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.

WEST POINT, NY - MAY 28: U.S. President Barack Obama enters the stadium at West Point to give the commencement address at the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy on May 28, 2014 in West Point, New York. In a highly anticipated speech on foreign policy, the President provided details on his plans for winding down America's military commitment in Afghanistan. Over 1,000 cadets are expected to graduate from the class of 2014 and will be commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army. 
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Kevin Baron
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Kevin Baron
June 5, 2014, 5 p.m.

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.”

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.

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