Matthew Yglesias asked what I thought about Andrew Exum’s response to his post about Nathan Hodge’s observations about think-tanker transparency. To start this off on a cautionary note, all three dudes are friends of mine, and I hope they take this post in that spirit. And just to make everyone pissed at me, I’m going to involve some other friends who aren’t part of this debate already.
To summarize quickly: Nathan noted that a lot of the people on Gen. McChrystal’s think-tanker heavy summer strategic assessment team are often asked by the press to comment on McChrystal’s doings without disclosing that affiliation. That’s bad on the press. (Full disclosure: I err on the side of calling Ex a “former adviser” or some such when I quote him, possibly enough to irritate the guy.) Yglesias made a structural critique:
Smart, honest people have smart, honest disagreements about all kinds of stuff. But if it’s easier to get funding for smart, honest ideas about the need for more activist policy than for smart, honest ideas about the need for less activist policy, then each smart, honest person who has some smart, honest ideas implying the need for more activist policy is going to find him or herself primarily working on smart, honest ideas about the need for more activist policy. Even if you assume that nobody in the system is corrupt or dishonest, the system itself contains a systematic bias in favor of military action and against counsels of restraint.
Ex, unsurprisingly, took exception:
After being accused of being a Luddite for the past three years, I must be doing something right if people are now tying me and my opinions to large defense contractors. I think you’re going to have a very tough time, though, arguing that those making the case for a fundamentally low-tech COIN campaign in Afghanistan are carrying water for Boeing, Lockheed Martin, & Co. I very much doubt big defense corporations are charmed by this researcher saying things like language and cultural training matter as much as or more than the latest and greatest piece of military hardware.
To which Nathan had a good and careful post saying that Ex was ignoring the structural point Yglesias is making. Since the guy included one of my favorite “Eastbound & Down” scenes and compared Ex to Scrooge McDuck, there’s not much I can add. I suppose I’d underscore that Ex might have acknowledged that in any institution there are incentives to toeing a line, and it’s on all of us to fight those tendencies. That includes those of us in the media, certainly. Access really is a curse. Not only is CNAS no exception, it’s in an especially privileged position as the premiere counterinsurgency think tank at a time of counterinsurgent ascendence. While the organization is diversifying as its personnel have gone into the Obama Pentagon and State Department, that fact remains its most distinguishing attribute.
But at the same time, Yglesias had a good post a few hours prior that tweaked Glenn Greenwald for suggesting in a different context that access was an unmitigated curse. (Glenn’s quote appeared in a piece about Jane. I can feel myself inspiring a diverse coalition against me, wall of death-like.) I would have liked it if Yglesias put some of that nuance into his post about the “military-industrial complex.” The mundane truth is that while there most certainly is an unhealthy confluence of interests that lead business and the military — and, we should add, the media — into a distorted view of American power, so too is there important internal diversity and counterpressures within that coalition. Not only, as Nathan notes, did Ex arrive at his perspectives long before CNAS put him on the payroll, so too does he take positions that don’t benefit that complex. His recent paper on what to do about increasing insurgency hotspot Yemen, for instance, explicitly swears off “large scale military operations as in Iraq and Afghanistan” in favor of development, diplomatic, financial and other soft-power tools. I daresay that the paper could have been published by the Center for American Progress. And I would echo Ex on the point about CNAS being possibly the least platform-enthusiastic defense think-tank around. What should people who favor the ground forces at the expense of the F-22 do, starve? (That last sentence is best read with a Yiddish accent.)
But, of course, I could just be saying that because I shill endlessly for CNAS. I’ve even RSVPd for their holiday party. So you can’t trust me on this, obviously. I look forward to discussing this further tonight when I meet up with Yglesias for beers…