January 12, 2012

On Defense Policy Analysts and Conflicts of Interest

Gulliver at Ink Spots called my attention to some excellent commentary on TIME Magazine’s blog that deserves a wider readership. In it, a collection of defense analysts demolish some arguments Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation has made in support of the F-22 and F-35 and make some very important points about readiness and our aviators.

I am a specialist in neither air power nor the defense acquisitions process, but I know a devastating argument when I see one. Carafano had invoked the ghost of John Boyd to defend the new fighter-interceptors, and the analysts – all of whom knew Boyd personally and had spoken with him about each weapon system prior to his death – correct some of Carafano’s assumptions in the most brutal way.

But the commentary also sparked some lively back-and-forth over Twitter when I suggested that it had taken a few cheap shots. Not content with merely demolishing the substance of Carafano’s arguments, the analysts strongly imply that the reason Carafano argues what he does is because his organization, the Heritage Foundation, receives support from Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-22 and F-35. Here I cry foul. On the one hand, defense policy analysts have an obligation to speak up whenever their work relates to the interests of a donor. This is why I maintain a policy of transparency on my blog and why my employer, I am proud to say, is one of the very few think tanks that publicly discloses its supporters. People like Carafano and myself have an obligation to announce our conflicts of interest and to let the public make an informed decision about the substance of our research.

On the other hand, though, I strongly believe that if you are going to impugn a man’s integrity, your evidence better be air-tight. It is not enough to establish correlation (“Jay Carafano’s employer receives money from large defense contractors”). One must also establish causation as well (“Jay Carafano argues what he does because his employer receives money from large defense contractors”). You better have hard evidence to support the latter.

Because it has been my experience that most people make their arguments – even their dumber arguments – in good faith. And as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross points out, you can also slander good work with accusations of financial motivations. Finally, it has been my experience that when defense analysts argue to cut weapon systems, they are rarely congratulated for taking stands that run counter to the short-term financial interests of their research institution. You only hear a research institution’s donors mentioned when it affords people an opportunity to undermine an argument in favor of buying weapon systems.

There is a lot that is wrong with the defense policy community and its public discourse. One of the problems is that analysts are too slow to mention when there is a conflict of interest. (I learned the hard way a few years ago that you need to mention every conceivable conflict of interest as soon as possible if you want your arguments to be taken seriously.) Another problem, though, is that rival analysts are not satisfied with criticizing the substance of a given argument but also feel the need to rashly question the integrity of the analyst. If you can prove that an analyst is more or less paid to produce his or her "analysis," by all means impugn that analyst's integrity. (Such a situation, sadly, would not be without precedent.) If you cannot prove it, though, don't mention it. It weakens your argument. And as much as I love to engage with those who challenge the substance of my own arguments, you'll note that I simply ignore those with a history of making evidence-free attacks on my integrity instead.


By the way, yes: Lockheed Martin is a supporter of the Center for a New American Security. Do with that information what you wish.

I should also point out that my values here were not born from the womb. My natural instinct in argumentation, in fact, is to be just as nasty as others. But I like to think I have grown a little and matured over the years and that the discourse on this blog reflects that maturation.