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.