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For some, Afghanistan outcome affirms a warning: Beware the blob

The term "Blob" is generally understood to describe members of the mainstream foreign-policy establishment who share a collective belief in the obligation of the US to pursue an aggressive, interventionist policy in the post-9/11 world

By Sarah Lyall
Published: Sep 17, 2021

For some, Afghanistan outcome affirms a warning: Beware the blobMembers of an elite Taliban unit stationed at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 3, 2021. The final withdrawal from Afghanistan has prompted much discussion of “The Blob” — the mainstream foreign-policy establishment that shares a collective belief in the obligation of the United States to pursue an aggressive, interventionist policy in the post-9/11 world. 
Image: Victor J. Blue/The New York Times

First there was the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Then there was the chorus of disapproval. And then, as is so often the case in U.S. foreign policy, there was the Blob.

“‘The Blob’ turns on Jake,” Alex Thompson and Tina Sfondeles wrote in Politico, referring to President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. And then: “I’ve got to say hats off to the Blob on this whole Afghanistan thing,” commentator Matthew Yglesias said sarcastically on Twitter. “They couldn’t achieve any of their stated war aims, but they’ve proven they can absolutely wreck you politically.”

What is this Blob of which they speak? What does it have to do with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and whether they can actually govern? And why, like the nebulous malevolent organism in the 1958 horror film with which it shares a name, is it perpetually lurking around, sucking up everything in its path?

The term “Blob” is generally understood to describe members of the mainstream foreign-policy establishment — government officials, academics, Council on Foreign Relations panelists, television talking heads and the like — who share a collective belief in the obligation of the United States to pursue an aggressive, interventionist policy in the post-9/11 world. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen in this context as Blob-approved.

This foreign-policy philosophy has its origins in the post-World War II view of American exceptionalism, epitomized by officials like Dean Acheson, that U.S. military intervention in foreign conflicts was vital to defending U.S. interests and generally did more good than harm. To the extent that the Blob holds this view, the Afghanistan withdrawal was a defeat for its position. For Blob critics, it was more fodder for discussing why the Blob gets things so wrong.

“Coming out of Afghanistan was a rebuke to, or the swan song of, the neoconservative approach, which had its heyday during the Iraq War,” said Vali R. Nasr, a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “After the first Iraq War, the United States developed a sense that the U.S. could basically engage in war, and help shape outcomes internationally, at little or no cost.’’

Former President George W. Bush positioned “a group of ragtag terrorists as America’s great strategic rival and an existential threat to the United States,” Nasr continued. “Even though the effort failed early on, it continued unimpeded and became fundamental to the Blob’s thinking post-9/11.”

The term was coined in 2016 by Benjamin Rhodes, who was a deputy national security adviser for President Barack Obama at the time. It was not a compliment. Rather, it was a criticism directed at foreign-policy experts with an “unrealistic set of assumptions about what America could do in the world,” Rhodes, who is now a co-host of the “Pod Save The World” podcast, said in an interview.

“It’s not that people are issued a card with their name on it that identities them as part of the Blob,” he said. But back in 2016, he singled out “Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq War promoters from both parties,” who, he said, had an unpleasant tendency to “whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order.”

As a simple branding exercise — accusing one’s enemies of practicing hegemonic groupthink and being mired in a sclerotic, outdated view of U.S. power — it was a diabolical master stroke.

But to the foreign policy establishment, it was a provocation.

“A lot of people who are proud members of the foreign policy community would object to the phrase,” said Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He himself objected last year, writing an essay with Peter D. Feaver and William C. Inboden for Foreign Affairs that had a title intended to tease: “In Defense of the Blob: America’s Foreign Policy Establishment Is the Solution, Not the Problem.”

“What I find troubling about the idea of the Blob is that it taps into this old conspiratorial mindset about what produces American foreign policy,” Brands said. “It makes it seem that American foreign policy has been so disastrous and foolish that it must have been foisted on the American people by some elite that doesn’t have their best interests at heart.”

Even Rhodes realizes that, like the gelatinous alien mass in “The Blob” movie, his creature has grown out of control.

“Everybody since then has sought to define it for their own purposes, including those who want to make it a badge of honor, and those who want to hang it on their opponents,” Rhodes said.

Gideon Rose, a former editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Biden “had to overrule the Blobbish, deep-state-ish, permanent government-ish factions within his own administration” in order to carry out his Afghanistan withdrawal.

That is potentially confusing. For one thing, who could be Blobbier than Sullivan, the national security adviser, or Secretary of State Antony Blinken, both veteran establishment foreign-policy figures? (“The Blob is Back,” The American Conservative magazine said in December, referring to the Biden administration’s foreign policy team.)

The people claiming that there is some sort of unified theory of Blob-dom are not thinking clearly, said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. For one thing, he said, even within Brookings there is a wide range of opinion on Afghanistan. He supported the withdrawal, for instance — which would seem to make him a traitor to the Blob, even though he is, by any definition, in the Blob himself.

“My impression is that people who talk about the Blob have not read or inquired into what the people in the think tanks have actually said about the topic,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.” But, he said, “if they want to say that Biden is doing something that Richard Haass disagrees with, then that’s true, he is.”

It is also true that any discussion of this topic inevitably leads to Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was christened “Pope of the Blob” by writer Andrew Sullivan in 2019. For the record, Haass’ view on Afghanistan is that America should have maintained its presence by leaving behind a small number of troops and not pulled out completely.

In an interview, Haass said he was happy to be considered part of the foreign policy establishment, but not happy that the foreign policy establishment was called the Blob.
“It’s a lazy term,” he said. “It’s a pejorative and imprecise way to dismiss those who disagree with you, and it doesn’t advance the foreign policy conversation.”

“Let’s have a serious conversation about what should be the lessons of Afghanistan, or about America’s role in the world,” Haass continued. “But to simply describe certain people who disagree with you as the Blob is useless. And that is a generous way of putting it.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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