Osama bin Laden dipped into his huge fortune to recruit, train and transport suicide bombers into the heart of American power. Maybe he should just have used the money to start a Washington think tank instead.
Think tanks are, of course, those nonprofit organizations that allow scholars, writers and polemicists a platform from which to pontificate, and they have been looking far and wide for funding. Revolutionary developments in media during the last two decades -- primarily the growth of the Internet and cable television -- have given all sorts of think-tank thinkers wide platforms from which to preach to believers and unbelievers alike.
Riding high on a bull market -- and started by the federal government's pursuit of Microsoft for antitrust violations --many in the Internet industry of the late 1990s sought to influence policy by funding think tanks. In 1999 the New York Times ran a front-page account of how Microsoft had bankrolled the Independent Institute, a California-based libertarian think tank, to run full-page ads supporting Microsoft's claim of innocence in the face of the antitrust charges.
The ads took the form of a letter signed by 240 academics and purported to be a scholarly view of why the government had been excessive in its claims of wrongdoing against Microsoft. According to the Times, Microsoft not only paid for the ads but was the largest single donor to the Independent Institute.
The burst of the Internet bubble brought an end to the attention paid to this sort of thing. But questions remain about the way donors influence think tanks and how this influence plays out in public-policy discussions.
Take for instance the People's Republic of China, which three decades ago was the darkest of bete noires for the American right. This began to change with President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972. Then, even during the last years of dictator Mao Tse-tung's life, some in the GOP began to look at mainland China as a potentially useful partner in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Such notions, right-wing intellectuals now admit, occasionally were whispered in conservative think tanks.
Decades have passed and the Cold War has ended. The cadre in Beijing still sing "The East is Red," but conservative think tanks have become much more receptive to the concept of doing business with China. "It's significant throughout Washington," says a resident fellow at a conservative Washington think tank who asks to remain anonymous. "Trade and corporate money have influenced feelings regarding China."
In an interview earlier this year, Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner cited concern about Beijing's human-rights and military policies but said that continuing to do business with China was justified. That attitude is apparent in this year's Index of Economic Freedom, an annual monograph produced by Heritage. China is placed in the category "mostly unfree" and the ranking of 3.55 is lower than it was in 1995. But in the text for the entry on China, the index points out that "though often criticized for its human-rights abuses and authoritarian political system, the People's Republic of China is vastly more open and advanced economically than it was two decades ago."
It's difficult to argue against this, and many believe that those who do so are, in essence, looking for a fight.
Conservative journalist Jon Basil Utley, a fellow at the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute, has argued that conservatives vastly exaggerate China's military power. For some, the influence of businesses and corporations eager to do business with Beijing is the dominant factor in think-tank attitudes toward China. David Callahan, a think-tank veteran and left-leaning author, said in 1999 that think tanks had become a third option to lobbying and financing political campaigns for wealthy contributors seeking to affect policy. "The third river of private money flowing into politics is less well-known, but nearly as wide and deep as the other two," he wrote in the Washington Monthly. …