Relocations: A small window onto our foreign policy establishment

Herbert Rothschild
May 5, 2022

Our money props it up, but through whose accounts does it run?

By Herbert Rothschild

In my column two weeks ago, I raised the question of who makes U.S. foreign policy. The crucial preamble to the answer is that you and I don’t. Foreign policy is made in the White House, with the President wielding imperial power through a large paramilitary force called the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and through our far larger regular armed forces, which engage in clandestine “low intensity” wars, plus an occasional large-scale conflict waged openly but without Congressional declaration.

In that column I noted the enormous influence of a few policy makers, such as the Dulles brothers over Eisenhower and Kissinger over Nixon and Ford, and the secret operations they conducted in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Near the end, though, I wrote, “appalling and as lastingly harmful as our covert operations have been, they shouldn’t divert our attention from the formation of overarching policies.” I promised to explore the question of who decides how our country positions itself internationally. I work at that challenge in this column.

Here is how I would characterize the way we’ve positioned ourselves since World War II: We are “the indispensable nation,” self-appointed to uphold a global Pax America economically, diplomatically and militarily. Our actions are guided by what the U.S. Space Command’s “Vision 2020” stated as its rationale — “to protect U.S. interests and investment.” Sometimes our interest is to protect and advance democracy and human rights, sometimes the opposite. Whichever, our trump card is a military might unprecedented in its magnitude and reach. 

No handful of people created this constellation of presumptions. One could trace its roots to the 19th century belief in our Manifest Destiny, and perhaps even further to the Puritan sense of an “errand into the wilderness.” Since emerging from WWII as the champion of freedom, however, these have been the working premises of prestigious university international studies programs, various think tanks, the U.S. military, and the official national security apparatus. These institutions are closely linked, and people tend to cycle through them. For the remainder of this column, I’ll trace one cluster of links.

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) is a D.C.-based think tank formed in 2007. It rightly boasted of the number of those associated with it who moved into high-ranking positions in the Biden Administration. Here is a partial list: Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs; Ely Ratner, Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense; Susanna Blume, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Defense; David Cohen, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Derek Chollet, Counselor of the U.S. Department of State; and Colin Kahl, Under Secretary for Defense.

One of CNAS’s two founders was Michelle Flournoy, who had been Undersecretary of Defense for Policy from 2009 to 2012. While she was its CEO, about 40% of the CNAS budget came from defense contractors. That pattern has continued. In its last reported fiscal year, CNAS’s two largest contributors were Grumman Northrup and the Air Force. 

While at CNAS, Flournoy also served as senior adviser to the Boston Consulting Group; largely thanks to her, its defense contracts jumped from $1.6 million in 2013 to $32 million in 2016. She also was a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. After leaving CNAS, Flournoy formed a strategic consultancy firm named Westexec with Antony Blinken, now our Secretary of State. One of Westexec’s clients is an unnamed major defense contractor — almost certainly Raytheon, which Biden allows to continue selling weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen despite Congressional disapproval.

After Flournoy left CNAS, from 2018 to 2019 Victoria Nuland was CEO. She had been Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs from 2013 to 2017, and U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO in George W. Bush’s second term. She holds a faculty position at Yale and served as a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.  

Nuland is married to Robert Kagan, one of the leading neo-cons during George W. Bush’s time in office. In 1997, he co-founded the short-lived Project for a New American Century, which advocated military action in Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan and the overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In 2010 Kagan was appointed a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and served on the 25-member State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board under Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. 

Kagan’s father, Donald, and brother, Frederick, signed the Project for a New American Century’s manifesto, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses.” Donald taught at Yale and was a fellow at the Hudson Institute. In 2000, Donald and Fred co-authored “While America Sleeps: Self-DelusionMilitary Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today.” Fred was a professor of military history at West Point and is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Fred and his wife, Kimberley, have been credited with persuading Bush to authorize the troop surge in Iraq in 2007. Later, they persuaded Obama and Robert Gates, his Secretary of Defense, to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. 

In 2007, Kimberley founded the Institute for the Study of War and still serves as its president. Its funding comes from defense contractors like General Dynamics and DynCorp. Retired generals Jack Keane and David Petraeus sit on its board, along with former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, Al Gore’s running mate, and Kelly Craft, U.S. Ambassador to the UN under Trump.

Three observations: First, there’s an underlying continuity from one administration to the next, Trump’s being a partial exception. Second, the spectrum of thought is narrow. Third, tax-payer money funds much of this thinking, but our money is funneled through, and controlled by, the military-industrial complex, not by you and me.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Email him at

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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