January 10, 2012

In Praise of ... John Nagl

It has been a bittersweet month here at CNAS. We discovered just before Christmas that our president, John Nagl, had accepted a position at the U.S. Naval Academy (.pdf) effective this month. As I write this, John is a few blocks away presiding over what will probably be his last big event for the center.

I met John in 2007 when he was still on active duty in the U.S. Army and I was a graduate student in London. He knew of my blog long before he knew who I was. By 2009, John had left the U.S. Army and was working at CNAS when almost the entire staff at the time -- including the entire CNAS leadership team -- left to go work in the Obama Administration. (There is some dark humor to be found in the fact that a think tank that had been so critical of the Bush Administration's inability to plan for post-war Iraq had itself done precious little planning for transition.)

John, though, stepped into the breach and became the president of this think tank at its most perilous moment. Together with Nate Fick, John -- who turned down several other opportunities to remain at CNAS -- rebuilt the research staff, reassured our donors, and pushed us all to be just as tough but fair in our judgments on this administration as CNAS 1.0 had been on the Bush Administration. With one notable exception, John hired policy professionals and scholars with the kind of advanced academic training and real-world experience that enabled CNAS to do more methodologically rigorous work than before -- in an environment that is now consciously bipartisan.

I myself thought I was just back in Washington for a few months to work as a Levant & Egypt specialist on the CENTCOM Assessment Team before heading back to the Middle East to complete my field research when John asked me if I would like to help him rebuild the center as his first hire. I thought he was crazy and that there was a good chance CNAS would not survive. But of course I accepted, and it has been an honor to work underneath him for the past three years. 

John, as a man, is a wonderful mentor, a loyal friend, and a devoted husband and father. This position at the U.S. Naval Academy plays to his greatest strengths in that it allows him to teach, train and mentor a new generation of U.S. officers -- something he excels at doing. John's own research, as a scholar, has been put to the side over the past decade as John has served as an Army officer and as the head of this center -- where his time is consumed by administrative tasks. So I am excited by the opportunity he now has to produce new scholarship.

I have locked horns with John over counterinsurgency and Afghanistan over the past few years more times than I care to remember. But I will miss the opportunities to spar with him in staff meetings or to tease him for those relentlessly awful pink shirts. And I will remember the times that I wrote something that offended someone, and John defended me with a rare ferocity. The most humiliating moment in my time at CNAS was when I was the subject of the ombudsman's column in the Washington Post. I had been asked to review a book for the Post a few days after I was quoted on the front page in an article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran that identified me as having served as an advisor to Gen. Stan McChrystal. I made the assumption that the editors had read their own paper or had at least googled me before contacting me to write a book review, so I did not feel any need to disclose in the review that I knew Gen. McChrystal (though, I did, at the end of the review, disclose that I had served as a civilian advisor in Afghanistan in 2009). Although the original hardcover version of the book was quite complementary of Gen. McChrystal, Jon Krakauer complained my negative review was explained by my admiration for the general. The Post's ombudsman and book editor faulted me, and I felt both deeply betrayed by the editors and insulted by the charges against my integrity. But what I remember most about that episode was the consistency and strength of the support I received from the folks at CNAS -- and especially John Nagl. I actually choked up in a staff meeting recalling the letter of support he wrote on my behalf, and I am normally about as emotional as a stone.

If the next president of CNAS has half the loyalty, intellect and good humor as does John, we will be very well served. I wish John all the best in his new endeavor. Midshipmen, you have no idea how lucky you are.