Daniel W. Drezner

The thing about foreign policy advocacy in a Web 2.0 world….

The thing about foreign policy advocacy in a Web 2.0 world….

Ben Smith’s story in Politico today focuses on the emergence of a more critical stance on Israel from Media Matters and the Center for American Progress.  Or, as neoconservatve Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin interprets it, Smith  "blows the cover off the anti-Israel left and the Democrats’ favorite think tank, the Center for American Progress, which harbors many of its shrillest voices."

What’s interesting about Smith’s story is his evidence for this tonal shift at CAP and Media Matters — namely, tweets and blog posts. 

The daily battle is waged in Media Matters’ emails, on CAP’s blogs, Middle East Progress and ThinkProgress and most of all on Twitter, where a Media Mattters official, MJ Rosenberg, regularly heaps vitriol on those who disagree as “Iraq war neocon liar” (the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg) or having “dual loyalties” to the U.S. and Israel (the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin). And while the Center for American Progress tends to walk a more careful line, warm words for Israel can be hard to find on its blogs….

CAP officials have told angry allies that the bloggers don’t speak for the organization, and senior fellow Brian Katulis – whose work is more standard Clinton-Democrat fare – stressed that in an email.

“I think there are different voices on the Think Progress blog and some individual analysts – and some of that work, especially the blog, is I think aimed at reporting on and reflecting one aspect of the diversity of the views among the broad progressive community,” he said. “But what one blogger or analyst may write isn’t necessarily indicative of what our policy recommendations are for the administration or Congress when I’m doing meetings with our friends in government.”

The director of CAP’s national security program, Ken Gude, also drew a distinction between the blog, which is CAP’s loudest megaphone, and its less confrontational policy work.

“There’s a distinction here that we have between the policy work that we do and the blogging work that we do,” he said. Middle East Progress “is clearly a progressive blog and it does respond to arguments that are made most forcefully by conservatives and it responds in that way.”….

But the fact remains that the Center’s most audible voices on the Middle East aren’t the former Clinton staffers who populate much of the organization, and they come from different foreign policy traditions. Duss, a confrontational presence on Twitter but typically a more careful blogger, places himself in what’s sometimes called the “realist” stream of American foreign policy (emphasis added). 

So, to sum up Smith’s observations, what’s driving this story is that when it comes to Israel, some of CAP and Media Matters analysts are really harsh on Twitter and pretty harsh on the blogs — but the more substantive, traditional  policy work doesn’t look like that at all, so it’s being overblown. 

Rubin is having none of that: 

[T]he scandal here is that CAP houses and provides a blog for such sentiments….

CAP is promoting this and is responsible for the venomous output on its blogs.

The excuse that these voices don’t represent CAP’s views and aren’t attributable to CAP is ludicrous….

Imagine if the bloggers were writing about the inferiority of a racial group. They’d be gone in a nanosecond. In fact, those who fancy themselves as respectable think tankers and loyal Democrats are enablers of the scourge of anti-Semitic filth that flows through the hard left. CAP has a choice: Clean out the sewer or be prepared to take the approbation that goes with the association with Israel haters and those who peddle in anti-Semitic tripe.

I don’t agree with Rubin’s characterizations of the content — the material in question is not anti-Semitic (though it’s problematic and borderline offensive) and CAP ain’t "hard left."  That said, she raises an interesting and valid point about what, exactly, is the output of a think tank.  Is it the more traditional policy analysis?  The blogs?  The individual Twitter feeds of its denizens?  In a Web 2.0 world, I have to wonder if the latter matters at least as much as the former (of course, the significance of tweets, etc., would have to apply to Rubin as well.  Her own ombudsman, for example, blasted her for re-tweeing a link to "reprehensible" blog post containing "incendiary rhetoric"). 

There’s a lot to consider here — how a think tank brands itself, whether policy analysts can freely express themselves without being associated with their day job, and exactly how policy analysis is crafted.  If, for example, someone develops a policy position in a path-dependent manner from instant tweet to somewhat-less-instant blog post to a memo/testimony that reifies those original statements, then Web 2.0 really matters.  If, however, time leads one to modify or recalibrate the initial response — as the statement of Duss suggests — then Web 2.0 still matters, but in a different way.  It matters only insomuch as the foreign policy community thinks that tweets and blog posts capture more attention and bandwidth than more conventional forms of policy analysis.

What do you think?