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'The Blob' strikes back, and misses

We don’t just need foreign policy experts, we need to challenge the foundation of the bipartisan consensus that has ravaged U.S. foreign policy.

Analysis | Washington Politics

In an age of war, debt, and plague, is America’s foreign policy establishment, or “the Blob” as it has been dubbed, part of the problem? Or part of the answer?

According to Hal Brands, Peter Feaver, and William Inboden, three sharp minds who served in government and the academy, America needs its specialist class of experts at the helm. What’s more, to challenge the Blob’s workings, record, and judgment is to be Trumpian, and hostile to “expertise” in general.

This is a stark framing of the issue. And an artless one, given the authors claim that the establishment stands for healthy pluralism. “The Blob” is not interchangeable with “expertise.” Just as criticism of the Blob does not have to entail regressive, know-nothing anti-science. To frame it this way typifies Blobbish reductionism.

For with the Blob, it is their way or the highway: leadership or isolation, expertise on their terms or primitive regression. This leaves little room for more intermediate and measured statecraft. “With us or against us,” as someone once said, someone they now miss, in a global military misadventure the Blob helped design. But more on that later.

Brands, Feaver, and Inboden offer three arguments: Washington’s foreign policy hands are not a “closed cabal,” but an unusual thing — a non-conformist establishment. American statecraft has not been a “giant failure.” And scrapping professionals for amateurism would be a disaster.

This is wrong, or misleading, on each count.

Defining the Blob

To clear the decks, let’s define the Blob sensibly.

A “Blob” community is an elite class, intimate with government, with a shared underlying worldview and a commitment to American primacy in the world. Former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes’ definition was barbed but accurate: officials and commentators who worry incessantly about the “collapse of the American security order,” many of whom supported the Iraq war.

A hallmark of the Blob, by the way, is to euphemise America’s worst war since Vietnam (“early misjudgments,” in these authors’ clinical phrase) as a misleading anomaly, lest America loses its appetite for military struggle and becomes skeptical of interventionism, obscuring more triumphant campaigns like Libya, Yemen, or Afghanistan.

Most Blob-types are sincere, civic-minded patriots. They participate in national life, though, not as experts above the fray but as determined agents in political struggle. In and out of government, they remain close to power, the better to guide it. Not from unspeakable motives, but because they care about America and the world.

It is not exaggerating much to call their enterprise a civil religion. They gather in conclaves and security summits from Aspen to Davos to Munich to Chicago, to argue over details and priorities certainly, but above all to issue manifestos and recapitulate the faith.

In this case, whatever their differences, Blob-types share one big thing, a theology of American power. Their creed evolved over decades as the United States precipitously rose in the post-war period to become a superpower. A body of talented minds formed cohesion, gained privileged access to power, becoming what one of the Blob’s grandees, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, called an “informal shadow foreign affairs establishment.” America, they believe, is an exceptional hegemon, holding a mandate from heaven, or history, and blessed with clairvoyant gifts. “We see further.”

They are predisposed towards certain policy preferences as default settings: a commitment to armed supremacy abroad, a bias towards activism over restraint, a reverence for alliances and institutions and (usually) their expansion, a belief in free markets (on American terms) and abhorrence of protectionism, and an obsession with “leadership” in general.

They also have a reflexive acceptance of economic sanctions as a minimal, go-to measure for responding to problems, which in blunter terms we can call economic war, at times besieging and strangling enemy states, at times with catastrophic consequences.

So Blob-types may disagree, for instance, on “whether to negotiate with Iran or squeeze it,” at different times but most accept severe coercion of that state. Recall that the Iran nuclear deal only happened after President Obama’s campaign of economic punishment that gave Tehran a currency crisis and exacerbated mass unemployment, backed up with the threat of force.

Deriding amateurs, they prize expertise, though expertise in running an entire planet is hard to achieve. Hence they often advocate coercion or “regime change” in countries of which they know little — from Venezuela to Syria — usually discovering they knew less than they thought, and despite mounting evidence that regime change is usually a bad bet. Then, they tend to blame failure on bad planning, or premature withdrawal, or a lack of will, on anything other than their policy itself.

The Blob’s worldview is metaphor-poor, portraying the only alternative to “global leadership” as blanket withdrawal into isolationist chaos. They rely on a narrow set of images and analogies: Munich, Chamberlain, and Hitler (or a version of it) haunt everything, even though historically a Great Power’s pathways to ruin are many.

Regarding the present predicament, and the current dispensation in the White House, Blob-types see it all as the result of a departure from their ethos and policies, not a consequence of them. Even though the Panama Papers and the Afghanistan Papers reflected failures that long pre-date Trump.

They deride reactionary nostalgia and think of themselves as enlightened and forward-looking, even while marinating in a romantic account of post-war history. In George Packer’s elegy for the late Richard Holbrooke, a curator of the Pax Americana, his hero weeps at the 1949 musical “South Pacific” — “when we had gone to the most distant corners of the globe and saved civilization.”

An empire, then? Awkward question: Blob-types believe the U.S. should throw its weight around and lock other countries into a system of their design, while most also believe theirs is a non-aggrandizing hegemony. As Haass said, there is a “big difference between being imperial and imperialist.” Work that one out.

For a neat synthesis of this binary and presumptuous worldview, consider the preamble to a bipartisan 2014 National Defense Panel report, co-authored by insider luminaries including Michelle Flournoy, Eric Edelman, William Perry, and John Abizaid.

“[O]ur policy of active global engagement,” they wrote, “has been so beneficial and is so ingrained that those who would retreat from it have a heavy burden of proof to present an alternative that would better serve the security interests and wellbeing of the United States of America.”

Note the logic, and tone. Thirteen years into the so-called “War on Terror,” and six years into the global financial crisis, Americans should not rock the boat. The choice remains the same and absolute, between global pre-eminence and general disengagement. This is “so ingrained” that it should hardly be debated.

Any “alternative,” of course, would be summarily dismissed, because all disorder in the wake of retreat is assumed to be intolerable, unlike that created by over-exertion, which is always evidence of the need for more exertion. Accordingly, the report moves quickly on, recommending how, not whether, to maintain armed supremacy abroad.

Thus “the Blob” is both an ideologically committed group, a mentality, and a modality, or way of doing things. Such a thing persists by setting boundaries.

Open or closed?

So what is the Blob’s impact?

Does it tend towards conformism? Does it work to narrow the foreign policy agenda within government, delegitimize alternative grand strategies and, in general, render the pursuit of U.S. dominance abroad as the only natural choice?

Or is the Blob what these defenders claim, a heterogenous, free debating society, with open minds striving within a healthy marketplace of ideas?

Consider what some seasoned public figures say about their experience within government.

Michael Mandelbaum — a veteran of the State Department and the now dissolved U.S. Information Agency, and a former Clinton advisor and Johns Hopkins professor — so not exactly a bastion of revolutionary outsiderism, reports that there are limits that govern U.S. foreign policy, “like customs in small-scale societies or good manners in larger ones,” “tacitly” understood. To be considered “members in good standing of the foreign policy establishment,” one should “take care not to violate these limits.”

The late Leslie Gelb, a once New York Times correspondent turned President of the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed, admitting his “initial support for the Iraq war was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.” If that isn’t conformist pressure, what is?

Derek Chollet, figure of the revolving door, Pentagon advisor, German Marshall Fund Vice-President, reports an “ecosystem” that incentivizes support for activism and delegitimizes arguments for restraint.

When I wrote two years ago that the Blob constrains U.S. policymaking, a former official reported confidentially that it was distressingly accurate.

President Obama spoke of a Washington “playbook,” an unquenchable appetite for frequent belligerence, the orthodoxy that “increased toughness and the hegemonic presumption” is the only correct response to international problems.

But perhaps Mandelbaum, Gelb, Chollet, the anonymous official, and Obama were all, independently, mistaken.

Consider also the wider public sphere. While many ideas circulate on the air waves, mainstream platforms lean heavily towards activism and belligerence, at least until the costs become heavy.

The “marketplace of ideas,” in fact, is narrow, especially when the heat is on.  As the calamitous invasion of Iraq in 2003 loomed, on nightly news only 4 percent of guests invited to comment expressed skepticism. These same outlets reinforce the Blob’s worldview at every turn – framing, for instance, the redeployment of a small U.S. garrison from Syria as a “post-American Middle East.”

Recently, President Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.  As reports show, this was partly due to the ecosystem around him, as war hawks and negative press coverage affected Trump, applying cumulative pressure on the beleaguered president to strike, warning that earlier non-retaliations to Iranian provocations made him look weak.

As a further measure of internalized conformist pressure, note also the anxious way Beltway opinion reacted to the killing: to heavily caveat their complaints that Trump’s kill was dangerously destabilizing, by stressing that Soleimani deserved it, and that the main failure was one of planning. A little pressure, and they circled the wagons, as on other occasions.

Due to internalized ideas long built up, the script wrote itself: foreign policy is a moral instrument for punishing wickedness, the main business is to refine the process, and America retained a privileged hunting license in enforcing a “rules-based order.” An act that triggered retaliations, that nearly caused U.S. fatalities and all-out war, became a pardonable over-reaction.

What of think tanks, the intellectual spine of U.S. statecraft? While dissenting institutions exist (oddly, the authors use one of their founder’s articles as evidence of the Blob’s intellectual diversity), most of these organizations predominantly reproduce rationales for American primacy.

Note a rough but representative sample of think tank report titles over the last few years:  Extending American Power; Setting Priorities for American Leadership; The World Turned Upside Down: Maintaining American Leadership in a Dangerous Age; and Present at the Re-creation: A Global Strategy for Revitalising, Adapting, and Defending a Rules-Based International System. Whatever this pattern indicates, it is not “range.”

Some insiders secretly work to hinder, constrain, or spoil President Trump’s efforts to revise foreign policy. In the New York Times in September 2018, a White House insider anonymously declared that “senior officials,” including the author of the op-ed, were “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda,” because the “national security team knew better” than the president. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this behavior, conniving from within to derail a president’s stated policies is not openness to fresh ideas. It is the opposite.

Brands, Feaver, and Inboden are right that Blob-types sometimes disagree over the policy mix. That should not obscure an underlying consensus that frames their debates. Regarding Iran, a common worldview links the coup of 1953, the sponsorship of Saddam Hussein’s decade-long onslaught, “dual containment,” naming it in an “Axis of Evil,” and the latest hostilities — that America must be hegemon in the Middle East, compel Iran to do its will, and regard Iran’s resistance as symptomatic not of an embattled state, balancing against threats, or pursuing security interests, but of monstrous evil. They sponsor militant jihadists, after all. That couldn’t happen here.

To step outside that framework, to suggest that, say, coercing and threatening Iran will incentivize it to pursue nuclear weapons and sponsor terrorist groups, or that Washington could live with a nuclear Iran, or that the region itself is not worth America’s commitments, is to attract not a reasonable dialogue but cries of appeasement, isolationism, and wholesale retreat. Opinion outside these narrow bounds will be branded madcap or extreme.

No matter how vibrant its lunchtime seminars, or the range of opinion carried in Foreign Affairs, the closer to government it gets, the more the Blob is closed-minded, narrows the terms of debate, and constrains reluctant presidents.

Some Blob-types disagree, believing their class to be intellectually open. They think primacy prevails not because debate is constrained, but because their ideas are demonstrably better. Let’s assess their policy record.

The medals of its defeats

American statecraft is a mixed affair. Brands, Feaver, and Inboden are right that it can boast historic achievements – though even these were achieved through a darker Realpolitik than many in the Blob like to recall.

The United States has also suffered grievous, avoidable, self-inflicted wounds. The Blob’s habitual ways and bad ideas are complicit. Consider a brief audit of where two decades of ambitious exertion have led.

Economic policies did not lead to sustained and stable growth but to the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, creating an international oligarchic class that hoards wealth and offshores jobs.

Despite a declared aim to destroy threats, it has failed on most fronts, either failing to extinguish them or leaving greater ones in place. It failed to prevent North Korea acquiring deliverable nuclear weapons, and then failed to disarm it, and came dangerously close to blows in 1994 and 2017.

It failed to persuade Russia to submit to the U.S.-led order or to abandon its empire-building in Ukraine or Georgia, or its international campaign of political subversion. Economic “shock therapy” to transform post-Soviet Russia — a Blob project — helped create the corrupt and thuggish oligarchy in Moscow, with which the United States now must deal.

It failed to persuade a growing China to submit to the U.S.-led order in Asia, where Beijing now bids aggressively for hegemony.

It has not eliminated terrorism. Militant jihadism proliferates. U.S. forces are deadlocked against the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is still a kleptocratic state despite years of nation-building.

It has failed to broker an Israel-Palestine settlement.

It failed to guide the “Arab Spring” revolutions towards a stable, democratic Middle East. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite regime still rule most of Syria.

Libya after its liberation is politically and economically shattered.

Iraq is more an Iranian client than an American one, and Operation Iraqi Freedom unleashed sectarian conflict which spawned the Islamic State.

Despite “maximum pressure” and threats of annihilation, the U.S. has failed to dissuade Iran from conducting missile tests or expanding its influence in the Middle East.

The attempt to create an unchallengeable balance of power in the U.S.’s favor has failed to dissuade challenge or permanently transform the world away from competitive power politics.

It is sobering to consider that the U.S. suffered these failures when its power was at its post-war apex. Ill-conceived military adventures, botched economic schemes, and the waste of resources: restoring the Blob’s ways, and its worldview, would have similar results.

Marshalling expertise

None of this dictates that we should abandon expertise, in the cavalier way the Trump administration did in this present crisis.

It does suggest that Washington should think again about how to marshal expertise effectively. Washington should re-introduce not “amateurism,” but the adversarial clash of ideas to government, to get its foreign policy off auto-pilot.

This is not easy. For we are all prone to the groupthink that grips the Blob. But it would not hurt to try some different measures to counter groupthink tendencies more effectively by institutionalizing friendly dissent.

These could include mechanisms such as “red teaming” at the grand strategic level, “a structured process that seeks to better understand the interests, intentions and capabilities of an institution — or a potential competitor — through simulations, vulnerability probes, and alternative analyses,” and an expanded brief for the Office of Net Assessment, explicitly formulating a “shadow” national security strategy, played out through scenarios built around competing strategies, against which to evaluate existing assumptions.

If Washington refuses, if the Blob pins its hopes not on structural overhaul but on its restoration candidate at the polls, revision might be forced upon it more brutally, by present or future shocks, and political mobilization that could make Trumpian populism look mild.

Or maybe things will work out for the best.

New York City - An audience listens as Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discusses defense challenges with NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, June 17, 2016. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro
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