Analysis

Americans Got the Foreign-Policy Blob They Asked For

The problem isn’t the establishment, it’s reconciling what Americans want in their foreign policy.

Protesters hold signs reading "Peace Through Strength" and "I Support U.S. Troops."
Supporters and opponents of the Iraq War rally at the 75th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 23, 2003. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The disastrous failure of the two-decade-long U.S. war in Afghanistan has led to an outpouring of criticism directed at the American foreign-policy establishment, sometimes referred to as “the Blob,” whose hubris and hawkishness supposedly created this catastrophe.

If so, the Blob was simply doing what Americans demanded of it.

U.S. voters have always been clear about what they want from foreign policy: to have their cake and eat it too. They want maximum power, prestige, and protection at minimal cost. The Blob, to its dubious credit, is committed to realizing this understandable but impossible dream. Rather than blaming the Blob for it, Americans should confront the paradox they—we—are all complicit in.

The disastrous failure of the two-decade-long U.S. war in Afghanistan has led to an outpouring of criticism directed at the American foreign-policy establishment, sometimes referred to as “the Blob,” whose hubris and hawkishness supposedly created this catastrophe.

If so, the Blob was simply doing what Americans demanded of it.

U.S. voters have always been clear about what they want from foreign policy: to have their cake and eat it too. They want maximum power, prestige, and protection at minimal cost. The Blob, to its dubious credit, is committed to realizing this understandable but impossible dream. Rather than blaming the Blob for it, Americans should confront the paradox they—we—are all complicit in.

When Americans want a war, they want a military that can fight it and win it. When they don’t want a war, they want a military that can end it without losing it. When they’re angry about an attack on the nation or its values, they want to hit back—they just don’t want that to lead to a fight that goes on too long or hurts too much. Ideally, they’d just like other countries to do what America wants without having to be told twice. After all, they don’t want to be the world’s policeman.

It’s easy to criticize the Blob’s hawkishness. It is harder to suggest that this hawkishness is what makes it so out of touch. The columnist Thomas Friedman famously explained that the “real reason” the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 was that “after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world.” Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in turn, defended the war by saying, of radical Islamists, that America needed to “humiliate them.” Interviewed in a rural Ohio diner in 2019, retired tool- and die-maker Darrell Franks told the New York Times: “What I want from a president is the rest of the world to look at him and go, ‘Don’t mess with that guy, he will get even.’” Or as a local politician explained in that same article, people like Franks “voted for Trump because at least he’s punching somebody in the face.”

To make matters more confusing, before 9/11, the Blob was widely pilloried for being overly dovish. During debates over whether or not to intervene in Bosnia, a prevailing stereotype held that the foreign-policy establishment was a bunch of cowardly pinstriped bureaucrats too cautious to do what was right. This was the critique that made Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell the rare foreign-policy book that became popular outside of Washington.

It also found its way into mainstream culture, most notably in the movie Air Force One. At the outset of the 1997 film, the U.S. president, played by Harrison Ford, defies his hypercautious advisors by sending special forces to arrest a Central Asian war criminal. These same advisors later urge him to negotiate with the hijackers who seize Air Force One while he and his family are aboard. Ford’s tough-guy president, by contrast, realizes that if you want terrorists off your plane or rogue actors out of your international order, you’re better off using hard power.

The challenge for the foreign-policy establishment has always been to reconcile the public’s cinema-ready righteousness with a much messier and riskier reality. It’s been widely observed that the desire for cost-free results leads policymakers to rely on bombs, drones, and missiles in place of boots on the ground. As with sanctions and proxy forces, these tools can be effective in achieving modest goals while passing the suffering along to others.

Left to its own devices, the foreign-policy establishment (with some notable exceptions) probably would have bombed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2013 without actually seeking to topple either one. U.S. President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, like his successor Barack Obama’s refusal to strike Syria in 2013, were both, in different ways, departures from the Blob’s preferred playbook.

The most cliched Blob-thought can be read as an effort to square the public’s desire for a forceful foreign policy with its strong aversion to U.S. casualties. Explicitly pro-war sentiment is not the norm for think tank reports, which usually downplay the possibility that aggressive measures might escalate into full-fledged conflict.

Instead, the Blob’s real intellectual vice might be its tendency to default to a certain kind of “peace through strength” pablum. The underlying premise behind too many op-eds is that strong leadership will always get results and a surfeit of “resolve,” “determination,” “resoluteness,” and “credibility” can prevent policymakers from ever having to make hard choices between war and peace.

So long as America maintains its current level of superpower status, the country will be able to continue dodging these choices. But it will come at a price, to the world and eventually to the United States. The risk is that while America has now soured on its post-9/11 wars, Americans continue to expect the impossible from their foreign policy. At some point the current playbook of missile strikes and accumulated credibility will no longer be enough to maintain the status quo. The American public, politicians, and policy elite need to have a serious conversation about what to do then.

Nicholas Danforth is a nonresident senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @NicholasDanfort

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