Brookings: Where the Very Serious People Pushing Petraeus's PR Rollout Live

by: Matt Stoller

Sun Sep 09, 2007 at 11:53


We're experiencing, right now, a PR offensive this week for the surge.  What's stunning is how irrelevant the surge really is to popular opinion, and yet, this farcical debate is key to policymaker attitudes.  Why is this?  Well, in a word, it's the think tank industrial complex.  Elected officials, when they come to Washington, are often bright-eyed and confused about all the new information they encounter.  And they are really busy.  There are many people here who will offer them useful information, polling data, even staff, to help them in their job, and pretty soon, they begin speaking and thinking as Washington DC pundits do, disconnected from the public and in thrall to conventional wisdom crafted by elites.

Probably the most 'elite' institution in DC is the nonpartisan think tank called the Brookings Institution.  The Brookings Institution is considered a 'centrist' think tank, though at various points it's dubbed 'liberal' when it suits their purposes, and it is led by Democrat and former Clinton official Strobe Talbott.  Brookings sees itself as a 'nonideological' playground of ideas, where nonpartisan scholars can debate and hash out the best ideas for public officials to implement.  Brookings is a key pillar of the 'think tank industrial complex', the unelected policy-making branch of government, which includes lobbyists, journalists, and a host of think tanks around town.  This is where 'studies' come from upon which public officials rely to move legislation or regulations. 

It is where the most serious of the very serious people live.  I'm not sure if this is the case anymore, but when a 'study' came from Brookings on any policy matter in the 1980s, it carried golden credibility.  Brookings is nonpartisan, non-ideological, and simply tells the truth about what is best for the country, with all the unstated elitist assumptions that implies.  So it's useful to see how the institution is interacting with the policy known as the 'surge' in Iraq.

It won't surprise you that this paragon of serious non-ideological policy-making isn't handling it very well.  On September 13, Talbott's organization will hold a panel of "leading Brookings experts representing a uniquely broad spectrum of views [that] will examine the implications of a pivotal Iraq progress report."  The composition of the panel is, in a word, simply absurd.

From Philip "Iraq: Why France Should Join the Coalition"
Gordon on the left, to Peter "Some opponents of the Iraq war are toying with the idea of American defeat" Rodman on the right, all kinds of different Iraq hawks will be on the panel.

The consistent packing of hawks onto these panels, and the timing of said panels, is normal in DC.  What's fascinating is how far this has placed Brookings from its stated role as a reservoir of expertise.  Brookings head Strobe Talbott sees the role of his  'prestigious' think tank' as being a significant generator of ideas.

Brookings is often referred to as "a university without students." Many of our 75 senior scholars have advanced degrees, and quite a few come from university faculties. Their research and writing is subject to scholarly review.

It's entirely unclear what scholarly review Michael O'Hanlon's work, a Brookings 'expert' who has consistently erred in his judgments about Iraq, been subject to.  And then there's this.

Elaborate rules are in place to guarantee that financial providers have no influence over the design and outcome of Brookings research.

This may be true.  Still, it just so happens that Haim Sabam, who funded the 'Saban Center for Middle East Policy' with $13 million in 2002 and who says that on "security and terrorism I am a total hawk", has funded a Brookings department that employs employs total hawk O'Hanlon as an 'affiated scholar' and total hawk Ken Pollack as director of research.  I'm curious what 'scholarly review' took place to put Pollack in these very serious positions, and what rules were in place to ensure that Saban's ideas didn't influence the center he funded.

Of course, Iraq, and having their hawkish fellows bash people like Noam Chomsky, is just one example of how degraded and anti-academic the Brookings Institute really is.  In their partnership with AEI, the original movement conservative think tank, Brookings employs people like Timothy J. Ryan in their 'election reform project', who just yesterday attacked Rush Holt's bill on verified voting and attacks the very notion of a paper trail, all on the Washington Post's right-wing Op-Ed page (it's nice how the different DC institutions interlink, isn't it).  And of course, in the joint AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, two very serious scholars came out against net neutrality as an onerous regulation, despite net neutrality being a foundational cornerstone of the internet.

Talbott's Brookings Institute has been an anti-academic institution helping corporate interests for years now.  I'm reading books on lobbying in the 1980s, and this 'university without students' was offering nonpartisan 'scholarship' to help move tax credits for large corporations in the guise of research back then, scholarship often paid for with corporate money.

Iraq has really ripped the mask off of what Brookings and Talbott really do.  And I think they know this.  The panel on Iraq, which Yglesias was invited to, isn't even on their public calendar.  I wonder why.

Matt Stoller :: Brookings: Where the Very Serious People Pushing Petraeus's PR Rollout Live

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Not to be picky, but... (0.00 / 0)
...it's not Institute, it's Institution.

More substantively... (0.00 / 0)
The Brookings exists to bolster the establishment: every establishment in whatever sphere wants external referees who are not as external as all that, who know to pull for the home team without being told.

Not that they necessarily support the WH - according to Wikipedia, Brookings was actually on Nixon's enemies list.

But, where there's a Beltway consensus - which unfortunately there is about no sudden movements on Iraq withdrawal - the Brookings will be right behind that consensus.

Of course, if righties need something a bit stronger, they can always get a fix at Heritage or the AEI. Lefties can't blame Brookings for having no Heritage of their own.


[ Parent ]
ok (0.00 / 0)
Lefties can't blame Brookings for having no Heritage of their own.

That's been an animating force behind funding CAP.


[ Parent ]
Absolutely (0.00 / 0)
And - I hadn't realized (until Mr Wikipedia told me) that the AEI has been around since 1943 (Heritage since 1973).

The CAP clearly can't be expected to have caught up in the four years it's been going.

And - it obviously has an unwelcoming, where not hostile, media to contend with in getting its people airtime.

But - my impression (no more) is that the CAP, through no fault of its own, is not catching up fast enough. Which, given that 08 has the makings of a particularly good year for the Dems, is (if correct) a tad disappointing.

The real puzzle is why it took till 2003 for a CAP to get started (just 60 years behind the AEI!). I suspect that a lot of it was that the Dems thought up till 1994 that they were the permanent establishment, and that they didn't need a CAP, because they could always rely on Brookings to back up the Dem line.

And, of course, the fact that Clinton carried on as prez through the Gingrich years gave a false sense of command of policy levers.

(Do we even know what CAP's current annual spend (ballpark) is, compared with AEI and Heritage?)


[ Parent ]
Right (4.00 / 1)
Heritage was supposed to be more conservative than AEI, which originally had a more economically libertarian (or at least anti-regulation) bent.  Wasn't Brookings supposed to be sort of liberal alternative to the Hoover Institution?

Matt is right on about Brookings as a major figure in the DC consensus about Iraq.  How much of this is really belief (neocons) and how much is just a joint protection society so no one has to acknowledge or apologize for being so wrong about the war?

John McCain--He's not who you think he is.


[ Parent ]
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