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Think tank report doesn't disclose authors' foreign ties

There are some potential conflicts of interest in a new study from a Dem-aligned group calling for arms sales to the Middle East.

Reporting | Washington Politics

A just-released report by the Democratic Party-aligned Center for American Progress* entitled  “Strategic Reengagement in the Middle East,” was largely authored and shaped by individuals with financial ties to Israel, the weapons industry, or the United Arab Emirates, running counter to the think tank’s own efforts to distance itself from Gulf funding. None of these ties were disclosed as potential conflicts of interests by CAP or the report’s authors.

The past 20 years have been a golden era for Middle East experts. For a think tank or analyst specializing in the region — whether it be terrorism, military, or oil — funding and attention have not been difficult to procure.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming focus of the United States on the Middle East has also contributed to a steady stream of money from the region, specifically from wealthy Gulf states. Countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman fund D.C. think tanks and sponsor endowed chairs at American universities. All involved have tended to benefit except, perhaps, those in the U.S. military who have served in the region and its inhabitants, many of whom continue to suffer from violence, corruption, and deprivation.

That flow of money from authoritarian Gulf-state governments into Washington research institutions has faced growing scrutiny since the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, but those concerns seem to have been discarded with CAP’s latest report on U.S.-policy in the Middle East. 

Back in 2019, concerns about the Emirates’ human rights abuses led CAP to announce it would no longer accept funding from the UAE. This followed scrutiny over the think tank’s earlier UAE funding and its decision not to recommend specific consequences for Saudi Arabia — the UAE’s top regional ally — in the wake of the Khashoggi murder, and the group’s decision not to endorse congressional efforts to end U.S. military support for the Saudi and UAE war in Yemen.

The new report represents a significant backslide in CAP’s efforts to distance itself from the UAE as one of the authors and half of the individuals thanked in the acknowledgements have undisclosed potential conflicts between the report’s prescriptions and their own financial interests. 

The report’s coauthor, Brian Katulis, is vice president for policy at the Middle East Institute, a group that lists the UAE Embassy in Washington as its top donor, contributing in excess of $1 million per year. 

Meanwhile, the report’s acknowledgements “thank the following individuals for reviewing earlier drafts of this report and offering helpful comments.” They include Celine Touboul (the CEO of the Economic Cooperation Foundation, an Israeli policy-planning think-tank), retired Israeli diplomat Dan Arbell, Middle East Institute president Paul Salem, and CAP senior fellow Rudy DeLeon.

DeLeon also serves as a director at General Dynamics, a Virginia based weapons company. He received $306,888 in compensation from the weapons firm in 2019. 

Neither Katulis, nor any of the individuals consulted for feedback, are disclosed as having financial ties to the Gulf countries or weapons sales discussed in the report. 

CAP’s report calls for the U.S. security role in the Middle East to shift “from a guarantor to an integrator,” and comes with recommendations for ongoing U.S. weapons sales to Gulf states. Katulis and co-author Peter Juul write: 

A dual focus on air and missile defense and maritime security would also help shift the nature of U.S. defense cooperation with Gulf Arab states away from the purchase of expensive, high-prestige weapons such as fighter aircraft and toward more practical defensive equipment such as patrol vessels and anti-missile systems. Such a shift would harden Gulf Arab defenses against likely Iranian threats and enable them to take greater constructive responsibility for regional security, allowing the United States to reduce its own military commitments to the Middle East over time.

On the U.S.-Israel front, the report recommends the Biden Administration “Deepen U.S.-Israel bilateral ties and prepare for the next phase of security cooperation.”

That seems to be good news for Gulf states, like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, who have all been the target of U.S.-based advocacy campaigns opposing ongoing U.S. arms sales due to concerns about human rights abuses committed by UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Israel in Gaza and the West Bank. It’s also good for weapons firms like General Dynamics, who stand to benefit from U.S. policy that encourages the ongoing sale of “defensive equipment” to countries in the region.

“As stated on all of our work, the positions of American Progress and our policy experts are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone,” a CAP spokesperson told Responsible Statecraft when reached for comment. “There is no conflict of interest to disclose because funders do not direct our work. Anyone can find a list of our supporters here.”

This report is the latest in a series of recent publications from D.C. think tanks claiming to acknowledge that the massive over-expenditure of American resources in the Middle East since the 1991 Gulf War and especially since 9/11 is neither sustainable nor justifiable, especially in the context of Washington’s new favorite obsession: “Great Power Competition.” These think tanks know that American public opinion is squarely against the United States wasting more resources in the region, that the past three successful U.S. candidates for president have all run on getting out of the endless post 9/11 wars, and that the Middle East is no longer the center of gravity in U.S. foreign policy.

Such reports follow a few different patterns. The CAP report represents that which is perhaps the most insidious, given undisclosed financial ties to Gulf states and weapons companies, pushing for the United States to sell additional weapons to the region. They frame this as a means for Washington to outsource security to Gulf partners, without acknowledging that flooding the region with additional weapons is far more likely to undermine security and potentially drag the United States back into war in the region.

Another genre of reports soberly acknowledges that it is time for a new U.S. approach and then asserts that all current U.S. goals in the region remain of utmost importance, essentially calling for maintaining the status quo. 

Other analysts reject the premise that America’s over-commitment to the Middle East has yielded only costs and no benefits, and insist that the United States must remain as engaged, if not more so. For example, “No, The US Shouldn’t Withdraw from the Middle East," by William Wechsler for The Atlantic Council, published in June 2021.

All perspectives exhibit an apparent allergic reaction to the notion that the United States playing a smaller role might actually contribute to more peaceful and stable outcomes: to promote this view would shake the bedrock belief in the absolute necessity of American primacy, that without U.S. leadership, the rest of the world would descend into chaos.

*In the interest of full disclosure: Eli Clifton, the coauthor of this article, and Ben Armbruster, the managing editor of Responsible Statecraft, are former employees of the Center for American Progress.

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