Deconstructing the blob

16 March 2020, 0900 EDT

“The blob” has become a common term during the Democratic Primary. The DC foreign policy establishment, so the argument goes, has an overwhelming effect on all who engage with it, sucking them in and spitting them out as appendages to its militaristic, status quo policies. There is some truth to this idea, but it has come to encompass too much, and the term is losing its value. It may be worth deconstructing what we meant by “the blob” and having a real, direct, debate on Demcratic foreign policy.

The Rise of THE BLOB

One of the more popular phrases flung around in the Democratic Primary (at least on the foreign policy side) is “The Blob.” The phrase was coined by Ben Rhodes, a speechwriter turned top national security aide in the Obama Administration. The blob is the “foreign policy establishment.” This includes “Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties.” Basically, the blob represents the Washington foreign policy consensus pushing for a robust military presence around the world. Kind of a less refined version of Bacevich’s “Washington Rules.”

Unfortunately, as often happened, this phrase was turned on its creators. The Obama foreign policy team saw themselves as a new generation of experts, the “smartest people in the room” (I’ve literally heard people use that to describe them) who would both repair the harm done by the Bush Administration and fix the issues with Democratic foreign policy.

But to many, they were part of the problem. The Nation argued that Rhodes was actually part of The Blob:

One surprising thing about Rhodes’s book, however, is that Rhodes himself is much more representative of the Blob than Samuels’s profile had implied.

Bloomberg’s Eli Lake made a similar point. Trump’s foreign policy–defined by an attack on Obama’s legacy–has been characterized as an attack on The Blob. And Matt Duss, Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy adviser, has used The Blob to refer to Democratic foreign policy circles, which now includes people like Rhodes.

So what’s going on here? Part of it is the, I’m sorry to use this word, arrogance of Obama’s foreign policy team. Obama’s foreign policy was a mess, and much of this had to do with the confused set of policies and priorities he received from his advisers. This is a topic for another post (or a whole set of posts), but Tom Ricks’ response to the Rhodes profile expresses this idea better than I ever could. His team thought they were smarter than they were–to the point of using dismissive terms like “the Blob”–and didn’t realize the extent to which they were perpetuating the same old problems with US foreign policy.

But it’s also an issue with the term itself. As Emma Ashford noted on twitter awhile ago, “The Blob” has kind of turned into TEH BLOB, a nebulous catch-all that really means nothing.

What is “the blob?”

So what is “the blob?” Let’s break it down by the policies people claim TEH BLOB advances.

Do those who see the blob threatening progress in the world think there is absolute consensus, on, say, Israel-Palestine? Even within one think tank, the centrist Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) we see criticism of Trump’s “peace plan” and relatively sympathetic appraisals of Israel’s security situation. Meanwhile, at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) we find more robust defenses of Israeli policy and attacks on critics of Israel. Opponents of TEH BLOB may not think CFR goes far enough, but it’s hard to argue there’s consensus across DC think tanks.

Or are they saying that the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) and the right-leaning AEI agree on Iran? This is obviously not true. While AEI was putting out reports entitled “Iran’s nuclear deal was doomed from the start,” CAP is calling on America to “put diplomacy first.” Sure, CAP is still critical of the Iranian regime, but, well, that’s justified.

Or are they claiming that all DC think tanks were united in support of the Iraq war? This seems to be what the Sanders team argues about establishment Democrats. Is it true of think tanks? Well, CFR President Richard Haass, a Republican foreign policy operative, has vocally opposed the Iraq war. CAP, meanwhile, was critical of the Iraq war from the beginning, while Lawrence Korb–a CAP fellow and Democratic foreign policy elite–supported Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq. It is true that Obama didn’t have a coherent withdrawal plan, while Democratic voices weren’t united enough in opposing the Iraq War. But this wasn’t because of some overwhelming consensus across all of DC.

So obviously, TEH BLOB has not absorbed all DC foreign policy thinkers. What then, do those who use this term mean? Well, some of it is the argument that even left-leaning think tanks aren’t progressive enough. This (I suspect, but can’t speak for him) is a bit of what Duss means, especially on Israel-Palestine. Some may be the sense that even liberal thinkers still want America to be a leading force in the world, a concern that has led to the establishment of the Quincy Institute and its emphasis on restraint.

These are valid concerns, but they’re not the same thing as an all-powerful blob overcoming all independent thought. The idea behind TEH BLOB is that the only way to fix the problems in US foreign policy is to completely reject the establishment and its think tank representatives, and start over with outside voices. But if the blob doesn’t really exist, that solution is mis-placed.

Moving beyond the blob

This isn’t just an academic debate. It’s going to matter as we move closer to November for both those who want to change Democratic foreign policy and those who want to be part of the establishment for three reasons:

  1. Today’s blob-buster will be tomorrow’s TEH BLOB: As we saw with Rhodes, the Obama foreign policy team thought they were taking on TEH BLOB but ended up being part of it. Whether this was because they weren’t as innovative as they thought or the blob was too powerful, it should be a warning for any foreign policy team that defines itself in opposition to the DC Establishment.
  2. There are opportunities for productive bipartisan coalitions: Many see such bipartisan work as proof of TEH BLOB; just look at the reaction to this recent Blinken-Kagan op-ed. But there are many areas where Democrats and Republicans can work together–or at least engage in dialogue–without compromising their values. Brian Katulis (TEH BLOB ALERT: a friend of mine) at CAP has tried to spearhead such dialogues. Those who would dismiss them should remember that The Quincy Institute–the most powerful anti-establishment voice in these debates–is a product of a right-left coalition. Similarly, the string of bills restricting Trump’s war powers emerged out of a coalition between Bernie Sanders, relative centrists Chris Murphy and Tim Kaine, and conservative Mike Lee. Rejecting all such cooperation as TEH BLOB means rejecting all these efforts.
  3. There are legitimate criticisms of Democratic foreign policy: Rhodes had a point. Duss has many good points. The Democratic foreign policy machine veers between “out-right the Right” hawkishness and mushy idealism. It has failed to make the case to the American people for a productive engagement with the world. But by bashing all Democratic Party foreign policy voices as TEH BLOB, critics make it easier to dismiss their concerns as hyperbole. A more reasonable, narrowly-targeted critique can be more productive.

So as the race narrows down to a Biden-Sanders fight, let’s stop using “the blob” as a cudgel to beat our enemies with. Let’s have a real debate about Democratic foreign policy and how to update it for the 21st century.