer quotes an environmental lawyer who has clashed with the Mercatus Center and who explained to her how corporate interests use think tanks to promote their private agendas. “You take corporate money and give it to a neutral-sounding think tank” that “hires people with pedigrees and academic degrees who put out credible-seeming studies. But they all coincide perfectly with the economic interests of their funders.” Among the largest and most influential of the conservative think tanks, in addition to the American Enterprise Institute, are the Heritage Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California.
More than twenty AEI people wound up with top jobs in the George W. Bush administration. Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy defense secretary and backer of the Iraq War, is now a visiting scholar at the AEI, which has an annual budget of about $20 million. It has about fifty so-called scholars and about 150 on the payroll. Its objective is to influence public policy. Christopher DeMuth, president of the AEI from 1986 through 2008, who worked in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, put it this way: “We try to get in the newspaper op-ed pages and hawk our books and magazines much more aggressively than a university would feel comfortable with.”
If you watch the op-ed pages in the newspapers carefully, you will find the AEI and other think tanks well represented, week after week, month after month. You will also see them on television presenting their point of view. When network-television talk shows and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) want “experts” on foreign policy, they often turn to the AEI or other prominent think tanks. But they don’t always tell the public who is paying the salaries of the “experts.” You can bet it is corporate America.
DeMuth, for example, has said that his board of trustees is composed of twenty-four business and financial executives. “They read our work. They tell me what they like, and they tell me what they don’t like.” In his 2005 interview, DeMuth said the AEI raised $20 million to $25 million a year with a third of the money coming from corporations, a third from individuals, and a third from foundations. “We have over three hundred corporate donors,” he said.
Rob Stein, by profession a venture capitalist, but a former strategic adviser to the Democratic National Committee, has spent years studying conservative groups. From 2003 to 2005, by his estimate, conservative organizations spent about $295 million seeking to influence policy while those of the left spent about $75 million.
More recently, bestselling author Thomas Frank wrote in a New York Times column, “During the last three decades a cottage industry of conservative institutions and foundations has grown into a powerful quasi-academy with seven-figure budgets and phalanxes of ‘senior fellows’ and ‘distinguished chairs.’ While real academics dither and fret over bugbears like certainty and balance, the scholars of the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute act boldly in the knowledge, to quote a seminal conservative text, that ideas have consequences.” The AEI “has long been the reliable source of corporate money. Its principals effectively ran the Goldwater campaign in 1964 and it was deep thinkers from the institute who, after moving into the Bush administration, dreamed up the war in Iraq.”
A prominent opponent of the war was the libertarian Cato Institute, which is conservative on domestic issues but traditionally opposed to foreign intervention. In California’s Orange County Register, Cato vice president Ted Galen Carpenter wrote—just days before the war began—that the pro-war camp’s justifications for invading Iraq were faulty: “The United States is supposed to be a constitutional republic. As such, the job of the U.S. military is to defend the vital security interests of the American people. U.S. troops are not armed crusaders with a mission to right all wrongs and liberate oppressed populations. American dollars are too scarce and American lives too precious for such feckless ventures.”
As for the idea that Saddam’s overthrow would trigger a democratic transformation in the Middle East, Carpenter said, “This is a fantasy. The harsh reality is that the Middle East has no history of democratic rule, democratic institutions or serious democratic movements. To expect stable democracies to emerge from such an environment is naïve.” He went on, “If free elections were held today in such countries as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, they would produce virulently anti-American governments.”
The libertarians were right. The hawks were wrong.
HAWKS IN AFGHANISTAN
Two of Washington’s most successful think-tank hawks are Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, the husband-and-wife team who spent a year in Afghanistan working as unpaid volunteers for the U.S. general in charge of the war. Frederick Kagan is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, which has a history of supporting American military intervention around the world.
Having written papers that advocate an aggressive U.S. military policy, the Kagans moved to Afghanistan in 2010 and embedded themselves as “de facto senior advisors” to General David Petraeus. The Kagans were given top-level security clearance in Kabul, where they reviewed classiﬁed intelligence reports and participated in strategy sessions. The Kagans used their positions to advocate substantive changes in the U.S. war plan, “including a harder-edged approach,” according to a Washington Post report about them, published December 18, 2012.
Think-tank hawks have always sought to impact defense policy. The Kagans found a way to go beyond traditional inﬂuence peddling and gain the ear of the military man in charge of a real war. The Kagans were not paid by the U.S. government for their work, but their proximity to Petraeus provided valuable beneﬁts. The Post article reported that the arrangement with Petraeus “provided an incentive for defense contractors to contribute to Kim Kagan’s think tank,” the Institute for the Study of War, which advocates an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. At an August 2011 dinner, Kim Kagan thanked two contractors, DynCorp International and CACI International, for funding her institute and making it possible for her to spend a year in Afghanistan with Petraeus.
Excerpted from America’s War Machine: Vested Interests, Endless Conflicts by James McCartney with Molly Sinclair McCartney. Copyright © 2015 by Molly Sinclair McCartney and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. All rights reserved.