If this New York Times website is to be believed, foreign governments have found the generous funding of U.S. policy institutes to be a handy way of covertly lobbying in Washington. But: Could multimillion-dollar donations, sometimes with explicit contractual stipulations, actually sway these great thinkers?
"Our business is to influence policy with scholarly, independent research, based on objective criteria," Martin S. Indyk, the vice president and director of the Brookings Institute's Foreign Policy Program, told the Times.
Among other things, the Times discovered that Brookings had received a $14.8 million donation from Qatar, an oil-rich U.S. ally currently funding Syria's al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels in defiance of international pressure.
Saleem Ali, a visiting fellow at Brookings' Doha Center in Qatar, says that he was expressly told during his job interview that he would not be allowed to publish papers critical of the Qatari government.
"They may not be getting a false story," Ali said of the American politicians who read Brookings policy papers, "but they are not getting the full story."
One of those few think tanks, like the RAND Corporation, that you've almost definitely heard of, Brookings has received roughly $41 million dollars from foreign countries in recent years, donations that meet about 12 percent of its annual budget. From the sumptuous infographic accompanying the Times piece (Really, it's great; Someone took good notes during their Edward Tufte seminar.), it's clear that Brookings has received funding from many of our other repressive oil-rich allies as well, including Kuwait, Saudia Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; savvy tax haven-state Luxembourg gave too, of course; as did Canada and Japan.
Overall, the Times assessment comes across as pretty disconcerting:
The think tanks do not disclose the terms of the agreements they have reached with foreign governments. And they have not registered with the United States government as representatives of the donor countries, an omission that appears, in some cases, to be a violation of federal law, according to several legal specialists who examined the agreements at the request of The Times.
As a result, policy makers who rely on think tanks are often unaware of the role of foreign governments in funding the research.
Joseph Sandler, a lawyer and expert on the statute that governs Americans lobbying for foreign governments, said the arrangements between the countries and think tanks "opened a whole new window into an aspect of the influence-buying in Washington that has not previously been exposed."
"It is particularly egregious because with a law firm or lobbying firm, you expect them to be an advocate," Mr. Sandler added. "Think tanks have this patina of academic neutrality and objectivity, and that is being compromised."
Assuming that one is not already predispositioned toward mistrusting this constellation of think tanks "inside the Beltway" and their financiers.
It will be incredibly fascinating to see how this story merges with, and amplifies, a long- cherished conspiracy theory on the Right, one that animated the Reagan revolution in the 1980s.
Described in promotional materials as "a secret history of our times", The Spike was a 1980 spy novel by then-Newsweek editor Arnaud de Borchgrave and Australian reporter Robert Moss that depicted a shadowy backstage to the D.C. think tank world. Its chief villain—an angry caricature of the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies so thinly veiled that its authors were forced to change key details—was a Washington think tank that was secretly controlled by KGB spies. Bending journalists and politicians to their will like reeds in the wind, the novel's spooky Soviet antagonists left a big impression on the College Republican leadership, influential Reagan Youths, and the other campaign professionals who helped put the Gipper in the White House.
When now-disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, "tax pledge" cretin Grover Norquist, and the rest of their crew joined forces with the intelligence wing of Apartheid South Africa in Angola, they looked to The Spike as their model and justification. Turnabout was fair play, after all, and the book's long shadow can now be seen in decades of ostensibly nonpartisan, not-for-profit groups propped up by conservative donors. Certain Republican members of Congress even mentioned the novel on the House floor describing it as an accurate depiction of how the KGB was seeping its way into the foundations of American Democracy.
It's a little amazing to see this actually happening today, in real life, outside of the paranoid McCarthyite delusions of this bunch of jerks.
Counterintuitively, maybe, Japan and Canada are both solid cases in point. As the Times infographic (which again is really quite good) makes clear, both nations are high on the list of think tank influencers, donating to seven and six major organizations respectively. Both countries are also lead signatories in the very secretive, Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which you may have heard about, if you stayed awake during your recent Occupy General Assemblies, or still care about WikiLeaks document dumps.
Japan is currently in heated negotiations with the U.S. over finer points of the TPP, automobile imports and agricultural markets, primarily. As the two biggest economies in the agreement, it's a significant economic battle waged in the shadows of diplomatic nicety and political theater. You don't have to be Rising Sun-era Michael Crichton to wonder how exactly their think tank funding has figured into Japan's overall strategy.
(Let's also just add, parenthetically, that no matter which way it goes for American multinationals, the TPP agreement is likely going to be bad for the vast majority of us. The largely secret agreement, portions of which have been published by WikiLeaks, includes an "investor-state dispute settlement" provision that grants foreign investors the authority to sue governments for domestic policies that might impact their profits, "non-tariff barriers" to "free trade" that frequently include environmental and labor laws.
One of the few U.S. human beings to see the agreement in progress, Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, was not too impressed by it.
Think tanks have always been a great way to pay for one's beautiful home in Washington D.C., the number 1 most expensive area of the country right now, just by getting to perform canny simulacra of independent research. They've always been, to really editorialize here, just the absolute worst; the people affiliated with them uniformly the lamest of the lame: handmaidens, toadies, and (at best) grand viziers of entrenched power who like to imagine themselves as hard-bitten realists or wonky idealists with cool, unexpected solutions to today's biggest problems (mostly the problems facing America's power elite, but occasionally even those troubling the rest of us).
Today, we can finally start asking, in a bipartisan way, "Are these annoying think tanks actually a treasonous threat to our democracy? What are they all up to anyway?"
[photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel sitting down with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the his Tokyo residence on October 3rd, 2013 via the U.S. Department of State/Flickr; h/t Moe Tkacik]