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Hell Freezes Over in American Foreign Policy
Something that I never thought would happen in the Blob has happened.
For nearly eight years, foreign policy observers in the United States have been debating the existence and prevalence of “The Blob,” a term Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes coined to describe the foreign policy-industrial complex of policy analysts and think-tankers and wannabe policy principals — or, in his words, “Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order.” The term has provoked multiple critiques and counter-critiques and scholarly analyses.
The important point is that those who believe “the Blob” has descriptive value usually assume that members of the Blob prefer a hawkish approach to U.S. foreign policy in which the use of military force is always on the table.
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By that standard, former national security advisor John Bolton is the Blobbiest member of the Blob. He is a hawk’s hawk, someone who has rarely looked at an international hotspot and not immediately considered the unilateral use of U.S. military force as the first and best option. As I wrote when Donald Trump fired Bolton from his national security advisor post, “99.9 percent of Americans are less hawkish than Bolton.”
I am making this big of a wind-up because Politico’s Alexander Ward has a story about the current state of GOP foreign policy thinking towards Mexico that reveals just how much things have changed in the past few years:
A growing number of prominent Republicans are rallying around the idea that to solve the fentanyl crisis, America must bomb it away.
In recent weeks, Donald Trump has discussed sending “special forces” and using “cyber warfare” to target cartel leaders if he’s reelected president and, per Rolling Stone, asked for “battle plans” to strike Mexico. Reps. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) and Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) introduced a bill seeking authorization for the use of military force to “put us at war with the cartels.” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said he is open to sending U.S. troops into Mexico to target drug lords even without that nation’s permission. And lawmakers in both chambers have filed legislation to label some cartels as foreign terrorist organizations, a move supported by GOP presidential aspirants.
Not all Republican leaders are behind this approach. John Bolton, Trump’s third national security adviser who’s weighing his own presidential run, said unilateral military operations “are not going to solve the problem.” [emphasis added] And House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Mike McCaul (R-Texas), for example, is “still evaluating” the AUMF proposal “but has concerns about the immigration implications and the bilateral relationship with Mexico,” per a Republican staff member on the panel.
Wait, did you see that?! Am I crazy or did John Bolton just go on the record to rule out a unilateral military operation?
If you’ll all excuse me for a second:
This is like if Glenn Greenwald suddenly started defending the U.S. government or if the Biden administration started advocating for trade liberalization! It’s mind-blowing!
If you read the rest of Ward’s article, the reason for Bolton’s skepticism becomes clear. The most obvious problem is that attacking the Mexican cartels only addresses the supply side of the problem; the demand side for drugs guarantees that any successes would be temporary at best until drug suppliers reconstituted themselves. The other serious problems are that any U.S. military action against Mexican drug cartels would exacerbate other serious policy problems. It would undoubtedly increase the flow of migrants and worsen ties with the Mexican government.
It is therefore unsurprising that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley thinks this is a really bad idea. But it’s very surprising that Bolton agrees with him!
Ward writes that this idea, “illustrates the ways in which frustration with immigration, drug overdose deaths and antipathy towards China are defining the GOP’s larger foreign policy.” I would suggest that it also illustrates the immature state of GOP foreign policy thinking. All of the problems listed above cannot be solved immediately; they will require patient and painstaking policies, both foreign and domestic. The appeal of military force is that it offers the illusion of cutting a Gordian knot in a satisfying manner. The impulse among some in the GOP to rely on military statecraft to solve this kind of policy problem suggests that most of the party has become as immature in their thinking as their titular leader.
One last thought: the conventional wisdom during the Trump years was that Trump was far more dovish than his foreign policy advisors; even now, some observers continue to insist this remains true. But if Trump has become more hawkish that John Bolton on the use of military force, perhaps those convinced that Donald is really a dove might want to rethink that assumption.