5 Questions on Foreign Policy and Drinking Matchups with Richard Fontaine


This is the latest edition of our Five Questions series. Each week, we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy. Well, four of the questions are topical. The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

This week we spoke with Richard Fontaine, the President of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Richard has worked at the State Department, the National Security Council, on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as the minority deputy staff director on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He served as Senator John McCain’s foreign policy advisor in the Senate and during the 2008 presidential campaign.


1.  Richard, thanks so much for doing this! CNAS was founded by leaders on defense in the Democratic Party, Michele Flournoy and Kurt Campbell. It has since broadened and evolved to include leaders from different parts of the political spectrum, including you, a Republican. It probably would have been easy for CNAS to continue as a successful, openly D-aligned think tank, but it has not. Can you take us inside this decision?

CNAS has evolved significantly since its founding in 2007. We’re committed to having a significant impact on the making of national security policy no matter who is in the White House or in the majority on Capitol Hill. This requires us to establish a bipartisan space in which to develop creative, new ideas, incubate rising talent on both sides of the aisle, and shape and elevate the national security policy debate. Right now the debate over America’s role in the world is marked, like so much else, by deep partisan and ideological divisions. By bringing together Democrats, Republicans and independents, CNAS seeks to provide an environment in which a new, sustainable and bipartisan national security consensus can emerge. That’s our mission and we are dedicated to it.

2.  From Syria, to Iraq, to Ukraine, to Afghanistan, President Obama’s foreign policy has been under sustained attack from many Republican critics as well as increasing numbers of people from the President’s own party. As someone who has worked on the NSC staff, on the Hill, and in the opposition, do you think this White House suffers more from a substance problem or a process problem? In other words, are the ideas and goals the problem or is it how these goals are being pursued by President Obama, his team, and our bureaucracies?

The administration faces a challenging international environment, to be sure. But the White House at times seems to believe that the United States can choose to step back from global events and that, while the costs of engagement are concrete and vivid, the costs of disengagement will not be. Yet history demonstrates that the world will not let the United States stand back from its decades-long role in upholding international order through vigorous global engagement—diplomatic, economic and military. International security abhors a vacuum, and our friends and allies do too.

An active United States must do not only nation-building at home but also order-building abroad—and that requires a series of politically difficult choices. The Afghanistan withdrawal deadline should, I believe, be based on conditions on the ground rather than the Washington calendar. The United States should push its international trade agenda more vigorously, including through the Congress. And it must work with its partners and allies to raise the cost to China as Beijing seeks incrementally to change the facts and rules on the ground in Asia.

This and much more require American global leadership, and by necessity this means that the White House will have to focus its time, energy and resources abroad as well as at home. The alternative is deeply unattractive.

3.  President Obama and many of his supporters have argued that there was just no way to keep American troops in Iraq after 2011. This case has been made most thoroughly by Colin Kahl of CNAS and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East. Do you agree with Colin’s assessment? What is the best course of action for the U.S. in Iraq today to safeguard American interests in the region?

My sense is that had the United States pledged a sufficiently large number of troops, and done so earlier in the process, Prime Minister Maliki may have been willing to absorb the political costs associated with pushing an immunity agreement through parliament. When the U.S. finally made explicit the relatively small size of its planned residual force, it appears that Maliki concluded that the benefit was not worth the cost. Then, after Maliki offered an executive agreement that would guarantee immunity for American troops, the U.S. side declined, saying it was insufficient—and yet days ago the U.S. accepted precisely this kind of assurance in order to deploy 300 special operations forces to Iraq. I believe that the U.S. should have tried harder to retain a residual force in the country—not just for Iraq’s benefit but for our own.

Today, what is taking place in Iraq is both alarming and heartbreaking. The deployment of special operations forces is one step in the right direction; targeted airstrikes on ISIS positions may also be required. It is difficult to see how Maliki can knit together anything approximating a political structure that would draw significant Sunni support away from the insurgency, and pushing for a post-Maliki unity government is the right course. With or without Maliki, the U.S. should press the Iraqi central government to resume the flow of financial resources to Sunni and Kurdish areas and attempt to bring the Sunni tribes in the west and northern provinces back into the fold.

Even if all of this is done, however, it may be too late. We may be witnessing the revival of extreme sectarian violence in Iraq—without a coming surge of American troops to dampen it. As I said, alarming and heartbreaking.

4.  How does Ukraine fit when assessing America’s national interests? What sort of action, beyond what President Obama has already proposed, would be consistent with those interests?

Russia’s invasion of Crimea and Moscow’s role in fueling instability in eastern Ukraine is about much more than Crimea or Ukraine. It’s about the kind of world we wish to inhabit. America has worked mightily to establish a rules-based international order in which the use of violence to seize foreign territory is forbidden. Russia’s recent actions threaten that order and should be vigorously opposed.

Complicating this is the vast difference between Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008—a transparent, conventional operation—and the events in Ukraine this year. Putin’s moves have reflected a KGB officer’s dream—the combination of special operations forces without insignia, information operations, paid provocateurs and political agitators, and domestic repression. The U.S., NATO and others need to think through the right mix of responses to this new form of aggression.

In addition to the steps the U.S. has already taken to resist Russian moves and reassure its allies, I believe the United States should expand economic sanctions on Russia to include key banks and other businesses associated with Putin, the government, and key individuals. It should further bolster the government in Kiev through financial and some forms of military support. And we should not mistake the latest Russian pause for anything other than that—Putin can turn the heat back on anytime he wishes, and we should not ease off in the interim.

5.  My understanding is you witnessed one of the most epic vodka drinking competitions in the history of vodka drinking competitions. Is it true that Hillary Clinton beat John McCain, your former boss, at a vodka imbibing tussle in Estonia in 2004? Bonus question: What would be the most exciting vodka drinking matchup today on the global political landscape?

Unfortunately, I can neither confirm nor deny this particular episode—it’s necessary to maintain “Absolut” discretion about such alleged moments. What happens in Estonia stays in Estonia.

I can say, however, that a Vladimir Putin-Kim Jong Un drinking matchup, with Dennis Rodman pouring the drinks, would be a YouTube moment made in heaven.


Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks and the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest.


Photo credit: Kurtis Garbutt