John Allen—A scholar, a gentleman, AND a great Marine and great leader

October 9, 2017

For Michael O’Hanlon, John Allen isn’t just one of the very best generals he ever met. He’s also one of the smartest scholars and one of the nicest people he’s known in 23 years at Brookings.

Editor's note:

On October 4, 2017, the Brookings Institution announced that John Allen will become the eighth leader in the Institution’s 101-year history. Read the news release »

John Allen isn’t just one of the very best generals I have ever met. He’s also one of the smartest scholars and one of the nicest people I’ve known in 23 years at Brookings. Just when I thought I had seen the full range of his knowledge, he started teaching me about subjects like artificial intelligence and missile defense. Just when I thought I’d seen the full geographic scope of his expertise, which spans from East Asia to the broader Middle East to Europe, he told me stories about his experiences in Colombia and other parts of Latin America. And if I ever thought he was just a national security and foreign policy leader, I have been very impressed to learn of his interest in economics, and in trying to understand what we can do to help the working class and poor in this country, at a fraught moment in America’s great history.

I got to know General Allen just over a decade ago in Iraq, where he was working with other Marines to help support the so-called Sunni Awakening, which contributed mightily to the success of the broader “surge” in Iraq under General David Petraeus. There was alas still plenty of combat in Iraq at that time, but just as crucial to the success of the mission was a sophisticated understanding of the tribal politics of Anbar province. John excelled at all of that—just as friends who are experts on Asia told me he had excelled in previous years working on the Pentagon’s Asia desk, and as he had excelled as the first Marine to be “Commandant of the Midshipmen” at the U.S. Naval Academy before that.

Later, John led coalition forces in Afghanistan. Anybody who thinks he was a general who could just issue orders to troops should remember this: In that particular mission, he had nearly 50 civilian bosses—the heads of government of all the countries in the NATO-led operation (not to mention their ministers or secretaries of defense, not to mention President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan). Again, the challenge was as much about politics and diplomacy as fighting, but again, there was lots of combat too. General Allen excelled at it all.  Among other major achievements, John began the process of taking NATO forces out of their lead combat role and transferring those tasks increasingly to Afghans, as the NATO forces went into support modes. This was the period too when President Karzai was becoming particularly tense and testy, in my view, due to Karzai’s increasing frustration with the lengthy war and with Washington, and with a few very unfortunate incidents on the battlefield that were beyond any single commander’s ability to prevent. John showed incredible patience and calmness when the mission hung in the balance on several occasions.

After retiring from the military, John took on two more enormous tasks that required him to be what Dave Petraeus calls a “pentathlete”—combining many different skills in multi-dimensional challenges. One was an attempt, with our dear friend and Brookings Executive Vice President Martin Indyk, to help Israelis and Palestinians negotiate peace and a two-state solution.  This was a herculean task that ultimately proved impossible at the time. But Indyk and Allen helped work through many of the ideas (including on security arrangements in a two-state framework) that may still be helpful to future negotiators. John then coordinated the multi-front campaign, including diplomatic and economic as well as military and homeland-security instruments, against ISIS under the guidance of Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama.

At Brookings, in less than two years, John has ranged far and wide with great expertise—on dialogues with Chinese, Koreans, and Indians; to counterterrorism and Middle East matters; to electoral security at home; to defense modernization and innovation; to Europe and the future of NATO; to the management and mentoring of our military and intelligence community fellows.

In going from Strobe Talbott to John Allen at Brookings, we are in essence going from Michael Jordan to LeBron James, or the equivalent. We are truly fortunate to have such leadership at the institution, and in this great nation.