Afghanistan result confirms warning: beware of the blob

First, there was the withdrawal of the Biden administration from Afghanistan. Then there was the chorus of disapproval. And then, as is so often the case in American foreign policy, there was the Blob.

“‘The Blob’ turns on Jake”, Alex Thompson and Tina Sfondeles written in Politico, referring to President Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. And then, “I have to say hats off to the Blob for this whole Afghanistan thing,” commentator Matthew Yglesias said sarcastically on Twitter. “They couldn’t achieve any of their declared war goals, but they’ve proven they can absolutely destroy you politically.”

What is this Blob they are talking about? What does this have to do with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and whether they can actually rule? And why, like the nebulous malicious organism in the 1958 horror film with whom he shares a name, does he roam perpetually, sucking everything in his path?

The term “blob” is generally understood to describe members of the traditional foreign policy establishment – government officials, academics, Council on Foreign Relations panelists, television spokespersons, and others – who share a collective belief in the obligation of the United States to pursue an aggressive interventionist policy in the post-September 11 world. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen in this context as endorsed by Blob.

This foreign policy philosophy has its origins in the post-World War II view of American exceptionalism, embodied by officials like Dean G. Acheson, that American military intervention in foreign conflicts was vital to upholding American interests. and generally did more good than harm. As far as the Blob shares this view, the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a defeat for its position. For Blob’s critics, it was more about discussing why the Blob is doing things so badly.

“Getting out of Afghanistan was a rebuke or swansong of the neoconservative approach, which reached its peak during the Iraq war,” said Vali R. Nasr, professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at the Johns Hopkins School. advanced international studies. “After the First Iraq War, the United States developed a sense that it could fundamentally engage in war and help shape outcomes internationally, at little or no cost. “

Former President George W. Bush has positioned “a motley group of terrorists as America’s great strategic rival and an existential threat to the United States,” Nasr continued. “Even though the effort was initially unsuccessful, it continued unimpeded and became fundamental to the Blob’s thinking after 9/11.”

The term was coined in 2016 by Benjamin J. Rhodes, who was then Deputy National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama. It wasn’t a compliment. Rather, it was a criticism of foreign policy pundits with an “unrealistic set of assumptions about what America might do in the world,” Rhodes, who is now co-host of the “Pod Save The World, ”said in an interview.

“It’s not that people get a card with their name on it that identifies them as part of the Blob,” he said. But in 2016, he singled out “Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other promoters of the Iraq war from both sides,” who he said had a nasty tendency to “endlessly complain about the collapse of the American security order ”.

As a simple exercise in branding – accusing one’s enemies of practicing hegemonic group thinking and getting bogged down in a sclerotic and outdated view of American power – it was an evil masterstroke.

But for the foreign policy establishment, it was a provocation.

“A lot of people who are proud to be part of the foreign policy community would oppose that phrase,” said Hal Brands, Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He opposed it last year, writing an essay with Peter D. Feaver and William C. Inboden for Foreign Affairs which had a headline intended to tease: “In Defense of the Blob: America’s Foreign Policy Establishment is the solution, not the problem.”

“What I find troubling about the idea of ​​the Blob is that it taps into that old conspiracy mentality about what produces US foreign policy,” Brands said. “It gives the impression that American foreign policy has been so disastrous and stupid that it must have been forced upon the American people by an elite who do not have their best interests at heart.”

Even Mr. Rhodes realizes that, like the gelatinous alien mass in the movie “The Blob,” his creature has gotten out of hand.

“Since then everyone has sought to define it for their own purposes, including those who want to make it a badge of honor and those who want to hang it on their opponents,” Rhodes said.

Maybe, and maybe not.

“Ben Rhodes had a very specific definition, and his definition was’ people who disagree with me ‘or’ people who disagree with me and Obama,” Mr. Feaver said, professor of political science at Duke University.

“And he added a layer of false populism to that, like in ‘Woe to me, I’m just a poor assistant to the president trying to tell all those big, well-established cats the truth.’ could not be more inside the system than the president’s speechwriter. ”

Mr Feaver added: “Everyone has borrowed exactly the same vanity. You’ll see Harvard professors complaining about the Blob.

At the American Enterprise Institute, Kori N. Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies, said “Blob” was a reductive and obscuring term used to distract attention.

“The reason they are lashing out and scolding the Blob is that their positions are so contrary to the widespread belief in the effective use of American power internationally,” she said. “Criticizing the so-called foreign policy blob is one way of saying, ‘I have been ineffective in persuading people that the policies I am advocating are the right ones. “”

Gideon Rose, former editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr Biden “had to override the Blobbish, deep-state and permanent government factions within his own administration” in order to proceed with its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It is potentially confusing. On the one hand, who could be more Blobbier than Mr. Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, or Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, both veterans of establishment foreign policy? (“The Blob is Back,” the conservative American magazine said in December, referring to the foreign policy team of the Biden administration.)

People who claim there is some sort of unified blob-dom theory aren’t thinking clearly, said Thomas Wright, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution. On the one hand, he said, even within Brookings there is a wide range of opinions about Afghanistan. He supported the withdrawal, for example – which would seem to make him a traitor to the Blob, even though he is, by definition, in the Blob itself.

I feel like the people who talk about the Blob haven’t read or asked what the think tank people actually said on the subject, ”he said. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. But, he said, “if they mean Biden is doing something that Richard Haass doesn’t agree with, then it’s true, he is.”

It is also true that any discussion on this subject inevitably leads to Mr Haass, the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has been named “Pape of the Blob” by writer Andrew Sullivan in 2019. For the record, Mr. Haass’ point of view on Afghanistan is that America should have maintained its presence by leaving behind a small number of troops and not withdrawing completely.

In an interview, Mr Haass said he was happy to be seen as part of the foreign policy establishment, but not happy that the foreign policy establishment is called the Blob.

“It’s a lazy term,” he said. “It’s a derogatory and imprecise way of dismissing those who disagree with you, and it doesn’t advance the conversation on foreign policy.” “

“Let’s have a serious conversation about what the lessons from Afghanistan should be, or America’s role in the world,” Haass continued. “But just describing some people who disagree with you as the Blob is unnecessary. And that’s a generous way of putting it.

Darcy J. Skinner

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