The Skeptics

The Revolving Door, Think Tanks and the MIC

Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address includes two memorable but vague references to conflicts of interest that, in the general-president’s estimation, endangered the balance between security and liberty. The first, and most famous, was of a military-industrial complex that might misdirect the nation’s assets to weapons and other projects and that did not measurably advance the nation’s security, but that did improve the material well-being of the interested few. The second warning pertained to the “steadily increasing share” of the nation’s research that “is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the federal government.”

Bryan Bender’s recent articles in the Boston Globe documenting the revolving door for retired three- and four-star officers addresses the first concern. Journalists and others should pay similar attention to the second.

Bender’s research expands upon earlier articles about the relationships between the Pentagon and retired officers in the New York Times and USA Today, the latter of which, especially, resulted in an overhaul of the Pentagon’s “senior mentors” program.

Some worry that such stories will have a chilling effect, discouraging the most qualified individuals from continuing to share their expertise with the government after they retire. The more conscientious will do so out of concerns about a conflict of interest. Others may refuse to serve on advisory panels due to the potential for increased scrutiny into their private life. Those who choose to serve in advisory roles after retirement, and often with some financial or personal stake in the decision, are presumably less concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest. Still others might not have a stake, but might lack the expertise of the more high-profiled three- and four-stars who chose to restrict their post-retirement activities to golf or non-defense-related work.

Defenders of the current system that encourages retirees to remain active in national security planning, and even helps them to obtain employment with defense contractors, have a point. There is a legitimate argument that the most knowledgeable individuals are also the most experienced. It is possible that even modest reforms to limit the possibility of a conflict of interest would inhibit retired generals and admirals from contributing to discussions about, for example, which tanker the Air Force should buy, or which reforms to the military’s pay and benefits system make the most sense.

But I think that is a risk worth taking. Retired military officers, or any other persons invited to advise policy, should be required to make their potential conflicts of interest known before accepting a position on an advisory board, and should recuse themselves when the panel’s deliberations or decisions might affect them personally or professionally.

There is no shortage of expertise in this town; what we most often lack are objective assessments divorced from personal interest.

It is this latter aspect that touches on Eisenhower’s other warning. He was particularly worried that universities and other institutions of higher learning had become too dependent upon government funding, and that this would inhibit or condition their research. But a similar problem exists in the think tank world. The federally funded research institutions such as RAND, the Center for Naval Analysis, and the Institute for Defense Analysis often do fine work, but the suspicion that their work is geared to the preferences of their primary sponsor -- the Department of Defense -- is hard to shake. Meanwhile, officially non-governmental think tanks such as CNAS, CSIS, and Brookings, for example, also contribute to discussions about force structure and strategy. But they have sponsors, too. A few, including Cato, refuse to accept government money as a matter of principle.