The Foreign Policy Initiative is a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group (FPI) that was founded in early 2009 by several high-profile neoconservative figures. The group is similar in its aims and operations to an earlier neoconservative advocacy initiative, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a now defunct letterhead organization associated with the American Enterprise Institute that played a important role advocating the U.S. invasion of Iraq after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a successor to PNAC, FPI is devoted to promoting an aggressive U.S. security posture in the post-George W. Bush era.
Arguing that "strategic overreach is not the problem and retrenchment is not the solution," FPI highlights five key items on its agenda: the promotion of "continued U.S. engagement—diplomatic, economic, and military—in the world and rejection of policies that would lead us down the path to isolationism; robust support for America's democratic allies and opposition to rogue regimes that threaten American interests; the human rights of those oppressed by their governments, and U.S. leadership in working to spread political and economic freedom; a strong military with the defense budget needed to ensure that America is ready to confront the threats of the 21st century; international economic engagement as a key element of U.S. foreign policy in this time of great economic dislocation."
As of early 2013, FPI's board of directors included four individuals who were closely associated with the Bush administration's "war on terror" policies: neocon stalwarts Robert Kagan and William Kristol, who cofounded PNAC and were high-profile proponents of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq; investment banker Dan Senor, a former Bush administration spokesman in Iraq and lead foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney; and career diplomat Eric Edelman.
FPI's staff as of 2013 included: executive director Chris Griffin, a former staffer for Sen. Joe Lieberman; "director of democracy and human rights" Ellen Bork, daughter of former Supreme Court Justice nominee Robert Bork and former acting director of the Project for the New American Century; and policy director Robert Zarate, a frequent Weekly Standard contributor and a proponent of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, among others.
FPI's Mission Statement highlights a number of "foreign policy challenges" confronting the United States: "They come from rising and resurgent powers, including China and Russia. They come from other autocracies that violate the rights of their citizens. They come from rogue states that work with each other in ways inimical to our interests and principles, and that sponsor terrorism and pursue weapons of mass destruction. They come from Al Qaeda and its affiliates who continue to plot attacks against the United States and our allies. They come from failed states that serve as havens for terrorists and criminals and spread instability to their neighbors."
Like PNAC did, FPI appears to seek out alliances that extend across ideological lines using the mechanism of open sign-on letters. Reprising a role PNAC played in the run-up to the Iraq War, FPI released a letter in August 2013 calling for the U.S. government to consider "direct military strikes" on Syria and to provide more arms for "moderate elements of Syria's armed opposition," with the aim of tipping the balance of Syria's civil war against the Assad regime. Alongside Kristol, Edelman, Kagan, and Senor, signatories included prominent figures from the George W. Bush administration like Elliott Abrams, John Hannah, Douglas Feith, and Karl Rove; neoconservative writers like Eliot Cohen, James Kirchick, and Reuel Marc Gerecht; prominent Republicans like Gary Bauer, Norm Coleman, and Tim Pawlenty; and Democratic hawks like former Sen. Joe Lieberman and New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier.
FPI staff and associates often appear in the media advocating a hawkish line on foreign policy issues. Towards the end of his tenure at FPI, for example, director Jamie Fly continued to press for a more active U.S. role in Syria and Afghanistan.
In a January 2013 op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal, Fly argued that a more robust U.S. role in the conflict would be necessary to secure Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons in the event of regime collapse. "If Mr. Obama is serious about ensuring that terrorists don't get their hands on weapons that could be used against American interests or personnel in the region or even on the U.S. homeland, the only solution is early and sustained planning to stabilize a post-Assad Syria," he wrote. "Veiled threats against the Assad regime—after nearly two years of benign neglect toward the chaos in Syria—won't be enough to protect Americans and our allies. And they certainly won't help Syrians rid themselves of Bashar Assad."
Similarly, in a quote published by right-wing Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, Fly criticized the Obama administration's tentative plans to leave a relatively small U.S. force in Afghanistan after its planned 2014 withdrawal. Fly said the force, thought to number in the low thousands, "is nowhere near enough to achieve our goal of an Afghanistan that does not again become a safe haven for those trying to attack us. It appears that the White House has learned all the wrong lessons from its negotiations with Iraq over a post-2011 presence. The stakes in Afghanistan are, unfortunately, even higher."
FPI has also partnered with other right-wing groups to press for a larger U.S. military budget. The group has been vocal in its condemnation of possible "sequestration" cuts resulting from Congress' inability to reach a deal on the U.S. deficit, which would include large military spending cuts. In a joint "Defending Defense" initiative with the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, FPI argued in early 2013 that the proposed cuts would undercut the ability of the United States to intervene abroad. "Defense sequestration will fundamentally alter America's strategic posture in the world, its capacity to keep the peace, and its ability to sustain its existing security commitments to allies and partners," said a January 2013 statement on FPI's website. "It's long past time for President Obama and Congress not just to delay defense sequestration, but to stop it, once and for all."
FPI's letters cover subjects important to contemporary hawks and neoconservatives as well as traditional Cold Warriors. In early July 2009, for example, FPI released an open letter to President Barack Obama urging him to promote human rights during his summit in Russia with President Dmitry Medvedev. Among the signatories to the letter were several long-standing neoconservative associates, including Max Boot, Jeffrey Gedmin, Carl Gershman, Max Kampelman, Bruce Jackson, Clifford May, Danielle Pletka, Randy Scheunemann, Gary Schmitt, Peter Wehner, and James Woolsey. In addition to these names, however, were those of several well known human rights and civil liberties experts, like Larry Cox of Amnesty International-USA, Clinton administration official Morton Halperin, and Stephen Rickard of the Open Society Institute.
Commenting on the letter, Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service wrote, "That several genuine human rights activists … should have chosen to associate themselves with such a group is remarkable and offers additional evidence that Kagan and Kristol are trying to reconstruct the neocon/liberal coalition that pressed the Clinton administration to intervene in the Balkans during the late 1990s. Mind you, I have no great disagreement with the sentiments expressed in the letter, but to the extent that prominent liberals publicly endorse it, neoconservatives, who have always been more excited about American power than the spread of human rights around the world … regain respectability. You would think there would be a sufficient number of serious human rights activists to write their own letter."
FPI followed up its 2009 alliance-building efforts with open letters in 2010 and 2011 that promoted human rights in countries like China and Belarus. A similar letter followed in 2013 regarding Turkey, a longtime U.S. ally that has increasingly fallen out of favor with neoconservatives because of its worsening relations with Israel. Like the early open letter, these also included an array of signatories from both neoconservative and more mainstream human rights groups.
FPI played a vocal role in supporting President Obama's initial troop surge in Afghanistan. The group's inaugural conference, held in Washington on March 31, 2009, was titled "Afghanistan: Planning for Success." Among the participants were Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a long-time supporter of neocon-led causes like the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq; Fred Kagan, brother of Robert and coauthor of a 2007 American Enterprise Institute study that reportedly served as a blueprint for the "surge" in Iraq; and I. Lewis Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff who was convicted in connection with the federal investigation into the "outing" of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Commenting on the conference, Matt Duss of Thinkprogress.org told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, "It was kind of a reunion of John McCain`s presidential campaign."
The conference devoted significant time to pushing counterinsurgency strategies in Afghanistan, which was the topic of a discussion led by Robert Kagan and John Nagl, a retired Army officer and president of the Center for a New American Security who has promoted applying counterinsurgency techniques learned in Vietnam to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. According to a summary of the discussion published by FPI, "Nagl stated that the 'means' which President Obama described in the strategy—an increase of 17,000 troops along with 4,000 more trainers and advisors—is merely a down-payment on the vast force necessary to protect the Afghan people, that is, to effectively carry out a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy. An effort to expand the Afghan National Army (not mentioned in the president's remarks) would be the most prudent means of resolving this manpower shortfall. While the deployment of a dedicated training and advisory force is an encouraging and long-overdue step, the number of troops in the country even after the announced increase will be insufficient to achieve even the limited short-term goals laid out by the administration."
According to FPI's summary, Kagan agreed with Nagl, arguing that "that while the president appears to have committed himself to a real, comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy—instead of a more minimalist counterterrorism approach—he risks under-resourcing the strategy." However, Kagan also praised Obama's overall approach, saying it "portends further encouraging trends in the administration's foreign policy. … The president has said 'no' to pulling back. Obama has renewed America's commitment to the conflict in Afghanistan and set a precedent in the process; it seems unlikely for him to push forward in this case, but to retreat elsewhere."
The conference, as well as its show of support for Obama's emerging foreign policy, caused a considerable stir among political observers. Wrote David Weigel of the Washington Independent, "We knew it … when Bill Kristol praised President Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, but the degree to which neoconservatives are happy with the plan is striking."
Commented Spencer Ackerman, "On March 31, FPI holds its first public event, 'Afghanistan: Planning For Success,' though, given the heavy representation of Iraq war advocates, I think a far better title would be 'Afghanistan: Dealing With The Huge Problems Created By Many Of The People On This Very Stage.' The broad consensus among national security analysts and aid officials is that the diversion of troops and resources toward Iraq beginning in 2002 was one of the main reasons the Taliban and Al Qaeda were able to re-establish themselves in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas.… Bush and the Iraq hawks handed the Obama administration a war that promises to be as difficult and costly as Iraq has been—if not more. It's deeply absurd that some of the people most responsible for the crisis in Afghanistan would now presume to tell us how to deal with it."