Grading Jake Sullivan

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Feb 26 2021


Sullivan, 44, is the youngest person to serve as the president’s national security adviser since McGeorge Bundy served in the Kennedy administration. He is more hawkish than Biden, but he brings, from his Obama administration days, experience that could prove valuable, especially as the Biden team tries to revive the Iran nuclear deal that Trump abandoned.

For our grading criteria, click here.

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Biden's hidden hawks

By Connor Echols, Jan 18 2021

An array of progressive foreign policy groups came together last month to recommend national security personnel to President-elect Joe Biden. Their list included around 100 names of policy experts who could fill a wide range of second-tier positions—jobs whose occupants have a major impact on policy but rarely make headlines.

The list seems to have gone straight to Biden’s spam folder. Instead of bringing in new faces, Biden has continued to staff his team with Obama administration alumni—in effect, charging them with solving the problems they created in a past life. Three of these second-tier appointees are particularly concerning, both for their lack of repentance for past sins and their potential to do harm going forward.

What is Progressive Realism?

By Robert Wright, Dec 30 2020

A slightly condensed version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Outlook section of the Washington Post. 

Recently Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia under President Obama, expressed puzzlement about a term he had been hearing—a label adopted by some people on the left who aren’t happy with the emerging outlines of the Biden administration. “In the debate about the future Biden foreign policy I’m seeing people self-identify as ‘progressive realists’,” he tweeted

This term bothered McFaul. After all, in foreign policy circles, “realism” has long signified a strict focus on national interest, with little regard for the welfare of people abroad. The famously pitiless Henry Kissinger called himself a realist. Maybe McFaul had Kissinger in mind when he lamented the “deaths and horrific repression” that past realists had countenanced and then asked plaintively, “Where are the progressive idealists?" 

Speaking as a progressive realist, let me first say that the answer to that question is easy. “Progressive idealists” are everywhere! 

If by that term you mean left-of-center people who wax idealistic about America’s global mission—who think our foreign policy should emphasize spreading democracy and defending human rights abroad—then “progressive idealists” pervade liberal foreign policy circles and will be running the show in a Biden administration. Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s picks for secretary of state and national security adviser, are progressive idealists.

That’s the problem. Though McFaul considers realism an ideology with blood on its hands—and God knows Kissinger has plenty of blood on his—the fact is that in recent years naive idealism has been responsible for much death and suffering and dislocation. And a lot of that happened on the watch of the Obama administration, where Blinken and Sullivan played important roles; both did stints as Vice President Biden’s national security adviser and both had high-level state department jobs.

So, with another round of progressive idealist foreign policy apparently on the way, it’s worth reviewing the previous round and seeing how things might have been different had realists been in charge. What follows are four basic principles of progressive realism along with examples of their violation by Blinken and Sullivan and the Obama team generally. Whether or not this exercise inspires any defections from the idealist to the realist camp, I hope it will inspire people like McFaul to revisit their assumptions about the moral superiority of idealism.

Five things about Gen. Lloyd Austin

Dec 08 2020

Joe Biden reportedly plans to nominate retired Army General Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense. In the past we’ve issued “progressive realism report cards” to key members, or prospective members, of Biden’s national security team (such as Tony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, or Michèle Flournoy, long considered a favorite for the seat Austin will apparently fill). 

But military officers don’t generally leave extensive records of their foreign policy views (since it isn’t part of their job to have them). And Austin, sometimes referred to as the “invisible general” because of his tendency to avoid the spotlight, is a man with particularly elusive opinions. So rather than issue the fourth-ever progressive realism report card, we’re employing a simpler but more venerable format: the listicle. Here are five things we know about Austin.

Candidate for Pentagon chief likely approved drone killing of US citizen

By Connor Echols, Dec 07 2020

Jeh Johnson, who served as the Pentagon’s general counsel during the Obama administration, has recently emerged as a leading candidate for secretary of defense. But his role in a legally and ethically controversial military decision is likely to raise objections from progressives and civil libertarians.

In 2011, President Barack Obama had an American citizen killed without due process of law. News reports and Johnson’s public statements after leaving office indicate that he gave the legal authorization for the extrajudicial killing.

The citizen was Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born imam with numerous ties to Al Qaeda. He was living in Yemen when the US killed him and three other people in a drone strike.

Johnson and his team at the Pentagon “oversaw legal approvals for military drone strikes,” according to NBC News. And Johnson said in an interview with 60 Minutes that he had to directly approve targeted strikes that occurred outside of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The government has never released the contents of any such approval by Johnson for al-Awlaki’s killing. But a speech he gave in 2013, after leaving office, laid out his legal rationale for killing an American citizen accused of terrorism.

Grading candidates for Biden’s foreign policy team: Michèle Flournoy

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Nov 30 2020

Background: Flournoy, a candidate for secretary of defense, was an undersecretary of defense in the Obama administration, where she played a big role in designing the Afghanistan “surge.” She is perhaps best known for co-founding and then running the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that is considered liberal-hawkish and gets an unusual amount of funding from defense contractors. Her involvement with the military-industrial complex also includes co-founding (with Secretary-of-State-designate Tony Blinken) the consulting firm WestExec Advisors and working for (along with Blinken) the investment fund Pine Island Partners—endeavors that have lately drawn critical scrutiny

For our grading criteria, click here.

Grading candidates for Biden’s foreign policy team: William Burns

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Nov 22 2020

Background: Burns, a career diplomat who has served as ambassador to Russia and as deputy secretary of state, gets particularly high marks for cognitive empathy—understanding the perspectives and motivations of international actors.

For our grading criteria, click here.

Grading Biden’s Foreign Policy Team: Tony Blinken

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Nov 13 2020

Background: Blinken is a liberal interventionist with an emphatic idealism about the virtues of “American leadership.” His relationship to Biden goes back decades, and he is considered a favorite for national security adviser or secretary of state. 

For our grading criteria, click here.

Introducing the progressive realism report card

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Nov 13 2020

Remember last Saturday? When the networks declared Joe Biden the president-elect, and it was possible, for one bright shining moment, to imagine that Donald Trump would respond to news of his imminent departure from the White House by preparing to depart from the White House?  

Now, a week later, there is so much worry about Trump refusing to leave that people are semi-seriously talking about how a skilled hostage negotiator would handle the situation. But here at the Nonzero Newsletter we’re choosing to optimistically assume a happy ending to this crisis and focus our worry elsewhere. Namely: on the question of whether, after Trump is finally extracted from the oval office, its new occupant will be much of an improvement over him in the foreign policy department.

Today we launch a series of evaluations of people who are in the running for major roles on Biden’s foreign policy team. We call these evaluations “progressive realism report cards”—which raises two questions:

1) Why progressive realism? For starters, because that is this newsletter’s unofficial foreign policy ideology. (I described its essence concisely in a 2016 piece in The Nation and, less concisely, in the 2006 New York Times essay in which I coined the term.) But also because progressive realism stands in such stark contrast to the ideology of “the Blob”—the bipartisan foreign policy establishment that has long managed to retain power in Washington notwithstanding its demonstrated tendency to screw up the world. 

To put a finer point on it: I think that if progressive realist principles had guided America’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been able to get the political traction he got in 2016 by promising to extricate American troops from the various messes we’ve gotten them into. Because, by and large, the messes wouldn’t exist. 

2) Why report cards? Do I honestly think that the people we give low grades will be assigned commensurately low-status positions (or none at all) in the Biden administration? No, for two reasons: (1) the Washington establishment seems to work the other way around: the worse your record on foreign policy, and the more damage your ideas have wreaked on the world, the more influence over policy you are granted; (2) we’re just a little newsletter, not a big and influential platform.  

However, if enough like-minded, public spirited readers share these report cards on Twitter or Facebook, maybe we’ll be able to punch above our weight! And maybe, eventually, thanks to efforts at this newsletter and like-minded renegade outlets, the foreign policy establishment will start to feel the heat. (A guy can dream…) 

Below is our first report card. It’s for Tony Blinken, who is probably Biden’s closest foreign policy aide and will almost certainly wind up with great influence in the new administration. Immediately below the report card itself is the heart of the matter—our justification for each of the grades Blinken received. (If you want to read a subject-by-subject explanation of the grading criteria—which doubles as a short introduction to progressive realism—that’s here.) In the coming weeks we’ll issue report cards to other prospective Biden foreign policy advisers—some of whom, we’re happy to report, will get higher grades than Blinken.