The Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) is a neoconservative pressure group that aims "to stiffen American resolve to confront the challenge presented by terrorism and the ideologies that drive it." Re-launched in 2004 to focus on the "war on terror," the CPD was initially created during the Cold War by foreign policy hawks who promoted confrontational ant-Soviet policies. Although many of its 100-plus members continue to publish and organize, particularly around the issue of Iran and its nuclear program, the group had become largely dormant by 2013.
CPD was first founded in 1950 to win public and congressional approval for a post-World War II remilitarization and troop deployment that helped initiate the Cold War. It was then reconstituted in 1976 by a group of Cold War hawks who opposed détente with the Soviet Union.
The CPD's leadership is dominated by erstwhile Cold Warriors and leading neoconservatives. Reagan-era secretary of state George Shultz and Clinton-era CIA head James Woolsey are CPD's co-chairs. They are joined by two honorary co-chairs, the hawkish former senators Jon Kyl and Joseph Lieberman.
Other notable members include Kenneth Adelman, Ilan Berman, Rachel Ehrenfeld, Frank Gaffney, New Gingrich, Clifford May, Daniel Pipes, Norman Podhoretz, Randy Scheunemann, Akbar Atri, and Moshe Yaalon. Jeane Kirkpatrick, a CPD member before her death in 2006, said the committee's members are largely "friends of mine," and that "a number of the people involved in it are also members of Freedom House," a neoconservative-linked human-rights organization on whose board of trustees Kirkpatrick once served.
Much of CPD's work is rhetorical, attempting to cast the problem of Islamic terrorism as comparable to the erstwhile Soviet threat. "The CPD has returned to confront the new 'present danger'—militant Islamism and the terrorism that it is spawning," reads the group's mission statement. "Perverting one of the world's great religions, militant Islamists seek to bend the world to their vision. They are eager to attack—indeed, to kill—anyone who stands in their way. In the face of this global threat, which transcends state borders and recognizes no law, complacency and ignorance are as dangerous as military weakness."
CPD has been adamant about casting the "war on terror" in ideological and religious terms. In a 2010 letter to President Obama posted on the group's website (its most recent publication as of 2013), CPD protested the administration's use of the term "violent extremism"—as opposed to " Islamic extremism"—in its National Security Strategy report. "This action contradicts the accepted military intelligence doctrine to properly identify, define, and know your enemy," read the letter. "The CPD believes that militant Islamic regimes and movements represent a serious threat to the United States and other free nations. If we are to meet this challenge, we must understand the beliefs and motivations of those who have dedicated themselves to what they call a 'jihad' against 'infidels' based on their reading of the Koran."
CPD members were enthusiastic backers of the Iraq War and advocated maintaining a long-term U.S. troop presence there. "While drawing down U.S. troop strength can have positive benefits at home," read a 2007 CPD policy paper, "such a move at this time could be seen by insurgents and sectarian militia[s] as an invitation to increase their activity." In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that same year, Lieberman raised the stakes even further, declaring that a troop withdrawal would represent "a victory for Iran and Al Qaeda and the cause of Islamist extremism, and a catastrophic defeat for the United States and all who desire peace and security and freedom in the Middle East and here at home."
CPD members have been similarly hawkish on Iran, frequently accusing Tehran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons—an assessment not shared by U.S. intelligence agencies. "There can be little doubt that if it manages to get the bomb, the Islamic Republic will receive a new lease on life, and dramatically greater regional reach," wrote Ilan Berman in a 2008 policy paper posted on CPD's website. "Simply acquiescing to such a turn of events should not be acceptable." Berman hinted that a military confrontation would be necessary, claiming that "at least one segment of the Iranian leadership is not seeking to avoid conflict with the West, but rather to precipitate one. And that demolishes the assumption that the U.S. can expect to successfully deter the Iranian regime under any conceivable conflict scenario."
Reflecting its Cold War roots, the CPD has also advocated NATO expansion and hawkish weapons programs. In October 2009, for example, the CPD held a roundtable to criticize the Barack Obama administration's approach to missile defense and promote re-funding of such defenses. The roundtable included the showing of a trailer of an alarmist Heritage Foundation video called 33 Minutes, which promoted a number of discredited and/or far-fetched threats—including the use of nuclear ballistic missiles by terrorists groups and the danger of an electromagnetic pulse attack.
The third incarnation of the CPD was officially launched on July 20, 2004 during a press conference in Washington, DC. The group had earlier been listed by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) as the cosponsor of a June 16, 2004 symposium on "Iraq's Future and the War on Terrorism." In a press release about the conference, FDD described the CPD as a "venerable Cold Warrior group, now in the process of being recreated." Since its beginnings, CPD has been closely interlinked with FDD. Clifford May, FDD's president, has directed CPD's policy committee. FDD board members Steve Forbes and, before his death, Jack Kemp were also CPD members.
At the official launch, former CIA director James Woolsey said that the CPD aimed to combat what he called "a totalitarian movement masquerading as a religion." Repeating old neoconservative axioms, he said: "We understand very well that this time, the danger that we must address is a danger to the United States but also a danger to democracy and civil society throughout the world, and it is very much our hope to be of support and assistance to those who seek to bring democracy and civil society to the part of the world, the Middle East extended, to which this Islamist terror is now resonant in and generated from."
Also speaking at the press conference, Lieberman said CPD's objective was "to form a bipartisan citizens' army, which is ready to fight a war of ideas against our Islamist terrorist enemies, and to send a clear signal that their strategy to deceive, demoralize, and divide America will not succeed."
Accompanying the CPD's official launch were full-page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Washington Times. On the same day, honorary co-chairs Lieberman and Kyl published an op-ed for the Washington Post titled "The Present Danger," which likened the war against terrorism to the Cold War. They wrote: "The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks awoke all Americans to the capabilities and brutality of our new enemy, but today too many people are insufficiently aware of our enemy's evil worldwide designs, which include waging jihad against all Americans and reestablishing a totalitarian religious empire in the Middle East. The past struggle against communism differed in some ways from the current war against Islamist terrorism. But America's freedom and security, which each has aimed to undermine, are exactly the same."
Among Lieberman and Kyl's core concerns were the rising anti-war movement and the criticism of the war by the realists and traditional conservatives. "The leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties have so far stood firm in their commitment to finish the job in Iraq and to fight to victory the war on terrorism," they wrote. "But that bipartisan consensus is coming under growing public pressure and could fray in the months ahead. Although the tide is turning in the war on terrorism, a political undertow in this country could wash out our recent gains. We must not let this happen."
"Despite the splashy media launch," observed Tom Barry, "CPD got off to a shaky official start. On its second day, CPD Managing Director Peter Hannaford was asked to resign from the board after complaints from the Anti-Defamation League and concerns from CPD members that Hannaford was registered as a lobbyist for the nativist Austrian Freedom Party, then headed by the right-wing nationalist Jörg Haider, who has spoken highly of the orderly practices of the Third Reich."
Writing about the membership of CPD and its links to the 1970s version CPD, Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service observed: "A number of members of the new CPD, including [Max] Kampelman, Kemp, Kirkpatrick, [Joshua] Muravchik, Gaffney, and Woolsey himself, overlap with the membership of the advisory boards of the Likud-oriented Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), the Middle East Forum, or the U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon. In addition, a husband-and-wife team who played key roles in the evolution of neoconservatism from the late 1960s to the present and who also were associated with both CDM [Coalition for the Democratic Majority] and CPD-2, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and his spouse, Midge Decter (who co-chaired the Committee for the Free World with [Donald] Rumsfeld during the Reagan administration), have also joined the new CPD."
The original CPD, formed at the prodding of the State Department in the years after World War II, was a committee of prominent citizens—Democrats and Republicans—including presidents of universities, foundation directors, and corporate leaders who aimed to engender congressional and public support for the coming Cold War. It aimed to defuse postwar isolationist sentiment within the Republican Party and on the political left by raising fears of a communist incursion.
The second CPD, in contrast, was formed by Democratic Party hawks in opposition to the increasing consensus in favor of détente and arms control agreements within government and among the leadership of both political parties. While it incorporated liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, the Scoop Jackson Democrats—who would later join the Reagan administration and identify themselves as neoconservatives—were the second CPD's driving ideological and operational force. Like its third incarnation, the second CPD was hawkishly "pro-Israel."
The third and current CPD has a narrower political base than either of its predecessors, despite its best efforts to represent itself as nonpartisan. Although it has managed to incorporate some major political figures, such as George Shultz, this CPD has few real connections to corporate America, the leadership of either party, or such social sectors as labor, churches, or ethnic groups.