CNAS Conference Becomes ‘Thumbsucker’

This is the fourth year I’ve attended and written about the perennial flocking of Washington’s military courtier class, otherwise known as the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) annual conference, always at the luxurious Willard Continental Hotel, always attended by thousands of dark blue suits and an impressive contingent of active duty military officers.

I’m afraid it might be my last.

The event I once said was “so pumped up by its own mission of salvation for the broader Middle East and Central Asia that it could take off like a rocket ship of its own self-satisfaction into the stratosphere,” has become so thin and milquetoast it seems at risk of floating away—period. It really did leave one almost wishing for the near-giddy arrogance of the old COIN cheerleader days circa 2009. Back then you could say there was a “buzz,” now there’s hardly a pulse.

“It’s a thumbsucker,” eagle eye Gareth Porter proclaimed during the lunch break on Thursday, after three and a half hours of largely insignificant analysis from CNAS fellows, Pentagon and State Department officials and establishment-approved national security analysts, most of whom say nothing anyone with half a wit about foreign policy hasn’t heard already.

At the beginning of the day, CNAS CEO Nathaniel Fick, himself a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, now sadly indistinguishable in the army of think tank suits that inhabit the Beltway, promised that the Willard Ballroom “won’t be the most boring place on earth.” On the contrary, the morning alone was akin to driving around in the car listening to the Friday round-up on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. You know, the kind of radio banter for which you’re not likely to miss anything if you pop outside to pump gas or pick up the dry cleaning. That’s because it’s about all about the title and the self-important tone, and not about depth or nuance, or what they call “value-added” knowledge. Watch out CNAS, you’re practically there.

The think tank itself was founded by Beltway insiders with carefully plotted designs for being indispensable to a future, likely Democratic, administration. Once accomplished— co-founders Michele Flournoy and Kurt Campbell are now Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs respectively—everything they do seems to impulsively maintain the administration’s global agenda. They’ve become vital interlocutors, particularly between the Pentagon and the Washington power grid, so most people attending the annual confab are happy to be patronized from the dais with superficial analysis and the corny inside jokes because they aren’t really there to learn, but to advance their own business—which, judging by the name tags and introductions, is largely rooted somewhere in the military-industrial complex (MIC).

Thus, Thursday’s pedestrian agenda was nothing at all the “cross-pollination of different interests and expertise” that Fick claimed CNAS was all about, but an excruciatingly limited itinerary of subjects approved by the hive which produced nothing that could possibly be construed as provocative, challenging or even newsworthy. Instead, it was a reaffirmation of the conventional worldview, and a road map of current administration policy for those jockeying for influence among the scrum of power players and ultimately, for better placement at the trough.

The problem with this formula is simple: as CNAS invariably strives to please both its corporate sponsors and government partners, these events diminish into mere vanity exercises, flush with the requisite navel-gazing and all manner of networking (and lobbying) opportunities for this insular community of conditioned Washington operators.

So every year, even as its list of corporate patrons and marquee panelists grow, so do the number of players and institutions CNAS cannot offend, and its work on national security issues, particularly its conferences, reflect that year-over-year.

CNAS’s conceit is that it’s a scholarly marketplace, but it’s really become a policy appendage of the Pentagon, a spear point for Washington’s powerful defense interests. But this too is a point of pride: Fick pointed out that the proceedings would be recorded for posterity by the Marine Corps University Press. Meanwhile, in his “Voices from the Field Keynote Address,” Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the “just what you see, pal” commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, thanked CNAS (via video teleconference) and exclaimed that because of the apparent revolving door between the think tank and the Army, CNAS fellows were in a good position to interpret the war policy: “[The] CNAS team is definitely Afghanistan strong.” This after he called senior CNAS fellow retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a “close friend,” and John “How to Eat Soup With a Knife” Nagl, president of CNAS, also a former Army officer, a “proactive, thoughtful observer of this mission.”

You bet he’s proactive—proactive in the sense that he is always tap dancing his feet off to put the best face on the Army’s agenda of the moment, whether its “population centric counterinsurgency” or the latest “kinetic” shift and the military’s “almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine,” as he audaciously described on PBS’s Frontline just a few weeks ago.

Maybe a line or two like that would have made for a interesting point of departure, but frankly this train seemed trapped in a fog. When the crowd emerged happily for lunch it was like Miss Marple asking a carload of people what happened to the quiet man with the purple ascot—everyone on the train has a subtly different take on who he is, but don’t know in the slightest when exactly, or where he had gone.

Same with the issues and policy positions employed on these panels. Against the usual metrics, the speakers were smart, well-versed and articulate, but it was hard to get a handle on what they stood for in terms of the bigger picture, the global view. There were exceptions of course. On the Middle East and on Afghanistan, there were the event’s token outliers—Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West, author of The Wrong War.

Hamid challenged the DoD stand-in for the proceedings, Mr. Colin Kahl, who happens to be a former senior fellow at CNAS (that’s probably why Kahl will be taking on DJ duties at the upcoming CNAS fifth anniversary dinner, according to Fick), on the administration’s stance on the Arab revolutions. When Kahl suggested that the protests in the streets were not about us, Hamid took it on. “We were supporting some of these regimes with billions for decades, how is this not about us?” And then, “we’ve been behind the curve in every case.”

Kahl responded temperately with assertions that diplomatically, the Obama administration is holding despots’ feet to the fire. But yawn, a potentially interesting thread went dead. As did thoughts from Hamid that the Muslim Brotherhood might be more pragmatic than the gelling conventional wisdom in Washington might allow. Again, a dead-ender.

When Bing West declared that the modern counterinsurgency COIN championed by CNAS friend Gen. David Petraeus was “nuts,” it got no response, not even a flicker of irritation from Barno, who helped CNAS grow its trees with that rotten fruit until it was too obvious that COIN had failed the Afghans and the foreign forces on the ground and it was dropped from all proceedings at last year’s conference.

If the COINdinistas at CNAS were ever grieving the loss of their pet COIN, they breezed through the five stages of grief fast enough. Last year it was denial, this year they seem to have moved beyond acceptance and are on to the Next Big Thing. It has to, if it wants to keep its coveted status as consigliere to the military and its influence among contractors and on Capitol Hill.

So what is the Next Big Thing? That would be Pakistan. The administration surrogates and think-tank doyennes all agree: al-Qaeda is out, Pakistani terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are in. You’ll be hearing their initials thrown around in expert fashion a lot in the coming weeks. Basically, think of them as the new justification for maintaining a standing foreign army in Afghanistan—for counter-terrorism and our “national security.”

This means, also, maintaining current aid levels for Pakistan and playing footsies with Pakistani leaders no matter how much they lie and how much we are being taken to the cleaners. Said former Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, “In my view we have no choice but to continue those processes and continue working with the leadership.” She has “no reason to believe that (terrorists) won’t move right back into Afghanistan” if the U.S. pulled up stakes, leaving Afghanistan vulnerable as well as having “a destabilizing effect on Pakistan.”

This is one of the few cogent themes to come out of the foreign panel discussions: we need to stay in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, that is the view of the U.S. military establishment and was left largely undisputed by anyone in the audience or on the stage. Gen. Rodriguez gave his remarks dressed in his regulation battle fatigues and looking very much like the man who drew the wrong straw that morning. His presentation—complete with scores of photos of happy Afghans and their American benefactors—said everything but clarified nothing:

He started out talking about “incredible development going on all over the place,” and “the increasing desire on the part of Afghan police and army to take on their own security challenges.” The Taliban has been forced to change tactics and is now vulnerable. Former hot spots like the Arghandab Valley in Kandahar province have made dramatic turn-arounds due to the concentration of ISAF forces aided by Afghan security, Rodriguez contends, and Kabul, which is entirely under Afghan security control is “one of the safest places in Afghanistan.”

However, progress is still “fragile and not irreversible.” (You bet. After making those remarks about Kandahar, The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that the Taliban had brazenly taken the fight to the Americans inside the provincial capital and, “are more active in the city than at any time since 2001,” according to one Afghan official.)

Nevertheless, by 2014 the U.S. will have established enough security that the Afghans should be able to take the lead, assured Rodriguez. However, when talking about Obama’s expectations for some sort of withdrawal this year, “I’m concerned the draw-down is not entirely aligned with the growth and development of the Afghan army.”

If the Afghans are asked to take control too soon, he cautioned, “the Taliban can regain a foothold among the Afghan population,” and more security will be required to compensate, which “could take a lot of time.”

Bottom line: “We will not chase transition.” Translation: Obama don’t rush us, we’ll leave when we want to.

CNAS Senior Fellow retired Lt. Gen. David Barno largely concurred. For more on his panel discussion, click here.

“The Iraq answer, which appears to be zero American troops, is not the answer in Afghanistan,” he insisted. “This is not about the island of Afghanistan this is about the region.”

Barno and CNAS fellow Andrew Exum, another former Army officer, co-authored a report, “Beyond Afghanistan,” which was released especially for Thursday’s event. The unusually thin presentation, which is 180-degrees from the more ambitious “Triage: The Next Twelve Months in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” written by Exum, Fick and others for the 2009 conference, is mostly about Pakistan, but recommends a “small force” of 25,000 to 30,000 to remain in Afghanistan “long term” to protect American interests from terrorists, like al-Qaeda.

This force, which could number as many as 25,000 to 35,000 troops if required, will be devoted to continuing to disrupt al-Qaeda and its associates and advising and enabling Afghan security forces battling the Taliban. A substantive decline in terrorist capabilities or a resolution of the conflict with the Taliban could dramatically reduce these numbers. However, in the fight against al-Qaeda and its partners, limited U.S. military forces remain vital to provide the security and support networks needed to sustain the robust intelligence networks that straddle the border.

Funny, during the first panel Exum declared that the “Arab Spring is the demise of al-Qaeda.” And everyone seems to ignore the fact that last June the CIA said there were only 100 al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan.

But the shift “beyond Afghanistan” conveniently leaves the door open for a new al-Qaeda problem elsewhere, like Pakistan. Frustratingly, no one knew or was willing to say anything definitive. Said Gareth Porter, who noted aptly early on that the promisingly newsworthy gathering was decidedly making no news—“they’re keeping it on a safe plain—safely in the comfort zone of the U.S. military.”

Resulting in a lot of tedious discourse for which the only coherency was the shared motivation by mostly all present to justify constant meddling and endless military intervention overseas.

Thus, all opportunity to engage the most salient and provocative issues of war and peace were lost. The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to cybersecurity—the next beachhead—and China—so popular in the hive today—before everybody broke for cocktails. “My favorite part of the annual CNAS conference is the party afterward, which is a mosh pit for policy wonks,” declared Tom Ricks on his Foreign Policy blog. For once I concur with Mr. Ricks, once a big pen and pad for the COINdinista set at CNAS (the former Washington Post writer is conveniently a fellow there now), the open bar was probably the most exciting part of the day.

Because nowhere in the actual agenda did CNAS invoke the huge debate on the Hill this week over Libya, nor the fact the House presented a $649 billion defense bill giving the Pentagon everything it wanted, despite the exploding national debt and restive taxpayers outside the Beltway. Nor did they talk about the increase in mental health problems among soldiers or the plummeting morale among Afghanistan soldiers found in the Pentagon’s own study issued last week.

“This conference reflects the fact that CNAS, as the PR firm of the military, is still in the bubble,” inflated in part by this community’s bloated self-ratifications, charged Porter.

And despite a loss in luster over the last two years, this is a bubble that won’t burst anytime soon. CNAS is following a long line of think tanks that peak with the president for which they had been most closely associated: Heritage and Reagan, Brookings and Clinton, AEI and Bush. CNAS might not be the rock star it was two years ago, but don’t be fooled—all these groups still make gobs of money to throw around, influencing staffers on the Hill, producing new generations of government bureaucrats and defense industry fixers with every change of the guard in Washington. Just look at the sponsor list for the CNAS event: they include BAE Systems, Raytheon, L3—some of the biggest players in the MIC.

Any doubt who was the intended audience at Thursday ’s convocation? (Hint: not you).

Last year I said that CNAS and its COIN vehicle had jumped the shark. That goes for its annual confab too.

But don’t worry—you’re not missing a thing.

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.