Jake Sullivan, Ben Rhodes and the Problem of ‘American Exceptionalism’

For Democrats running for president in 2020, a key issue that they’ll have to face is whether or not they believe in “American exceptionalism,” or to put it another way, whether or not they believe that the United States is “the indispensable nation.” These are fraught terms. Bound up in them is a host of questions about whether, when, and how the United States ought to intervene, especially militarily, overseas; whether the United States is the world’s dominant power or whether that power is shrinking or mostly gone.

And for those Democrats, here with answers are Jake Sullivan and Ben Rhodes and their organization, National Security Action, founded in 2018. The 2020 candidates and would-be candidates — many of whom have no foreign policy chops whatsoever, or very little — should approach Rhodes, Sullivan and NSA (those initials!) with great caution.

How do we know that Rhodes and Sullivan are offering their help to 2020 hopefuls? Well, they say so. According to a Washington Post profile of NSA last year, according to Rhodes the organization has lined up fully five hundred people, including many former foreign policy, intelligence and military officials, ready to “provide Democratic candidates, lawmakers and policy organizations with a foreign policy tool kit — everything from talking points to legal and policy expertise to campaign surrogates — as they oppose President Trump.” More than sixty of them are listed on their web site, including numerous veterans of President Obama’s administration, including top officials such as Tom Donilon, Dennis McDonough, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Anne Marie Slaughter.

So what’s wrong with a ready-made team of foreign policy wonks ready to give you advice and, perhaps, join your 2020 campaign staff? Well, suppose that you, as the Democratic nominee for president in 2020, succeed in ousting Donald Trump and putting an end to his confused, belligerent, “predatory unilateralist” (Sullivan’s term, and a good one) style of managing world affairs. In that case, the NSA team might be right for you, assuming that what you’re looking forward to is a return to business-as-usual as foreign policy was conducted from 1993 to 2001 and from 2009-2017.

But if you’re looking for something new — and something progressive — you might want to look elsewhere. And, of course, that’s the problem. The NSA is something like a foreign policy cartel, an oligopoly of the priesthood that usually steers the ship under Democratic presidents, and for aspiring U.S. presidents it’s not easy to find a team of advisers — and future members of the Cabinet — in the mold of Matt Duss, the Bernie Sanders’ aide who handles the senator’s foreign policy.

If you can’t quite place Jake Sullivan, he’s was a long-serving aide to Hillary Clinton, starting with her 2008 race against Barack Obama, then serving as her deputy chief of staff and director of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning when Clinton was Obama’s secretary of state. (Senator Amy Klobuchar, if you’re listening, you might already be thinking about hiring Sullivan in the unlikely event that you win the 2020 jackpot, since it was you who introduced Sullivan to Clinton way back when.) In 2016, during her failed presidential campaign, Sullivan once again teamed up with Clinton, and he was widely expected to have been named to serve as her national security adviser or even secretary of state had she won.

Since 2016, and since the creation of NSA, Sullivan has emerged as a kind of foreign policy scold, gently — and sometimes not so gently — criticizing those who reflexively oppose American intervention abroad and who disparage the idea of American “exceptionalism.” Indeed, in an article in the January-February issue of The Atlantic, “What Donald Trump and Dick Cheney Got Wrong About America,” Sullivan explicitly says that he’s intent on “rescuing the idea of American exceptionalism” and presents the “case for a new American exceptionalism.” Most of what he says in the piece is vague and lacks specifics. For instance, when he asks rhetorically, “What is American foreign policy for?”, he says, confusingly, “The core purpose of American foreign policy must be to defend the American way of life.” (Right. I don’t know what that means, either.)

But when he does get specific, in the case of how the United States ought to deal with a rising China, he suggests “increasing naval operations” in the South China Sea and “forcing Beijing to decide whether to stop us.” That’s a risky proposition at best, even if the United States was capable of challenging China militarily in its own front yard, and it would no doubt require a massive set of defense expenditures to build up the U.S. Navy, Air Force, and the Marines for decades to come. That is, if it doesn’t lead to war.

Sullivan has also taken pot shots at two scholars who, over the past two decades, have emerged as non ideological spokesmen for the realist-minded, anti-interventionist worldview: Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. In the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs, Sullivan reviews two recent books by Walt and Mearsheimer, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite (Walt) and The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (Mearsheimer). Both of them take a good whipping from Sullivan for their failure, in his opinion, to understand the difficult, often agonizing choices that the foreign policy elite, and policymakers in office, have to make when deciding what to do abroad. Walt and Mearsheimer, he says, “suffer from a failure to distinguish between clear mistakes — such as the war in Iraq — and flawed outcomes flowing from imperfect options.” (Let’s ignore the use of the term “mistake” as applied to Iraq, an illegal, criminal unilateral action that left hundreds of thousands dead and an entire region destabilized.) Foreign policy “practitioners struggle with the decisions they face,” he writes. But Sullivan has no use, for instance, for Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s well-thought-out opposition to “humanitarian intervention,” a favorite phrase in the lexicon of Samantha Power, Anne Marie Slaughter et al.

And in one particularly striking passage in his Foreign Affairs piece, Sullivan writes: “The intervention in Libya contributed in unanticipated ways to the refugee crisis in Europe, but the lack of intervention in Syria may have done so, too.” Let’s unpack that. First, the “intervention” in Libya was a war, exactly the sort of forcible regime change that Sullivan would decry. More importantly, the United States did in fact intervene in Syria, in multiple ways: by calling for the resignation of Bashar Assad, Obama encouraged rebels to rise up against a ruthless, well-armed state machine; by using the U.S. military and the CIA, Obama supplied arms and advice to armed rebels; and by refusing to demand that Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Arab states, and Turkey end their massive aid to Sunni militias (including Al Qaeda-linked fighters, the Obama administration helped to guarantee that the Syrian civil war would become a bloodbath. (In his book, too, The World As It Is, Ben Rhodes goes round and round about Syria without ever quite admitting America’s responsibility for ginning up the Syrian civil war. “It was far easier for me to see how the war in Syria was an unintended consequence of other American wars, no matter how well meaning they might have been,” he writes, as if Obama’s decisions to get involved in Syria were simply mechanical.)

I’m not sure whether to blame Sullivan for Hillary Clinton’s relative hawkishness along the spectrum of Democratic leaders, or whether it was her innate, perhaps politically driven hawkishness that schooled Sullivan and which made him what he is today. Or, perhaps, it was a little of both.

To be sure, the folks involved in the Sullivan-Rhodes NSA aren’t in lockstep agreement with the two principals, and they represent a mixed bag. Scanning the list, however, it’s clear that it doesn’t contain many (if any) neoconservative, and precious few (again, if any, foreign policy “realists” a la Walt and Mearsheimer. Most of them are liberals (or, perhaps, “liberal interventionists”) and they’d probably mostly describe themselves as “progressives,” although that term has begun to lose its meaning. (That’s been true ever since the Democratic Leadership Council styled its think tank the “Progressive Policy Institute.”)

For a Democrat seeking the presidency, it’s not easy to find people with credibility and experience to serve as foreign policy advisers who aren’t tainted for being members of what Ben Rhodes famously called “the Blob,” that amorphous confection of wise men and women who purport to be America’s experts. (It’s ironic, of course, that the Sullivan-Rhodes NSA is now, itself, part of the Blob.) But Sanders found Matt Duss, and there are others out there. That’ll be the subject of a future piece: watch this space!

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