The Two Faces of Kimberly Kagan

If Gen. Stanley McChrystal is to get his way – that is, convince the administration to give him more blood and treasure to sacrifice to COIN in Afghanistan – he needs to have a few secret weapons at his disposal.

And there is nothing better than having a couple Kagans up your sleeve. Particularly Kimberly Kagan, who, like a drill bit hammering through concrete, has been virtually ubiquitous and unrelenting in her ability to stay on message, and downright stealthy in advancing an obvious political agenda while playing the geeky, bespectacled military scholar.

Kimberly Kagan

"Of course it’s fun to read Caesar. It’s fun to read Thucydides. It’s fun to read Polybius and learn about the concept of war in ancient times," she pronounced to Brian Lamb in an interview about herself and her new think-tank, the nonpartisan Institute for the Study of War, in 2007.

A year later, she and her husband Frederick Kagan would pen what can only be described as a detailed military panegyric to Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, who "redefined the operational art of counterinsurgency" through a tactical campaign the Kagans were very much familiar with, widely known to us mortals as "The Surge" in Iraq.

"Great commanders often come in pairs: Eisenhower and Patton, Grant and Sherman, Napoleon and Davout, Marlborough and Eugene, Caesar and Labienus. Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno can now be added to the list," the Kagans gushed in the 4,536-word testimonial.

This kind of hagiography may appear over-the-top, but it has served its scribes well. The Kagans’ own success as courtier-scholars in the Imperial City relies on building and maintaining the successful Surge narrative. One year after "Patton" and three months after issuing "How to Surge the Taliban" for the New York Times with fellow neoconservative Max Boot, both Kimberly and Fred were injected into the new commander’s tight inner circle for the next Surge experiment in Afghanistan.

Fred Kagan

Though it’s obvious why McChrystal, a Petraeus insider who "gets" COIN, would tap Team Kagan, one wonders why the general proceeded with the time-wasting kabuki performance that was the two-month "strategic assessment" of Afghanistan to begin with. When you put two Kagans, Andrew Exum, Stephen Biddle, Tony Cordesman, and a tiny cast of unknowns together for a brainstorm on the military’s dime, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the final recommendations come back without an exit strategy.

Not that Fred and Kimberly offered even the illusion of receptivity, as they both churned out one argument after another for Surge II before and after they "reviewed" Afghanistan with the team. And, as if on cue, the same day the Washington Post published a leaked version of McChrystal’s final report, saying he needed more troops or else "mission failure" would ensue, the Kagans conveniently announced their own new and improved strategy for Afghanistan. The report, "A Comprehensive Strategy for Afghanistan: Afghanistan Force Requirements," involves a recommendation for 40,000 to 45,000 additional American troops on the ground and a level of detail not seen since, well, Fred Kagan announced "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq," otherwise known as the Surge blueprint, with Petraeus’ mentor, former Gen. Jack Keane, at the American Enterprise Institute in Dec. 2006.

Kimberly Kagan: Military Geek or Surge Automaton?

The warhawks have been winding up for a major offensive against the Obama administration for weeks now. Their effort to push ahead with Surge II is getting a capable assist from liberal neo-interventionists and COIN operators eager to replicate what they see as a success in Iraq. The Kagans, as chief architects of this "success," have been rewarded accordingly with the largely unquestioned notion that they are now "brilliant military strategists," points out Jim Lobe, Washington bureau chief of Inter Press Service.

"[The Kagans] are given credit for having snatched victory in Iraq from the jaws of defeat," Lobe tells "You would think the Kagans and other neoconservatives would be discredited because of their advocacy of the Iraq War itself. But they aren’t."

Instead, Kimberly Kagan has increasingly become a spear point for advancing the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. And why not? She is young, attractive in that wonky, austere Washingtonian way, and seemingly unflappable as she discharges fusillades of talking points like a machine gun. One look at her March 2007 performance on Washington Journal circa Surge I and it’s clear why Kagan has replaced the old neoconservative guard as a primary surrogate for the cause.

During the Surge, Kagan was prolific in her "Iraq Reports" for The Weekly Standard. Recreating her "battlefield circulations," her front line missives conveyed the Surge in a way that can only be described as "strategic communications" in motion. When the magazine announced Kagan’s series, The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan wisely pointed out its superficiality in a post, "Mrs. Kagan Reviews Her Own Idea (And Her Husband’s)":

"Kimberly Kagan is listed as one of the participants in her husband’s research team that came up with the surge in the first place. So when the Weekly Standard decided to compile a regular report on the surge’s progress, they picked the wife of the main author and one of the plan’s original architects. And they never disclosed these relevant facts. So allow me."

Nevertheless, her reports were largely passed off as research, even journalism, rather than political ammunition, and she wrote a book about it last year, The Surge: A Military History, another encomium to Petraeus and Co. and the altar of COIN. Her other published work, The Eye of Command, based on her 2000 Yale dissertation, The Face of Battle, the Eye of Command, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2006.

Burrowing oneself in the bosom of an enterprise in this way – in Kagan’s case, defending a perpetual state of U.S. militarism for the Global War on Terrorism – is the lifeblood of Washington politics. That would be perfectly understood if Kagan had presented herself as a political agent in the first place, but she does not. She is consistently introduced in the halls of military power and political influence in Washington as a scholar of history, emphasizing her credentials as a Yale Ph.D. and former assistant professor at West Point (2000-2005), with brief teaching/lecturing stints at Georgetown, Yale, and American Universities.

But in fact, her entire professional career as a military scholar has taken place in the last decade, and for most of that time she has served as a vocal advocate for controversial interventionist policies on behalf of Republican interests, the Bush White House, and now, the U.S. military.

The Web site for her nearly three-year-old nonprofit think-tank says its mission is "to educate current and future decision makers and thereby enhance the quality of policy debates. The Institute’s work is addressed to government officials and legislators, teachers and students, business executives, professionals, journalists, and all citizens interested in a serious understanding of war and government policy."

During the aforementioned interview with Brian Lamb, Kagan said she started the Institute for the Understanding of War "to communicate what I had learned from [West Point military colleagues] to other civilians knowing full well that if I could learn [military history and doctrine] as an intellectual discipline, so could other people."

But one click onto the organization’s Web site and it becomes clear that the institute is all about pushing a specific doctrine, not "enhancing the quality of policy debates." It is riddled with op-eds that Kagan wrote to force the administration’s hand, to challenge its mettle for the fight – the exact same language and tone used to egg on skeptical fence-sitters in Congress during the Bush years and to embarrass Democrats in various political campaigns over the last eight years.

One asks, do military scholars from West Point normally engage in cheerleading exercises such as the "Gathering of the Eagles III" alongside pro-war provocateur Melanie "Move America Forward" Morgan? The movement, initially hyper-promoted by Michelle Malkin as a counterprotest to the March 2007 antiwar march on the Pentagon, has flourished across the right-wing universe. Attendees at the July 2007 event found themselves enriched by Kimberly Kagan’s military acumen and, of course, her positive reports from the frontlines of The Surge.


"She was able to explain what is happening in Iraq like I have never heard before," said one attendee and blogger. "She was able to break down all the dynamics involved so it was actually easy to understand what we are trying to accomplish, where we stand now and where we need to be. The one common denominator of all this? Our Sons’ and Daughters’ missions will be complete! We are on our way to victory in Iraq!"

Funny, most aspiring scholars in Washington try so hard to be interpreted as politically impartial that they most often come off as wishy-washy and milquetoast. Not so with the neoconservative set – particularly the Kagans, including Robert Kagan, Fred’s brother, who now runs the post-Project for a New American Century Foreign Policy Initiative (and pushes publicly for escalation in Afghanistan) with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and former Bush administration flak Dan Senor. Fred and Bob’s father, historian Donald Kagan, is a former Yale professor and preeminent neoconservative writer who was given the National Humanities Medal by then-president Bush in 2003.

Thanks to their coveted connections to the levers of power, they enjoy the best of both worlds – holding forth among Washington military scholars and analysts in spite of their ambitious political agendas. And because the neoconservative foreign policy position continues to hold sway in the disjointed Republican Party, speakers like the Kagans are often wheeled out – however surreptitiously – to defend the party line, "the loyal opposition" as it were. "It is much harder for them to be marginalized," said Lobe.

Hardly marginalized, the Kagans have set about to bring the administration to heel on the issue of Afghanistan, and they are well placed in a co-dependent relationship forged with Petraeus, Odierno, and McChrystal back in Iraq. The Kagans are able to pursue their advocacy of the Long War, while the generals craftily use the media-savvy duo as cover to force Obama to wage the war their way.

Instead of questioning this gross politicization of national security, the Washington establishment and media enable it by perpetuating the myth that Kimberly and Fred Kagan are mere experts in their field, which allows them the perfect platform to bully Obama on behalf of an empowered military authority.

There is little the establishment can do on its own: it is easily cowed by power and confidence and would rather reward the imperiousness of the neoconservatives than expose their double-branding. It is up to the media to at least call them what they are, not scholars or "analysts" but shills, marching the country into a quagmire, again.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.