Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Brian Katulis rarely sees the sense in sugarcoating things. In the 5 Questions series, Katulis talks about how think tanks often fall short, what a progressive approach can bring to the table in Afghanistan and whether or not the Obama administration or think tanks have the "balls" to help with Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
Think tanks are also at their best when they make new connections – between grassroots activist groups, academia and policymakers – in an attempt to develop new ideas and then put those ideas into action. Far too many think tanks like to sit back in an ivory tower, write a policy paper, and organize a panel discussion, and then just leave it at that. The most effective think tanks look for ways to inject their ideas into the bloodstream of the policy and political debates, and they are constantly looking for new avenues to turn their ideas into practice.Think tanks are at their worst when they serve as echo chambers for positions advanced by those in government. This happens with surprising frequency in Washington, especially on national security – most of the debates on policy issues take place between the 40 yard lines in the middle of the field, and this in part due to how think tanks conduct their research and analyses. For example, the use of think tank analysts on government-sponsored trips to warzones like Iraq and Afghanistan is something that deserves greater attention. The trips aren’t problematic themselves – but independent analysts taking such trips need to take greater care about the biases introduced by the limitations of their experience and the agenda that was set for them.
On national security, there is quite often a herd mentality among think tank analysts, journalists, and bloggers – a reluctance to ask fundamental questions on what is necessary and what is not to make Americans secure, and an inclination to split the difference and muddle positions rather than have sharper debates.Think tanks are also at their worst when analysts view their positions as an application for government employment. Far too many analysts “position” themselves for jobs rather than take clear positions on issues, resulting in hedged and unclear analyses on the national security. I saw this happen a lot in 2007-2009 – and in my view pulling punches in pursuit of a Dilbert-level government job is not worth it. A job at a think tank shouldn’t be an expensive SF-171 (one of the application forms for US government jobs), and the Beltway policy community suffers from too much group think as is.
2) What does a progressive foreign policy bring to the table as military efforts are soon to be ratcheted-up in Afghanistan?
Progressive foreign policy thinking has much more it can contribute to the situation in Afghanistan than it has to date. In particular progressives can help map out alternatives to the current course and develop better ideas on some of the key elements to stabilizing Afghanistan – outlining the investments needed in institutions and economic development to achieve a sustainable end state and advance justice in Afghanistan, developing policy recommendations on a more effective and limited use of force against irreconcilable insurgents grounded in moral principles as well as efficacy arguments, and mapping out a conceivable exit strategy.Progressives have a lot to offer on effective governance and have a distinct advantage over conservatives, who are disinclined against making governance central. It is striking that in many of the hot spots around the world – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen – these countries are excellent descriptions of what many conservatives in America support here at home – in those places that are pose the greatest threats from non-state terrorist networks, there’s no or very limited government, a lot of people have guns, and religion dominates the politics – exactly in line with what many conservatives espouse.
3) What can think tanks contribute to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts at this juncture?
The most important thing think tanks can do is think outside of the box and offer creative solutions to what is a difficult situation that has been horribly mismanaged and lacking in serious leadership on all sides for years. They should do so by examining different aspects of the issue that can help create a sustainable agreement and looking for ways to build bridges between different groups or communities that fundamentally disagree at this point.
The worst thing that think tanks working on these issues can do is serve as echo chambers to ineffective policies that have not achieved tangible progress towards a viable peace agreement. The think tank field is crowded when it comes to Middle East peace, and most products published and events organized in this field do little to advance the debate – a lot of pabulum, with plenty of lines but nothing to say. The Israeli-Palestinian issue has become so deeply politicized, and it’s not helped by the near constant posturing by analysts trying to score points rather than solve problems.
The most important contribution think tanks can do is to analyze and do the things that people in government cannot or will not do – exploring all avenues towards a sustainable peace agreement, the end goal that is often forgotten in the tactical and short-sighted debates that tend to dominate Middle East peace policy analysis.
Is he right?
Right now, America has neither the opportunity nor frankly the balls to do truly big things on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Fortuna might still rescue the president. The mullahcracy in Tehran might implode. The Syrians and Israelis might reach out to one another secretly, or perhaps a violent confrontation will flare up to break the impasse.
But without a tectonic plate shifting somewhere, it's going to be tough to re-create the good old days when bold and heroic Arab and Israeli leaders strode the stage of history, together with Americans, willing and able to do serious peacemaking.
Among all of the former peace processors and experts in this field, Aaron David Miller has one of the better batting averages when it comes to predicting and analyzing what is happening. The overall thrust of his comment – that opportunities are limited and that the “good old days” of Arab-Israeli peace making seem to be a correct descriptive analysis of where we are. But the good old days weren’t always so good on the Arab-Israeli peacemaking – they just seem so with the 20-20 hindsight of what has been an awful situation for more than a decade now.
At this moment, America seems to lack a clear strategy for moving forward – and I’m not sure if it has to do with lack of opportunity or courage. It may have more to do with a complex situation that has become increasingly stalemated and all sides have become even more entrenched. Opportunities are limited, but new opportunities can be created through new strategies. At this point, I don’t see a clear strategic approach from the Obama administration – it has employed a set of tactics that have not yielded tangible results.
The Obama administration could help make a tectonic plate shift if it moved towards a more coherent strategy focused on a comprehensive regional agreement, but the clock is ticking.
The working group is really just getting underway, and I was honored to be asked to join the group because it is focused on an issue with which I have a close personal connection. Back in the 1990s, I lived and worked in Egypt on democracy promotion efforts, and I’ve seen how successive U.S. administration fall into the trap of conventional wisdom of backing the ruler we know out of fear of what a more open and democratic process might bring, or out of a lack of creativity regarding how political reform can be pragmatically yet more effectively elevated on the U.S.-Egypt bilateral policy agenda. With a leadership transition looking likelier in the coming next few years, Egypt is an important opportunity to meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people I came to know who desire a more democratic and open government that respects the basic human rights of its citizens.
This working group has great diversity – and I know some of the other members quite well and have great respect for their contributions to the policy debate. But since we’re really just getting underway, there’s really nothing interesting to say about the inner workings of the group beyond the fact that we’ve reached across various divides in an attempt to advance what has been one of the more difficult policy challenges. It’s been fun putting our heads together in not only developing the core arguments and rationales, but also looking for the best avenues to take the ideas and turn them into policy change and action.
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