For decades, Washington think tanks were vital to a virtuous revolving door. Young policy professionals, both Democrats and Republicans, would serve time in government, then remove themselves to think tanks where they further honed their professional skills and rethought issues, then go back into government at a slightly higher level. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 put a spike in that revolving door, shattering its mechanism.
Not only were Democrats barred from the Trump administration, but so were the most talented of Republicans who, having assumed Trump would lose, declared themselves in opposition to him and thus disqualified themselves from work in his administration. Moreover, many of the people who did get jobs in the Trump administration were not think-tankers at all, but rank amateurs whom no respectable think tank would ever have hired. That’s why a Trump re-election could damage the thinktank model forever, as think tanks exist to provide the cadre of experts for government service. (Because of their dramatic move to the left, universities no longer serve this function.) But a Trump defeat would result in nothing less than the revenge of the Blob.
The Blob should not be demonized. It did not give us the Iraq war. That was an exotic subset of the Blob called neoconservatives, who in reality were militant Wilsonians. The Blob, a term coined by an official in the Obama White House, Ben Rhodes, is composed of the very policy professionals mentioned above. As a veteran of the Center for a New American Security — a Blob bastion — I have known these people well for years. In almost all cases they are decent, moderate, well-adjusted, dedicated and truly patriotic in almost an old-fashioned sense. That is, they are an elite of sorts.
Their heroes and role models are the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, George Kennan and other builders of the American Century. Remember that Washington, DC is much less friendly to the radical, woke intellectuals and journalists who dominate New York. As the components of the Blob have actually served in government, and hope to do so again, quite a few of them have direct and indirect experience of being burned by the liberal media. They are therefore congenital realists, even if many might resist the label.
The Blob really are process wonks: the very opposite of ideologues. Give them a broad policy directive and they know how to execute it, what buttons to push, whom to call, and how to get buy-in within the building, be it the Pentagon or the State Department. Don’t smirk. In an imperial power system with a vast bureaucracy, it is the dozens and hundreds of deputy-assistant secretaries, assistant secretaries and undersecretaries who constitute the heart of the policy machinery.
So the return of the Blob will mean the return of competence and follow-through in government, which is absolutely necessary in crises where myriad angles of response have to be staffed-out. As we have seen, this is precisely what has been lacking in the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19. Don’t kid yourself: the return of mere competence is going to instantly create a sense of dynamism in the first year of a Biden administration.
The Blob does have a signal flaw though, and this is what Ben Rhodes was generally alluding to when he coined the term. The Blob wants action, it wants policy activism. It can only think in terms of American greatness, and that means an expansive foreign policy. It thinks this way not because it is extreme — the Blob is the very antithesis of extremism. No, the Blob sees America’s Homeric age as that of the Wise Men, all centrists by the way — people like Kennan, Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson, who forged a post-World War Two order and organized the free world.
The Blob wants to do equally great things. The problem lies in the fact that the Wise Men operated within the context of an America with a powerful, surging middle class that was the envy of the world, and at a time when America was the only major country whose infrastructure had not been destroyed during World War Two. The United States today has much less relative capacity and is far more internally divided. The Blob is probably not destined to do great things, and it requires modest goals. There’s the rub.
Nevertheless, if Biden wins, the Blob will hit the ground running, slowed only by the utter bureaucratic disarray that will be the Trump administration’s ultimate legacy within the Beltway. It is assumed that Michèle Flournoy (my former boss) will be the secretary of defense. She is a moderate liberal without illusions. Most crucially, she understands every nook and cranny of the Pentagon and all the problems that have built up there over the decades, from interservice rivalry to a broken procurement process. She most likely has a team of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries — and even posts below that — already selected and organized in her mind.
Flournoy’s challenge will be how to do more with less, as a Democratic administration will oversee a cut in the defense budget. Her choice for deputy secretary of defense will be critical, since that person will be running the building in this era of modest reform. That’s because Flournoy will be responding to world crises and emergencies, of which there will be many, owing to the way COVID-19 has put political developments, particularly in the greater Middle East and other parts of what used to be called the Third World, on fast-forward.
The Blob being the Blob, teams of experts have been working intensely for many weeks now under the umbrella of the Biden campaign, planning the policy for every single corner of the earth in 2021. The Asia team consists of people who for years now have been drawing a harder and harder line against China: this did not start with the Trump administration, whatever the myth. Biden’s Asia team will attempt in the early weeks and months after Biden’s inauguration to create the equivalent of a post-Cuban-missile-crisis relationship with Beijing.
Since Beijing and Washington will not be solving their disputes anytime soon, a set of arrangements needs now to be put in place to manage their rivalry — regular summitry, hot lines, consultations, and so forth — exactly what was put in place by the superpowers after 1962. The watchword will be to stabilize the relationship, even if ultimately it cannot be improved. This is something that financial markets will reward the Biden administration for. The Asia team may also try to resurrect a version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in order to repair America’s alliance structure in the Far East. The challenge here will be big labor, which is a Democratic party constituency and wants no part of free trade agreements.
Biden’s Europe team will grapple with the fact that Germany has emerged from both COVID-19 and the collective debt program for southern Europe as essentially the new and benign imperial overlord of Europe. Germany now sees its best interest in subsidizing southern Europe in return for southern Europe remaining in the eurozone and buying German consumer products. It’s a circular system: the money leaves Germany for Italy, Greece and the other states of the EU’s southern tier, then returns to Germany via purchases for such items as cars, machinery, electronic equipment and so on.
Thus the American-German relationship has to be repaired after the predations of the Trump administration, and then given a set of goals. Around this, the other aspects of Europe policy can fall into place. Of course, the United States also has to forge an invigorated relationship with post-Brexit Great Britain. All of this falls more into the category of policy competence than grand historical initiatives, and this is precisely what the Blob is good at.
As for the rest of the world, particularly the Middle East, it gets much harder. In an era of lower energy prices and post-COVID-19 political pressures, major pivot states like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt could face regime challenges for which Washington will have no answers. All administrations are determined by crises, and this will be particularly the case with a Biden administration: it will face a world manifestly unstable at the economic level, at the great-power level and at the regional level everywhere. This is to say nothing of the hornet’s nest of issues that will arrive in regard to prioritizing which social groups get access to a new COVID-19 vaccine first. All this will fall on Biden, who is old and no micro-manager to say the least.
Therefore the jobs of chief of staff, national security adviser, secretary of state and secretary of defense will be even more crucial than in other administrations. William Burns, a former deputy secretary of state who is both a Russia and Middle East expert, has had a knack for good judgment throughout his career, but it is unclear if he will get one of these jobs; they might go to others who have less stellar résumés but who are closer to Biden, such as Susan Rice and Anthony Blinken.
Bottom line: the return of the Blob will signal the return of competence, but not necessarily of success. For success hinges on the Shakespearean element, which, for example, George H.W. Bush’s administration had in abundance. At a crucial historical turning point, the elder Bush’s administration faced hair-trigger decisions in the midst of crises: Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait — all wise decisions as it turned out, made by the likes of Bush himself, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft. That was the last great American presidency, after which the White House saw a dramatic decline in wisdom. Will a Biden administration, which will also have one crisis after another thrust upon it, reach the elder Bush’s standard? Probably not.
This article is in The Spectator’s September 2020 US edition.