The Democrats’ Pop-Up Foreign Policy Problem

Conservatives have created a permanent infrastructure of think tanks to generate foreign policy positions regardless of who’s in the White House. Liberals need to do the same.

Last March, three U.S. senators undertook a seemingly quixotic task. Democrat Chris Murphy, Independent Bernie Sanders, and Republican Mike Lee demanded a vote on their resolution calling for the U.S. government to end its support for Saudi Arabia’s war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The offensive, they argued, was creating a humanitarian nightmare: the war had already killed thousands of civilians through air strikes and caused a famine resulting in more than 50,000 children’s deaths. 

But the senators’ efforts went nowhere. Republicans sided with the Trump administration’s view that support for Saudi Arabia was vital to counter Iran, which backs the Houthis. Democrats, meanwhile, were conflicted: it was the Obama administration that had first argued for supporting the Saudis in Yemen. With ten Democrats voting against it, the procedural vote was defeated on the Senate floor.

Eight months later, the same three senators pushed for another vote on the same resolution. This time, the results were different. Every Democratic senator voted to advance the measure to the full chamber, as did fourteen Republicans, defying Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s attempts to bury the resolution. Two weeks later, it passed 56–41. 

What changed? The main reason for the turnaround was the grisly murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a fifteen-member “assassination squad.” Equally disconcerting to senators was Donald Trump’s refusal to admit that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the hit, despite overwhelming evidence, including from the CIA, that he had. 

But while the killing of Khashoggi was the precipitating event, the Senate vote got an important assist from a group almost no one had previously heard of: National Security Action. Founded last winter by Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser to President Obama, and Jake Sullivan, former senior foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, the organization boasts an advisory board made up of national security bigwigs from the Bill Clinton and Obama administrations—including former CIA Director John Brennan, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power. 

Frustrated in the 1970s by what they considered the dovish tendencies of the foreign policy establishment, conservatives created their own more hawkish foreign policy infrastructure to create a conservative “marketplace of ideas.” This work paid dividends when Ronald Reagan became president. For months leading up to the vote, National Security Action (which lends itself to an unfortunate initialism) had been quietly mobilizing support around getting the U.S. out of the Yemen crisis through Capitol Hill briefings and cooperation with progressive advocacy networks. Then, on November 11, a month after Khashoggi’s murder, the group released a statement signed by thirty top Obama-era officials calling for an end to all American involvement in Yemen. Central to their argument was admitting their own role in the policy they were asking to be reversed. “We did not intend U.S. support to the coalition to become a blank check,” they wrote, referring to the Saudi-led forces fighting the Houthis. “But today, as civilian casualties have continued to rise and there is no end to the conflict in sight, it is clear that is precisely what happened.” The successful procedural vote came two weeks later. A senior Democratic Senate aide told me that, while “a number of contributing factors” led to the resolution’s success, “that letter certainly helped galvanize the Democratic caucus.” It also became a selling point for Democrats in the House; Nancy Pelosi cited the letter in her statement on the need to change course in Yemen and limit Trump’s wartime powers. 

National Security Action’s role in the Yemen resolution illustrates the importance of something Democrats desperately need that Republicans have in abundance: an infrastructure of nonprofit groups staffed with substantively knowledgeable, politically plugged-in foreign policy experts. For decades the American right has had multiple ideological think tanks—the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies—that generate national security ideas, disseminate them to mainstream and conservative media, and drive consensus among Republican lawmakers. But when Trump took office in 2017 and began undoing Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishments—the Iran deal and the Paris climate accord, especially—the Democrats, stuck in the minority in the House and Senate, could count on only one major liberal D.C. think tank with enough foreign affairs chops to fight back: the Center for American Progress. And while CAP’s resources are considerable—it received $40.5 million in contributions in 2016, the most recent year for which federal data is available—they’re a fraction of what’s available on the right: Heritage alone raised $79 million in 2016. 

There are plenty of think tanks that elected officials can go to for nuanced views and balanced proposals on foreign and military affairs: the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But these organizations typically try to stay above the partisan fray and don’t much involve themselves in the rough-and-tumble of lobbying and advocacy on Capitol Hill. 

That’s where the more ideological think tanks and groups come in, and where National Security Action has found a lane for itself. One of its biggest missions is to create the connective tissue between the left’s brightest foreign policy thinkers and day-to-day Democratic politics. “There has always been a significant gap in the progressive infrastructure around national security that connected people who were experts and practitioners with the political debate,” Rhodes told me. National Security Action’s staff of fourteen organizes near-daily briefings with the press and members of Congress; helps its advisory board members place op-eds and make TV appearances; and coordinates with much larger liberal advocacy groups, like MoveOn and Indivisible, when they need national security expertise and talking points for Democratic candidates, as they did during the 2018 midterms.

But while National Security Action is filling a long-term problem, it is only positioning itself as a short-term solution. “We did set ourselves up as a temporary organization dealing with the emergency moment of the Trump presidency,” Rhodes said. “With the idea being, if things go well, this type of organization is not needed if a Democratic administration takes office.” He and Sullivan have raised the funds, they said, for the group to operate for just three years, from 2017 to 2020. 

In other words, the good news for Democrats is that there’s finally an organization filling what has been a major vacuum in the party’s foreign policy infrastructure. The bad news is that they’re already planning to go out of business. 

It is extremely difficult to get a party’s lawmakers on the same page when it comes to foreign policy and national security. Members of Congress are, by nature, generalists. They have to vote on every issue under the sun—from health care to federal budgets to judicial nominees. While a few have a natural interest in foreign affairs and angle for seats on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees, the vast majority do not. 

The right caught on to this reality a long time ago. Frustrated in the 1970s by what they considered the dovish tendencies of the foreign policy establishment—especially the Democrats who controlled Congress at the time—conservatives created their own more hawkish foreign policy infrastructure to exist outside of government. The Heritage Foundation was established in 1973, while a number of existing think tanks, like AEI, began pumping huge sums of cash into the operation with the idea of creating a conservative “marketplace of ideas.” This work paid dividends when Ronald Reagan became president. Heritage played a critical role in helping the Reagan administration vastly expand the military and take a more confrontational approach to the Soviet Union. By 1986, Time magazine called Heritage “the foremost of the new breed of advocacy tanks.” 

Democrats, meanwhile, had no equivalent organizations. That’s one reason why Clinton’s administration struggled early on to articulate coherent strategies for the major foreign crises of the time. By its second term, however, the Clinton White House had found its foreign policy groove. It scored key successes in expanding the NATO alliance, negotiating a treaty that brought peace to Northern Ireland, and orchestrating military actions in Bosnia and Kosovo that ended wars in both places without losing high numbers of American soldiers—all while garnering bipartisan support for the efforts in Congress. 

While National Security Action is filling a long-term problem, it is only positioning itself as a short-term solution. “We did set ourselves up as a temporary organization dealing with the emergency moment of the Trump administration,” said Ben Rhodes, the group’s cofounder. But when Democrats lost the White House in 2000, the seasoned professionals who managed the national security and foreign policy portfolios for Clinton scattered to nonpartisan think tanks, universities, and law firms. No organization existed to fashion a liberal foreign policy and national security agenda, much less to work with Democratic lawmakers and liberal advocacy groups to build consensus around it. 

This became tragically apparent after September 11, when the George W. Bush administration put the party on the defensive and peeled off significant numbers of Democrats to support the Iraq invasion. As the Iraq War descended into bloody chaos, key former members of the Clinton administration—led by John Podesta and backed by frustrated liberal donors—created the Center for American Progress, which was meant to be the Democratic counter to Heritage and AEI, combining scholarly and practical expertise on a range of issues, including national security, with a keen ability to work Capitol Hill. One of the think tank’s earliest achievements was helping then Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha release his plan in 2006 for “strategic redeployment,” a phased withdrawal from Iraq.

But it quickly became clear to leading Democrats that having one big think tank, with other domestic policy issues on its plate, was not enough. So in 2006, Rand Beers, a former Marine and counterterrorism expert who had served as a senior adviser to President Clinton and to John Kerry during his 2004 presidential run, founded a new organization: the National Security Network. Its aim was to be a dedicated resource on military and foreign policy for both the media and Congress—to provide “innovative national security solutions that are both pragmatic and principled,” in the words of its mission statement. With an unpopular ongoing war in Iraq, that idea resonated with the Democratic donor class. The NSN played a key role in formulating and disseminating Democratic messaging during the 2008 election, after which Beers left to join the Obama administration. 

During the Obama years, the NSN played a crucial supporting role in helping the administration devise strategies for winding down the Iraq War and clinching the Iran nuclear deal, according to former administration officials. It was also pivotal in helping to craft the White House’s plan to broker a nuclear arms reduction treaty, known as New START, between the United States and Russia in 2010. 

But it also struggled to find the funding it needed to operate. “A very searing memory that I have from 2009 is being told by not one but multiple large individual donors, ‘Now that we’ve elected Obama, national security is solved,’ ” said Heather Hurlburt, a former State Department official and White House speechwriter in the Clinton administration who ran the NSN after Beers. In 2008, the group’s political wing took in $1.2 million in grants and contributions; in 2011, it received only around $279,000. Through an annual gala with corporate sponsors—unlike CAP and virtually every other national security think tank, the NSN refused donations from foreign governments—the organization managed to raise just enough money to keep going, Hurlburt told me. But after advisory board chair Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton’s former national security adviser, died in late 2015, the funding dried up. National Security Network shut its doors in 2016, when the broadly shared view among Democrats—and everyone else, for that matter—was that Hillary Clinton would become the next president and the task of coordinating Democratic foreign policy would be taken care of. 

After Trump’s election, Democrats were left almost exclusively with the Center for American Progress for its foreign policy infrastructure, and there is only so much one think tank can do. “The core thrust of where my program is focused is on ideas generation,” said Kelly Magsamen, a former Obama official who now heads CAP’s national security and international policy division. While her outfit sometimes engages with Capitol Hill, she said, that isn’t its main function. No organization on the left, therefore, was filling that role in 2017, when Trump began trashing NATO, palling around with Russian President Vladimir Putin, cheering on Brexit, and pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate change agreement.

That’s why the creation of National Security Action in February 2018 was so welcome on the left. “There was this gap between CAP and other purely advocacy groups, like MoveOn, for example,” Magsamen said. “National Security Action is somewhere in between. They’re able to connect the two spaces between advocacy and political candidates and idea generation. I think there was that missing piece.”

Crucially, the group represents a fairly wide swath of opinion within the liberal coalition, rather than any specific camp. Its advisory board includes former Obama officials known for their relative hawkishness, such as Samantha Power and former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, as well as more dovish progressives like Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, and Ben Wikler, MoveOn’s Washington director. The conscious aim is to be an entity that lots of different Democrats can trust, in order to better build consensus.

“A very searing memory that I have from 2009 is being told by not one but multiple large individual donors, ‘Now that we’ve elected Obama, national security is solved,’ ” said the former head of a now-defunct liberal foreign policy think tank.The problem is that National Security Action was launched with the intent of existing only for the Trump era. “This is more about the unique nature of the moment we’re in now,” said Ned Price, National Security Action’s director of policy and communications. Indeed, when I went to visit with some the group’s top brass in October, I couldn’t help but notice that it doesn’t even have real offices. It’s set up in a WeWork-like shared office space in D.C.’s Thomas Circle—an obvious sign of its impermanence. 

This pop-up quality is not necessarily the fault of Democratic officials and operatives, like the ones who started National Security Action. Multiple sources said the central issue has long been a lack of sustained commitment from the donor base, who tend to prefer investing in domestic initiatives and support foreign policy organizations only for specific campaigns, like the Iran deal, or during moments of panic when the Democrats suddenly and unexpectedly lose power in Washington. “When the Iraq War concluded, donors started giving to something else; when the Iran deal was secured, they did the same,” said the senior Democratic Senate aide. But right-wing donors, the aide added, are “in it for ten or more years because they understand that to create an environment conducive to these ideas, you need to think in decades, not in years.”  

Another problem—if you want to call it that—is the occasional willingness of Democratic elected officials to cut the defense budget. As a result, defense contractors don’t support liberal national security nonprofits anywhere near as generously, if at all, as they do organizations on the right. Indeed, one of the main reasons think tanks like the Heritage Foundation have been able to maintain national security and foreign policy programs for the long haul is the millions of dollars in funding they receive every year like clockwork from companies like, as in the case of Heritage, Lockheed Martin. 

The founders of National Security Action, which has relied mostly on donations from private individuals and a few grants, according to Price, understand the dilemma, and hope the organization, despite its own impermanence, can prove that groups like it should become a permanent fixture of Democratic politics. “The money is out there, but you have to build up the case for why people should allocate it in this direction,” Sullivan explained. “Our view is if we can start making it a more natural part of the Democratic muscle memory, it will be an enduring contribution going forward because this will just become one of the areas that people give money to.”

Without a sustained foreign policy infrastructure, liberals are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past—like when they had no organizations to help guide the fledgling Clinton administration, or stiffen the spines of lawmakers against the launch of the Iraq War, or orchestrate a unified front against the pro-authoritarian policies of the Trump administration. If liberals really want to get their foreign policy act together, they will need to focus on building and sustaining a permanent infrastructure even when—especially when—one of their own is in the White House. Otherwise, they will eventually have to start from scratch all over again.

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa is the digital editor of the Washington Monthly.