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The Blob Attacks: Gaslighting or Just Gasbagging?

After a 75-year-run of failure, the foreign policy elite is on the wane, with some clearly taking it harder than others.

It’s always fun to see the Washington foreign policy and Nat-Sec establishment get up on its hind legs at their critics. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does it’s usually when someone has touched a raw nerve, penetrating the bubble, if only momentarily. One time that comes to mind is when TAC’s Andrew Bacevich—he’s really good at this—called out elite bubble denizens Peter Feaver and Hal Brands for what he said was “close to being a McCarthyite smear” against realist thinkers in a Commentary piece entitled, “Saving Realism from the So-Called Realists.” 

The two men (Feaver cut his teeth in George W. Bush’s National Security Council during the height of the Iraq War; Brands is an academic with a perch at the neoconservative AEI) implored TAC to publish a response, writing: “The stakes of debates about American grand strategy are high, and so it is entirely proper that these debates be conducted with passion and intensity. But it is equally vital that they be conducted without resort to the sort of baseless ad hominem attacks that impede intellectual discourse rather than encouraging it.”

Hrumph. It is not surprising now that both Feaver and Brands (joined by William Inboden, also in Bush’s wartime NSC), are at it again, this time with a longer treatise in Foreign Affairs, entitled, “In Defense of the Blob.”  The last four years have been rough for the establishment. President Trump, after running on a platform of getting out of endless wars, is a Jacksonian who refuses to hide his contempt for this entrenched policy class and all of their attending courtiers and courtesans, most of whom are leftovers from the Obama, Bush and even Clinton Administrations. Their “accumulated” knowledge means nothing to this president, as he has plowed his own mercurial course in North Korea, Syria, Iran and the Middle East.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Trump’s rip in the Washington Blob’s time-space-continuum has allowed realists and restrainers to quantum leap into the space like no other administration before. Suddenly, conservatives of all stripes are talking TAC’s language. Money is pouring into colleges and think tanks now, all with the goal of pursuing approaches outside the status quo of hyper-militarization and American hegemony. The wars have been largely maligned as failures of the two previous administrations and their “experts.” The Quincy Institute, populated by scholars from both the Right and Left, has risen up to directly challenge the idea of a necessary militarized “liberal world order” to secure peace across the globe. 

“In Defense of the Blob” is filled with so many straw men, lies, and misdirections that the only takeaway is that we must have hit one hell of a nerve this time. The authors’ peculiar attempt to gaslight their critics, suggesting that we are seeing things that aren’t there, is weak. Like: 

Blob theorists view the establishment as a club of like-minded elite insiders who control everything, take care of one another, and brush off challenges to conventional wisdom. In reality, the United States actually has a healthy marketplace of foreign policy ideas. Discussion over American foreign policy is loud, contentious, diverse, and generally pragmatic—and as a result, the nation gets the opportunity to learn from its mistakes, build on its successes, and improve its performance over time.

No, no, and no. As a reporter in this ecosystem for more years than I care to admit, I can say with absolute certainty the reality is the opposite. The major policy think tanks in Washington are rife with three sources of funding: government, private defense companies, and very wealthy neoliberal and neoconservative foundations (think Carnegie on the left, Scaife on the right). The National Security and “Grand Strategy” programs at elite schools are no different. They all have one thing in common: the status quo. As a result, the output is hardly dynamic, it’s little more than dogmatic, conventional thinking about world problems that keep bureaucrats in jobs and always meddling, the military amped up with more hammers and nails to hit, and politicians (and attending administrative class) favorable to either or both of these goals in Washington, preferably in power.

This is a closed club that offers only gradations of diversity just like Democrats and Republicans during the war: No one argued about “liberating” Iraq, only about the tactics. That was why it was so easy for Hillary Clinton’s Nat Sec team in-waiting to create the Center for a New American Security in 2008 and transition to an Obama think tank shop in 2009. Plug and play one for the other, counterinsurgency under Bush? Meh. Under Obama? Let’s do this! They all had a plan for staying in Afghanistan, and they made sure we were, until this day. 

This doesn’t even include the orbit of research centers like RAND and the Center for Naval Analysis, which actually get government funding to churn out reports and white papers, teach officer classes, lead war gaming, and put on conferences. Do you really think they call for less funding, killing programs, eliminating lily pads, or egads, pulling out of entrenched strategic relationships that might not make sense anymore? Never. The same players get the contracts and produce just what the government wants to hear, so they can get more money. If they don’t get contracts they don’t survive. It’s how the swamp works.

As for it being a cabal? This ecosystem—the Blob—is a revolving door of sameness, a multigenerational in-crowd of status-driven groupthink inhabiting a deep state that is both physical and of the mind. It’s a lifestyle, and a class. To get anywhere in it, you not only have to have the right pedigree, but the right way of thinking. Ask anyone who has attempted to break in with the “wrong credentials,” or marched off the reservation in the early years of Iraq only to be flung to the professional margins. Conference panels, sanctioned academic journals, all run by the same crowd. Check the Council on Foreign Relations yearbook, you’ll catch the drift. You can be a neocon, you can be a “humanitarian” interventionist, but a skeptic of American exceptionalism and its role in leading the post-WWII international system? Ghosted.

The worst element of the Feaver/Brands/Inboden protest is not so much their pathetic attempt to suggest that sure, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya “were misconceived and mishandled,” but they were “no worse” than failures in the preceding decades, like the “bloody stalemate in Korea,” or “catastrophic war in Vietnam.” (This completely denies that the same consensus thinking has been leading our global and military policies for the last 75 years, therefore the same people who blundered us into Vietnam were also responsible for backing the contras in Nicaragua, and then blowing up wedding parties in Pakistan three decades later).

No, the worst is the straw man they present when they suggest that “scrapping professionalism for amateurism would be a disaster.” No one has ever suggested that was on offer. If anything, there has been every attempt, by TAC and the aforementioned new movements, to shift new voices—academics, military strategists, politicians, policy wonks and journalists—who represent fresh, outside thinking into the forefront, at the levers of power, to make a difference. People like Andrew Bacevich, Stephen Walt, Doug Macgregor, Chris Preble, Mike Desch, are hardly lightweights, but to the Borg, they are antibodies, therefore amateurs.

But Bacevich, Walt, et. al,  did not keep their mouths shut or try to obfuscate the truth during 18 years of failure in Afghanistan. That was left to the friends and colleagues of our esteemed Feaver, Brands, and Inboden. They cannot deny the Blob’s sins because it’s all in black & white in the Afghanistan Papers. That’s what has really hit a nerve, the raw exposure. Still, they cry, the Blob is “not the problem,” but the “solution.” We think not. And we think they protest too much. 

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is Executive Editor of TAC. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC