AMAC Exclusive – by Daniel Roman
Karl Marx once observed that history often repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce. He did not ascribe this to some great mystical force, but rather to the common desire of resentful mediocrities to imitate the heroes of their youth. At the time, he was referring to the effort of Napoleon III, the nephew of the great Napoleon, to ape the pomp of his uncle when he could not match the authentic article. But for Marx, it also applied to the politicians of the left who tried to imitate Robespierre without one tenth of the substance.
If the Obama administration’s foreign policy team produced more than its share of tragedies on the world stage–Benghazi, the collapse of the Arab Spring into chaos, the rise of ISIS through a premature withdrawal from Iraq–the Biden Administration is now reproducing them in the form of farce. Obama’s foreign policy had many defects, but lack of ambition was not among them. Obama’s vision was a poor one which proved tragically incorrect, but Obama’s policies were carried out by individuals who believed in them. The speech Obama gave in Cairo in 2009 was the speech of a man who genuinely believed in a struggle between Islam and America which was based upon misunderstandings, not differing interests or the ambitions of local actors. Obama’s policies in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and toward Israel were those of someone who genuinely believed that America was the problem. That American support for dictators caused unrest, except in cases such as Iraq, where American intervention against dictators triggered chaos. In either case America was the problem.
Obama’s vision was one that leading figures in his administration had advocated for years. Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and others all had substantial profiles and a clear agenda by the time they took office. They were wrong, and the consequences of their failures were catastrophic, but they did take office with the ambition of doing something. It was a tragedy that what they sought to do turned out to be wrong.
If Obama’s team was motivated by the ambition to do something, then Biden’s team appears to be driven by a burning desire to be someone.
Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan were not well known for strategic or policy brilliance before their elevation to the top of the American National Security apparatus. Lloyd Austin was a general, but a largely unknown one.
The burden of anonymity hangs heavy over Biden’s team whenever they address the press. It is obvious in their prickliness when challenged, their quick resort to blaming their predecessors, their desperate efforts to claim no one could have done better. It is almost as if they need to reassure not just others, but themselves that they belong where they are.
While Republicans today lambast the incompetence of Biden’s team, Republicans weren’t the first to recognize the ineptitude of those now charged with ensuring our national security. Barack Obama and his team effectively said as much years ago. Jake Sullivan and Anthony Blinken were unknown in the policy community not because the public never had a chance to meet them, but because Barack Obama refused to make them somebodies. Both have long histories with Biden. Vice Presidents empire-build—they try to get their allies appointed to powerful posts in the administration to expand the influence they don’t have by virtue of the powers of their office. Both Blinken and Sullivan, given Biden’s elevation to the Vice Presidency, most likely should have expected the incoming Vice President to push them heavily for senior national security positions in 2009. Failing that, they should have expected to benefit from the turnover in Obama’s second term.
Where was Sullivan then? On the sidelines of power. Anthony Blinken, meanwhile, was National Security Adviser to the Vice President from 2009 to 2013, which is far from being among the most coveted positions in the national security hierarchy. This implies not only that Biden was unable to get Blinken a job anywhere on the actual President’s national security team, but that after four years as the Vice President’s National Security Adviser, he was unable to get Blinken a new post at the NSC or State Department in Obama’s second term. Not only did Hillary Clinton apparently find Blinken unworthy of a serious appointment, but so evidently did John Kerry, Susan Rice, Robert Gates and others.
Unlike Blinken, a mediocrity whose rise stalled just when it should have begun in 2009, Sullivan was a young man in a hurry. But he was in a hurry not to promote any sort of vision for foreign policy or America’s role in the world. He has barely published his thoughts on anything. His career is one of pure politics, and politics of associating with the second-tier. Clinton in 2008 and 2016, Biden in between, never breaking into Obama’s circle.
At 30, he was a foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, followed her to the State Department as deputy chief of staff, and then became Director of Planning Staff. But Sullivan failed to make the transition into Obama’s team, or the center of Democratic policymaking. When Clinton departed the State Department in 2013, Sullivan was neither promoted at State nor given a perch on Obama’s own team at the NSC. Instead, he found himself succeeding Blinken as Biden’s National Security Adviser.
Perhaps Obama found his judgment or discretion lacking. It now appears that Sullivan did take part in one operational project—reportedly an effort to use hearsay and rumor mongering from former intelligence officials to try and sell the media on links between Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. What is striking is not that Sullivan would undertake such a function, but he did so in such a ham-fisted way that the CIA “picked up chatter” from Russian sources about “a senior Clinton foreign policy adviser” attempting to fabricate connections between Trump and Russia. Former CIA Director John Brennan apparently even warned Obama that Sullivan was engaged in such an effort on Hillary’s behalf.
This can only have reinforced the notion that Sullivan was a political operator who had no place in a role of responsibility over America’s national security. Biden must not have been in the loop.
U.S. Foreign Policy under Biden then is not being run by either the Obama team, or even the Obama “B team.” It is run by the C team.
Blinken and Sullivan carry themselves with the air of men who have been vindicated by events in a nominal sense, but who nevertheless feel uncomfortably aware that it was external forces like COVID-19 and the surprising ascendency of a thoroughly bland and uninspiring candidate in Joe Biden which transformed them from individuals who would likely never work in government again in 2016 to Secretary of State and National Security Adviser in 2021. Their vindication, such as it was, was entirely dependent on the unlikeliest series of events: Donald Trump’s victory in the primaries and then general election in 2016; Joe Biden’s narrow victory in the primaries and then general election in 2020. Kamala Harris’ elevation to Vice President over someone who might have had their own foreign policy team such as Susan Rice, or close links with Obama.
Their career resurrection to the center of global power is farcical, and, they seem to understand, somewhat absurd. The problem is, the American people – and the world – are paying for it. During the botched evacuation from Afghanistan, both Blinken and Sullivan seemed determined to take center stage in the media coverage to give the impression they were central to what was going on, flooding the Sunday talk shows and giving daily press conferences.
This came at the cost of actually doing anything real to fix the situation. In those appearances, their comments largely focused not on defending or justifying U.S. policy, but on justifying their own occupation of their respective positions. Their claim that Biden’s Afghanistan policy was determined by the Trump administration was the claim of someone hopelessly insecure in their own decisions. The conflicting arguments that the withdrawal was both perfect and inevitably chaotic also amounted to another defensive claim that no one would or could have done better, especially the people Sullivan and Blinken worked under during the Obama administration. The members of Biden’s team act like individuals who suspect they do not belong in their jobs.
In this characteristic insecurity, the Biden team reflects Biden himself. If the resurrection of Anthony Blinken is an inexplicable twist of fate, nothing is more farcical than the process by which Joseph Biden, who barely managed 4% in the 2008 Iowa caucuses in his second run for President, coming well behind Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards, ended up in the White House. It required Barack Obama to defeat Hillary Clinton in an upset in 2008, John Edwards’ political career to explode in scandal, eliminating him from consideration for Vice President. It also took Obama’s subsequent selection of Biden, and then the defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016—followed by the almost tragicomic fiascos of the Democratic contests in Iowa and New Hampshire with no clear victor between Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. That allowed Biden, who came in fourth, to make a come-from-behind bid for the nomination. COVID-19 and the chaos it installed in the electoral system then allowed Biden to become President by the narrowest of margins.
Someone who if but for that most unlikely combination of factors would be on the doorstep of a long-term care facility rather than President is unsurprisingly determined to remind everyone he is President. But Biden, like Blinken and Sullivan, seems deeply uncertain what he wanted to be President for. A man who opposed school bussing for integration and voted for the Iraq War now champions Black Lives Matter and unilateral withdrawal from abroad. But like his cronies, Biden is committed to reminding everyone every day he is President through assertions of his own importance. He wanted to be president as personal vindication—vindication over those for whom, in 1988 and 2008 and 2016, he was “not good enough.”
The problem, as with Blinken and Sullivan, is that those who believed Biden was not fit to be president, including figures as diverse as Barack Obama and Osama Bin Laden, were right. Biden understands the presidency only in terms of wielding power. Afghanistan was arbitrary and capricious. His mandate for employers was arbitrary and capricious. His recent decision to ration antibody treatments to the states was arbitrary and capricious. His response to criticism is to remind critics that he is President and can do what he wants.
In fact, that is the unifying message from this entire “C Team” administration. Sullivan, Blinken, and Biden all want the press and media to know that they are in office. Those who bemoan the far-left agenda of the Biden administration confuse farce for tragedy. The Afghan people and the American people would be enormously lucky to have Obama 2.0 rather than this group. Instead, we are getting those who never made the cut. Their farcical efforts to win personal vindication at the expense of the American people and the world itself have already proved a disaster beyond measure.