Anatomy of a Blob hit job

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Apr 23 2021

There are at least two ways that influence emanating from the Blob can shape the composition of a president’s foreign policy team:

1. Pressure from Blobsters can render the chances of the Senate confirming a prospective team member so dim that the president abandons the candidate. Of course, this only works when the candidate is subject to Senate confirmation. When that’s not the case: 

2. Blobsters can exert decisive pressure not via the Senate but directly on the White House. This is what seems to have happened with Russia expert Matthew Rojansky—who, Politico reported this week, is no longer in the running for Russia director at the National Security Council. Apparently Rojansky had made the mistake of saying, over the years, a number of non-hysterical things about Russia. 

The second kind of Blob influence is in some ways the more disturbing of the two. For Biden to concede an inevitable loss in the Senate is one thing. But when the Biden White House is unconstrained by Senate consent, and can defy the Blob at will but nonetheless succumbs to it, that suggests that not all of the pressure is external; the Biden team has been penetrated by the Blob. The phone call is coming from inside the house!

Actually, this isn’t by itself news. If you’ve read our assessment of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, you know that we long ago abandoned any hope that the Biden White House would be the command center for an anti-Blob insurgency. 

Still, the case of Rojansky is worth reviewing for two reasons: It suggests how hawkish some Biden administration players are, and it’s a textbook case of how Blobsters exert their influence. 

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The story begins with an administration source leaking to the media that Rojansky—head of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute—was under consideration. The leak recipient, Axios, produced a piece with the headline “Biden eyes Russia adviser criticized as soft on Kremlin.” 

If this particular act of sabotage worked as these things often do, the leakers steered the Axios reporters to information that helped justify this headline. In any event, the Axios piece quoted a previously obscure open letter written by some “Ukrainian alumni of the Kennan Institute”—who, one surmises, favor a more assertive American stance against Russia in Ukraine than Rojansky does. Their list of accusations against Rojansky ranged from running a think tank that is an “unwitting tool of Russia’s political interference” to engaging in “unprofessional communication with Kennan Institute alumni in Ukraine.” 

So what are the specific substantive charges that the Biden administration seems to have deemed grounds for dropping Rojansky? Politico summarizes them this way: Rojansky "has gone further toward reconciliation [with Russia] than Biden in several key areas. He has argued against a continued cycle of sanctions, downplayed the U.S. concern over Russia’s malign activities as 'Cold War style paranoia about the Russian bogeyman,' and pronounced that America’s Russia policy across three decades 'has failed.'" 

The first charge—that Rojansky “has argued against a continued cycle of sanctions"—is based on a piece Rojansky published in the National Interest last year. In it he critiques breathless reporting about alleged Russian bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan. He argues that reactions to the leaked intelligence indicate that the US has “an attitude about Russia, but not a policy,” adding that the timing of the leaks—mere months before a major election—suggests a political motive. He also notes that "the knee-jerk call for more sanctions may appeal to politicians aiming to be 'tough on Russia,' but it will do nothing to deter Moscow from further hostile acts."

If this Russian bounty story sounds familiar, maybe that’s because the Biden administration recently made news by admitting that, actually, intelligence agencies have only “low to moderate” confidence in the story’s veracity. In other words, Rojansky is the kind of sober observer we should have been listening to after the story broke, rather than to all the Blobsters who were emoting on CNN and MSNBC, recommending various penalties for this heinous Russian crime.

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As for the second charge against Rojansky—that he once said Americans suffer from a "Cold War style paranoia about the Russian bogeyman": Yes, Rojansky wrote this in 2017, arguing that this tendency, combined with our penchant for zero-sum thinking, impedes cooperation with Russia on issues of common interest. One solid defense of Rojansky here would be that what he said is true. But if that’s not enough for you: Rojansky framed the point carefully; he preceded it with a paragraph about the sources of Russian paranoia—including misleading historical narratives about the US—and followed it with a detailed list of areas where Russian and American interests really do diverge.

The broader sweep of the argument is perfectly reasonable. Rojansky contends that "not a single one of these threats posed by Russia has a military solution" and that aggressive responses to Russian actions carry a real risk of escalation. It takes a cynical reading of his piece to conclude that his reference to Cold War paranoia is an attempt to bury legitimate concerns about Russian policy. He’s just diagnosing an obstacle—paranoid, inappropriately zero-sum thinking—that stands in the way of solutions to important non-zero-sum problems like arms control. 

Rojansky’s third allegedly controversial point—that American policy toward Russia over the past three decades "has failed"—should also be uncontroversial. Success, as policymakers have defined it since the end of the Cold War, would have been containing any Russian extraterritorial ambitions and fostering some movement toward democracy in Russia. Can anyone argue in good faith that—with Russia having annexed Crimea and engineered a proxy occupation of eastern Ukraine, and with Putin’s biggest domestic political rival having been poisoned and imprisoned—it’s time to unfurl the Mission Accomplished banner?

In short, Rojansky's work is well within the bounds of what traditionally has been considered normal policy discourse on Russia. Biden himself agrees that cooperation on some issues—like weapons proliferation and climate change—is necessary, even if he disagrees on some details. And Rojansky's resume is as strong as anyone else's. So why did Biden's team give in to pressure from hawks?

The Politico piece places the blame on Ukraine and its partisans, noting that the country “has influential — and vocal — allies in Washington.” That’s true. But the piece fails to add that these allies themselves have allies—staunch and hawkish allies—in the White House. Since taking office in January, Biden has tapped several militaristic Blobsters for his administration. In the State Department, there’s Victoria Nuland, famous for meddling in Ukrainian politics back in 2014, just as its democratically elected, pro-Russian president was being deposed. And at the National Security Council there’s Sullivan, who once claimed that Russia is pursuing “a strategy to spread neofascist ideology,” an accusation that greatly exaggerates Putin’s observable aims.

So it’s not shocking that Sullivan so readily jettisoned someone as level-headed as Rojansky. Still, it’s alarming.

This piece originally appeared in The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media and consider subscribing.

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Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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