On February 25 journalist Thomas Ricks published an important scoop on his blog at ForeignPolicy.com: Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, had requested keeping a brigade in northern Iraq beyond President Obama’s deadline for the withdrawal of combat forces. The timing of the story was intriguing. Just two days earlier, Ricks had published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for US troops to remain in Iraq long term. “I think leaders in both countries may come to recognize that the best way to deter a return to civil war is to find a way to keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come,” he wrote. The op-ed coincided with a policy brief by Ricks issued by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the Washington think tank where he is a senior fellow.
Ricks, a longtime military correspondent for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and author of the bestseller Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, had been a prominent critic of US policy in Iraq. Recently on his blog, he called the decision to invade “one of the biggest blunders in American history.” But his op-ed, along with the rollout of the policy brief and the news story, was selling the idea of a long stay in Iraq.
CNAS, like most think tanks, bills itself as “independent and nonpartisan”; its leadership says that it takes no positions as an institution. But it played a key role in selling the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and now it could help prepare the ground for the president to reverse course on Iraq and keep a large force in the country.
It’s part of a new influence game in Washington. Think tanks, once a place for intellectuals outside government to weigh in on important policy issues, are now enlisted by people within government to help sell its policies to the public, as well as to others in government. Institutions like CNAS are also heavily funded by major weapons manufacturers and Pentagon contractors, creating potential conflicts of interest rarely disclosed in the media.
Indeed, the presence of journalists on the payrolls of think tanks is crucial to their clout, lending them the imprimatur of neutral, nonpartisan news organizations. Since its founding in 2007, CNAS has played host to a string of reporters from major US newspapers: Ricks worked on his most recent book, The Gamble, at CNAS; Post reporter Greg Jaffe and former New York Times reporter David Cloud worked on The Fourth Star, a book profiling four Army leaders, while in residence; Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, veteran military and intelligence reporters for the Times, are researching a book on counterterrorism there. And CNAS isn’t the only place where national security reporters have set up shop. Times military correspondent Michael Gordon is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a new think tank founded by Kimberly Kagan, the wife of Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a cheerleader for the “surge” strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Think tanks are also investing in new media: CNAS bankrolls influential blogs like Abu Muqawama (a counterinsurgency-themed blog written by Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger); Abu Aardvark (a Middle East politics blog by Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University); and The Best Defense (Ricks’s daily take on military affairs). Lynch’s and Ricks’s blogs are published on the website of Foreign Policy magazine, owned by the Washington Post. (Foreign Policy discloses the links to CNAS but has no upfront disclaimer about who funds CNAS.)