James W. Carden – Letter from ThinkTankLand

Think Tanks are coming increasingly into disrepute.

James W. Carden is a former adviser on Russia to the Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs at the State Department. He is a member of the board of ACURA.

Cross-posted from the Acura Website


The odious ritual whereby representatives of foreign governments travel to Washington to tell us our business has become so routine it hardly even registers. And, down the years, hosting such rituals has become a (if not the) primary function of Washington’s think tanks which, also to no one’s surprise, draws millions and millions in funding from these very same governments.

Such was the case at mid-week when the Foreign Minister of Norway, Espen Barth Eide, appeared on a dais at the Brookings Institution. Since Brookings was, some years back, discovered to be snout-deep in the trough of foreign money, the Institution’s Vice President, Susanne Maloney (who, to be fair, is one of the more sensible, i.e. not certifiably insane, Middle East ‘experts’ in town) was at pains to stress that while Brookings does accept funding from the government of Norway, that will in no way impede upon the integrity of the ritual.

And with that out of the way, the FM proceeded to make his case for why the war in Ukraine ”matters to America.” Eide also said that Norway welcomes the addition of  Finland and Sweden to NATO “big time” as it will add “strategic depth” to the region. The other very real possibility, that it will instead make the region more volatile, as those of us who understand the implications of Robert Jervis’ Security Dilemma expect, was not aired.

Yet as far as these things go, it was far from the worst. It was certainly a far cry from the time, some years back, I witnessed the aforementioned Maloney try and reason with the completely off-the-rails duo of John McCain and Leon Wieseltier (whose code name, I’m reliably informed, during his days at The New Republic was “Weasel Beast”) over the wisdom of starting a Third World War with Iran.

There is, of course, another role the so-called Think Tanks play in Washington, namely, message control. Perhaps the first to really draw out the ramifications of this particular role the think tanks play was the philosopher Hannah Arendt. In a furious critique of the Washington power-structure occasioned by the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Arendt uncovered the process of self-deception that enabled American policymakers to lie to themselves (and the country) over what was actually happening in Vietnam.

Writing in 1971, Arendt observed that,

The internal world of government, with its bureaucracy on one hand, its social life on the other, made self-deception relatively easy. No ivory tower of the scholars has ever better prepared the mind for ignoring the facts of life than did the various think tanks for the problem-solvers and the reputation of the White House for the President’s advisers…

…in an entirely defactualized world; Washington and its sprawling governmental bureaucracy, as well as the various think tanks in the country, provide the problem solvers with a natural  habitat for mind and body. In the realm of politics, where secrecy and deliberate deception have always played a significant role, self-deception is the danger par excellence…

Something similar, eerily so, is taking place today with regard to Ukraine. Not that this, as we have seen, is really all that new – after all, it was at the urging of think tanks like the Middle East Institute and bought and paid for charlatans such as Charles Lister (and other more notable charlatans like David Petraeus) who spent years urging the Obama administration to make common cause with Al Qaeda to overthrow a secular, multi-confessional state in Syria.  Today, the role think tanks play is to help create a mental environment conducive for the Ukraine fantasy to fester; that with just a bit more money, a bit more military aid, more intelligence sharing, more ordnance, or in the FM’s words, “sustained assistance” – Kiev will somehow carry the day.

It isn’t as though the information, the hard facts on the ground are not known, are not available, are not accessible. FM Eide’s interlocutor at Brookings was a former National Intelligence Office for Russia and member of the National Security Council as recently as 2019. The military analyst and historian Michael Vlahos showed as far back as last August that, “in casualties-to-population terms, Ukrainian military losses, after more than 500 days of war, are approaching those sustained by Germany in World War I over more than 1,500 days. This is,” he wrote, “a catastrophic attrition rate” that “can break an army and a nation.”

At Brookings, I heard not a word uttered about casualties (now estimated to be verging on 500,000 or closing in on about ten times the losses sustained by the US in Vietnam). I heard not a word about the estimated 700,000 who have fled military service in Ukraine. Nor was a word uttered about the cost of reconstruction, now widely estimated to be at around $1 trillion. And why would I expect to? After all, doing so would, among other things, puncture the dream-like state in which these places operate.

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