Impeachment Is Redeeming the Blob

The U.S. foreign-policy establishment is responsible for countless woes—but the impeachment proceedings prove parts of it are better than others.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent and top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent and top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor are sworn in prior to testifying before the House Intelligence Committee in Washington on Nov. 13. Pool/Getty Images

The congressional hearings investigating whether U.S. President Donald Trump should be impeached have riveted onlookers’ attention on a group of government officials who have thus far provided abundant evidence of presidential misconduct. As is often the case with Trump, some of the most damning evidence comes from his own lips—read the transcript!—or from the mouth of his truth-challenged attorney Rudy Giuliani. The whole sordid business came to light when an intelligence professional assigned to the National Security Council blew the whistle on Trump’s efforts to extort personal political favors from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Since then, the whistleblower’s account has been confirmed by a widening circle of civil servants, foreign service officers, decorated military officers, and a couple of Trump’s own appointees.

For Trump’s defenders, of course, all this testimony is evidence not of the president’s guilt, but of a nefarious deep state conspiracy intended to thwart and oust a visionary president. You might think I’d be sympathetic to this otherwise improbable line of defense, insofar as my book The Hell of Good Intentions highlights the negative impact the foreign policy elite (aka “the Blob”) has had on U.S. foreign policy. In particular, Chapter 6 of the book argues that the Blob has gone to some lengths to keep Trump from implementing the full “America First” program he advocated in 2016, aided in no small part by Trump’s character deficiencies and general incompetence. So is the Blob now trying to stage a coup?

Nope. But together with my experiences talking about the book in public over the past year and teaching it to my students at the Harvard Kennedy School, this episode has led me to rethink some of what I wrote in my book. Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t change any of the book’s core arguments, conclusions, or recommendations. But no piece of scholarship is perfect, and honest scholars ought to admit it when their thinking evolves over time. That’s how the scholarly enterprise is supposed to work: We do our research, write it up, and publish it, and then it gets praised, challenged, criticized (and worse of all, sometimes ignored). Ideas and arguments that other scholars deem worthy get incorporated into the literature; arguments that do not stand up to scrutiny get rejected or revised. In theory at least, the field advances over time, and we all get collectively smarter or at least better informed.

And so it is with my views on the Blob. Although I think the general portrait of the foreign policy elite that I presented is accurate, I might write those sections somewhat differently today. The book paints a fairly broad-brush picture of the foreign-policy community, including within it the formal institutions of government (e.g., the Departments of State and Defense, intelligence services, White House staff, etc.) as well as the surrounding penumbra of organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, think tanks such as the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, foreign-policy lobbies of all sorts, and those members of the media or academia who work primarily on foreign policy. Although I emphasized this elite was not a uniform monolith whose members agreed on every issue, I argued that most of its members embraced an expansive view of U.S. interests and tended to favor the ambitious grand strategy of “liberal hegemony.” As I wrote, “[within the Blob] organizations and individuals committed to America’s global leadership role and to an ambitious foreign policy agenda are far more numerous and much better funded than groups arguing for greater U.S. restraint.”

I stand by that characterization of the foreign-policy establishment, but if I were writing that chapter today, I’d draw a sharper distinction between the permanent members of the government (e.g., the uniformed military, the foreign service officers and civil servants at State, intelligence professionals) and the political appointees who move in and out of government whenever the White House changes parties (or when they choose to resign or get fired). The latter form the upper stratum of the foreign-policy machinery; the former implements the policies and strategies that the president and the political appointees devise.

The permanent members of the Blob make up what Michael Glennon has dubbed the “Trumanite network” (a reference to the 1947 National Security Act) in his important 2014 book National Security and Double Government. The Trumanites are consummate professionals, and they pride themselves on efficiency, rationality, and expertise. They are for the most part nonpartisan, and they endure across administrations regardless of which party is in power. They are adequately paid but rarely get rich, and they possess much of the institutional knowledge and expertise that enables the government to function. (For this reason, allowing key government institutions to wither and die—as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is doing—is short-sighted and dangerous.) Those who have done the most to bring Trump’s questionable activities to light are largely drawn from this group; one might think of them as occupying the lower-to-medium-high stratum of the Blob.

By contrast, political appointees tend to be better-known, largely because they serve at or near the top of key government institutions. Such individuals rarely work in the public sector for their entire careers; instead, they are likely to hold a variety of different positions—in government, academia, or journalism, at a think tank, on Wall Street, at a law firm, etc.—as they move up the rungs of the establishment ladder. Unlike their Trumanite counterparts, those in the upper stratum of the Blob often have the opportunity to cash in on a few years of government service by consulting, serving on corporate boards, working for investment firms, or writing best-selling memoirs.

The Trumanites are not without their own pathologies (as Glennon and I both describe in some detail), but it is the upper stratum of political appointees that is responsible for most of the major screw-ups in U.S. foreign policy. For example, the dubious commitment to open-ended NATO expansion wasn’t the invention of career diplomats, intelligence professionals, or the uniformed military; its main proponents were political appointees such as Richard Holbrooke, Anthony Lake, Strobe Talbott, Madeleine Albright, and Ronald Asmus, along with numerous pundits.

Similarly, the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq in 2003 wasn’t the brainchild of the military, the intelligence community, or the State Department; it was cooked up by out-of-power neoconservatives at think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute or at letter-writing organizations such as the Project for the New American Century. When some of these individuals landed top jobs in the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney administration, however, they were in an ideal position to press the scheme forward in the wake of 9/11, with the support of foreign policy lobbies such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a number of prominent think tankers. Although some of former President Barack Obama’s policies—such as the surge in Afghanistan and his enthusiastic adoption of many of George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies—can be attributed to the influence of career officials, blunders such as the decision to topple Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya and the administration’s wobbly response to the Arab Spring were mostly due to the influence of his political appointees. Nor is it hard to discern the influence of hard-line advisors John Bolton and Mike Pompeo in Trump’s disastrous decision to abandon the nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018.

It is not surprising that the upper stratum of the blob deserves most of the blame for recent foreign-policy failures: It is their job to formulate policy goals that the permanent civil service will then carry out. Moreover, the ambitious (and sometimes deeply ideological) strivers who seek out such appointments usually have a program or cause to which they are dedicated and some set of policy initiatives they are eager to initiate should they succeed in landing a top position. Put differently, hardly anyone rides off to Washington to serve in a new administration’s foreign-policy team to get the U.S. government to do less. No wonder the upper stratum of the blob has been so strongly committed to liberal hegemony, has done the most to keep it intact despite repeated disappointments, and continues to defend it today.

I don’t mean to let the Trumanites off the hook entirely. The intelligence community is deeply inbred, resistant to oversight or reform, and often gets big issues wrong. The defense procurement process has been broken for decades. U.S. military commanders are often less hawkish than their civilian overseers before the United States enters a war, but their desire to fight on until victory is achieved can prolong wars to no good purpose (see under: Vietnam, Afghanistan). Nor is any of these institutions good at holding itself or its members fully accountable. But on balance, those who serve in the lower-to-mid stratum of the Blob take their oaths to the Constitution seriously; did not choose government service to become rich, famous, or powerful; and do not have big political axes to grind.

Which brings me back to Trump—and to the various officials who now find themselves in the full glare of publicity that they neither expected nor sought. Unlike Trump and his minions (including Giuliani), who have every reason to lie, dissemble, mislead, and prevaricate, people like William Taylor, Fiona Hill, Marie Yovanovitch, or George Kent have nothing to gain personally from the testimony they are now providing to Congress. If anything, their willingness to tell us what they know about Trump’s shenanigans is likely to damage their careers, if it doesn’t end them entirely. They have acted with admirable integrity, and the story they are telling has been watertight thus far. By contrast, the president, his associates, and his Republican defenders keep changing their stories, impugning others’ motives on the basis of zero evidence, offering up discredited or bizarre conspiracy theories, and engaging in what can only be described as a massive dust-kicking operation. Unless genuinely credible evidence comes to light that exonerates the president, there is no reason not to believe the testimony of these officials and, as I’ve already explained, considerable reason to believe that Trump has committed precisely the sort of high crime and misdemeanor that merits a trial in the Senate and his subsequent removal from office.

To be clear: I still believe the foreign-policy elite is too wedded to a view of the United States as the indispensable power, with the right, the responsibility, and the wisdom to manage local politics all over the world, and too reluctant to learn from past mistakes and hold its members accountable. Fixing this problem requires “building a better Blob,” one that rejects both isolationism and endless interventionism. That process will take time—though encouraging steps are now underway—but the threat to core U.S. institutions is right here, right now. One need not regard the Blob as infallible to recognize that some of its members are genuine patriots acting not from self-interest but from love of country. And that’s who Congress is hearing from this week.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.