The Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) is a Democratic Party-aligned policy shop that promotes a "liberal hawk" line on foreign affairs and "market-friendly" economic policies. Billing itself as "the original 'ideal mill' for Bill Clinton's New Democrats," PPI's website proclaims an agenda of "promoting break-the-mold ideas aimed at economic growth, national security and modern, performance-based government."
PPI was founded in 1989 by Will Marshall and Al From as a project of the Third Way Foundation. Closely associated with the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DCL), PPI has claimed that its mission "arises from the belief that America is ill-served by an obsolete left-right debate that is out of step with the powerful forces reshaping our society and economy." In a 1996 "New Progressive Declaration," PPI claimed to advocate "a philosophy that adapts the progressive tradition in American politics to the realities of the information age and points to a 'third way' beyond the liberal impulse to defend the bureaucratic status quo and the conservative bid to simply dismantle government." The group's agenda has included "confronting global disorder by building enduring new international structures of economic and political freedom."
The core principles of the "third way movement" are set forth in the DLC/PPI's 1996 publication, The New Progressive Declaration: A Political Philosophy for the Information Age. In it, third way leaders argue that enduring progressive values must be adapted to include uncompromising support for free market and free trade economics, a strong military with a global presence, an end to the politics of "entitlement," a rejection of affirmative action, an embrace of competitive enterprise, and a reduction of the government's role in development policy. Expressing the opinion of many progressive Democrats, Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect wrote that the political approach of the DLC amounts to "splitting the difference with a Republican administration."
As of early 2013, PPI listed a staff of six, including president Will Marshall, executive director Lindsay Mark Lewis, chief economic strategist Michael Mandel, public affairs director Steven Chlapecka, economist Diana Carew, housing policy director Jason Gold, and managing director for policy and strategy Anne Kim. Josh Block, a former AIPAC spokesman and as of 2012 the director of the neoconservative-leaning Israel Project, is a former senior fellow. In late 2011, Block stirred controversy by publicly accusing bloggers at Think Progress and Media Matters of "borderline anti-Semitism" for their criticism of U.S. policy toward Israel, leading even high-profile Israel advocates like Lanny Davis to distance themselves from Block's remarks (for more, see Right Web's profile of Block).
Most of PPI's work concerns domestic and economic policy, but members of the think tank also weigh in on foreign policy issues. Since the election of President Barack Obama, PPI has pushed for hawkish approaches to various foreign policy dilemmas confronting the United States, including Iran. In particular, the institute has championed strengthening sanctions in an effort to end Iran's nuclear program. PPI senior fellow Jim Arkedis wrote in late 2010, "To keep Iran from getting the bomb, the international community has to keep its boot on Tehran's neck until the day it agrees to unfettered access to all of Iran's nuclear facilities."
Despite its hawkish orientation, the Democratic-aligned group supported the reelection of Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney during the 2012 election. In a variety of writings at the time, Will Marshall took aim at Romney's attempt to capitalize on the murder of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stephens in Benghazi, Libya, and more generally at the candidate's struggle to differentiate his own foreign policy from Barack Obama's. "In Romney's retro world, it's 1979 all over again, with Obama in the role of Jimmy Carter and Libya standing in for Iran," Marshall wrote for Politico in October 2012. "But even as he tries to channel Ronald Reagan, Romney often sounds more like George W. Bush, especially when he claims that bold assertions of American power and leadership will bring our enemies to heel and cause the rest of the world to fall in line. To which Obama has a compelling answer: Been there, done that. Obama's job [at the foreign policy debate] is to expose the unreality of Romney's glib criticisms and force him to explain what he would actually do differently if he becomes Commander in Chief. With the spotlight momentarily off the economy, it's the president's turn to take the offensive."
After Obama's reelection, however, PPI emerged as one of several beltway organizations that Politico suggested could "hamstring" Obama's selection of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) to head the Department of Defense. The paper quoted Marshall expressing concerns about Hagel's skepticism toward U.S. interventions overseas. "Hagel was critical of the Libya intervention, and it's reasonable to ask what happens in another case where wholesale slaughter and massive human-rights violations are happening and the question comes to the table about whether America can and should act," Marshall said. "Does this kind of instinctual recoiling from intervention betoken some kind of shift in America's national security strategy?"
PPI has been a staunch ally of the "Israel Lobby" in the United States. For example, shortly before Israel's late 2012 aerial assault on Gaza—which killed over 150 Palestinians, many of them civilians—Marshall called on the Obama administration to "avoid the trap of moral equivalence" between Israel's air strikes and Hamas' rocket attacks on southern Israel. Although Marshall said the administration should attempt "to dissuade Israel from launching ground operations," he also wrote that any truce to halt the hostilities "won't last because making war on Israel is Hamas' raison d'etre."
PPI has also taken views on Israeli-Palestinian peace at odds with other hawkish "pro-Israel" ideologues. For instance, Marshall and Arkedis have urged the Obama administration to press Israel "to make the painful but essential concession of removing illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank." They added, "Whereas President [George W.] Bush extracted this promise from Israel in the 2002 Road Map, he quickly backtracked to accept existing settlements in an April 2004 letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Sharon. U.S. reticence on settlements undercuts America's reputation for impartiality, and in the long run does Israel no favors either."
Hawkish Track Record
PPI has long been considered a cornerstone of liberal hawk policy advocacy. Los Angeles Times columnist Jacob Heilbrunn wrote in 2006, "Don't look now, but neoconservatism is making a comeback—and not among the Republicans who have made it famous, but in the Democratic Party."
Heilbrunn contended that a new generation of Democratic "pundits and young national security experts" are trying to revive the Cold War precepts of President Harry S. Truman and apply them to the war on terror. "The fledgling neocons of the left are based at places such as the Progressive Policy Institute. … Their political champions include Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and such likely presidential candidates as former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)." Concluded Heilbrunn: "It is amusing to see that at the very moment when hawkish realists are trying to extirpate the neocon credo in the Republican Party, it's being revived in the Democratic Party that first brought it to life."
In June 2006, PPI president Marshall opined in the Democratic Strategist that Democrats needed to "raid the red zone" and win over Republican voters. "Security will continue to dominate national politics for the foreseeable future. It is axiomatic that the American people are not likely to give power to a party they do not trust to defend their values and keep them safe," Marshall wrote. "Democrats therefore must close the national security confidence gap that has dogged them since the era of Vietnam protests. This requires reclaiming, not abandoning, the party's venerable tradition of muscular liberalism—the Truman-Kennedy legacy that helped America win the Cold War. Updated for new threats, it offers the best answer to the challenge of Islamist extremism today."
PPI's efforts to get Democrats to be more pro-military and pro-defense were evident in its May 2006 book, With All Our Might. Edited by Marshall, the book contains an introduction and 14 essays on how to address "jihadist terrorism." In the introduction, Marshall contrasted the "progressive internationalism" of PPI with the "conservative unilateralism" of the Bush administration. The war in Iraq is part of a larger strategy for "building a world safe for individual liberty and democracy," according to Marshall, who wrote that the "Bush Republicans have been tough but they have not been smart" in directing the course of the Iraq War. Part of being smart is "using our strengths," concluded Marshall. "Democrats must be committed to preserving America's military predominance, because a strong military undergirds U.S. global leadership."
With All Our Might received warm reviews from neoconservative organizations. In a Weekly Standard article entitled "The Loneliness of the Liberal Hawk: Dems Who Understand War, Pols Who Don't," Thomas Donnelly opined that the volume "actually represents an impressive lineup of younger defense and security intellectuals." Donnelly mused that contributor Kenneth Pollack "sounds like a closet neocon," and Jan Mazurek's essay is "even tougher on Middle East strategy than Pollack."
Marshall was a leading critic of Democrats who opposed the Iraq invasion. In January 2004, he stated, "Coalition forces still face daily attacks but the body count tilts massively in their favor," implying that disproportionate Iraqi casualties was a sign of success. More recently, in a 2009 article entitled "The Taliban's Ties to Al-Qaeda," Marshall advocated eradicating the Taliban and their supporters to ensure that they "never again play host to America's sworn enemies."
In October 2003, the institute published a security policy blueprint titled "Progressive Internationalism: A Democratic National Security Strategy." Contributing authors included Ronald D. Asmus from the German Marshall Fund; Kurt Campbell and Michele A. Flournoy from the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Larry Diamond from the Hoover Institution; Philip Gordon from the Brookings Institution; former Sen. Bob Kerrey of New School University; Michael McFaul from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Kenneth M. Pollack of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy; and Jeremy Rosner from Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research, Inc.
Employing language that closely mirrored that of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC), "Progressive Internationalism" hailed the "tough-minded internationalism" of past Democratic presidents such as Truman. Like PNAC, which in its founding statement warned of grave present dangers confronting America, the PPI security strategy declared, "Today America is threatened once again" and is in need of assertive individuals committed to strong leadership. The authors' observation that "Like the Cold War, the struggle we face today is likely to last not years but decades" echoed both neoconservative and Bush administration national security assessments.
As the "Progressive Internationalism" authors explain, PPI endorsed the invasion of Iraq "because the previous policy of containment was failing, because Saddam posed a grave danger to America as well as to his own brutalized people, and because his blatant defiance of more than a decade's worth of UN Security Council resolutions was undermining both collective security and international law."
PPI's security strategy has been based on "the belief that America can best defend itself by building a world safe for individual liberty and democracy." It thus takes "issue with left-wing activists who routinely call for deep cuts in military spending, reflexively oppose the use of force, and embrace an anti-trade, anti-globalization agenda that would damage the U.S. economy and condemn developing nations to perpetual poverty." The report claimed that "Progressive internationalism occupies the vital center between the neo-imperial right and the non-interventionist left, between a view that assumes that our might always makes us right and one that assumes that because America is strong it must be wrong."
More recently, some PPI figures have seemed to soften their hawkish edges. For example, Marshall endorsed President Obama's "soft power" approach to Iran in a July 2009 article, arguing that "Obama's respectful outreach to Iranian society—including admission of America's role in a 1953 coup, and the acknowledgement of Tehran's right to develop civilian nuclear power—will prove useful over time. The  election revealed widespread opposition, especially among young Iranians, to the regime's truculent and self-isolating external policies, as well as its internal repression. The Islamic republic has more reason to fear change from within than US-led hectoring. By undercutting the mullahs' strategy of demonising America, Obama subverts their revolutionary ideology."
Marshall concluded: "So what does it all add up to? Is Obama a hawk or a dove? At this point, he seems a little of both—a 'dawk.' The truth is, no one knows. Nothing very big has happened yet on President Obama's watch. When it does, there will be ample opportunity to revise judgments about the polestar of his neo-progressive foreign policy. For now, pragmatism will have to do – and it's doing pretty well."