Capital Brain Trust Puts Stamp on the World

Col. Mark Rocke, from left, Col. Eric Ashworth and Maj. Doug Zadow chat with retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales at the American Enterprise Institute.
Col. Mark Rocke, from left, Col. Eric Ashworth and Maj. Doug Zadow chat with retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales at the American Enterprise Institute. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 16, 2005

Th e former president of secessionist Chechnya had just been killed by Russian commandos. Was the attack a success or a setback for Russia? Would it radicalize the insurgency? As the world worried, a Chechen rebel leader prepared to work a crowd -- in Washington.

The setting was that capital institution, the think tank. But the hosts in this case knew that their invitations would bring together enemies -- the Chechen speaker and a Russian diplomat who had branded him a terrorist. An extra security guard was assigned to the event as a precaution.

The element of danger that night at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies belied the image of think tanks as places where long-winded academics offer narrow arguments in airless rooms. Foreign policy sometimes is born in these discussions, and as a result, the world comes to listen.

Including conferences at embassies and universities, there can be nearly 200 such events on a given day in Washington, serving as a kind of sausage factory for the opinions and ideas of the city's internationalists. Of 30 foreign-policy events on a recent Monday, a dozen focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli conflict or the war on terror.

Think tanks are influential forums for floating trial balloons. They are also comfortable and temporary homes for that other Washington institution, the former senior administration official. And they attract agenda-setters of all stripes: diplomats, spies, academics, political opponents and experts who seek to influence the government or air their most passionately held views.

This is what Washington makes every day.

Listeners come to network and get information they can't get elsewhere. Speakers plot to turn their ideas into policy proposals or make sure they are heard by the right people. Authors promote books, and experts burnish their credentials by staying in the game. Amplified by C-SPAN, this riot of ideas influences a broader audience.

For all these reasons, the Russians put in an appearance at the Chechnya lecture. But there was no confrontation. In fact, the rebel leader and the Russian diplomat had sat together more than a year before at a presentation at the American Enterprise Institute called "Search for Peace."

Think tanks can be self-segregating, allowing hawks and doves to pick from a menu of moralities -- and perks. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is generally recognized to have the best food. The Center for Strategic and International Studies is where the brainiest insiders hang out. The Heritage Foundation is more dogmatic; a session Friday was titled "Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture That's Gone Stark Raving Mad." The American Foreign Policy Council is seen as an old-age home for Cold War warriors.

"Let's face it, each of these groups has a book to flog, an idea to promote, a cause to advance," said David Hoffman, a consultant, writer and former congressional press aide who attended a recent Cato Institute briefing on U.S. relations with North and South Korea. "Of course they have a point of view. You'd have to be inert in Washington not to have a point of view."

Even a seemingly narrow topic can attract a diverse and important crowd. A geography professor's take on the lack of water resources in a Western desert province of China might not seem particularly newsworthy. But the province, Xinjiang, drives economic development throughout Central Asia, and an international community is increasingly worried about the problem.

More than 50 people came to hear Stanley Toops, an associate professor from Miami University in Ohio, assess the challenges. Business interests from Aramco and the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce signed up. So did the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, such political activist groups as the Uyghur American Association and people who identified themselves only as "U.S. Government."

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