The Center for a New American Security, one of Washington, D.C.’s newest think tanks, promotes itself as a beacon of nonpartisanship in a sea of slanted competitors.
In the words of Kurt Campbell and Michèle Flournoy, the co-founders of CNAS, the group aspires “to transcend the current campaign mode that permeates many Washington policy shops and political discussions to consider the real and enduring challenges … facing the nation.”
But critics say CNAS is not as committed to nonpartisanship as its leaders maintain, given the composition of the group’s board. A review of campaign donations and career affiliations shows that 19 out of the foreign policy think tank’s 23 principal members — the board of advisers, board of directors and co-founders — have connections to one of the declared 2008 presidential candidates. Sixteen of those 19 have ties to former President Bill Clinton or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the current frontrunner for the Democratic White House nomination.
Campbell dismisses such criticism and vigorously denies that his organization has a “Clintonista” slant. He said he is almost finished recruiting several Republicans to join CNAS but it is too soon to reveal names because the policy experts have not been formally inducted onto the board of directors or advisers.
“We are who we are, and that doesn’t mean we can’t be an organization strongly committed to bipartisanship,” Flournoy said.
The group hopes to position itself as the moderating voice in the Iraq War debate, holding that withdrawal from Iraq is inevitable and that drawing up a “responsible” plan for doing so is in the best interests of both political parties and U.S. national security.
CNAS, which includes former Bush administration Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Clinton Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and several high-ranking retired military officers, clearly is advocating a more hawkish version of the foreign policy proposals put forth by its Democratic counterparts. Asked if a hawkish wing of the Democratic Party still existed, Campbell replied: “We are it.”
The group’s Iraq recommendations include a troop reduction from the current level of about 160,000 to 100,000 by January 2009, leaving a force of up to 60,000 troops in the country into 2012.
Of the Democratic presidential contenders, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has advocated for a total withdrawal by 2008, and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) has advocated for an immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 troops and a timetable to end to the war.
Sen. Clinton has maintained that she would end the war herself if it is not over by the time she took office. She calls for a phased withdrawal from Iraq but has not elaborated on the details.
No Republican presidential candidate besides Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) advocates for a timetable for troop withdrawal.
Clinton made the keynote speech at the posh June 27 launch of CNAS at the Willard InterContinental Washington hotel and distanced herself slightly from the specifics of CNAS’ Iraq plan.
“I know that CNAS has released a new report on Iraq with a set of proposals for the way forward,” she said in the keynote. “I have some differences with the specifics of the proposal, but I believe it is time to end the war and bring our troops home as soon as possible.”
Despite the Senator’s attempts to distance herself from CNAS positions, media critics have noted the organization’s connection to the Clintons. The New York Times suggested that the national security and defense experts associated with CNAS “looks an awful lot like a shadow policy apparatus for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.” The liberal American Prospect magazine titled its article on the inaugural event of CNAS “Shadow Government in Waiting.”
Campbell said he plans to bring several other 2008 presidential contenders to speak at CNAS functions in the fall. Both he and Flournoy, who are veterans of the Clinton administration, have declined offers to work for any ’08 candidates.
Fifteen of CNAS’ 19 principal members with ties to the Clintons have worked in former President Clinton’s administration, including John Podesta, his former chief of staff, and Madeleine Albright, his secretary of State. The two co-founders, Campbell and Flournoy, served as Clinton’s deputy assistant secretary of Defense and his principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense, respectively. Eight main members have directly contributed to Sen. Clinton at some point, and six of those eight have contributed to Sen. Clinton and not any other ’08 candidate.
Ties to ’08 candidates are not limited to the Clintons, however.
The Washington Post reported that in a June meeting with a top Chinese official, two different principal CNAS members were there on behalf of two different 2008 presidential candidates: Danzig, the former Clinton Navy secretary, represented Obama, and former Bush State Department policy planning chief Mitchell Reiss represented former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R). Additionally, Michael Green, a former adviser on Asia to President Bush, confirmed his association with the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
At the very least, the group’s declared “centrist” foreign policies were not born from its Republican board members and advisers.
“It is an organization in the progressive or Democratic community that specializes in the areas of defense,” said Rand Beers, a principal member of CNAS and president of the National Security Network, a self-labeled “progressive” foreign policy group.
Campbell co-authored a book with another CNAS member in 2006 advocating for the use of both hard and soft power in national security and encouraging Democrats to reassert themselves in the foreign policy arena. He claims foreign policy will dominate the 2008 election and said CNAS is committed to putting policy before politics.
Thomas Donnelly, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former senior fellow at the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, said he had no problem with CNAS’ goals or membership.
“It should be the more [think tanks] the merrier,” he said, “and I appreciate the degree to which they want to bring serious policy objectives to the Democrats.”