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January 06, 2009

Think Tank Industrial Complexities…
Posted by Moira Whelan

Both Steve and Matt make some excellent points here about the way the military and defense contractors keep their piece of the pie in the big federal budget.

I’d only disagree with Matt on one point. He says:

if people and firms who profit from high levels of military expenditures want to support think tanks that support high levels of military expenditures they need to identify individuals who genuinely believe that high levels of military expenditures are good and properly. Naturally, people who think that kind of thing tend to be people who have a somewhat paranoid attitude toward foreign countries and who are strongly predisposed to favor aggressive use of military force by the US and our allies alike.

I disagree. In my experience this is not the case at all. Think tanks continue to finance any project that makes money. So for instance, a lot of defense contractors are into the idea of post-conflict reconstruction because it provides lots of opportunity for new business. However, they needed to create the mechanisms to convince DoD and State that it is a good idea to beef up this particular area, so they fund think tanks to research the project, and then point to it and say “See! You need to do this.”

Additionally, wealthier countries, especially those with compulsory military service and a big interest in peacekeeping like Germany or Switzerland, spend a lot of money on defense related products, and in turn, the US is a little skittish about spending money on European defense contractors because they’re…European. Think tanks provide a great place for “Transatlantic Dialogue” projects and such that get the right people in the room funded by interested parties.

I just make this point because think tanks don’t necessarily always develop aggressive war mongering ideas, but the system by with the ideas are developed are of concern. Essentially, you're getting what Matt is really talking about--ideas endorsed by military contractors--and a therefore more limited debate.

One of the greatest examples of money driving (or not driving) ideas is in homeland security. Because under the Bush administration companies have enjoyed a pretty open door relationship with DHS, and because virtually none of the programs have a significant amount of statutory oversight as is often the case with more complicated DoD projects, there is no incentive to fund homeland security projects at think tanks. Sure, they exist, but most of these don’t enjoy the same level of funding that other projects enjoy because homeland security companies don't need think tanks to make their point. Watch in the near future for science and space related projects at think tanks researching environmentally beneficial technologies...and then watch who funds them and you'll see what I'm talking about.

To be fair, most of the heads of the think tanks and academic research centers of this type do actually want to be do-gooders. As a result, they’ll often use the big money, big business projects to finance research on projects they should be working on…like peacekeeping and the like, and it's not like these projects get pushed under the rug. The organization works to promote them the same as any least in my experience.

Another think tank issue to monitor: personnel. As think tanks and academic institutions drain of the newly minted Obama administration officials, will the normal cycle of musical chairs happen and will Bushies take these posts? It would seem to me that regarding this particular administration, it may not be the best idea. Certainly, it wouldn't attract my money if I were a company, as I know these individuals aren't going to be able to do any convincing on my behalf inside the new administration and Congress, but I suppose we'll see. 


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I wonder if the think tanks will lose some of their political power due to the fact the in this current economic crisis the United States cannot afford expansive foreign policy goals that most in the think tank community favors. Also on a side note it appears that NSN or Center for American Progress should do a booklet about how various think tank organizations advocated war against Iraq and the various reasons why they reccomended this disasterous policy.

Moira, good post. I think the days of pie-in-the-sky R&D projects and military adventures are over . . . for the moment.

I do hope that think tanks will do more research and publishing on "bread and butter" defense issues, such as force structures, defense policy, manning, training, etc.

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