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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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.

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.

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.