In The Tank: This Week’s Best Defense and National Security Think Tank Offerings

The latest in wonk reads on national security, tech, and more. By Kedar Pavgi

Welcome to “In the Tank”, Defense One’s weekly think tank roundup. Every week, we’ll present the latest research and commentary published by think tanks from around the world on defense, national security, foreign policy, technology, and management – a tool to help the national security community navigate the future. If you’d like to submit your latest research, email Kedar Pavgi at

Syria: A Wicked Problem for All
Combating Terrorism Center at West Point

“We don’t have good options, great options, for the region,” President Obama said in an interview with PBS Newshour on Tuesday. Any military response to the recent chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus would need to factor in possible backlash and regional repercussions that are sure to affect U.S. interests elsewhere in the Middle East. To better illustrate how the current situation could play out, a group of analysts writing for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point took on the perspective of each actor involved in Syria’s civil war and mapped out possible responses based on their strategic interests.  The papers include a deep dive into the historical basis for the ongoing violence in Syria, and a background into the elites currently driving the issue.  

The paper is similar to an analysis recently done by researchers at the European Council on Foreign Relations; however, this series of papers elaborates on issues—like the ongoing proliferation of extremist groups—that have been overshadowed in the wider debate on an intervention in Syria. The authors also include a discussion by noted Iran watcher Karim Sadjadpour on how the election of Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani affects its response to international action in Syria.

The U.S. Intelligence Report on Syria: Learning from Iraq
Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies

Officials in the intelligence community have emphasized that the proof that the Syrian regime was behind the recent chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus remains incomplete. Their caution stems from the mistakes that lead to the Iraq War; former CIA director George Tenet in 2002 said that the intelligence on Saddam’s Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk” reason to pursue military action.  Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s testimony in front of the U.N Security Council to seek international backing for a military invasion of Iraq is now a monument to the systemic failures that led to the war.

Military analyst Anthony Cordesman argues that the intelligence community now has an imperative more than ever to prove a decisive link between Bashar Assad’s government and the recent chemical weapons attack. Once again, U.S. credibility is on the line, and the Obama administration needs solid evidence as a way to build back trust in the world to back military action. To do its job, the intel workers need to study their own playbook from the Cold War where major foreign policy decisions were justified by extensive public reports on Soviet activity and its global weapons proliferation.

Though the timeframe for an attack on Syria is much shorter now than it was when facing the Soviet Union, Cordesman says that the intelligence community needs to engage in a broader effort to publish information, issue press releases and make a solid and steadfast case for international involvement. “We need to show we are not repeating the mistakes of 2002-2003 in Iraq,” Cordesman said. “We need to push the state of the art in releasing information to the very limit of what we can do without sacrificing our intelligence capabilities.”

The Age of Nationalism
Paul Pillar
Brookings Institution and Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies

How deep are the roots of today’s conflicts? Centuries old, contends former CIA analyst Paul Pillar in a new essay in The National Interest. Modern conflicts are a culmination of newfound nationalism taking effect in governments around the world, and policymakers are misunderstanding how to adequately confront this movement. Everything from China’s push for energy resources in the South China Sea, to the ongoing conflagrations in the Middle East are a result of nationalism becoming the de facto ideology for government and international relations.

Pillar says that policymakers have too long focused on using major events to signal broader changes in state-state relations; for example, he criticizes the designation of 9/11 as the beginning of the Global War on Terror, or the fall of the Soviet Union as the beginning of a unipolar, post-Cold War era. His argument furthers previous literature on the topic, including the famous “Clash of Civilizations” essay written by famed political scientist Samuel Huntington.

U.S. policymakers aren’t immune to this resurgent nationalism either, according to Pillar. Rather, the newfound willingness to justify international interventions under the umbrella of American Exceptionalism is only an example of how foreign policy has become captured within the lens of nationalism. Pillar argues that policymakers need to adopt Eisenhower-era realism when conducting global affairs, and urged restraint over enthusiastic participation. “Sometimes the policy implication may be for the United States to do less; other times it may be to do more,” Pillar writes.

Top 10 Reasons Why the U.S. Should Not Sign the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty
Theodore R. Bromund
The Heritage Foundation

Secretary of State John Kerry announced in June that the U.S. would be signing the Arms Trade Treaty, a broad piece of international legislation that regulates the international market for conventional weapons. As of August, 83 states have already signed the treaty, and more are likely to do so during this year’s U.S. General Assembly in September. However, according to the Heritage Foundation’s Theodore Bromund, the treaty is rife with flaws that will undoubtedly hurt U.S. international interests.

His primary criticism is from the treaty’s potential to invade U.S. national sovereignty. Amendments to the ATT can only be done through a ¾ majority vote, and Bromund says that this forces the U.S. to “comply in practice” with elements of the law that it may not want to fully implement. He also says that the treaty places excessive restrictions on civilian firearm ownership, which violates the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution.

Bromund also that the treaty will hinder domestic efforts at export control reform, which he says is inherently complex and is in dire need of repair. Last week, In the Tank covered the opposite end of this debate; William Hartung at the Center for International Policy said that current policy was too loose and allowed autocrats and human rights violators to easily procure weaponry.

Either way, Bromund is pessimistic on the treaty and says that it won’t do anything to prevent “terrorists and dictators” from finding ways to procure illicit arms. “The treaty was negotiated by the same nations that are responsible for these violations,” Bromund says.