The Washington-based American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) has been a leading member of the neoconservative advocacy community for several decades. During Republican presidential administrations, AEI tends to be one of the more prominent U.S. policy institutions, with associated scholars and fellows populating numerous upper echelon policy posts in the administration. Commenting on AEI's influence in the broader right-wing milieu, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan called the think tank "one of the beachheads of the modern conservative movement."
AEI's advocacy agenda extends from free-market economics to militarist security policies. According to its website, AEI is "committed to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise. AEI pursues these unchanging ideals through independent thinking, open debate, reasoned argument, facts and the highest standards of research and exposition. Without regard for politics or prevailing fashion, we dedicate our work to a more prosperous, safer and more democratic nation and world."
Among the better known figures based at the institute are several former George W. Bush administration officials and advisers who were key promoters of the administration's "war on terror" policies, including John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and John Yoo. President Bush highlighted the enormous influence the institute had in his administration during a January 2003 speech at an AEI dinner celebrating neoconservative trailblazer Irving Kristol. After commending AEI for having "some of the finest minds in our nation," the president said, "You do such good work that my administration has borrowed 20 such minds."
Although the Bush administration marked a high-point for AEI's influence in the White House, the think tank has continued to play a role influencing public debate on U.S. foreign and defense policies. In 2013, AEI brought on the recently retired Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) as visiting fellows, tasking the two long-time hawks with heading the institute's new "American Internationalism Project." In a statement promoting the new project, the two outlined an exceptionalist foreign policy frame that encapsulates the neoconservative view of the U.S. role in the world: "Fiscal constraints, weariness with war, and isolationism are eroding the American will to lead," they wrote. "What once appeared to be a truism of an earlier era—the willingness to shoulder 'the burdens of leadership in the free world'—has ceased to resonate with many Americans. American internationalism has never been simply a response to threats, but an expression of who Americans are and what kind of world we want to live in."
Often putting itself at odds with the Obama administration, the think tank has continued to avidly promote U.S. military entanglements in the Middle East, advocating intervention in Syria's civil war, a hard line against Iran, and a prolonged U.S. presence in Afghanistan. A 2012 AEI briefing called U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan "a recipe for endless war fought on American soil."
Summing up the views of many AEI figures, AEI scholar Thomas Donnelly quipped in June 2013 that the Obama administration's purported bid to back out "of perceived military overcommitments in the Muslim world" had resulted in Washington being "no better liked, no longer feared, regarded as an increasingly inconstant ally or as an enemy prone to blink" in the Middle East. In a similarly timed op-ed decrying the Obama administration's overtures to Russia on nuclear disarmament, John Bolton lampooned Obama's foreign policy philosophy as "peace through weakness."
AEI has drawn some scrutiny for its sources of funding. The organization generally does not disclose its donors except to acknowledge that it takes money from individuals, foundations, corporations, and the government. A 2009 "schedule of contributors" leaked in May 2013, however, listed the right-wing Donors Capital Fund, the Kern Family Foundation, and the Chamber of Commerce as high-dollar donors.
Also disclosed in the leaked document was a $550,000 donation from the de facto Taiwanese embassy in Washington. As journalist Eli Clifton noted in The Nation, numerous AEI figures, including Daniel Blumenthal and Gary Schmitt, had agitated for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan that year, and the Taiwanese president himself had lauded AEI for having "long supported the various policy stances of the ROC government" in a personal meeting with AEI president Arthur Brooks. Clifton quoted Bill Allison of the pro-transparency Sunlight Foundation, who said that if any Taiwanese money had yielded research or reports that AEI had used to lobby the U.S. government, then AEI "should disclose the contribution and probably should register" as an agent of the Taiwanese government.
Although AEI's scholars focus on a range of social and domestic policy issues, the institute has long been identified with hawkish U.S. foreign policy advocacy. Many of its scholars were vociferous public promoters of attacking Iraq—even before the 9/11 terrorist attacks—and pushed for an expansive "war on terror." AEI was closely associated with the now-defunct Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neoconservative letterhead group that served as an important vehicle for forging a broad coalition of conservatives behind an aggressive post-Cold War U.S. agenda.
AEI played an important role in buttressing arguments for the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq and served as a key advocacy organization for the push to approve the 2007 troop "surge." Following the 2006 November midterm elections—which swept in Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate on a wave of antiwar sentiment—AEI scholar Frederick Kagan, an outspoken proponent of increasing troop levels in Iraq, wrote in the Weekly Standard, "We face a stark choice now. We can either maintain bases and large forces in Iraq, or we can withdraw. If we withdraw, the Iraqi Army will collapse, and we will not be able to help it except by re-entering the country in large numbers and in a much worse situation."
In early 2007 Kagan coauthored, with retired Gen. Jack Keane, an AEI plan titled "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq," which was meant to serve as a blueprint for a U.S. troop surge in Iraq. The report was produced with the help of an AEI study group called the Iraq Planning Group, which seemed directly aimed at countering the influence of the similarly named Iraq Study Group (ISG), a group of experts enlisted by the Bush administration in early 2006 to make recommendations to help resolve the growing problems with the Iraq War. The ISG, which was co-chaired by the realist-inclined former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN), concluded in its final report released in December 2006 that there was "no magic bullet" that could solve the debacle in Iraq. It argued that the United States needed to approach Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran, as part of a "diplomatic offensive" aimed at easing tension in the region. Initially, the Bush administration seemed to ignore the ISG's advice and implemented a troop surge smaller than that proposed by AEI but in line with many of its other recommendations. By the summer of 2008, some influential administration figures appeared more willing to consider diplomacy in the region, against AEI recommendations.
At a July 24, 2008 AEI event, Kagan and Keane, echoing the presidential campaign message of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), argued that the surge had accomplished all of its goals. Ignoring conflicting assessments that place major responsibility for the decreasing violence in parts of Iraq on Sunni opposition to the insurgency and payouts from the U.S. government to armed groups, the events' speakers stressed that only by keeping troops indefinitely in Iraq could the gains purportedly won by the surge be secured. "All the trends are in the right direction … [and] the only way [they] can be reversed is if we walk away," argued Keane.
AEI scholars and fellows have remained unapologetic about the war. "Despite all the criticism of what happened after Saddam's defeat," wrote John Bolton in a February 2013 Guardian op-ed marking the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion, it is "indisputable" that the United States "accomplished its military mission with low casualties and great speed, sending an unmistakable signal of power and determination throughout the Middle East and around the world."
AEI writers have also continued to embrace some of the Bush administration's more controversial security policies, including torture. Shortly after the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden, for example, two visiting AEI fellows—John Yoo and Marc Thiessen—spearheaded an aggressive messaging campaign to embellish the role that intelligence gathered from Bush-era "enhanced interrogations" had played in locating bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. These "torture apologists" persisted even after journalistic reports from the New York Times and other outlets cast doubt on the notion that torture had helped locate the late al-Qaeda leader.
A number of AEI scholars, past and present, have also been outspoken proponents of military action against Iran. In September 2007, for example, AEI held a forum that addressed Michael Ledeen's then-newly published book, The Iranian Time Bomb: The Mullah Zealots' Quest for Destruction. Among those speaking at the event were Ledeen (who was AEI's "Freedom Scholar"), Clifford May of the closely associated Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and former CIA head James Woolsey. Reporter Jim Lobe said of the book, "Judging by the excerpts that have been released to date, Ledeen's latest tract will be entirely predictable, although, in addition to emphasizing, as he has for much of the last several years, the urgent need to support and fund the [Iranian] regime's domestic opposition, he concludes that '[t]his presidential administration or the next will likely face a terrible choice: appease a nuclear Iran, or bomb it before their atomic weapons are ready to go. While a sad exclamation point at the end of nearly 30 years of failed policy, confrontation may be virtually inescapable. Like other ideological wars of the 20th century, this war will likely only end when one side has lost.'"
According to Middle East analyst Gareth Porter, former AEI resident fellow Gerecht was "more aggressive than anyone else" in making the misleading argument "that Iraq's Shiites, liberated by U.S. military power, would help subvert the Iranian regime." In September 2005 testimony to the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, Gerecht argued that diplomacy with Tehran was a dead end. Pointing to the Clinton administration's efforts to "give peace a chance," which Gerecht said had included apologizing for "the supposedly bad behavior of the entire Western world toward Iran for the last 150 years," Gerecht argued, "American apologies in revolutionary clerical eyes mean only one thing—weakness. And showing weakness to power-politic-loving Iranian clerics is not astute. This is 101 in Iranian political culture. Yet I'm willing to bet that most analysts dealing with Iran at the State Department and the CIA probably thought American soul-searching was a good thing, that the political elite in Tehran would respect us more."
By late 2008, as the George W. Bush presidency was drawing to a close, the institute appeared to have second thoughts about its intimate association with hardline neoconservatives. In particular, three high-profile scholars—Michael Ledeen, Joshua Muravchik, and Reuel Marc Gerecht—appear to have been forced out of the think tank toward the end of the Bush's second term. All three were regarded as key proponents of the president's "war on terror" policies, including the invasion of Iraq and antagonism toward Iran, and each had been based at AEI for several years.
Although the exact reasons for their departures were unclear, one observer reported that many neoconservatives saw them as part of a "vicious purge" that was being spearheaded by an opposing faction within the think tank. The National Interest's Jacob Heilbrunn (author of the 2007 book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons), wrote, "If neocon influence really is on the wane at AEI … it would signal the end of its domination over the think tank over the past several decades. Like Bush, AEI may be on the verge of trying to reinvent itself. The change that [Barack] Obama promised during the campaign seems to be reaching Washington in unexpected places."
Still, AEI scholars have continued to insist, despite assessments from U.S. and Israeli intelligence services to the contrary, that Iran is actively engaged in building a nuclear weapon. In a December 2011 report exploring the plausibility of containing a nuclear Iran, authors Danielle Pletka, Thomas Donnelly, and Maseh Zarif cast doubt on the possibility of effectively containing a nuclear Iran, but suggested that such a scenario was inevitable in the absence of preemptive action. "Though containment and deterrence are possible policies and strategies for the United States and others to adopt when faced with a nuclear Iran, we cannot share the widespread enthusiasm entertained in many quarters," they concluded. "It may be the case that containing and deterring is the least-bad choice. However, that does not make it a low-risk or low-cost choice. In fact, it is about to be not a choice but a fact of life."
Founded in 1943, AEI is one of the oldest policy institutes in Washington. AEI traces its origins to a New York City-based business association called the American Enterprise Association (AEA), which was founded in 1938 and soon after World War II opened a Washington office to lobby against government intervention in the domestic economy. AEA, which brought together some of the country's largest corporate firms, substituted "institute" for "association" and became one of the nation's first policy think tanks. Lewis Brown, president of Johns-Manville Corp., was the principal figure behind AEA, which from its beginning had a strong pro-business posture. Like the AEA, AEI is dedicated to the "maintenance of the system of free, competitive enterprise."
One of the institute's earliest supporters on Capitol Hill was Gerald Ford, who as a congressional representative praised the institute in 1950, beginning what AEI describes as a "long and happy relationship with the president-to-be." A key figure in AEI's early history was William Baroody, who joined AEI as president in 1954 and was responsible for bringing some of the country's most conservative economists into the institute, including Milton Friedman and Paul McCracken. Under Baroody's leadership, AEI succeeded in injecting conservative reform ideas into national news media. Baroody also helped ensure not only that congressional and executive officials heard the policy ideas of AEI scholars, but also that AEI associates moved into high government positions, especially in the Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush administrations.
After his presidency ended in 1976, Ford went to AEI, bringing with him a retinue of conservative figures, including Arthur Burns, Robert Bork, David Gergen, and James Miller III. The institute boasts about this era that "AEI had become a hotbed of innovative ideas—on deregulation, tax reform, trade policy, social welfare, and the revitalization of defense and foreign policy—that were about to debut on the political stage."
It was also during the 1970s that neoconservative icon Irving Kristol, father of Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, became closely involved in AEI's fortunes. In his 1995 book Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, Kristol recounts how Baroody, having been attracted by Kristol's writings in The Public Interest and the Wall Street Journal, invited him to be an honorary fellow at the institute. The relationship, Kristol implies in the book, resulted in AEI expanding its free enterprise focus to include social issues and Cold War defense policies, topics closely covered by neoconservative writers. Attracted by the emergence of this new ideological grouping, writes Kristol, Baroody "made a determined effort to recruit 'neoconservatives' to AEI, and did in fact recruit, early on, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Michael Novak, Ben Wattenberg, as well as many others.... [Baroody's] task was facilitated by the appearance on the scene of a rejuvenated Bradley Foundation and John M. Olin Foundation, now staffed by younger men and women who had been exposed to, and influenced by, 'neoconservative' thinking. Among them special note has to be made of Michael Joyce of Bradley, who turned out to be an accomplished neoconservative thinker in his own right."
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration recruited an array of AEI associates, leaving AEI offices relatively empty. Whether on foreign policy issues, such as support for the Nicaraguan contras or the "freedom fighters" in Africa, or on domestic issues such as corporate deregulation, former AEI figures played a prominent role. Though the Reagan years were a heyday for AEI ideas, the time was difficult for the institute. Baroody, who had authored AEI's slogan, "Competition of ideas is fundamental to a free society," died in 1981, and it wasn't until the late 1980s that the think tank started recovering from the organizational and financial crises that followed his death.
With the emergence of several new conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, AEI's influence appeared to diminish. Despite this, President Ronald Reagan in 1988 acknowledged the institute's pervasive influence in spearheading the "Reagan Revolution." According to Reagan, "The American Enterprise Institute stands at the center of a revolution in ideas of which I, too, have been a part. AEI's remarkably distinguished body of work is testimony to the triumph of the think tank. For today the most important American scholarship comes out of our think tanks—and none has been more influential than the American Enterprise Institute."
With the 1986 appointment of Christopher DeMuth as president, AEI's fortunes and reputation began to recuperate. DeMuth, who served as an administrator of the Office of Management and Budget in the first Reagan administration before moving to AEI, served as head of the organization for 22 years and oversaw tremendous growth. AEI's annual revenue increased dramatically during DeMuth's tenure, rising to nearly $40 million by 2005, though this declined by $10 million the following year.
DeMuth also oversaw the institute during what was perhaps its most influential period—the first administration of George W. Bush. Nearly two dozen AEI fellows were given administration roles or advisory posts. AEI predicted it would play a prominent role in the Bush administration. In a December 2000 Washington Post article, Dana Milbank wrote, "It's noon in the American Enterprise Institute's 12th-floor dining room, where Irving Kristol, Norman Ornstein, and other luminaries lunch. On the menu is swordfish and white wine. On the agenda is a Bush transition. If George W. Bush becomes president, says AEI scholar Douglas Besharov, beckoning to the dining room, 'this whole place empties out.'"
In mid-2008, AEI named a new president, Arthur Brooks, who formally took over the post on January 1, 2009. According to his AEI biography, Brooks "researches and writes about the connections between culture, politics, and economic life in America.… He is the author of Who Really Cares, which examines American charitable giving; Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America—And How We Can Get More of It; and a textbook on social entrepreneurship." Brooks left his position as the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs to take over the AEI presidency.
Activities and Staff
AEI headquarters are located in a building on Washington's 17th Street that is a warren of right-wing operations. Before it shuttered most of its operations in 2006, the Project for the New American Century had its offices there. Several PNAC principals, including Gerecht, Bruce Jackson, Gary Schmitt, and Tom Donnelly, moved from PNAC to AEI. Also located in the same building are the offices of the Weekly Standard, a flagship neoconservative publication that often serves as a favored outlet for AEI scholars. The Philanthropy Roundtable, the rightist association of foundations that split off from the Council of Foundations in the early 1980s, also once found a home in the AEI building.
According to AEI's website, as of 2012, it had 185 staff members working at its headquarters in Washington alongside "about 50" adjunct fellows based elsewhere. AEI conducts and publicizes policy research through various research divisions and publications. According to its "about" page, "AEI research is conducted through seven primary research divisions: Economics, Foreign and Defense Policy, Politics and Public Opinion, Education, Health, Energy and the Environment and Society and Culture." Its publishing outlets include a blog, an online magazine called The American, and the AEI Press.
AEI has teamed up with several other research institutes to undertake joint projects. In 2003, for example, AEI and the conservative judicial association Federalist Society launched a project and website called NGOWatch to monitor nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), especially those involved in foreign policy and international relations. Later reorganized and renamed Global Government Watch, the initiative was initially launched at an AEI conference entitled "NGOs: The Growing Power of an Unelected Few," which was cosponsored by the Institute of Public Affairs, a rightist Australian think tank. According to the conference organizers, "NGOs have created their own rules and regulations and demanded that governments and corporations abide by those rules."
Presumably, AEI's own influence on policy making was not one of its primary concerns, an irony alluded to by some commentators in their criticism of the initiative. Ralph Nader wrote, "During the past 22 years, the AEI, their nearby corporate patrons, their allied trade associations and corporate think tanks have, in effect, taken over the executive branch, the Congress, and promoted the judgeships of right-wing corporate lawyers.... What's left to do? How to keep its corporate supremacists writing those big checks? Why, go after the liberal or progressive nongovernmental associations. Describe them as a collage of Goliaths running an all-points wrecking machine over government and business."
The membership of AEI's board of trustees reveals the institute's strong ties to the corporate community. Members include Bruce Kovner (Caxton Associates), Pete Coors (Molson Coors Brewing Company), John Faraci (International Paper), Raymond Gilmartin (formerly of Merck), Harvey Golub (formerly of American Express), Mel Sembler (Sembler Company), and Wilson Taylor (CIGNA), among many others. Over the past several decades, AEI's board of trustees has included representatives of scores of the nation's top corporations, including Rockwell, Amoco, Hewlett Packard, Exxon Mobil, Texas Instruments, Eli Lilly, Enron, and Citicorp. Also listed is Dick Cheney, whose spouse Lynne is an AEI fellow.
Among the many corporate contributors to AEI is the Walton Family Foundation, which was founded by the family that started Wal-Mart. According to the New York Times, Wal-Mart "has discovered a reliable ally: prominent conservative research groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Manhattan Institute." In August 2006, AEI visiting scholar Richard Vedder wrote an opinion article for the Washington Times claiming that "Wal-Mart has helped poor and middle-class consumers, in fact more than anyone else." The article prominently identified his ties to AEI but failed to mention Wal-Mart's contributions to the group.
AEI's council of academic advisers has included such leading conservatives as Jeremy Rabkin and Eliot Cohen. AEI "scholars" include Nicholas Eberstadt, Jonah Goldberg, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Roger Noriega, Richard Perle, Danielle Pletka, and Michael Rubin. Newt Gingrich and David Frum are former fellows.
AEI has receive funding from an array of sources, including foreign governments (Taiwan in 2009, for example), right-wing foundations, corporations, and individual donors. Of its 2011-2012 revenues, 39 percent came from foundations, 15 percent from corporations, and most of the remainder from individual contributions.
According to its 2012 annual report, AEI collected $37.4 million in revenues during the fiscal year that ended in June 2012. This was a marked decline from previous years, as the organization reported raising nearly $60 million in both 2008 and 2009, according to its 2011 Form 990.
AEI's major donors have included the heavy hitters of the conservative foundation world: the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Olin Foundation, the Scaife Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, as well as smaller right-wing foundations such as Carthage, Earhart, and Castle Rock. From 1985 through 2005, AEI received more than $40 million from right-wing foundations.
A statement on AEI's website explicitly invites corporate support for the institute. "The growth in the size and scope of the federal government represents a direct threat to the values AEI shares with the private sector—the engine of America's freedom and prosperity," it reads. "Corporate support of the Institute helps keep AEI scholars at the forefront of public policy debates, evaluating the impact of policy proposals and regulations while advancing sound reforms." Corporations who donate $100,000 are invited to join AEI's "Corporate Leadership Circle," with "additional opportunities" offered to "Circle members who support AEI with a gift of $150,000 or more."
According to People for the American Way, corporate donors to AEI have included the General Electric Foundation, Amoco, Kraft, Ford Motor Company Fund, General Motors Foundation, Eastman Kodak Foundation, Metropolitan Life Foundation, Procter & Gamble Fund, Shell Companies Foundation, Chrysler Corporation, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, General Mills Foundation, Pillsbury Company Foundation, Prudential Foundation, American Express Foundation, AT&T Foundation, Corning Glass Works Foundation, Morgan Guarantee Trust, Alcoa Foundation, and PPG Industries.