Think-tanks show 'ideas matter'

Washington think-tanks used to accommodate diverse viewpoints but have become more “tribal” over certain regional conflicts.
Sunday 24/02/2019
A file picture shows US Senator Marco Rubio speaking at the Hudson Institute in Washington. (AFP) 
A file picture shows US Senator Marco Rubio speaking at the Hudson Institute in Washington. (AFP) 

WASHINGTON - Independent research organisations in the Middle East have helped reform governments and engage the public in politics, showing that ideas matter, a panel of experts said.

In Washington, think-tanks have been influential but they have gone "tribal," shifting from analysis to advocacy.

“The rise of think-tanks in the Middle East changed the narrative,” said Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Now policy and public affairs were being owned by the society. It’s something we can talk about. It’s not up to the government and the politicians. It’s something society and social institutions can debate. That was new.”

Salem founded the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies in 1989 in Beirut and, as he ran it in the 1990s, he said he saw how think-tanks in the Middle East produced policy leaders and informed the public.

“In the Middle East in the 1990s, people were thirsty for information and analysis other than what governments put out. Think-tanks were leaders in the civil-society movements not only in terms of mobilisation but in terms of putting out the ideas that other institutions rallied around, such as fighting corruption, human rights and democratic reform,” Salem said. “We excited people and mobilised them.”

Middle East think-tanks “were very much part of the awakening and empowerment that led up to the 'Arab spring,'” which made them a target of political leaders trying to retain power, Salem said during a panel discussion January 31.

“The effectiveness of think-tanks is the reason governments stamp out think-tanks first. They are primary targets of authoritarian backlash. In many cases they are more dangerous than other institutions. It does indicate the degree to which these ideas matter,” he said.

Sami Atallah, current director of the Lebanese Policy Centre, said that think-tanks still struggle to influence political parties to engage in ideas.

“It’s very important to bring something new to the table, have solid policy research and insist we’re providing knowledge that they didn’t have before,” Atallah said, speaking by phone from Beirut. “Political parties are not competing over policy ideas. They are competing based on ideologies, regional rivalries, but little on how they’re going to create jobs or fix the economy or the health-care system. They don’t need to even produce a programme to be elected.”

In Washington, which is home to numerous think-tanks devoted to foreign affairs and the Middle East, those organisations have started to focus increasingly on advocacy and less on analysis, said Brian Katulis, a national-security analyst at the liberal Centre for American Progress and who has advised Democratic politicians, including former US President Bill Clinton.

The change has been driven by the unpredictable nature of US President Donald Trump and the growing influence of social media. “It’s creating incentives for scholars to just react to the latest [Trump] decision. There’s a tendency to draw conclusions when we don’t even understand what he’s done,” Katulis said.

Washington think-tanks used to accommodate diverse viewpoints but have become more “tribal” over certain regional conflicts, such as the dispute between Qatar and its Arabian Gulf neighbours.

“It’s gotten really personal for a lot of people who won’t sit on panels that they disagree with,” Katulis said. His think-tank was criticised by some of its own members and supporters when it hosted Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in November 2015. Many US liberals oppose Netanyahu and his conservative Likud party, particularly over their policy of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Salem said that when he moved from Beirut to the United States in 2013, he was struck that “there’s very little actual freedom of opinion and debate” as liberals and conservatives cling to ideologies. “In Beirut, London, Tel Aviv, you can have great debates about everything. It’s very difficult to do here and is made so much worse by Twitter,” Salem said.

Randa Slim, director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute, said think-tanks are so rigid because they are “male-dominated.”

“Women leaders in think-tanks, even those I disagree with, find common ground and respect each other’s opinions,” Slim said. “As the community becomes more inclusive, that sectarianism is bound to change.”