What We Talk About When We Talk About the 'Blob'

Being a Blobster means never having to say you’re sorry.

I was watching this conversation between Bob Wright and Tom Wright, and I found it to be very frustrating. The discussion about the meaning and definition of the “Blob” could have been productive, but I don’t think it was. The conversation kept coming back to the question of diversity of views among foreign policy professionals. Bob Wright acknowledged that every group or school of thought has some diversity of views. Not all restrainers agree on everything, and not all Blobsters have identical views on all questions. Tom Wright took this as proof that the “Blob” moniker didn’t reflect the reality of think tanks and the foreign policy establishment, where there are at least some dissenting views. This was frustrating because there doesn’t have to be total unanimity on every single issue for there to be a “Blob” with a narrow range of views, a propensity for groupthink, and a preference for hawkishness and “do somethingism.”

Two enforcers of foreign policy orthodoxy might have a vigorous debate about applying sanctions to a particular country, but they would join together to condemn the person saying that sanctions are unjust and wrong. There may be room to argue over adding new security commitments, but if you want to prune some you will find there is no room left. There are core assumptions about the U.S. role in the world that have to be accepted if you are going to be accepted, and if you question or reject those assumptions you will receive no hearing. This seems undeniable and obvious.

Would-be defenders of the “Blob” frequently appeal to the presence of a relative handful of less hawkish scholars at various think tanks to claim that the general claim about the institutions and their biases isn’t true, but that is not a serious defense. For every one Micah Zenko, for example, there are two dozen reliable hegemonists that have never seen an intervention they couldn’t support. Using this as proof of a diversity of views would be like pointing to the existence of some small Hutterite or Mennonite community in pre-revolutionary Russia and then claiming that it is proof that Russia did not have an established church at the time. It is true that these communities existed, but it doesn’t disprove the larger claim.

There is a small space for a few dissenters here and there, but they will be slapped down hard if they cross certain arbitrary lines. Most of those dissenters can obviously forget about ever working in government, because they would not pass certain ideological tests even if they are extremely knowledgeable in their specific field. It was striking that Tom Wright said that he thought that the “Blob” label was being used to shut down debate when the point of applying the label is to protest against exactly that.

The point here is not that there is absolutely no dissent to be found, but that the limits of the debate are policed, dissenters tend to be marginalized, conventional views are rewarded, and there is no accountability for failure so long as someone holds the right assumptions. It’s not just that Bob Kagan predictably and reliably backs every misguided military intervention to come down the pike, though he does, but that he never has to answer for getting big questions wrong, he never questions any of his core assumptions, and he continues to be accepted as an influential foreign policy thinker in good standing anyway. Being a Blobster means never having to say you’re sorry. It’s this lack of accountability that is central to what we talk about when we talk about the “Blob.” By all rights, all of the prominent Iraq war boosters should have retired in disgrace and never been heard from again. Instead, they simply won’t go away, and there is no effort made to make them go away. It is no accident that our foreign policy has produced so many major failures in the last few decades when the people responsible for those failures pay no penalty and suffer no setbacks for getting things as wrong as can be.