Meet Andrew Marshall, the unknown but immensely influential figure behind American national security strategy

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Somewhere deep in the bowels of the Pentagon — perhaps while you are reading this — Andrew Marshall is working.

He is likely working on something you have never thought about. It’s probably something that isn’t immediately relevant, but which could be crucial for policy makers to consume and understand if America is to remain the world’s preeminent superpower. And he has been doing this for nearly 40 years.

Marshall turns 90 this year. He is likely the most influential person in American national security affairs whom you have never heard about.

“I think he’s been by far one of the most important people in U.S national security for the past five decades,” Paul Bracken, a Yale School of Management professor who has known Marshall since the 1970s, told The Daily Caller. “He’s been much more important than people who have high name recognition and are constantly on talk shows.”

“He has really created an enormous amount of the intellectual infrastructure of American strategic thinking over really, I would say almost two generations,” Eliot Cohen, director of the Strategic Studies Program at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, told TheDC.

Marshall began his career at the RAND Corporation in 1949 working on international nuclear strategy. He remained there during the think tank’s golden age before coming to Washington in 1972 to work for the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger. In 1973, President Richard Nixon appointed Marshall to head the newly created Office of Net Assessment, where he has been ever since.

“The whole idea behind net assessment was to — because leaders oftentimes didn’t have to think about the long-term consequences of how a competition would unfold — in a sense, someone could go in the corner and do that for them,” explained James Carafano, a security expert at the Heritage Foundation.

“They could play the infinite number of varieties of the chess match,” Carafano added, “and come back and say ‘here’s different ways this might unfold.’ It doesn’t tell them what to do … it really says ‘here is how to think about it, and then do what you want with it.’”

Marshall and his office have been credited with significant insights that have been both prescient and important to America’s national security posture.

“He early on figured out that the Soviet Union economy was in really bad shape, before anybody did, before the intelligence community,” Henry Rowen, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council under President Reagan, told TheDC. “I’m speaking now of the 1970s, and at that time it was thought that it was doing quite well.”

Marshall “provided the larger strategic framework for precision-strike weapons,” said Bracken, “going back to the 1960s and the late Vietnam War in which technology was moving in that direction, but it hadn’t been put into anything like an intellectual framework.”

Bracken also credited Marshall for seeing, before anyone else, that Asia was a rising region of influence and potential concern.

“He was the first one in the ’80s and ’90s to point out that Asia was going to be the location of strategic dynamics and security issues,” said Bracken. “Something we all take for granted now. Back then, I can tell you everybody dismissed it.”

Another area of Marshall’s considerable influence centers around what military historians call the Revolution in Military Affairs.

“There were some areas where [the Office of Net Assessment] was intensely influential,” Carafano said. “One is the whole military transformation movement of the post Cold War era … You can’t really talk about the thinking about, or emphasis of, transformation post-Cold War without really thinking about Marshall’s office.”

In a rare interview in February 2003 given to Wired magazine, Marshall seemed to foreshadow the future use of predator drones, which the American military now commonly and successfully employs to strike terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and beyond. But Carafano cautions that pointing to predator drones or other specific military innovations is the wrong way to look at Marshall’s achievements and influence.

“Marshall doesn’t provide silver bullets, and it is not really about, you know, about procurement in particular platforms,” he said.

According to Carafano, the degree of Marshall’s influence actually lies in whether a given secretary of defense chooses to use the information and knowledge Marshall provides. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld echoed Carafano’s analysis.

“His value to the department depended on the interest people had in the kinds of work he did,” Rumsfeld told TheDC.

Rumsfeld noted that during his second stint as Defense secretary, Marshall was one of just two people he remembered from his first appointment, adding that he found Marshall’s work extremely useful.

“To have a person around who … could think about things, free of the pressures of someone pressing in to do this, that, or the other thing, or having to testify before Congress, or attend interagency meetings constantly back and worth with the White House — that is an enormous value,” Rumsfeld said.

“You knew when he opened his mouth, he was telling you what he and the bright people that he attracted thought, and not only what they thought, but what they thought was important for others to be aware of.”

Carafano also suggests another way to measure Marshall’s influence during the past four decades.

“One of the affectionate names of Net Assessment is ‘St. Andrews Prep,’” he said. “And that’s the people Marshall influenced, either working with him at Net Assessment or work[ing] for him at Net Assessment. And those people are all over Washington.”

According to many, Marshall’s continued relevance and influence are products of his low-key demeanor.

“If you want an opposite, negative polarity of a glad-hander type, that’s Andy,” Rowen, who has known Marshall since they worked at RAND together nearly six decades ago, said. “He avoids publicity. He avoided it very successfully.”

Indeed, through a Pentagon spokesman, Marshall declined TheDC’s request for an interview.

When asked why Marshall has stayed on the job for so long, far past when most people call it a career and head to Florida or Arizona, three people who know Marshall told TheDC, in almost the exact language, that it is due to his “intellectual curiosity.”

Both Rowen and Bracken have been in touch with Marshall recently and say he is as sharp as ever. When asked whether he could imagine Marshall working for another half-decade or even decade more, Bracken offered a story.

“I was with a right-wing strategist who I knew in 1980 who said: ‘Andy’s too old. I’m going to get his job because I supported Reagan.’ He didn’t get his job, and nobody’s ever heard of this guy since. And Andy’s still with us.”

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