The recent revelation that Gen. Petraeus — now installed as the third commander of the flagging Afghan War in two years— collaborated with at least one pundit to get his story into the public isn’t exactly earth-shaking. But it might point to deeper problems with the commentary industry: namely, who’s driving the discussion?
An activist named Philip Weiss recently posted to his blog an e-mail chain that revealed Petraeus jovially chatting with Los Angeles Times columnist and Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Max Boot (Weiss makes a big deal out of Petraeus’ use of a smiley-face emoticon, though he’s probably overreacting about his supposed run for the presidency). At issue was a statement Petraeus gave the Senate Armed Services Committee that was critical of Israel. Wanting to combat the negative things pro-Israel pundits were saying about him, Petraeus reached out to Boot, who promptly repeated Petraeus’s statements, arguments, and talking points in his writing without directly disclosing their source.
None of this is terribly surprising, in the abstract: Petraeus has taken Boot on numerous DOD-funded trips around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in return Boot has written repeatedly about how the wars are worth fighting, etc. It’s kind of a standard quid pro quo and makes sense from the general’s perspective. What’s odd, and this is where Weiss is onto something, is that Boot would go so far as to take cues directly from Petraeus, no longer writing as a pro-war partisan but as Petraeus’s unofficial spokesman.
It is an unfortunately common relationship in the think tank and commentary universe: writers find government figures they respect and wish to support, and those figures make supporting them as easy as possible. The concern here is over the ethics of doing so. Boot, for example, never disclosed that Petraeus is, essentially, feeding him talking points (Weiss’s post focuses on a conversation about Israel, but we can safely assume their discussions also include war policy, Iraq and Afghanistan). Boot, however, is not a journalist — he is a columnist. He is paid to have strong opinions and to argue them forcefully, and unlike a journalist he has no obligation (and makes no pretension) to have objective neutrality in these sorts of debates.
That doesn’t let Boot off the hook. In 2005, my friend Doug Bandow, a long-time commentator and senior fellow at the CATO Institute, was fired from his syndication service (and temporarily resigned from CATO) for admitting he accepted money from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to write op-eds favorable to some of Abramoff’s clients. Bandow said he only wrote about topics that interested him, and he never wrote anything untrue. He merely accepted compensation for writing about something he might not otherwise have written about. I don’t see how it’s immediately obvious that Bandow’s behavior, which was clearly unethical, warranted firing and resignation, while Boot’s behavior, which accepts access and lavish adventure trips to war zones for op-eds instead of a few thousand dollars, is not. In fact, Bandow accepted far less in compensation for his op-eds, yet Boot is the one who gets to keep his jobs.
This isn’t to pile onto Boot. He’s far from a unique example within the realm of think tankers and commentators. Rather, we should use these sorts of revelations to question where, exactly, we get our expertise and advocacy. Think tanks and columnists tend to serve a validating function in policy discussions; if a think tank aligned with the administration endorses or advocates a policy, then that administration policy has some sort of value to be leveraged. It’s kind of like an argument from authority: a fallacy of logic that says something is true because an expert said so.
In return, commentators receive access and from it a sense of legitimacy. Legitimacy matters, especially in how it relates to money. Being in the government’s favorite think tank means you get paid for consulting work, briefings, writing white papers, and best of all, trips to the war zones — on the infamous op-ed tours organized by General Petraeus. Actually, the truly best of all worlds is being appointed to a prominent appointment in the Defense or State Department — a think tank perk that brings a new degree of access, legitimacy and, once you’re back at the think tank, money.
In other words, these commentators and the government are a mutual appreciation society. They are symbiotic, each existing and prospering by feeding on the other.
There’s also a darker side to how these experts serve as validators to U.S. foreign policy: rarely is there a countervailing influence. Skeptics of an expanded war in Afghanistan like Gian Gentile or Andrew Bacevich are routinely derided as ignorant and marginalized in the debate. Most visibly, they don’t get the bimonthly tours of the war zones, the way Michael O’Hanlon or Kim and Fred Kagan do (Gentile is an active duty soldier, so his ability to travel is, admittedly, limited). Think of the last time a prominent general arranged a tour of Afghanistan for an anti-war columnist. If it ever happened, it was lost in the avalanche of pro-war pundits going on government-funded advocacy tours of the fighting.
So what does this mean for the wars as we fight them now? We don’t know what we don’t know. Because pundits rarely feel the need to disclose how their relationships affect their coverage (given Boot’s chummy e-mails with Petraeus, will he ever criticize a bad decision?) we have no idea how those relationships are affecting our perception of the wars. Media groups tend to seek out the most famous commentator they can find to discuss issues (which is why we see the inexplicable ubiquity of some all-purpose “foreign policy experts” like Michael O’Hanlon), not necessarily the most informed. And the most famous pundits are the ones with the access, who can use that access to sell column space and op-eds. It is a self-reinforcing system.
Until we as a community — the media, the commentators, think tankers, and especially the consumers — start to react against this, nothing will change. So long as we gaze eagerly at people who brag of impossible expertise (O’Hanlon lists his as “Arms treaties; Asian security issues; homeland security; Iraq policy; military technology; missile defense; North Korea policy; peacekeeping operations; Taiwan policy; military analysis; U.S. defense strategy and budget”), we won’t ever get a sense of who really knows what they’re talking about. And we won’t know who’s really pulling the strings on the war.