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Do speaking fees distort foreign policy analysis?

Earlier this week Politico's Ben Smith posted about the ways in which speaking fees had altered incentives for politicians and pundits: 

Most of the people you see talking on television or quoted in stories -- who aren't in elected office -- make substantial parts of their livings giving speeches to private groups. Paid speaking, cleaner than lobbying, easier than the practice of law, cleaner than hitting up pension funds, well, safer than graft, has become the primary source of income for a broad range of political figures, beginning with Bill Clinton, who reported $7.5 million from paid speech in 2009.

The high fees for speakers like Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Stanley McChrystal occasionally draw attention, but beneath them are tiers and tiers more, with Harold Ford and Michael Steele, for instance, charging $40,000 for a package deal. 

In that middle tier are commentators like Coulter and high-profile television personalities.  Well down the ladder are journalists, lower-profile politicians, and consultants.

I've been wondering -- and am interested in readers' takes, particularly those in the industry -- how this private economy affects the public politics. For one thing, it provides an incentive for consultants and out-of-work politicians to volunteer themselves to cable television and to make themselves interested and controversial enough to stay on it. (It's a kind of subsidy to cable.) Cable hits are a kind of loss leader on the speaking circuit -- they don't themselves play, but they make a paid speaker more saleable.

In a follow-up post, Smith relayed a media exec's thoughts on the matter:

[I]t's never discussed with any real scrutiny by the mainstream media or Fox because it's bi-partisan. Everyone does it! James Carville. Bill Maher. Hannity. Oliver North. Eugene Robinson. Al Sharpton. Jack Welch. Trent Lott.

Note that academics are so far down the ladder that Smith doesn't even bother to mention them. This does not mean, however, that academics and other members of the foreign-policy community don't get speaking fees. I've seen Fareed Zakaria's quote, and, well, let's just say I've been coping with my own inadequacies at the lectern ever since. 

What does the foreign policy equivalent of Smith's speaker ecosystem -- and how does it affect our analysis?

Well, the foreign policy speaker ecosystem is pretty straightforward and pretty hierarchical:

1) Top tier: former policy principals and mainstream elite pundits. Examples: Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Tom Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, Robert Kagan, etc. These are the people that large associations, private colleges, and consultants with deep pockets will invite to give talks. Payment ranges from high-five figures to low-six figures. 

2) Second tier: Senior think-tankers, former policymakers with views "outside the mainstream", and experts in the topic du jour: Examples: Richard Haass, Carlos Pascual, James Woolsey, and, say, Barnett Rubin if Afghanistan was on everyone's mind. College groups, professional associations, lobbies, and single-issue groups will have these people talk. Payment ranges from high-four figures to middle-five figures. 

3) Third tier: Top tier IR academics, former deputy policymakers, consultants who fancy themselves as deep global strategists, one-shot book-publishing wonders, etc. Examples: Charles Kupchan, Strobe Talbott, Parag Khanna. Foundations, think tanks, some campus groups, and university institutes will invite these speakers. Fees are generally low four figures. 

4) Fourth tier: Assorted crackpots, garden-variety think-tankers, A-list bloggers, and me. Travel, hotel, and something less than $1,000. 

Does this hierarchy affect how foreign-policy analysts write and think? I'm honestly not sure. Cracking the top tier is very difficult, and someone gearing their entire intellectual output towards that goal is more likely to be disappointed than not. Forthermore, the best way to crack that tier is to achieve a related goal, which is a top-tier appointment in an administration. One could argue that this puts constraints on how far outside "mainstream" analysis one can go. 

On the other hand… once one realizes that those A-list appontments ain't going to happen, the incentve structure shifts. After a certain point, becoming an intellectual bomb-thrower can be the quickest route to achieving pecuniary rewards. That said, even in this case one has to have done good work in the past in order to be taken seriously. So, in the foreign-policy ecosystem at least, I'm not sure speaking fees distort policy analysis all that much. 

I'm eager to hear from commenters on this question, however: do you think the growth of outside speaking fees distort incentives within the foreign-policy community? 

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Daniel W. Drezner

How Al Qaeda has become a rock star cliché

Over at Wired, Spencer Ackerman assesses how low al Qaeda has fallen:

Nine years ago, al Qaeda crashed a plane into the Pentagon and came dangerously close to taking out the White House. Now it wants to hit places like Cosi and Potbelly during the lunch rush in the hope of taking out "a few government employees," writes an extremist using the name Yahya Ibrahim, who also wrote for the launch issue.

That’s not the only idea Inspire floats for al Qaeda wannabes. Got a pickup truck? Why not create the "ultimate mowing machine" by welding steel blades to the grill and driving up on crowded sidewalks to "mow down the enemies of Allah?"

But it’s "paramount" to target government workers, Ibrahim boasts, "and the location would also give the operation additional media attention," according to our friend James Gordon Meek of the New York Daily News. In other words, killing a lot of people all at once is less important than letting Americans -- and government workers in particular -- know they aren’t safe in their capitol city.

Two thoughts. First, this will be an interesting test of homeland security priorities. If al Qaeda is relying on disaffected Americans to do their dirty work for them on U.S. soil, then we will soon see just how many AQ sympathizers there really are in the United States. If nothing happens on this front before the midterms, however, then I'm going to conclude that al Qaeda's latest tactics are a big flop.

Second, even if AQ's latest gambit succeeds in fomenting one or two attacks, this is really and truly small beer. Al Qaeda is now following the narrative arc of VH1's Behind the Music franchise

ANNOUNCER: Al Qaeda had burst onto the global scene with an array of pyrotechnic successes. After the 9/11 attacks, they seemed unstoppable. Even after losing their base in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora seemed the stuff of legend. It looked like the supergroup created by a construction magnate from Saudi Arabia and a surgeon from Egypt would never fade away. 

As the years passed, however, al Qaeda found it difficult to top their greatest hits. For a few years they coasted on prior successes, along with minor hits in Bali, Madrid, London, and parts of the Middle East. By 2009, however, their lack of success was becoming noticeable. 

FORMER AQ MEMBER: Oh, yeah, it drove Osama crazy. He'd keep saying, "we need to top 9/11." It started to drive al-Zawahiri nuts. Why do you think he made that stupid "house Negro" tape? 

ANNOUNCER: By 2010, al Qaeda was a shell of their former selves, and in a strange reversal of fortune, relied on their groupies to help them out. 

TERRORIST ANALYST: You knew they were desperate when they started calling on their tribute bands to perform for them. "Bomb this for us, shoot that for us." That's the last act of a desperate group. 

FORMER AQ SYMPATHIZER: That English-language Inspire magazine was the last straw for me. I mean, seriously, it was clear that they had sold out by then. I only think about their earlier work when I think of them now. Seriously, did Tucker Carlson design that thing? 

ANNOUNCER: By late 2010, the Mexican drug cartels were all the rage. Al Qaeda's time… had come and gone. 

Hopefully, there will be no third act in which al Qaeda bounces back with a comeback hit only to fall prey to a shame spiral. 

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images