So much for appealing to the authority of think tanks when making an argument.
The New York Times studied the question of foreign funding of American think tanks and discovered some disturbing patterns. Twenty-eight think tanks received at least $92 million from dozens of foreign entities in exchange for at least some favorable research and access to US policy makers.
Of particular interest were payments made to the Brookings Institution, the most prestigious of all think tanks in the US.
The Brookings Institution, considered by many to be the most prestigious think tank in the world, comes off especially poorly in the report.
“There was a no-go zone when it came to criticizing the Qatari government,” Saleem Ali, formerly a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, told The Times.
Qatar, which backs the Muslim Brotherhood, paid Brookings $14.8 million over four years to fund the center and for a special project to address relations between Muslims and the U.S.
“It was unsettling for the academics there. But it was the price we had to pay,” Ali said of the partnership, while warning members of Congress to “be aware” of Brookings reports, which he said may not contain the full truth on any given issue.
The Qataris were pleased with the arrangement, which the foreign ministry touted on its website, writing that “the center will assume its role in reflecting the bright image of Qatar in the international media, especially the American ones.”
“Yikes,” Todd Moss, the Center for Global Development’s chief operating officer, exclaimed to The Times after the paper showed him communications between his organization and the government of Norway, detailing plans to lobby the White House and Congress to double spending on a foreign aid program. ”We will absolutely seek counsel on this,” said Moss.
The failure to comply with foreign donors’ agenda had ramifications at one organization.
Michele Dunne, a former State Department official with expertise in the Middle East, was named as the first director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. In 2013, Dunne signed a petition and testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to voice concern over the ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
Bahaa Hiriri, who financed the center, called to complain, according to The Times, and Dunne was out four months later. She was replaced by a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, who was reportedly criticized for being too deferential to former president Hosni Mubarak.
The first word that comes to mind is “whores” — selling your name, your credibility, and your reputation for money. There’s no other way to see this no matter how they spin it.
And I don’t think this is a left-right issue. The competition for dollars is fierce and it’s not surprising that most policy centers would reach out to foreign governments for donations.
From the Times report:
The think tanks’ reliance on funds from overseas is driven, in part, by intensifying competition within the field: The number of policy groups has multiplied in recent years, while research grants from the United States government have dwindled.
Foreign officials describe these relationships as pivotal to winning influence on the cluttered Washington stage, where hundreds of nations jockey for attention from the United States government. The arrangements vary: Some countries work directly with think tanks, drawing contracts that define the scope and direction of research. Others donate money to the think tanks, and then pay teams of lobbyists and public relations consultants to push the think tanks to promote the country’s agenda.
The trouble comes when sensitivity by the think tank to the feelings of foreign governments shades the research a certain way. Apparently, outright interference by governments is not unheard of either.
A solution might be to amend the law governing lobbying activities by domestic concerns for foreign governments. A little transparency would, at least, give policy makers better context to judge think tank output.