The Divorce Heard Around Washington

Joe Biden
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
September 17, 2021

Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he had a clarifying effect on the body politic. During his ascent and years in the White House, the country was cleaved neatly into two opposing teams. For once, things became clear and stark, like in a war. Nuance and subtlety became unaffordable luxuries. Politics became a packaged deal, and you had to pick one of the two on offer. And so, if you opposed Trump, you loved journalists. And in part because Trump and his supporters constantly attacked them, liberals valorized them, thanked them for their service, and turned them into mini-celebrities. 

Trump also forced the #resistance into a strange embrace of national security experts, diplomats, and even the intelligence community—the very people liberals had grown wary of after George W. Bush’s ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, his wire-tapping and torture programs, and Barack Obama’s continued use of drone strikes. Trump attacked them as the “deep state,” and the #resistance sprung to their defense, perceiving this as an assault on the country’s institutions. 

But, as some predicted, this alliance was only temporary. As the Biden administration confronted withering coverage of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, many liberals and progressives reflected the White House’s deep exasperation with the media. “The frustration is palpable,” an administration official told me at the time. Some White House reporters have complained to me that “Democrats de facto expect you to be on their side and are horrified when you hold them to account as you would any other administration.” But this was the first big split after the Trump years had thrown everyone into the same trench. Perhaps feeling the need to defend a seemingly precarious Democratic administration, commentators on the left slammed anyone who criticized the pullout from Afghanistan as hawks, warmongers, and establishment lovers of “forever wars”—even the critics who supported the withdrawal but thought it could have been better managed. 

The Biden administration quickly seized on this line of counter-attack, arguing that, for once, the American president was listening to the opinions of real Americans, rather than to those of the insular and unelected foreign policy cabal of Washington.

Some of the same people who had been hailed as the “adults in the room” during the Trump years suddenly resumed their status as bogeymen. People like H.R. McMaster, who had once stood up to Trump as his national security advisor, went from hero to warmonger in the eyes of many Democrats. (It didn’t help when he blamed the media for a defeatist mindset that, he felt, led to America’s failure in Afghanistan.) More broadly, liberals have shifted in how they talk about the military. When Trump called soldiers “suckers” and “losers,” they were mortally offended. But in the last month, the left has turned to criticizing the press for being too reflexively pro-military. It’s not that the criticism isn’t merited—there is plenty to dislike about the shallow and performative patriotism that became standard after 9/11. It’s the realignment that’s interesting, and indicative of something deeper and more partisan.

For four years under Trump, the left generally defended the Washington political-media class versed in foreign policy and national security. Now many are vilifying them as “the Blob”—a term coined, disdainfully, by Barack Obama’s speechwriter and foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes to describe Washington’s foreign policy and national security establishment and its propensity for group think. (It’s ironic, of course, given that Rhodes himself was a prominent and powerful member of this establishment.) 

These days, however, the Biden administration is trying to redefine the term, changing it from describing an entrenched set of elites to delineating a group of people who are always on the side of more military intervention. According to one senior Biden administration official, the Blob is a group of people “who believe that, if you’re not using military force, you’re not doing anything at all,” people who “have stars on their shoulders or war stories, and who are still drawing a paycheck from this.” This official continued: “The Blob is an ideology rather than an identity.”

Is it, though? The Blob, as I have always understood it, is the foreign policy and national security establishment in Washington, which is unelected and answers to nobody, which is very prone to groupthink, and which believes in a rules-based, American-led international order—about which it moderates endless panels at endless (pre-pandemic) international conferences. But I can see why this official would want to redefine the term, because a lot of the people currently whining about the Blob from inside the White House are themselves, in fact, members of the Blob in good standing—including the official who spoke to me. 

The Blob, you see, is not a monolith. It contains multitudes. It includes people such as David Petraeus, John Bolton, and Dov Zakheim—the neocons who led us into and through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as the younger generation shaped by their revulsion to those wars and the ideology that fueled them. Many of these people—Jake Sullivan, Ned Price, Antony Blinken, Jon Finer, Avril Haines, Denis McDonough, Susan Rice—are Obama administration alums who are now inside the Biden administration. Many of them worked to implement and publicly defend the withdrawal, which they personally believed in. Many of them were against direct, boots-on-the-ground military involvement, but in favor of using drones to go after suspected terrorists. Others, like Samantha Power, who made her name as a journalist and advocate for humanitarian interventions to stop genocides, have changed sides more than once. 

What unites these two wings of the Blob is a shared belief that America should be active and present on the world stage, and that the U.S. is a more benevolent agent than, say, Russia or China. But they’ve always disagreed on how America should use its power. The years of Trump papered over their differences. During the Trump era, they were a unified chorus—on cable news, op-eds, and rubbing elbows at the same fancy foreign policy conferences—wailing over the 45th president’s destruction of the foreign service and public denigration of the intelligence community. They bemoaned his insults to America’s allies and his tarnishing of American credibility abroad. They slammed his regular dismissal of expert opinions in favor of gut impulses. 

Now that we have returned to something resembling normalcy, however short-lived it may prove to be, the two sides of the Blob are back to disagreeing sharply and openly on the methods and extent of using American power abroad. If you think that’s a distinction without a difference, consider this: there are people in the Blob who think we should have stayed in Afghanistan and those who think we could have gotten Osama bin Laden without invading in the first place. The former think the latter are naive idiots; the latter think the former are trigger-happy villains. (Bin Laden, for the record, was found and killed in Pakistan.)

Amid the hellish news cycles that resulted from the withdrawal, the White House conveniently seized on the narrative that the Biden administration was brave to stand up to the Blob. Of course, it strained credulity for these Biden officials to recast themselves as newcomers and iconoclasts. Sullivan, the White House national security advisor who served as the primary public advocate of the withdrawal, was, for over a decade, the foreign policy right-hand man of Hillary Clinton, who is hardly a non-interventionist. Denis McDonough, who is now Secretary of Veterans Affairs in the current administration, took the infamous walk around the White House Rose Garden with Obama in August 2013 and talked the president out of conducting air strikes against Bashar al Assad

At the time, this was framed as Obama and his new kids on the block standing up to Washington’s foreign policy groupthink. They shocked the Blob by bringing a different logic and metric to decisions about the use of American military force. It was true then, but a decade after joining the foreign policy elite of #thistown, it’s implausible to claim that they’re foreign policy outsiders. This time around, they are the establishment.

The lingering distrust of the Blob is, in many ways, a response to the trauma of the Iraq War. And this is very, very understandable. What is tragicomical, however, is the assertion that all these people are motivated by money. All these members of the Blob, the argument goes, love war because they personally stand to profit from it. They all want those cushy gigs lobbying for defense contractors. 

I get the appeal of that kind of thinking. It’s analogous to the false idea that we invaded Iraq for its oil, which is easier to understand than what actually happened: a bunch of people in Washington earnestly believed that they would be greeted as liberators and would transform Iraq (and Afghanistan) into a liberal democracy. Greed is something we Americans can grasp at a gut level, even if we condemn it. What we have a harder time comprehending is our ideological opponents’ misinformed but genuinely held convictions. We cannot fathom how someone could really believe in something as stupid as vaccine micro-chipping or nation building. And so we search for other motives.

In the case of the foreign policy establishment, I regret to inform you, these are true believers. Don’t get me wrong, they all live very comfortably in one of America’s most expensive cities, but those talking points they repeat about bringing democracy to the Middle East or not wanting to send another generation to die in Afghanistan? They really, really believe them. 

If there’s a worldly motivation for the actions of the Blob, it isn’t money. It’s a big, powerful government job. Sure, they’ll take the private sector job while their team is out of power, or to make life more comfortable once they’re back to making a government salary, but that’s not the dream. The dream is to be National Security Advisor. Or a senior director on the National Security Council manning an important, sexy desk like Russia or China or cyber. Or to be, hope against hope, Secretary of State or Defense. 

Believe it or not, denizens of this town’s foreign policy establishment really are this dorky—and careerist. And they really, really believe in the righteousness of their work. If they had really wanted money above all else, many of these Type A+ overachievers could have made orders of magnitude more in the private sector. They could’ve made partner at a white-shoe New York law firm or Goldman Sachs by 30. But, like I said, that’s not the dream—or the motivation. And not everything is a conspiracy.

This is the reality of Washington, especially as it dusts itself off after four bruising years under the rule of true outsiders, people who never intended to play by the rules because they never intended to stay here. The Blob and its domestic-politics analogue—the Glob?—are both largely made up of people who want to ride the D.C. carousel as long as possible. Their primary motivator isn’t money—though they like money plenty—but political power. And political power comes through political appointments. Usually, those jobs only come around every four-to-eight years, whenever your team is back in charge. And that’s the rub in Washington, the reality that Trump polished to a blinding obviousness: there are no individuals in Washington, only teams. And if you fall out of step with your team, you’re as good as dead, professionally speaking. With Trump gone, the anti-Trump team is rediscovering a lot of division in its ranks. How it deals with them will determine a lot about the Democratic Party’s future.