It has been two weeks since Afghanistan went from “topic barely covered by the U.S. mainstream media” to “OMG THIS IS GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG!” The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been hard at work adjusting to this new agenda item, weighing in on the situation here, here, here and here. If you read those columns, you will find plenty of criticism regarding how the Biden administration has handled the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
If that makes me a member of the Blob, so be it, I’m a member of the Blob.
Color me confused, however, by an item from Politico’s West Wing Playbook on Tuesday regarding national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Entitled, “ ‘The Blob’ turns on Jake,” Alex Thompson and Tina Sfondeles claim that, “the 44-year-old national security adviser — the youngest in 60 years — has suddenly found himself at odds with much of the American foreign policy establishment (sometimes called “the blob”), of which he has long been a card-carrying member.”
No doubt, there has been dissatisfaction with how the administration has executed the withdrawal. But it is worth taking a close look at the evidence Thompson and Sfondeles offer up. What are the specific criticisms of Sullivan and who is lodging them? Here’s what they provide:
- Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer: “I think more of the policy process needs to be inclusive than has been happening so far. Do they really not need the advice of the various Cabinet secretaries or allies or the senior generals in the Pentagon? I think they need more of that.”
- Former Obama administration official Brett Bruen: “While [Sullivan] knows all the theories and academic arguments in foreign policy, his overseas experience is less robust. It can lead to the disconnect between ideas and implementation.”
- An anonymous Obama administration senior Defense Department official: “Constitutionally, he’s very well suited for high pressure situations, but he’s not tested — you don’t get tested by being the head of policy planning in the State Department.”
- A Democratic member of Congress anonymously speculating that maybe replacing Sullivan would help “reset the narrative.”
Yeah, let’s be blunt here: this is neither a Murderers’ Row of critics nor a devastating set of criticisms. Thompson and Sfondeles acknowledge that Bremmer is “a go-to quote for much of the foreign policy-focused media” even though he has never served in government, and “Bruen can prompt eye rolls from Democrats, who see him as media-hungry.”
As for the criticisms, they are weak beer. Reviews of the Afghanistan decision make clear that the Pentagon was given the chance to make their case — President Biden just disagreed. The argument that Sullivan lacks overseas experience is also confusing, given that he played a central role in back-channel negotiations with Iran about the nuclear deal. The idea that replacing Sullivan resets the narrative is also risible — if anything, it would feed a narrative about White House chaos.
Sullivan is not a perfect policymaker, and no doubt a thorough look would highlight real flaws in the way he is doing his job. This newsletter, however, ain’t got any of that.
The most obvious issue with this kind of whisper campaign is that there is zero traction for it inside the White House. Thompson and Sfondeles acknowledge that “there is no sign that Biden has lost confidence in Sullivan” and that his defenders say “he is simply executing the president’s policy.”
So why lead a widely read newsletter with a silly item of ginned-up quotes from those striving to look important? If the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts had to speculate, it is that the Biden administration’s response to events in Afghanistan has been incredibly boring to outlets like Politico that focus on the Swamp. This is a publication that thrives on gossipy political conflict. The Biden team has been in lockstep on Afghanistan despite incentives for finger-pointing.
In the absence of internecine warfare among policy principals, the best Politico can come up with is dubious whispers from less-than-central members of the Blob. From a political perspective, that might be the best news the Biden White House will receive all week; no one important is gunning for them.