A review of initial comments from well-known former officials and journalists shows that their sense of their own wisdom and indispensability is undiminished. Given their links with the Democratic presidential candidates, their comments offer not only a critique of the Trump administration but a foreshadowing of a potential Democratic administration.
The killing of Qassem Soleimani in Iraq on Friday by the United States will reverberate across the Middle East and the world for decades to come. The architect of Iran’s imperial expansion and its worldwide terror networks, including hundreds if not thousands of fatal attacks against American soldiers in Iraq, Soleimani was a unique and deadly figure. Iranian revenge attacks for his killing are inevitable. In the meantime, however, it is useful to examine reactions to his death from the interlocked American foreign policy and media apparatus.
Former Obama White House staffer Ben Rhodes introduced the term “the Blob” to refer to the shapeless and permanent bipartisan foreign policy establishment as a means of highlighting the Obama administration’s purportedly novel thinking. Like a shapeless iceberg, the Blob is mostly underwater (that is, unseen). It is comprised of hundreds of individuals inside and outside government, with the latter to be found mostly at policy organizations, think tanks, the media and academia before they cycle back into official positions.
Rhodes, a former speechwriter turned policy guru, also noted regarding journalists that “the average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.” Together, these journalists formed what Rhodes labeled the “Echo Chamber,” which could be relied upon to “[say] things that validated what we had given them to say.”
This handy description is Rhodes’s only useful and lasting contribution to American foreign policy. Indeed, as if to illustrate both the permanence of the Blob/Echo Chamber revolving door and its vacuity, Rhodes currently runs an anti-Trump policy organization and appears frequently as a television commentator.
What then do the Blob and the Echo Chamber have to say about Soleimani’s death? The medium known as Twitter, with its short, impulsive and poorly thought out messages, provides a unique window into what people are really thinking. Rhodes himself, who was fundamentally invested in the Obama administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, was quick to respond on Twitter to the news of Soleimani’s death.
Among his comments: “Trump may have just started a war with no congressional debate. I really hope the worst case scenario doesn’t happen but everything about this situation suggests serious escalation to come,” and “Iraq and Lebanon are just two of the places where we have to be very concerned about the potential Iranian response which could play out over time — not to mention Iran’s nuclear program. Again, QS was as bad a guy as there was, but what is the strategy here?”
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power also condemned the action by pointing to the uncertainty of the outcome, and specifically the allegedly precipitous manner in which the decision was made: “Trump is surrounded by sycophants (having fired those who’ve dissented). He has purged Iran specialists. He has abolished NSC processes to review contingencies. He is seen as a liar around the world.”
Lesser-known Blob members also weighed in. Kelly Magsamen, currently of the Center for American Progress and formerly principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, similarly lamented, “I worked the Iran account for years at the NSC under two Presidents. I’m honestly terrified right now that we don’t have a functioning national security process to evaluate options and prepare for contingencies. God help us.”
Finally, Brett McGurk, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, now of Stanford University, said, “We need to presume we are now in a state of war with Iran… and that is not something that the Trump administration appears to have been prepared for.”
The Echo Chamber expressed similar concerns. Charter member Ezra Klein of Vox fretted, “The question isn’t whether Solemaini was a bad guy. The questions are: 1. What are the likely consequences of his assassination? 2. Do you trust the Trump administration to have planned for those consequences and to manage what comes next?”
Higher up on the Echo Chamber food chain, The New York Times’s Max Fisher’s expressed concerns are not about the decision-making process but about the nature of the Iranian-American relationship: “If reports are true, assassinating Iran’s Soleimani would represent a major, overt act of war. Functionally and legally, it’s not a ‘risk of war’ or ‘tantamount to war.’ It is war outright, and against a country that has invested years of preparation into enduring just that.”
Washington Post columnist and CIA leak conduit David Ignatius warned ominously about “An eerie feeling reading this news, reminiscent of when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple a brutal dictator—and set in motion a chain of consequences for which America was utterly unprepared.”
Finally, offering an academic’s distorted view of both history and contemporary reality, Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt said, “Just imagine how we’d react if some adversary assassinated a member of the Joint Chiefs, an Undersecretary of State, or the DNI.”
Scores of similar examples are easily found. But what does this exercise in collecting ephemera suggest?
One observation is that the Blob is uniquely and absolutely committed to its own indispensability in the decision-making process. Only they—in this case meaning Obama veterans—have the wisdom and patience to analyze situations and predict outcomes. When they act, as in the killing of Osama bin Laden, the action is wise; when others act, killing a no less dangerous terrorist mastermind, the action is foolish.
Another is that the Blob has a (supposedly) deep, if newly discovered, respect for the American Constitution and the apparent need to consult Congress in order to take action against a designated terrorist and his associates. That this was not a concern with regard to the JCPOA is of little consequence. Similar complaints have been expressed by others regarding the Soleimani killing and the malleable fiction of “international law,” as opposed to the Obama administration’s immense global targeted killing program.
The concern involves who is pulling the trigger, not why. At one level the criticisms are inescapably partisan; Democrats complaining about the Trump administration is the first and only law of American politics today. Parallel complaints regarding process, wisdom and ultimate fitness for office were leveled at Obama by Republicans, though they hardly reached the current level of antipathy directed toward Trump.
The question becomes not whether Trump’s policy decision was correct, but whether the critics adopting tones of ill-disguised hatred are themselves to be trusted. The responses to the Soleimani killing have additional relevance not simply because of their partisanship and self-referential elevation of expertise, which illustrate if nothing else the processes of elite groupthink. They anticipate a possible future, namely the way Democratic presidential candidates uniformly disapproved of the killing.
Current frontrunner and former Obama Vice President Joe Biden likened the act to throwing “a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.” Elizabeth Warren acknowledged that “Soleimani was a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans,” but said “this reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict.” Finally, Bernie Sanders warned that “Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars.”
The parallels between the Blob/Echo Chamber and the Democratic candidates illustrate their interlocking nature. Obama veterans would return under Biden or Warren, while Sanders would likely bring in ideologue outsiders, such as his foreign policy adviser, progressive blogger Matt Duss. But they also illustrate common intellectual foundations, the elevation of process and celebration of purported expertise, the search for predictability, and the corresponding avoidance of disruption. Readiness to be gamed by canny adversaries is thus built in.
The candidates’ responses are a foreshadowing of a future Democratic administration. Like most members of the Blob and the Echo Chamber, the candidates have already stated that they would recommit to the JCPOA (which of course may no longer be possible). They would likely return to the Obama policy of indulging Iran’s “legitimate regional aspirations,” “security concerns” and revolutionary Islamic government, even as they offer tepid criticism, as a means of restructuring American relations away from Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Still, every new administration has to deal with the reality bequeathed to it by its predecessors. The killing of Soleimani may or may not upend the chessboard of Iranian imperial expansion, much less unleash World War III. As the new reality unfolds, the question remains whether experts on all sides of the equation are willing to rethink their premises and contend with the world as it is now. First indications are not promising.
Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He is a senior non-resident fellow at the BESA Center and a Shillman-Ingerman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.