Think Tanks: The New Power Players in Washington

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.)