Are we blind, or just incurious about important news?

The strongest impression I get from reading our major news media is their lack of curiosity.   If they were to see an elephant walking down Constitution Avenue, they would remark briefly about it before returning to more important things.  The latest jokes about Palin’s children, or Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dresses.

One of the most interesting non-stories is the rise of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).  Established in February 2007, it rapidly became a major player in the military policy debate.  What supporters have lifted it so quickly to such prominence?  What does this tell us about Obama’s national security plans?  (Note:  The CNAS website lists the organizations that support it (here), but of course with no indications of the individuals who pull the strings.}

Consider this article about their June conference Striking a Balance:  ”One-Sided COIN – The military-industrial complex surges Washington“, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, The American Conservative, 1 August 2009.  This is real reporting, preparing the reader to understand future news.  Excerpt:

You know it’s not going to be a typical Washington think-tank event when, upon entering the gilded doors of the Willard InterContinental Hotel, you are greeted by a peppy female soldier in an Army service uniform bedecked with medals. “Welcome, are you here for CNAS?”

For the Center for a New American Security, the June 11 annual meeting was about doing things big — broadcasting to the swelling Washington national-security establishment that CNAS is a major player; that there is but a sliver of daylight between its civilian-policy mission and that of the U.S. military. Both are working symbiotically to make their vision the only remedy for the young Obama administration’s foreign-policy challenges.

Here was a heady mix of Army brass, Navy officers in their starched whites, and soldiers in digital camo networking among the dark suits and smart skirts of the civilian elite. Defense contractors, lobbyists, analysts, journalists, administration reps, Hill staff—1,400 of the “best and brightest,” seeing and being seen.

Gen. David Petraeus—no one could have better sanctified this event save Obama himself—stepped to the dais. He called CNAS “a true force.” … In June 2007, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton stood on the same platform, delivering the keynote speech at CNAS’s glittering launch. There the center planted its first marker and was unofficially identified as Clinton’s national security team in waiting. …

At the top {of CNAS} is retired Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, who served in the Gulf War and Iraq before working directly for Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. … Then there’s the more nuanced but equally ubiquitous David Kilcullen …

That just sets the stage. The real story is the number of CNAS associates in Obama’s national security apparatus, all gung ho for lots of foreign wars. Were you expecting change?  Think about that when reading this list…

  • {CNAS co- founder Michele Flournoy} was scooped up for President-elect Obama’s transition team. She later left CNAS for Doug Feith’s old position at the Pentagon.
  • Fellow co-founder Kurt Campbell should soon be confirmed as Assistant Secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
  • Earlier in June, Price Floyd, the group’s director of external affairs, became Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Defense.
  • CNAS senior vice president and director of studies James N. Miller left to work as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.
  • {CNAS co- founder} Colin Kahl is now Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East,
  • while former fellow Shawn Brimley is a special advisor to Flournoy.
  • {CNAS Fellow} Vikram Singh serves as special adviser to Flournoy for Afghanistan-Pakistan.
  • Another former fellow, Eric Pierce, is now Deputy Chief for Legislative Affairs at DoD, and
  • CNAS researcher Alice Hunt has become Flournoy’s special assistant.
  • Over at the State Department, Campbell joins former CNAS senior fellow Derek Chollet, now Deputy Director for Policy Planning, and
  • former CNAS CFO Nate Tibbits, who heads national security for the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.

Having staffed up the government for the next generation of foreign wars, CNAS prepares to provide supporting agitprop.

While CNAS influences policy from the inside, filling the gaps back at its Pennsylvania Avenue offices has not been difficult. As Obama leans further on the military to resolve challenges overseas, the group has accordingly become top heavy with active-duty and retired military “COINdinistas.” During the annual meeting, it was announced that Nathaniel Fick, a 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran who wrote One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Corps Officer, would take Campbell’s place as CNAS’s chief executive officer.

He joins Nagl in leading a hatch of “new generation” war wonks, ranging from active-duty fellows like Lt. Col. Jim Crider and veterans like retired Army Capt. Andrew Exum—whose blog, Abu Muqawama, is the go-to for the COIN set—to court scribes like Tom Ricks, whose panegyrics to Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno transformed him from Washington Post war correspondent to war wonk and COIN operator.

Previous posts about the CNAS conference:

About Team Obama


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Here are almost complete directories of the online works by two of these speakers:

  1. The Essential 4GW reading list: David Kilcullen
  2. The Essential 4GW reading list: John Nagl
  3. Andrew Bacevich’s work

13 thoughts on “Are we blind, or just incurious about important news?”

  1. ” “Would it not be best to reconsider the alternatives and not continue on this path?” Bacevich asked. To which Exum retorted, “What is the alternative?” ”

    It’s rather telling that the players have either convinced themselves, or find it convenient to believe, that any alternative to what Pat Lang described as “The platinum plated axe” of COIN are fantasy. I rather imagine the tone Exum retorted in was the same he would have used if someone had urged the conference to consider alternatives to breathing, sunlight or food.

    It’s not the first presidential administration to be captured by the military. It (probably) won’t be the last.

  2. Major Scarlet

    Michelle Flournoy was required reading in my strategy classes in CGSC. I’m not a big fan of her writing. It isn’t at all surprising that President Obama hired her. She is a liberal internationalist. Emphasis on the liberal.

  3. “Here was a heady mix of Army brass, Navy officers in their starched whites, and soldiers in digital camo networking among the dark suits and smart skirts of the civilian elite. Defense contractors, lobbyists, analysts, journalists, administration reps, Hill staff — 1,400 of the “best and brightest,” seeing and being seen.”

    I’m not impressed. In England, the well-dressed officer can get outfitted at no less than Gieves and Hawkes of No. 1, Savile Row. If we’re going to do this Empire thing, for crying out loud, do it right.

  4. You call this a “non-story”. It’s actually a real story, not covered by the press. There may be a 100 stories a week like this — interesting points of departure for someone curious about how the government and our society works. Unfortunately, that’s not the job of the media. Their job is to create and re-enforce story lines intended to assure the public that the government is working honestly and earnestly in the public’s interest, grappling with the intractable problems that inevitably arise in an imperfect world.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I used “non-story” as irony. If enough people write about this on the Internet it will become an “understory” (the wonderful term coined by Michael Kinsley). But today it is merely another example of America’s intellectual sloth and apathy. The world changes while we doze. It will be interesting to see our reaction when events shock us, and we wake to a new world.

  5. Suggest everyone has a look at what Flournoy and Brimley wrote for Proceedings recently: “The Contested Commons”. Adds a little more color to the topic.
    Fabius Maximus replies: A nice example of what a vivid imagination can produce in the absence of a grand strategy. Much like asking young children what they fear at bedtime. Bizarre nightmares, a bedroom filled with terrors.

  6. As senecal alluded to, I believe it’s less blindness or incuriousity, more of a lack of understanding of what kind of shifts and changes affect the actual direction of the country in the next couple of decades. The media’s (broadly) driven by eyeballs, not clarity and demystification…in addition to the fact that there has to be the understanding first on the clarifier’s (“media”) side as far as the broad significance of an event before it can be unpacked.

  7. anna nicholas

    Douglas Kinder, I didnt know that was digital camo . I thought it was prison pyjamas accidentally boilwashed . Agree , totally inadequate for Empire .

  8. Mike, Fabius re: Flournoy and Brimley’s article. I agree that if you take at face value the statment that “Since the end of World War II, American grand strategy has centered on creating and sustaining an international system that facilitates commerce, travel, and thus the spread of Western values including individual freedom, democracy, and liberty.” The article is insane.

    I don’t think the article is insane, it simply genuflects at the spoken grand strategy, and then proceeds with analysis based on the unspoken grand strategy. Which is as far as i can tell to create and preserve a world where it is Americas sole prerogative to go wherever it wishes, whenever it wishes and when there to do whatever it wishes to whomever it wishes with little or no opposition. If you think of this as not just America’s overriding strategic interest but also a vital moral imperative. Then the reasoning suddenly becomes rather clear.

    I understand that there’s a lazy temptation to simply assign someone motives you’d rather they have because it makes it easier for you to argue against them. However from the international criminal court, to the ban on landmines, pulling out of the ballistic missile defense treaty, protocol one and two Geneva Conventions, hell even to Kyoto the guiding principle that “anything that reduces Americas freedom of action” is bad is a well established motivator for US actions.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not see the basis in the post or comments for this discussion of motives. It’s a subject that I avoid, as I lack telepathic powers. As for “a vital moral imperitive”, you must be kidding.

    “the guiding principle that anything that reduces Americas freedom of action is bad is a well established motivator for US actions”

    That’s not a new view. It was expressed best by a bad guy in George Orwell’s “1984”:

    “The purpose of power is power.”

  9. Grimgrin – Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see a grand strategy in that article. They talk a little about working with allies, which is somewhat hopeful, but then (paraphrasing):
    – It’s our job to keep the global commons open.
    – We must be the “arbiter and guarantor of stability.”
    – We must spread our values everywhere, because they are good.

    …So, We’re the good guys, and we have to control everything with our big military, with our allies if they feel like helping, but even then we get to be in charge, because… we’re the good guys. (Our values are, honestly, good. But we chose to adopt them.)

    Tell me what I’m missing. Tell me, please, that’s not the same nonsense we just voted to boot out of our government.

    And also, all the talk about “stability.” What world do they live in? Has it ever been stable? Doing what they’re suggesting is going to expose us to much more instability.

    I think we need an Amendment separating think-tank and State, they all seem fairly religious.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I say this with sadness, but you have described the current US grand strategy. For more about this, see the posts listed in section 6 of the FM reference page about Military and strategic theory.

  10. Pingback: What’s the difference between a neo-con and a neo-liberal? « gringo lost

  11. Greetings anna nicholas

    In our quest for more fashionable attire, consider John Robb’s post on The Switch to Local Manufacturing. This certainly could give rise to finely tailored, made-to-measure outfits. Following John’s logic, Global Guerrillas could not only outfight, but also outclass, their Westphalian foes.

    As added evidence for this trend, not that the Italian crime organization, the ‘Ndrangheta, is now moving big time into Milan. That the Camorra’s domination of Naples includes its fashion industry is, of course, old news. So, to be an imperialist nowadays is to be rather tacky, don’t you think?

    BTW: my name is Duncan, not Douglas.

  12. It seems that America’s “grand strategy” is the old “Manifest Destiny” rehabilitated. With respect to Afghanistan, it would appear that we haven’t learned anything from the national experience with Ho Chi Minh. We’ve got a thinly supported and corrupt puppet government in the form of Karzai; a Vietcong like insurgency in the form of the Taliban with a relatively untouchable neighboring base of operations.

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