Political Animal

The Blob (and Everyone Else) vs. Trump

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.

Who is Trump Working For? We Deserve To Know

Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds will likely go down as the greatest American foreign policy disaster since the invasion of Iraq. While the cost, destruction, death toll and moral miasma of the invasion of Iraq are unparalleled, the Kurdish betrayal is uniquely bad in a key way: America’s imperialist misadventures against perceived enemies are sadly commonplace, but rarely have we abandoned a longtime ally in such a shameful manner. The repercussions of doing so will resonate to the benefit of America’s foes for decades to come.

Even now the Kurds, facing a genocide by the Turks and abandoned by us, have been forced to take up an alliance with Russia, Iran and Syrian butcher Assad:

Kurdish forces long allied with the United States in Syria announced a new deal on Sunday with the government in Damascus, a sworn enemy of Washington that is backed by Russia, as Turkish troops moved deeper into their territory and President Trump ordered the withdrawal of the American military from northern Syria.

The sudden shift marked a major turning point in Syria’s long war.

For five years, United States policy relied on collaborating with the Kurdish-led forces both to fight the Islamic State and to limit the influence of Iran and Russia, which support the Syrian government, with a goal of maintaining some leverage over any future settlement of the conflict.

On Sunday, after Mr. Trump abruptly abandoned that approach, American leverage appeared all but gone. That threatened to give President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers a free hand. It also jeopardized hard-won gains against the Islamic State — and potentially opened the door for its return.

If that story reads like a tragic funeral dirge, it should.

One has to wonder, too, at Trump’s motivations in making this decision. It jeopardizes his standing with the jury of Republican senators who will be deciding on impeachment. It functionally saves the American taxpayer very little money. And what does Trump care about saving taxpayer money, anyway? This fiscally profligate president is running a trillion dollar annual deficit.

Is it the Trump Towers in Istanbul? Did Turkish authoritarian tyrant Erdogan promise Trump a special deal? Was it to please the Saudis somehow (though it doesn’t make sense that the Saudis would want to see a Kurdish-Iranian alliance)? Or was it explicitly to benefit the Russians?

We still don’t know, no one on the inside is talking and the president isn’t answering honestly.

We have to start asking who the president is working for, exactly. It’s not hyperbole to suspect that Trump may literally be compromised either by greed or blackmail, serving either as a knowing or unwitting asset of a hostile foreign power. Because nothing about this decision to betray the Kurds is on behalf of any American constituency.

The troops are angry and ashamed. Both Republicans and Democrats are furious. The Israeli government, including the far right, is apoplectic. So who, exactly, is Trump doing this for? And what is the payoff?

Americans deserve to know, and quickly. Before this “president” can do any further damage.

The Coverup Is Unraveling Quickly

Most days I remain convinced that Trump will survive until Election Day, protected by a corrupt Republican Senate and a Democratic House unwilling to exercise its full authorities to avert a political backlash and constitutional crisis. But as the news of the hamhanded coverups and conspiracies around Trump continue to spill out, one begins to wonder sometimes if Trump will last even another month.

This, for instance, is truly remarkable:

The U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, intends to tell Congress this week that the content of a text message he wrote denying a quid pro quo with Ukraine was relayed to him directly by President Trump in a phone call, according to a person familiar with his testimony.

Sondland plans to tell lawmakers he has no knowledge of whether the president was telling him the truth at that moment. “It’s only true that the president said it, not that it was the truth,” said the person familiar with Sondland’s planned testimony, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.

Note this Trump tweet :

I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public….

….to see. Importantly, Ambassador Sondland’s tweet, which few report, stated, “I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” That says it ALL!

So it turns out he was apparently quoting himself having told Sondland what to say. This is the sort of comical coverup one only engages in either under desperation or a belief that no public accounting of your crimes will ever be made under oath.

The internal tensions will be impossible for Trump and his allies to resolve, at least without precipitating a full-blown constitutional crisis. Either Trump successfully blockades all his deputies from testifying before Congress and/or going to the media, or he lets them all take the fall for his actions sequentially. Not all of them will go down quietly in the hopes of a pardon, like, say, Manafort and Flynn. Giuliani in particular is not known for quiet, self-effacing discipline.

It’s also becoming clear that Trump is lying about not knowing Lev Parnas, and that the connection to shady deals in Ukraine is deeper than just the attempt to smear Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, the situation in Syria is deteriorating rapidly as Turkey seems to have intentionally launched strikes at U.S. forces to push us out with no public response from the president. Subsequently, a senior female Kurdish leader has been killed, and ISIS prisoners are escaping in the chaos.

The smart money still says that Trump survives until Election Day. Republicans have repeatedly shown that there is no bottom to what they will tolerate from their unexpected 2016 savior. And yet.

Warren’s Marriage Equality Joke Was Brilliant. The Handwringing Over It Is Not.

The irony of Tom Nichols having written a book decrying “The Death of Expertise” is that he maintains a large platform to wrongly opine on matters about which he has no relevant expertise. But it’s not just Nichols: there is an entire network of commentators who continue to hold vaunted positions on editorial pages while advocating for debunked and discarded conventional wisdoms about politics in the 21st century.

The latest and more prominent example is the handwringing over Elizabeth Warren’s joke at a recent LGBTQ+ forum in Southern California:

During the CNN forum on LGBT issues on Thursday, Morgan Cox, the chair of the Human Rights Campaign board of directors, asked Warren how she would react to a supporter who said: “I’m old-fashioned and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

Warren replied: “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that. And I’m going to say, then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that…Assuming you can find one.”

The moment went viral almost instantly. Warren’s comedic timing was worthy of a stage professional, the zinger landing in a way that a transcript cannot do justice to. Like any good joke of its type, it went to a deeper truth that most “serious” people decline to discuss openly in polite society: that increasingly old-fashioned culturally conservative politics is speaking to the sort of man who rants angrily about women from basement webcams and selfie rants in SUVs, not to the well-adjusted man with healthy relationships. It was also deeply satisfying and validating not just for LGBTQ people across the country, but to all those who spent decades being maligned and marginalized in America as perverts and freaks outside the American mainstream. Marriage equality is the mainstream today, and those who continue to deny the fundamental rights of gay and gender-non-conforming people are not only out of step with the nation’s politics and culture, but increasingly at risk of damaging their own personal relationships with decent people.

But almost as soon as the plaudits began, so too did the handwringing. A Washington Post piece called the celebrants of the moment “glitterati” while grousing that it could validate conservative concerns about her being “condescending and dismissive.”

Longtime Republican Tom Nichols then weighed in at USA Today, preposterously asking the rhetorical question “Do we still agree on beating Trump? After your LGBTQ forum, I’m not sure.” He adds: “Republican culture warriors are lying in wait. Why let them divide us where we already agree?” and insists that Democrats are trying to lose the election for even holding an LGBTQ forum in the first place.

Not to be outdone, centrist columnist Michael Cohen tweeted that “Warren’s SSM quip made me chuckle but it came with a political downside.” Really?

To put it bluntly, there is no actual evidence for this nervous caterwauling that any person of real political expertise should listen to.

Marriage equality is now incredibly popular. One of the most recent polls on the subject showed 67% approval and only 28% disapproval. There are very few issues on which the public takes the conservative position over the liberal one by such lopsided margins, and in those rare cases there would not be even one public commentator stating with a straight face that a Republican political candidate should avoid marginalizing the few who disagree.

Second, is there anyone who believes that the sort of cultural conservative who actively holds a microminority 28% public opinion on a culture war matter isn’t already maximally engaged on behalf of Trump and Republicans in general? Evangelical Christians are Trump’s hardcore base, the ones who come to his rallies and stick with him no matter what. They come out to vote in fair weather and foul, a big reason why they continue to exercise outsize political power despite their shrinking numbers. They are already as motivated as they possibly can be or ever will be. Donald Trump is their Flight 93 president, their final savior from the politically correct heathens on the road to what they hilariously see as the perdition of Western Judeo-Christian civilization. A jab from Elizabeth Warren is a tiny lava drop in the fiery ocean of their collective hatreds and resentments.

The last thing Democrats should be concerned about is the snowflake-like fragility of straight-white-male-evangelical egos. Rather, it is essential to marginalize their version of toxic Christianity from mainline faith groups, and work to normalize a healthier, less hateful form of masculinity to which disaffected young men can aspire. This can take the form of high-minded lofty speeches about hope and tolerance, but a good pointed joke at the expense of bigots can also work wonders as both to affirm those who have long faced discrimination, as well as to de-center those who would continue to oppress them given the chance.

But it’s not just the bigots who need marginalization. The handwringers who continue to obsess over not riling them up, as if they still made up the contours of a conservative Silent Majority that simply no longer exists, should also be ignored and set aside in favor of those who understand the dynamics of America in the year 2020.