Can we talk about NATO?

By Connor Echols, Jun 18 2021

Last year, a wave of young people got caught up in a new self-help trend: “manifesting.” The basic idea, according to Vox, is to think “aspirational thoughts with the purpose of making them real.” TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube are full of Gen Zers and Millennials insisting that you can manifest a sudden influx of wealth or a response from a crush who won’t text you back.

Even young world leaders have joined the craze, judging by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent attempt to manifest Ukraine joining NATO: “Commend @NATO partners' understanding of all the risks and challenges we face,” Zelensky tweeted Monday. “NATO leaders confirmed that [Ukraine] will become a member of the Alliance.”

The tweet fooled some people, including PBS journalist Yamiche Alcindor, who relayed Zelensky’s claim uncritically. But in reality, all NATO had done was reiterate its prior promise that Ukraine will eventually join the alliance, as long as Kiev meets admission standards. And, as Joe Biden pointed out in a news conference later in the day, Ukraine falls short of NATO standards when it comes to corruption. Asked whether there was news about Ukraine’s aspiration to join the alliance, Secretary of State Tony Blinken was clear: “Nothing has changed.”

Meanwhile, as Zelensky’s attempt to expand the Overton Window on NATO’s future failed, an attempt to expand it in the opposite direction was more successful. Also on Monday, the New York Times published an op-ed by Stephen Wertheim that raised fundamental questions about NATO’s value and purpose—a debate that has long been pushed to the margins.

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Tom Friedman's Iran problem

By Robert Wright, Jun 18 2021

This week New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman shared his views on policy toward Iran: “I support Joe Biden trying to revive the [2015 nuclear] deal. And I support Israel’s covert efforts to sabotage Iran’s ability to ever build a nuclear weapon—no matter what the deal.”

That this declaration—in the first paragraph of a piece by the dean of America’s foreign policy columnists—occasioned virtually no comment on social media is yet more evidence of how little America’s foreign policy establishment actually cares about upholding the “rules based order” that virtually everyone in it purports to care deeply about. And in this case we’re not just talking about rules like, “You’re not allowed to blow up another country’s centrifuges, since that’s an act of war and a violation of international law and is all the more indefensible when the centrifuges are being monitored to ensure that they’re not producing weapons-grade material.” We’re also talking about rules like, “You’re not allowed to have scientists in another country murdered, since that’s both an act of war and deeply immoral.”

Friedman’s piece has flashes of insight. He recognizes that “Iran’s ruling clerics cultivate and celebrate conflict with America and Israel as an essential tool for locking themselves in power…” But it’s weird that (1) this appropriately cynical interpretation of the clerics’ hyperbolically expressed hostility toward “the Zionist regime” doesn’t lead Friedman to question his belief, expressed only two paragraphs earlier, that the Iranian government actually intends to “destroy the Jewish state;” and (2) Friedman shows no awareness that every time Israel has an Iranian scientist murdered or an Iranian centrifuge blown up it is strengthening the Iranian regime’s narrative of Israeli (and in some cases American) persecution and therefore helping the clerics more securely “lock themselves in power.”

So, in the end, Friedman’s ideas fail whether they’re judged by moral ideals (such as, Murder is bad) or pragmatic dictums (such as, If you want to weaken the grip of authoritarian regimes over their people, then don’t strengthen it). In this regard they are classic Blob products.

How Politico and the New York Times pass off hawkish opinions as facts

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Jun 11 2021

This week the New York Times published an article titled “Senate Poised to Pass Huge Industrial Policy Bill to Counter China.” It details how the growing perception of a threat from China has created bipartisan support for massive new government spending on tech. What makes the piece interesting is how it subtly supports the trend it describes. Here’s the lead paragraph:

WASHINGTON — Faced with an urgent competitive threat from China, the Senate is poised to pass the most expansive industrial policy legislation in U.S. history, blowing past partisan divisions over government support for private industry to embrace a nearly quarter-trillion-dollar investment in building up America’s manufacturing and technological edge.

Note that “urgent competitive threat from China” has no attribution. The Times simply states as fact that China poses a threat—and an urgent one, the kind that must be countered immediately—even though many foreign policy analysts would take issue with this claim.

The piece was co-written by David Sanger, a star foreign policy reporter for the Times whom this newsletter has characterized as having “apocalypse-hastening tendencies.” Through melodramatic framing and occasional editorializing, Sanger has time and again heightened America’s perception of threat from such adversaries as China, Russia, and Iran.

But Sanger is far from being the only mainstream reporter who subtly promotes a hawkish worldview. The journalistic “voice of God”—the ostensibly objective and therefore authoritative tone that traditional American news outlets convey—is often used to defend interventionist American policies or push our leaders to do something about, well, everything. Indeed, as another news outlet illustrated this week, sometimes this hawkish voice of God is used to create scary stories almost out of whole cloth.

The revolving door keeps on spinning

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, May 28 2021

Shortly after taking office, President Biden made headlines by putting new restrictions on the "revolving door" between government and private sector jobs. Among the most notable rules were a temporary ban on lobbying after leaving office and a requirement that appointees wait at least two years before working on matters connected to previous clients or employers.

Luckily for the Blob, these seemingly strict rules haven't stopped Biden from recruiting people who spent the Trump years cashing in on their government experience. Many of Biden's top foreign policy aides—including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan—waited out Trump’s presidency by working for defense contractors or opaque outfits known as "strategic consultancy firms," which rarely disclose clients and often work on behalf of multinational corporations and foreign governments.

The potential conflicts of interest don’t stop there. As Biden continues to fill mid-level foreign policy posts, it’s worth taking a look at the background of some recently announced or reported nominees who haven’t been confirmed yet.

Frank Kendall, Biden's nominee for Air Force Secretary. Kendall represents a particularly egregious example of the revolving door. After retiring from military service in 1994, he worked as an executive at Raytheon, a major weapons maker, and later became a consultant for various defense companies. He came back into government as head of acquisitions at the Defense Department under President Obama, then, when Trump took office, quickly began working for a weapons manufacturer that had received a big Pentagon contract during his tenure.

The contract went to Northrop Grumman for production of the B-21 bomber. Since he left office, the firm has paid him over $700,000 in consulting fees, according to Eli Clifton of the Quincy Institute. Kendall also spent some of the Trump years working with Leidos, a major defense contractor that won a $4 billion IT contract with the Pentagon during Kendall’s time in government. He holds at least $500,000 in Leidos stock and has earned $125,000 per year for his work on the firm’s board, according to Clifton.

If confirmed, Kendall vows, he’ll divest himself of this stock. Great—but since he’ll keep the proceeds, this will still be another example of him getting money from companies that received government contracts on his watch. And this history will give us reason to worry that as Air Force secretary his performance will be corrupted by his anticipation (whether conscious or unconscious) of repeating that process a few years hence.

It’s time to talk one-state solution

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, May 14 2021

In 2006, former President Jimmy Carter published a book called “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley, one of many commentators outraged by Carter’s use of the term apartheid, called the allusion to South Africa “a foolish and unfair comparison, unworthy of the man who won—and deserved—the Nobel Peace Prize.” Weeks later, the Post published a piece by the historian Deborah Lipstadt in which she argued that Carter had a “Jewish Problem” and implied that his book was anti-Semitic. Carter wrote an op-ed in response to the blowback, but even he avoided defending the legitimacy of the term.

Fast forward to now. Early this week, as Palestinians protested against impending evictions in East Jerusalem, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Noura Erakat and Mariam Barghouti in which the two Palestinian researchers wrote matter-of-factly that “we need solidarity to overcome apartheid.” And two weeks earlier, H.A. Hellyer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published an essay in the Post titled “Israel uses apartheid to exclude Palestinians. When will Washington face that?” The piece was pegged to the release of a high-profile Human Rights Watch report which had concluded that Israel is committing crimes of apartheid (a conclusion Hellyer called “behind the curve”).  

This week veteran Middle East observers exuded a sense of déjà vu as they lamented the latest of the “cycles of violence” that reliably punctuate Israeli-Palestinian relations. Yet something has changed.

Mainstream media discussion has expanded to encompass previously marginalized terms and ideas and previously sidelined voices—including voices that reject the status quo as untenable yet doubt the possibility of a two-state solution. And this shift has raised the cost for some politicians (on the Democratic side, at least) who are accustomed to deploying rote statements that affirm Israel’s right to self-defense, call for de-escalation on both sides, and reiterate support for a "peace process" that hasn’t shown signs of life since Americans now entering college were born.

Is all of this cause for hope? Or is there nothing to hope for? Does the longstanding reliance of politicians on these cliches reflect, in part, the absence of realistic alternative formulations?  

Menendez the menace

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, May 07 2021

If New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez gets his way, the Biden administration will continue to immiserate the Venezuelan people via sanctions, fail to restore the Iran nuclear deal, and preserve one of the more ridiculous relics of the Cold War—the blockade against Cuba. And, as Menendez has made clear, he does intend to use his position as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get his way.

As we’ve noted before, we don’t consider the Biden foreign policy team a font of wisdom. Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan have a history of supporting ill-fated interventions, military and otherwise; their presence at the seat of power is discouraging testament to the pervasive influence of the Blob. But it’s not as discouraging as the fact that the most powerful congressional foreign policy figure in their own party makes them seem dovish by comparison.

Consider Menendez’s latest masterpiece: the “Strategic Competition Act.” The bill, co-sponsored by Menendez and Republican Jim Risch, is characterized by the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine as “a de facto declaration of a cold war with the People’s Republic of China.”

Here is a sentence from it: “The US must ensure that all Federal departments and agencies are organized to reflect the fact that strategic competition with [China] is the US top foreign policy priority.”

All agencies? The Federal Housing Finance Agency? The Minority Business Development Agency? The Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia? The Botanic Garden (or any of the 23 other agencies that start with the letter B—to say nothing of the 61 that start with the letter F)? Do the 21 (out of 22!) senators who voted to send this bill out of the foreign relations committee in late April really think we should structure our entire federal government to compete with Beijing?

The case against vaccine diplomacy

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Apr 30 2021

This week Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey called on the Biden administration to send vaccines to India, where covid cases have been spiking. “This is India’s moment of need,” he said.

So far so good. But then Kim started talking the language of “vaccine diplomacy.” He warned that China and Russia “have been using their vaccines to gather favor globally.” India, he noted, is an ally, and “America’s strategic strengths (especially in relation to China) are our allies and partners.”

Vaccine diplomacy has become the standard Blob framing of the case for sending vaccines abroad. “The United States can’t ignore China’s vaccine diplomacy in Latin America,” warns a headline above a piece by Washington Post writer and ardent neo-Cold Warrior Josh Rogin. A news flash from NBC: “Russia and China are beating the U.S. at vaccine diplomacy, experts say.”

The vaccine diplomacy mindset has its virtues. Sending vaccines abroad for reasons of realpolitik beats not sending them at all. Joe Biden’s pledge this week to release 60 million surplus AstraZeneca doses is an improvement over America’s previous policy of hoarding ever-growing vaccine stockpiles—aka, “vaccine nationalism.” If whispering “soft power” in Biden’s ear is what did the trick, that’s better than the trick not getting done. 

Still, this narrow choice between isolationist vaccine nationalism and competitive vaccine diplomacy misses a fundamental point: Viruses don't care about geopolitics. For that reason, a vaccine distribution strategy aimed at fighting an imagined cold war will look very different from a vaccine distribution strategy aimed at fighting a real global pandemic.    

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. 

Bibi and the Blob

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Apr 16 2021

Israel’s attack this week on an Iranian nuclear site might at first seem to have been counterproductive; Iran responded by announcing that it will start enriching uranium to 60 percent, which would move it closer to the 90 percent weapons-grade threshold. But Israel’s motivation seems to have been less about setting back Iran’s nuclear program and more about setting back talks in Vienna aimed at restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. So, all told, Bibi Netanyahu has reason to feel pretty good about the whole thing. 

Certainly he looked happy as he stood alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Jerusalem and declared that America “has no greater ally” than Israel. Austin, too, was upbeat. He didn’t, for example, complain that America’s greatest ally had just tried to sabotage an important American diplomatic initiative—or that it had timed the sabotage to occur only hours before his visit to the greatest ally, thus putting him in an awkward position.

But, uncomfortable as Austin may have felt, upbeat was his only real option. As John Ghazvinian explained in Responsible Statecraft, if American officials publicly condemned Israel’s attack on Iran, they would risk “being raked over the coals domestically for criticizing Israel.”

Max Boot, feminist icon

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Apr 16 2021

This week’s announcement that US troops will leave Afghanistan by September has unleashed a flood of dubious objections, ranging from "it's still just too soon" to "we don't actually have that many soldiers there anymore." But one argument deserves special attention, given its emotional power among liberal audiences: the idea that we must stay in Afghanistan to protect women's rights.

In a column for the Washington Post, Max Boot makes the case that our departure will allow the Taliban to take over the entire country in short order, reversing any progress Afghanistan has seen in women's rights over the past two decades. "Think of all the girls going to school, all the women in the workforce," Boot writes. And he's not alone: Liberal outlets like the New York Times and CNN have published articles in the same vein.

This has been a popular talking point ever since 2001, when Laura Bush said the invasion was a "fight for the rights and dignity of women." And it contains some truth: Afghan women have indeed seen modest gains in rights over the last twenty years, and if a US withdrawal does lead to a Taliban takeover, things will in some ways get worse for many women for at least some period of time.