Despite a growing focus on human rights and democracy, policy advocacy is replacing policy analysis amid an increasingly intolerant mood within the US capital’s think-tanks, argues Brian Katulis


About a decade ago, the Iraq war was raging. It was the hot topic in foreign policy and the north star in America’s political debate, so much so that it helped propel Senator Barack Obama into the presidency.

In Washington DC, hardly a day went by without panel discussions, roundtables, or Congressional hearings on Iraq. The town was thick with scholars pumping out detailed papers examining obscure subjects such as intra-Shia political disputes and the impact of tribal dynamics on Iraq’s national politics.

If an analyst wanted to make a name for themselves, Iraq was the quickest ticket to get noticed in Middle East policy and political circles. Often it didn’t matter if one spent much time in the country or spoke the language – the market demand was strong for insights on Iraq.

Flash forward to 2018 – and Iraq barely registers on the radar screen in the United States. The military campaign against the Islamic State has wound down, and Iraq held its latest national election earlier this year. A handful of analysts at think-tanks still produce detailed, thoughtful analyses on what’s happening inside the country and why it matters for the United States – but this work doesn’t garner the attention that it used to, and the Middle East think-tank community has largely moved on to other issues.

No one really cares how many US troops are still serving in Iraq – just a few short years when the most urgent policy and political question was whether the US troop presence was going to get down to zero.

The waning focus on Iraq is just one of many shifts that have occurred among Washington think-tanks that focus on the Middle East over the past few years – and there are more profound shifts underway during the Trump administration that point to the possibility that overall policy analysis on the Middle East in the next few years may follow the same path as Iraq over the past few years.

In three key ways, Washington think-tanks that focus on the Middle East have shifted during the Trump era – and it’s important to note that some of these shifts were already in motion long before President Trump was elected.

1) A trend towards more policy advocacy rather than putting analysis first. This trend was already underway before Trump came to office, but his disruptive style of politics and policymaking has created incentives for more scholars at think-tanks to shift into an advocacy mode – taking quick stances in reaction to policy shifts like moving the embassy to Jerusalem or stepping away from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, rather than examining the full spectrum of implications and then drawing a conclusion.

“[Trump’s] disruptive style of politics and policymaking has created incentives for more scholars at think-tanks to shift into an advocacy mode”

The distinction between analysis and advocacy is an important one – one sometimes not even recognized by scholars at think-tanks. Someone who does policy analysis can also do policy advocacy after they come to some conclusions based on thorough research, but not all policy advocates conduct a thorough policy analysis. Analysis is about a more thorough examination of the facts, stakes, and options; advocacy is about pushing forward with a very specific policy recommendation and seeking to debunk the other side.

The debate over Iran and Trump’s move on the nuclear deal is a great example of how think-tanks have increasingly adopted an advocacy first role. Some supporters of Trump’s move to take the United States out of the international agreement expended most of their efforts pushing arguments in favor of the move in opinion editorials, media appearances and Congressional testimony, and what was often missing from this was a sense of clinical analysis and balance that included weighing the possible downsides or pitfalls to Trump’s move.

On the other side, those supporters of the deal, including former Obama administration officials, often adopted a similar, knee-jerk advocacy approach against the Trump move – out of genuine concern that it was a bad move for US national security interests but also out of an interest to defend the legacy of the administration they had served in for years. Rare was it to find an Iran deal proponent who carefully examined the shortcomings in the deal or took into account the full spectrum of Iran’s policies and actions that ran contrary to US interests and values.

Part of the problem is that good analysis is actually hard to do – it takes time, and it doesn’t fit with the rapid response, attention deficit disorder nature of the media and political environment that shapes America’s policy deliberations these days. Admittedly, policy advocacy has always been a component of the Middle East policy scene. But the shifts in politics and media, combined with President Trump’s style, has created incentives for more think-tanks to draw conclusions more quickly and advocate on a position, rather than take the time to conduct a more complete examination of all aspects of a policy. This is part of the reason why Washington has seen an increase in the number of pop-up think-tanks funded sometimes by foreign governments or particular individuals pushing a particular line or perspective – as opposed to invested in analysis that is aimed at examining issues from a more holistic perspective of US national security interests and values.

2) An increasing polarization and lack of dialogue among different views. Linked to this issue of the rising focus on advocacy first, analysis maybe later is the fact that it is increasingly rare to find analysts and scholars who have fundamentally different views seeking to exchange those views in a way that produces new insight. The tribalism and sectarianism that seems to have swept over and reemerged over many parts of the Middle East is reflected in the nature of the dialogue on Middle East policy in the United States.

CodePink anti-war activists protest US-led military intervention in Syria and Iraq against ISIS at the White House in Washington, DC, on September 25, 2014 (Nicholas Kamm/ AFP)

The debates driven by advocacy have at times becomes so heated, personal, and emotional that scholars with different views refuse to sit on the same stage on a panel discussion in a civil exchange. Analysts may increasingly read the work of others that they agree with, echoing a trend in the broader society and media where people self-select into the bubbles that are comfortable. This feeds a confirmatory bias in the work of some think-tanks.

It is understandable why this happens – in many ways it is quite natural because think-tanks operate in the broader environment in which they work, and that environment is increasingly polarized and caustic. But the end result is that the overall production of think-tanks working on the Middle East is less than the individual sum of its parts – there is less opportunity for synergy and new insight.

3) A growing focus on human rights, democracy, and dignity. If the first two trends are negative, this third one is a very positive one, but driven by a negative dynamic in the world and in the Trump administration’s policy: a growing number of think-tanks are refocusing their efforts on the implications of the downgrading of human rights and democracy during the Trump era. This is driven by some very negative trends in the Middle East – the emergence of an autocratic wave of repression in many countries of the region and the daily atrocities against human life in Syria and Yemen. It is also driven by the Trump administration’s downgrading of human rights and democracy as a priority in US foreign policy – a downgrading that had begun under the Obama administration, but the Trump administration has taken it to unprecedented levels.

“Some think-tanks that did not focus on human rights and democracy as much under the Obama administration are rediscovering it”

Some think-tanks that did not focus on human rights and democracy as much under the Obama administration are rediscovering it – in part a reflection of concerns closer to home about the health and nature of America’s own democracy in the aftermath of Trump’s election in 2016.

It remains to be seen if this trend towards examining the strategic implications of the continued downgrading of human rights and democracy will continue. One major impediment on both the left and the right is the shoulder shrug of disinterest, the fatalistic view that the United States can do nothing right in the Middle East and it might as well just stay away from getting more deeply enmeshed in the complicated problems of the Middle East.

In sum, the think-tanks that work on Middle East policy continue to adapt to the new environment under the Trump administration. Increasingly, there is a growing recognition of the existential crisis that think-tanks face under a Trump administration that does not appear to have much of a coherent internal policy process and a president that does not place much stock in facts and analysis (and in fact, has done his utmost to create even more confusion about basic facts in his attacks on the media and peddling of conspiracies). Some thoughtful analysts continue to produce rich, textured studies about the Middle East – but the market is less interested in those these days.

Like his predecessor, President Donald Trump’s administration has signaled its reluctance to remain deeply enmeshed in the Middle East – its national security and defense strategies place a higher priority on what it defines as strategic competitors such as China and Russia. Although the Trump administration talks a lot about things like Iran and getting to the “ultimate deal” on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the reality is that it has failed to assemble the policy tools to have a meaningful impact that is likely to lead to fundamental change in the region. And when it comes to a broader strategy for the overall Middle East, it is impossible for careful observers to discern anything resembling an approach that seems coherent.

Iraq’s trajectory in the DC policy debate over the past decade may serve as a harbinger of things to come on Middle East policy overall in the next ten years. The declining attention in the broader political and media environment, a less rich and textured policy discussion inside government, and an increasing disinterest in wrestling with the detailed challenges – all of these factors may lead to what ultimate leads to the death of think-tanks analysis on Middle East policy in the coming years.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at American Progress where his work focuses on US national security strategy and counterterrorism policy