June 07, 2011

Security Think Tank Conference Covers Top U.S. Issues

Last week, I was privileged to attend the 5th annual conference of the Center for a New American Security at the beautiful Willard Hotel. It was a densely packed (physically and intellectually) one day affair put on by one of the most respected newcomers in Washington’s Think Tank ecosystem.

CNAS strives to be non-partisan and middle of the road ideologically. In the main, it is very successful in both endeavors. Both of its founders now work in the Obama Administration, so the connection with the Democrats is clear, but this group also has a stable of true moderates who are really trying to find the “right” path for the Nation in areas of tough sledding policy – wise.

This year’s conference had a series of excellent panels that pushed through some of the most important issues facing the Nation. I will not attempt to do a full blow by blow of the content, but a quick list of the subjects will be instructive. Beginning with a superb panel on the subject of Internet Freedom in the Middle East, the participants hit all the key issues. They looked at the genesis of the Arab Spring movements, what they mean, and what they don’t. The conclusions were that the United States needs to more actively seek out connection and communication with the tides of history, or risk being left behind. All caveated this with an understanding that stability always appears an attractive option in these circumstances and cannot be ignored.

The second session was a video feed that brought LTG Dave Rodriguez, the operational commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan to the screen. He did not bring any revelations but gave a good operational update of the situation there, and he delivered a clear message that we were making progress and should stay the course.

A full panel followed Rodriguez on the policy issues involved with Afghanistan that included his West Point classmate and an earlier U.S. Afghan Commander, LTG (ret.) Dave Barno. This group looked at the effect of Bin Laden’s death, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, and the effect of India and Iran on the conflict. It was one of the best conversations on this thorny set of issues I have heard, and it was refreshingly practical without losing any of the intellectual integrity and optimism for which CNAS is known.

After lunch, the group received a keynote from Jake Sullivan, the Director of the Department of State Policy Planning Office. Sullivan is an extraordinarily talented and capable fellow. His youthful appearance was mentally contrasted to visions of George Kennan by many in the audience. That said, his intellectual heft made it clear why Secretary Clinton chose him to work her internal Think Tank. His remarks were interesting and through.

The next panel (my favorite) was on cybersecurity issues. CNAS has just published an extensive report on this subject (I will discuss the report in a separate post), and the panel was highly anticipated. Unfortunately, it was a little bit of a disappointment. The substance was fine, but several of the panelists were not terribly exciting. (You are now asking “what I was expecting from a cyber panel, entertainment?” Well, I was.)

The report is a good one, but we got a lot of platitudes. Dr. Kristin Lord of CNAS, one of the report’s lead authors tired to save the day. While professing to be a neophyte who was on safari in CyberLand, she was the most engaging of the panelists and kept trying to get more out the group that the two Govies and the industry rep were ready to give. Too bad; it was a lost opportunity. Please do not misunderstand me – the panel was solid, but it did not meet my high expectations. Unfortunately, I had to depart at that point and missed the last panel.

Bottom line, the conference overall was a winner. It was very well administered; the content (despite what I note above regarding cyber) was far superior to the normal Washington affairs. It was well worth the time to attend and participate. Of note was the young age of many of the participants. It was a young crowd, and I believe I was looking at the future of Washington policy making / thinking. CNAS can notch up another success. Not only do they do interesting and top notch reports, but they have shown they can do great conferences as well.