Wednesday, August 28, 2013

If You Start Pulling on a Thread...

Update:  Here's a recent article offering even further background on Elizabeth O'Bagy whom I mention later in my article.

11 Sep 2013:  Yet another update,  Elizabeth O'Bagy fired for falsifying credentials

Do you  know what a think tank is?  It might not be what you think it is (bad pun.)  I'm going to tell you a story about what I've been doing in my spare time over the past few days.  Eventually the story will lead to a discussion of a Washington think tank called The Institute for the Study of War.  It'll take me a while to get there, but please be patient.  The preface is kind of important to the story.  I'm not sure anyone else will find what I have to say today interesting or unusual, but I think it's kind of a big deal.  Oh, and this article has a curveball at the end.  Kind of like a mystery novel with a twist.  If you read all the way to the end, I'll give you a surprise.

Over the weekend, I watched a video that was posted on a website that I read regularly.  The video was a Bill Moyers interview with Mark Leibovich who covers Washington, D.C., as chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine. He was speaking about his new book, This Town, where he writes about the city’s "bipartisan lust for power, cash and notoriety."  It's well worth your time for its own sake, but the piece of that video that is important to my story today was his description of how people in government and politics often go on to become lobbyists after their careers in "public service."  Indeed, often as not, the public service career is no more than a training ground and an opportunity for resume building for the more lucrative career in influence peddling that follows.  One of the lobbying firms he mentioned was Patton Boggs.  The Boggs part of the name refers to Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., son of former Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs, and former Louisiana Congresswoman and Vatican ambassador Lindy Boggs, and brother of NPR and ABC journalist Cokie Roberts.  You might think, wow, quite a successful family.  But I was thinking, wow, what an unsettling confluence between politics, big money lobbying, and big time media.  Read Mr. Boggs resume on the Patton Boggs website to see what kind of government spending and policy initiatives he claims responsibility for.  Another lobbying firm that got a mention was Quinn Gillespie and Associates.  The Gillespie part of that name is Ed Gillespie, former counselor to the president in the George W. Bush White House, former advisor to Mitt Romney, and Founder of the Crossroads GPS PAC along with Karl Rove.    He's partnered with Jack Quinn, former Chief of Staff to Vice President Al Gore.  Strange bedfellows eh?  Read about their careers at the links provided to get a sense of what they've been up to over the years.  Here's a list of some of the things the folks at Quinn Gillespie are taking credit for in Washington.  Also mentioned in the Moyers video was former Indiana Senator Evan Bayh.  Senator Bayh quit the Senate complaining about Washington's inability to address the nation's problems, then went to become a partner at lobbying firm McGuire Woods.   Pot, meet kettle.

So what's my point with all of this?  Am I just jealous that all of these high power people go on to even higher powered jobs after they leave government.  No, that's not it.  The lesson to be learned here is that there's a tremendous amount of inbreeding in Washington.  Or to put it another way, look into the backgrounds of some of the players, and you'd be amazed at the nexus that develops.  You'll be surprised at how one individual connects with another individual, group, or ideology that you would have never guessed were related in any way.  Have you heard the phrase six degrees of separation?  Wikipedia describes it as:

"the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world, so that a chain of "a friend of a friend" statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps."

It seems that in Washington, everyone is just one or two degrees of separation from everyone else instead of six.  But here's what struck me about this.  I see folks like Evan Bayh, Ed Gillespie, and Cokie Roberts on TV all the time.  They're all regular fixtures on the Sunday morning news shows.  They're up there opining on all the news of the day.  Telling us what they think about all the important issues facing our country.  And we listen because they've got credentials.  They've got experience.  They have access to information that we don't have, so we trust them to guide us through the complexity and the nuance of government policy.  But all along, what we don't know is that they're also getting paid by somebody to tell us what they're telling us.  I don't remember ever hearing a disclaimer on any Sunday morning show explaining that so and so works for such and such a lobbying firm.  Have you ever heard such a disclaimer?  Do you think you'd like to know if the guy up there telling you that we need to go to war with Iraq, or Libya, or Syria works for a company that gets paid to represent the interests of defense contractors or oil companies or private security firms?  What a tremendous conflict of interest that would represent.  And yet no one mentions it.  And this is just a short list of three people who I remember from the Leibovich interview.  How many more of the so called pundits, experts and talking heads who populate the public affairs programs on a regular basis are just telling us what they've been paid to tell us.  Henry Kissinger is a former Secretary of State and National Security adviser.  His opinion carries a lot of weight.  Well his opinion might be for sale.  He is the principal behind Kissinger Associates, along with another former National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft.  If you have been clicking on any of these links along the way, you may have noticed what I was noticing.  All kinds of well known names keep popping up on the staffs of lobbying firms, and a lot of the partisan or ideological labels that you used to think applied to them have gone out the window.  Every name you investigate reveals one, two or three other names you recognize that you never imagined had a relationship with the first name.  Is this how conspiracy theories are born?  If it is, are conspiracy theories really so crazy after all?

OK.  So I'm off topic.  I want to talk about think tanks, not lobbying firms.  They're different, right?  Well, maybe not.  So Monday, I'm reading, and listening to the radio, and Googling this thing and the other, trying to decide for myself what's going on in Syria, and what we should do about it.  I'm deluding myself that if I just do enough homework, I'll be able to figure out what's really going on there.  I was listening to NPR on my way to the bank;  On Point with Tom Ashbrook to be exact.  They were talking about Syria.  They were struggling with all the same questions that I've been struggling with for the past few days.  It was a good show.  Worth a listen.  One of the guests was a guy named Christopher Harmer.  He was presented as an expert on military strategic options in Syria, should the president decide to act.  He represented a think tank called The Institute for the Study of War.  Strange name, but one that you'd be inclined to remember.  I'd never heard of them before, but I was destined to hear of them again in the very near future.  Christopher Harmer is a former Navy veteran of twenty years and a Naval Academy graduate.  You can read about him here.  He comes across in the interview as very professional, very knowledgeable, and ultimately in favor of intervention in Syria.  OK.  That's fine.  No harm listening to the opinion of someone who might actually know something about warfare.

Then yesterday morning something just a little bit weird happened.  I'm on the computer reading the news.  Bouncing from topic to topic as I often do, but this morning focusing a little bit more on the Syria stories than I might otherwise do.  I come across a video clip from Foxnews which claims to be a Bret Baier interview with a Syria expert that will discuss not just military aspects of the crisis, but political aspects as well, specifically, the makeup of opposition forces in Syria.  I'm really interested in this because on Sunday and Monday, I'd spent some time preparing for a Blogtalkradio show that I do with my son Will every Monday afternoon, and we talked about Syria.  I was particularly interested in the factional make up of the opposition.  I wanted to know who we'd be fighting for if we went in against Assad.  You can listen to the show at the above link if you're interested.  I won't spend any more time on that here.  This post is already too long, and that story, while interesting, is peripheral to the current discussion.  So anyway, I'm interested in what this expert has to say.  I want to see if it aligns with what I'd learned about the factions from my own research, especially since I hadn't seen a lot on this topic in the press up till that point, and I figured it was a pretty important question.  Well the interview was with a woman named Elizabeth O'Bagy, and she works at a think tank called...wait for it...The Institute for the Study of War.  Wow.  What a coincidence.  Two days ago, I'd never heard of them.  Now, twice in two days they show up on news programs speaking authoritatively on the subject of Syria.  Normally, I wouldn't have thought much about this, but as I said, over the weekend, I'd watched the Moyers interview with Mark Leibovich.  I'm kind of sensitized to this whole conspiracy/nexus idea.  I say sensitized.  You might say paranoid.  Either way, I'm getting a little suspicious.  Ms. O'Bagy is trying to convince the audience that the bulk of the Syrian opposition is aligned with US interests, and the more radical Islamists are a minority of the Syrian rebels.  The Foxnews presentation doesn't come across quite as well as the NPR story did.  Elizabeth O'Bagy isn't quite as convincing as Christopher Harmer was.  Maybe it's her age.  She is quite young, and the title of expert is a harder sell.  Her bio is quite impressive, but it is more an academic background as opposed to an operational military background.  Then this evening, I'm flipping between news channels on TV and I land on CNN where they're talking about Syria, and who's on the panel?  Christopher Harmer.  Now this is freaking me out.  Now my curiosity is piqued.   Who are these guys?  What is The Institute for the Study of War?  Who runs it?  Do they have an agenda?  Why are they suddenly all over the airwaves?   Is this a coincidence or a PR campaign?  Are they really a think tank?  Is a think tank just another name for a lobbying organization?  I want to know if this is an unbiased presentation or is the Institute for the Study of War just a glorified lobbying organization who are getting paid to find what their sponsors want them to find.

So who runs The Institute for the Study of War?  Well we live in the internet age.  There is no excuse for not having the answer to almost any question now that there is Google.  Click the link and behold.  The Institute for the Study of War is run by a woman named Dr. Kimberly Kagan.  Well that's interesting.  I know the name Kagan from somewhere, but not Kimberly Kagan.  This is starting to smell like one of those unexpected connections I was speaking about earlier.   I can't quite place the reference though, so I read a little further.  Let me end the suspense and cut to the chase.  From her bio:

"Dr. Kimberly Kagan founded ISW in May 2007, as U.S. forces undertook a daring new counterinsurgency strategy to reverse the grim security situation on the ground in Iraq . Frustrated with the prevailing lack of accurate information documenting developments on the ground in Iraq and the detrimental effect of biased reporting on policymakers, Dr. Kagan established ISW to provide real-time, independent, and open-source analysis of ongoing military operations and insurgent attacks in Iraq. General Jack Keane (U.S. Army, Ret.), the Chairman of ISW’s board, also played a central role in developing the intellectual foundation for this change of strategy in Iraq, and supported the formation of the Institute in 2007."

 So she founded the institute to support the surge in Iraq.  OK.  That's fine, but it does reveal a certain bias, don't you agree?  Jack Keane is or was a frequent  contributor to Foxnews.  Again, OK, but not without the smell of potential bias.

But the name Kagan is familiar to me from somewhere else.  I'd never heard of Kimberly before though.  It's time for another Google search.  From Wikipedia:

"Kimberly Ellen Kagan (born 1972) is an American military historian. She heads the Institute for the Study of War and has taught at West Point, Yale, Georgetown University, and American University. Kagan has published in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Weekly Standard and elsewhere. She supported the surge in Iraq and has since advocated for an expanded and restructured American military campaign in Afghanistan.  In 2009 she served on Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal's strategic assessment team."

OK.  Now I get it.  Kagan and TheWeekly Standard means Neoconservative.  I don't use that term with quite the derision that many of my libertarian colleagues do.  I used to be a Neocon.  I supported the Iraq war before I was against it.  Don't hate me for being wrong.  Admire me for being able to recognize a mistake.   Furthermore, if you read further in the Wikipedia article, you learn that Kimberly Kagan is married to Frederick Kagan who is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.  He formerly taught at West Point, as did his wife Kimberly.  Frederick Kagan is the son of Donald Kagan, a historian at Yale, and the brother of Robert Kagan, who, with William Kristol of Weekly Standard fame, co founded the Project for a New American Century.  PNAC was an influential neoconservative think tank that eventually withered away just about the time (2006) that the Institute for the Study of War was being formed (2007).  Frederick Kagan, Donald Kagan, and Robert Kagan are all signatories to the Project for a New American Century publication Rebuilding America's Defenses (2000).  Are you confused yet?  I was too.

Here's the take home lesson.  The Kagans (the extended family of Kagans) along with folks like William Kristol, belong to a political movement called Neoconservatism.  They believe in a strong military and aggressive foreign policy.  The Institute for the Study of War is not an independent think tank which conducts research to better understand the world we live in.  It is an advocacy group with a definite point of view and a definite agenda.  They seem to be masquerading as an independent group offering what they characterize as well researched information to assist policy makers and the public to understand the world we live in.  That is a deception.  I am naturally wary of people who try to deceive me.  I certainly am reluctant to take their advice.  Neoconservatives are entitled to their view.  But when they try to spread their message while hiding behind the cloak of an independent think tank, we should all be suspicious.

What a weird, incestuous cesspool Washington is huh?  But wait.  I'm not quite done.  I promised you a surprise if you made it this far.  Ready?  Robert Kagan, Kimberly Kagan's brother in law, is married to Victoria Nuland.  Who is Victoria Nuland?  I recognized that name the moment I read it, but I had to look it up because I could hardly believe it could be the same Victoria Nuland.  Once more to Wikipedia:

"Victoria Jame Nuland (born 1961) is a US diplomat and former spokesperson for the United States Department of State...
Nuland has emerged as one of the key figures who has been accused by various sources of initiating a cover up of the 2012 Benghazi attack. After reading the first draft of the State Department talking points that stated that the incident was a coordinated terrorist attack, she sent a message writing that they “could be abused by members of Congress to beat the State Department for not paying attention to agency warnings so why would we want to seed the Hill.” After this memo UN Ambassador Susan Rice was given talking points that formed the basis of her statements on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Meet the Press, State of the Union with Candy Crowley, and Fox News Sunday."

You can't make this stuff up.  It's like a soap opera where you discover that everyone is sleeping with everyone else.  Are all of these people in cahoots with one another?  Are there any honest people in Washington?  Is there some sort of sinister cabal making all of our national security decisions?  Where can I get my tin foil hat?

I've asked a lot of questions in this post.  I haven't come up with too many answers.  A few things I know for certain or almost certain.  We're probably going to war with Syria in the next few days.  There are people out there who are trying to trick us, and they are shielding their true identity in order to do it.  And they seem to be very good at both deceptions, but maybe not good enough.  It might work again this time, just like it did in Iraq.  Just like it did in Libya.  But maybe one day they'll go too far.  Hubris eventually catches up to people.  You can get so arrogant and so sure of yourself that you push just a little too far.  Will that happen this time?  I don't have the answer to that question.  But as today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, perhaps it would be appropriate to listen to the words of Dr. King in a speech he made several years later.

"And don't let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, 'You're too arrogant! And if you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I'll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn't even know my name. Be still and know that I'm God."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.