There are some exceptions, but one of the major failings of Washington’s think tank and policy communities is a general unwillingness to embrace the people and ideas that run counter to an institution’s own. They are contributing to the political and intellectual fragmentation dividing and paralyzing this town.
Many years ago, I was critical of what was then called the Toyota Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies because the material and programs they generated so were obsequiously pro-Japan during tough times in the US-Japan relationship. I once wrote that the real test of objectivity of the Toyota Chair would be whether it would ever do a program with lead US-Japan ‘revisionist’ Chalmers Johnson — a provocative UC Berkeley/UC San Diego scholar who founded the field of developmental studies and clinically dissected Japan’s political economy to show that it did not operate like Western political economic systems.
Of course that was not going to happen because the Japanese funders of CSIS would have had a stroke. CSIS’s “Japan Chair” has improved immeasurably since those days — but the reality of money driving policy output continues to define much of DC’s policy culture.
In this town, big time corporate events tend not to invite labor leaders. Labor events concerned about the collapsing American middle class or unemployed and underemployed tend not to invite big time financiers and bankers. And if they did, which I think is a step in the right direction, those financial elites tend to say “no” to the offered platform.
In fact, as someone who produces quite a few events in Washington, I often get disgruntled mail challenging me as to why I “gave a platform” to some person or another. It doesn’t matter whether the speaker was Grover Norquist, Nancy Pelosi, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Dianne Feinstein, Richard Trumpka, John McCain, or Joe Biden — there are many who don’t want to hear a whole spectrum of views.
But today, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Atlantic Council‘s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Policy had made recent Israel Ambassador to the US and Middle East scholar Michael Oren its Ambassador-in-Residence.
This is kind of like the Washington Institute on Near East Policy offering senior fellowships to J Street Founders Daniel Levy and Jeremy Ben-Ami, something probably not likely to happen. That said, I was impressed when the Washington Institute demonstrated a lot of class and magnanimity in its invitation to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — someone most of the WINEP leadership wanted to see fail to get confirmed.
Ambassador Oren has been tirelessly committed to explaining to folks that the Israel-Palestine standoff is not one of the root drivers of the Middle East’s dysfunctional relationship with the West, while former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft has been even more tireless in making the case that it is. Oren is deeply suspicious of Iran and is mostly of the “it’s nearly too late to stop Iran’s bomb” school of thought, while Scowcroft thinks that Iran’s intentions to step back from its nuclear pretensions and negotiate a comprehensive deal needs to be tested.
That the perspectives of these two differ so dramatically assures that the Atlantic Council will be the home base for many important, feisty, discussions — and this helps move the policy needle in a constructive direction.