There was a moment when it seemed the swollen Washington crowd attending the annual meeting of the Center for a New American Security might get so pumped up by its own mission of salvation for the broader Middle East and Central Asia that it could take off like a rocket ship of its own self-satisfaction into the stratosphere.

Then Professor Andrew Bacevich stepped onto the dais. His shock of silver-white hair and seeming immunity to corny inside COIN (counterinsurgency) jokes weren’t the only traits distinguishing him from the rest. In nearly four hours of remarks this morning, he was the only one to question the accepted orthodoxy of “population-centric” counterinsurgency as the new reality — and only remedy — for winning the war and serving American interests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Everyone here at the posh Willard Hotel has seemingly genuflected to this meme as the price of admission. Bacevich not only jumped the toll, but brought the grand ballroom, at least for a few moments, crashing down to earth.

After listening to Gen. David Petraeus, Ambassador Nicholas Burns and two panels discussing the glories of the Iraq Surge and CNAS’ proposals for extending U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan — a “long term effort” that would incorporate the nearly 68,000 boots planned for Afghanistan, a civilian “surge” of diplomats, foreign service officers and aid workers and helping retool government institutions and security forces in all three countries — Bacevich asks, why?

If threat of armed insurgencies and drugs and protecting natural resources and the U.S sphere of influence is so vital in determining our “semi-permanent occupation and pacification of foreign countries,”  Bacevich asked, “why not a have a goal of ‘fixing’ Mexico?”  (nervous chuckle from the suits in the audience). If anyone here, however, suggested putting nearly 70,000 U.S troops into Mexico and tens, if not billions of dollars into building schools, combating government corruption and fighting drugs, “he would be laughed out of the room.”

But when national security experts issue the same plans for  Afghanistan, he said, “they are treated like sages.” This was a dig, direct or not, at his hosts, namely Andrew Exum, senior fellow at CNAS, and Nathaniel Fick, soon-to-be CEO of CNAS ( current CEO, Kurt Campbell is about to be confirmed as  Deputy Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs). Exum and Fick, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans both, had been flattered all morning as the fresh-faced scholars behind the COIN movement and authors of the new CNAS report, “Triage: The Next Twelve Months in Afhganistan and Pakistan,” which pretty much assures some U.S occupation of Afghanistan for long, long time and assumes a lot more — that the U.S can arrest “the downward spiral” of conditions in Afghanistan by helping to build sustainable security forces, “clear, hold and build” current insurgent strongholds, and make people “feel safe” enough to create a space for democratic governance to seed and flourish.

“This only testifies to the distortion of U.S national security priorities after 9/11 and it is still lingering today,” retorts Bacevich. To which Exum replied, “[Bacevich's critique] is completely divorced from the political reality facing this administration.” What he meant by this isn’t quite clear. Perhaps it is divorced from the political reality that CNAS and others in the conventional Washington defense establishment, not unlike the neoconservatives dominating the town during the last administration, have pinpointed and prioritized, if not promoted themselves.

But Bacevich — the only working historian on the bench — reminded that the assumption the United States could orchestrate the fate of the Middle East, if not the entire Islamic world, by meddling in political and military endeavors on such a grand scale, began during the Carter Administration and has “turned out to be an enormously expensive proposition, and it has not, to this point, delivered any meaningful benefit to the United States of America.”

“There ought to be enough room to reconsider our approach to US national security policy,” and to look at alternatives, “instead of continuing down this path.”

To this Exum replied, “what is the alternative?”

I don’t think the bulk of the people at this event — sponsored, by the way, by a bevy of defense contractors — Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Aegis and SAIC to name a few — were quite ready to hear the answer. But there was a decided shift in the air from there. That tends to happen when you let the proverbial skunk into the echo chamber.

UPDATE: As pointed out, the positions of Andrew Exum and Kurt Campbell were misidentified above. Exum is a fellow, not a senior fellow, at CNAS, while Campbell is expected to be confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, not Deputy Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs.