The Center for a New American Security, a small think tank with an outsized influence in the Obama administration, announced that one of its founders, Michèle Flournoy, would be coming back as its next CEO. Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense for policy, said her short-term plans for the policy shop are crystal clear: Have a sizeable impact on the 2016 elections.
"I really think that CNAS has the opportunity to be the go-to think tank in helping frame the key national security issues that will be on the agenda for the 2016 presidential elections," she told Foreign Policy in an interview.
Co-founded in 2007 by Flournoy and longtime Asia hand Kurt Campbell, CNAS has earned a reputation as both a clearinghouse for middle-of-the-road foreign policy views and a minor league team for the Obama administration. Its alumni network includes administration heavyweights like Campbell, who crafted much of the White House's putative Asia "pivot" while serving as the former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs; Wendy Sherman, the under secretary of state for political affairs; James Steinberg, the former deputy secretary of state, and Bob Work, its most recent CEO, who was confirmed as the next deputy secretary of defense on Wednesday.
Despite its close ties with the White House, a number of high-profile Republicans sit on the CNAS board and its president, Richard Fontaine, was a longtime senior advisor to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. CNAS leaders deny that the institution aligns more closely with Democrats than with Republicans. Instead, they say, the think tank hopes to help the presidential candidates from both parties shape their positions on key foreign policy issues.
"We will be able to provide analysis and insight to campaigns across the political spectrum," Flournoy said. "I think we're very well positioned to frame and elevate the debate on America's role in the world."
Flournoy herself has long been rumored to become the first female secretary of defense. Her transition from the private sector world, where she holds a senior post at the Boston Consulting Group, to CNAS, immediately raises questions about her interest in snagging that job for the twilight years of the Obama administration or the first ones of a prospective White House led by Hillary Clinton, whom she backed for the presidency in 2008.
"I don't want to speculate," she said. "That's a little too far into the future."
Although it's difficult to discern a unifying cause behind the think tank (other than getting its employees into plum government jobs), there is one thing it is definitely against: The rising tide of non-interventionism sweeping across aspects of the Republican Party and large swaths of the American populace.
"To the extent that we have any bias there's a clear consensus across the board that America has to be engaged in the world," she said. "Everybody understands the tremendous war-weariness out there, but we can't pretend that we can cut ourselves off from the world."