Stephen M. Walt

A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal

I didn’t have a chance to comment on the revelations that foreign-policy insider Peter Galbraith received a 5 percent stake in an oil field in the Dohak region of Iraqi Kurdistan, for his role in helping the Norwegian oil company DNO negotiate drilling rights there. Galbraith was also involved in the constitutional negotiations that gave the Kurds substantial autonomy over the region and thus made the proposed deal possible, and the Times reports that he could make roughly $100 million or so for his efforts.

Not surprisingly, the exposure of Galbraith’s dealings has caused some controversy in Iraq, though remarkably little in Washington  One of the Iraqi participants said “the idea that an oil company was participating in the drafting of the Iraqi Constitution leaves me speechless,” and the whole business is bound to reinforce the widespread (and in my view, false) belief that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a “war for oil. ” 

Galbraith is publicly unrepentant, arguing that his deal with DNO was arranged while he was a private citizen and declaring that “What is true is that I undertook business activities that were entirely consistent with my long-held policy views. . . I believe my work with [DNO and other companies] helped create the Kurdistan oil industry which helps provide Kurdistan an economic base for the autonomy its people almost unanimously desire. . . So, while I may have had interests, I see no conflict.”

Of course, as a number of other critics quickly pointed out, the problem is not that Galbraith is in line to receive millions of dollars in compensation; the problem is that he failed to disclose his financial interests while he was busy writing op-eds and articles and engaging in other public activities on behalf of Kurdish autonomy. His behavior is no different than a medical researcher who takes millions of dollars from a pharmeceutical company and then writes articles or offers expert testimony about the efficacy of that company’s products. The testimony may be entirely consistent with the scientist’s “long-held views,” but anyone exposed to the testimony has a right to know about the potential conflict of interest.

The whole sordid business got me thinking: is there any way to clean up the marketplace of ideas here in the United States?  We are drowning in information and opinion, much of it claiming to be objective and authoritative when it may in fact be inspired and funded by moneyed special interests eager to sell the public a story that advances their particular objectives. Most “think tanks” in Washington portray themselves as objective, quasi-scholarly institutions (indeed, they increasingly give researchers endowed chairs and other quasi-academic titles), but unlike most universities, most think tanks remain heavily dependent on “soft money” and are bound to be especially sensitive to what potential donors might be thinking. And some of them aren’t really scholarly at all; they are just public relations operations or “letterhead organizations” seeking to mold public opinion and push the policy process in a particular direction. But unless you know who’s paying for it, it’s hard to decide who’s giving you an honest opinion and who is just shilling for some powerful interest group.

Can we tame this beast without infringing on free speech?

Here’s a suggestion: let’s start by asking participants in the war of ideas to provide a lot more information about their financial dealings. The SEC requires companies to make relevant financial information available to investors; why shouldn’t those who provide information in the public arena provide a similar level of disclosure to those who “invest” in their alleged expertise? We don’t have to pass a law requiring think tanks or pundits to disclose the details of their funding arrangements to the public; as a first step, we could simply rank different organizations and individuals on the level of disclosure they provide, much as other groups help potential donors rate charitable organizations on their administrative efficiency. 

For example, think tanks could be ranked according to their willingness to provide lists of their funding sources, specifying both the sources of the funding and the specific projects that the donors paid for. Wouldn’t you like to know who is bankrolling the American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Center for American Progress, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Brookings Institution, Council on Foreign Relations, Hudson Institute, Middle East Institute, Foreign Policy Initiative, Institute for the Study of War, the Federation of American Scientists, or the New America Foundation? 

Such groups shouldn’t make us dig for the information; they could just put it all out on their websites. Lord knows that these groups work overtime disseminating reports, testimony, op-eds and policy memos; surely it is not too much to ask them to tell us who is providing the wherewithal. Organizations that come clean could get a 5-star rating, and journalists and citizens who get exposed to their “analysis” could attach the appropriate discount to whatever they were being fed.

Or take this idea a step further: why not ask prominent pundits and commentators to provide similar disclosure, and rate them for their transparency as well? Where do David Brooks, Juan Cole, Ann Coulter, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Goldfarb, Michelle Malkin, Matt Yglesias, Richard Perle, Steve Clemons, Fred Kagan, or George Will get their money? How much is salary, and how much is derived from honoraria, royalties, or consulting work? And who’s paying the bills? 

Please understand that I’m not criticizing these organizations for accepting contributions from any legitimate source, and I’m not suggesting that commentators shouldn’t supplement their income through various outside activities. This is America, where, making a buck is a perfectly worthy enterprise. Nor am I suggesting that think tanks and pundits are just selling their opinions to the highest bidder; more commonly, outside groups pay for someone’s services because they already know what he or she thinks and they want to support it or consume it (i.e., by hiring a well-known pundit to give a talk). My point is simply that consumers of a think tank’s products or a public intellectual’s work have a right to know who is paying for their activities, so that they can take that fact into account.  

Nor am I proposing that full (or even partial) disclosure be a requirement for bloggers, journalists, pundits, or essayists who engage in public debate. Needless to say, that would be a gross infringement of free speech.  My proposal is much more modest: we should start asking about their sources of support, and somebody ought to keep track of how different people answer it.  Any commentator or public intellectual who wants to keep their financial information strictly private is free to do so. But if they do, then we are entitled to ask if they have something to hide, and to rank them lower than those who are willing to divulge their backers.

Am I willing to practice what I preach? Sure. For the current year, for example, about 80 percent of my income is my salary from Harvard. Harvard pays me to teach courses, advise students, administer a research program, and serve on various school committees, and it also expects me to publish research on various public policy issues. I like to think that I’m pulling my weight in each of these areas.

The remainder of my earnings comes from service as the academic consultant to the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, writing this blog, co-editing a book series, and assorted royalties and honoraria (mostly for giving talks or writing articles). The latter, by the way, is almost all from universities or citizens’ groups, although I also got some modest compensation for participating (along with a bunch of other scholars) in a workshop series funded by the National Intelligence Council. 

So far, nobody has offered me a stake an oil-field.  If anybody does, I’ll let you know right away.