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Mara Karlin

Associate Professor of the Practice

Director, Strategic Studies Program

Executive Director, The Merrill Center for Strategic Studies

  • +1 202-663-5911
  • Campus Location: Washington DC
  • Office Location: Rome 711


Mara Karlin, PhD, is Director of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She is also an Associate Professor at the school, Executive Director of Johns Hopkins SAIS' Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, and a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. Karlin has served in national security roles for five US secretaries of defense, advising on policies spanning strategic planning, defense budgeting, future wars and the evolving security environment, and regional affairs involving the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. She is currently a Commissioner for the Congressionally-mandated Syria Study Group and previously worked on the Congressionally-mandated National Defense Strategy Commission. 

Most recently, Karlin served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development. In that role, she developed and executed the overarching defense policy and strategy to shape the $550 billion+ Defense Department budget. She was a key architect of several mission-critical strategies, including the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the president’s 2015 National Security Strategy, the counter-ISIL strategy, two classified and ground-breaking secretary of defense-signed strategies on long-term global challenges, and three Defense Planning Guidance, including the earliest one in Pentagon history. Her work included overseeing the analytic agenda on the size and shape of the future US military, revising criteria for building and evaluating the military in alignment with the changing character of warfare, guiding $20 billion in investments for a number of strategic portfolio reviews on power projection, and leading a groundbreaking study assessing the current policy toward and implications of lethal autonomous weapons. She oversaw the first formal efforts to actively assess the national defense strategy with key offices from across the Defense Department and with close US allies. She inaugurated the first Departmental effort to shape close allies’ defense strategies and led efforts to fundamentally change how the Department collaborates with its closest allies on defense planning.

Previously, she served in a variety of policy positions in the Department of Defense. As special assistant to the under secretary of defense for policy, she advised the under secretary’s work on hundreds of national security-related actions with an emphasis on Middle East security affairs. As Levant director, she formulated US policy on Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel-Palestinian affairs. This included inaugurating a program to build the Lebanese military, coordinating nascent defense relations between the United States and Lebanon, deepening defense cooperation with Jordan, expanding security sector reform in the Palestinian arena, and a wide range of efforts involving Syria and Iran. As South Asia country director, she formulated US policy on India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh, focusing on terrorism, governability, security sector reform, and nonproliferation. 

Karlin has been awarded Department of Defense Medals for Meritorious and Outstanding Public Service, among others. She is the author of Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States (University of Pennsylvania Press; 2018). 
Mara Karlin, “On Syria, Washington Cannot Simply Throw Up Its Hands,” The Brookings Institution, September 24, 2019.
Mara E. Karlin and Leah Dreyfuss, “All that Xi Wants: China Attempts to Ace Bases Overseas,” The Brookings Institution, September 2019.
Mara E. Karlin, Loren Dejonge Schulman, and Alice Hunt Friend, “Two Cheers for Esper’s Plan to Reassert Civilian Control of the Pentagon,” Defense One, September 9, 2019.
Mara E. Karlin and John E. McLaughlin, “How to Name This Era in US Foreign Policy?,” Global Brief, Summer/Fall 2019.
Mara E. Karlin, et al, “By Accepting Russian S-400s, Has Turkey Taken a Strategic Decision to Distance Itself From the NATO Alliance?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace-Middle East Center, June 25, 2019. 
Mara E. Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes, “Commitment Issues: Where Should the U.S. Withdrawal from the Middle East Stop,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019. 
Mara E. Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes, “America’s Middle East Purgatory: The Case for Doing Less,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2019.
Mara E. Karlin, et al, “Empowered Decentralization: A City-based Strategy For Rebuilding Libya,” The Brookings Institution, February 11, 2019.
Mara E. Karlin, Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press: 2018).
Mara E. Karlin, “The Implications Of Artificial Intelligence For National Security Strategy,” The Brookings Institution, November 1, 2018. 
Mara E. Karlin and Christopher Skaluba, “What Has Become Clear To You? Reflections On Assessing The National Defense Strategy,” War on the Rocks, October 16, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin, “The Art of Creating Power: Freedman on Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2018.
Mara E. Karlin and Alice Hunt Friend, “Military Worship Hurts U.S. Democracy,” Foreign Policy Magazine, September 21, 2018. 
Mara E. Karlin, “Military Superiority: More Than Meets The Eye,” War on the Rocks, June 28, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin and Melissa G. Dalton, “Toward A Smaller, Smarter Force Posture in the Middle East,” Defense One, August 26, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin and Michael S. Chase, “Navigating Asia’s Stormy Seas: Regional Perspectives on US-China Competition,” The Diplomat, August 7, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin, et al, “Policy Roundtable: The Pursuit of Military Superiority,” Texas National Security Review, June 26, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin, “Before You Help a Fragile State’s Military, Ask These Uncomfortable Questions,” Defense One, June 21, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin, et al, “Roundtable 10-14 on The Future of War: A History,” International Security Studies Forum (ISSF), May 18, 2018. 
Mara E. Karlin and Frances Z. Brown, “Friends With Benefits: What the Reliance on Local Partners Means for U.S. Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, May 8, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin, et al, “Around the Halls: Brookings experts discuss the implications of President Trump’s Iran nuclear deal announcement,” The Brookings Institution, May 8, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin, “Syria’s Civil War Is Far From Over,” The Brookings Institution, March 23, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin, “Israel’s Coming War With Hezbollah: A New Conflict May Be Inevitable,” Foreign Affairs, February 21, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin, “After 7 Years Of War, Assad Has Won In Syria. What’s Next For Washington?” The Brookings Institution, February 13, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin, “How to Read the 2018 National Defense Strategy,” The Brookings Institution, January 21, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin and Melissa G. Dalton, “How Should the Pentagon Reshape Its Mideast Posture? Four Indicators to Watch,” Defense One, January 20, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin and James Golby, “Why “Best Military Advice” is Bad for the Military—and Worse for Civilians,” Orbis, January 8, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin and Paula Thornhill, “The Chairman The Pentagon Needs,” War on the Rocks, January 5, 2018.
Mara E. Karlin, “Why Military Assistance Programs Disappoint: Minor Tools Can’t Solve Major Problems,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2017.
Mara E. Karlin, “Recommendations For Future National Defense Strategy,” The Brookings Institution, December 2017.
Mara E. Karlin, “Bridging America’s Civil-Military Gap — At Sea,” Defense One, November 11, 2017.
Mara E. Karlin and Ilan Goldenberg, “Ending the Iran Deal Is an Invitation to War,” The Atlantic, October 10, 2017.
Mara E. Karlin and Jon B. Alterman, “As Independence Vote Nears, Iraqi Kurds Play a Risky Game of Chicken,” Defense One, August 29, 2017.
Mara E. Karlin and Melissa G. Dalton, “It’s Long Past Time to Rethink US Military Posture in the Gulf,” Defense One, August 2, 2017.
Mara E. Karlin and Christopher Skaluba, “Strategic Guidance For Countering The Proliferation Of Strategic Guidance,” War on the Rocks, July 20, 2017.
Mara E. Karlin, “You Get Deterrence, And You Get Deterrence, Everybody Gets Deterrence!” War on the Rocks, May 5, 2017. 
Mara E. Karlin and Loren DeJonge Schulman, “Keeping Up Civ-Mil Relations,” War on the Rocks, April 19, 2017.
Mara E. Karlin, Loren DeJonge Shulman, and Shawn Brimley, “For An Audience of One: Re-booting Agenda SecDef,” War on the Rocks, March 21, 2017.
Mara E. Karlin, “Chapter 5: Tunisia,” in Understanding the Implications of the ‘Arab Uprisings’ and U.S. Military Cooperation, ed. Jennifer Moroney and Ali Nader (Santa Monica: The RAND Corporation, July 2014).
Mara E. Karlin, “The Lebanese Army: A National Institution in a Divided Society (Review),” The Review of Middle East Studies46, no. 1 (Summer 2012).
Mara E. Karlin and Christopher Clary, “The Pak-Saudi Nuke, and How to Stop It,” The American Interest, VII, no. 6 (July/August 2012): 24-31.
Mara E. Karlin and Christopher Clary, “Saudi Arabia’s Reform Gamble,” Survival53, no. 5 (October-November 2011): 15-20.
Mara E. Karlin, “The Role of Armed Forces in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka: Lessons Learned from a Global Perspective,” in Challenges of Post-Conflict Sri Lanka(Ratmalana, Sri Lanka: General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University Press, 2011), 62-73. 
Mara E. Karlin and Andrew J. Tabler, “Washington Should Plan for a Post-Assad Syria,”, May 26, 2011. (Reprint)
Mara E. Karlin and Andrew J. Tabler, “Obama’s Push-Pull Strategy: How Washington Should Plan for a Post-Assad Syria,” Foreign Affairs, May 25, 2011.
Mara E. Karlin and Eric S. Edelman, “Fool Me Twice: How the United States Lost Lebanon—Again,” World Affairs, May/June 2011.
Mara E. Karlin, “The Druze Factor,” Foreign Affairs, February 16, 2011.
Mara E. Karlin, “Why the U.S. Needs an Envoy in Syria,” The Daily Star (Lebanon), January 26, 2011. (Reprint)
Mara E. Karlin, “Why the US Needs an Ambassador in Damascus,” Bitterlemons-International, January 20, 2011.
Mara E. Karlin and Caitlin Talmdage, “Under the Radar Rapprochement: Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds,” Foreign Policy Magazine, June 24, 2010.
Mara E. Karlin, “Lebanon’s Scud Row: Why Hezbollah Will Stay Armed and Dangerous,” Foreign Affairs, May 13, 2010. 
Mara E. Karlin, “Where is Beirut's cogent defense plan?” The Daily Star(Lebanon), March 30, 2010.
Mara E. Karlin and Tony Badran, “The Pretense of Reform,” The Washington Times, October 23, 2009.
Mara E. Karlin, “Will Syria Fold?” Foreign Policy Magazine, August 13, 2009.

Mara E. Karlin, “The Day After—Don’t Give Up on Lebanon,” Middle East Times, June 6, 2009.
Mara E. Karlin, “The Syrian and Lebanese tracks should be a priority,” The Daily Star(Lebanon), May 20, 2009. (Reprint)
Mara E. Karlin, “Syria-Lebanon First,” Bitterlemons-International, May 14, 2009. 
Christopher Clary and Mara E. Karlin, “A Fine Balance: India and Middle East Diplomacy,” Indian Express(India), May 9, 2009.
Mara E. Karlin, “A Strong Lebanese Army is Good for Israel,” Haaretz(Israel), March 22, 2009.
Mara E. Karlin, “The Terrorist Rolodex: How Islamists Join Terrorist Organizations and Coalesce (Review),” SAIS Review24, no. 2 (Summer-Fall 2004): 201-2.



  • Middle East


  • American Defense Policy
  • American Foreign Policy
  • Counterterrorism
  • Crisis Management
  • International Relations
  • International Security
  • Strategic and Security Issues
  • Terrorism

In the News

Iran needs help to fight coronavirus, but delivering aid is a challenge.

Director of Strategic Studies Mara Karlin quoted on NPR, 3/26

A military straining against civilian control?

Nora Bensahel, Mara Karlin, and Paula Thornhill interviewed on War on The Rocks podcast, 2/24

Three key insights for U.S. policy in light of recent escalation with Iran.

Mara Karlin wrote for Brookings Institution, 1/29

Escalation with Iran: Outcomes and implications for U.S. interests and regional stability.

Mara Karlin testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1/28

Esper’s Africa drawdown snags on Capitol Hill.

Mara Karlin quoted in Defense News, 1/16

Military implications of great power competition.

Mara Karlin interviewed on Center for Strategic and International Studies Defense 2020 podcast, 1/15

Why did the Pentagon ever give Trump the option of killing Soleimani?

Mara Karlin wrote in The Washington Post, 1/10

U.S.-Iran tensions.

Mara Karlin interviewed on Voice of America, 1/10

Iraqi PM calls on U.S. to set up plan for troop withdrawal.

Mara Karlin interviewed on MSNBC, 1/10

Foreign policy experts weigh in on Trump’s Iran strategy.

Mara Karlin interviewed on PBS NewsHour, 1/7

2020 trends to watch: Policy issues to watch in 2020.

Mara Karlin interviewed for Brookings Institution, 1/7

The Soleimani killing and the implications for the U.S. and Middle East.

Mara Karlin interviewed on AirTalk podcast, 1/3

Military implications of great power competition.

Mara Karlin interviewed on Center for Strategic and International Studies Defense 2020 podcast, 12/17

Bombshell live! from Natsec girl squad.

Mara Karlin interviewed on War on the Rocks Bombshell podcast, 12/17

The savage injustice of Trump’s military pardons.

Mara Karlin and Nora Bensahel quoted in The New York Times, 12/4

Trump interventions undercut Pentagon leadership.

Mara Karlin quoted in AFP, 11/26

How Trump turned the military against itself.

Mara Karlin quoted in The Atlantic, 11/25

Global China’s plan for overseas military bases.

Mara Karlin interviewed on Brookings Cafeteria podcast, 10/4

All that Xi wants: China attempts to ace bases overseas.

Mara Karlin wrote for Brookings Institution, 9/30

Downgrading America’s commitments in the Middle East.

Mara Karlin interviewed on The Century Foundation World podcast, 8/13

A special relationship?

Mara Karlin interviewed on Monocle 24 The Foreign Desk podcast, 7/12

U.S. is woefully unprepared for cyber-warfare.

Director of Strategic Studies Mara Karlin quoted in S&P Global, 6/26

U.S. is woefully unprepared for cyber-warfare.

Mara Karlin quoted in S&P Global, 6/26

How to name this era in U.S. foreign policy?

Mara Karlin and John McLaughlin wrote in Global Brief, 6/20

Building militaries in fragile states.

Mara Karlin’s book reviewed in RealClearDefense, 6/12

What’s great power competition? No one really knows.

Mara Karlin quoted in Defense One, 5/13

Applying ‘maximum pressure,’ Trump faces burgeoning crises overseas.

Mara Karlin quoted in The Washington Post, 5/12

Was the United States ever good at national security policy?

Mara Karlin interviewed on Government Matters, 4/25

Commitment issues.

Mara Karlin wrote in Foreign Affairs, 4/16

Shanahan’s bid for top Pentagon job on hold.

Mara Karlin quoted in Foreign Policy, 4/3

Building militaries in fragile states: Challenges for the United States.

Mara Karlin’s book reviewed in Political Science Quarterly, 2/11

One big thing: China's second-mover leapfrog.

Mara Karlin quoted in Axios, 2/8

House Foreign Affairs Committee wrangles with Saudi relations.

Mara Karlin quoted in United Press International, 2/6