The FP 50
The 50 most powerful Democrats on foreign policy.
In an arena dominated by a handful of elites, the president of the United States unquestionably has the most important voice on foreign policy — in his party, in the country, and (still) in the world. That has been particularly true of Barack Obama, who has tightly controlled national security matters from the White House. Because his power is so outsized, we have not included him — or Vice President Joe Biden, the resident devil’s advocate whose occasional verbal missteps belie his deep international experience — on our list of the 50 Democrats who have the most influence over Democratic foreign policy. But the fact that so much power is centralized in the Oval Office makes those aides favored with access even more important, and Democratic control of the executive branch allows a select group of principals to control the levers of America’s vast national security machine. As in our GOP list, we have included only individuals with a reasonably clear party affiliation, regardless of the authority their office gives them (sorry Gen. Petraeus) — and, of course, many of those with extraordinary influence aren’t in government at all. Here, then, is the FP 50, Democrat edition — the behind-the-scenes, in-the-media, and at-the-podium A-listers of American foreign policy.
Tom Donilon may keep a relatively low profile, but make no mistake: This backstage player is perhaps his party’s most influential voice on international affairs, with both the ear of the president and hands-on ownership over the foreign-policy process. A longtime Democratic operative with close ties to Vice President Joe Biden, Donilon made his fortune as a legal advisor to firms including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup and a lobbyist for Fannie Mae. He joined the Obama administration as the quintessential gray man, a staffer renowned for his careful attention to process, but became national security advisor in 2010 after the resignation of Gen. James Jones, with whom he had reportedly clashed. Now, his fingerprints can be found everything from China policy to counterterrorism to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which he argued should be speeded up. He wrote the memo to the CIA formally authorizing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and reportedly led a team of U.S. officials to consult Israeli intelligence in Jerusalem before the joint cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. However, some charge that he may have spilled a bit too much about such operations to journalists. One advisor to Mitt Romney’s campaign has gone as far as to directly accuse Donilon of leaking classified information. Some reports have put him on Obama’s short list to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, but the leaks flap could make Senate confirmation impossible.
As the U.S. military moves toward a smaller, leaner force, it is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who wields the scalpel, slicing and dicing Pentagon programs to save an estimated $490 billion over the next decade. As CIA director before his move to the Pentagon, Panetta oversaw the raid that killed bin Laden, handing Obama his signature foreign-policy achievement, and he jealously guarded his agency’s turf against an attempt by Dennis Blair, then the director of national intelligence, to exert authority over the CIA. As the head of the largest federal agency, Panetta is a Washington player simply by virtue of his title, but his deep ties on the Hill and in the Obama administration make him one of the few bureaucrats with sway in nearly every part of the government. During his tenure at the Defense Department, Panetta has lobbied Congress hard to reduce cuts to the defense budget and has worked to implement the so-called pivot to Asia by shifting Navy ships to the Pacific. On Iran, Panetta has engaged in a careful piece of brinksmanship, working privately to head off a strike by Israel while talking a tough line publicly and saying that all options remain on the table. Over the course of his nearly five-decade career in Washington — which he came to as a Republican — Panetta has served in Congress, run the Office of Management and Budget, and worked as White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. That kind of resume has made the colorful Italian-American — who kicked off his tenure as defense secretary by telling Iraq to “damn it, make a decision” on America’s troop presence — one of the most influential of Washington insiders.
Denis McDonough is both gatekeeper and confidant for President Obama when it comes to foreign policy. The former football safety at Saint John’s University in Minnesota and House foreign affairs staffer is said to be so close to the president “that colleagues — even his superiors — often do not make a major move without first checking with him.” McDonough, a fiendish late-night Blackberry user, is also known for his occasional saltiness: Before last year’s White House Hanukkah party, for instance, he told a group of Jewish leaders that he was “really pissed off that there are people out there who doubt our resolve to stop Iran.” McDonough was one of the chief architects of the 2009 surge that sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
Way back in 2008, the former first lady and New York senator seemed an odd choice to serve as her rival’s secretary of state. But Clinton has taken to the job, racking up visits to more countries than any previous secretary, giving issues like gay rights and Internet freedom a new, prominent place in U.S. foreign policy, engaging in some very public high-stakes diplomacy over imperiled Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, and even inspiring her very own Internet meme. A liberal icon, Clinton nonetheless has tended to side with more hawkish members of the cabinet, like former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, against her former Democratic Senate colleague Joe Biden. Insiders say Clinton remains outside the president’s inner-most circle and has at times been sidelined by the White House on issues such as Afghanistan and Middle East peace, but she has not clashed with the president, as some predicted. Admirers, meanwhile, point to her high approval ratings at home and abroad as a boon for U.S. diplomacy, as well as her influence on key decisions like the U.S. intervention in Libya. Clinton has said she won’t serve a second term if Obama is reelected, but despite her repeated denials, buzz about another presidential run in 2016 has continued to build.
At the United Nations, Susan Rice is the tough-talking face of the United States on the international stage. She has a reputation for bluntness but she has worked to bolster America’s standing at the U.N., leading efforts to pay a decade of back dues in 2009, join the Human Rights Council, and work with fellow member states on issues including the Libya intervention, nuclear non-proliferation, and sanctions against Iran. She has had far less success convincing Russia and China to reverse their position on Syria. But if the election in November goes to Obama — whom Rice supported in 2008 over Hillary Clinton, despite having worked for her husband through all eight years of his administration — she’s likely to remain among the president’s top foreign-policy advisors; some have suggested she could even become secretary of state. It’s not clear whether her famously sharp elbows will prove a help or a hindrance, though: When a fellow diplomat once pointed out that one of her positions clashed with that of then-national security advisor Gen. James Jones, Rice retorted, “I outrank General Jones.”
John Kerry might have lost his bid for the presidency in 2004 and been passed over in 2008 for the top job at the State Department, but he is a powerful force shaping U.S. foreign policy. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was responsible for shepherding the president’s nuclear agreement with Russia through ratification in 2010 — an arduous process that culminated in an eight-day debate during which Kerry spent some 70 hours on the chamber’s floor. And, as “a kind of ex-officio member of Obama’s national security team,” in the words of FP columnist James Traub, Kerry has been an invaluable diplomatic tool for the administration, putting out fires in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. The senator is now a frontrunner to replace Hillary Clinton if Obama wins a second term, having been tapped to deliver a key national security speech on the final night of the Democratic National Convention and to play Mitt Romney in the president’s debate prep sessions. Kerry could very well be higher on this list in the years to come.
The 42nd president has settled nicely into an elder statesman role, whether he’s traveling to earthquake-shattered Haiti with George W. Bush, securing the release of hostages in North Korea, or presiding over the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting — arguably a bigger draw for global leaders each September than the opening of the U.N. General Assembly across town. Although there was some love lost between Clinton and Obama during the tense 2008 primary, Secretary Clinton’s husband has been an active campaigner and fundraiser for the president’s re-election and is slated to deliver a prime-time speech at the Democratic convention. And the former president is still willing to wade into foreign-policy controversies on occasion, recently suggesting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is primarily responsible for the failure of the Middle East peace process.
Behind Obama’s biggest foreign-policy speeches — his campaign address before 200,000 people in Berlin, his 2009 Cairo remarks on Middle East policy, or his “new way forward” for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to name just a few — is the pen of 34-year-old Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor to the president and his chief foreign-policy speechwriter. After getting an M.F.A. at New York University and abandoning a novel, Rhodes gave up a publishing job and moved to Washington to write speeches for Rep. Lee Hamilton, eventually helping to draft the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group reports. Now advising a president known for his rhetoric, Rhodes — credited as the lead author of Obama’s National Security Strategy — is responsible for giving voice to the administration’s foreign policy, whether on drones, Iran’s nuclear program, or the Arab Spring (though he says he hasn’t yet given up on eventually writing novels), and that makes him by all accounts a key advisor not just a wielder of words.
The Hungarian-born hedge fund billionaire George Soros, who has been promoting free expression and the rule of law through his Open Society Foundations since 1979, has gone all in on Obama’s reelection campaign this year, pledging $2 million to groups supporting the president’s bid. Soros’s support for Democratic candidates has made him a favorite bogeyman for the Tea Party right — particularly TV host Glenn Beck. (Interestingly, the democracy promotion work Soros has funded in the former Soviet Union has also made him a figure of conspiracy theories.) Soros has made at least four visits to the White House since Obama came to office, though contrary to some reports he didn’t actually meet with the president. (The two men have met a number of times at fundraisers.) Soros is the author of more than a dozen books, including his most recent, Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States, a collection of essays on the recession, and he gave a widely cited speech in June predicting that the eurozone would survive the economic crisis. Soros has compared last year’s Arab Spring rebellions to the Eastern European revolutions he supported in 1989, arguing that new democracies need patience and support. “The transition from a closed society to an open society is not an easy one,” he said. “There’s a lot more involved in democracy than just overthrowing a dictator. You have to build institutions. That takes time and actually, effort. And these countries will need a lot of support for the revolution actually to succeed.”
Ashton Carter may very well be the least known, most powerful man in Washington. The Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, Carter will in large part determine which weapons programs will live to fight another day and which will be scrapped in an era of shrinking defense budgets. A veteran of the Clinton administration, he came to the Pentagon with a mandate to reduce waste and improve efficiency (giving up tenure at Harvard University to stay and finish the job). So far that effort has focused on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project, the most expensive in the Pentagon’s history and one mired in cost overruns, as well as Carter’s Better Buying Power initiative, an effort to streamline Pentagon acquisitions while introducing more competition for defense contracts. Carter has tried to make Lockheed Martin pay for some of the overruns associated with the fighter, which has complicated the effort to trim the department’s budget. At a time when the military is rapidly expanding its use of drone technology, Carter has said that unmanned aircraft will become “an enduring part of the Air Force’s force structure” but that they aren’t an option everywhere. “Afghanistan is obviously not a contested air environment,” he said at the American Enterprise Institute in May. “You can just fly around and do what you want. And that won’t be the case everywhere in the world.”
At a time when American news organizations have cut back their foreign presence, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show has only increased its attention to world affairs, with analysis of the financial crisis in Greece (“a country whose whole language is written in frat symbols”), interviews with newsmakers, like the former ambassador from Libya (or “Zazzistan,” as correspondent John Oliver suggested rebels rebrand the country), and reportage from the Middle East (where the show’s “senior international culture analyst” confirmed Mitt Romney’s critique of the Palestinian economy). But there is seriousness behind the silliness. When news broke of Obama’s “kill list,” Stewart responded with stunned silence and whimpered “mama,” which may perfectly encapsulate how the left feels about much of this administration’s foreign policy. Nor does Stewart shy from wonkery: recent episodes have featured experts like Trita Parsi, Ahmed Rashid, and Ivo Daalder. Which means that, for all its gags, the show — the most popular late-night TV talk show among 18- to 49-year-olds — is one of the most influential foreign policy programs around.
Chief of staff to President Clinton and co-chair of Obama’s transition team, John Podesta is the founder and chair of the Center for American Progress (CAP), the left’s answer to conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. CAP, which Podesta has called a “think-tank on steroids,” was a critical force shaping Obama’s 2008 campaign and subsequent transition period; as Time magazine put it, “not since the Heritage Foundation helped guide Ronald Reagan’s transition in 1981 has a single outside group held so much sway.” Podesta himself has been a leading voice on climate change and, perhaps more intriguingly, declassifying official documents related to UFOs. (“It is time for the government to declassify records that are more than 25 years old and to provide scientists with data that will assist in determining the real nature of this phenomenon,” he said in 2002.) Podesta exercises considerable influence in his behind-the-scenes advisory role to Hillary Clinton and a consultant to the State Department. In 2009, he accompanied Bill Clinton to North Korea to negotiate the release of two American journalists who had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.
Despite his slight frame and tender age — he is not yet 40 — Jake Sullivan is a definite heavyweight in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. As the head of the State Department’s internal think tank, the Policy Planning office, Sullivan is the chief ideas guy in Foggy Bottom and enjoys unrivalled access to Hillary Clinton, for whom he is also the key liaison to the White House. Known as a behind-the-scenes operator, he is one of the few people in Washington charged with thinking about the legacy of U.S. leadership and how to maintain American primacy in the world 25 and 50 years down the road. Before he moved to Policy Planning, the Minnesota native and former Supreme Court clerk worked as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, a job he never gave up while adding the policy planning portfolio to his duties. But his real job, many say, is simply this: Being Clinton’s indispensable man.
Tony Blinken, a consummate national security insider and a staffer on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration, was staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for Joe Biden, who called him “one of the smartest guys I’ve ever worked with.” Blinken followed his boss to the White House, becoming the most influential member of the vice president’s national security team; he is reported to have encouraged the vice president’s pitch to Obama for the United States to draw down in Afghanistan. Blinken has also been an effective public advocate for the Obama administration, pushing back against criticism of the Iraq withdrawal and policy toward Israel. Blinken attends the president’s daily intelligence briefings along with the vice president and, in a measure of his clout, appears in the famous Situation Room photo of the bin Laden raid. Blinken has argued that there is still time to reach a diplomatic solution on Iran’s nuclear weapons, saying the current U.S. policy is aimed at “buying time and continuing to move this problem into the future, and if you can do that — strange things can happen in the interim.”
As chair of the Armed Services Committee, a position he has held since 2007, Carl Levin leads Senate oversight of the Pentagon and is at the forefront of the raging debate over the defense budget. Levin and Sen. John McCain, the committee’s ranking member, agree that the $600 billion in military cuts set to take effect next year unless a new budget passes would be, in Levin’s words, “a train wreck.” (Defense Secretary Panetta has preferred the more apocalyptic “doomsday mechanism.”) But while McCain has proposed protecting the defense budget by reducing federal spending elsewhere, Levin has argued, “We should do something intelligent, which means establish priorities for any reductions but most importantly focus on revenues. You’ve got to have revenues.” Known for leading hearings and publishing reports on the alleged torture of Guantánamo prisoners and the causes of the financial crisis, he has recently called on the Obama administration to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal and announced a Senate investigation into possible national security leaks in the White House.
The media mogul and self-described “cartoon schlepper” — he franchised the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers television series, merged it with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., and sold the whole thing to Walt Disney for $5.3 billion — is a staunch supporter of Israel and one of the most prodigious fundraisers for the Democratic Party. Born in Egypt but raised in Israel, Saban has changed his views on the Jewish state over the years. Once farther to the political left, he told the Israeli daily Haaretz that the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000 proved that conservative politician Ariel Sharon, then the leader of the Israeli opposition, “was right and I was wrong.” He said that he has since moved “very far to the right.” Nonetheless, Saban, who donated $13 million to the Brookings Institution to found the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in 2002, has remained a steadfast supporter of the Democratic Party, personally donating thousands of dollars for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid and recently shelling out $1 million to super PACs supporting Obama.
When Leon Panetta became CIA director in 2009, he brought one person with him — Jeremy Bash, as his chief of staff — and Bash followed his boss when Panetta made the switch to the Pentagon in 2011. A lawyer by training, Bash was Al Gore’s legal advisor during his 2000 presidential bid (a role immortalized by the made-for-TV movie Recount), where he became close friends with fellow Gore campaigners Philippe Reines and Andrew Shapiro, now both in top roles at the State Department, as well as Rajiv Shah, the current USAID administrator. Bash went on to be minority general counsel to the House intelligence committee and a close aide to its ranking Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman. He stays mostly out of the public discourse, but his access to the highest levels of intelligence and decision-making is undeniable (even if, according to critics, it has been problematic in at least one instance: Bash was named among the CIA officials who were said to have given special access, potentially to classified information, to Hollywood filmmakers producing a movie about the bin Laden raid).
As chair of the Appropriations subcommittee for State, foreign operations, and related programs, 37-year Senate veteran Patrick Leahy essentially controls the U.S. foreign aid budget. An outspoken congressional leader on human rights issues, he’s the author of the 1997 “Leahy Law,” which prohibits U.S. assistance to foreign militaries deemed responsible for human rights violations. Leahy has advocated suspending Egypt’s military aid until the country fully commits to democracy and the rule of law, as well as cutting aid to Pakistan for its “Alice in Wonderland,” hot-and-cold dealings with the United States. Clinton’s State Department might have hoped that having Leahy chair the powerful subcommittee would keep the funds flowing, but the senator earlier this year told Clinton to expect “an allocation that is below the amount requested by the president.” He argued in particular that fewer resources should be funneled to struggling U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, calling the State Departments $4.8 billion request for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad a “symbol of grandiose and unrealistic ambitions in that country.”
Cheryl Mills is as close as it gets to the Clintons, known for “fiercely protecting their interests and keeping their secrets.” After serving as Bill Clinton’s deputy White House counsel during his 1999 impeachment trial, Mills was a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential campaign. The former private-practice lawyer now serves as Secretary Clinton’s right-hand woman in Foggy Bottom, where she oversees operations for the State Department’s nearly 60,000 staff, in addition to leading State’s outreach to earthquake-stricken Haiti and its “Feed the Future” initiative. Mills is so close to her boss, she’s been known to clash with the White House to defend her — not to mention that she was one of only a handful of State staffers invited to Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is best known as the congressional face of the Obama administration’s domestic agenda, but her path to power was paved on foreign-policy issues. In 2007, Pelosi led the charge against Bush’s strategy in Iraq, helping pass a key though nonbinding resolution that denounced the president’s request to send additional troops to the country. In the Obama era, she has been the most influential voice in trying to push the president, who has maintained many of his predecessor’s national security policies, to the left, in particular trying to speed the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. A 25-year congressional veteran, Pelosi first made headlines as an influential voice on foreign policy in 1991 when she unfurled a pro-democracy banner in Tiananmen Square. Since then, she has been a consistent critic of China’s human rights record, leading the state-run Xinhua news agency in 2008 to brand her a “disgusting figure.”
David Rubenstein was a wonk before he was a tycoon, having served as a domestic policy advisor in the Carter administration. At a time when the Obama campaign has focused its attacks on Romney’s record at Bain Capital, Rubenstein’s Democratic credentials have made him the White House’s favorite private equity guy. He has helped the administration facilitate energy deals, and in 2011 he scored a White House invitation to meet with visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao. The Carlyle Group, the Washington-based private equity firm Rubenstein co-founded in 1987, manages more than $160 billion, with 36 offices around the world, and has counted the likes of George H.W. Bush and James Baker as advisors. Rubenstein is also vice chairman of the board at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he has endowed a chair in energy and the environment. Having signed Bill Gates’ “giving pledge” — promising to donate the majority of his wealth to charity — Rubenstein is perhaps best known around Washington for his philanthropic efforts, including buying the sole remaining copy of the Magna Carta in order to donate it to the National Archives.
When Chen Guangcheng walked out of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing this past March, it was no accident that he was hand in hand with Kurt Campbell, who led the diplomatic battle to convince the Chinese to allow the blind dissident to take refuge in the United States. Campbell, who served in the Pentagon under Bill Clinton, is responsible for U.S. policy toward some of the toughest hot spots, including China, North Korea, and Myanmar, where he has overseen a historic and surprising warming of ties. One of the authors of the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia, Campbell is likely to see his role grow more important as the United States rebalances its interests away from the Middle East. In 2007 he co-founded the Center for a New American Security, a center-left think tank that has provided a bevy of Obama foreign-policy staffers. Plus, he’s half of one of Washington’s top power couples: His wife, Lael Brainard, is the undersecretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department.
The most influential House Democrat on foreign affairs, Howard Berman has carved out a perch for himself on the hawkish wing of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment — supporting, for example, a stringent line on Iran and a complete overhaul of the foreign-aid system. Before the 2010 midterm elections, Berman, a three-decade congressional veteran, chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now locked in a tight reelection fight with liberal Democrat Brad Sherman to represent their redrawn Los Angeles district. Win or lose, Berman has proven himself one of Congress’s most ardent Israel supporters and earlier this year introduced legislation that would expand Israeli access to U.S. anti-missile technology. He has also served as the congressional point-person on patent and copyright enforcement, vital issues for his Hollywood constituents. Since losing the committee chairmanship to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, he has often found himself fighting a rear-guard action against his Republican opponent, including her effort to slash funding for the United Nations.
Eight years ago, after George W. Bush’s reelection, a well-connected crowd of Hollywood stars and media types gathered at the Brentwood, California, home of Arianna Huffington — then best known for leaving the Republican Party more than a decade ago, before running as an independent candidate in California’s 2003 gubernatorial recall race. What eventually emerged from the get-together was a liberal counterpoint to Matt Drudge‘s growing conservative blog empire: the Huffington Post, which has since aggregated (OK, and reported) its way to more than a billion monthly page views and three foreign editions, with more on their way. It’s fair to say Huffington — who has argued that her native Greece should leave the eurozone so it has “the flexibility that it needs to actually grow the economy and not simply play defense continuing with these austerity measures” — helped shape the anti-Bush narrative of the late 2000s and continues to convey mostly left-leaning positions to her massive audience. Although the site’s focus is often domestic, with a steady drumbeat of news about jobs and the financial crisis, Huffington has used her considerable platform to become a prominent — and loud — critic of America’s wars, calling for the United States to get out of Afghanistan sooner: “This one is now compromising our humanity, our national security, our standing in the world, and our claim to the moral high ground.”
While at the Pentagon, Michèle Flournoy provided much of the thinking behind Obama’s revision of George W. Bush’s Iraq and Afghanistan policies, and her policy shop in turn emerged as a serious power center within the building. As undersecretary of defense for policy, the No. 3 Defense Department position, Flournoy was the highest-serving woman in Pentagon history, helping to shape the quadrennial defense review, a key assessment of the country’s long-term military strategy, before returning to the private sector late last year. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Flournoy co-founded the influential think tank Center for a New American Security with Kurt Campbell (No. 22) in 2007. Rumored to be a top candidate for secretary of defense, Flournoy has become a leading surrogate for the Obama campaign, for example going toe-to-toe with Romney advisor Rich Williamson in a July debate at the Brookings Institution over national security leaks and the Obama administration’s approach toward the conflict in Syria.
A former chief operating officer of Morgan Stanley and executive at Credit Suisse, Thomas Nides was one of Hillary Clinton’s top bundlers, raising more than $100,000 for her presidential campaign. In early 2011 he replaced Jack Lew as deputy secretary of state for management and resources. Perhaps Nides’s most important function at State is shepherding the president’s international affairs budget request through Congress — a duty that draws on his experience as a Hill staffer and gives him considerable sway over who gets funded and for what. In his bid to fend off ever-deepening State Department budget cuts, Nides has been behind efforts to brand diplomacy as both an economic and a national security imperative. “Our budget should be looked upon no differently than the Department of Defense’s budget,” he told FP in 2011. “We are helping countries… [become] more self-reliant and have stronger economies. By doing that, that helps our national security.”
Despite having led MSNBC’s climb in the ratings as liberals’ cable network of choice, Rachel Maddow has remained a strident critic of the Obama administration. A Rhodes Scholar, she has not been afraid to hold the administration’s feet to the fire, lambasting Obama’s Afghanistan policy and leading the charge to repeal the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Maddow’s campaign to allow gays to serve openly in the military reached its emotional climax when Lt. Dan Choi came out on air, an act that ensured his firing from the Army. Amid charges that the Obama administration has clung to George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism policies, MSNBC — and Maddow in particular — has positioned itself as a constant thorn in the White House’s side, attacking the president from the left and holding him accountable to his liberal base. Criticizing Obama’s detention policy, Maddow described it as “a radical new claim of presidential power that is not afforded by the Constitution and that has never been attempted in American history — even by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.” Her most recent book, Drift, documents how easy it has become for U.S. presidents to wage war without congressional consent.
Having served under President Jimmy Carter and in every administration since (except George W. Bush’s), Dennis Ross has played a bigger role in setting American policy toward the Middle East than perhaps any other official who didn’t occupy the Oval Office. Most recently, Ross was special assistant to President Obama and the National Security Staff’s senior director for the central region, which includes the Middle East, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South Asia. The bulk of Ross’s career, however, has been dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and his work on this front remains highly controversial. Lauded by some for his agility as a one-man back channel to Benjamin Netanyahu, Ross’s perceived bias toward the Israelis has made him a regular target of critics on the left. After leaving his White House post late last year, he returned to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he had been a fellow from 2001 to 2009. In 2008, and again this year, Ross has sought to shield Obama from charges that he is anti-Israel, reportedly telling a group of Jewish philanthropists, “I am absolutely convinced President Obama will use force [against Iran] if all else fails.”
Dianne Feinstein has represented the reliably blue state of California in the Senate for two decades, but as chair of the Intelligence Committee she has been known to work with both parties on national security issues — most recently joining Republican legislators in supporting an investigation into possible White House disclosures of classified national security information to the press and introducing her own anti-leak measure. After pointing the finger at the White House, Feinstein, who has also been called a leaker herself, quickly backtracked. Feinstein has not hesitated to publicly criticize spy agencies at home or abroad, admonishing Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence for apparently failing to detect bin Laden’s compound or calling U.S. intelligence on the Arab Spring “way behind our times.”
At the beginning of this year, Jim Miller was nominated to succeed his boss, Michèle Flournoy, as head of the defense policy shop. The two also worked together at the Center for a New American Security, where Miller was a senior vice president and director of studies. Miller’s background is in arms control and bioterrorism. But while at CNAS, he emerged as a blistering critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war, urging the United States to “get out of Iraq more responsibly than it got in.” Miller has also been called before Congress to testify several times on progress in the withdrawal from Afghanistan. In March 2012, he appeared on Capitol Hill to defend U.S. conduct in the war after riots sparked by the burning of Qurans by U.S. troops and a shooting rampage by a U.S. service member. Miller argued, “It is critical that these tragic occurrences not blind us to the significant progress we have made.” Having been instrumental in formulating the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review, Miller argues that the United States can safely do with significantly fewer nuclear weapons.
Between the two institutional centers of power within the White House — the National Security Staff and the National Economic Council — one low-key advisor’s portfolio straddles both: In his role as a key Obama economic advisor, Michael Froman has served as the president’s “sherpa” to international economic forums, in particular the G-7 and G-20, shaping the U.S. response to the global financial crisis. Froman came to the Obama administration as a protégé of Citigroup official Bob Rubin and has served as a point person in trying to resolve international trade disputes, including managing America’s ongoing tussle with China.
A State Department veteran — she worked for Secretaries Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright — Wendy Sherman has occupied the No. 3 spot in Foggy Bottom since last year. Under Albright, she coordinated North Korea policy, and today she is the top U.S. negotiator on another of the United States’ stickiest diplomatic cases — Iran’s nuclear program — traveling to India and Israel in recent months for talks on the issue. (Although Iran dismissed a U.S. offer to meet at an Istanbul summit in April, Sherman and her Iranian counterpart, Saeed Jalili, briefly “paused to chat” at a Baghdad meeting the following month.) Hillary Clinton has also called on the undersecretary to play a role in U.S. negotiations with Russia over the violence in Syria, with Sherman traveling to Moscow in August to urge the Russians to pressure Bashar al-Assad not to deploy chemical weapons. Sherman has strong ties to Clinton, a longtime friend whom she helped prepare for the transition to Foggy Bottom, but she has also worked closely with the Obama White House, notably co-leading a State Department review with Tom Donilon after the 2008 presidential election.
A Pelosi ally and the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on the State Department and foreign operations, Nita Lowey has influence that extends far beyond her suburban New York district. She has been a vocal advocate for human rights in Sudan — co-authoring or supporting numerous bills with relief or aid provisions — and for the global fight against HIV/AIDS. In 2008, for instance, she helped win $800 million in relief aid for Darfuri citizens and another $18.6 million for global health. Lowey has been a strong defender of USAID funding, arguing that too-deep budget cuts “could jeopardize relationships with allies and halt development initiatives vital to fighting terrorists’ recruitment efforts.” Lowey had planned to run for U.S. Senate in 2000, but she stepped aside when Hillary Clinton expressed interest in running.
Derek Chollet’s early gigs included helping James Baker and Warren Christopher write their memoirs, and during the Clinton years he worked for Strobe Talbott at Foggy Bottom. In the Obama administration, Chollet first served as Anne-Marie Slaughter’s deputy at the State Department’s Policy Planning office and then as senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council before he was nominated to his current position in March. Chollet’s new job gives him sway over defense policy in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The co-author of a well-received book on U.S. foreign policy during the 1990s, he and Samantha Power recently edited a volume of writings by and about one of their mentors, the late Richard Holbrooke. Chollet would seem to be a good fit for a president who promised to “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” in his inauguration address, having once made a similar point in an influential journal article. “The choice between realism and idealism is a false one,” he wrote. “U.S. foreign policy must be firmly rooted in both national interests and values.”
Although it’s been more than a decade since Madeleine Albright left the helm of the State Department, she has by no means retreated from Washington’s elite foreign-policy circles. The 75-year-old is still publishing books and articles, giving interviews everywhere from CNN to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, serving on a dizzying number of boards, and working as both a professor at Georgetown University and chair of the global strategy firm Albright Stonebridge Group. (She spends her morning commute listening to conservative talk radio, “to get to know other views that are out there.”) A supporter of Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, Albright served as co-chair of the task force that helped shape President Obama’s recently created Atrocities Prevention Board. In 2009 and 2010, she led a review of NATO’s priorities in the post-Soviet world, urging the body to address 21st-century threats, including the rise of terrorism and non-state actors, cyberwar, and climate change, and to do so by working more cooperatively with Russia and other non-member states and organizations.
A Biden aide since the mid-1980s, Brian McKeon was, as National Journal put it in 2007, the institutional memory of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he supervised the committee’s legal work while his boss was chairman. In 2010, as foreign policy advisor to now-Vice President Biden, McKeon was the Obama administration’s point person during the Senate’s consideration of the president’s nuclear treaty with Russia. Today, the unflappable McKeon manages the National Security Staff, a powerful gatekeeper position that oversees access to the national security advisor and that was previously occupied by Denis McDonough.
Together with Ben Rhodes and Denis McDonough, Mark Lippert, who had been by Obama’s side since joining his Senate staff in 2005, was part of the president’s foreign-policy inner circle in the administration’s early days. He had the president’s ear and sometimes delivered Obama’s decisions to more senior political appointees, according to James Mann’s book The Obamians. However, in 2009, the Naval reservist was forced out of the White House and went on active duty after he was seen as undercutting his then-boss, National Security Adviser James Jones. But Jones would himself later be pushed out, and Lippert has now returned to the administration, this time as the assistant secretary of defense. His new appointment makes him the Pentagon’s point man for East Asia and the Pacific at a time when the administration is lavishing diplomatic and military attention on the region.
Jane Harman served nine terms as a congresswoman from California, stepping down in 2011 to lead the Wilson Center, a foreign-policy think tank partially funded by the U.S. government. While in Congress, Harman was at some point on every major national security-related committee and played a key role in debates over reform of the intelligence services. After her husband, businessman and hi-fi audio pioneer Sidney Harman (of Harman/Kardon fame), died in 2011, she took over his seat on the board of the Newsweek/Daily Beast company. Harman has recently defended the U.S. use of drone strikes against terrorists but argued that they must be accompanied by a greater emphasis on “soft power” and diplomacy. “While the drone program is an effective tool to combat al Qaeda, ‘whack-a-mole’ alone won’t keep us safe,” she wrote. “We need to win the argument.”
An author, journalist, and former editor of the New Republic, Peter Beinart is an ideas man and an important voice shaping American foreign-policy debate. A onetime hawk who ardently supported the Iraq war, Beinart began moderating his views after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the difficulties of the occupation, ultimately admitting that he had been wrong on the first page of his 2010 book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Now, Beinart has possibly taken on an even more controversial subject with his new tome The Crisis of Zionism, which strongly criticizes Israeli policy toward the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and accuses the American Jewish establishment of enabling Israel’s moral decline. In turn, he has earned a reputation as “U.S. Jewry’s enfant terrible,” according to the Israeli daily Haaretz. Beinart recently launched a group blog at the Daily Beast called Open Zion, which is devoted to “Israel, Palestine, and the Jewish future.” He was one of a select group of journalists invited earlier this year to consult with Obama on foreign-policy issues ranging from Afghanistan to Israel.
Under Strobe Talbott’s leadership, the Brookings Institution has been consistently ranked Washington’s most influential think tank. Talbott landed at Brookings after a long career that has included stints as both a journalist — he was a correspondent and editor at Time magazine for decades, as well as the author of a trilogy on Cold War nuclear negotiations — and a government official, having served as an ambassador at large and deputy secretary of state under Bill Clinton, his Oxford roommate. Talbott’s foreign-policy interests range widely, but he has lately focused his efforts on the environment, co-authoring a 2010 book on “ethics and politics in the age of global warming.” His 2008 book The Great Experiment was a strongly worded argument in favor of global governance and international institutions, not likely to win him many friends across the aisle. (Talbott has also been one of the most unlikely subjects of an Onion parody and provided the name of a D.C.-based punk band.)
The dean of Syracuse’s school of public affairs, James Steinberg has held an impressive list of posts in Democratic administrations, including director of Policy Planning, deputy national security advisor, and, most recently, deputy secretary of state. Steinberg is perhaps best known for the catchphrase “strategic reassurance,” a term he coined to redirect U.S.-China relations: “Just as we and our allies must make clear that we are prepared to welcome China’s ‘arrival,’ as a prosperous and successful power,” he said in a 2009 speech at the Center for a New American Security, “China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of security and well-being of others.” Steinberg had his hand in a broad range of issues at the State Department, covering Asia, Iran, and the Balkans, but some remember him for his sharp elbows and off-putting intensity. (He reportedly retained closer ties to the president than to his boss, Secretary Clinton; during the 2008 transition period, Steinberg had advised Obama on issues including Iran and the Israeli peace process, in addition to accompanying him on campaign trips to Afghanistan and Iraq.) Steinberg may have retreated into the ivory tower, but he continues to shape foreign-policy debates, arguing just last month in the Washington Post for a broader and less confrontational military strategy in the Asia-Pacific.
As Hillary Clinton’s director of Policy Planning from 2009 to 2011, Anne-Marie Slaughter oversaw the massive Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review — the State Department’s first — and was a leading advocate of “21st-century statecraft” — diplomacy for an age where “the measure of power is connectedness” among state and non-state actors, as well as businesses and media. More recently, though, she captured attention with her Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” a manifesto on momhood for the world’s female leaders that chronicles Slaughter’s time doing double duty at State and as the mother of two teenage boys. Even though she left Washington to return to the academic (and parenting) life, Slaughter, a blogger, frequent tweeter, and academic expert in international law, seems more visible than ever, injecting herself into U.S. foreign-policy debates, notably and repeatedly exhorting the president to take bolder action in Syria by arming the country’s rebels.
Once considered a candidate to run the Obama State Department’s Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau, Tom Malinowski now works White House and State contacts from the outside. A former speechwriter at the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration, Malinowski today is responsible for delivering the messages of Human Rights Watch — an international NGO that spends some $50 million annually — to policymakers and government officials in Washington. He also has an expeditionary mindset: Over the past year, Malinowski has traveled from Myanmar to Bahrain (where he was briefly detained), gathering on-the-ground insight to bring back to the capital. He has generally been supportive of the Obama administration’s policies in those countries. (Despite the often grave nature of his work, Foreign Policy readers also know Malinowski has a sense of humor.)
Samantha Power is, in the words of Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, the “foremost voice for human rights within the White House.” A former journalist in Bosnia, the Irish-born Power first captured the attention of then-Senator Obama after he read her 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘A Problem from Hell,’ an account of the United States’ failure to prevent genocides in the likes of Armenia, Cambodia, and Rwanda. Although she resigned from Obama’s 2008 campaign after calling Hillary Clinton “a monster,” Power returned to the president’s team in the White House, where, aside from chairing Obama’s new Atrocities Prevention Board, she is said to have played a key role in the president’s decision to intervene in Libya last year. A staunch champion of the “responsibility-to-protect” doctrine, Power is also a Richard Holbrooke protege: She spoke at the late diplomat’s memorial service and co-edited a 2011 book of essays by and about him. Having recently given birth to her second child, Power has said she plans to return to her post after maternity leave, though her husband, legal scholar Cass Sunstein, Obama’s somewhat controversial regulatory chief, recently announced he would step down.
A former Clinton administration speechwriter, Heather Hurlburt serves as executive director of the National Security Network, a liberal group with close ties to Democratic congressional offices and a farm team for Obama’s executive branch. In the war of foreign-policy ideas, she belongs to a group of influential liberal pundits who have shaped perceptions and media coverage of the Obama administration. During the Clinton years, Hurlburt worked on the State Department’s Policy Planning staff and as an aide to secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. In 2001, Hurlburt penned a watershed Washington Monthly article in which she excoriated the Democratic Party for neglecting defense issues and failing to articulate the ideals that should underpin a liberal foreign policy, writing that “we will never learn to think straight about war until this generation of professional Democrats overcomes its ignorance of and indifference to military affairs.” That article hinted at what was to come for the Democratic foreign-policy establishment: the founding of left-leaning, defense-oriented think tanks — her NSN, as well as the Center for New American Security.
A Stanford University professor turned diplomat, Michael McFaul served as Obama’s primary Russia advisor on the National Security Staff before taking the ambassador’s post in Moscow. (Reportedly, the president offered McFaul the job to talk him out of leaving the administration.) McFaul’s academic research on promoting democracy has earned him the respect of both left and right, but his confirmation as ambassador encountered opposition after it became a referendum on the president’s “reset” policy with Russia, of which McFaul was the primary architect. In turn, McFaul — who has deep contacts in both the Russian government and opposition circles — was the victim of a brutal smear campaign upon his arrival in Moscow. He maintains one of the most entertaining Twitter feeds of any U.S. ambassador. After Russia’s Foreign Ministry lambasted him for a speech in May that accused Moscow of bribing Kyrgyzstan, McFaul tweeted, “Still learning the craft of speaking more diplomatically.”
Having spent years in top diplomatic posts during the Clinton administration — U.S. ambassador to Israel (twice), assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, special assistant to president, and senior director for Near East and South Asia on the National Security Council — Martin Indyk has government experience that’s hard to match. Lately, though, the Britain-born, Australia-raised Indyk has wielded his influence from the highest ranks of Washington’s think tank world, as the head of the foreign-policy program at the Brookings Institution. (He also founded both Brookings’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.) Indyk — who led early U.S. efforts to get Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi to give up his nuclear weapons during the Clinton administration — has recently weighed in on U.S. policy toward Iran, declaring that the Obama administration’s belief that sanctions would force Iran to give up its nuclear program was “wishful thinking.” He has also testified before the Senate on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, calling on Obama to do more to prevent a “descent into chaos.”
A leading thinker on the Middle East, Vali Nasr is the rare breed of academic who finds himself profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Just as the situation in Iraq began to deteriorate rapidly, Nasr shot to fame with a timely book, The Shia Revival, on the battle being waged within Islam that would come to shape Iraq’s sectarian conflict. An Iranian immigrant, Nasr’s family lost everything in the 1979 revolution and fled to the United States, where Nasr has become a leading advocate of a more thoroughgoing engagement with Iran. He advised Richard Holbrooke during his tenure as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan and, as the recently appointed dean of the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, remains an influential outside advisor to the Obama administration. His 2009 book, Forces of Fortune, which argued that a growing middle class across the Middle East could prompt a groundswell of opposition to the region’s authoritarian leaders, arguably predicted the Arab Spring.
Before taking up her current post at the human rights advocacy organization Amnesty International, which boasts more than 3 million members worldwide, Suzanne Nossel was chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch and a State Department official. In the early 1990s, she helped implement the peace accords that ended apartheid in South Africa and worked on human rights documentation and election monitoring in Bosnia and Kosovo. She then served under Richard Holbrooke at the United Nations. Nossel is credited with coining the phrase “smart power,” the title of a 2004 Foreign Affairs article in which she wrote about combining military might with other forms of “soft power.” Nossel was deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs from 2009 to 2011, and under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “smart power” has become a defining, if nebulous, concept driving U.S. foreign policy.
A longtime Middle East advisor to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Puneet Talwar moved to the White House with his former boss, Vice President Joe Biden, in 2009 and took up a post as senior director on the National Security Staff, with responsibilities for Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf. Back in 2001, Talwar argued in Foreign Affairs, that the Bush administration should “abandon the containment strategy [toward Iran] it inherited and embark on a new policy of moderate engagement.” By gradually helping Tehran “reintegrate into the world community through various multilateral arrangements,” he argued, “Washington can encourage and strengthen positive forces within Iran.” It was no surprise, then, when Talwar, who is one of only a handful of Obama advisors who have actually traveled to Iran, emerged as one of the cheerleaders for the president’s early (though unsuccessful) overtures to Tehran.
Corrections: An earlier version of this article stated that Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski opposes U.S. intervention in Syria. An earlier version also misstated the name of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and contained incorrect information in Thomas Nides’s banner heading box.