Why I Fear for the Future of Cato – A Guest Post by Christopher Preble

I have now worked for the Cato Institute in some capacity in four different decades. I was a Cato intern in the summer and fall of 1987. Some of my fondest recollections that year are of the 10-year anniversary gala at the Willard Hotel, and a book party for P.J. O’Rourke’s Republican Party Reptile, with commentary by Christopher Hitchens. (You can imagine how fun that was.)

After interning at Cato, I went on to serve in the U.S. Navy as a commissioned officer and to earn a PhD in history. But I also wrote two papers for Cato in the 1990s. In February 2003 I joined the staff as director of foreign policy studies. Last June I succeeded my friend and mentor, Ted Galen Carpenter, as vice president for defense and foreign policy studies. I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that I’ve seen as much, and experienced as much, as almost anyone at Cato.

So I look at the struggle for the Institute’s future with a particular mix of sadness and anxiety. As I’ve read and listened to the news swirling around the Institute over the past several weeks, my thoughts go back to what I wrote in the acknowledgements from my book, The Power Problem:

I wish to thank Ed Crane and David Boaz, who have provided steady leadership at Cato for nearly three decades. In a city that treats non-conformity with utter disdain, Cato has managed to maintain its independence and creativity, and those of us who are fortunate enough to work there are all better off for it.

That message – of Cato’s creativity and independence — has risen above all others in the ongoing saga. People who have been associated with Cato for decades have been joined by those who have been employed here for only a few months: they cherish Cato’s unique mission, and they understand that it all could be lost.

Even people who vociferously disagree with Cato scholars on policy matters have warned that the quality of debate will diminish if the Kochs succeed. Nearly all have expressed admiration for our ability to remain outside the day-to-day partisan grind. Our non-partisanship and principled (some say stubborn) adherence to libertarianism allows us to produce scholarship that is fresh and original, but also practical.

I believe that we have advanced liberty’s cause. But it doesn’t hurt to hear others say it. These recent accolades leave a bitter taste in my mouth, however, given that the threat of a hostile takeover is what prompted them.

Why do I use the term “hostile takeover?” Why do I think Cato’s defense and foreign policy studies department would change or be dissolved if the Kochs succeed? Let me give two reasons.

First, the Kochs have nominated to Cato’s board individuals who are openly hostile to the perspective of Cato’s foreign policy scholars. (Exhibit A: John Hinderaker, whose views are described here); and (Exhibit B: Tony Woodlief, whose disdain for libertarianism, but especially libertarian foreign policy, is documented here). No one responsible for these nominations has explained why these names were put forward.

An as-yet unreported incident provides further evidence of the Koch’s lack of interest in Cato’s approach to foreign policy. Last fall, the Charles G. Koch Foundation lent its support to a series of invitation-only seminars at the American Enterprise Institute. The roster of speakers and subjects is listed below. I hope it sheds some light on why we fear that a Koch-controlled Cato would not stay true to the “peace” part of Cato’s mission.

  • September 27. Walter Russell Mead: ”Is There an American Strategic Culture?”
  • October 17. Robert Kaplan: ”What If America Is No Longer the Sole Superpower?”
  • November 1. Eliot Cohen: ”Do We Have the Military We Need?”
  • November 17. Niall Ferguson: ”Can America Afford To Lead the World?”
  • December 1. Eric Edelman: ”Can Diplomacy and ‘Soft Power’ Substitute for Military Hard Power?”
  • December 20. Sen. James Talent: ”Can the U.S. Military Do More with Less?”

From Niall “American Empire” Ferguson to Eliot “World War IV” Cohen, all of the lecturers were strong supporters of the George W. Bush administration’s foreign policy. Cohen worked for Condoleezza Rice’s State Department, Edelman in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, and Talent was a committed hawk in the Senate during Bush’s term.

It is unclear who championed this project at CGKF. Still, whoever was responsible does not seem terribly interested in realism, restraint, and peace, which is the current orientation of Cato’s foreign and defense policy team.

Second, at a meeting in November 2011, Charles Koch and long-time Koch lieutenant Rich Fink explained to Cato Board Chairman Bob Levy that they wanted Cato to work more closely with Koch-allied groups such as Americans for Prosperity (AFP). According to Levy, they want Cato to “become the source of ‘intellectual ammunition’ for AFP –through position papers, a media presence, and speakers on hot-button issues.” AFP, in turn, works closely with American Crossroads and American Action Network and with official Republican organizations dedicated to a narrowly partisan agenda of electing more Republicans to office. Those organizations do not work on defense and foreign policy issues.

I don’t know Charles or David Koch, personally, and I have had very limited contact with any of the Koch-appointed members of Cato’s board. I am well aware of, and have benefited from, Charles and David Koch’s support for the libertarian movement. I have given a few speeches or attended meetings sponsored by the Charles G. Koch Foundation, and my internship at Cato in 1987 was funded in part by their beneficence. They obviously were vital in helping to get Cato off the ground. But none of that history can assuage my concerns about their present intentions.

Let me close on one more personal note. All of the uncertainty swirling around Cato during this leadership fight comes at a particularly important time in the Institute’s history. The building expansion and redesign is nearly complete. We will welcome the public to three half-day conferences in the span of one month (here, here, and here), and we have many more events planned for the rest of the year. The staff here is so grateful to the many people who contributed to the $50 million capital campaign that made it all possible.

Meanwhile, Cato’s influence and relevance is at an all-time high. Speaking just for myself, 2011 was the busiest year ever, and 2012 is already projected to be even busier. I have been flooded with calls and emails from reporters about a range of topics over the past few months. The Institute as a whole is poised to take off with the additional resources and office space that will allow us to bring in new scholars, and address new subjects. So it is truly the best of times.

It is also, alas, the worst of times. It is particularly unfortunate that all of this has coincided with the passing of our long-time chairman, Bill Niskanen. We miss him. We will be celebrating Bill’s life at a special memorial service on April 12th in the newly redesigned Hayek Auditorium. Bill was an exceptional human being in every sense of the word: a towering intellect, an invaluable colleague, and a committed libertarian. I wish that nothing would distract us from remembering Bill and his contributions to the Institute, and the country, but I have no doubt that the ongoing struggle to preserve Cato’s independence will loom large in the background.

2 responses to “Why I Fear for the Future of Cato – A Guest Post by Christopher Preble

  1. Perhaps a “Poison Pill” is in order. Let the Koch’s have Cato’s corpse as real Libertarians associated with Cato rise from the ashes under a new name and banner in keeping with the ideals and intent of Cato up to this point – before its rape and pillage.

  2. Pingback: Intrigerande bröder - Fria Tider

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