Petraeus fallout shows diminishing separation between think tanks and government

December 3, 2012

In contrast to their European counterparts, think tanks in the United States tend to pride themselves on independence from government. There is, of course, the revolving door phenomenon of policy wonks oscillating between government appointments and think tank life, but that’s not the case for the vast majority of think tankers — and even then, it’s understood that think tankers are not doing the work of the government, even if they are trying to influence it. 

However, that thin line of separation may have just gotten a little thinner.


Alex Wong/Getty Images

Following up on a report from The Washington Post that said several prominent think tankers held permanent office space at Gen. David Petraeus’s headquarters in Kabul and provided advice to field commanders that sometimes conflicted with orders from the commanders’ immediate bosses, Justin Elliott of ProPublica shows how several think tank scholars have engaged in this program — perhaps none more than Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and his wife Kimberley Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War, who spent a total of about 270 days in Afghanistan under Petraeus and about 128 days under Gen. John Allen. 

“General Petraeus liked to talk about ‘directed telescopes’ to describe people who go down to lower echelons and see what’s going on and go back and help the commander get a better sense of that,” says Kagan, who added that he has been going on such trips since 2007. The other aim of the trips was for the military to “help inform people who were going to be writing in the national debate to understand what was going on on the ground.”

Responding to The Post’s characterization about the military resources made available to think tank members during Petraeus’s time in charge in Afghanistan, Kagan said: “Everybody who travels to Afghanistan or any combat zone at the invitation of the military is given access to military aircraft.”

On the issue of providing advice to field commanders that conflicted with advice of their bosses, Kagan said: “We were always very careful to say we are not giving you orders, we’re not passing on orders. We’re not doing anything except giving you our opinion.”

Lots of questions come out of this. 

Amid the fallout from Petraeus’s affair with Paula Broadwell, journalists are offering their mea culpa on the mythmaking of Petraeus. But to what extent did these think tankers contribute to the Petraeus myth, sometimes as sources to journalists? Which ones were willing participants rather than being hoodwinked? How far did think tank advice penetrate the operations in Afghanistan? And how do think tanks, as institutions, justify this relationship?

If think tanks are seen as departments of the military — or any other branch of the government, for that matter — does that not compromise their credibility further as the independent research research organizations that provide objective analysis they insist they are? 

The revelations also show how those who thought that neoconservatives disappeared as discredited relics of the Bush administration couldn’t be more wrong.   

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Allen McDuffee | December 3, 2012