Afghanistan Outcome Affirms a Warning: Beware the Blob

The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan exposed the shortcomings of views within the foreign policy establishment, also known as ‘The Blob.’,


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First there was the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Then there was the chorus of disapproval. And then, as is so often the case in American foreign policy, there was the Blob.

“‘The Blob’ turns on Jake,” Alex Thompson and Tina Sfondeles wrote in Politico, referring to President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. And then: “I’ve got to say hats off to the Blob on this whole Afghanistan thing,” the commentator Matthew Yglesias said sarcastically on Twitter. “They couldn’t achieve any of their stated war aims, but they’ve proven they can absolutely wreck you politically.”

What is this Blob of which they speak? What does it have to do with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and whether they can actually govern? And why, like the nebulous malevolent organism in the 1958 horror film with which it shares a name, is it perpetually lurking around, sucking up everything in its path?

The term “Blob” is generally understood to describe members of the mainstream foreign-policy establishment — government officials, academics, Council on Foreign Relations panelists, television talking heads and the like — who share a collective belief in the obligation of the United States to pursue an aggressive, interventionist policy in the post-9/11 world. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen in this context as Blob-approved.

This foreign-policy philosophy has its origins in the post-World War II view of American exceptionalism, epitomized by officials like Dean G. Acheson, that U.S. military intervention in foreign conflicts was vital to defending American interests and generally did more good than harm. To the extent that the Blob holds this view, the Afghanistan withdrawal was a defeat for its position. For Blob critics, it was more fodder for discussing why the Blob gets things so wrong.

“Coming out of Afghanistan was a rebuke to, or the swan song of, the neoconservative approach, which had its heyday during the Iraq war,” said Vali R. Nasr, a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “After the first Iraq war, the United States developed a sense that the U.S. could basically engage in war, and help shape outcomes internationally, at little or no cost.”

Former President George W. Bush positioned “a group of ragtag terrorists as America’s great strategic rival and an existential threat to the United States,” Mr. Nasr continued. “Even though the effort failed early on, it continued unimpeded and became fundamental to the Blob’s thinking post-9/11.”

The term was coined in 2016 by Benjamin J. Rhodes, who was a deputy national security adviser for President Barack Obama at the time. It was not a compliment. Rather, it was a criticism directed at foreign-policy experts with an “unrealistic set of assumptions about what America could do in the world,” Mr. Rhodes, who is now a co-host of the “Pod Save The World” podcast, said in an interview.

“It’s not that people are issued a card with their name on it that identities them as part of the Blob,” he said. But back in 2016, he singled out “Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties,” who, he said, had an unpleasant tendency to “whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order.”

As a simple branding exercise — accusing one’s enemies of practicing hegemonic groupthink and being mired in a sclerotic, outdated view of U.S. power — it was a diabolical master stroke.

But to the foreign policy establishment, it was a provocation.

“A lot of people who are proud members of the foreign policy community would object to the phrase,” said Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He himself objected last year, writing an essay with Peter D. Feaver and William C. Inboden for Foreign Affairs that had a title intended to tease: “In Defense of the Blob: America’s Foreign Policy Establishment Is the Solution, Not the Problem.”

“What I find troubling about the idea of the Blob is that it taps into this old conspiratorial mind-set about what produces American foreign policy,” Mr. Brands said. “It makes it seem that American foreign policy has been so disastrous and foolish that it must have been foisted on the American people by some elite that doesn’t have their best interests at heart.”

Even Mr. Rhodes realizes that, like the gelatinous alien mass in “The Blob” movie, his creature has grown out of control.

“Everybody since then has sought to define it for their own purposes, including those who want to make it a badge of honor, and those who want to hang it on their opponents,” Mr. Rhodes said.

Maybe, and maybe not.

“Ben Rhodes had a very precise definition, and his definition was ‘people who disagree with me,’ or ‘people who disagree with me and Obama,'” said Mr. Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University.

“And he added onto that a layer of faux populism, as in ‘Woe is me, I’m just a poor assistant to the president trying to speak truth to all these well-entrenched fat cats.’ That is nutty. No one could be more inside the system than the speechwriter for the president.”

Mr. Feaver added: “Everybody has borrowed this exact same conceit. You’ll find Harvard professors complaining about the Blob.”

At the American Enterprise Institute, Kori N. Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies, said that “Blob” was a reductive and obfuscatory term, used to misdirect.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. One spokesman told The Times that the group wanted to forget its past, but that there would be some restrictions.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there. On Aug. 26, deadly explosions outside Afghanistan’s main airport claimed by the Islamic State demonstrated that terrorists remain a threat.

How will this affect future U.S. policy in the region? Washington and the Taliban may spend years pulled between cooperation and conflict, Some of the key issues at hand include: how to cooperate against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K, and whether the U.S. should release $9.4 billion in Afghan government currency reserves that are frozen in the country.

“The reason they lash out and snarl at the Blob is because their positions are so contrary to the widespread belief about the effective use of American power internationally,” she said. “Criticism of the so-called foreign policy Blob is a way of saying, ‘I have been ineffective in persuading people that the policies I advocate are the correct ones.'”


Members of the Taliban deployed this month at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Gideon Rose, a former editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Mr. Biden “had to overrule the Blobbish, deep-state-ish, permanent government-ish factions within his own administration” in order to carry out his Afghanistan withdrawal.

That is potentially confusing. For one thing, who could be Blobbier than Mr. Sullivan, the national security adviser, or Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, both veteran establishment foreign-policy figures? (“The Blob is Back,” The American Conservative magazine said in December, referring to the Biden administration’s foreign policy team.)

The people claiming that there is some sort of unified theory of Blob-dom are not thinking clearly, said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. For one thing, he said, even within Brookings there is a wide range of opinion on Afghanistan. He supported the withdrawal, for instance — which would seem to make him a traitor to the Blob, even though he is, by any definition, in the Blob himself.

My impression is that people who talk about the Blob have not read or inquired into what the people in the think tanks have actually said about the topic,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.” But, he said, “if they want to say that Biden is doing something that Richard Haass disagrees with, then that’s true, he is.”

It is also true that any discussion of this topic inevitably leads to Mr. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was christened “Pope of the Blob” by the writer Andrew Sullivan in 2019. For the record, Mr. Haass’s view on Afghanistan is that America should have maintained its presence by leaving behind a small number of troops and not pulled out completely.

In an interview, Mr. Haass said he was happy to be considered part of the foreign policy establishment, but not happy that the foreign policy establishment was called the Blob.

“It’s a lazy term,” he said. “It’s a pejorative and imprecise way to dismiss those who disagree with you, and it doesn’t advance the foreign policy conversation.”

“Let’s have a serious conversation about what should be the lessons of Afghanistan, or about America’s role in the world,” Mr. Haass continued. “But to simply describe certain people who disagree with you as the Blob is useless. And that is a generous way of putting it.”

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