You know it’s not going to be a typical Washington think-tank event when, upon entering the gilded doors of the Willard InterContinental Hotel, you are greeted by a peppy female soldier in an Army service uniform bedecked with medals. “Welcome, are you here for CNAS?”
For the Center for a New American Security, the June 11 annual meeting was about doing things big—broadcasting to the swelling Washington national-security establishment that CNAS is a major player; that there is but a sliver of daylight between its civilian-policy mission and that of the U.S. military. Both are working symbiotically to make their vision the only remedy for the young Obama administration’s foreign-policy challenges.
Here was a heady mix of Army brass, Navy officers in their starched whites, and soldiers in digital camo networking among the dark suits and smart skirts of the civilian elite. Defense contractors, lobbyists, analysts, journalists, administration reps, Hill staff—1,400 of the “best and brightest,” seeing and being seen.
Gen. David Petraeus—no one could have better sanctified this event save Obama himself—stepped to the dais. He called CNAS “a true force.” For him, this is a good thing. Just two years ago, this predominately Democratic crowd was all about getting out of Iraq (albeit “wisely”). Then, seeking to establish muscular national-security credentials ahead of the presidential election, CNAS’s founders Michele Flournoy and Kurt Campbell made the savvy decision to position Petraeus’s expanding counterinsurgency (COIN) ideal in their own evolving agenda.
It was a marriage of convenience. Petraeus’s patrons in the Republican Party were on the way out, and Democrats were looking to retool their neoliberal interventionism, latent since the Clinton administration, into a sort of Counterinsurgency 2.0. The result was on full display as Petraeus broke down current operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan: a “whole of government” or “full spectrum” approach, led by the U.S. military, requiring untold financial resources, more weapons in theater, and more boots on the ground to “protect populations,” turn around institutions, and train security forces. As one panelist said, “a long-term commitment” to the region.
Nods of approval. A standing ovation. Why not? For every soul in the room who truly believes this is the “pragmatic and principled approach,” there was surely another for whom the Long War means guaranteed employment, flush contracts, justified research, more trips to Capitol Hill. A reason for being.
In June 2007, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton stood on the same platform, delivering the keynote speech at CNAS’s glittering launch. There the center planted its first marker and was unofficially identified as Clinton’s national security team in waiting.
She spoke about the “need to be both internationalist and realistic.” She contemplated the idea of a “no-fly zone” over Darfur and a post-Bush withdrawal from Iraq. Meanwhile, panel discussions found the new generation of “hot policy wonks” of the Democratic persuasion extolling the merits of “international power management” and global “listening tours” in a new (Democratic) administration.
But that was all so 2007, before it was accepted by these Clintonian Democrats and the Washington foreign-policy establishment writ large that the surge strategy promoted by the neoconservatives was a success. It was discovered that the narrative could easily be co-opted, along with the brand of its leading man, General Petraeus, and nearly all of his so-called brain trust, now fellows, advisers, and speakers at CNAS events.
At the top is retired Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, who served in the Gulf War and Iraq before working directly for Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. As co-author of the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual in 2006 (aka the Petraeus Doctrine), he has, since February, indulged his role as president and chief COIN pusher at CNAS with almost religious zeal.
Gentle profiles describe him as a “guru” and a “scholar.” Others say Nagl is self-promoting and ambitious, leaving the military in 2008 because he felt he could ride into a lofty position in a Democratic administration. Above all, he is an Oxford-educated blunt instrument, hammering away about the glories of COIN. He writes extensively about extremist nonstate threats and the U.S. obligation to fight them. His vision of irregular warfare goes well beyond the traditional American perception of national defense, but it jibes with current conventional wisdom.
“The soldiers who will win these wars require an ability not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies,” he wrote in 2006. “Decisive results in the twenty-first century will come not when we wipe a piece of land clean of enemy forces, but when we protect its people and allow them to control their territory in a manner consistent with the norms of the civilized world. Thus victory in Iraq and Afghanistan will come when those nations enjoy governments that meet the basic needs and garner the support of all of their peoples.”
Then there’s the more nuanced but equally ubiquitous David Kilcullen, a former Australian military officer who worked for Condi Rice before advising Petraeus in Iraq. He and Sarah Sewall, a former Clinton official who wrote the introduction to the much-ballyhooed University of Chicago Press edition of the counterinsurgency field manual, are among CNAS’s national-security advisers. Kilcullen also helped to write the 2009 U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide.
CNAS not only took Clinton’s loss in stride, it gauged the post-Bush zeitgeist correctly. Flournoy was scooped up for President-elect Obama’s transition team. She later left CNAS for Doug Feith’s old position at the Pentagon. Fellow co-founder Kurt Campbell should soon be confirmed as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Earlier in June, Price Floyd, the group’s director of external affairs, became principal deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Defense. CNAS senior vice president and director of studies James N. Miller left to work as deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. Colin Kahl is now deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, while former fellow Shawn Brimley is a special advisor to Flournoy. Vikram Singh serves as special adviser to Flournoy for Afghanistan-Pakistan. Another former fellow, Eric Pierce, is now deputy chief for legislative affairs at DoD, and CNAS researcher Alice Hunt has become Flournoy’s special assistant.
Over at the State Department, Campbell joins former CNAS senior fellow Derek Chollet, now deputy director for policy planning, and former CNAS CFO Nate Tibbits, who heads national security for the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.
While CNAS influences policy from the inside, filling the gaps back at its Pennsylvania Avenue offices has not been difficult. As Obama leans further on the military to resolve challenges overseas, the group has accordingly become top heavy with active-duty and retired military “COINdinistas.” During the annual meeting, it was announced that Nathaniel Fick, a 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran who wrote One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Corps Officer, would take Campbell’s place as CNAS’s chief executive officer.
He joins Nagl in leading a hatch of “new generation” war wonks, ranging from active-duty fellows like Lt. Col. Jim Crider and veterans like retired Army Capt. Andrew Exum—whose blog, Abu Muqawama, is the go-to for the COIN set—to court scribes like Tom Ricks, whose panegyrics to Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno transformed him from Washington Post war correspondent to war wonk and COIN operator.
COIN today is the realm of CNAS, as if Frederick Kagan and AEI had never existed. But it won’t do to deny the family resemblance says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor: “You will hear the same things at the Center for a New American Security as you will at the American Enterprise Institute. Nation-building at gunpoint, democracy at gunpoint. What’s the difference?”
Adherents of the old neoconservative vision and these new security policymakers all “drank the Kool-Aid,” said Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich, the only real dissenter invited to speak on June 11. Both groups, he added, see war as “a perpetual condition,” employing massive firepower and boots on the ground, draining “billions, if not trillions of dollars,” in pursuit of goals based on skewed assumptions about American interests abroad.
“Would it not be best to reconsider the alternatives and not continue on this path?” Bacevich asked. To which Exum retorted, “What is the alternative?”
In Counterinsurgency 2.0, the Democrats and their military partners now emphasize a “population-centric” over an “enemy-centric” approach, rebooting the old “clear, hold, and build” by adding a “civilian surge” and a ramped-up humanitarian mission. The goal for Afghanistan is to flood the country with Foreign Service officers, diplomats, and aid workers to fight corruption and rebuild institutions. The military serves to protect populations, “open up space” for democracy, and eventually marginalize the enemy.
So far it’s not happening that way. The Pentagon has maintained a lead on operations, and according to reports, there just aren’t enough State Department officials to make a dent in Kabul, so DoD is planning to take up the slack by directing capable Reserve officers (and probably private contractors) toward the civilian component.
Many have been left wondering what happened to Obama’s promise to re-orient foreign policy so that it is not so military-centric and whether he will end up authorizing new forces beyond the 68,000 U.S. troops expected in Afghan-istan by the end of the year.
“We’ve basically turned our foreign policy over to the military,” fumed one national-security analyst from a competing Washington think tank who did not want to be named. “Every problem has a military solution. Every problem is a nail because we have a hammer. I think you’re starting to see that at CNAS.”
Open criticism of CNAS is rare because the COINdinistas are so snug in the Beltway bosom. While Republican warhawks love that CNAS speaks their language, antiwar liberals and others who chafe against the Long War find themselves derided.
Aside from Celeste Ward’s May 17 piece in the Washington Post, “The Pentagon’s Obsession with Counterinsurgency,” there are just a handful of experts who dare to confront the CNAS crowd regularly—at their professional peril. U.S. Army Col. Gian Gentile, a West Point history professor and Iraq War veteran, is one, having dusted it up more than a few times with Nagl, Exum, and others. He abhors the “groupthink” that has created a surge narrative to fit the political agenda and bristles at the idea of COIN taking over the entire ethos of the Army.
“[Nagl] is so cocksure of the efficacy of Army combat power that he believes it will have the ability not only to dominate land warfare in general but also to ‘change entire societies’. … We are organizing ourselves around the principle of nation-building rather than fighting,” Gentile wrote in a counterpoint to Nagl’s “Let’s Win the Wars We’re In” for the latest issue of Joint Force Quarterly. “In this sense, the caricature of Nagl as a ‘crusader’ seems correct.”
But CNAS clearly has the rest spooked. Several interviewees for this story asked that their names be left out, fearing that their frank opinions about the group would be used against them. Washington is a small town, and many wonks and analysts in the defense community are looking for work. Consider Gen. David McKiernan, fired from his job as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan by Defense Secretary Bob Gates and immediately replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a friend of Petraeus and, according to Exum, an “automatic starter in anyone’s lineup.”
Despite his connections with abuse allegations at the Iraqi interrogation facility he oversaw in 2006, McChrystal is lauded for his “forward thinking” on irregular warfare.
He certainly hit all the right Counterinsurgency 2.0 notes during his confirmation hearings in June, repeating the mantra that “population-centric” approaches are the key to prevailing in Afghanistan. “Those remarks could have been given by a CNAS person,” said the think-tank source. “I was stunned.” A day later, CNAS—led by Kilcullen, Exum, and Fick—released its report, “Triage: the Next Twelve Months in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The single most important task facing the U.S. and its allies over the near term? “Protecting the population.”
Some CNAS opponents emphasize its Democratic background. Once belittled for their perceived shortcomings in defense matters, these liberals have birthed a hybrid of politics and military doctrine much more ambitious than anticipated even a year ago. Combine that with the blessings bestowed by Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and Defense Secretary Gates in the form of numerous key administration appointments, and you have a superior vehicle for what senior defense analyst Celeste Ward calls an “unquestioned orthodoxy.”
The June event captured the group’s transcendence over partisanship. The inclusion of heavyweights like Petraeus, flanked by a host of young war scholars, not only announced its preeminence among Washington’s policymaking elite but confirmed the increasing deference to the military on the critical national-security issues of our day.
But there is one major, potentially devastating pitfall: COIN has yet to be fully tested or even legitimated by any success outside of the surge narrative. So while one well-connected think tank gets top billing in Washington, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as the American men and women serving dutifully there—remain “long-term” guinea pigs. If it doesn’t work, an office on Pennsylvania Avenue might shut, but the implications for the world could be catastrophic.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.
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