Watch Out for 'Blobaganda'

Schwartz’s account gets at some important aspects of what critics mean when we talk about the “Blob.”

Mattathias Schwartz has written an interesting account of his experience in the foreign policy “Blob” and how “blobaganda” gets produced:

To understand how blobaganda works, you have to look for what isn't there. Not much airtime is given to dissent from what's often called "the rules-based order" or "the liberal international order." These terms sound technical and boring and unobjectionable; perhaps that is by design. In plain English, "rules-based order" has effectively come to mean "war is good." The foreign-policy establishment is ideologically committed to the faith-based proposition that America can use force against a country thousands of miles away and, if not remake it in our own image, then at least leave it better than we found it. "Liberal" and "rules" are strange words to apply to campaigns that rely so heavily on drone strikes and covert CIA operations. At one event hosted by the Blobosphere, I remember one of my peers raising his hand to ask how we could convince the American public that it was worth going to war to defend Montenegro, as we are obliged to under Article 5 of the NATO treaty. The room turned and looked at him as if he'd gone insane.

Schwartz’s account gets at some important aspects of what critics mean when we talk about the “Blob.” He stresses the role of social pressure and conformism. Control over who gets to participate in the conversation is an essential part of that. If you are an aspiring analyst and would-be policymaker, you learn quickly not to stray outside the lines of acceptable opinion, and those lines are drawn very narrowly. If you happen to go outside of them, you can expect to be denounced and marginalized.

The clubbishness and groupthink that critics deplore as flaws are features to those that are members in good standing. Holding all the same main assumptions about the U.S. role in the world is the way to gain entry and it serves as a marker of status for those that belong. Schwartz writes:

But as I learned from the five years I spent inside the bubble of the foreign-policy establishment — all the off-the-record gatherings and the cozy meet-and-greets I attended — the neutral deliberations that take place behind closed doors occur within carefully managed boundaries. You can't work in Washington and not cross paths with smart, influential people who have been paid substantial amounts of money from a foreign-policy think tank, or the powerful dons who sit on one of their boards. If you have control over who's in the room, and who gets to sit onstage, there's no need to script the action. The ideologically correct opinion will organically percolate through the network. This is known as social contagion, and it goes a long way to explaining why America's leading foreign-policy experts keep producing disasters like Afghanistan.

When skepticism of an activist U.S. role is frequently dismissed as “isolationism” or an abandonment of American “leadership,” it becomes a lot easier for many people either to keep their heads down or to endorse the consensus view. Speak up too loudly against a consensus position, and you are liable to be attacked as a “regime apologist” or possibly even an agent of another government. There isn’t likely to be much accountability for failure under these conditions, and it should come as no surprise that there isn’t any in practice. As we have seen in the backlash to withdrawal from Afghanistan, the establishment’s preferred policies cannot fail, they can only be failed.

The anecdote with the person raising a question about public opinion and NATO expansion is a telling one. The crowd in the room regarded the questioner as if he were insane not only because he pointed out a possible problem with bringing in an unnecessary new member into the alliance, but because he was brazen enough to suggest that public opinion was in any way relevant to the making of policy. The people in that room knew that convincing the public about these things has never been necessary, and I imagine they would find it unwelcome. I am picturing an American equivalent to Sir Humphrey from Yes, Minister staring in horror at the suggestion that citizens should have input into what the government does in their name. The American people are not really consulted about the alliances that their government makes. After all, why would you want to bother the public with little things like which countries we are committed to going to war to defend? We are informed after the fact, and the near-unanimous endorsement by our supposed representatives makes our support or lack of it moot.

In the end, what makes the “Blob” so harmful to the United States and the world is that it is impervious to dissent and uninterested in reexamining core assumptions. There is no accountability for failure, and there is no justice when crimes have been committed. That all but guarantees that it will keep making the same kinds of destructive errors over and over, and the same cast of characters will be there to make the wrongheaded policies of the future. The American people and the inhabitants of many other countries pay the price for those errors, but as we know the architects and cheerleaders never have to pay even the smallest price. They will remain permanent fixtures on the D.C. scene, no matter how many disasters and atrocities they have enabled, and when they are challenged to defend their abysmal record they will close ranks and insist that they have had tremendous success as long as you don’t count the last three or four decades.