A 'Blob' By Any Other Name

Supporting a bad status quo is easier than challenging it, and it is more rewarding to be a loud defender of a failed policy than it is to be an advocate of abandoning the failure.

Last week, The New York Times published an article about Afghanistan and the foreign policy “Blob,” and it was written in a way that mocked the term and the critics that use it. The funny thing is that the article reproduced exactly the sort of groupthink and hostility to outside criticism implied by the “Blob” label. There is probably nothing more blobbish than an article that quotes several high-profile pundits and analysts as they dismiss their detractors as ignorant and lazy without giving the other side a chance to be heard.

Judging from the finished product, one might think that the author didn’t even talk to any critics of foreign policy establishment groupthink and conformism, but that was not the case. Robert Kelly, professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea, was one of the critics contacted for comment, but nothing that he said made it into the final article. He sent me the comments he made, some of which I include here with his permission. Asked about the “Blob,” Kelly replied:

I do think there is: 1) an interventionist consensus, 2) a tendency to exaggerate threats to the US and its allies, and 3) support a forward-in-the-world foreign policy which is not necessarily in America’s interest, especially in the Middle East, where I think it is pretty clear that we are over-extended.

When defenders of the foreign policy establishment deride the “Blob” label, they usually argue that the establishment is not monolithic and contains a wide range of views. The critics’ response to this is that the differences that do exist are usually fairly small, and almost everyone shares consensus assumptions about the U.S. role in the world and the desirability and necessity of U.S. “leadership. Take Kelly’s three points and ask if his observations are supported by the evidence. Is there an interventionist consensus among foreign policy scholars and policymakers? Yes, there clearly is. The main and sometimes only disagreements about how the U.S. should respond to a foreign crisis or conflict are not over whether the U.S. should involve itself, but only over how it does so and to what extent. Intervention of one kind or another is practically taken as a given.

Is there a tendency to exaggerate threats to the U.S. and its allies? Of course. Threat inflation is the foreign policy establishment’s bread and butter. Without constant threat inflation, it would be difficult to garner sufficient political support for most of what the U.S. does in the world. Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall explore this at length in their new book, Manufacturing Militarism. Is there broad support within the foreign policy establishment for a “forward-in-the-world foreign policy”? Obviously, yes. That is practically the definition of what the establishment believes.

The debate during and following the Afghanistan withdrawal illustrated that consensus very well. Opponents of withdrawal settled on a convenient, false claim that there was a “sustainable status quo” that could have been maintained at minimal cost and risk, and that total withdrawal was both unnecessary and deeply damaging to the U.S. The main disagreement among opponents of the withdrawal was whether withdrawal was merely a horrible blunder or represented the end of American leadership in the world. The idea that the U.S. would be better off by simply quitting an unwinnable war was considered unthinkable or nonsensical. Their reaction to the prospect of full withdrawal was one of alarm verging on horror. Another one of Kelly’s comments on the reaction to the withdrawal is relevant here:

It focused a lot on issues like credibility, resolve, and humiliation, rather than restraint, admitting reality (that the war was unwinnable), or husbanding US resources/cutting our losses. There was a lot of hyperbole, hysteria even, that the withdrawal threw US security guarantees around the world into question, that the US was abandoning liberalism and democracy and assenting to the march of authoritarianism, that Biden was Jimmy Carter or Neville Chamberlain, and so on. I flag a lot of these histrionic takes on my Twitter feed. Quite honestly, a lot of it was just absurd.

That hysteria created an atmosphere where those professionals that agreed with the president’s policy had strong incentives not to speak up. It was the alarmed opponents of withdrawal that dominated the airwaves, news outlets, and the opinion sections despite the fact that they represented a distinct minority view in the country. Even when there may be a variety of views among policy professionals on a particular issue, there is significant pressure on skeptics of an activist and interventionist foreign policy to keep their heads down, and there is obviously zero accountability for supporters of failed policies. On those occasions when the skeptics and critics don’t keep their heads down, they are often denounced in the harshest terms. Given those perverse incentives, supporting a bad status quo is easier than challenging it, and it is more rewarding to be a loud defender of a failed policy than it is to be an advocate of abandoning the failure. That is the “Blob” at work.

Perhaps the funniest part of the NYT article was the quote from AEI’s Kori Schake:

“The reason they lash out and snarl at the Blob is because their positions are so contrary to the widespread belief about the effective use of American power internationally,” she said. “Criticism of the so-called foreign policy Blob is a way of saying, ‘I have been ineffective in persuading people that the policies I advocate are the correct ones.’”

There may be no other area that is more shaped by entrenched interests than foreign policy, so it is amusing to suggest that policy is made through persuasion and that the best arguments always win on merit. Appealing to a “widespread belief about the effective use of American power internationally” is bizarre when foreign policy is arguably more defined and driven by elites than anything else that the government does. To the extent that there really is a “widespread belief” about American power in the world, it is one that policymakers have inculcated for decades and one that the government has promoted through its own propaganda efforts for generations. Having promoted their orthodoxy relentlessly, the promoters then point to the widespread acceptance of the doctrine they promoted as if this proves their critics wrong when they object to the stultifying enforcement of that same orthodoxy.

If members of the foreign policy establishment dislike the “Blob” label, it is probably because they don’t like having their conformism, knee-jerk “do-somethingism,” and lack of introspection put under the spotlight. Perhaps they would prefer it if we just called them an unaccountable class of policymakers that has presided over multiple costly disasters born of their groupthink, hubris, and unwillingness to admit or learn from failure.