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February 14, 2008

O’Hanlon and Think Tank Sociology
Posted by Moira Whelan

So Matt and Ilan have done great work this morning capturing the now full frontal assault on Obama and a bit on Clinton coming from Mike O’Hanlon.

So what gives coming from this think tanker who has been a self proclaimed “war critic”?

I have a theory…

Think tanks in DC are traditionally known as refugee camps for the out-of-office team of foreign policy wonks. There’s an expected turn over when new administrations come on as each team goes about grabbing “the best and the brightest” to fill their ranks.

O’Hanlon has by now gotten the message that he’s burned his bridges with his Democratic friends. Those that like him personally even agree that he’s radioactive right now thanks to his avid support of Bush’s war strategy.

So what’s a wonk to do?

Well, one option is pre-positioning yourself for the future. By getting out there and going after the leading Democrats—people that some of his closest colleagues are actively supporting—is he lining himself up to say that he was critiquing the next Administration before it was cool?

That would be worth it, because as I’ve mentioned before, there are three forms of currency in the think tank world that make you a valuable player: bringing in money, getting press, and getting called to testify. This strategy could certainly pay off in those categories over the next few months. Currently, O’Hanlon is frozen out of being called by Democrats on the Hill to testify, but he hasn’t proven himself to Republicans yet. This tactic also increases his press presence because he can position himself as a media darling who can be counted on to give a critical word in a story for a reporter on deadline. All of this brings in money for institutions.

I’d like to think that O’Hanlon really is worried for our country and is pushing his ideas because they think they’re better, but you sort of jump the shark as a foreign policy wonk when you question the concept of diplomacy as he's done with Obama.

In some ways, O’Hanlon’s attacks on Obama could be an endorsement of sorts. He thinks Obama will win, so better get out there and criticize now so you can get invited to lots of lunches with Don Rumsfeld in the future.


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I think you are falsey conflating the style of one individual with an the function of an entire industry. And by the way, isn't NSN an informal think tank of sorts?

I had the same question. How many of DA's regular posters can honestly say they are not conscious that what they write here is likely to be reviewed by whoever ends up handling personnel in the next Democratic administration?

One problem with your theory is that O'Hanlon has never been on the "inside." He went straight from CBO, after the Republican purge in 1994, to Brookings. He's never been a direct advisor to a member of Congress or to an Executive Branch official. And his "status" as a foreign policy and defense wonk is rather contrived for his Brookings persona. When he worked on specific issues at CBO, he worked on nuclear weapons and arms control, not conventional warfare or general defense issues. Plus, he's already got media coverage.
And yes, he is somewhat radioactive to those of us who have known him for years.

Why hasn't anyone called O'Hanlon on the fact that he is not a Middle East expert and hence his pop analysis on Iraq should not be taken with the same level of seriousness as those who have studied the region for years, if not decades? A decade ago, he was a budget analyst. Now, he is a national security grand strategist of the first order?

O'Hanlon is a media hound, nothing more. He is an inveterate schmoozer and is not that impressive. Good that no Democratic Administration will take this hack.

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