Joe Biden’s foreign policy team is the revenge of “the blob”

In a 2016 New York Times Magazine profile of Ben Rhodes, the top aide to then-President Barack Obama derisively labeled America’s foreign policy establishment “the blob.”

With that term, now ubiquitous in Washington, DC, he sought to lambaste both Democrats and Republicans who generally followed the same internationalist playbook since 1945, many of whom supported the Iraq War and trade deals that hurt the middle class.

It’s not that Rhodes disagreed with all their beliefs — the importance of US global leadership, free trade, democracy promotion, and protection of human rights — but he disparaged the blob’s insistence on continuing the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, minimizing climate change, and ignoring other challenges like pandemics.

Rhodes wasn’t alone. Obama felt similarly, and he and his team raged against foreign policy traditionalists both in and out of government. They “saw themselves as insurgents,” wrote James Mann in The Obamians, a 2012 book on that administration’s foreign policy cadre.

President Donald Trump followed suit, riding a wave of anti-elite, anti-expert populism with chants of “America First” straight to the White House.

Those two presidents’ rejection of the blob wasn’t absolute, of course. Obama had Hillary Clinton and John Kerry serve as his secretaries of state, and Trump had John Bolton in the White House and James Mattis at the Pentagon. But the last two presidents were deeply skeptical of the capital’s groupthink and, when they could, kept establishment types at arm’s length.

That’s not the case with President-elect Joe Biden.

Biden has warmly welcomed traditionalists into his inner circle. “The blob is back,” said Aaron Friedberg, a former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney who is now at Princeton University.

Just look at whom Biden chose to lead his foreign policy team: Antony Blinken, his longtime adviser in Congress and the White House, as secretary of state. Jake Sullivan, a former top aide to Biden and Hillary Clinton, as national security adviser. Avril Haines, a Biden confidante and former CIA No. 2, as director of national intelligence.

Alejandro Mayorkas, the No. 2 at Homeland Security under Obama, as that agency’s secretary. An experienced diplomat, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, as ambassador to the United Nations. Janet Yellen, the former Federal Reserve chair, as treasury secretary. And retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who led US military efforts in the Middle East, reportedly as secretary of defense.

While Biden has yet to name his pick for the CIA, the top contenders are all insiders with decades of experience or proponents of hawkish policies.

“If it goes the way it looks like it’s going, and the administration is populated with people more like Blinken and Sullivan, then this looks like the return of the blob,” Friedberg said.

Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken introduced by President-elect Joe Biden on November 24, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

None of this is overly surprising. Obama spent very little time in the Senate before moving to the White House, and Trump had never held elected office before his barnstorming performance in the 2016 election. Biden, by contrast, has served nearly 50 years in national politics — eight of them as vice president — and formed deep bonds with Washington’s foreign policy elite.

That’s a good thing, many say, as it’s allowed the president-elect to identify and form a strong, experienced Cabinet. “There’s always a premium on smart, practical, capable people,” said Mara Rudman, an executive vice president at the Center for American Progress. “This team makes sense for the future of the country.”

And, encouragingly for some, incoming Biden officials have engaged for months with progressive activists, taking many of their concerns to heart while considering some of the activists for lower-level jobs. “It’s really important that there are progressive voices in the administration. We can’t have a hive mind — that’s sort of what the blob is,” said one of the activists, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to run afoul of the presidential transition.

But the reality is that the senior-most members of Biden’s foreign policy team are card-carrying members of the blob, and they’ll be in the room advising the president when the biggest decisions on China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are made.

That means the old guard is back in power. And it’s their big chance to prove they’re responsible stewards of America’s global affairs.

They’ll have their work cut out for them. “Americans are looking for a complete, fundamental shift in US foreign policy,” said Yasmine Taeb, a senior fellow at the progressive Center for International Policy, who’s leading the left’s critique of and engagement with Biden’s team. “I hope they recognize that the vast majority of the American people have rejected establishment foreign policy and the trajectory that we’ve been on for decades.”

Biden’s team reflects his own blob-like views

To understand why Biden would want so many traditional foreign policy advisers around him, it helps to understand that Biden is a traditional foreign policy thinker.

Since the end of World War II, Democrats and Republicans have pursued largely similar approaches to US foreign policy. Presidents from both parties have used US power to underwrite and maintain what’s called the “liberal international order,” which basically means a set of economic and political rules and values that major democratic powers believe help the world function.

The US never did this out of the goodness of its heart. Promoting free trade and liberal democracy was meant to provide America with markets to sell goods to and countries with which to build alliances against adversaries. It was never a perfect system, and the US made many, many errors along the way. But overall, that grand strategy helped the US maintain its position as the world’s preeminent power.

That, in a nutshell, is the world Biden wants to restore and protect.

“For the past seven decades, the choices we have made — particularly the United States and our allies in Europe — have steered our world down a clear path,” Biden said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in January 2017, just three days before leaving office as vice president. “In recent years it has become evident that the consensus upholding this system is facing increasing pressures, from within and from without,” he continued. “It’s imperative that we act urgently to defend the liberal international order.”

Then-Vice President Joe Biden leaves the stage after addressing the assembly on the second day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 18, 2017.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The best way to do that, Biden contended, is to maintain and bolster America’s system of alliances that form the heart of that order.

He hit that theme in a July 2019 foreign policy address at the City University of New York. “The Biden foreign policy agenda will place America back at the head of the table, working with our allies and partners — to mobilize global action on global threats, especially those unique to our century,” he said.

That worldview is about as traditional as it gets, and it’s reflected by the people he’s chosen to help lead his foreign policy team. “Biden has always been in the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, and so choosing a centrist, less progressive foreign policy team is true to form for him,” Kyle Haynes, a US foreign policy expert at Purdue University, told me.

Take Blinken, the 58-year-old secretary of state choice. He’s served Biden since 2002, rising to become the staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden chaired it. Blinken then became Biden’s national security adviser while he was vice president, moving on to the State Department in Obama’s second term to become the agency’s No. 2. He’s described by many as a centrist with an interventionist streak, and almost everything he says echoes Biden’s worldview.

“Joe Biden would reassert American leadership, leading with our diplomacy. We’d actually show up again, day in, day out,” Blinken told CBS News’s Michael Morell — a possible CIA selection — on his podcast in September.

Yet it’s not just how Biden’s team sees the world, but how they operate in it. One of the major concerns critics have of some incoming Cabinet members is that they hold hawkish views.

Just look at Haines, whom Biden chose to oversee the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies. The former CIA deputy director played an instrumental role in the Obama administration’s targeted killing program, which led to between 384 and 807 civilian deaths and 10 times more drone strikes than during George W. Bush’s eight years in office.

Some on the left also view her as having protected those responsible for the nation’s torture program after the 9/11 attacks. She backed current CIA Director Gina Haspel for the job, despite Haspel’s known history of running secret prisons around the world where “enhanced interrogation techniques” were used. Furthermore, Haines helped redact the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report.

It’s this combination — the Biden insiders mixed in with the hawks — that has some worried that the new administration’s thinking will remain calcified in yesteryear.

“Biden’s choices are all people he’s personally comfortable with, and that leads to a congenial Cabinet but not necessarily to good outcomes,” said US national security expert Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute.

But there are some signs that Biden’s blob is morphing — even if progressives aren’t satisfied with its shape yet.

Progressives want to at least change “the blob” to “the blob lite”

Sullivan, Biden’s choice for national security adviser, is seen by progressive activists as the most willing to reconsider traditional US foreign policy. While an entrenched member of the Democratic foreign policy elite, he’s shown a desire to lead with diplomacy in the Middle East, consider the middle class when making foreign policy decisions, and keep in mind that many Americans on the right and left diverge with how the elite view the world.

In January 2019, he told an audience at Dartmouth College that “Even if you get a president coming after [Trump] who is somewhat of a restorationist who says we have to get back to some fundamental principles around allies, around values, around the rules-based order for the world, you’re still going to have an undercurrent in the United States that is going to press against that pretty hard.”

Sullivan added: “Anyone who works on foreign policy in the United States or in the rest of the world is going to have to account for that.”

He’s not a complete outlier. Biden and his team have taken some progressive foreign policy stances, like ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting Covid-19, curbing climate change, and making the US economy more competitive.

That’s all well and good, progressives say, but they want to see more. “The point we made to them all along is you need the left to help you win, and you need the left to help you govern,” said a top progressive foreign policy proponent.

More than 50 organizations in May sent an open letter to the Biden campaign demanding, among other things, the reduction of the Pentagon budget, the repeal of a 2001 military authorization that allows the war on terror to persist, and the end of support for governments that abuse human rights. After seeing the letter, then-top Biden campaign members — including Blinken — held regular phone calls with those activists.

In those calls, the Center for International Policy’s Taeb told me, “our community made very clear that we’re going to be holding them accountable” if they don’t abide by their demands. “If they’re not willing to take the concerns of the grassroots seriously, I think there’s going to be a lot of friction. They’ll find that our community would push back.”

For the most part, progressive foreign policy activists are working in tandem with the Biden transition. This week, Taeb’s organization and others will send two documents they expect the president-elect’s team to take seriously.

The first is a booklet with the names of about 200 progressive activists they want to hold lower-level national security jobs. “It’s important that we have progressive people in there to make their disagreements heard at a high level, especially since there are no progressives in the Cabinet,” one of the activists told me. “It’s really not surprising the choices Biden has made. We’d be having a different conversation if it were President Bernie Sanders or President Elizabeth Warren.”

Progressives understand why none in their cohort are in the Cabinet, though. Simply put, there just isn’t a deep, experienced bench of like-minded foreign policy professionals qualified enough to lead the State Department or the Pentagon — at least not yet. The long-term hope is that after these people spend more time in government, they’ll be ready for bigger jobs in future Democratic administrations.

The second document is a set of actions they’d like to see Biden take in his first 100 days as president. There are many items, but the most prominent include having the US rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, extend the New START arms control agreement with Russia, and end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

But it hasn’t all been niceties. Multiple progressive groups fiercely opposed the idea of Michèle Flournoy as defense secretary due to her past support for the Afghanistan War and ties to defense contractors, which may be partly why Biden has chosen Austin, though he also has ties to the defense industry. They also oppose the nomination of Morell for CIA director because of his defense of drone warfare.

All this portends a continuous, long-term fight as progressives seek to turn Biden’s blob into “blob lite.” That struggle — where Biden and his team consider a wholesale change to America’s role in the world prompted by grassroots activism — could be one of the defining stories of the next four years.

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