This week’s headlines were absolutely dizzying in their array of breaking national-security and foreign-policy news — in particular, yesterday’s  impressive exclusive by The Washington Post about U.S Special Forces “expanding (their) secret intelligence operations across Africa, establishing a network of small air bases to spy on terrorist hideouts from the fringes of the Sahara to jungle terrain along the equator … in a growing shadow war against al-Qaeda affiliates and other militant groups.” Wow.

This squares with what Nick Turse wrote about Thursday, that “under President Obama, operations on the (African) continent have accelerated far beyond the more limited interventions of the Bush years” and is all part of “a new Obama doctrine, a six-point program for twenty-first-century war”  incorporating “special ops, drones, spy games, civilian soldiers, proxy fighters, and cyber warfare.”

Meanwhile, 66 people were slain this week in 17 coordinated car bomb attacks in Iraq, Libya saw violent clashes between opposing militant groups, the U.S relationship with Pakistan appeared more sour than ever, and the U.S accused old foe Russia of sending attack helicopters to the Assad regime for its crackdown on rebels in Syria.

One might have expected more from the top defense think tank in D.C., but the only thing “dizzying” at the 5th annual Center for a New American Security  (CNAS) confab Wednesday was the air in what seems to be an impenetrable policy-establishment bubble.  Instead of taking advantage of these compelling stories of the day, the scholars, military analysts, and government officials in attendance seemed happily constrained by a carefully limited agenda more befitting an ivory tower than the hub of Washington’s national-security elite.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect much more from a think tank whose very existence was founded upon hopes that a centrist Democrat would ascend to the White House in 2008. That accomplished, CNAS became Washington policy spear point for Gen. David Petreaus’ counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan. At the time, Petraeus called CNAS a “great force.” But since COIN in Afghanistan became the biggest flop since Ishtar, it’s difficult to tell what CNAS is a great force for now, other than bringing together Beltway Bandits for networking purposes and generating confidence in President Obama’s national security/foreign policy gambits, both of which seemed to be the major thrust of Wednesday’s snoozefest at the historic Willard hotel.

That pretty much allowed keynote speaker Kurt Campbell, a CNAS co-founder who is now Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to talk for nearly an hour and say nothing. Like many who took the stage that day, he accomplished the most infamous of all Washington parlor tricks — making people believe that lots of active verbs and inflated phrases strung together and delivered in a confident tone can lead to some big insight or revelation. It wears off only few minutes later, when you look down at your notes and can’t make heads or tails of any of it.

Meanwhile, marking off more than two hours for a panel called “National Security Strategy for the Next Decade” widened the parameters so far that it ensured the conversation would stay in la-la land for the rest of the morning. Add scholars with the “big heads” Peter Gabriel once imagined, and you end up with Brookings’ in-house neoconservative Robert Kagan phoning it in with such trenchant analysis as, “if you look at the whole sweep of history … the United States is in pretty good shape as we look ahead … the U.S. remains enormously powerful along all spectrums of power and influence.”

No one argued with Kagan, of course, not even Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, whom Kagan seemed particularly irked (or threatened) by throughout the morning panel.  “I agree strongly with Bob, but I agree for much different reasons,” said Slaughter, who never  spelled out those reasons, at least not succinctly enough for anyone in the audience to comprehend. She used to work for the State Department and is now back at Princeton hawking her new “network centrality” doctrine with an almost religious fervor. Her faith (and I guess her argument that America is “in good shape”): that the U.S can take advantage of today’s technological connectedness to foster regional and international institutions that bypass state-to-state relationships in order to help solve the world’s problems. Humanitarian interventionism 4.0.

Of course, old-school warhawk Kagan pooh-poohed her networked Shangri-La, calling it too “centric-centric.” She responded by chiding him because he apparently thought the Twitter bird was a peace dove. Their brief peevish exchanges made for the only crackling tension in the room — the entire day. It was a long one.

Most of the time there were only short bursts of possibility: both Slaughter and Kagan believe the U.S. should intervene in Syria, they just differ on who should take the lead. Lost in the discussion was the who, what, why, where. Dead end. Then there was a potentially sizzling moment when senior CNAS fellow Colin Kahl said we “can’t pretend that (Iraq) doesn’t exist” and that the same warhawks who pushed for the war aren’t dominating foreign-policy discourse today. He was quickly shut down by Kagan, who gleefully pointed out that Democratic hero Hillary Clinton, now Secretary of State (and CNAS’s first keynote speaker in 2007), was a key backer of the invasion of Iraq. So quiet down. So Kahl did.

Then Kagan raised the use of killer drones in typical fashion, claiming that the majority of Americans support them. This was countered by Duke University’s Peter Feaver, rather feebly, who said “the world is not going to accept the drone campaign.” But the moment was lost, the subject immediately dropped like hot shrapnel. Interestingly, CNAS fellow Andrew Exum and advisor David Killcullen once argued quite passionately about the strategic folly of the drone war in 2009. Yet the entire debate was curiously left off the day’s agenda.

Afghanistan — we still have 90,000 troops there, by the way — was afforded all but 20 minutes in the day’s program, and that was filled by visiting CNAS fellow and active duty U.S. Special Forces officer Major. Fernando Lujan, who spent his entire time regurgitating power-point presentations. There are challenges, he conceded, but things are moving forward …

… you know the rest.

There was an earnest panel discussion on veterans’ issues, for which CNAS seems to be devoting an impressive amount of time and research. But the forum was designed for maximum sleep-inducement, and the crowd became restless with all the bureaucratic hoohah and began running prematurely for the boxed lunches. This was followed by an hour and a half of “networking” before the festivities resumed.

Herein lies the rub: the audience is filled with dark suits and military uniforms — Beltway Bandits (consultants, contractors, and anyone else grabbing for their private piece of the defense pie) and full-time soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors. In other words, people whose livelihoods depend on the war machine constantly turning in a forward direction. They aren’t there to determine whether drones are bad or COIN is dead or why veterans are committing suicide.They just want to know where the political winds are blowing, what the talking points are, and how to navigate the budget gauntlet; then they exchange a few business cards in hopes of gaining the access they all crave, all while feeling they are part of “the hive.”

That’s why the biggest stirring of excitement in the crowd didn’t come when World Bank President Robert Zoellick took the stage for a 45 minutes excursion that resembled nothing of the stated topic, “economics and security,” but when CNAS co-founder (and former senior Pentagon official) Michele Flournoy and other insiders were wheeled in to talk defense budget. Now the Beltway Bandits in the crowd suddenly awoke: to cut or not to cut, this was the question, and it affected them greatly.

CNAS has had five years to perfect the heterodoxy of its conferences. The last time a non-interventionist was invited to speak — Professor Andrew Bacevich (see his many articles for TAC  here) — he threatened to deflate their bubble. He questioned COIN, nation-building, and the post-9/11 warmongering that reflected a looming neo-colonialism that was neither affordable nor desirous in the 21st Century. He then took his leave and was never asked to speak again. (He did appear briefly on stage Wednesday, only to present the 1st Lt. Andrew J. Bacevich Jr. Fellowship, named for his son killed in Iraq in 2007. He offered no remarks).

There are only two schools of thought tolerated for debate in the CNAS vacuum — liberal interventionism and neoconservativism. It is not a matter of whether force will be used, but where to use it and under what guise. Even that debate seems largely taken for granted at these events. With the exception of tiny skirmishes between the centrists and neocons on Wednesday, all agreed that despite all the military and diplomatic blunders over the last decade, we should move full speed ahead on “readiness” and confronting China as the next great threat.

This is what the Beltway Bandits want to hear — it’s what the scholars in the Grand Strategy Programs and future aides and officials to the military and the administration want to hear. That’s the sound of butter slapping against bread. That is what CNAS is about. Their scholars may work very hard and they produce lengthy research. But like America’s Path: Grand Strategy for the Next Administrationa collection of empty verbiage and bullet points on how to fit the world into our own comfortable frameworks (and to continue preparing for war, adjusted for inflation and anticipated budget priorities) — it merely serves to reinforce the status quo.

So, to avoid feeling too disillusioned, one needs to finally acknowledge what CNAS is and what it isn’t.

It is not a forum for the exchange of competing ideas and information. It is a surrogate for current official policy in Washington, a revolving door for the administration, including the Pentagon, and an access point for the capital’s thriving Beltway Bandit culture. The think tank’s increasing inclusion of Republican interventionists, especially neocons, is strategic, ensuring that CNAS will maintain its influence even in a future Romney administration.

Wednesday’s event could have been really exciting, given all that’s going on in the world. But instead it was aloof, its discourse irrelevant.

I left before Andrew Exum’s “U.S. Strategy in the Middle East After the Arab Spring” panel, which capped the day at 6 p.m. So I cannot say whether it proved the norm or not. I know Exum, a former U.S. Army Ranger, has been back and forth from the region quite frequently, but the lack of diversity on the dias wasn’t promising. Plus, some of us can only dwell in the bubble for so long before passing out from a lack of oxygen.