What is the Institute for the Study of War? And why do America’s elite media outlets trust it?
Here’s a joke I recently heard a Russian tell:
A Russian is on an airliner heading to the US, and the American in the seat next to him asks, “So what brings you to the US?” The Russian replies, “I’m studying the American approach to propaganda.” The American says, “What propaganda?” The Russian says, “That’s what I mean.”
If you don’t get the point, I can help. A few weeks before I heard this joke, I heard a Russian make the point explicitly: Yes, Russia’s state-controlled media is full of propaganda, but at least most Russians are aware of that and take the prevailing narrative with a grain of salt; Americans, in contrast, seem unaware that their own prevailing narratives are slanted.
I think there’s some truth to this, and I think the Ukraine war is a case in point. I don’t just mean that mainstream media’s coverage of the war is biased (though I think it is, as tends to be the case during wars). I mean this coverage exemplifies the difference between American and Russia propaganda—and so helps explain the difference, asserted by that joke, between American and Russian attitudes toward propaganda.
The main reason for this attitudinal difference, I think, isn’t that Americans are more gullible than Russians. It’s that America is a liberal democracy with a fairly complicated media ecosystem. It’s harder in this pluralistic system than in Russia for a single powerful person or institution to create a single dominant narrative. So if propaganda is going to happen here, it will have to happen less straightforwardly than in Russia, with less in the way of centralized control. And that makes it harder to pin down.
In other words: A pluralistic system, while in some ways making it more difficult for propaganda to prevail, also offers the propaganda that does prevail good camouflage.
At least, that’s my working hypothesis. One way to flesh out this hypothesis is to take a look at a DC think thank called the Institute for the Study of War.
The name may sound familiar. If you’ve been reading much about the Ukraine war, you’ve probably come across it. Reporters who draw on research from ISW often credit it.
But there are two things about the Institute for the Study of War that you may not know.
First is the extent of its influence. Since war broke out in February, ISW has been the elite media’s go-to think tank for information and analysis. Barely a day goes by that it isn’t cited by a reporter in either the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal. In the past six days—the first six days of this month—it has been cited in at least ten articles that appeared in one of those outlets.
The second thing you may not be aware of is how ideological the academic-sounding Institute for the Study of War is. It has neoconservative roots and is run and staffed by pretty extreme hawks. Over the years it has gotten funding from various corners of the arms industry—General Dynamics, Raytheon, lesser known defense contractors, and big companies, like General Motors, that aren’t known as defense contractors but do get Pentagon contracts.
Before saying more about ISW, I want to emphasize that I’m not claiming to have caught it in some capital crime. The Institute doesn’t spread untruths, even if it’s selective about the truths it promotes and tactical in how it arranges them. That’s part of my point: One reason propaganda often flies under the radar in America is that it can be subtle.
Another claim I’m not making is that ISW has exerted pivotal influence in the case of Ukraine. I’m not even saying the larger network of hawkish think tanks it’s part of has been pivotal. When a big country run by a famously ruthless autocrat invades a smaller neighbor that’s a democracy, Americans will naturally (and rightly) side with the country that got invaded and will favor giving it support. In that sense, the Institute for the Study of War, along with other voices that advocate robust military spending, has been pushing on an open door.
Still, $54 billion is a lot of money, and that’s how much aid, most of it military, the US has committed to Ukraine over the past three months. And the $40 billion of that passed by Congress in May got overwhelming support (368-57 in the House, 86-11 in the Senate)—pretty remarkable at a time when inflation is widely feared and deficit spending is widely said to be one of its causes.
Whatever you think of this aid—and, again, I consider helping a nation resist invasion a generically good cause—you can’t deny that the climate of American opinion on Ukraine is very favorable for defense contractors. I think the Institute for the Study of War is one reason for that—even if a small reason among bigger ones. And, more to the point, ISW is a case study in how influence on a wartime narrative can be exerted in barely perceptible ways.
The president and founder of the Institute for the Study of War is Kimberly Kagan, a military historian who is married to Frederick Kagan, who is also a military historian and does work for ISW. Frederick is a well-known neoconservative, though not as well-known as his brother Robert. In the 1990s, Robert Kagan, along with Bill Kristol (who is on ISW’s board), founded the Project for a New American Century, which in the view of some observers played an important role in convincing George W. Bush to invade Iraq.
Kimberly and Frederick Kagan have cultivated close ties to the Defense Department—sometimes raising questions about whether the ties were too close. A 2012 Washington Post piece said General David Petraeus had turned the couple into “de facto senior advisers.” The Post continued:
The pro-bono relationship, which is now being scrutinized by military lawyers, yielded valuable benefits for the general and the couple. The Kagans’ proximity to Petraeus, the country’s most-famous living general, provided an incentive for defense contractors to contribute to Kim Kagan’s think tank [ISW]. For Petraeus, embracing two respected national security analysts in GOP circles helped to shore up support for the [Afghanistan] war among Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.
All of this helps explain why noted phrasemaker Mickey Kaus has called the Kagan family “the Kagan industrial complex.” Speaking of which: