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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My struggle to preserve some semblance of equanimity amid the most emotionally destabilizing presidential campaign of my life has led to extreme measures: I’ve been delving into the literature on both Stoicism and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Turns out the two schools of thought have something in common: a therapeutic technique that the ancient Stoics called premeditatio malorum—which, loosely translated, means imagining bad things that might happen. Sounds like the kind of thing I’d be good at! Here’s how it works:
Suppose you’ve spent the last couple of months worrying that a presidential candidate you detest, though behind in the polls, might stage a comeback. Suppose you’ve already taken the obvious measures to insulate yourself from the vicissitudes of online engagement—like, say, reducing the number of times you check for updated poll results from 20 or so times a day to 18 or so times a day. And suppose you still haven’t found peace of mind. It’s time to harness the power of premeditatio malorum: you just imagine that it’s the morning of November 4 and the candidate whose victory you dread has won.
When cognitive behavioral therapists guide you through this exercise, they ask questions like “So, if the worst happens, how bad will that actually be?” or “Would what you’re worried about happening really be the end of the world?” If the therapy works as planned, you realize, on reflection, that the answers are “Less than catastrophic” and “No.” In my case, the answers, on reflection, were: “Really, really bad, like super-bad, like beyond catastrophic” and “Quite possibly, yes.”
So my premeditatio malorum was off to an inauspicious start. Though the technique is supposed to have an effect that Albert Ellis, one of cognitive behavioral therapy’s founding figures, called “de-catastrophizing,” it was instead having an effect that I call “scaring the shit out of me.”