Meet the Hawkish Liberal Think Tank Powering the Kamala Harris Campaign

The Center for a New American Security has long pushed Democrats to embrace war and militarism—and it’s poised to play an influential role in a future Democratic administration.

Branko Marcetic

Kamala Harris has stacked her campaign with alumi of the Center for a New American Security. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

If you liked Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy, you can keep it. 

Though Hillary Clinton’s loss meant CNAS hasn’t had the influence over the halls of power it expected, a wide-open Democratic contest means a second opportunity.

That’s the message many Democratic voters are receiving this election, as they prepare to pick a contender from the gradually winnowing field of candidates to take on Donald Trump in 2020. And the reason is the continuing influence of a think-tank called the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

The influence of CNAS on the 2020 election, at this point, is being channeled through the campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who has drawn heavily from its ranks to fill her line-up of foreign policy advisors. But given its status as the go-to fountainhead of Democratic foreign policy ideas, there is every chance its alumni could be part of another future Democratic administration.

Founded on the eve of what was thought to almost certainly be a coming Clinton presidency over a decade ago, CNAS has left its fingerprints all over the past ten years of Democratic foreign policy. With its bipartisan make-up and centrist approach, the think tank has served as a crucial wellspring for conventional foreign policy thinking that has shaped the actions and ideas of both the Obama administration and Clinton’s 2016 run.

Even as the American public has slowly turned against endless war, CNAS’ prescriptions have stayed soothingly familiar: Stay the course in ongoing wars, step up efforts to counter Russia, China and other adversaries, and dig deeper into the conflicts the United States has so far only dipped a toe into.

Though Clinton’s loss meant CNAS hasn’t had the influence over the halls of power it expected, a wide-open Democratic contest means a second opportunity. And it seems California Sen. Kamala Harris is its favored candidate, as her foreign policy advisory team is stocked with the think tank’s alumni and its co-founder.

The creation of CNAS

CNAS was born during the Bush years as the foreign policy equivalent to the Center for American Progress (CAP): a liberal-to-centrist think tank that would double as a policy house for an eventual Democratic president. Established in 2007, CNAS came onto the scene as the Bush presidency was coming to a close and the Democrats battled it out to see who would replace him. The timing was symbolic, suggesting the eclipse of neoconservative foreign policy by a new, liberal era.

CNAS had another similarity to CAP: its Clinton connections. It had been founded by two former Pentagon officials under Bill Clinton’s presidency, one of whom was Michèle Flournoy, and its board was stacked with that administration’s alumni: Clinton’s former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, his former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and longtime Clinton confidant and CAP President and CEO John Podesta. Aiming to be strictly nonpartisan,” as Flournoy put it, CNAS also courted Republicans, and its board also featured Bush’s former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

Hillary Clinton herself delivered the keynote speech at CNAS’s inaugural forum, speaking about the threat of nuclear terrorism,” highlighting the challenges of a rising China,” and calling for military intervention in Darfur. As the New York Times noted, CNAS looked an awful lot like a shadow policy apparatus for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.”

At the time, Flournoy and the CNAS were described as a new batch of liberal realists,” who crafted foreign policy supposedly based on pragmatism, not ideology — and stood on the opposite side of progressives who wanted to scale back U.S. involvement in the world. The United States, she explained in 2007, is a force for good in the world. Flournoy appeared to hold this view years later, telling the Council on Foreign Relations in 2013 that the United States still has an indispensable leadership role to play” because no other country” can put together international coalitions to solve shared problems the way we can.”

Flournoy has a long history inside the foreign policy establishment. Under Bill Clinton, she cut her teeth as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction, and as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy. While there, Flournoy helped draft the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, which, among other things, determined that U.S. forces must be capable of fighting and winning two major theater wars nearly simultaneously.” This two-war doctrine, arguably obsolete even during the post-Cold War moment in which the review was drafted, would eventually be jettisoned by the Bush administration. Flournoy came to agree, though only because its focus on ground war was incompatible with an age of more frequent air and sea power.

Despite Clinton’s primary loss in 2008, and her rival Barack Obama’s seemingly divergent approach to foreign policy, CNAS was neatly folded into the Obama general election campaign. The think tank had one of its first big victories when it helped push Obama away from the anti-war position he had campaigned on. While Obama had pledged during the primary race to start withdrawing troops from Iraq immediately upon entering office, with the CNAS having become something like Obama’s foreign policy think-tank” in the words of the New Yorker’s George Packer, Obama now refined his position. He would instead adopt the Bush administration’s approach of staying the course in Iraq with no timetable for withdrawal. It was a significant early victory for CNAS, whose thinking would increasingly depart from the Obama administration over the following years.

Just as Obama handed his transition on domestic policy over to the Clintonites, allowing Podesta to staff the administration with various neoliberal appointees, he did the same on foreign policy. Obama named Flournoy and another former Clinton official, John White, to head his takeover of the defense department, and a host of others involved in CNAS found themselves on his list of national security personnel. Susan Rice, who would serve as Obama’s UN ambassador, was a CNAS board member, and in February, Flournoy would become the administration’s undersecretary of defense for policy.

Flournoy departed the administration in 2012, but Obama’s foreign policy continued to boast the CNAS’ imprint. Breaking his campaign pledge, Obama stayed the course in Iraq, only withdrawing troops by the end of 2011 because the Iraqi government refused to allow them to remain. He launched the disastrous war on Libya, further destabilizing the Middle East and North Africa, an action favored by Flournoy on humanitarian grounds, and pushed the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, something long endorsed by the think-tank, and which Flournoy called the most important thing” and foundational” to the administration’s rebalance” toward Asia. While such decisions can’t be solely attributed to CNAS, the fact that his administration boasted multiple officials associated with the think-tank points to its influence over Obama’s foreign policy.

Yet Obama also rejected the CNAS line at times, as made clear in a major 2016 report published by the think-tank. Titled Extending American Power,” the report bore Flournoy’s name on its list of endorsers. With Flournoy rumored to be Clinton’s defense secretary pick, the report was interpreted by news outlets as a peek into a future Clinton foreign policy, one that would be markedly more aggressive than Obama’s.

Among the report’s prescriptions were to significantly increase U.S. national security and defense spending,” approve the TPP as a counterweight against China, ensure the international campaign against ISIS is scaled up substantially,” and reserve the military option for Iran. Some of these proposals ran expressly counter to Obama’s approach, calling for the United States to send lethal arms to Ukraine and militarily intervene in Syria, both moves he had been resisting to varying extents. The CNAS report also dabbled in domestic policy, praising the explosion of fossil fuel extraction under Obama for offer[ing] significant strategic advantage that can help extend American power,” and calling for balancing taxes and entitlements to put U.S. debt on a more sustainable trajectory.” All of this was at the service of maintaining the longevity of a rules-based international system favorable to U.S. interests.”

Clinton’s loss to Trump prevented this vision from coming to fruition. But the 2020 campaign has given CNAS another chance to insert its influence into the halls of power.

Advising the Harris campaign

Despite the large 2020 field, Kamala Harris quickly emerged as the heir to Hillary Clinton’s political network. By July, she had locked down the second most big-money former Obama and Clinton donors after Joe Biden, and Clinton’s wealthy donor network in California and Florida, in particular, coalesced around the California Senator. When it comes to staff, Harris’ sister and campaign chair Maya was Clinton’s 2015 senior policy advisor. Harris has also tapped Clinton’s general counsel Marc Elias, among other former Clinton staffers.

Harris has continued this pattern in the realm of foreign policy, stacking her team with CNAS personnel. One is David Cohen, Obama’s former under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence and then deputy director of the CIA, who is now the think-tank’s adjunct senior fellow focusing on technology and national security. Another is Matt Olsen, the former general counsel for the NSA and former National Counterterrorism Center director, both under Obama, who serves in an identical role at CNAS. Harris’ National Security Advisor Halie Soifer, who had served in that same role for Harris in the Senate, came out of the think tank’s Next Generation National Security Fellow program.

But the most notable name on Harris’ list of foreign policy advisors is Michele Flournoy, who founded CNAS, served as its president for two years, and was once expected to help lead U.S. foreign policy under a prospective President Hillary Clinton.

In 2002, while a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Flournoy endorsed Bush’s emerging doctrine of pre-emptive war.

In some cases, preemptive strikes against an adversary’s [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities may be the best or only option we have to avert a catastrophic attack against the United States,” she said then.

Flournoy laid out her views on the matter more fully in a June 2002 editorial for the Washington Post, co-written with Vince LaFleur, a former member of the National Security Council staff who was then a visiting fellow at the CSIS. Bush was right to insist on preemption as a viable policy option,” they wrote, but wrong to treat it as the entire strategy, and more effort should be put into prevention, such as non-proliferation treaties. They noted the difficulties of applying a policy of pre-emption: the closer a country comes to developing a weapon of mass destruction, the harder it is to attack, but the earlier a president wants to launch a first strike, the more difficult it will be politically.”

A year later, as the United States began its foray into Iraq, Flournoy warned the single-minded focus on the war was taking oxygen from other issues. If we do nothing, North Korea will be a nuclear weapons power,” she said. We should do everything in our power stop that.”

Under Obama, Flournoy pushed hard” for military intervention in Libya, according to a 2011 Huffington Post profile of Flournoy. The Libyan adventure became arguably Obama’s greatest foreign policy blunder, the resulting anarchy creating a pipeline of arms to extremists across neighboring countries, and the country descended into ground zero for the migrant crisis while human slavery became a fixture. Even so, two years after former dictator Muammar Gaddafi had been deposed, Flournoy told the Council on Foreign Relations: I think we were right to do it.”

Such a record helped Flournoy become the neoconservatives’ choice to replace Obama’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2012. At the time, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel was the frontrunner to succeed Gates, a choice hated by the country’s war hawks due to Hagel’s criticism of the Iraq War, his affinity for diplomacy and engagement, and his distaste for economic sanctions. Faced with this choice, Flournoy was endorsed by neocons such as Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz and Jennifer Rubin, who cast a potential Flournoy appointment as a victory for diversity and feminism, despite the fact that Flournoy’s preferred policies had been destructive to the world’s population of women.

Under Obama, Flournoy had argued strenuously against the administration’s total withdrawal from Iraq, a view shared by the military brass, and she had pushed for a residual force to stay behind to no avail. She would later take a more aggressive line than the administration on several conflicts. She criticized the Obama administration’s ISIS policy for having under-resourced” its military dimensions,” called for greater U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war and urged the supplying of weapons to Ukraine. A 2016 report co-authored by Flournoy stated that Washington and other capitals have not devoted sufficient attention to the threat posed by Russia and its implications for Western security,” and recommended direct military assistance” to Ukraine in far larger amounts than provided to date.”

After leaving the Obama administration, Flournoy bided her time, making recommendations from the outside while waiting to re-enter government under the more hawkish Hillary Clinton, whose campaign she was advising. She argued forcefully for passing the TPP, urging observers to move beyond the usual economic arguments” over the deal and instead consider the extraordinary geopolitical stakes involved.” She criticized the administration’s deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, by then already the longest war in U.S. history, and was one of 23 signatories calling on Obama to reverse course.

With domestic energy production emerging as a new source of strength,” she urged Obama to rescind the outdated and counterproductive” ban on domestic oil exports, a measure he took that has helped turn the United States into one of the world’s major fossil fuel exporters and sped up the climate crisis. She also called for a broader and more intensive effort” against ISIS that involved giving arms to local tribes, ramping up the U.S. air war on the group, greater aid to the Syrian opposition, and even putting boots on the ground” to fight them.

Almost all of these ideas would make their way into the CNAS’ Extending American Power” report in 2016.

It’s difficult not to suspect a link between the sources of CNAS’ corporate funding and the foreign policy it pursues. According to its website, from 2017-2018, CNAS received $500,000 or more from defense contractor Northrop Grumman, between $100,000 and $249,000 from firms like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, and between $50,000 to $99,999 from BAE Systems. And it’s not just arms manufacturers. Other financial contributors to CNAS include Prudential Financial, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, BP, ExxonMobil, Comcast, Facebook and Google.

So perhaps it’s no wonder that its current CEO is Richard Fontaine, a former foreign policy advisor to the late Sen. John McCain, whose history of pushing for wars is nearly unparalleled even in Washington. Or that CNAS puts out reports like this 2019 publication, titled Why America Needs a New Way of War,” that describes U.S. armed forces as critical to sustaining the US-led global order,” and advocates a peace-through-strength approach to foreign policy. Or that challenging the power of Russia and China continues to dominate the think tank, rather than advocating a foreign policy that centers international co-operation to tackle an intensifying worldwide ecological crisis, as figures such as Bernie Sanders have been advocating.

Toward 2020

If personnel is policy, Kamala Harris’ line-up of foreign policy advisors suggests that the Washington consensus on foreign policy will continue unimpeded should Harris secure the nomination and defeat President Trump. More than that, it suggests the so-called military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned about nearly 60 years ago will stay untouched, with Harris’ line-up of advisors a walking embodiment of the intersection of interventionist foreign policy and corporate interests.

And if Harris does not win the Democratic nomination, CNAS will likely maintain its influence. As a think-tank with deep ties to the Democratic and national security establishments, CNAS personnel are on deck to be tapped to fill any future Democratic administration’s foreign policy team, the same way CAP personnel are expected to on the domestic side.

For some, this will be a welcome return to normalcy” after Trump’s erratic and often contradictory foreign policy. Yet it holds significant risks, not just for this coming election, but for the future of the United States. There is evidence that the more interventionist foreign policy touted by Clinton in 2016, thanks in part to her consultation with Flournoy, helped cost her votes in the key blue states that flipped to Trump that year.

It’s also an open question how long the United States can sustain massive military spending and an overstretched overseas presence as it grapples with accumulating domestic crises. And that’s not to mention the stresses on regions like the Middle East and North Africa that have been consistently destabilized by U.S. actions, decade after decade.

For those looking to make a break from decades of Clintonite foreign policy, this will mean more than just not voting for the candidates whose staff are packed with its proponents. It will also mean battling against their inclusion in a future Democratic administration, whoever wins.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.

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