Check this out: with a few simple searches, I can demonstrate that the Nation magazine, that grizzled old dame of the American Left, is, contrary to popular belief, pro-war, pro-Second Amendment, and soft on George W. Bush. What’s more, she gives aid and comfort to global warming “denialists.” The “reflexive squawk of the Greenhouse fearmongers”? Really, Katrina vanden Heuvel?
Cherrypicking links is fun. For my next trick, I’ll use the pundilectable stylings of Norm Ornstein to prove that the American Enterprise Institute loves Al Franken and Barney Frank, backs Common-Cause-style campaign finance restrictions and has gone all wobbly on the Iraq War—and never once will my fingers leave my iPad.
Through the magic of Google, you too can earn a yellow belt in halfassed hackery. Mark Ames shows how it’s done in his recent Nation article, “Independent and Principled? Behind the Cato Myth.”
I first became aware of Ames when he coauthored a 2010 Nation article based on the innovative premise that any American who protested getting pornoscanned and groped by the government just had to be part of a Koch-funded astroturf conspiracy. (Reason magazine had a field day with that one, helping to force a semi-apology from the Nation‘s editor.)
Ames sure hates the Kochs, but, as he announced in this spittle-flecked October 2010 rant, his true enemy is libertarianism itself:
Anytime anyone says anything libertarian, spit on them. Libertarians are by definition enemies of the state: they are against promoting American citizens’ general welfare and against policies that create a perfect union. Like Communists before them, they are actively subverting the Constitution and the American Dream, and replacing it with a Kleptocratic Nightmare.
So when Ames argues that any talk about Cato’s “principled opposition to the Bush administration’s imperial presidency” amounts to spinning “fairytales,” let’s stipulate that he approaches his analysis of Cato’s work with a somewhat distinct perspective.
Still, his motives don’t matter if his case holds up. Let’s look at that case.
In the course of his argument, Ames squeezes out a grudging rabbit pellet of a concession, admitting that “it’s true that compared to other pro-Republican think-tanks, Cato did have periods when it was critical of Bush’s wars and attacks on civil liberties.”
That’s nice of him; and it’s true enough. For example:
- In a December 2001 public debate with former CIA director James Woolsey, then-Cato chairman Bill Niskanen offered perhaps the first prominent public statement by a DC think-tank leader against the looming debacle that would become the Iraq War.
- In 2004, Cato was the first major DC think tank to offer an extended argument for Exiting Iraq, in Christopher Preble’s book of that name.
- That same year, during the height of Bush administration fear-mongering about Al Qaeda, Cato advanced the argument that terrorism was anything but an existential threat.
- And in 2006, Cato released the white paper “Power Surge: The Constitutional Record of George W. Bush,” coauthored by Tim Lynch and myself, warning that “far from defending the Constitution, President Bush has repeatedly sought to strip out the limits the document places on federal power,” and has insisted that he “cannot be restrained, through validly enacted statutes, from pursuing any tactic he believes to be effective in the war on terror.”
The Nation gave the latter study a little love:
…the Cato report is so compelling because it hews so closely to the basic critique made by Representative John Conyers…. In words that might spill from the mouth of Cindy Sheehan or Scott Ritter, Cato concludes that we now have “a president who can launch wars at will, and who cannot be restrained from ordering the commission of war crimes.”
Thanks! (I think).
Still, Ames complains that Cato wussed out sometime in 2005, when the Institute “suddenly called a halt to its growing criticisms of Bush’s War on Terror.”
What else does Ames have to back up his claim that “the Cato Institute’s actual record during the Bush Administration years was anything but principled”? Stuff like this:
- “John Yoo, author of the notorious “torture memo,” served on the Cato Editorial Board for Cato Supreme Court Review during the Bush presidency,” while crafting “the adminstration’s legal justifications for waterboarding, Guantanamo, warrantless wiretapping and more.”
This is silly. Cato’s constitutional studies department put Yoo on the original editorial board of the Cato Supreme Court Review for the inaugural 2001-2002 issue, several years before the torture memo leaked.
I don’t think I knew that “Dr. Yes” was on the CSCR board when I started attacking his handiwork. I do know we later took Yoo off the board because his views are (to put it mildly) incompatible with ours.
- “Another Cato executive, Ted Galen Carpenter, former VP for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, enthusiastically supported Bush’s war on terror and called on Bush to invade Pakistan.”
I don’t read the 2002 column Ames links to as a demand that the US “invade Pakistan,” as opposed to mounting airstrikes and cross-border raids against Al Qaeda cells. Regardless, the implication that Ted Carpenter’s an “enthusiastic” hawk is hardly a fair-minded summary of Carpenter’s career, which is marked by steady advocacy of diplomacy, realism, and, as the title of his 2002 book puts it, Peace and Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic.
Still, Ames soldiers on:
- He links to a January 28, 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed, ”Listening to the Enemy,” by Cato’s VP for Legal Affairs, and charges that: “another Cato Institute executive, Roger Pilon, vigorously supported Bush’s attacks on civil liberties.”
Ah, yes: it’s the old Norm Ornstein trick I mentioned above. Radley Balko addressed this one on Reason’s blog, shortly after Pilon’s WSJ oped was published:
Ed Crane and board member Bob Levy have co-written an op-ed entitled, “No, a President Can’t Do as He Pleases,” which sounds quite a bit like a scolding of fellow Catoite Roger Pilon for his recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
Much as I disagree with Pilon’s op-ed (disclosure, I’m a former Cato employee), it seems to me that this is the proper response. Cato is of course a libertarian think tank. But my experience there was that within that framework, there is quite a bit of intellectual freedom. A common refrain there has always been that “there is no official Cato position, only positions held by Cato scholars.” Crane didn’t fire or publicly discipline Pilon for apostasy. Rather, he took up a pen himself, and wrote a piece that, along with Tim Lee’s rebuttal and Gene Healy’s forthcoming book, makes it pretty clear that Pilon’s position on executive power isn’t one held by many others at Cato.
MORE: Lee and Healy also have a piece in today’s Orange County Register on FISA.
It’s not the easiest thing to make the case for civil liberties and restrained foreign policy in an atmosphere of war fever, with even most of the liberals jumping ship. But if you ride it out, you may find that people eventually acknowledge that you were right.
As Radley suggests, there was and is no “official Cato position” on any given military action or constitutional claim associated with the War on Terror. But there was and is a dominant position. Here are a couple of links cataloging our civil liberties and foreign policy work over the years. Take a look and judge for yourself.
I think the evidence shows that we’ve been a far more consistent opponent of Washington’s crackbrained foreign interventions–and the civil liberties abuses that accompany them–than any other major think tank in town. Who’s done better: the Brookings Institution? The Center for American Progress?
Cato’s not perfect. But in this fallen world, in this sinful company town, I’d say we’ve done alright.
Alas, if we lose, I wouldn’t bet on the “new Cato” holding the line.