Toward a unified theory of Blob-dom
This article first appeared in the Nonzero Newsletter and is republished with the authors’ permission.
The people claiming that there is some sort of unified theory of Blob-dom are not thinking clearly, said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. For one thing, he said, even within Brookings there is a wide range of opinion on Afghanistan. He supported the withdrawal, for instance—which would seem to make him a traitor to the Blob, even though he is, by any definition, in the Blob himself.
—The New York Times, Sept. 16, 2021
The term “Blob” has arrived. Within the past two months this recent addition to our foreign policy vocabulary has appeared in the New York Times, America’s newspaper of record, not one, not two, not three, but four times. In the first of those cases, I’m happy to say, I was the one uttering it. In the last of those cases, I’m also happy to say, it appeared in the headline; and, better yet, it appeared in the phrase “Beware the Blob”—which is something that those of us who embrace the term would definitely advise.
But what do we mean by the term? This has become a subject of contention. Some people we consider part of the Blob—such as Thomas Wright, quoted, above, in the last of those Times pieces—say it has no coherent meaning. Which is understandable: We’re using it as a pejorative, so the less sense it seems to make, the better for the people we’re applying it to.
But the truth is that “the Blob” is a useful term with a coherent meaning. At least, it’s as useful as many other common foreign policy labels, such as “liberal internationalists” and “neoconservatives.” Both of these labels encompass people who don’t agree on everything. In fact, it’s hard to find any belief that all people in either of those two categories share that isn’t shared by a fair number of people in the other category. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, this kind of fuzziness is characteristic of the labels we use to organize reality. There’s no distinctive property, he noted by way of example, that is shared by all the things we call “games.”
Yet we have a working understanding of what we mean by “games.” I think we can achieve the same for “Blob.”
And I think we must! I’m not kidding when I say I believe the Blob is a grave threat to America’s and the world’s future. (Which isn’t to say that blobsters are bad people; like most human beings, they mean well.) To come up with a working definition of “the Blob” is to sketch a vision of what American foreign policy shouldn’t be—and, by implication, to come up with at least some rough outlines of what it should be.
And, by the way, though the people who oppose the Blob—sometimes called the “restrainers” or the “restraint coalition” or the “Quincy coalition”—range from left to right, there is a fair amount of agreement among them about what’s wrong with the Blob. I don’t purport to speak for all restrainers, but I think what follows would get pretty broad buy-in from within the restraint coalition.
You know what’s harder to characterize than the Blob? God! Some theologians respond to that challenge with what’s called “negative theology.” They specify things God isn’t rather than things God is. Likewise, I’ll begin our search for a working definition of the Blob with some negative blobology. Here are three things the Blob isn’t.
1) The Blob is not, strictly speaking, the American foreign policy establishment. That was a hard sentence for me to write, because I myself have repeatedly given, as a shorthand definition of the Blob, “the American foreign policy establishment.” But I’ve noticed that if people take that as too literal a definition, without any elaboration, misunderstanding can ensue.
Consider the last of those four New York Times pieces. Its author, Sarah Lyall, interviewed various blobsters and gave them a chance to critique the term “Blob.” One of them—Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke—critiqued it by way of critiquing Ben Rhodes, the Obama national security aide and speechwriter who coined the term a few years ago.
Feaver said Rhodes was engaging in “faux populism, as in ‘Woe is me, I’m just a poor assistant to the president trying to speak truth to all these well-entrenched fat cats.’ That is nutty. No one could be more inside the system than the speechwriter for the president.” Feaver added: “Everybody has borrowed this exact same conceit. You’ll find Harvard professors complaining about the Blob.”
Now, it may be true that a White House national security aide and a Harvard international relations professor are in some sense inherently part of the establishment. But that doesn’t mean their views on foreign policy are the views that prevail within the establishment. There have been radical Ivy League professors who watched with dismay as the world failed to followed their guidance, and there have been maverick White House advisers whose preferred policies rarely carried the day. It’s the non-radical, non-maverick views—the Blob’s views—that tend overwhelmingly to prevail within the foreign policy establishment.
To put this distinction between Blob and foreign policy establishment another way:
Those of us in the anti-Blob movement hope that people who share our views will someday take over the foreign policy establishment. (Please don’t repeat this; we want to preserve the element of surprise.) Well, obviously, if that happens, we won’t be calling the foreign policy establishment the Blob! We’ll call it something more flattering, like the Font of Human Wisdom or the Pantheon.
My point is just that the Blob is not, strictly speaking, the institutions that undergird the American foreign policy establishment (the think tanks, public policy schools, media outlets, government bodies), and it’s not, strictly speaking, all the inhabitants of those institutions. The Blob is a large and dominant subset of the people who inhabit those institutions—a subset whose members, while sometimes disagreeing, share certain proclivities that shape America’s foreign policy.
Which proclivities? We’ll come to that. Meanwhile:
2) The Blob is not something that stands in contrast to Obama’s foreign policy. Since Rhodes, perhaps Obama’s closest foreign policy confidant, is the one who coined the term, there is a natural tendency to think it connotes an un-Obama foreign policy. Feaver, in that New York Times piece, says “Ben Rhodes had a very precise definition [of the Blob], and his definition was ‘people who disagree with me,’ or ‘people who disagree with me and Obama.’”
That may or may not be what Rhodes originally had in mind, but it certainly won’t do as a definition of “Blob” as the term is now used. Pretty much everyone in the restraint coalition lauds some of Obama’s achievements (the Iran nuclear deal, engagement with Cuba) but also believes that the Obama foreign policy was by and large very blobbish.
And it was blobbish in instructively diverse ways. There’s a tendency to think of blobsters as people who have favored full-on ground wars—the Iraq war was supported by almost all of them—but it’s important to understand that there are lots of other kinds of interventions that are characteristically blobbish. And Obama’s tenure includes a number of them. Here are four:
1) Obama launched an air war against Libya that, though initially justified as a limited humanitarian intervention—to protect endangered civilians in a particular city—morphed with his approval into a regime change operation. This operation left the country in deep and enduring chaos, spewed weapons across the Middle East and Africa, and violated the spirit if not the letter of the UN Security Council resolution that had authorized the initial intervention.
2) Obama, along with several Middle Eastern and European nations, waged a proxy war in Syria—another regime change operation justified in humanitarian terms—that helped prolong and intensify a civil war, massively increasing the amount of death and suffering, and left lots of weapons in the hands of various jihadist groups.
3) Obama lent support to a protest movement in Ukraine that wound up deposing a democratically elected president who fled the country as armed opponents roamed the streets. The new leader of the government was someone that Obama State Department officials in Ukraine had, during the protests, named as their choice for that job—in a phone call taped by Russia and released to the world. This regime change, which Russia saw as an American-backed ouster of a pro-Russian Ukrainian leader, led Russia to seize Crimea and give military support to rebels in Eastern Ukraine who have kept Ukraine violently divided.
4) Obama sharply increased the number of drone strikes in various countries. In retrospect his tenure was the pivot point between one kind of Forever War (Iraq and Afghanistan) and another kind (drone strikes and special forces operations in God-knows-how-many places).
Note the diverse forms of intervention: aerial military intervention, proxy military intervention, “peaceful” meddling in foreign politics (albeit meddling whose goals may have gotten a boost from guys with guns), and prolific drone strikes in countries we’re not at war with. Note also that all four of these policies had consensus support within the mainstream of the foreign policy establishment, from neoconservatives and liberal internationalists alike.
Sure, there was dissent on one or another of these policies from some people who carry those labels (more from liberal internationalists than from neoconservatives). For that matter, there were differences of opinion on the anti-Blob side; a few restrainers (not me!) are willing to accept fairly prolific drone strikes as a substitute for deeper military engagement. Still, notwithstanding such minor anomalies, these four Obama policies serve as a dividing line between blobsters and restrainers—while none of them serves as a clear dividing line between neoconservatives and liberal internationalists.
So there would seem to be analytical value, for at least some purposes, in squishing together liberal internationalists and neoconservatives (along with other, less salient foreign policy schools, such as “Jacksonians,” if you wanted to get more fine-grained about it) into a single category we call “the Blob.” Or, to put it in a slightly different way: For purposes of illuminating the divide in elite opinion on these four very important Obama policies, “liberal internationalist” and “neoconservative” are not very useful terms whereas “Blob” and “restraint coalition” are. So, all told, I don’t see how people can use terms like “liberal internationalists” and “neoconservatives” as if they’re meaningful and valuable while denying such status to “the Blob.” [Note: I’m not saying liberal internationalists are compelled by their core ideological principles to be blobbish. Indeed, there are no doubt liberal internationalists, especially in academia, who opposed all these Obama policies—and who, more generally, would qualify as restrainers. But people who call themselves liberal internationalists and are influential within the foreign policy establishment tend to be liberal interventionists—which is to say,blobbish.]
OK, one more negative blobology bullet point and then we can move to positive blobology—listing some proclivities that are characteristic of the Blob.
3. The Blob is not something that stands in contrast to Ben Rhodes’s world view. Even if we assume that Rhodes argued against all four of those Obama polices (and for all I know he did—I haven’t yet read his account of his Obama years), he has one very strong policy inclination that pretty much everyone in the restraint coalition would call blobbish: he thinks a global democracy-promotion crusade should be at the center of US foreign policy.
A year ago, on his podcast Pod Save the World, he and his co-host were interviewing Tony Blinken, who would later become Biden’s secretary of state, about what we could expect from a Biden foreign policy. The very first question out of Rhodes’s mouth started with the preamble that the “trendlines are not good for democracy globally,” what with “Russian efforts to disrupt the West, disinformation campaigns to disrupt democracy, China being much more assertive with its model.” He asked, “If you come into office… how do you begin to try to reverse this trend of authoritarianism, this democratic backsliding? What are the tools in your toolkit to do that?” He went on to speak in approving tones of Biden’s plan to have a “summit of democracies” and then mentioned protestors in Hong Kong and Belarus and asked, “What can be done to more effectively find ways to support these democratic movements”?
I love liberal democracy and hate autocracy and authoritarianism. So do all the other restrainers whose views on this I’m familiar with. But most of them, like me, are suspicious of democracy promotion as practiced by America. That’s partly because it sometimes slides into proxy war (We were promoting democracy in Syria!); and partly because it sometimes involves economic sanctions that wind up harming lots of already needy people to no good end (Venezuelans, for example). And, especially for restrainers on the left, it’s because drawing a battle line between democracies and autocracies (which you’re starting to do once you hold a “summit of democracies”) could impede progress toward solving various global problems, ranging from climate change to pandemics to the control of such hard-to-control armaments as biological weapons and weapons in space. Restrainers tend to be very anti-neo-Cold-War. Blobsters, not so much.
OK, now for some positive blobology—a tentative list of inclinations exhibited by blobsters (with the understanding that, as Wittgenstein would say, these inclinations can qualify as characteristic of the Blob even if none of them apply to all blobsters).
1. Threat inflation. Blobsters don’t necessarily intentionally inflate threats. But they tend to get more freaked out by things (a single big terrorist attack, a decade’s worth of slowly creeping authoritarianism, growing regional assertiveness by a rising power like China) than is warranted. And they often favor policies in response to these things that could well make things worse—and in some cases already have.
2. Manichaeism. Dividing the world between “good guys” and “bad guys” (two terms uttered often, and not ironically, on Rhodes’s podcast) is common in the Blob.
3. American exceptionalism. We Americans, of course, are the good guys. Indeed, we are a light unto the nations—notwithstanding all the coups we’ve sponsored, the murderous authoritarians we’ve backed, the disastrous wars we’ve started or abetted, and the fact that our own democracy is in a state of advanced dysfunction, unworthy of emulation by any sensible country.
4. Meddling. Blobsters—having divided the world between good guys and bad guys, exaggerated the threat posed by the bad guys, and convinced themselves that America is the best of the good guys—feel that our country is thus justified in intervening in the internal affairs of other nations, if not by the massive application of military force (an option that is less popular even in the Blob than it was 20 years ago) then via subtler military means, or economic coercion, or other tools, sometimes covertly deployed ones. Blobsters are generally protective of American sovereignty but not so respectful of the sovereignty of other countries, especially the ones run by “bad guys” (though, on close examination, the bad guys whose countries we push around turn out to be morally indistinguishable from some bad guys we deem cherished allies).
5. Naïve do-goodism. This meddling is driven not only by a conviction that we know what’s best for everyone, but that we have the skill to bring it into being—even though the last few decades of history strongly suggest that we don’t and that, in fact, we often make things worse.
6. Hypocrisy when it comes to international laws and norms. There’s scarcely a blobster alive who doesn’t sing the praises of the “rules based order.” Many blobsters consider upholding this order—and punishing those who violate it—mission central. Their ability to overlook how often the policies that they themselves advocate break the rules that they themselves extol is one of the wonders of human self-deception.
For example, virtually all liberal internationalists, and some neoconservatives, profess to respect international law—and are inclined to complain if, say, China or Russia violates it. Yet among the Blob-supported things that would seem to be pretty clear-cut violations of international law are: The Kosovo intervention of 1999, the Iraq War, the introduction of troops to Syria (and arguably the supplying of weapons to Syrian rebels), and the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. If I had a dollar for every blobster who publicly complained about any of those things I’d have about as much money as I have now.
I’ll stop here. This is a work in progress; building a comprehensive blobology is a job too big for any one person. I welcome additions to my list, as well as criticisms (including from fellow restrainers who feel that my characterization of the restraint coalition involves some projection of my own values onto what is a fairly diverse group).
I’ll just note in closing that the common claim that we restrainers are “isolationists” is flat out wrong. Those of us on the left (my term for us is “progressive realists”) tend to favor America’s taking a lead role in building robust international governance. And restrainers on the right tend to favor parts of that agenda—arms control, for example—as well as robust economic engagement. Among most on both the left and right there is a belief that the world will be a better place if America engages with other nations less judgmentally and therefore more broadly.
We’re not blind to the hard compromises this can involve—such as accepting that we can’t protect human rights everywhere or bring liberal democracy to all parts of the world. But we believe that America has now demonstrated beyond doubt that trying to do those things—at least, trying to do them the way we’ve been trying to do them—does more harm than good to the people we purport to want to help, to the cause of international peace and stability, and to the fabric of America itself.