There is plenty of debate about foreign policy in Washington. But little of it questions the major arguments justifying the nation’s wars, especially those that seem likely to be cheap, like air and drone strikes. Even the 2003 Iraq War was, at the outset, relatively uncontroversial among foreign policy elites, as opposed to the public and academics.10 Pre‐war debate and think tank analysis centered on how to go to war: the adequacy of the intelligence and international support. As the war grew unpopular, the analytic focus shifted to deficiencies in intelligence analysis, war‐planning, counterinsurgency doctrine, rather than the theories of democratization, energy security, non‐proliferation, and failed states justifying the war and occupation.11 Academics write about those topics, but Washington’s debates and writings mostly ignore academic work.
The Washington take‐away from the troubled wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to be to tolerate less cost in support of similar goals—avoiding prolonged military occupations while still using military force to achieve revolutionary ambitions in troubled countries. For example, one seeming lesson of recent U.S. wars is that overthrowing autocrats ruling over fractious polities might unleash lasting conflict rather than stability, let alone liberal democracy. That conclusion vitiates the main rationales offered for disposing the Qaddafi and Assad regimes in Libya and Syria. Nonetheless, foreign policy elites, including scholars at major think tanks, broadly supported recent U.S. efforts to displace the Libyan and Syrian regimes, generally without engaging that counterargument.12
So what needs explanation is not non‐evaluation of war but under‐evaluation of war.13
My explanation has two parts, dealing with the demand and supply of analysis. The former considers how the foreign policy elites’ hawkishness suppresses debate. The supply side explains why analysts, even those at seemingly independent think tanks, rarely supply evaluation anyway. They serve the political system rather than guiding it.
The primacy cause of the limited evaluation of war is relative power, meaning the advantages in wealth, geography, and military capability that allow the United States to adopt ambitious military objectives abroad. Over time, relative power has produced bipartisan support for a grand strategy of primacy among foreign policy elites, which generates hawkish beliefs.14 Primacy, to simplify, consists of two core beliefs.15 One is that U.S. leadership is crucial to the maintenance of global order, which refers generally to peace among great powers, international commerce, and state cooperation through international organizations. A second belief is that U.S. leadership is comprised largely of military commitments—allies, overseas bases, naval patrols, and threats or acts of war. The reasoning is generally that U.S. military power deters aggression, limiting the need for states to defend themselves, preventing security dilemmas.
Primacy’s advocates see many threats. They worry about the credibility of the many promises the United States makes to defend allies. They fear proliferation of weapons technology, especially nuclear weapons. Especially in the Beltway, they tend to argue that internal conditions abroad—foreign civil wars, failed states, or illiberal government—can undermine U.S. global leadership, creating danger. This expansive view of interests and threats makes primacy conducive to war.16 It offers a grab bag of reasons to support proposed wars or military strikes and few arguments for peace.
Relative power produces support for primacy in two ways. First, over time, it distributes the human and material costs of hawkish policies, diminishing their electoral relevance. Military prowess and geography insulate most Americans from threats, allowing them to be relatively indifferent—rationally ignorant—about war’s wisdom.17 As a result, security policy tends to rank low among voters’ concerns and politicians have little incentive to cater to voters’ foreign‐policy views. They are relatively free to adopt undemocratic stances.18
U.S. wealth creation, meanwhile, spreads the economic burden of U.S. security policies. For example, U.S. defense spending authority, adjusting for inflation, was about $614 billion in fiscal year 2014 versus $670 billion in 1952, the highest annual total of the Cold War.19 In 1952, that spending amounted to 13 percent of gross domestic product and 68 percent of federal spending. Today those percentages are 3.5 and 16.5, respectively.20 U.S. spending on the Iraq War never took more than one percent of GDP.21Drone strikes and air campaigns, like the 2011 bombing of Libya, cost tiny fractions of that.22
Thus in the material and human sense, U.S. security policy has become less burdensome, though barely cheaper. That shift means that primacy’s policies, including wars, require a smaller portion of taxes and less painful tradeoffs from other government programs. Interest groups associated with low taxes and groups defending domestic spending programs have less reason to organize opposition. Because few Americans worry about going to war, peace groups suffer. Lack of organized opposition mutes pluralistic debate among competing societal ends.
The other way relative power encourages primacy is by concentrating its benefits and generating organizations and interest groups that promote it. The exercise of global military power generated an institutional support base for continuation of those policies. This is the military‐industrial‐congressional‐complex, plus various friends and clients that rely on its largesse, including some think tanks.23 As with other public policies with concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, a minority with strong and generally mutual interests rule over majority of the rationally apathetic.24
These interests typically oppose policies which are adverse to primacy—like exiting alliances. That encourages leaders, including presidents, to stick with the strategic status quo and defend it with primacy’s arguments. By creating an echo of arguments favoring primacy, these interests heighten support for it. Repetition creates both true believers and social adherents who outwardly concur for professional or social reasons.25
The consensus around primacy makes policy‐makers in both parties generally hawkish relative to the public.26 These views convey themselves through various political incentives to think tanks. Before elaborating on those incentives, two caveats are useful.
First, incentives operate on people to differing degrees depending on their employer, ambitions and personality. Analysts may buck incentives, but their collective effect is strong. Second, these incentives do not encourage analysts to take aggressively pro‐war stances. As the Iraq War demonstrated, being overly bellicose can have unfortunate professional consequences for analysts, at least on the left. The better course is to avoid strong anti‐war positions and to focus on operational questions.
Understanding what think tanks produce requires understanding their main tasks: raising money and touting access to a powerful audience. Non‐profits must raise money in order to operate. The ability to speak to policy‐makers or a large audience allows think tanks to promise results, which keeps up morale and aids fundraising.
Raising money requires pleasing funders and thus doing what many of them want. People, including those running foundations or grant‐making arms of government agencies, fund think‐tanks for two main reasons. One is to get a particular question answered. The other reason, probably more common, is to influence politics—to promote some change.
Access to policy‐makers means responding to their wants, as well. In theory, that can be three things. The first is help with preference formation or goal setting, where think tank analysts are like salespeople in a free marketplace of ideas. Policy‐makers also want help with preference implementation. That can be operational support, where outside experts help turn general goals into policy programs or evaluate alternative means to an end. It can also mean marketing, where experts’ endorsement heightens support.
There are several reasons why policy‐makers want help less with policy formation than policy‐implementation, especially the sales element. First, other politicians, pollsters, political consultants, staff, interest groups and parties already compete for the policy guidance role. Second, office‐holders often lack the time required to investigate intellectual alternatives. Third, the diffusion of power in the U.S. political system creates status quo bias, which makes opportunities for big changes rare. And the difficulty of change forces leaders to constantly sell their policy preferences to others.27 Expert support gives policies a sheen of scientific legitimacy.
One U.S. Senator described this legitimization function this way: “you can find a think tank to buttress any view or position, and then you can give it the aura of legitimacy and credibility by referring to their report.“28 Rory Stewart, an expert on Afghanistan who opposed the 2009 surge, describes how this dynamic played out in his consultation with Obama administration officials planning the surge: