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Tomgram: Ben Freeman, How to Buy Foreign-Policy Expertise

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Former Obama speechwriter, confidant, and deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes had an all-encompassing label for the wonks, experts, think tankers, cable news talking heads, and former or future officials, always ready to spin through Washington's infamous revolving door, who make up the capital's "foreign policy community." He called them "the Blob," a crew, as David Klion wrote in a profile of Rhodes for the Nation magazine, "largely committed to perpetuating its own power and reinforcing the status quo."

In his striking recent book, The Hell of Good Intentions, Stephen Walt offers this vivid description of them:

"[T]he contemporary foreign policy community has been characterized less by competence and accountability and more by a set of pathologies that have undermined its ability to set realistic goals and pursue them effectively. To put it in the bluntest terms, instead of being a disciplined body of professionals constrained by a well-informed public and forced by necessity to set priorities and hold themselves accountable, today's foreign policy elite is a dysfunctional caste of privileged insiders who are frequently disdainful of alternative perspectives and insulated both professionally and personally from the consequences of the policies they promote."

And let's add one more set of factors to any portrait of those blobbers who helped bring you America's endless wars, drone assassination campaigns, and so memorably much more. Little noticed as it may generally be, the think tanks that many of them work for are often functionally for sale -- and that's no small thing in a town awash in foreign lobbying money. Today, TomDispatch regular Ben Freeman explores the money trail that leads from the autocratic regimes of the Middle East to Washington's think tanks and so into the heart and soul of the Blob itself. Tom

Following the Foreign-Policy Money Trail in Washington
How Middle Eastern Powers Fund Think Tanks
By Ben Freeman

The 2016 elections awakened Americans to a startling reality: the country's political system is ripe for foreign interference. The Russians took full advantage of social media with bot armies and through unregistered foreign agents. While their influence garnered considerable attention and has led to increased enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), one area has remained largely off the congressional and media radar screens. Yet it remains a vital part of the way other governments try to influence policy in this country: the foreign funding of think tanks.

Most Americans undoubtedly have little idea what a think tank actually does. Having worked at two of them myself, it's fair to say that even those of us who have labored inside these basic building blocks for policymaking in Washington are often still trying to figure out just what many of them do. Still, whether you know it or not, you've certainly seen think-tank employees on cable news, heard them on the radio, or read their op-ed pieces.

After all, think tanks are homes for so many of the "experts" who are the go-to sources for media coverage of foreign and domestic policy topics on just about any day -- and are often key go-to sources for those making policy in Washington, too). You know, the former Department of Defense official you caught on NBC News discussing Iran or the Middle Eastern expert you saw quoted in Newsweek critiquing the Trump administration's policies there. Outside the public eye, members of Congress and executive branch officials rely heavily on think tanks for expertise on a wide range of issues, for key congressional testimony, and even for quite literally helping craft public policy.

Those who run Washington generally trust the inhabitants of think tanks of their political bent to provide the intellectual foundations upon which much of public policy is built. At least in some cases, however, that trust couldn't be more deeply misplaced, since cornerstones of the ever-expanding think-tank universe turn out to be for sale.

Every year foreign governments pour tens of millions of dollars into those very institutions and, though many think tanks are tax-exempt non-profits, such donations often turn out to be anything but charitable gifts. Foreign contributions generally come with critically important strings attached -- usually a favorable stance toward that country in whatever influential work the think tanks are doing. In other words, those experts you regularly read or see on screen, whose scholarship and advice Washington's politicians and other officials often use, are in some cases being paid, directly or indirectly, by the very countries on which they are offering advice and analysis. And here's the catch: they can do so without ever having to tell you about it.

The Money Trail From Foreign Governments to Think Tanks

"I've never had to worry in my years at CAP about an analyst or me saying X, Y, and Z and worry about a funding source. Never thought about it. Never," explained Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress (CAP). He was speaking at a Middle East Institute (MEI) event in January entitled "The Role of Think Tanks in Shaping Middle East Policy." MEI President Paul Salem echoed this sentiment, noting that funding, particularly foreign government funding, shouldn't ever shape a think tank's work. "Independence," he proclaimed, "is sacred."

Such comments, like the events themselves, are just the norm in Washington think-tank life -- unless, that is, you follow the money, in which case they seem both striking and supremely ironic. On any given day, Washington is, in fact, awash in foreign-policy events at think tanks. There, experts convene to publicly discuss just about every topic you'd want to hear about -- except one, of course: their funding. And that is what made the Katulis-Salem exchange particularly interesting. What they and their follow panelists never mentioned at an event extolling the importance of think tanks in helping craft political Washington's Middle East policies was this: both CAP and MEI have received millions of dollars from authoritarian governments in the Middle East.

MEI has publicly reported receiving millions from Saudi Arabia and lesser amounts from the Persian Gulf states of Oman and Qatar. By far its largest donor, however, seems to have been the United Arab Emirates (UAE), reportedly making a "secret" $20 million contribution to that think tank, earmarked to "hire experts in order to counter the more egregious misperceptions about the region" and "to inform U.S. government policymakers." In other words, in the spirit of that MEI panel title, the UAE's funding was explicitly designed to shape that think tank's -- and so U.S. -- policy considerations.

While hardly in that $20 million range, CAP has also publicly reported receiving at least $1.5 million from the UAE.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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