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Think Tanks: The New Power Players in Washington

Liberals are turning a network of academic research organizations into powerful, well-connected lobbying groups.

by
Ed Lasky

Bio

October 26, 2009 - 12:47 am

In the last few months, we have seen shifts in the balance of power in Washington. Thinks tanks, such as the Center for American Progress, have become even more  powerful than in the past with the advent of Barack Obama as president.

But we are about to see this dynamic turbocharged in the days ahead. Think tanks will be showered with money — partly as a way to avoid restrictions on “lobbying” and the sometimes embarrassing revelations that stem from lobbying scandals in the past. Think tanks will become the go-to place for those wishing to influence policy under the guise of providing “research” to decision-makers. There has been this political phenomenon before, but we are just beginning to see a wave that will transform think tanks.

There is an aphorism that Jews are the canaries in the coal mine, that what happens to them often presages what eventually happens to the wider community. We may be seeing a real-world example of this play out before our eyes.

However one may feel about the America-Israel relationship, what is happening on that front in Washington has lessons for us all. Prominent and powerful people are focusing on how to weaken America-Israel ties as a step towards pressuring Israel.  One step in the plan is to create a lobby, J Street, to challenge the long-established  American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  J Street threatens to siphon and weaken support for AIPAC, always a key player in Washington. J Street has wealthy backers and strong ties to George Soros, the billionaire activist who is determined to weaken AIPAC and weaken America-Israel ties. There have been some early fumbles for J Street, but the group has staying power and will learn from their mistakes.

Another step in the plan to weaken ties between America and Israel seems to be emerging action on the think tank front. For years, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has been the leading think tank focused on the Middle East. It also seems to be on the verge of facing new and newly enriched challengers to its image as the preeminent Middle East think tank.

This process may have been presaged by the sudden decision by Congressman Robert Wexler to resign from the House and assume the leadership of one such think tank: the Center for Middle East Peace & Economic Cooperation. This is a group backed by S. Daniel Abraham, the billionaire founder of Slim-Fast. The center has been moribund for years, but that seems ready to change rapidly.

Wexler, as a former congressman who has close ties to the Obama administration, will presumably have greater ability to influence policy than, let’s say, an academic. Wexler admits that he, and the think tank he heads, will continue to promote the president’s approach towards the Middle East. (I guess this “think” tank will then not have to do much “thinking” or independent research.)

This was Wexler’s role during last year’s campaign when he worked in the Jewish community to defuse concerns regarding Barack Obama’s views towards Israel. (Should his new and undoubtedly high-paying position be considered a reward for this work?)

This pledge by the think tank echoes that of the lobbying group J Street, which also pledged it would serve as Barack Obama’s “blocking back” to push his views and policies. This makes more visible the fact that there are plans afoot to use think tanks, in concert with the Obama administration, to advance the president’s goals.

There are other signs that such a strategy seems to be emerging. Again, this will focus on changes relating to the balance of influence regarding players involved in debating Middle East policy. The changes may begin with policies regarding Israel, but they will not end there if they prove successful in moving the levers of power and policy in Washington. Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward writes in an article (“Wexler’s Move May Lead to More Active Role for Think Tanks”):

Reports yet to be confirmed suggest that the Israel Policy Forum could merge with the Center for American Progress, a prominent liberal think tank with close ties to the Obama administration. IPF, beset by financial difficulties and the recent loss of its Washington representative, has been searching for a new home. If the merger takes place, CAP also is expected to take a step away from researching policy issues relating to the Middle East and toward actively promoting negotiations.

That certainly is Wexler’s vision for his new role. One of the main assets he brings is his close relationship with the White House. He was the first Jewish lawmaker to back Obama as a candidate, and later took on a lot of the campaign’s heavy lifting with the Jewish community.

“Wexler will be treated by leaders in the region as the person who has Obama’s ear,” said Daniel Levy, co-director of the New America Foundation’s Middle East task force. “He is close to Obama, is well accepted in the Jewish community and knows everyone in Congress.”

Being close to the views of the administration could help the rejuvenated think tank play a role as an active back channel with key players in the region, one that would convey ideas from the administration informally before those ideas become official policy. Having such an outlet could also be beneficial for the administration

The Center for American Progress (CAP) is lock, stock, and barrel a tool bought by George Soros to influence policy in Washington (see the Bloomberg story: “Soros-funded Democratic Idea Factory Becomes Obama Policy Font.”) The CAP has served as a White House employment agency and has provided the administration with many of its key players, including the recently departed Van Jones, who, after he resigned from the administration because his radicalism came to light, returned to his comfortable sinecure at the CAP.

The Israel Policy Forum (IPF), a left-wing, appeasement-focused group, has diminished in power over the years. It actually never had much real power because the administrations and Congresses (whether Democrat or Republican) never gave it much credibility. But change has come to Washington, and groups such as the Israel Policy Forum and J Street now have a place at the table in the White House — literally.

If the IPF becomes part of the Center for American Progress and part of the empire of think tanks and activist groups that George Soros funds and rules, it will have far more influence than it does now. It will also work to influence decision-makers to work with the administration to fulfill its goals. Politicians may be one target, but with newspapers and the media firing journalists, think tanks have become a fertile source for material to fill the ever-shrinking pages of newspapers. Again, the public will assume that think tanks are a trustworthy source for research when, in actuality, they have been transformed into policy pushing fronts.

They will not be the only think tanks to assume a more activist and powerful role in the days ahead. What other ostensible think tanks should be seen more honestly as lobbying groups?

How about the Soros-supported International Crisis Group, subject of a PJ Media column of mine last year that warned of its influence with Barack Obama?  There are a plethora of such think tanks in Washington — many of which fly underneath the radar screen.

They have gained influence partly because they have an image of being academic centers staffed by scholars. A patina of being professional gives them credibility and access to power. Newly enriched by people such as George Soros (and his fellow travelers in the Democracy Alliance), will they also play a role in shifting American policy? These years may just be the best opportunity to do so.

This administration, headed by  a man seemingly addicted to fanciful ideas who runs the presidency as a college seminar (hat tip to both David Ignatius and Victor Davis Hanson ), will be particularly susceptible to being swayed by arguments propounded by left-wing lobbyists cloaked in think tank clothing. Will such think tanks also be useful as a way to circumvent Barack Obama’s widely publicized, if not always followed ban on “lobbyists” working for his administration?

Think tanks will be the new power players in Washington and are worth keeping a wary eye on.

Ed Lasky is news editor of the American Thinker.
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