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Hichem Karoui: Think tanks industry story
April 21, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Some observers noticed a particular increase in the number of American experts from the defence and foreign affairs who went on television in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Indeed, these members of think tanks were significantly solicited to provide their responses to the problems about which the American public was most anxious.

The fact that think tanks became so publicised in the wake of a major crisis is not surprising. Moreover, it has been a long time since their fellows stopped refraining from accessing the media. Several of them, in fact, maintain a more or less regular presence in the press, and their participation in public life is no longer in the shadows.

Apparently, the experts do not agree on a specific date that would signal the birth of the first think tank nor even on what it might consist. But we can point out some reference marks:

— According to Donald Abelson, the term “Think Tank” originally – i.e. when it was employed in the United States during World War II – designated “a secure room or environment in which defence experts and military planners met to discuss strategy.” But from there, this limited use of the term has broadened to describe, “more than 2,000 US based organisations engaged in policy analysis and approximately 2,500 institutions around the world.” Concerning US think tanks, we note their diversity even when they study the same subjects. As to their desire to shape public opinion and policy choices of the decision makers, it depends on several conditions and parameters including their resources, priorities and mission.

— The first wave of think tanks dedicated to American foreign policy emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. The three institutions that marked the early years of last century are: The Carnegie Endowment For International Peace (1910) created by the steel magnate of Pittsburgh, Andrew Carnegie; The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace (1919), created by Herbert Hoover (before he became president); and The Council on Foreign Relations (1921), an institution which grew from a “dinner club” to become one of the most respected foreign affairs organisations worldwide. Two other think tanks: the Brookings Institution (1927) and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (1943)  also are very interested in foreign policy.

Functioning as “universities without students,” these think tanks gave the highest priority to produce quality academic research. Even if some of their experts occasionally advised policy makers, their original purpose, according to Abelson, was not “to directly influence government decisions, but rather to inform policymakers and the public about the potential consequences of a range of options in foreign policy.” However, the preservation of intellectual and institutional independence is no longer the priority of the think tanks today.

 – The second generation emerged in response to the new needs in the period after World War II. The US was then facing new responsibilities as a superpower in a bipolar world and needed advice and expertise of specialists to develop a foreign policy and a consistent national security. In this context, the RAND Corporation was established in May 1948, “to promote and protect US security interests in the nuclear age.” But in addition to filling a gap in research related to foreign policy, RAND opened the way for a generation of think tanks contracting with the government, in the sense that their research will have to deal with matters of some importance for policy makers. Many of these think tanks like the Hudson Institute (1961) or the Urban Institute (1968), etc. will be then on the rising wave.

 – The third generation has profoundly transformed the nature and role of the community of think tanks, combining policy research with aggressive marketing techniques, which made this generation the most involved with media and interest groups. Hence the nickname: “Advocacy Think Tanks.” Thus, these institutions – including The Center for Strategic and International Studies (1962), the Heritage Foundation (1973), and The CATO Institute (1977) – take advantage of any opportunity to influence both the direction and the content of foreign policy.

– The fourth generation is depicted as “Legacy-based” Think Tanks. These are institutions created by former presidents of the republic, as the Carter Center (Atlanta) and The Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom (Washington, DC). These centres organise seminars and workshops, conducting research on a number of political topics, and publish widely.

As the “Think Tanks’ industry” has become increasingly competitive, so it is normal that they increasingly seek public and policy makers’ attention.

In 2002, there were at least 1,500 think tanks in the USA, engaged in “a whole range of activities related to public policy” and constituting “a set of institutions differently organised,”  said James McGann, who publishes a widely read yearly report on the think tanks. First, there are those who made the studies and the research on the Middle East their speciality. Then there are those who devote themselves to broader research, while giving the Middle East its own section and its experts.

Among the think tanks specialised in the study and consultancy about the Middle East, let us mention for example:

•  AMIDEAST, founded in 1951 by Dorothy Thompson. Its headquarters are in Washington, with offices in several Arab countries.
• The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, founded in 1985.
• The Middle East Institute, founded in 1946 by the scholar George Camp Keiser and former Secretary of State Christian Herter.
• The Middle East Policy Council, created in 1981, in Washington DC.
• Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), founded in 1998.Washington DC .

Finally, some renowned US think tanks have opened offices in the Middle East and started working on the field of their research interest with a local staff. Indubitably, the US think tanks have accumulated a lot of experience and expertise, which takes their level of professionalism and competence up to the mark. Yet, their first objective is to serve the US interests in the region. That is why we see a parallel phenomenon, which consists in the multiplication of Arab think tanks and “research centres,” reaching about 250, with a wide range of specialities. This is something new in the Arab world. It witnesses a growing concern about the necessity of taking our research out of the old academic routine restraining it to the university, and adapting it to new professional standards well anchored in our culture and well connected to the ambitions of our societies and its rising generations.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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