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Right Idea, Wrong Approach

In the latest edition of Democracy Journal, John Nagl identifies the right idea, but wrong approach for solving the hard problems of tomorrow. Writing about Jonathan Stevenson (of the Naval War College) and his idea of a new type of think tank, Nagl says:

[Stevenson] proposes, instead, creating a Federally Funded Research and Development Corporation, or FFRDC, dedicated to thinking about the Islamic terror threat in the same way that RAND thought about the Soviet nuclear threat. Stevenson suggests the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as a model. It is undeniably a good and long-overdue idea, with likely payoffs hugely exceeding the few hundred million dollars such an organization would cost the taxpayer every year . . .

If escaping the bureaucratic model is the goal, an FFRDC (bless them for the work they do) is not the answer. Nagl argues from a different angle:

. . . RAND was so influential not least because it was the brains behind an enormously large and powerful set of muscles called the Strategic Air Command . . . DARPA provides thinking that feeds the mammoth U.S. defense industry. Stevenson’s proposed think tank would need similar need bone and muscle. But unlike the Strategic Air Command or the Department of Defense, the muscle we need today would motivate soft power, rather than hard steel.
I don't disagree in principal, but here's the problem in three easy steps:
  1. A few hundred million dollars brings out the worst sorts as well as the worst sorts of problems.
  2. A think tank to feed everything not DOD? You'd certainly need the hundreds of millions to run it in the traditional sense and you'd create a dozen fiefdoms that would focus largely on the next hundred million dollar appropriation, not the work at hand.
  3. The standard think tank model doesn't necessarily bring in the best minds or ideas available, usually just the "right" thinking.

For an amount of money several orders of magnitude smaller than previously proposed, one could operate a global think tank that the world's more original thinkers could produce the most disruptive and effective ideas. You might have heard of this idea before, maybe not. The point is that if you're thinking of a model that anyone in Washington is comfortable with, you're not thinking nearly big enough, smart enough, or powerful enough to deal with the threats of tomorrow, much less the ones of today.

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