Ken Silverstein Attacks CACI

by Nathan Hamm on 5/31/2006 · 9 comments

And also some other academics.

Continuing his earlier attack on Fred Starr, Ken Silverstein attacks the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and other academics for defending Central Asian governments, advocating good relations with them, or accepting funding from energy companies.

The bulk of Silverstein’s attack this time around is directed at CACI and comes as a result of both who has funded it and Starr’s confusion over who the funders have been. I say “confusion” because I have a hard time accepting that someone would lie about something that is so easily disprovable. Silverstein discovered that Starr was incorrect in saying that the only oil company that had funded CACI was Chevron at a level of $25,000 per year for the first few years of the institute’s existence. It turns out that other oil companies as well as Newmont Mining have also funded CACI.

I asked Starr about this in an email, and he now recalls that CACI did receive corporate funding beyond that granted by Chevron. He described the funding as insignificant (but did not give a dollar amount) and said that it had been discontinued.

Again, I do not necessarily think that Starr was trying to hide a terrible truth from a scrappy muckraker. It is merely speculation on my part, but I have doubts that Starr spends heaps of time chasing funding for CACI. And if my experience in the nonprofit sector is any indication, those who do not spend most of their time in the development department tend to have quick or clear recall of an organization’s fundraising history.

Rather than “rigorously independent,” a better description of CACI might be “bought and paid for.”

Prior to accusing CACI as a whole of being the in the pocket of oil companies (who, I might add, may or may not still be funding the institute), Silverstein says that “Starr’s pronouncements and policy prescriptions so closely mirror the views of energy executives.” This, he suggests, is a result of funding from oil companies.

I am highly skeptical of claims that receiving funds necessarily determines attitudes and opinions. Again, in my nonprofit experience, I did not see it happen, and I also did not see pressure from funders. That is not to say that funding does not or cannot influence opinions, but I would like to see some proof. In this case, something more than pointing out such and such funded CACI, therefore Starr and the institute are obviously the property of the donors. What would satisfy me in this case is to see proof that Starr’s views have changed over time and evidence indicating that Silverstein spent some time going through something like the CACI Analyst to show overwhelming evidence of bias for Central Asian regimes. Randomly selecting back issues of the Analyst, I was able to find an article accusing regional leaders of trumping up the Islamist threat, one critical of Uzbek economic policies, and one drawing attention to religious freedom issues in Azerbaijan.

Silverstein also turns his attention to Harvard for accepting oil money. We have gone from pointing out that Fred Starr has biases to suggesting Fred Starr’s biases are paid for by Chevron and others to accusing all those who have accepted money from energy companies and who have written in favor of good relations with Caspian and Central Asian government of being bought. Because obviously, nobody could honestly suggest that policies of engagement might be making the best of a bad situation and lead to the most preferable outcomes considering cold, hard realities. Right?

Silverstein attacks Harvard’s Brenda Shaffer for her recommendations for US policy in the Caspian region, saying she “is so eager to back regimes in the region that she makes Starr look like a dissident.” Taken on its merits, I do not get that from the document. Also, taken on its merits, I do not find her support for repealing Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act all that wicked.

What I do see in Silverstein’s attacks on CACI and Shaffer is Silverstein’s unwillingness or inability to seriously engage with policy arguments that advocate engagement in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Shaffer and Starr have plenty of equally compromised companions, so Caspian watchers beware: the next time you see or hear an “independent” American expert talking about how the region’s rulers are implementing bold reforms, check the expert’s credentials to see just how independent he or she truly is.

So, Silverstein wants to warn you that the entire field may be tainted goods. I do agree with him that independence is very important and that one should not simply accept the authority of experts if one disagrees with expert opinions.

But I also think one should be as or more worried about the journalists who feed us news. For example, sometimes journalists get called independent. On occasion though, those same independent journalists make kissy-faces at leftist authoritarian leaders. They might even launch “muckraking leftist newsletters” or write sympathetic portraits of Latin American socialist parties. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… It’s just that one has to wonder who might have wined and dined such journalists along the way…

Again, I do not so much think that Starr needs defense as I think that Silverstein’s is a silly line of attack, especially as it has been expanded to make the whole field potentially suspect. Starr, Shaffer, and every single other academic out there should be engaged on the merits of their scholarship and statements first and foremost. Devoting so much attention to them without engaging their arguments suggests to me that actual policy debates are way out of Silverstein’s league.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Alexander May 31, 2006 at 4:02 pm

As I posted on the other thread, I may in fact have been too generous in suggesting that Starr is motivated solely by academic egoism, a desire for flattery and a liking for Uzbek embassy canapes. If Silverstein is right, it may turn out that he isn’t simply an ideologue like the Milosevich and Lukashenko apologists, and is instead being paid to say the things he says. The evidence Silverstein has unearthed so far is not very compelling, but it may lead to something more concrete. That said, whatever his motives are, it doesn’t alter the fact that Starr defends the indefensible with unholy gusto.

I must make an admission here too: at Oxford we received about £10,000 over three years from British Gas for The Oxford Society for Central Asia, which organises seminars and conferences within the University. We have used some of this money to fund seminar series on the ancient, medieval and early modern history of the region which could be of no conceivable interest to an energy company, but some of it has been used to pay for conferences where the question of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan’s oil and gas resources has been discussed – that was an unwritten quid pro quo. However, we have never come under any pressure to follow any particular line, and the conference on Turkmenistan was remarkable for the number of exiled dissidents who attended (as well as for a paper which pointed out that Turkmenistan’s proven gas reserves are about the same size as those in the North Sea when they were first discovered – not exactly the New Kuwait). You can still check some of the papers from that conference online (we had one apologist for Turkmenbashi’s new educational policy who got a rather hostile reception). See
(We make no secret of our sponsors), and also

Just suggesting that accepting private (or indeed Government) money does not necessarily mean sacrificing academic objectivity.

Nathan May 31, 2006 at 4:04 pm

Posting this for Bakinets, who was unable to leave it due to the earlier comments problem. –Nathan

Nathan, your reasoning here is strong. Silverstein does go overboard and it is not fair to dismiss the research of a whole group of academics and think-tankers just because of where their funding comes from. But let’s not let Silverstein’s overreach get us off the subject, which is the outrage against decency and intellectual honesty committed by Fred Starr and Zeyno Baran (co-host of the Andijan apologia event, ex-Nixon Center, now brought to the Hudson Institute by soon-to-be convict Scooter Libby). To repeat something you said in your earlier posting, more or less: There were many witnesses at Andijan, not just journalists, but refugees and others who survived and have spoken about it. Starr and Baran have decided that those voices should not be trusted because of their “bias.” Instead we should accept the Uzbek regime’s version of the truth. This is a literally insane thing to be arguing, except that of course there is probably a rational reason for these two to try to whitewash Andijan. I don’t see how it could be ideology, unless it’s some sort of bizarre fascism. The much more likely answer — picking up the thread from the last Starr posting — is to follow the money. Money from where? In Uzbekistan at least, it’s not oil companies, since they don’t care about Uzbekistan (save Gazprom and Lukoil). Newmont Mining in theory might want to carry water for Karimov in Washington, but the fact is that it is rumored to be in deep trouble, with Karimov ready to give them the boot and replace them with a Russian company. How about the Uzbek regime itself? How about a certain smart and sophisticated daughter of the president? She can certainly figure out how to play the sleazy Washington game. In fact, it is difficult to imagine that she hasn’t though of it and acted upon it. The only non-pecuniary and explanation I can think of for Starr and Baran’s actions fits with the Libby-Hudson connection at least. The Bush Administration (or at least Dick Cheney) may have decided that the US needs to suck up to Uzbekistan. Sure, the regime kills people. Sure, it can’t manage the economy and is immiserating 25 million people as a result. Sure, they humiliated the US already by booting us out of K-K. But maybe if we help them put this Andijan thing to rest, they will love America again?? So we have the following potential rationales for this scandal: (1) insanity; (2) bizarre fascism; (3) money; (4) Bush administration policy of kissing up to Uzbekistan because of some fear of China, or something. The whole thing is too depressing for words.

Nathan May 31, 2006 at 4:31 pm

Alexander, I suspect that CACI doesn’t get much if any pressure to toe a particular line.

My sense is that, as bizarre as it seems to some of us in regards to certain of them, academics affiliated with it really believe what they say. Taking their work as a whole–the CACI Analyst and things like this–I have a hard time buying that anyone is pushing them to do this, that or the other thing.

As I said in my last post on this, I think that Starr gets far too caught up in going after critics of Central Asian governments. I agree that there is reason to go after some of these critics for exaggerating the situation and distorting what it is the residents of the reason care most about. I do not (usually) share his zeal. For example, I don’t think his opening section of “Anatomy of a Crisis” was too shabby. In general, when he’s required to put his thoughts to paper, he seems to be more cautious. (Although there’s one part of the document that it was downright unethical of him to have inserted.)

Anyhow, I have to wonder whether or not anyone thinks Silverstein is right to include Shaffer. Because, Bakinets, there are two issues here. One is that Starr is a jerk to people he disagrees with. The other, and the one I’m discussing here, is saying that because he is a jerk who comes to certain conclusions and who works at an institute that has received oil money, therefore others who come to similar conclusions who also work at places with oil funding are bad and wrong. Just because Starr is nasty to people doesn’t mean that the Silversteins of the world get a pass and don’t have to engage his ideas or those put forward by colleagues who might agree with him.

Alexander May 31, 2006 at 5:18 pm

I think you’re probably right, Nathan.

Apropos of that entry on Laurence’s blog, it really irritates me that nobody ever completes Kipling’s lines of ‘doggerel’ – it changes the meaning completely:

“Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”

Much more apposite to the topic of ‘Eurasianism’ is the following:

“Let it be clearly understood that the Russian is a delightful person until he tucks in his shirt. As an Oriental he is charming. It is only when he insists upon being treated as the most easterly of western peoples instead of the most westerly of Easterns that he becomes a racial anomaly extremely difficult to handle.”
Rudyard Kipling “The Man Who Was” Life’s Handicap (London) 1903 p97

Very under-rated writer, Kipling.

David June 1, 2006 at 5:52 am

I agree – its probably not the money. They really do believe it. The real point, and one with much wider resonance for policy, is that all the individuals cited – Starr, Baran, etc, are not really academics, in the normal sense of the word. Zeyno has written widely on Hizb ut-Tahrir for example, without it seems doing the kind of research that is really needed to back up her views. And then simply repeated these views at countless conferences ad nauseum. Starr is also a partisan, sound-bite academic, without any serious research on Central Asia to his name in the last few years. Akiner falls in the same camp of academics who have surrendered to the conference circuit, and for years have effectively been saying the same thing, without doing any real field research. The vast bulk of CACI’s output falls into the same category. The shame is that other, better-informed academics (albeit with a diverse range of views) are not heard enough.

Nick June 1, 2006 at 6:31 am

I’m not really a fan of academic-popculture crossover tomes, but Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics makes some pertinent points about the value of “expertise” and how experts use it to their advantage (he uses the example of real-estate agents). David is right to point out that the most prominent Central Asia experts spend a lot of their time travelling hither and thither to expound their views, and it’s worth speculating how they they present their expertise in order to continue being invited to conferences, seminars and round-tables.I don’t doubt that many of them, for example Dr Akiner, one of whose classes I have actually taken, do actually have a passionate interest in the region, but after a while their initial academic purpose becomes subsumed by professional punditry. For example, Dr Akiner’s original area of expertise back in the 1970s was Russian and Turkic languages (I know – I’ve seen her CV). Truth be told, it’s a path well-trodded by what we in the UK call media dons – Niall Ferguson wrote his PhD on German hyperinflation in the 1920s.

Laurence June 1, 2006 at 9:14 am

I wonder which post on my blog Alexander is talking about? I don’t think I ever said anything bad about Kipling. I also prefer Russians with their shirts not tucked in…

Responding to the larger point: Part II of Silverstein is still guilt-by-association. Perhaps Silverstein will tell us who pays Harper’s bills? Is it, perhaps, dependent on a politically active foundation? Is he, therefore, just a political shill, as well? I don’t think he’d like to be called a hack, so why not be civil and treat Starr the way he’d like to be treated himself?

Name-calling and smear tactics diminish those who use them, and may harm the cause of human rights for the people of Central Asia.

Alexander June 1, 2006 at 9:31 am

It wasn’t you Laurence, it was that crackpot Alexander Dugin.

“That is, Russians are not fully European, nor Asian. They are Eurasian people, rebutting Kipling’s doggerel verse, because Russians live where East in fact meets West.”

the full version of that verse (you can find “The Ballad of East and West” in “Barrack-Room Ballads”) doesn’t really support Dugin’s point about Russia’s ‘uniqueness’, so I suppose it’s scarcely surprising he leaves it out, assuming he’s even aware of it.

Nathan posted a link to one of your pages above:

Laurence June 1, 2006 at 11:56 am

Alexander, thanks to your post, I’ve now got something about Kipling on my blog:

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