Part of the reason I am not a very successful blogger is that I can’t always seem to respond to debates quickly enough to actually, you know, influence them. This is one of those cases. Two posts from THURSDAY December 3 started a mini round of blogging… and now on MONDAY December 7 after several other voices joined in, the debate seems to have ended. Anyways… The orginal posts are here from Nathan Hodge and Laura Rozen. Hodge over at Danger Room first:
McChrystal’s “strategic assessment group” included Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and his wife, Kimberly Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War; Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations; Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Andrew “Abu Muqawama” Exum of the Center for a New American Security; and Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution.
It wasn’t a particularly unusual move: The military — like corporate America — likes to bring in consultants for an outside view. Take the Joint Campaign Plan for Iraq, the document that lays out the U.S. military’s near-term and long-term goals. That document gets a fresh look every year, and the most recent review included input from think-tankers.
But as our friend Laura Rozen observed, it was also a way to win the hearts and minds of an important constituency: The foreign-policy pundits and op-ed writers who would help sell the new strategy to the public.
Rozen had actually first broached this argument back in July:
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the ascetic new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has not gone soft during time spent in Washington.
He has moved to deftly enlist the Washington class of think tankers, armchair warriors, foreign-policy pundits and op-ed writers in the success of his mission — as well as grab up a few people who have made their mark in Afghanistan.
She followed this up by noting the following and asking a pointed question:
McChrystal invited numerous think tank hands and frequent media analysts to serve as members of his strategic assessment team. Many — though not all — of them seemed to align themselves with his case for the Afghan surge, and argue for his strategy in numerous media appearances, panel discussions, policy papers, Hill testimony, administration consultations, task forces, etc. Granted, there’s an undeniable self selection process at work in becoming part of the general’s advisory team. But in the end, did they advise him, or did he coopt them — and us?
The Yglesias jumped in adding:
A related point that both reflects and re-enforces the military’s extraordinary prestige and political influence is that having a good relationship with the senior military leadership is a very useful career asset for a defense policy analyst.
This provoked responses from the usual suspects. Exum wrote:
Oh, for goodness sake. Nathan Hodge starts by asking some fair questions about where defense and foreign policy think tanks get their money. (And has a kind word or two for this blogger. Back at you, Danger Room!) But Matthew Yglesias takes things a step too far. If he thinks this blogger — or anyone else advocating the U.S. military take population-centric counterinsurgency more seriously — is in the pocket of the military-industrial complex, he does not understand the acquisitions implications of an institutional move toward COIN, a form of warfare in which expensive weapons platforms like the F-22 have little utility.
And, Ackerman also jumps in with:
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.
Ok… so… Rozen and Hodge point out a problem with think tankers being co-opted, Yglesias sort of misspeaks a little, but still focuses on the key issue of career promotion. Exum and Ackerman then completely miss the boat and try to turn this into a pay-for-play argument. It isn’t. This issue is linked to the Pentagon paid pundits from the Bush Administration.
Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.
The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.
The challenge is that while people on the left are perfectly happy to throw stones at this group of pundits most of whom are right-leaning, they’ve been much more reluctant to do the same with the group co-opted by Petraeus and McChrystal. People like Mike O’Hanlon, Ken Pollack, Andrew Exum, and Steve Biddle are smart, talented, and perceived as left-leaning. They aren’t the old generation of conservative general officers and colonels with two decades of defense industry ties. If anything, they are considered part of the core of what gives liberals at least some defense policy street cred. So, questioning them is more difficult for liberal bloggers. Which perhaps partly explains Yglesias’ hasty backtrack.
That said, we have to understand what is going on. It isn’t so much that these guys are bought and paid for. It is that their careers and influence have increased disproportionately due to their confluence of views with current military needs. Consider Exum… he spent a few years in the service, retiring as a captain. He wrote a battle memoir and ran a blog. He’s smart and a hard-charger. But look, he’s barely 30. Why is he so prominent and influential? It is because he can (and does) repeatedly market himself as one of McChrystal’s advisors. It isn’t that he is bought; rather it is that McChrystal has essentially selected a like-minded young man and promoted him by virtue of access above many of his peers. Which is fine in a sense, but problematic from another. The problematic part is that most people see Exum being brought in to advise McChrystal and what they ASSUME is that he earned his privileged position by virtue of being either smarter or harder-working or something meritocratic. Whereas, at best, this is an example of cronyism, at worst an example of a deliberate attempt by a military leader to manufacture a “credentialed” supporter.
Same with many of the others. When Pollack wrote his glowing praise of the surge back in 2007 (critiqued here: Political Reconciliation, Not Military Progress, Key in Iraq | American Security Project), he was best known perhaps as the man who had gotten the Iraq situation most wrong in 2002. But there he was, in Baghdad, given a world-class windshield tour, and suddenly by virtue of his access was rehabilitated. He’d been to Baghdad, see? And been briefed by Petraeus personally!
Look at all the press coverage recently. Compare the coverage given to Cordesman vs. MacGregor. Or Biddle vs. Ward. Or O’Hanlon vs. Preble. Or Nagl vs. Gentile. Or Exum and any of hundreds of retired company grade officers with graduate degrees. Or Kim Kagan vs. Finel. You want to argue that the first person in each comparison — all surge supporters — is a better analyst, scholar, etc than the second who is a surge skeptic? Because, frankly, I don’t see it. What differentiates them is that the first on the list represent people picked out by Petraeus and McChrystal for special access, and that special access has given them special influence in the media and public.
It isn’t pay for play… but what we are seeing is a deliberate effort by military leaders to promote some “opinion makers” over others — in the case of Exum actually creating an opinion maker almost from scratch. And I know Ackerman will jump down my throat and say this is as it has always been, and that I am just being naive in getting worked up over it, but regardless of whether it is old or new, it is still rotten.
UPDATE (12/12/09): After further consideration and some additional private email conversations, I realize that (a) there are a number of factual inaccuracies in this post, and (b) that the claims I am making deserve/require significant empirical support rather than my impressionistic judgments. There is an issue here, but it deserves a most sophisticated treatment than I provided here.