last updated: August 18, 2012
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The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, has been a mainstay of conservative domestic and foreign policy advocacy since 1973, when Paul Weyrich and Edwin Feulner founded it with the help of Joseph Coors, the heir to the Coors beer empire and an important early funder of the right-wing movement. The foundation took a leading role in the conservative movement during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, many of whose policies were influenced by Heritage's "Mandate for Leadership" study. Although not as closely tied to the militarist foreign policies advocated by groups like the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Heritage has played a significant role in influencing debate on many U.S. foreign and security policies, pushing for an expansive “war on terror,” controversial weapons programs like missile defense, large defense budgets, and a hawkish line vis-à-vis potential U.S adversaries.
Among the foundation’s principal staff members and advisers as of August 2012 were: Feulner, Heritage’s president; David Addington, Heritage’s vice president and former chief aide to Vice President Dick Cheney; Reagan-era attorney general Edwin Meese III; Steve Forbes; key right-wing funder Richard Scaife; and Midge Decter, the spouse of neoconservative icon Norman Podhoretz.
In addition, Heritage maintains a plank of some 60 in-house experts who are in turn supported by nearly 200 staff and management personnel. It also supports some 30 additional websites and affiliated projects, including the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, the Heritage Congressional Fellowship, NationalSecurity.org, and ReagansHeritage.org.
Heritage and Foreign Policy
Although better known for its advocacy of rightist economic and domestic policies, the Heritage Foundation has served since the Reagan era as a reliable proponent of militarist U.S. defense policies. Describing the organization’s foreign policy stance, Heritage’s Ted Bromund wrote in August 2010:
"One common way of thinking about foreign policy is that it exists in its own world, separate from domestic policy or the first principles on which a nation is founded. … The Heritage Foundation has never accepted this way of thinking. It believes that the first principles on which the United States was founded must guide its foreign as well as its domestic policy. ... We must respect the beliefs that made us—especially if we are to stand up for our interests and our values in a world that cannot be relied upon to defend them for us. ... Heritage’s analysts are as concerned to ensure that America provides effectively for its common defense, and for the defense of its allies and interests, as they are to protect its sovereignty. Indeed, defense, as the first duty of government, is the ultimate expression of sovereignty. Providing an effective defense is costly—even if all wise efficiencies are sought—but that cost must not be grudged or shirked, because it is by our defenses that we maintain our sovereignty against external enemies.”
Responding to Bromund’s argument, a New Republicwriter quoted President George Washington’s farewell address to show that the “Founders” did not see foreign policy as driven by the same “first principles” Bromund refers to. “Nowhere in [Washington’s] address is the word ‘values’ mentioned, and politically or morally-based involvement is discouraged. Rather, Washington encourages only ‘commercial relations,’ particularly the expansion of foreign trade, as the central goal of American foreign policy. Washington's address is often labeled a founding document of the ‘non-interventionist’ school of foreign policy, the dominant approach in American politics through the early 20th century. Non-interventionism, incidentally, is generally considered a version of realism, the philosophy Bromund explicitly argues against.”
Heritage’s website highlights a number of core foreign policy issue areas, including economic freedom, foreign aid, international conflicts and law, missile defense, space policy, terrorism, and human rights.
As it has since the Reagan presidency, Heritage is particularly keen on promoting controversial missile defense programs, stating on its website that the United States needs a comprehensive ballistic missile defense system that employs a multilayered defense system of sea, ground, and space-based systems.” As of early 2011, its missile defense website featured an alarmist video that “tells the story of the very real threat foreign enemies pose to every one of us. No matter where on Earth a missile is launched, it would take 33 minutes or less to hit the U.S.”
Although not as enamored with hardline Middle East policies as neoconservative and other right-wing “pro-Israel” groups, Heritage scholars promote strengthening “anti-terror” ties with Israel and often defend Israel in the face of U.S. criticism of its actions. In an April 2010 op-ed criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for publicly lambasting Israel, Heritage’s Feulner wrote, “The United States is engaged in a long war against extremists. We can use all the help we can get. Too bad the Obama administration can’t seem to tell which countries are with us, and which aren’t.”
Heritage has also echoed hawkish discourse on Iran in its call for taking a tougher stance against the country, arguing that containment of Iran is doomed to fail. In a February 2011 “backgrounder” on the “Iran threat,” Heritage’s Theodore Bromund and James Phillips argued, “Instead of pursuing a policy of containment, which would be a policy in name only, the U.S. should keep the military option alive, defend itself and its allies, and seek both to weaken the regime’s economic base and to empower and encourage its domestic adversaries.”
During the Obama Presidency
Heritage has been a consistent critic of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy agenda, claiming that Obama is “apologizing” for America and that his policies are “harmful to American security and constitutional rights.” In late 2010, the organization threatened to go after Republican senators who looked likely to vote for ratification of the New START treaty with Russia, an Obama administration priority.
In November 2010, a Heritage paper titled “The Obama Doctrine: Hindering American Foreign Policy,” argued: “The President has not yet defined the Obama Doctrine but its features are emerging through his statements and actions. These include a growing reliance on international organizations, a greater sense of humility about American values and foreign policy achievements, a reliance on foreign aid rather than military power, among other things. It is a value-neutral approach that rejects the concept of American exceptionalism. Essentially, the President hopes that if every nation can be brought to the table, they will eventually agree. In this analysis, the world is like a puzzle of equally valuable pieces that can be made to fit together. Unfortunately, other nations like Russia and China look at the world as if it were a game of chess and are moving swiftly to outmaneuver the United States. In the short term, American foreign policy is difficult to change dramatically because there are so many nonpolitical actors involved throughout the ‘permanent government.’ The Iraq and Afghanistan deployments have been harder to wind down than President Obama foresaw, and Guantanamo Bay remains open for business. Yet with two presidential terms, much damage could be done with serious consequences for America’s ability to be a global leader.”
An August 2010 Heritage paper laid out its vision for “A Conservative Foreign Policy.” It’s introduction mirrored typical right-wing language and attitude toward U.S. policy abroad: “The United States was founded on the belief that people have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and self-governance and that government’s first duty is to protect our freedom and security. America’s history of advancing liberty and rights at home and abroad is unparalleled. Our leaders should not apologize for that history; nor should they deny us these rights or neglect to speak up for them. America is an exceptional nation conceived in liberty. Its foreign and defense policies must reflect that truth.”
Heritage also laid claim to its continued leadership of the conservative movement during President Obama’s first term when in early 2011 House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) released his budget plan, “A Roadmap for America’s Future,” which drew heavily on Heritage research and became the center of a vocal debate after Ryan was chosen to be Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate in the 2012 elections. Ryan’s budget, a version of which was passed by the House of Representatives in March 2012, pushed longstanding conservative goals, including the elimination of Medicare and raising lower and middle class taxes while cutting upper income and corporate rates. Ryan’s budget and the Heritage research it relied were subsequently lambasted for relying on unrealistic projections of economic growth and as further evidence of the Right’s desire to benefit the upper class at the expense of everyone else. In a series of letters issued in April 2012, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the House-passed version of the Ryan budget, arguing that it failed to meet basic "moral criteria."
Bush and Before
Although Heritage took a smaller role than AEI in the George W. Bush administration—which employed some two dozen AEI scholars—Heritage nevertheless served as a important bastion of support for the Bush administration’s conservative agenda, including on foreign and defense issues. A key example of Heritage's support was its Homeland Defense Project, an initiative it started a few days after 9/11 and whose report, Defending the American Homeland, was published in January 2002. Although some of the study's recommendations included widely supported ideas such as ways to improve U.S. responses to a potential bioterror attack, the report also used 9/11 to push for defense programs that would have little or no impact on preventing the sort of attacks perpetrated in New York and Washington, like deploying a national missile defense system. Missile defense had been a key item on the agenda of many Bush administration figures, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Participants on the study included L. Paul Bremer (co-chairman), Edwin Meese (co-chairman), Pete Wilson, Daniel Goure, and Fred Ikle.
Although some Heritage scholars avoid neoconservative-fashioned rhetoric—such as the idea that the United States is at war with "Islamofascists" intent on taking over the globe—the foundation has nevertheless proved susceptible to such discourse. For instance, in a March 2005 "Heritage Lecture" on how to use language to shape the debate about the war on terror, Deroy Murdock argued, " Islamo-fascism is a worldwide phenomenon that already has touched this country and many of our allies. Yet Muslim extremists rarely have armies we can see, fighter jets we can knock from the sky, or an easily identifiable headquarters, such as the Reichs Chancellery of the 1940s or the Kremlin of the Cold War." Thus, said Murdock, it is important to properly identify "enemies" and the type of "war" the country is engaged in: "Is this a war on terror, per se? A war on terrorism? Or is it really a war on Islamo-fascism? It is really the latter, and we should say so." He then advocated creating a "'Thesaurus of Terrorism' [to] help us linguistically to turn the war on terrorism upside down. Why, for instance, do we inadvertently praise our enemies by agreeing that they fight a jihad or 'holy war?' Why not correctly describe them as soldiers in a hirabahor 'unholy war?'"
Unlike many AEI figures, Heritage writers often express concern at spurning important allies and are less confident in the ability of the United States to shape events on its own. However, they typically frame arguments on the subject to avoid supporting multilateral institutions like the United Nations and repeat notions about the unending duration of the current "war." Thus, for instance, James Jay Carafano and Sally McNamara, two Heritage scholars, wrote in a June 2007 Heritage "backgrounder" titled "Enduring Alliances Empower America's Long-War Strategy": "The threats of the new century are international in character and indeterminable in length, and they require an international response. Alone, the United States cannot win the long war against transnational terrorism, nor can it respond effectively to the other emerging national security concerns of the 21st century. America needs allies. America's greatest strength is strength in numbers: the number of free nations that share its commitment to peace, justice, security, and—above all—freedom. Building strong alliances requires a proactive strategy that reinforces rather than undermines the sovereignty of the state and at the same time strengthens the bonds of trust and confidence between free peoples, enabling them to act in their common interest. The focus of this strategy should be on building enduring alliances, not just 'coalitions of the willing.' As part of a comprehensive alliance-building strategy, the administration and Congress should undertake initiatives to establish international partnerships that more closely resemble those with America's traditional long-standing allies during the Cold War."
On the Iraq War, Heritage writers were largely supportive of a long-term military commitment in the country, including promoting the "surge" strategy and strong executive powers to override Congress on the issue. James Phillips, one of Heritage's main writers on Iraq, argued in a May 2007 Heritage "webmemo" that the Bush administration should fend off bipartisan efforts in Congress to set benchmarks for continued involvement in Iraq. He wrote: " Congress continues to wrestle with the Bush administration over overdue emergency funding for the war in Iraq, with opponents of the administration's surge strategy seeking to transform proposed benchmarks for measuring progress in Iraq into mechanisms for forcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Rigid benchmarks would become an excuse for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, rather than a means to help Iraqis build a stable and secure country. If Congress insists on inserting rigid, binding benchmarks linked to U.S. troop levels into legislation funding the war effort, President Bush should veto the bill. No President can afford to accept congressional usurpation of his constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces, a precedent that would hamstring the U.S. war effort not only in Iraq, but also in possible future wars. Tying benchmarks to a reduction of U.S. aid to the Iraqi government is also a bad idea but may be a necessary concession for the administration due to the political mood in Congress."
During the Bush administration, Heritage was heavily involved in advocacy on Africa policy, according to Right Web contributor Conn Hallinan. In particular, wrote Hallinan in a July 2007 analysis, Heritage was instrumental in crafting the administration's AFRICOM policy, which established a military command for Africa aimed at shaping events on the continent according to U.S. wishes. He cited Heritage fellows James Jay Carafano and Nile Gardiner, who wrote in a 2003 Heritage analysis: "Creating an African Command would go a long way toward turning the Bush administration's well aimed strategic priorities for Africa into a reality" (see Hallinan, " The Right Gets Africa Wrong," Right Web, July 9, 2007).
Recipe for Success
According to some observers, Heritage's success over the years is due in part to its unique blend of sound-bite policy proposals and congressional marketing, which gradually eroded the notion of think tanks as centers of nonpartisan scholarship. With success in policymaking its ultimate bottom line, Heritage helped launch a new breed of advocacy outfits driven by ideology and—increasingly—corporate largesse. Commenting on Heritage's methods, Slate.com's Jacob Weisberg wrote in 1998: "Because of its combat mentality, Heritage has never been a place with very high standards. Like other conservative outfits, it loves the lingo of academic life. Its hallways are cluttered with endowed chairs, visiting fellows, and distinguished scholars. The conceit here is that as a PC Dark Age has overcome the universities, conservative think tanks have become the refuge of thought and learning. At Heritage in particular, this is a laugh. ... [It] is essentially a propaganda mill. ... Heritage is focused on selling and promoting its views rather than on developing thoughtful or nuanced ones. It spends nearly half its $29 million annual budget on marketing. It prides itself on producing reports with concision and speed. According to [author Lee Edwards], one recent innovation is the colored index card summarizing a conservative position in 'short, punchy sentences.' According to Heritage's 'vice president for information marketing,' these cards have been 'wildly successful' with Republicans in Congress."
Heritage has benefited from considerable funding from conservative foundations and major corporations. Heritage also relies on large contributions from a bevy of individual donors, corporate benefactors, and right-wing foundations (for its operating expenses, see "The Heritage Foundation Financial Report, December 31, 2006"). Donors have included Coors, Scaife, General Motors, Ford Motors, Proctor & Gamble, Chase Manhattan Bank, Dow Chemical, Mobil Oil, and Smith Kline Corporation (for more on some its corporate donors, see Norman Solomon, "The Media's Favorite Think Tank: How the Heritage Foundation Turns Money into Media," Extra!, July/August 1996). During the 20-year period of 1985 to 2005, according to MediaTransparency.org, major conservative donors including Scaife, Bradley, and Donner, among many others, gave more than $65 million to Heritage.
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Heritage Foundation Résumé
- Edwin Feulner, president
- David Addington, vice president
- Midge Decter, trustee
- Steve Forbes, trustee
- Richard Scaife, trustee
- Edwin Meese III, fellow
Mission (as of 2011)
“The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institution—a think tank—whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. We believe the principles and ideas of the American Founding are worth conserving and renewing. As policy entrepreneurs, we believe the most effective solutions are consistent with those ideas and principles. Our vision is to build an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish. Heritage’s staff pursues this mission by performing timely, accurate research on key policy issues and effectively marketing these findings to our primary audiences: members of Congress, key congressional staff members, policymakers in the executive branch, the nation’s news media, and the academic and policy communities.”
Selected Principals (as of 2011)
Right Web is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.
The Right Web Mission
Right Web tracks militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy.
Edwin J. Feulner, "Joe Coors, R.I.P.," National Review, March 18, 2003.
Jacob Weisberg, "Happy Birthday, Heritage Foundation," Slate.com, January 9, 1998.
Ted Bromund, “First Principles and Foreign Policy,” Heritage Foundation, August 23, 2010, http://blog.heritage.org/2010/08/23/first-principles-and-foreign-policy/
James Downie, “Heritage vs. George Washington,” New Republic, August 24, 2010, http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/77205/heritage-vs-george-washington.
Edwin Feulner, “How to Alienate Allies and Flatter Foes,” Heritage Foundation, April 5, 2010,http://www.heritage.org/Research/Commentary/2010/04/How-to-Alienate-Allies-and-Flatter-Foes.
Theodore Bromund and James Phillips, “Containing a Nuclear Iran: Difficult, Costly, and Dangerous,” Heritage Foundation, February 14, 2011, http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2011/02/Containing-a-Nuclear-Iran-Difficult-Costly-and-Dangerous.
The Heritage Foundation, “Defining the Obama Doctrine Its Pitfalls, and How to Avoid Them,” http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2010/08/Defining-the-Obama-Doctrine-Its-Pitfalls-and-How-to-Avoid-Them.
The Cable, “Heritage targets Republican senators who might favor New START,” http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/11/04/heritage_targets_republican_senators_who_might_favor_new_start
The Heritage Foundation, “Obama Doctrine: Hindering American Foreign Policy,” http://www.heritage.org/research/lecture/2010/11/the-obama-doctrine-hindering-american-foreign-policy
The Heritage Foundation, “A Conservative Foreign Policy,” http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/08/a-conservative-foreign-policy
“A Roadmap for America’s Future,” http://www.roadmap.republicans.budget.house.gov/
The Heritage Foundation, “Budget and Spending,” http://www.heritage.org/issues/budget-and-spending
The Washington Post, “Who’s Hurt by Paul Ryan’s Budget Proposal?,” http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/whos-hurt-by-paul-ryans-budget-proposal/2011/04/05/AFfP7PlC_story.html
"Homeland Defense Project," Heritage Foundation, 2002, http://www.heritage.org/research/homelanddefense/project.cfm.
Deroy Murdock, "Terrorism and the English Language," Heritage Lecture, March 9, 2005.
James Jay Carafano and Sally McNamara, "Enduring Alliances Empower America's Long-War Strategy," Heritage Backgrounder, June 15, 2007.
Norman Solomon, "The Media's Favorite Think Tank: How the Heritage Foundation Turns Money into Media," Extra!, July/August 1996.
"The Heritage Foundation," MediaTransparency.org, http://www.mediatransparency.org/recipientgrants.php?recipientID=153.