The Blob Insists on Clinging to an Obsolete Past

The United States needs to recognize that the 20th century is gone for good, writes Andrew J. Bacevich.

National Guard at the Capitol building on Jan. 12, in preparation for the inauguration of Joe Biden. (U.S. Air National Guard , Matt Hecht)

By Andrew J. Bacevich

You may have noticed: the Blob is back. Beneath a veneer of gender and racial diversity, the Biden national security team consists of seasoned operatives who earned their spurs in Washington long before Donald Trump showed up to spoil the party. So, if you’re looking for fresh faces at the departments of state or defense, the National Security Council or the various intelligence agencies, you’ll have to search pretty hard. Ditto, if you’re looking for fresh insights. In Washington, members of the foreign policy establishment recite stale bromides, even as they divert attention from a dead past to which they remain devoted.

The boss shows them how it’s done.

Just two weeks into his presidency, Joe Biden visited the State Department to give American diplomats their marching orders. In his formal remarks, the president committed his administration to “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

His language allowed no room for quibbles or exemptions. In our world, some things can be waived — SAT scores for blue-chip athletes being recruited to play big-time college ball, for example. Yet cherished values presumably qualify as sacrosanct. To take Biden at his word, his administration will honor this commitment not some of the time, but consistently; not just when it’s convenient to do so, but without exception.

President Joe Biden, center, with, from left: Secretary of State Antony Blinken , Vice President Kamala Harris, National Security Advisor to the Vice President Nancy McEldowney, National Security Advisor to the President Jake Sullivan, on Feb 5. (State Department, Ron Przysucha)

Less than a month later, the president received a ready-made opportunity to demonstrate his fealty to those very values. The matter at hand concerned Saudi Arabia, more specifically the release of an intelligence report fingering Mohammad bin Salman, a.k.a. MbS, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler of that country, for ordering the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist employed by The Washington Post. The contents of the report surprised no one. The interesting question was how the new president would respond.

Months earlier, during the election campaign, Biden had described Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally, as a “pariah state” that possessed “no redeeming value.” Previously, Donald Trump had cozied up to the Saudi royals — they were his kind of people. As far as candidate Biden was concerned, the time for romancing Riyadh had ended. Never again, he vowed, would Washington “check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons.”

Let it be said that a preference for lucre rather than principles succinctly describes traditional U.S.-Saudi relations going back several decades. While President Trump treated the “friendship” between the two countries as cause for celebration, other American leaders gingerly tip-toed around the role allotted to arms and oil. In diplomacy, some things were better left unsaid. So, to hear candidate Biden publicly acknowledge the relationship’s tawdry essence was little short of astonishing.

While a member of the Senate and during his eight years as vice president, he had hardly gone out of his way to pick fights with the kingdom. Were Biden to replace Trump, however, things were going to change. Big time.

Threading the Needle

As it turned out, not so much. Once inaugurated, Biden found ample reason for checking American principles at the door. Shelving further references to Saudi Arabia as a pariah, he tweaked Washington’s relationship with the Kingdom, while preserving its essence.

The term chosen to describe the process is recalibrate. In practical terms, recalibration means that the U.S. government is sanctioning a few dozen Saudi functionaries for their involvement in the Khashoggi assassination, while giving Mohammad Bin Salman himself a pass. MbS’ sanctioned henchmen would do well to cancel any planned flights into New York’s JFK airport or Washington’s Dulles, where the FBI will undoubtedly be waiting to take them into custody. That said, unless they fall out of favor with the crown prince himself, the assassins will literally get away with murder.

Recalibration also means that the United States is “pausing” — not terminating — further arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The purpose of the pause, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has explained, is “to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy.” Translation? Don’t expect much to happen.

Inside the Beltway, lobbyists for U.S. arms merchants are undoubtedly touching base with members of Congress whose constituencies benefit from exporting weapons to that very country. Said lobbyists need not burn the midnight oil, however.  Khashoggi’s demise has complicated but will not derail the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Given time, some version of the status quo will be restored.

April 2016: Then Secretary of State John Kerry in Irgah Palace in Riyadh on his way to meet Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. (State Department, Wikimedia Commons)

Just one more example of American hypocrisy? Within the Blob, a different view pertains. Consider the perspective of former senior official and longtime Middle Eastern hand Dennis Ross. “This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests,” Mr. Ross told The New York Times. Biden, he added approvingly, is now “trying to thread the needle.” Mustering the wisdom acquired from decades of service deep inside the Blob, Ross pointed out that “there isn’t an issue in the Middle East where we don’t need them to play a role — on Iran, on competing with the Chinese.” Ultimately, it’s that simple: The United States needs Saudi Arabia.

As a respected member of the foreign policy establishment, Ross speaks with the authority that gets you quoted in the Times. Informing his perspective is a certain iron logic, time-tested and seemingly endorsed by history itself. Take that logic at face value and Washington needs Saudi Arabia because it needs to police the Persian Gulf and its environs, as required by the decades-old, never-to-be-questioned Carter Doctrine.

The United States needs Saudi Arabia because the kingdom already plays a not-inconsequential role in the drama accompanying energy-hungry China’s emergence as a great power. And let’s face it: the United States also needs Saudi Arabia because of all that oil (even though this country no longer actually uses that oil itself) and because MbS’ insatiable appetite for arms helps to sustain the military-industrial complex.

So the pieces all fit into a coherent whole, thereby validating a particular conception of history itself. The United States needs Saudi Arabia for the same reason that it needs to remain part of NATO, needs to defend various other allies, needs to maintain a sprawling worldwide constellation of bases, needs to annually export billions of dollars worth of weaponry, needs to engage in endless wars, and needs to spend a trillion-plus dollars annually pursuant to what is usually described as “national security.” More broadly, the United States needs to do all these things because it needs to lead a world that cannot do without its leadership. The trajectory of events going back more than a century now, encompassing two world wars, the Cold War, and the forever wars of the post-Cold War era, proves as much. End of discussion.

Second Thoughts?

Martin Conway. (University of Oxford)

Not all historians bow to the iron logic to which the Blob subscribes, however. Recent events are prompting a few dissenters to entertain second thoughts. Among them is Professor Martin Conway of Oxford University. Now, Professor Conway is anything but a household name. When it comes to name recognition, he doesn’t hold a candle to Dennis Ross, nor is he someone The New York Times consults on issues of the day.

So should we attend to Professor Conway’s contrarian perspective? Very much so and here’s why: Compared to Ross or the sundry Blobbers now in Joe Biden’s employ, Conway is not a prisoner of a curated past. He’s open to the possibility that the sell-by date attached to that taken-for-granted past may well have expired. 

Consider his provocative essay “Making Trump History,” recently published online in H-Diplo. (A more accurate title would have been “History as Illuminated by Trump.”)

By and large, Conway writes, scholars deem Trump to have been “an insult to the historical narrative,” a living, breathing “refutation of deeply held assumptions among historians about how the democratic politics of the U.S. are supposed to work.” Their reflexive response is to classify Trump as an outlier, a one-off intruder, a conviction seemingly affirmed by his failure to win a second term. With his departure from the White House, the resumption of normalcy (or at least what passed for the same in Washington) has theoretically become possible. Biden’s job is to hasten its return.

Conway entertains another view. He speculates that normalcy may, in fact, be gone for good. And the sooner the rest of us grasp that, he believes, the better.

Conway boldly rejects the media’s preferred Manichean account of the so-called Age of Trump. Rather than insulting the traditional Washington narrative, he suggests, Trump simply supplanted it. Wittingly or not, the new president acted in concert with political opportunists in Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere who, in advancing their own ambitions, trampled all over the familiar storyline devised and refined to make sense of our age.

Oprah Winfrey, The Queen  of all media. (DonkeyHotey, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

As a first step toward grasping what’s now underway, Conway urges his fellow historians to “bury their narratives of the 20th century” — on a par with asking Ohio State or the University of Alabama to give up football. Conway then suggests that a new past he calls a “history of the present” is emerging. And he identifies “three trig points” to begin mapping the “uncharted landscape” that lies ahead.

“Conway suggests that a new past he calls a ‘history of the present’ is emerging.”

The first relates to the collapse of barriers that had long confined politics to familiar channels. Today, democratic politics has “burst its banks,” Conway writes. The people once assumed to be in charge no longer really are. Presidents, prime ministers, and parliamentarians compete with (and frequently court) “footballers, TV celebrities, and rap artists” who “communicate more directly and effectively with the public.” Who do you trust? Mitch McConnell or George Clooney? Who has your ear? Nancy Pelosi or Oprah Winfrey?

Conway’s second trig point references the bond between citizens and the state. The old contract — individual duties performed in exchange for collective benefits — no longer applies. Instead, the “new politics of the bazaar” shortchange the many while benefiting the few (like the mega-wealthy Americans who, during the coronavirus pandemic, have so far raked in an estimated extra $1.3 trillion). Egged on by politicians like Trump or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the less privileged have figured this out. Biden’s efforts to pass yet another Covid-19-related relief bill responded to but could not conceal the real story: the emergence of an anti-establishment populism.

His final trig point wipes out the old-fashioned “political frontiers of the left and right.” In the History of the Present, politics emphasize “identity and grievance.” Citizens lend their support to causes centered on “emotions, group identity, or aspirations,” while rendering once-accepted notions of class and party all but irrelevant. “Institutional structures, ideological traditions, and indeed democratic norms” are being “replaced by a less disciplined and more open politics.” Passions govern, imparting to the History of the Present unprecedented levels of volatility.

Conway doesn’t pretend to know where all this will lead, other than suggesting that the implications are likely to be striking and persistent. But let me suggest the following: For all their rote references to new challenges in a new era, President Biden and the members of his crew are clueless as to what the onset of Conway’s History of the Present portends. Throughout the ranks of the establishment, the reassuringly familiar narratives of the twentieth century retain their allure. Among other things, they obviate the need to think.

Wrong Thread, Wrong Needle

Nowhere is this more emphatically the case than in quarters where members of the Blob congregate and where the implications of Conway’s analysis may well have the most profound impact. Conway’s primary concern is with developments within what used to be called the West. That said, the History of the Present will profoundly impact relations between the West (which, these days, really means the United States) and the rest of the world. And that brings us right back to President Biden’s awkward effort to “thread the needle” regarding Saudi Arabia.

Someday, when a successor to Buzzfeed posts an official ranking of 21st century crimes, the vicious murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul won’t even make it anywhere near the first tier. His assassination will, for instance, certainly trail well behind the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, not to speak of various other U.S. military actions from Afghanistan to Somalia undertaken as part of the so-called Global War on Terror.

Mock coffins placed near the offices of military contractors in Arlington, Virginia, during a protest against the Iraq war, March 21, 2009. (Victor Reinhart, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Whether explicitly or implicitly, President Bush and his successors cited those very “narratives of the 20th century” to which Professor Conway refers to justify their interventions across the Greater Middle East. The most important — indeed beloved — narrative celebrates the U.S. role in ensuring freedom’s triumph over evil in the form of various totalitarian ideologies.

Attach all the caveats and exceptions you want: Hiroshima, Vietnam, CIA-engineered coups, the Bay of Pigs, the Iran-Contra scandal, and so on and so forth. Yet even today, most Americans believe and virtually anyone responsible for formulating and implementing basic U.S. global policy affirms that the United States is a force for good in the world. As such, America is irreplaceable, indispensable, and essential. Hence, the unique prerogatives that it confers on itself are justified. Such thinking, of course, sustains the conviction that, even today, alone among nations, the United States is able to keep its interests and “its most cherished democratic values” in neat alignment.

By discarding the narratives of the 20th century, Conway’s History of the Present invites us to see this claim for what it is — a falsehood of Trumpian dimensions, one that, in recent decades, has wreaked untold havoc while distracting policymakers from concerns far more urgent than engaging in damage control on behalf of Mohammad Bin Salman. A proper appreciation of the History of the Present will only begin with the realization that the United States needs neither MbS, nor Saudi Arabia, nor for that matter a sprawling and expensive national security apparatus to police the Persian Gulf.

What this country does need is to recognize that the 20th century is gone for good. Developments ranging from the worsening threat posed by climate change to the shifting power balance in East Asia, not to mention the transformation of American politics ushered in by Donald Trump, should have made this patently obvious. If Professor Conway is right — and I’m convinced that he is — then it’s past time to give the narratives of the twentieth century a decent burial. Doing so may be a precondition for our very survival.

Sadly, Joe Biden and his associates appear demonstrably incapable of exchanging the history that they know for a history on which our future may well depend. As a result, they will cling to an increasingly irrelevant past. Under the guise of correcting Trump’s failures, they will perpetuate their own.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

This article is from

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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10 comments for “The Blob Insists on Clinging to an Obsolete Past

  1. Piotr Berman
    March 14, 2021 at 00:54

    The article, including all quotes from Martin Conway, is strangely shallow. So removed from current events that manages to discuss the issue of the relationship with KSA without mentioning Yemen, the chief reason why weapons for KSA became a “delicate issue”. History is also treated differently.

    It is weird to claim that the following statement is “obsolete in this century”: ‘Yet even today, most Americans believe and virtually anyone responsible for formulating and implementing basic U.S. global policy affirms that the United States is a force for good in the world. As such, America is irreplaceable, indispensable, and essential.’ Was there a time when this mental product was fresh and full of nutrients? And if yes, what were these nutrients?

    Actually, while here and there democracy was successfully supported, there was a long period when the West internally, and later globally, through trade, fostered prosperity that was even reaching lower classes. The pablum about “values” was bearable as a finishing touch. The novelty of this century is that the standard of living stagnates in most of the West and allied satellites, inequality is increasing or stabilized on a very high level, so “values” have to be used more vehemently than before.

    At the dawn of this millennium, the promise of prosperity was still remembered, there were plans to introduce rational government in Afghanistan and Iraq that would lift the well being of the population so much that regimes in backward and unfriendly countries like Syria and Iran would be overthrown by the population envious of their neighbors. But the ineptness in the matter of economics, already visible at home, prevented such shining successes abroad.

    For all wooden repetitiveness of the talk on “values” and “indispensability”, the managers of our foreign affairs are inventive. There is an increasing stress of “spreading our values” through starvation, sanctions and, where possible, blockade: Yemen. Disappointingly, Yemenis did not die in the projected numbers and did not surrender. A delicate problem, mentioned as rarely as possible.

  2. Nathan Mulcahy
    March 13, 2021 at 16:44

    Trump’s biggest achievement has been to rip off the Empire’s facade, and thereby exposing the festering rot underneath the veneer of freedom, human rights and democracy that the Empire has been peddling so successfully to Americans as well as to rest of the world.

    To be honest, the rest of the world has long stopped believing this propaganda. Sadly, too many of my fellow countrymen remain clueless. How else to explain that half the voters believed in Biden’s rhetorics?

  3. robert e williamson jr
    March 13, 2021 at 14:54


    Sadly your last four line here say it all. The government dynamic insures that each new leader, key word new, is met with a functioning / malfunctioning system running on it’s own momentum that encompasses the planet.

    I have assumed for years that the president controls very little himself and has plenty of intervenors to “guide” him or her into the light. As one person they can change nothing.

    This is the exact reason Biden has such an untenable challenge. The county needs to make an abrupt change and simply is incapable of doing so in 4 years without a watershed change in public engagement in government. A turn to the left to quickly can lead to a crash as we have just witnessed with the sharp right turn of Trumpian fiasco.

    Enter the surreal U.S. of A. taking the bizarre to another level. A lesson can be learned here but only by the willing.

    Every American might want o think about this.

    “When you are dead you don’t know you are dead, the pain and suffering are felt by others.

    The same thing happens when you are stupid.” (author unknown)

    Much thanks to CN


  4. Mark Thomason
    March 12, 2021 at 17:42

    “This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests,” Mr. Ross told The New York Times.

    Our values ARE our interests. Attempts to separate them do not serve our interests either. They serve foreign interests and domestic partisanship, as when our politicians serve Israel’s crimes seeking votes for themselves.

  5. Ames Gilbert
    March 12, 2021 at 15:40

    Pretty much in agreement with viewpoint.
    Referring to “MbS’ insatiable appetite for arms”, one can feel a little pity for the guy. The U.S. imposed the petrodollar scheme on KSA, meaning their main resource can only be sold for dollars. So, even after indulging the appetites of the 7,000 princes, and a basic income for KSA citizens, there is still an ginormous pile of dollars to spend. All those boy toys produced by our MICC are advertised to bring an instant hard–on to the purchaser, so stock up big time! And there is always the latest model of everything, each so much better than the last, and the husslers guarantee total satisfaction. The poor guy is an addict, and experienced dealers know very well how to supply what he needs.

  6. John Puma
    March 12, 2021 at 14:33

    Re: “The most important — indeed beloved — narrative celebrates the U.S. role in ensuring freedom’s triumph over evil in the form of various totalitarian ideolo-gies.” The extent to which this is true (? 100%), speaks to the cosmic hypocrisy of the US, totally dominated by “the values” of organized religion, the military and the obligation-free, sprawling, transnational corporations — three institutions operating completely on “various totalitarian ideologies.”

  7. Carolyn L Zaremba
    March 12, 2021 at 14:15

    Although Andrew Bacevich is correct in describing the United States and its religion of blob-like world domination, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels knew that the world was changing back in the 1840s. Nor is Professor Conway breaking new ground here. Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin knew there was no going back to the previous age after the Russian Revolution, despite the fact that Stalin did his best to destroy the new world of international socialism. Mr. Bacevich goes all around the block to get to a point he could have made by crossing the road. Rosa Luxemburg told us: socialism or barbarism. The world has had barbarism for centuries. It is time to make the other choice. Past time.

    • Anne
      March 13, 2021 at 12:17

      So true. We’ve chosen barbarism for so bloody long because it fulfills the needs, and dare I say, Moloch imbued desires of those deeply entrenched within the ruling elites (corporate-capitalist-imperialists to a person…being a sociopath is obviously a core requirement to belong to this group and within their political hangers on).

  8. Jeff Harrison
    March 12, 2021 at 12:23

    Well done, Mr. Bacevich! Are you suggesting that everybody start walking the walk and talking the talk?

  9. Olav
    March 12, 2021 at 09:55

    The ‘blob’ references the classic B-grade science fiction film of 1958.

    C.J. Hopkins calls the blob what it really is: GloboCap. He claims to write satire but is more on point than any newspaper in America.

Comments are closed.