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Revenge of the Liberal Foreign Policy Wonks

How a network of young activists and intellectuals made their way to the top of the national security establishment.

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(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Long before John Kerry's Election Day defeat in 2004, his supporters had grown tired of seeing Democrats labeled the weaker party on national security. A few of them pledged never again to be branded as soft on defense. But the problem was that these inspired wonks didn't know how to get into government, much less steer American national security and change the minds of the electorate. There is no local recruitment office for Middle East policy intellectuals like there is for the Marine Corps. The policy world seemed almost impenetrable to all but a handful of the most determined and connected.

So they drafted a plan. They thought it should be possible to formulate a moderate, practical Democratic security policy. And to advance their ideas, they envisioned a network of liberal but pragmatic national security experts that would mirror the influential community of alumni from conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.

 

A decade later, the few have become the many, and a tight network of well more than 1,000 national-security-minded progressives—mostly in their 20s, 30s, and 40s—has succeeded in infiltrating the U.S. foreign policy machine. The group of wonks is loosely connected by two center-left organizations that sprang up in the mid-2000s—the Truman National Security Project and the Center for a New American Security—as well as organizations such as the Center for American Progress, the National Security Network, and Third Way. Like the conservative groups they sought to emulate, they have cultivated a farm league that has groomed and handpicked individuals for key leadership posts at the Pentagon, the State Department, and Capitol Hill.

In short, their success at carving out roles for themselves in Washington's upper echelons has been impressive. But whether they have actually improved U.S. foreign policy is very much a subject for debate.

"WHAT DO PROGRESSIVES STAND FOR?"

 

It all started with their backs against the wall in 2004. "There was an early sense about that campaign that Democrats came out with a lot of work to do," says Derek Chollet, who at the time was Sen. John Edwards's foreign policy adviser and is now Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's assistant secretary for international security affairs—one of the most important policy posts in the Pentagon.

It was a tough time to be a national security liberal, but Chollet was intrigued when two young and eager wonks showed up at his doorstep. "I remember, in spring of 2004, I was in Edwards's office, and Matt and Rachel came to see me," he says. Rachel Kleinfeld and Matt Spence were starting a new organization—the Truman National Security Project—that they hoped would prepare foreign policy progressives to someday govern again.

Today, Kleinfeld—proud Alaskan, Yale alum, Rhodes scholar—is president emeritus of Truman. She's also a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a member of the State Department's Foreign Affairs Policy Board. Spence is a deputy assistant Defense secretary running the Pentagon's Middle East policy shop.

"We started with $3,000 of my money," remembers Kleinfeld. The aim was to create an organization of true believers that its members could rely on for a lifetime. "We learned that, frankly, from the Republicans," she says. "We looked at other successful movements that had made change in American politics, and the neocons, while we disagreed with their belief set, had been very successful. And we saw how they had formed a community that had started while many of them were in grad school and lasted through the rest of their lives, and that's what we were trying to recreate."

 

There are now some 1,300 Truman members, of whom 250 are military veterans, 38 hold elected office, and 14 are candidates this year, the group says. Truman barely advertises how to join, and acceptance is competitive for the roughly 120 new-member slots each year.

But originally, it was just Kleinfeld and Spence. At the time, there was "significant disconnect between progressive values and progressive views on security," Kleinfeld says. The new group rejected the polarity that Republicans were the party of security, war, and supporting the troops while Democrats were the party of soft values, like human rights and not torturing people at Abu Ghraib. Instead, she says, they sought a middle ground. They argued "that security is based in democracy; that development, human rights helps security. These aren't trade-offs."

"What do progressives stand for?" asks Spence, reflecting on those times, during an interview in his fifth-floor Pentagon office. "It was hard, then." Spence was 24 years old, in his first year of Yale Law School—Stanford undergrad, Oxford Ph.D.—and volunteering as a foreign policy assistant for Susan Rice, who at the time was advising candidate Kerry. "The Right was the side that was seen as keeping America safe and the Left was in charge of values," Spence says. "That was a false dichotomy."

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Spence and Kleinfeld drafted seven policy principles that today clearly read as reactions to George W. Bush. They called for comprehensive approaches to security problems (not just sending the military), strong alliances, "legitimate international behavior" (no going it alone without the imprimatur of the United Nations or NATO), championing democracy through grassroots engagement ("rights-supporting democracy cannot come at the barrel of a gun"), and promoting development and free trade.

But to implement these ideas, they first needed credibility. "We started with the idea that change happens through finding the best people who share that belief set that we have," Kleinfeld says. For a while, Kerry's loss helped give them space away from the spotlight to get started. "Early on we were in the wilderness, politically speaking, so people had time to learn their ideas together, get skills together," she says, recalling that they got help from notables like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Defense Secretary William Perry.

Truman launched in 2005, and Chollet was asked to join the board. "There was a sense of energy and opportunity," he says. "You felt like an insurgency a little bit" against the Democratic establishment of those days.

"GOLDEN MOMENT"

The following year, two senior voices declared very publicly that something special was brewing. Kurt Campbell, senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution wrote in The Washington Post: "After ignoring or denying their problem for years, Democrats have begun to take notice of the fact that defense is the only major national issue on which the Republicans have held a decisive advantage in recent elections and have started to fight back." Citing the Truman Project as well as a number of other groups, the two argued that a power shift was taking place in Washington. "This is a potentially epochal development in American politics," they wrote.

As the U.S. carried out the troop surge in Iraq, Democrats behind the scenes kept organizing, in quiet dinners, retreats, and meetings. Some called themselves the Wilderness Initiative, Chollet says, "because we felt we were in the wilderness." At one dinner, Campbell gave everyone a paperback copy of James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, a book about the network of conservatives, led by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who traced their careers, friendships, and foreign policies as far back as Vietnam. Third Way, also searching for a new message, teamed up with The New Republic to host a national security retreat at the Aspen Institute's Wye River Conference Center and draft a new tough-on-security platform that was derided by some liberals.

In 2007, Campbell and Michèle Flournoy—both former Clinton administration appointees—founded the Center for a New American Security, a think tank for progressives meant to be less partisan than the Center for American Progress and more pragmatic on defense and security issues. (In the Obama administration, Campbell would become assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Flournoy would become Defense undersecretary for policy.) Campbell organized a retreat, and Chollet recounts drafting their mission statement on a white board with Shawn Brimley, who would go on to be a lead writer of the Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review and is now CNAS's executive vice president.

The center was searching for its identity. One of its first papers would be on Iraq, in which the group came out in favor of a slow and phased withdrawal from the country—not the quick exit that some Democrats wanted. It was a gamble that paid dividends. CNAS would soon be arguably the most influential national security think tank in Washington.

"One of its missions was to recruit, train, professionalize the next generation of national security folks," says Colin Kahl, who had been Chollet's grad-school roommate at Columbia in the 1990s, and who later became President Obama's deputy assistant Defense secretary for Middle East policy—preceding Spence in that role.

Vikram Singh—then a rising Pentagon staffer who would go on to serve as deputy assistant Defense secretary for South and Southeast Asia—was one of the wonks who joined CNAS. "I just got a phone call one day from Michèle saying, 'Hey, we're leaving CSIS, would you be interested in talking to us?' " Singh recalls. He had been at the Pentagon nearly four years and never worked with either Flournoy or Campbell. "I sort of lucked into this, and it was a dream come true for someone who was a Democrat to say, 'Let's be pragmatic in our approach to national defense.' "

Singh says it was the start-up he was waiting for. He went from sharing a Pentagon cubicle with Kahl to sharing a CNAS office with Brimley. "I think of 2007 as this golden moment in a lot of ways for people who were progressive coming into their own on views around national security," he says.

Singh and Chollet encouraged CNAS's founders to bring Kahl aboard to work on Iraq. Kahl also wanted to be part of a campaign. Hillary Clinton was drawing her team from the establishment, so he approached Susan Rice about working on foreign policy for Obama. She brought him on, and within a couple of months he was put in charge of a small group "who did all the policy work on Iraq for the campaign" but never advised Obama directly. (That was left to Tony Lake, Mark Lippert, and Denis McDonough.)

Spence, Singh, and Kahl all pointed to one key moment for the movement: Obama's 2007 foreign policy speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where he set himself apart from Bush. "This president may occupy the White House," Obama said, "but for the last six years, the position of 'leader of the free the world' has remained open. And it's time to fill that role once more." Obama offered up five policy principles of his own: End the Iraq War; build a strong 21st-century military while "showing wisdom in how we deploy it"; go after WMDs; rebuild international alliances and institutions; and invest in development and antipoverty efforts.

"LEARNING AS YOU GO"

After Obama won, many of these wonks had to govern. But wonks don't always make good managers. "I think it can be a tough transition," Singh says. "The federal government doesn't come with a user's guide. There's a lot of learning as you go."

"You're working 15-, 16-hour days, battling bureaucracy," Spence says from his office, with an assistant (a younger Truman member) and a uniformed public-affairs officer minding his every word. Policymakers learn how to write speeches and op-eds and drive policy, he explains, but they don't learn mentoring, or how to manage their staffers' careers, or how to position their offices and employees to succeed.

"We ran an executive-agency training program," Kleinfeld says. "It was an 18-week course for Truman members going to serve in this government when the Obama administration first came in, and that was tremendously helpful, I think. We brought in senior officials along with junior officials who'd had those jobs before." Former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and a special assistant from the State Department spoke about big issues and micro-realities of the agency. Of 100 Truman members picked for the course, about three-quarters ended up serving in administration jobs.

The training also served a purpose for foreign policy wonks long frustrated with their relatively paltry ability to influence Washington. "It's something I think very few people know, and it's one of the first things that we realized," Kleinfeld says. "Truman realized early on that you can't do policy without politics. That, first, you don't get the jobs. That the people who are most trusted for the policy jobs are people who were in the trenches on the campaign, including in the primaries. That's just human nature, and it's certainly how D.C. works. But it's also that the politics matter to the policy. If you come up with a beautiful policy on U.N. peacekeeping but the American public are not willing to vote on U.N. peacekeeping [funds], no matter how much you show that it's cheaper or effective, you're not going to have a policy."

When Kahl was tapped to run Middle East policy under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, he had university, think-tank, and Pentagon experience. But he hadn't run anything. "The piece that very few people are prepared for is the management piece. I inherited an office of more than 40 people," he says. "I had to earn their respect.… I think it was an open question that I could manage anything." His second in command would be a one- or two-star general—and it's a star-making post for general officers. "Everyone who worked for me in that job has gone on to get their third star," he says.

"A LITTLE BIT MORE THE ESTABLISHMENT NOW"

What began as a network of fed up, next-generation national security liberals has changed significantly in the past decade. "Truman may have started with a small group of campaign insiders that got plum jobs, but that's not a good picture of what the community is now," says Mike Breen, an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who is the organization's executive director. Truman members today include Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden; Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for communications and speechwriting; James Swartout, spokesman for the deputy Defense secretary; MSNBC host Krystal Ball; Georgia state Rep. Scott Holcomb; and Yvette Bourcicot, special assistant to the Army general counsel.

Truman also considers itself a leading destination for returning combat veterans seeking to get involved in national security policy. During the think tank's annual conference this month, a group of 30 members had a Pentagon audience with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who "spoke to the group for roughly 20 minutes about leadership," according to a senior Defense official.

But the next challenge for Truman, CNAS, and their members who have moved into government is the reality that the foreign policy they have helped to implement isn't proving especially popular. In a March CBS News poll, Obama's foreign policy approval rating was 36 percent—just 5 points higher than Bush's was in a February 2007 Gallup survey. The continuing slaughter in Syria, the deterioration of the Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have all helped fuel the conservative argument that Obama has been too weak on the world stage. Left-wingers and libertarians, meanwhile, are furious at Obama for expanding drone killings, defending the NSA's domestic spying, and not closing the Guantánamo Bay prison.

Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, thinks progressive national security wonks have been far better at finding jobs for themselves than at governing. "If your ambition is to feed at the public trough, then I think that there are organizations that have done very well under President Obama," she says. "If your ambitions are to influence foreign policy, I would like to know which one of them would take credit for this foreign policy."

Chollet, of course, disagrees. "Many of the policies that progressives championed and developed in the 2000s—managing the transition out of Iraq and Afghanistan; bringing new focus to the war against al-Qaida; maintaining military strength and willingness to use force while achieving greater balance between defense, diplomacy, and development; revitalizing core alliances; addressing issues like energy security and climate change; rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific—are now the core of American foreign policy," he emailed, while en route from delivering a speech in Ukraine to meet his boss, Hagel, in Brussels for a NATO defense minsters' meeting. Chollet added: "Trend lines matter more than headlines, and while many challenges remain, I believe that the U.S. is in a better position to lead and sustain its power in the future."

Going forward, Singh hopes progressives will keep the bench filled with talent as he and his colleagues move into leadership positions at the organizations that once recruited them. "We're not really the insurgents anymore. We're a little bit more the establishment now," he says, adding, "What do we do? We can't just become the old guard. We have to find those young people that we were 20 years ago." Kahl predicts, "You're going to see another crop" of young liberal defense wonks emerge. But before the next generation of defense wonks can find jobs in a Democratic administration, those who currently lead the movement of national security progressives will need to figure out how to defend Obama's controversial foreign policy record in 2016 and beyond.

This article appears in the June 7, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Revenge of the Liberal Foreign Policy Wonks.

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