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The ‘Blob’ Strikes Back

A recent defense of the foreign policy establishment is no more successful than the policies its authors supported.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is joined by former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, September 3, 2014. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

If America’s adversaries were made of strawmen, the defenders of the foreign policy “Blob” would have a foolproof strategy for defeating them. Unfortunately, a recent defense of the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s record is no more successful than the policies that its authors have supported.

Writing for the Foreign Affairs website last week, Hal Brands, Peter Feaver, and Will Inboden attempt to rebut critics of the so-called “Blob,” but in their attempt they demonstrate many of the very flaws in analysis and inability to admit error that their critics have pointed out over the years. The real record of the U.S. foreign policy establishment over the last thirty years has been much less impressive than its defenders claim, and it has helped to create many more avoidable calamities than they admit.

The authors of the FA piece want to identify the “Blob” with expert knowledge, but many of the loudest critics of the “Blob” find fault with it because so many policy debates are not informed by genuine country or regional expertise. Think back to the Iraq war debate. On the pro-war side, there were legions of pundits and politicians that knew little or nothing about Iraq and the surrounding region. The few historians and specialists they could find to promote the war were extreme ideologues. On the opposing side, you had the vast majority of regional experts and trained officials at the State Department. The U.S. invaded Iraq despite the overwhelming consensus among people that knew the country and region best that it would be a disaster. War supporters had no use for that expertise because it did not line up with what they wanted to do. The “Blob” prevailed by overruling and ignoring the experts.

Many prominent foreign policy professionals from both parties jumped on the pro-war bandwagon because they weren’t terribly interested in what the experts had to say and because backing military action to exercise American “leadership” is what these people usually do. Even those that didn’t really believe the case for war said nothing because it was politically safer for them to conform. We have seen this happen many other times. The conventional view endorsed by the “Blob” often has nothing to do with expert knowledge, and it frequently flies in the face of that expertise.

It would help to start with accurate definitions. What do critics of U.S. foreign policy mean when we talk about the “Blob”? The term refers in part to the tendency towards groupthink, aggression, and interference in other countries’ affairs among foreign policy pundits and think tankers. It is a criticism of the reflexive bias towards “action,” which almost always involves advocacy for military options, and the disparagement of diplomatic engagement that usually goes with it. Members of the “Blob” promote and claim to believe in a number of far-fetched myths about “credibility” and America’s “indispensable” role in the world that provide ready-made justifications for sanctioning and bombing a long list of other countries. They usually twist themselves into knots to avoid acknowledging U.S. responsibility for the consequences of our government’s actions, but they are the first to decry American “inaction” when something unfortunate beyond our control happens on the other side of the world. If one or more of those things describes you, you might be part of the “Blob.”

One of the biggest failings of the “Blob” is its resistance to learning and reevaluating core assumptions. This is one reason why the U.S. keeps making similar mistakes decade after decade. The “Blob” not only spreads dangerous myths, but it clings to them all the more desperately when those myths are discredited by experience. The U.S. can destabilize entire regions for decades, but they will continue to insist that the U.S. military presence is “stabilizing” and cannot end. U.S. interventions consistently leave countries in worse shape than they were in before the U.S. intervened, but that does not lessen their eagerness for the next intervention.

The authors allow that the “Blob” makes mistakes, but asserts that it “learns from them and changes course.” That is simply not true. The only learning that does seem to take place concerns how some of the same awful policies get labeled. Advocates for regime change usually avoid using that phrase now, but they still demand regime change in substance. Supporters of illegal warfare still advocate for illegal war, but now they call it “restoring deterrence.” Aggressive U.S. policies have predictably led to hostile responses from other states, but the “Blob” doesn’t acknowledge the U.S. role in provoking the responses.

When presented with evidence of groupthink, the authors relabel it as “the wisdom of professional crowds.” When presented with the familiar litany of U.S. foreign policy failures, they claim that the record is actually successful. When presented with the record of near-constant use of force since the end of the Cold War, they declare that the U.S. “hardly ran amok in search of monsters to destroy,” and then rattle off a list of countries that the U.S. didn’t attack. You could hardly ask for more of a self-parody of what critics call the “Blob” than boasting about all of the places that the U.S. could have invaded but didn’t. Look at all that restraint! This is akin to defending an arsonist by pointing to all of the buildings that he didn’t set on fire.

Perhaps biggest flaw in the defense of the “Blob” is the very American-centric habit of taking credit for all positive post-Cold War developments around the world:

In short, after 1989, the deep global engagement favored by the Blob kept the world moving forward on a generally positive track, rather than regressing to the historical mean of tyranny, depression, and war.

How much did post-Cold War U.S. actions contribute to this outcome? Isn’t it likely that much of the world would have been “moving forward” as it did with or without the U.S.? In other words, how much can the U.S. really take credit for the successes of other nations after the end of the Cold War? To make the balance come out in their favor, the authors need to claim that the U.S. deserves credit for almost all of it, but that hardly seems credible.

One of the unintentionally funniest parts of the “Blob” defense is the claim that there is accountability for failure:

The American foreign policy establishment, finally, is generally more pragmatic than ideological. It values prudence and security over novelty and creativity. It knows that thinking outside the box may be useful in testing policy assumptions, but the box is usually there for a reason, and so reflexively embracing the far-out option is dangerous. Its members have made many mistakes, individually and collectively, but several features of the system enforce accountability over time. Foreign policy failures, for example, are politically toxic and often spur positive change.

This is a bold claim to make when the complete lack of accountability is one of the most distinctive features of the “Blob.” Not only do many of the same failed policies continue on for decades, but many of the same people that advocated for failed and disastrous policies in the past keep resurfacing to advocate for new ones. Foreign policy failures should be toxic, but for some reason they never seem to do any harm to the people responsible for them. There is almost no political or professional price to be paid for being consistently, horribly wrong about foreign policy. One reason for this is the network of institutions that employ former government officials so that people responsible for bad policies never go away. Another is the reluctance of “Blob” members to enforce accountability among themselves. So long as someone sticks with the consensus view of the U.S. role in the world, there is virtually nothing that he or she can do to be expelled from the polite company of the foreign policy establishment. Stray outside of the narrow confines of that consensus, however, and you will quickly find yourself persona non grata.

The weakest part of their argument is the attempt to conflate other critics of the “Blob” with the Trump administration’s open hostility to expertise:

How about the critics’ third argument, that escaping the influence of the Blob would make American policy more effective and the country more secure? As it happens, a real-time test of that proposition has been running for over three years.

This not the first time that defenders of conventional foreign policy have tried to blur the lines between Trump and some of his staunchest non-interventionist and realist critics, and it is no more convincing now than it was before. Trump has not governed as a conventional foreign policy president, but neither has he seriously challenged most of the conventional U.S. role in the world. Trump has left us with the worst of both worlds in which a largely Blobby foreign policy has been executed by inexperienced and ignorant officials. When critics attack the “Blob,” we are objecting to the failure to rely on expertise in making policy. The choice does not have to be between Blobby stagnation and Trumpian incompetence, but it is unsurprising that defenders of the discredited “Blob” want to keep it that way.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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