Donald Trump
Credit: The White House/Flickr

Foreign policy and national-security issues are on the back burner during the Democratic primary debates as candidates focus on healthcare, taxation, guns, border issues and cosmic love.

Despite the candidates’ early lack of attention to America’s overseas engagement, foreign policy is always on the minds of a Washington-dominated set of grand poohbahs and brainiacs known as “The Blob”—a disdainful term coined by Ben Rhodes during the Obama administration.

The Blob has recently criticized President Trump for throwing Syria’s ISIS-defeating Kurds to the Turkish wolves. Trump’s break with presidential convention — and possibly constitutional law — to curry personal and political favor with foreign powers has further exercised an already hyperventilating Blob.

The president’s favor-seeking from Ukraine is now the focus of congressional impeachment inquiries, but it’s this week’s Syrian action that sits solidly in the crosshairs of the Blob and its legislative allies. As Sen. Lindsey Graham told Axios, “The president’s doing this completely against everybody else’s advice.” Graham’s conclusion? “He’s putting the nation at risk.”

Contrast Trump’s unpredictable and dangerous Twitter-driven policies with the Blob institutions’ conventional thinking, driven by mostly disinterested actors wanting a reliable, non-partisan U.S. foreign policy. Even though they are funded by entrenched interests and industry advocates, the Blob institutions play a fair, if outsize, role in shaping a rational American foreign policy. The Blob’s think tanks are both home to those who recently left administrations and farm teams for future administrations. They are institutions looking to seed and feed policymakers with credible, if often cautious, ideas and proposals.

Unlike elected officials raising money and reacting to events, the Blob can occasionally raise uncomfortable questions and challenge assumptions by temporarily ignoring partisan politics. The Blob can sometimes go against established strategic principles to achieve appropriate and right-sized foreign polices. Presidents often object to the Blob because they see it as made up of risk-averse, consensus-building institutions spouting conventional wisdom.

The Blob is made up of former national security advisors, diplomats, academic grand strategists and political practitioners—Trump would argue malpractitioners—who deliver foreign policy options and criticism with a great deal of smug certainty. The name “Blob” is apt because its members are both amorphous and indistinguishable in almost every way other than their deep commitment to advancing America’s global security and policy interests. Disrespected by Obama, disregarded by Trump, the Blob is currently confronting irrelevance: the ultimate diss.

Regardless, the Blob has challenged Trump’s pull-back and pull-out from Syria, calling it a big mistake. The president’s cut-and-run policy pronouncement came after his recent friendly phone call with Turkey’s President Erdogan — an event that rallied think tanks and thought leaders across the American political spectrum to criticize the president and warn of an impending Syrian debacle.

Everyone agrees it would be disastrous for the Kurds. Everyone knows that Turkey’s designs on Kurdistan are both self-serving and nefarious. Everyone understands it is a mistake to withdraw from an area that joint Kurdish-American forces are keeping safe and where more than 10,000 ISIS prisoners were guaranteed to remain locked up under incorruptible American supervision. It is the Blob consensus and a non-partisan analysis expressed by leaders right to left, from Mitch McConnell to Bernie Sanders. Everyone agrees. Everyone, that is, but Erdogan and Trump.

The military assault on Kurds operating in the Syrian region bordering Turkey is under way. It’s the result of an American betrayal of the one force that proved effective against ISIS in favor of a fair-weather Turkish “ally” who has failed to support American military action in every major regional conflict during the past two centuries. Turkey’s self-interest can be justified every which way, but the facts are that it is seeking to eradicate Kurds and preclude an oil-enabled, self-governing, autonomous Kurdistan while allowing Ankara to build stronger ties to Putin’s Russia and Iranian proxies.

It is a lose-lose situation for America, but a political winner for Trump who gets to crow that he withdrew U.S. military forces from a Middle East quagmire—a dishonest characterization. If there is one area where American forces are not bogged down and have made significant progress, it is in northeast Syria where the casualty risks are low and the rewards have been high.

America’s actions ended ISIS’s caliphate, maintained the peace, buffered Kurds from Turks, and constrained Assad’s forces and Russian strategic interests from sowing further chaos and terror to a stabilized part of an otherwise riven Syrian nation. In this context, Trump personally swallowed Erdogan’s bait and threw a whole new self-serving, armed aggressor into a newly volatile mix. The Blob is definitely miffed.

America’s foreign policy experts and institutions make up the Blob—a nondescript metastasizing ectoplasm that envelops, grows and slithers toward dominating U.S. foreign policy, while often alienating American citizens and leaders. The thing is, in Syria and elsewhere, the Blob is often right.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).