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?
This site features only a fraction of the writing I publish in my newsletter.
Please, consider subscribing.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.