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What a Koch Takeover of Cato Would Mean for the Foreign Policy Debate

[1]Many bytes have already been spilled over the effort by Charles and David Koch to take over the Cato Institute [2], but I am writing this for the information of those who have particular interest, favorable or otherwise, in Cato’s output on foreign policy issues. I am also writing to register my own views on the issue. For those who are not familiar with the details, I will give a brief recap.

March 1, Charles and David Koch sued to enforce their interpretation of Cato’s shareholder agreement. That interpretation would give them control of the Institute. They have made two main arguments supporting their move: first, that the law is the law and they are merely trying to enforce their rights under the law. Not being a lawyer, I don’t have much to contribute to the discussion of what, to my untrained eye, looks like an incoherent set of legal documents. [3]

But they have gone beyond that claim. They also argue [4] that they are acting because

they want to ensure that Cato stays true to its fundamental principles of individual liberty, free markets, and peace into the future, and that it not be subject to the personal preferences of individual officers or directors.


This is telling, because it implies that Charles and David Koch see some danger that Cato, under the continued leadership of Ed Crane, will stray from its fundamental principles. They have made clear their desire to depose Crane. That, combined with what we know about the individuals they have tried to force onto Cato’s board [2], leads to the inference that they believe a dilution of the libertarian character of Cato and the insertion of a number of Republican political operatives is a better way to fulfill Cato’s mission. Since they are arguing publicly that there is a danger posed to Cato’s mission under Crane, they ought to make clear what, exactly, is the threat posed by these “personal preferences.”

Speaking from my understanding of Cato’s mission [5] under the status quo, the effort is “to increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace.” The same document makes clear that “Cato is not associated with any political organization or party — Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or other.” There is reason to believe that this would change under a new leadership. As my colleague Jerry Taylor noted, the idea seems to be

to use their board majority to remove Ed Crane from Cato and transform our Institute into an intellectual ammo-shop for American for Prosperity and other allied (presumably, Koch-controlled) organizations. That statement of intent is certainly consistent with what we’ve been hearing from both [Koch-installed board members] Kevin Gentry and Nancy Pfotenauer.  They’ve frequently complained during their short time on our board that Cato wasn’t doing enough to defeat President Obama in November and that we weren’t working closely enough with grass roots activists like those at AFP.

There is an irony here. The Koch brothers’ decision to initiate a move to gut Cato and transform it into a shop that does spec work for activist groups like AFP has created a massive distraction inside the Institute and threatens to do the same in the coalition of people who should be sympathetic to their goal of electing a Republican president. Many people who support Cato and Crane and also wish to be rid of President Obama are outraged by the Kochs’ efforts to transform Cato. Starting this war now needlessly creates dissension and ill-will inside this group.

Cato under Crane has always valued independent, principled analysis and rejected politics and partisanship. As a 9-year Cato employee, I feel confident saying that under Crane Cato always will reject such a role. I do not believe, and I know of no colleagues who believe, that the same could be said of a Koch-controlled Cato Institute.

So what does all of this mean for foreign policy? The implications seem clear. Given the Koch brothers’ stated desire to turn Cato into a research arm of Americans for Prosperity, Cato’s foreign policy would in the best case be abolished and in the worst case would be influenced by people like John Hinderaker [6], who was nominated to Cato’s board despite calling himself a “neocon” and describing George W. Bush as “a man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius.” Other neoconservative Republican partisans like Charles Krauthammer have served as keynote speakers at recent Koch confabs. To the extent Cato had foreign policy output at all, it would be used to ratify the foreign-policy decisions made by the Republican political elite. The quality of those decisions in recent decades has been terrible, and I, for one, could not act in such a role.

The Cato Institute is the only think tank in Washington whose foreign policy and defense studies are dedicated to the promotion of a restrained foreign policy for the United States. We fight an uphill battle every day. Liberal imperialists and neoconservatives [7] staff the foreign policy arms of every other think tank in town.

Under a new regime, output like the December 2001 article warning against expanding the war on terror to Iraq [8] would be gone. Gone would be the tragically prescient [9] warnings  [10]about expanding the mission in Afghanistan to include counterinsurgency and nation building. Gone would be the terrific, aisle-crossing work [11] to cut America’s profligate military spending.

Sadly, the future of Cato is at stake at a time when its influence has never been greater. If you value the independence and integrity of Cato, and you wish to keep a realist voice in the Washington think tank community, there is a Facebook page set up to save the Cato Institute [12].

It is my sincere hope that Charles and David Koch will see that there is still merit in Cato’s mission; that Crane has done an excellent job despite long odds; and that there is value in the “long game” as well in short-term political processes. Cato, in its present form, should be at the center of that long game. A 2002 Washington Post article describes how, when Cato moved to Washington in 1981 [13].

[t]he move met with ferocious opposition from some key Cato supporters and staff. “Washington is an evil city,” recalls Milton Friedman, 90[.] “People who move to Washington tend to get corrupted by Washington. Cato will be ruined if it moves to Washington.”
It wasn’t, Friedman later cheerfully acknowledged. Instead, Cato flourished.

It continues to flourish. Like a well-tended vineyard, the seeds planted with the assistance of the Koch brothers decades ago bear better fruit each year. I hope that Charles and David Koch come to see these truths, and reconsider their efforts to uproot the Institute and replant.

Justin Logan is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "What a Koch Takeover of Cato Would Mean for the Foreign Policy Debate"

#1 Pingback By Koch vs. Cato Bibliography at Under Penalty of Catapult On March 6, 2012 @ 9:49 am

[…] Logan, “What a Koch Takeover of Cato Would Mean for the Foreign Policy Debate,” The American Conservative (March 6, […]

#2 Comment By Jim Bovard On March 6, 2012 @ 10:14 am

How does the strident pro-Iraq war rhetoric from some of Cato’s top folks in 2002 and 2003 fit into your analysis? Would Brink Lindsay and others have written anything different if the Kochs had been in charge?

#3 Comment By Justin Logan On March 6, 2012 @ 11:10 am

Jim, what “strident pro-Iraq war rhetoric” are you referring to beyond Brink’s silly Reason piece? Are you ignoring the reams of antiwar stuff that came out of the foreign policy studies department accidentally, or for effect? Either way, your misrepresentation of Cato’s output on foreign policy is destructive to our reputation in the same way Brink’s article was.

At any rate, to answer your question, if what we are hearing about their ideas about how to change the Institute are true, what would have been different in 2002-2003 is that pro-war people would have been heard from and anti-war people would not have been. Either that or Cato would have been silent altogether on issues of war and peace. This is, of course, speculation on my part, but I’ll leave it to you to determine whether you think that difference would be good or bad.

#4 Comment By Jim Bovard On March 6, 2012 @ 11:25 am

Justin, how many Cato foreign policy staffers were fired, pushed out, or muzzled (by themselves or superiors) between 9/11 and 2005?

#5 Pingback By A Correction on Cato and the Kochs — Jacob Huebert On March 6, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

[…] I do stand by my conclusion in that discussion that the strategy the Kochs and Cato started favoring in the 1980s of pitching libertarian ideas to Washington elites and avoiding or downplaying certain taboo topics has not been very successful, and that the approach taken by Ron Paul (among others) of spreading the ideas among the general public and tackling some of the most controversial issues head-on has produced better results. Still, I admire the Cato staff’s efforts to preserve their ability to pursue politically unpopular topics, and I appreciate their recently renewed emphasis on important issues such as sound money and peace. […]

#6 Comment By cfountain72 On March 6, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

Wow….I really hate to see folks I respect so much arguing. I won’t pretend to know the inside baseball of how CATO worked (or works). All I know is that the number of free-market non-interventionist think-tanks with any clout at all in Washington is approximately one. As someone waaay down here in FLA on the outside looking in, it seems to me that those of us who do profess belief in limited government, both at home and abroad, need to find common ground and stick together as much as possible.

I think it is safe to say that, had the Koch Brother held a more assertive role in the inner workings of CATO, folks like Justin and Chris Preble and Malou Innocent probably wouldn’t be working there, either because they wouldn’t be hired, or because they wouldn’t have interest in applying to be a GOP sock puppet. If they wanted to do that, they’d be at AEI or Heritage.

Peace be with you.

#7 Pingback By The American Conservative » Cato, Koch, and Ron Paul On March 6, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

[…] approach for a group like Cato, but it’s an approach that almost certainly precludes taking a hard line against conventional GOP positions on foreign policy and civil liberties. It would also put Cato into competition with AEI and Heritage for Republican […]

#8 Comment By Trent Emberson On March 6, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

The Red Sox dumped Ruth, Cato dumped Roth. And now the liberty kids go to Auburn wearing pinstripes when they want to feed their heads. The Kochtopus is cursed.

#9 Comment By reflectionephemeral On March 6, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

Under a new regime, output like the December 2001 article warning against expanding the war on terror to Iraq would be gone. Gone would be the tragically prescient warnings about expanding the mission in Afghanistan to include counterinsurgency and nation building. Gone would be the terrific, aisle-crossing work to cut America’s profligate military spending.

Respectfully, may I ask what tangible effect Cato’s foreign policy work has had on US policy & discourse?

Of course, even if the answer is “none whatsoever”, that’s not by any means an argument against the work itself, or for stopping that work.

The liberal critique of institutional libertarianism is that groups like Cato have great influence in economic debates, but very little in other arenas. This view was [14]. (I take no offense if you aren’t up for engaging in a debate about what liberals think about Cato, particularly when you’re talking about the institutional struggles within movement libertarianism/conservatism).

#10 Comment By Russell On March 6, 2012 @ 11:14 pm

Hinderaker’s arrival would also signal the abandonment of any pretense of a scientific component to Cato’s policy analysis, already sadly eroded by the substitution of K Street expertise .

#11 Comment By William Dalton On March 6, 2012 @ 11:22 pm

If the Cato Institute becomes another Republican Policy Arm, wouldn’t civil libertarians, advocates for peace and opponents of crony capitalism simply pick up shop and move to think tanks like The Future of Freedom Foundation, The Independent Institute, and The Ludwig von Mises Institute? Wouldn’t their independence be better secured by breaking ties with the Koches altogether?

#12 Comment By Richard On March 6, 2012 @ 11:35 pm

Capture of CATO by conventional conservatism (which, despite protestations, is what the Kochs are) would be a bad thing formoving American political discussion beond paradigms that have their roots deep in the Cold War. And it would mean one more organization marching in lock step toward the field of set-piece battles between advesaries fighting yesterday’s wars.

#13 Comment By Mike W On March 7, 2012 @ 9:23 am

When I saw that Hinderaker was named to the board of Cato that is all I need to know. He is an un-repentant neocon clown and his history of being incredibly wrong is archived on that ridiculous web site that he operates.

After listening to hour of talk radio and National Public Radio, this week, there is no doubt as to the extent of the neocon takeover of the media. NPR advocating for military action in Syria and Iran while advocating for essentially open borders says it all.

#14 Comment By Tom Blanton On March 7, 2012 @ 11:27 am

Besides some of the work by Brink Lindsay and Tom Palmer, one the worst articles published by CATO came from Arnold Kling. Specifically, on July 22, 2006 a piece by Kling entitled “The Era of Hostage States” was posted. This imperialist rant on the benefits of preventive military interventionism was over the top. Kling was already on the Iran bandwagon then:

“The other “axis of evil” member, the government of Iran, also is a strong candidate for pre-emption. If they want to install a theocracy and advocate for the destruction of other countries, that is fine. If they want nuclear weapons, that is fine. But they cannot do both. They have to choose: either have a nuclear program, or conduct yourself in a non-threatening way.”

To CATO’s credit, Kilng’s article was pulled by August 7, 2006.

Click on my name above to see more about this particular article.

#15 Comment By Jim Bovard On March 7, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

At least Arnold Kling was consistent on his views on disarmament. He also advocated that the American Muslims be stripped of any right to possess guns.

From his August 2006 Tech Central Station essay -http://www.ideasinactiontv.com/tcs_daily/2006/08/the-age-of-post-national-warfare.html

Disarm Muslims

I believe that what we need going forward is a policy of disarming Muslims. I believe that we must keep devout Muslims away from weapons, and keep weapons away from devout Muslims. I can work with Muslims, send my children to school with Muslims, and be friends with Muslims. I do not have an issue with their religion, as long as they do not have weapons. However, the combination of weapons and Islam poses unacceptable danger to the rest of us.

To see what I mean, take a pencil and paper, and list all of the violent international disputes in the last five years that have involved Muslims. Next, come up with a list of all of the international disputes in the last five years involving Muslims that have been settled peacefully. For me, the first list is rather long, and the second list is rather, well, empty.

#16 Pingback By More Details on the Increasinly Bitter Koch/Cato Lawsuit and Feud – Hit & Run : Reason Magazine On March 7, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

[…] (former Reasoner) Julian Sanchez, (former Reason intern) Jonathan Blanks, Jason Kuznicki, and Justin Logan. Other broadly sympathetic sentiments have come from Reason.com columnist Steve Chapman, Don […]

#17 Comment By Jim Bentley On March 8, 2012 @ 10:39 am

I can’t see where the foreign policy debate will be much changed at Cato regardless of which side wins. As time has passed, Cato has increasingly been more in tune with the beltway war and government is wonderful machine than not, so other than a few new faces, little real change will be effected.

Next time you pass Ed in the hall, ask him about Rothbard’s shares.

#18 Comment By cfountain72 On March 8, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

Sorry Mr. Bentley, but what are you even talking about? The same think tank that specifically argued against the illegal Libyan War, both on strategic and Constitutional grounds? The one who specifically worked with Ron Paul and Barney Frank to put together substantive proposals for defense cuts (ever read “The Power Problem”)? The same one who has argued for getting out of Afghanistan for years now. The same one that, only a couple days ago had on their front page, a piece on currency competition? The one who put this out:

Still, within the Foreign Policy arm of CATO, one could find some of the most prescient antiwar arguments to be found at the time:

“President Bush’s Feb. 26 speech for the American Enterprise Institute shows once again his unwavering commitment to a regime change in Iraq. The president’s broader message — that the war on Iraq is a first step in a long march toward promoting democracy throughout the Middle East — suggests a new phase in American involvement abroad. This new direction will threaten American security, harm economic prosperity, and impinge on individual liberties.”

March 5, 2003
Christopher Preble
Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies

I do understand there is this Justin Raimondo-Rothbard-was-Screwed-by-Cato undercurrent going on. But if we truly care about fending off the Neocon/Red Team/Blue Team nonsense, we need to look for allies wherever they may be. Mises, Independent Institute, etc. are great sources of intellect and encouragement, but they don’t have near the recognition or legitimacy in DC that CATO does.

As far as CATO’s effectiveness goes, they have the same issue that Ron Paul (or other libertarians will have). Liberals might like their civil liberties or foreign policy views, but can’t abide by their critique of the health care mandate. So-called conservatives like their economic views, but can’t handle their critique of their GWOT or their hyper-aggressive foreign policy. But that is why we need folks who are willing to actually wage war the war of ideas against Leviathan on the Potomac; not merely from Auburn or San Francisco.

Peace be with you.

#19 Comment By scott On March 9, 2012 @ 1:13 am

Great! Just what Cato needs. Crazy, ex-commie, neocons!

#20 Pingback By Gene Healy » Archive » It’s Pretty Simple On March 18, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

[…] the Koch takeover are so loyal to—or so afraid of—Crane that they’ll put their jobs at risk to spare him early retirement (at 68). Let’s suppose that Cato has been utterly, […]

#21 Pingback By The Kochs, Cato, and Miscalculation On March 30, 2012 @ 8:32 am

[…] blogs and outlets (e.g., Jerry Taylor, Gene Healy, Jason Kuznicki, Julian Sanchez, Jonathan Blanks, Justin Logan, Trevor Burris, Michael Cannon). There has been lots of commentary from many quarters, of course, […]

#22 Pingback By Welcome to KochvCato.com « Koch v. Cato On April 5, 2012 @ 8:12 am

[…] find to make our case for an independent Institute. Catoites’ responses—look here, here, here, here, and here for early examples— were unplanned, spontaneous, widespread, and, as far as I’m […]

#23 Pingback By The Most Subtle Danger to Cato from a Koch Takeover: A Guest Post by Ted Galen Carpenter | Koch v. Cato On April 24, 2012 @ 7:51 am

[…] my Cato colleagues have offered their own views about the damage that a Koch takeover would cause the organization.  The most prominent concern is that Cato would lose its hard-won reputation for […]