Abella does give a clear-eyed and not unsympathetic account of the current state of the organization. In his view, the place is “too flabby,” and, like most mature and successful outfits, lacks a “culture of self-analysis or reflection.” He’s correct in asserting that RAND’s glory days are behind it. Still, his conclusions also show his book to be a product of the times. A political progressive, he scoffs (correctly, in my view) at U.S. military efforts to “promote American values abroad,” and approvingly cites Muqtada al-Sadr’s insistence that “Americans should look at the Iraqis as Iraqi, not as Americans in training.” But nothing turns an idealist into a realist faster than an interventionist foreign policy on the other side of the aisle. One wonders if Abella was as outraged by Bill Clinton’s “pragmatic neo-Wilsonianism” (the phrase is Anthony Lake’s). And what did he think of that administration’s war against Yugoslavia—an intervention justified by official arguments that were at best exaggerated and misleading, conducted absent congressional and UN authorization, against a regime that, while thuggish, presented no conceivable threat to the United States?

In any case, RAND may have some life left in it yet. More than half a century after World War II, American foreign policy remains stubbornly internationalist—even, to take a cue from Abella’s subtitle, “imperialist.” And that puts the Air Force’s former plaything in the mainstream. Granted, after two terms of George W. Bush, Abella is somewhat hostile toward a research group that advises the U.S. government. One suspects that hostility would be considerably diminished if the think tank were advising a Pentagon staffed by Obama appointees—not a few of whom would undoubtedly be former RANDites. 

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Benjamin Schwarz is the national and literary editor of The Atlantic.