Of Course Defense Analysts Are Biased

Nathan Hodge of Danger Room deserves credit for saying something uncouth: defense analysts may be biased by the money they raise from defense contractors or access they get from generals.  Recognizing that he’s in a minefield, Hodge treads lightly, insisting that he’s not “suggesting that there’s any funny business” even though that seems to be the point. Fair enough; the guy has to get his phone calls returned. Matt Yglesias follows up, pointing out that these pressures inflate support for militarized foreign policy.

My first reaction was that this is obvious. A little reflection should tell you that anyone who has to raise money to pay his salary fits Bob Dylan’s rule: you gotta serve somebody. And most somebodies in the defense world are parts of the national security bureaucracy or its paid help. Observation demonstrates the theory. But on second thought, maybe it’s not so obvious. Life is full of truths that go unstated and therefore under-appreciated because they are impolite. The fact that the emperor has no clothes is not obvious to everyone until someone has the chutzpah to say so.

Funds and access aren’t the only things that encourage defense analysts to support hawkish foreign policy decisions. I would add social pressure and jobs. The hawkish consensus in DC is reinforced by social convention. Put a guy from Berkeley in Washington, and I bet his social milieu alone would drive his stated views right. Political ambition is even more important. High-level foreign policy jobs in both parties go to those within the establishment consensus. Smart, ambitious people know that. It affects their stated views early.

What irritates me about this situation is not that analysts aren’t truly independent, it is that so many insist that they are. No politics here, they say, just us technocrats. Why not just admit it? Think tanks are political, especially when they take government money. That limits what you can say.

Here’s an essay (pdf) I wrote in 2007 about why we have a precautionary foreign policy. It includes a brief section, starting on page 38, about the biases that nominally independent analysts feel.

Anyone interested in how politics infects political analysis should read Hans Morgenthau’s essay, “The Purpose of Political Science.”