Established in 2007, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) is widely considered one of the Barack Obama administration's key outside think tanks on national security and defense policy, particularly with respect to counterinsurgency strategy (COIN). Described by the Los Angeles Times as "a haven for hawkish Democrats," CNAS calls itself an "independent and nonpartisan research institution" that aims to engage "policymakers, experts, and the public with innovative fact-based research, ideas, and analysis to shape and elevate the national security debate."
CNAS' leading role in Obama-era policy-making was highlighted when in 2009 when the organization's cofounders—Michele Flournoy and Kurt Campbell—as well as several other CNAS scholars were tapped to serve in the administration. Flournoy became the undersecretary of defense for policy, the same post held by the controversial neoconservative figure Douglas Feith during the first George W. Bush administration. Campbell was tapped to serve as the State Department's lead Asia expert.
Several CNAS principals were also named to the Defense Policy Board, the in-house Pentagon advisory board which, under the leadership of former chair Richard Perle, played a role in promoting an expansive "war on terror" during the Bush administration.
Flournoy, who also served as a foreign policy surrogate for Barack Obama's 2012 presidential campaign, was floated as a possible candidate for secretary of defense in the second Obama administration amid efforts by "pro-Israel" activists to scuttle the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE). Writing for The New Republic, blogger Molly Redden—who called CNAS "a pipeline for the young and talented individuals who now populate the lower ranks of the Department of Defense"—described Flournoy as "the name that conservatives have floated as an alternative" to Hagel, although Redden argued that this was more out of neoconservative opposition to Hagel than support for Flournoy.
A largely centrist think tank with liberal-hawk tendencies, CNAS' leadership has included a range of Democratic and Republican leaders over the years, as well as several high-profile corporate leaders and policy wonks. As of early 2013, CNAS' president was Richard Fontaine, a State Department veteran, former National Security Council staffer, and a past adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Fontaine's predecessor was John Nagl, whom the Inter Press Service described as "a poster boy for COIN enthusiasts, including influential neoconservatives who featured Nagl at the March kick-off of their newest think tank, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI)."
Also as of 2013, CNAS' board of directors—led by former Clinton Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig—included former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Bush Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, former Lockheed executive and Center for Security Policy adviser Norman Augustine, and Mitt Romney adviser Mitchell Reiss, among others. In addition to representatives from corporations like Boeing and JPMorgan, CNAS' board of advisers has included well-known liberal hawks like Anne-Marie Slaughter and Michael O'Hanlon, as well as notable neoconservatives like Paula Dobrianksy.
Among its activities, the organization hosts conferences, publishes blogs, and runs dozens of projects devoted to U.S. security interests in various countries, as well as on security issues related to defense spending, climate change, and the Internet, among many others. These have included a "National Security Leaders Forum," which serves as "a platform for senior civilian and military leaders to address the Washington policy community and media on the most important national security issues of the day"; "war games" like the 2008 game "Clout and Climate Change," described as a "future scenario exercise to explore the national security implications of global climate change"; and a "Next Generation National Security Leaders Program," which aims to "gather future national security leaders to participate in a series of frank and open discussions on the foreign policy challenges of today and tomorrow."
CNAS blogs include the "Natural Security Blog" on the intersection of security environmental issues, as well as "Abu Muqawama," a widely read blog on counterinsurgency run by CNAS scholar Andrew Exum. A retired U.S. army soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan—and a former fellow at the hawkish, "pro-Israel" Washington Institute for Near East Policy—Exum is considered a preeminent scholar on contemporary counterinsurgency strategy, though his work has been criticized as overly enthusiastic about it. CNAS also maintains "Flashpoints," a blog devoted to chronicling developments in the South China Sea. Well-known CNAS fellows Thomas Ricks and Marc Lynch are bloggers for Foreign Policy magazine.
On Military Intervention
CNAS' policy publications tend to take a technocratic, problem-solving approach to U.S. wars overseas. As blogger Daniel Luban has written, CNAS "did not make its name with outspoken denunciations of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; it made its name with pragmatic recommendations for how to wage the wars more effectively," developing in particular "a niche as the think-tank of choice for proponents of counterinsurgency."
A set of December 2012 reports marking the one-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq illustrated these tendencies. One of the reports, entitled "Iraq in Hindsight" and authored by Emma Sky, criticized numerous aspects of the war's execution and assessed that the Iraq war had "left over 100,000 Iraqis dead, enabled the resurgence of Iran and tarnished the reputation of U.S. democracy promotion." Yet rather than warning against future such incursions, the report concluded simply that U.S. policymakers should "internalize these lessons … when intervening elsewhere in the future." A contemporaneous CNAS report advocated increasing bilateral U.S.-Iraqi security ties while also warning Iraq's government against crossing a number of "red lines" regarding its domestic and regional politics.
On the other hand, CNAS scholars have also warned against military intervention in Iran or Syria.
In a February 2012 report on Syria, for example, Marc Lynch warned that while the United States should apply firm diplomatic pressure against the Assad regime, armed intervention would only exacerbate the conflict. "Military intervention will allow Americans to feel they are doing something," he wrote. "But unleashing even more violence without a realistic prospect of changing the regime's behavior or improving security is neither just nor wise." Lynch also counseled against providing arms to Syria's opposition, warning that it could prolong the conflict and lead to an eventual full-scale intervention.
Similarly, a June 2012 report cautioned U.S. policymakers against limiting their diplomatic options with Iran. "All options, including preventive military action, should remain on the table, but policymakers should recognize that the potential risks and costs associated with using force are high," its authors wrote. "Military action should remain a last resort, which should be contemplated only by the United States and only under stringent conditions"—namely, only if "Iran appears poised to weaponize its nuclear capability," which it suggests is not currently the case. The report also cautioned against drawing diplomatic "red lines"—especially regarding Iran's domestic uranium enrichment—and also cautioned against a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, warning it would only have the effect of "increasing the risks to Israeli security and regional stability."
A May 2013 report by Colin Kahl, Raj Pattani, and Jacob Stokes built on this work, concluding that while "The commitment to use all instruments of national power, including the possible use of force, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons should remain firm … this preference for prevention should not be used as an excuse to avoid thinking through the requirements for effective containment." The report argued that because Iran could likely develop a nuclear arsenal even if the United States and its allies tried to stop it, Washington should develop a strategy for containing and deterring that includes options in addition to the use of force. The authors recommended promoting political reform in the Gulf region, bolstering regional missile defense capabilities, adopting a "no-first-use" pledge and encouraging Israel to do the same, ramping up counterterrorism operations, and explicitly disavowing regime change as a goal of U.S. engagement with Iran in the event of a crisis. They wrote that the goals of U.S. policy should be deterrence of "Iranian nuclear use and aggression," defense of U.S. national interests, disruption of Iran's "destabilizing activities," de-escalation of regional crises, and denuclearization of the Gulf.
The Inter Press Service linked the report to an emerging elite consensus toward "calling for more emphasis on the diplomatic track" with respect to U.S.-Iranian relations. Alongside the CNAS report, Jim Lobe observed, "recent reports by blue-ribbon task forces of The Iran Project, the Atlantic Council, the Carnegie Endowment, and the Center for the National Interest have shown a developing elite consensus in favor of greater U.S. flexibility at the negotiating table."
Despite the think tank's generally more cautious view with respect to Iran and Syria, leading CNAS figures have worked on neoconservative-led advocacy campaigns and helped produce studies promoting U.S. military intervention.
CNAS drew attention in early 2009, for example, when its president, John Nagl, participated in a conference hosted by an advocacy group founded by William Kristol and Robert Kagan called the Foreign Policy Initiative, which is viewed by some observers as a successor to the Project for the New American Century. The March 2009 conference, titled "Afghanistan: Planning for Success," was striking for its support for President Obama, who had recently announced plans to send 21,000 new troops to Afghanistan. A bipartisan group of officials and policy wonks—including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Robert and Frederick Kagan, Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), and Nagl— praised Obama's escalation policy.
During his speech, Nagl argued that the new troops were "merely a down payment on the vastly expanded force needed to protect all 30 million Afghan people." Offering bipartisan cover for the work of neoconservative groups like FPI, Nagl said, "There used to be a bipartisan consensus in this country on foreign policy, in particular when we have our sons and daughters at war. And I am hopeful that events like this will contribute to that."
Commenting on CNAS's role in Washington discourse on security policy, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos wrote in The American Conservative, "COIN today is the realm of CNAS, as if Frederick Kagan and AEI had never existed. But it won't do to deny the family resemblance, says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor: 'You will hear the same things at the Center for a New American Security as you will at the American Enterprise Institute. Nation-building at gunpoint, democracy at gunpoint. What's the difference?'"
Another commentator, Andrew Bacevich, a generally conservative scholar who was a vocal critic of neoconservative influence in the George W. Bush administration, also finds similarities between CNAS and groups like AEI. Wrote Vladhos, "Adherents of the old neoconservative vision and these new security policymakers all 'drank the Kool-Aid,' said Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich. … Both groups, he added, see war as 'a perpetual condition,' employing massive firepower and boots on the ground, draining 'billions, if not trillions of dollars,' in pursuit of goals based on skewed assumptions about American interests abroad."