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Armies of Thought Surround the White House

The phenomenon of the think tanks, the study centres that influence and often draw up the foreign policy of America. Their origins go back to the nineteenth century but it was above all after the Second World War that their role expanded, and after 11 September their role became decisive.

Last update: 2018-04-10 10:40:27

It is an ordinary autumn morning in Washington. A few blocks from the While House, on the twelfth floor of a building in front of the headquarters of the National Geographic, dozens of people are having coffee and talking amiably in the Wohlstetter Conference Center, the oval-shaped and welcoming conference hall of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of the most influential think tanks in the United States of America. After the audience has sat down, a microphone is switched on in front of Wafa Sultan, an American psychiatrist of Syrian origins who became famous because of her attacks against Islamic terrorism launched on the Arab TV network Al Jazeera. Professor Sultan starts a passionate denunciation of the violation of the human rights of women who live in the Middle East. First of all she cites the case of a Palestinian mother who strangled her daughter to protect the 'honour' of her family after the girl had been raped by one of her brothers. She then narrates how in 2002, in Saudi Arabia, the agents of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice impeded female students of a female dormitory from leaving the building, even though it was in flames, because they were not wearing a veil and a abaya. 'Which vice were they preventing?', Wafa Sultan asks with fervour. 'Which virtue were they promoting?' One after the other, in the wake of the attack of this American psychiatrist, another seven women from the Middle East speak to denounce similar scenes and interpretations of the shari'ah, held to be repressive of women in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and other countries. Similar scenes are frequently repeated almost daily in the study centres of every orientation with which the American capital is replete. The Arab world and the Muslim world in general have always been X-rayed with care by Washington in a search for strategies to give the Middle East connotations in line with American foreign policy. These are attempts which under the various administrations have often been translated into frustrations or incomprehension but which have also been converted into solid ties, such as those which unite the United States of America with Saudi Arabia and the various Emirates in the Gulf, or into turning points in bilateral relations such as that which has taken place in recent years between the USA and Libya. To condition and to try to influence the choices of the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon or Congress, in matters relating to relations with the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world, is an undertaking which in the capital of the USA keeps thousands of lobbyists, experts and diplomats from the various countries involved active every day. However, a decisive role is played by the think tanks. It is here, with events such as that which witnessed the strong role of Professor Sultan, that a good part of American foreign policy is decided. And after 11 September 2001, in these reservoirs of knowledge and thought, there has been no 'hotter' subject than the relations between the West and Islam. Against Slavery The definition of what a think tank is and the origins of the term are both uncertain. In the view of John C. Goodman, who during the years of the Reagan presidency founded the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, Texas, think tanks are fundamentally 'idea factories'. 'The most important sources of political change', Goodman wrote in an essay on this phenomenon, 'are not politicians, political parties or financial backers. They are instead the ideas generated on university campuses, in think tanks and in other organisations in the country that are dedicated to research'. In Goodman's view, the ancestor of contemporary institutions of this kind is the Society for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, an organisation against slavery that was founded by the Englishman Thomas Clarkson. Others attribute the paternity of this phenomenon of think tanks to the Fabian Society of Britain (1884). In the United States of America one of the most active study centres of this kind is the Brookings Institution, which was established in 1916. But the first time the term 'think tank', which was imported from Great Britain, was used to define an organisation with the characteristics of those think tanks that now dominate foreign policy and American research, was in December 1945. Whereas these factories of ideas are currently almost completely non-profit making organisations which exist because of major private funding, rich legacies left by businessmen or connections with universities, the origin of this phenomenon, as is often the case in the United States of America, lies with the initiatives of the military. The head of the Air Force during the Second World War, General H.H. 'Hap' Arnold, was impressed by the ability of scientists during the years of that conflict to produce innovations which in the end ensured that the Americans were victorious. The Manhattan Project, which had led to the creation of the first atomic bomb, had worked in fact as a think tank directed towards a very specific project. After the war was over, Arnold wanted to conserve these innovative capacities in the military field and in December of that year, which marked the end of the planetary conflict, he set in motion a project which was baptised Research and Development. In March 1946, from the beginnings of that project, the Rand Project was born. This was the first authentic think tank in the world and it initially began as a department of the aircraft company Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, California. Today the Rand Corporation is a non-profit making organisation that brings together eight hundred researchers who are concentrated above all in its headquarters in California and Washington. The offices in the American capital take up a major part of a block in Arlington whose windows face onto the nearby Pentagon. The military world remains the principal interlocutor of the Rand Corporation, which, however, has been able in recent decades to have a role in the creation of a vast gamut of products with a civilian use as well: from satellites for telecommunication to computers and Internet. The Rand Corporation is a significant example of what a contemporary think tank is. After the epoch when the researchers in study centres jotted down ideas on anonymous memoranda used by senators and ministers, today these citadels of thought constantly produce reports with impressive graphs, bound volumes and covers that need not in the least envy what commercial publishers produce, and newsletters that reach the e-mail boxes of thousands of users throughout the world. Their websites have every kind of multi-medial function audio recordings of conferences, videos of debates, intelligence reports and analyses in podcast, as well as data banks which are very valuable. The Rand Corporation, to give just one example, manages the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base (, an online database that allows research at a global level on every terrorist group, its members and the episodes in which it has played a major role. The panorama of think tanks in Washington often reflects the ideological and political contrasts that make up the terrain of the American capital. Thus it is that the neocon doctrines, which have achieved such major space in the Bush administration, find their sanctuaries in institutions such as the AEI and the Project for the New American Century, which is headed by one of the most famous American neoconservatives, William Kristol. The most traditional conservative ideas are promoted by the authoritative Heritage Foundation which also in logistic terms demonstrates its influence on congress thanks to a headquarters which is a few steps away from Capitol Hill. Differently, liberal and progressive ideas mature in the offices of institutions such as the Center for American Progress, which is led by John D. Podesta, the former chief of staff of President Bill Clinton. The Brookings Institution is also on the left, and this is one of the most active think tanks there is in the capital. The Cato Institute, for its part, has a libertarian position. There is no absence of study centres that declare that they are, and in fact such is the case, independent and thus not susceptible to political labels. Such is the case of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), of the SAIS (the think tank on foreign policy of the Johns Hopkins University), and of foundations and research centres which are , such as the Woodrow Wilson Center, which is characterised by the presence of a large number of scholars from other countries. But experts from every part of the world and in recent years above all specialists on Islamic questions form a part of the staff of all think tanks, which, in order to assure a flow of ideas, constantly need new lymph fluid from outside the United States of America. Figures who have had to flee from their countries for a variety of reasons often find refuge in American study centres. Whereas at one time these were exiles or former spies of the USSR and countries belonging to the Soviet bloc, today they are often figures such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the political exponent from Holland with Somali origins who is known for his criticisms of Islam. He left Holland and now works for the AEI. Positive Impact 'Any think tank which today does not have Muslims on its staff is well beneath the threshold of influence', Jeffrey Addicott explains to Oasis. He is the director of the Center for Terrorism Law in San Antonio, Texas, a think tank connected with the St. Mary's University School of Law. 'We have three', he adds, 'and they provide us with a valuable perspective. Given that the United States of America is in large measure a Christian country, there is always the risk that we will have few parameters of reference to understand the Muslim perspective on things. The tone of a think tank must reflect balanced inputs in order to avoid the research involving ethno-centric ideas'. Addicott directs the only institution of its kind in over two hundred faculties of the United States of America and holds that its academic climate which is far from the nation's capital is a guarantee of independence and freedom compared with the politicised climate that is breathed in Washington. 'We receive funding both from private sources and from the government', he explains, 'but we do not accept funds which impose a pre-established outcome for our research. Our backers understand this independence. In the last three years, for example, across a vast gamut of legal questions in some cases I have been critical of the Bush administration and in others I have had a positive view'. Seen from the point of view of those who keep away from Washington, the reality of the think tanks lends itself to by no means a few critical observations. 'Traditionally, these institutions have always had a great impact on the way in which American foreign policy is shaped', observes Mehdi Noorbaksh, a lecturer in international affairs at Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania. For Professor Noorbaksh this is a positive impact when administrations know how to listen to scholars of various orientations. 'But in Washington', he adds, 'there are think tanks that were created with the sole purpose of promoting a certain agenda and certain interests. For example the AEI is in large measure in favour of Israel and against what are seen as the interests of the Muslim world'. 'After 11 September', Noorbaksh goes on, 'two groups have dominated the American approach and policies towards the Middle East. On the one hand, there are the interest groups that dominate organisations such as the AEI, and on the other there are the ideologues who control the administration. Both of them have approaches that are full of prejudices towards the Middle East region and the Islamic faith and they have shaped policies towards Muslims that have generated in these last resentment towards Washington. However, there are also examples of think tanks that during the post-11 September period have been opposed to this approach, for example the Brookings Foreign Policy Association and the Middle East Policy Council.' If there is one limitation more than others that the think tanks have demonstrated during the years that followed the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, in the view of Addicott, it is that of having directed the Bush administration towards a not well defined enemy. 'The government and most of the think tanks', he explains, 'have adopted a definition, 'the war against terrorism', which does not describe the phenomenon. We are fighting against a tactic, which terrorism is. And we are not even fighting all the terrorist groups to be found in the world. Nor are we fighting Islam. Instead, we are fighting militant groups of Islamic extremists who are aiming to attack America with great violence. Al Qaeda tries to portray the current war as a war between Islam and the West, but the think tanks have not yet fully understood how to respond to this kind of propaganda'.