This is the second part of a three-part series on ‘the Blob’ that runs American foreign policy. Read part one here.
WASHINGTON – The Russian war on Ukraine has seen ‘the Blob’ reassert itself with a vengeance in the 11 weeks since Russia announced the commencement of hostilities on February 24.
This article will examine the forces shaping President Joe Biden’s approach to the Ukraine crisis, and then move on to explore the state of foreign policy debate, or lack thereof, within Biden’s Democratic Party.
Former high-ranking military officials, intelligence analysts and diplomats who served at various points during the Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump administrations paint a picture in recent conversations with Asia Times of the likely policy options being presented to President Biden as he faces the gravest crisis on the European continent since the Second World War.
The past month has seen the Biden administration, by fits and starts and then seemingly all at once, adopt a militarized, hardline approach toward Russia, declaring Ukraine’s “victory” over Russia as the only acceptable outcome.
While Biden remains steadfast in assuring the public that there will be no “boots on the ground,” in point of fact, current and former officials have suggested that US paramilitaries are indeed on the ground, with military assistance being coordinated by the new appointee to the Biden National Security Council, retired US Army Lieutenant General Terry Wolff.
According to retired US Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as secretary of state Colin Powell’s chief of staff, the administration is planning for a protracted conflict in Ukraine.
Wilkerson says “they are extremely desirous of a protracted conflict because they want to effect regime change in Moscow, destabilize Russia and then take on China. That is their long-term geopolitical strategy.”
It is helpful here to take a moment to describe the prevailing mindset of the top national security officials closest to Biden.
At the very beginning of Biden’s term, a message was sent loud and clear to both supporters and critics in Washington that it would not tolerate any deviations from the establishment orthodoxy and that the perspective and expertise of outsiders were not welcome.
Consider, for instance, the case of respected Russia expert Dr Matthew Rojansky. For years, Rojansky had served as the director of the mainstream, congressionally-funded Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center think tank.
No fierce challenger of the establishment, Rojansky had been a fixture in track-two level talks between American and Russian political scientists and former government officials.
Yet when news leaked that Rojansky was under consideration for an appointment to Biden’s National Security Council (NSC), the knives came out and the Democratic hawks made Rojansky their prey. The appointment was torpedoed – and quickly.
Rojansky is now head of a US-Russia-focused non-profit, far from the corridors of power. That’s worrying because, outside of Central Intelligence Agency director William Burns, deep expertise on Russia is thin on the ground in the Biden administration, according to former and current officials who spoke to Asia Times.
But if Russia expertise is lacking, what the vast majority of Biden’s foreign policy appointments do have are deep connections to the reflexively hawkish and dominant wing of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, and that, in part, explains the trajectory of the administration’s policy in Ukraine.
The evolution of Biden’s policy was described to this correspondent by former ambassador Chas Freeman, now a senior fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University who remains deeply engaged in the foreign policy debate in Washington. Freeman said: “It took about eight weeks for the administration, in the person of NSC Advisor [Jake] Sullivan, to enunciate war aims for the proxy war.
“At the outset of its response to the Russian invasion, the administration was careful to limit possible provocation of the Russians. But, not having seen direct retaliation from Moscow, it has become progressively less cautious.
“This lack of caution is aided by the fact that it is Ukrainians, not Americans, who are dying and by the success of pro-Ukrainian propaganda and the effective Western ban on contradictory information from non-Ukrainian sources. There is a risk that the administration will inhale its own propaganda and underestimate the risks it is taking,” said Freeman.
George Beebe, former head of Russia analysis at the CIA and a senior member of the intelligence service who served on the national security staff of vice president Dick Cheney, agrees.
“It seems to me that the United States and NATO are experiencing the phenomenon of the appetite growing with eating. We didn’t expect the Ukrainians to be as successful as they proved to be,” Beebe said.
Beebe, now the director of the grand strategy program at the Quincy Institute, continued: “A good part of the credit goes to the Ukrainians themselves, their leadership, their courage and fighting against the Russians. A good part of it comes from our own support for them, the intelligence and military assistance that we’ve provided that they’ve used very effectively.
“But I think that has produced battlefield successes that go well beyond anything that the US government expected when Putin launched this invasion. As a result, we started to think, ‘Hey, maybe we can win this.’”
“Our eyes, “ says Beebe, “have grown bigger. You walk around here in Washington and there are very few people that are worried that we might get into an escalation spiral that we can’t control. Seems to me that much of Congress is worried that they might be accused of not doing enough to support Ukraine, not of doing too much that tips us over the edge here into a very dangerous situation. So I think it is fair to say that we are in a much more dangerous situation right now from the point of view of escalation than we’ve been in my lifetime.”
Freeman observes that as a result of the war fever enveloping Washington, “It is now taboo in the United States to inquire into the origins of the war, to suggest that Western policy had any role in provoking it, or that there has been or is any basis for Russia’s security concerns.”
And nowhere is the taboo of raising even the most basic questions about American involvement stronger than on Capitol Hill. Indeed, what the last couple of weeks in Washington has shown is that, with respect to the proxy war the administration has now embarked upon, there is essentially a uni-party on Capitol Hill.
This is thanks in large part to one person: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who rules her caucus – including the so-called “Squad” – with an iron discipline. In some respects, as Beebe pointed out, Congress appears to fear it is not doing enough.
Pelosi is working overtime – and with the full support of the small and now politically neutered progressive caucus – to ensure that the dominant perception is otherwise.
Two landmark pieces of legislation recently signed into law by Biden help tell the tale. Legislation to revive the lend lease program and apply it to Ukraine passed the House on April 28 by a vote of 417 to 10; the 10 opposition votes were all Republicans. Two weeks later, the House passed by a wide margin, 368 to 57, a US$40 billion aid package to Ukraine. Once again, there were no Democratic dissenting votes.
What, then, accounts for Pelosi’s total effectiveness in pushing the war agenda through the House with only token Republican opposition?
A longtime and current Democratic Party insider with ties going back to the Clintons says that Pelosi has become the most effective and feared House Speaker since Sam Rayburn because she is a “Workhorse not a show horse. She understands the substance and policy better than all those folks who just want to hear themselves talk.”
“Don’t ever,” she said, “bet against Nancy Pelosi.”
It helps, too, to control the money. The insider noted that Pelosi’s power comes as much from her legendary indefatigability, showing up at all hours to events large and small to press the flesh and charm the intended marks, as from her access to the high dollar donor base that funds the Democratic party.
In a contest between large dollar donors and small donors such as those who were the lifeblood of the two Bernie Sanders presidential runs, there is no contest.
And in this administration, as with all others, it’s the big donors, like Mr. Biden’s patron, former Comcast CEO David Cohen, who is now his ambassador to Canada, and fundraisers like Jane Hartley, now US ambassador to the United Kingdom, who have the ear of the president and Pelosi.
Pelosi has faced no opposition from her left flank on the massive funding for the war effort, and not simply because progressives are outspent and outnumbered. Progressives have a very weak infrastructure on Capitol Hill when it comes to foreign policy.
As the longtime defense analyst and critic Winslow Wheeler said, “I worked in the Senate and Government Accountability Office for 31 years. I worked for three Republicans and one Democrat. I know the difference between quality staffers and obedient functionaries.”
“Bernie,” says Wheeler, “has a bunch of non-entities on his defense staff. But, on the bright side, at least Elizabeth Warren has Mandy Smithberger, a diamond in the wasteland.”
And so, Biden’s approach to the war is reflective of a kind of “hegemonic multilateralism” that presidents Obama and Clinton practiced, which is basically the pursuit of global hegemony as set out by the infamous 1992 Defense Planning Guidance authored by Paul Wolfowitz and disguised with rhetorical nods to “humanitarianism” and the importance of multilateral international institutions such as the UN.
But there are serious risks in such an approach. Beebe, who has long experience with Russia, says Biden’s wartime policy reflects a zero-sum mentality that is “something that we’ve accused the Russians of, I think with some justification, for many years.”
The idea that whatever weakens Russia and hurts Putin is good for the US, says Beebe, “makes us susceptible to winding up in strategic situations in which our interests are actually hurt. As the Russian conventional military weakens, one of the dangers is that Russia’s dependence on its nuclear arsenal grows.”
Freeman’s assessment is equally bleak.
“The US, our NATO allies, Ukraine, and Russia are now locked into long-term hostility. It is entirely possible that the conflict in Ukraine’s east and south, like that between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, will sustain warfare for decades to come. If so, there will be a constant danger of an outbreak of hostilities on Europe’s eastern frontiers and of escalation to direct conflict between Russia and the United States, including a possible nuclear exchange,” he said.
“Given the absence of any serious diplomatic dialogue between Washington and Moscow,” said Freeman, “it is far from obvious how such escalation can be prevented.”