November 16, 2008 — November 16, 2008 - The Center for a New American Security, a small think tank here with generally middle-of-the-road policy views, is rapidly emerging as a top farm team for the incoming Obama administration.
When President-elect Barack Obama released a roster of his transition advisers last week, many of the national-security appointments came from the ranks of the center, which was founded by a pair of former Clinton administration officials in February 2007.
The think tank's central role in the transition effort suggests that its positions -- which include rejecting a fixed timeline for a withdrawal from Iraq -- will get a warm reception within the new administration.
Michele Flournoy, who co-founded the center with Kurt Campbell, a former Clinton National Security Council and Pentagon official, now serves as its president. She is one of two top members of Mr. Obama's defense transition team and is likely to be offered a high-ranking position at the Pentagon. Some Obama advisers say she could eventually be tapped as the nation's first female defense secretary.
Wendy Sherman, co-head of the Obama State Department transition team, also serves on the center's board of advisers and is expected to land a high-ranking post. Richard Danzig, a front-runner for defense secretary, is on the think tank's board of directors. Susan Rice and James Steinberg, both of whom are on Mr. Obama's short list for national security adviser, serve on its board of advisers.
Although most of the center's staffers are Democrats, its boards include prominent Republicans, and its policy proposals have largely sought to find a middle ground between standard Democratic and Republican positions. On Iraq, for instance, Ms. Flournoy helped write a June report that called for reducing the open-ended American military commitment in Iraq and replacing it with a policy of "conditional engagement" there.
Significantly, the paper rejected the idea of withdrawing troops on the sort of a fixed timeline Mr. Obama espoused during the campaign. Mr. Obama has in recent weeks signaled that he was willing to shelve the idea.
At least half a dozen of the think tank's policy experts -- including John Nagl, a retired Army colonel and a counterinsurgency specialist -- are expected to get tapped for midlevel national security positions.
The potential departures mean that the center could be a victim of its own success. "The challenge will be convincing our board, our funders and our staff that we are a going concern and will remain that way into the future," said Jim Miller, its senior vice president.
Mr. Miller said he is confident the center would weather the departures. Other officials said the center is planning to recruit departing Bush administration officials to fill some vacancies. The center's budget comes mainly from foundations such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and it also gets some government money to study particular issues.
New presidents regularly raid Washington think tanks for experts and policy ideas. The Reagan administration drew heavily from the right-leaning Heritage Foundation after the 1980 election, while the Clinton administration hired from the left-leaning Brookings Institution.
More recently, staffers at the conservative American Enterprise Institute took senior positions in the Bush administration and drafted some of its signature policies, including the "surge" strategy for Iraq.
The success of conservative think tanks sparked the creation of some left-leaning counterparts, most prominently the Center for American Progress. Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta started it in 2003 with tens of millions of dollars from wealthy liberals.
"The success of Brookings begat AEI. The success of AEI begat Heritage. And the success of Heritage begat CAP and CNAS," said Murray Weidenbaum, an economics professor at Washington University in St. Louis who wrote a book on Washington think tanks.
Mr. Podesta is now running the Obama transition effort. He also serves on the CNAS board of directors of the Center for a New American Security, which Ms. Flournoy founded along with Kurt Campbell, a former Clinton National Security Council and Pentagon official.
The security center remains a relatively small player, with an annual budget of less than $6 million and about 30 employees including support staff. By comparison, Brookings has more than 200 policy experts, while AEI has nearly 100 scholars and fellows.
Nonetheless, the security center enjoys an outsize public profile here, a function of its media savvy and ability to regularly attract high-profile public figures to its events. In September, it hosted Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, James Baker and two other former secretaries of state at a roundtable event that was carried on CNN. The event made news when all of the officials endorsed talks with Iran, an idea backed by then-candidate Mr. Obama but opposed by Republican challenger Sen. John McCain.