The Right Kahl: Unfounded Criticism of a (Former) SSP Professor

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By Daniel Charles

Last week, the White House announced Dr. Colin Kahl as the new National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden.[1] The decision to appoint Kahl – formerly a professor here at the Security Studies Program (SSP) – has been the source of some criticism, primarily from commentators on the right. While much of this criticism is simply political punditry aimed at attacking the current administration, the debate surrounding Kahl’s positions on key national security issues, namely Iran’s nuclear program, warrants a discussion of the reasons why much of the criticism levied against him is unfounded and baseless.

SSP students who have taken a class with Kahl know first-hand that he is a first-rate professor and scholar, but academic bona fides alone do not necessarily qualify someone to be an advisor to the President and Vice-President. Critics might point to the old adage, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” As insulting (and inaccurate) as that may be, this critique is unfounded as Kahl, like most SSP professors, is a practitioner and an academic, having already served in the Obama administration as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East (2009-2011).

It is precisely because of his time as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East that one can be certain Kahl has already dealt with critical issues like Iran in an official capacity. So why the fear of him assuming another role in the administration? Lee Smith’s op-ed in the Weekly Standard, one of a handful of opinion pieces levied against Kahl, quotes a senior official at a pro-Israel organization in Washington D.C. who argues that Kahl “left the administration under a cloud of failure” because, according to this same source, Kahl had “tried to insert an anti-Israel plank into the Democratic Party’s platform and failed to the point where the President had to personally intervene to repair the damage.”[2] The unnamed individual is referring to the September 2012 incident involving the absence of language from the party’s platform affirming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Whether or not this absence was Kahl’s doing is likely a debate in and of itself, but it raises a larger question that challenges the credibility of this unnamed official: what does an incident in September 2012 have to do with his departure from the administration in December 2011? The answer is likely nothing, so the fact that this is the example used to demonstrate Kahl’s failure as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East seems to further suggest these criticisms are baseless.

As for his time outside of government, this same individual is quoted as saying Kahl “has galloped to the fringe of the Iran debate, floating all kinds of suggestions – including letting Iran go nuclear – that the party had to publicly shoot down.” The evidence for this, per Smith, is a report that Kahl authored while at the Center for New American Security entitled “If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran,” wherein Kahl writes that “prevention – up to and including the use of force – could fail, leaving Washington with little choice but to manage and mitigate the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran.”[3] For Smith and the unnamed individual, this line (and the rest of the report) implies Kahl’s support for letting Iran go nuclear, thereby placing him ‘at the fringe of the debate’.

This is a horrible misreading of this quote as well as the report in its totality. Look no further than the title of the report, If All Else Fails, which implies that everything – to include military action – will have already been attempted and found lacking prior to having reached this state where Kahl and the Obama administration are ‘letting Iran go nuclear’.

Don’t take my word for it – look at Kahl’s own words in the two paragraphs that precede the quote Smith presents. “The Obama administration’s stated policy is to prevent – not contain – a nuclear-armed Iran, and all indications suggest that the administration means what it says. Given the destabilizing consequences that would ensue if Tehran acquired nuclear weapons – and the uncertainties, costs and strategic trade-offs associated with containment – this is the right approach.”[4]

If Smith or his source had read the report, they would see Kahl explicitly affirm that prevention, not containment, is the right approach to a nuclear Iran. In case that isn’t clear enough, Kahl’s report goes further, adding, “The commitment to use all instruments of national power, including the possible use of force, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons should remain firm.”[5]

Contrary to assertions by Smith and others, the CNAS report is not a prescription for allowing a nuclear-armed Iran, but rather an attempt to understand the challenges of containing a nuclear-armed Iran – and it is these challenges that help inform the reasons why policymakers should not allow Iran to become nuclear-armed. The mere fact that Kahl authored a report on the implications of a nuclear-armed Iran does not imply his endorsement of the idea, no more than Smith’s authorship of a book on the destabilization of Syria implies his endorsement of the continuation of the conflict there.[6] Scholars at think tanks like CNAS are charged with exploring the“what ifs”, and that is exactly the starting point for the report that is at the center of this criticism.

In reality, it is Kahl’s ability to examine these “what ifs” that makes him such a solid pick for Biden’s national security team. After all, one would hope that the advisors at the top of the national security apparatus have the capacity to map out situations and understand the strategic implications of the various options they are presenting to their bosses. As the administration makes monumental decisions on Iran and its nuclear program, having someone like Kahl who has explored the theoretical exercise of what Iranian containment looks like is invaluable, precisely in the hopes that he can help advise against a circumstance in which All Else Fails.


[1] The White House, Office of the Vice President. “Vice President Biden Announces Dr. Colin Kahl as New National Security Advisor” September 26, 2014.

[2] Lee Smith. “Biden’s New National Security Adviser Removed Jerusalem from Dem Platform” The Weekly Standard, September 28, 2014.

[3] Colin Kahl, Raj Pattani, Jacob Stokes, “If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear Iran.” The Center for a New American Security, May 13, 2013:  9. Accessed Oct 4, 2014

[4] Ibid. p. 67

[5] Ibid. p. 5

[6] Lee Smith. The Consequences of Syria (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2013).

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