By Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute
Ben Rhodes, who served as President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, labeled the nation’s foreign policy elite as “the Blob.” Members of this well-educated, well-connected group disagree on peripherals but agree on essentials of foreign policy. Their almost unanimous bottom line is that the U.S. government must run the world.
The result over the last couple decades has been catastrophic. Thousands of dead Americans. Tens of thousands injured, many maimed horribly. Hundreds of thousands of dead civilians in the nations Washington was supposed to be liberating. Millions of people driven from their homes. Trillions of dollars wasted. Enemy nations empowered. Terrorists created. America’s reputation shattered.
Heck’uva job, Blob members!
The problem with the professional foreign policy class is not that its members hate children. That they are unpatriotic. That they are stupid. Or that they have bad intentions.
Rather, the problem is their underlying philosophy, a predisposition to use American power against friends and foes alike. They assume the ability and duty to micro-manage the globe, engaging in social engineering here, there, and everywhere. Perhaps no one better captures this philosophy than former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, a fount of foolhardy internationalist aphorisms.
First, the Blob knows what is best: “We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us,” she declared. Second, the Blob gets to decide: “we think the price is worth it,” Albright responded when asked about the death of a half million babies due to sanctions on Iraq. Third, to achieve its ends the Blob is entitled to treat Americans as pawns in a global chess game: “What’s the use of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it,” she famously asked Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The end of the Cold War was an enormous benefit for mankind, but it had an important, and very negative, side effect. It left the Blob arrogant and sanctimonious, convinced of its own omniscience and omnipotence. The Bush administration was going to make “new realities,” one unnamed staffer declared as the Iraq invasion unfolded. The world would begin anew.
The events that followed destroyed the Blob’s reputation. Afghanistan? Libya? Iran? Yemen? Of course, elite membership does not eliminate partisanship. Democrats want to blame Donald Trump for a multiplicity of disasters. However, Iraq was not just George W. Bush’s responsibility. It also belonged to Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Afghanistan was Barack Obama’s even more than Bush’s. Libya was owned by Obama and Clinton. So was Yemen.
Discerning currents of “isolationism” evident to no one else, the Blob now is feeling defensive. There’s much nasty criticism of elites who expect respect and even veneration, at least for those who, like Albright, ascend the policy summit. Even worse, Trump had the bad grace to break up the duopoly whereby elites in both parties simply alternated between government and one or another Washington waystation, usually a think tank, media organization, or consulting firm. Numerous Republicans, especially neoconservatives with the bad grace to publicly trash the incoming chief executive, were frozen out and lost their turn. Many now hope a Democratic victory will open up at least some political spoils for them.
With Joe Biden, a card-carrying member of the establishment and longtime captive of the Blob, in the lead in the presidential race, foreign policy elites are astir. They hope to rehabilitate a reputation savaged by recent experience. Hence, Hal Brands, Peter Feaver, and William Inboden rise to the Blob’s defense. Brands served with the Obama Defense Department, Feaver and Inboden with the Obama National Security Council.
The three contend that the negative critique of the Blob is wrong in “every component.” Indeed, “the foreign policy establishment is an American strength.”
First, the trio argue that the Blob really is a contentious mix, not a closed club. However, the establishment catechism is long. Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins who served in the Clinton administration, has no illusions. To be a member of the establishment “in good standing,” he observed, one must “take care not to violate these limits.”
Attend one of Washington’s many foreign policy salons and assay the participants. How many do not believe the answer to whatever problem being discussed is in Uncle Sam’s hands? Imagine if a panelist suggested that NATO was no longer needed. An embarrassed silence would slowly fill the room. Suggest that Montenegro should not be inducted into the alliance and titters would race through the room. Contend that the US should not treat Ukraine as the NATO ally it is not and people would look at the moderator, hoping he or she could end their collective agony.
Ask why South Korea, vastly wealthier than North Korea, still requires American protection 67 years after the end of the Korean War and the reaction would be similar. Until recently, at least, no serious wannabe policymaker questioned support for Israel or Saudi Arabia. Members of the Blob sometimes disagreed over which country to invade – Republicans went for Grenada and Panama, Democrats aimed for Haiti – but few doubted that the US was entitled, even obligated, to use its power to impose its will on others. Republicans and Democrats disagreed over negotiating with Iran, as the writing trio note, but supported threatening to bomb it, as did Bush, Obama, and Trump.
Consider the shrieking which greeted Trump’s attempt to withdraw US forces from Syria. This tragic nation has never been a serious American security concern. The Obama administration’s attempt to oust Assad, defenestrate Iranian forces, manage Russia, aid “moderate” insurgents, pacify Turkey, and protect Kurdish militias crashed in every particular. ISIS was defeated, but the US did not need to do the work of the entire region, which was united against a group which sought to displace existing governments and create a “caliphate.”
Brands, Feaver, and Inboden cite past elite disputes, such as over Vietnam. Yet disagreements often took time to develop and occurred within narrow parameters. Democratic presidents took America into the Vietnam War. A Republican president continued it, running up more American casualties than his predecessors. Democratic President Harry Truman intervened in Korea. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who later ran for the GOP presidential nomination, wanted to expand the Korean war into China.
The three writers also contend that the Blob has been remarkably successful in its policy outcomes. After all, they argue, America didn’t change its policy of primacy after the Cold War, but “decided to keep this strategy going, even in the absence of an immediate peer competitor.” Yet falling into a policy that worked in essentials is no argument for genius.
The foreign policy establishment was no better during than after the Cold War. For instance, every step into and out of Korea was a disaster: creating a weakling client state, being unprepared for war, carelessly triggering Chinese intervention, discouraging South Korean self-reliance, and pushing North Korea toward development of nuclear weapons.
Washington protected Western Europe, but at a cost predicted by Dwight Eisenhower, of discouraging Europeans from doing more. Vietnam served almost like a scientific experiment in the widely believed domino theory: the dominoes fell and nothing much happened strategically. In fact, a decade later Hanoi was friendlier with America than China. The foreign policy failures continued: Ronald Reagan inserted US forces in a multi-sided civil war in Lebanon, backed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in a war of aggression against Iran, and through Pakistan funded Afghan jihadists who later staged 9/11. NATO enlargement and the war over Kosovo helped turn Russia into an adversary now cooperating with China; the precedent of lawlessly attacking and dividing a smaller state was copied by Russia in Georgia.
Perhaps the trio’s most ludicrous claim is that the Blob “learns from [mistakes] and changes course.” Where? When have the proponents and designers of the Blob’s greatest disasters ever suffered professionally? When has their counsel been dismissed by policymakers and have their op-eds been rejected by newspapers?
When thinking about learning from mistakes, consider the Middle East: is there a single policy which has worked? The catastrophe now before us is a testament to maladroit hubris. Perhaps it could have been worse – Brands, Feaver, and Inboden complain that critics ignore “problems that have been avoided.” Sure, but look at how many have been created and exacerbated by US policymakers. To say that they haven’t done everything wrong is not much of a compliment. In fact, to have people so smart and well-intentioned, as the three authors contend, do so much damage should be sobering even to members of the Blob.
Finally, the establishment’s defenders claim that the Trump administration is the true test of those who criticize the establishment, having “sidelined national security professionals, and professionalism, to a degree unprecedented in the modern era.” Actually, the problem is attitude, not expertise.
The president’s dubious demeanor does not rehabilitate the Blob. Trump filled his administration with noteworthy GOP hawks. And his policies vary little from the clamorous advice of outside critics horrified whenever he deviated even slightly from the Blob’s holy writ. The end of the president’s first term is but eight months away and Americans are still fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and helping Saudi Arabia fight in Yemen. The US is spending more on NATO and deploying more troops in Europe than when Trump took office. His negotiators have abandoned their effort to force South Korea to pay for its defense as well as the stationing of America’s garrison. There are more sanctions on Russia than before. Other than on Iran, Trump’s security policy differs little from that of Obama, except in tone.
Brands, Feaver, and Inboden predict that as foreign policy failures continue, “the more many will hope for the return of the Blob.” But it never left. It remains busy and influential, and continues to set policy. Until a president is elected who is willing to break with the Blob’s policies as well as civilities, American lives and wealth will continue to be needless squandered.