I was recently speaking to an DC-insider friend of mine about the appointment of Antony Blinken as America’s next secretary of state.
My old colleague — a veteran of my seminal struggles with the neo-conservatives around the time of the Iraq War, a passionate Republican Never-Trumper and card-carrying member of the Washington establishment — summed up the foreign policy blob’s reaction to his elevation: “Thank God we are going back to discussing men who speak in rounded, well-crafted sentences.”
I knew Tony Blinken a little from meetings during my decade in Washington, though we were certainly never close. Even then, he was a cut above the rest personally. Well-educated, good-looking, quietly ironical (and quite funny), absorbed in the work at hand, and keenly intelligent, Tony seemed to be in it for the Republic, rather than himself — a rarity in a town built on often unearned self-promotion.
Even my trusted deputy, whose job was primarily to protect me from the vipers of the place, said Tony was a man we could do business with.
And yet, in just now looking back at these two analyses of Blinken, I can’t help but see the standard description of the best of the Wilsonian hawk advisers that have dominated the foreign policy establishment since the time of Kennedy and have caused so much damage. They too were charismatic, erudite, high minded, fiercely intelligent, and born to rule.
But the historical record of an analyst must never be predicated primarily on whether they look the part of the statesman, but on whether they are statesmen. For JFK’s “Best and Brightest” also enmeshed the United States in the Vietnam War, an act of supreme folly that caused unending personal and geostrategic tragedy.
This is what ultimately matters, not whether someone is particularly clever at a Washington cocktail party.
And it is on his record where Blinken falls down.
Former secretary of defense Robert Gates, a man who served under both a Republican (George W. Bush) and Democratic President (Barack Obama), while liking Joe Biden personally, summed him up in his memoirs as a man “who has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Of course, for the latter portion of this time, Tony Blinken was sitting in the room, serving as the president-elect’s primary foreign policy adviser.
Biden and Blinken were catastrophically wrong about the Iraq War (as were fellow Wilsonian hawks Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, for that matter). They were wrong about the US remaining endlessly in Afghanistan. They were wrong about the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia. They were wrong about the disastrous intervention in Libya, which left it a smoldering failed state.
They were wrong about China too, following the blob groupthink over the past two decades in seeing Beijing’s rise as fundamentally benign.
The one time Blinken has strayed from his boss, advocating US involvement in the Dantean hell that is Syria, he appeared eager to increase American intervention, seemingly having learnt nothing from Iraq. As Republican senator Josh Hawley of Missouri put it, Blinken “backed every endless war since the Iraq invasion”.
Accountability must matter to any great power — with successful statesmen being rewarded and failing ones sent out to pasture — if it is to remain a great power for long. To put it mildly, if an analyst wanted to join my political risk firm with Blinken’s record, I would send them expeditiously to the door.
What’s primarily wrong here is not the man himself; it is the unreconstructed wrongheaded philosophy of the American foreign policy establishment, a whole misguided way of looking at the world.
As Anatol Lieven and I wrote in Ethical Realism: “It consists of beliefs that America is both so powerful and so obviously good that it has the ability to spread democracy throughout the world; that if necessary, this can be achieved through war; that this mission can be made to advance particular US interests; and that this combination will naturally be supported by good people all over the world, irrespective of their own political traditions, national allegiances, and national interests.”
As a patriot (and as someone who thinks he is a good man), I wish Tony Blinken nothing but the best in his new job. But, given the recent record of the US foreign policy establishment of which he is a charter member, I fear for him — and more for the country.
Main image credit: Getty