Antony Blinken embodies decades of failure

At least it seems like the secretary of state is having fun

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From our July 2024 issue

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There is no sign marking the entrance to Barman Dictat. The bar under 44 Khreshchatyk Street in Kyiv boasts the largest mezcal collection in Eastern Europe. On a typical night you can find it by noting the crowd of people wafting cigarette smoke into the evening air. Inside, you’ll find shelves of more than 400 glowing bottles perched above a steel bar stretching more than thirty feet. You’ll find bespoke cocktails — Kraken, Smoky Voice and Tickle Balls. And, on one particular May evening, you’ll find the seventy-first secretary of state of the United States…

There is no sign marking the entrance to Barman Dictat. The bar under 44 Khreshchatyk Street in Kyiv boasts the largest mezcal collection in Eastern Europe. On a typical night you can find it by noting the crowd of people wafting cigarette smoke into the evening air. Inside, you’ll find shelves of more than 400 glowing bottles perched above a steel bar stretching more than thirty feet. You’ll find bespoke cocktails — Kraken, Smoky Voice and Tickle Balls. And, on one particular May evening, you’ll find the seventy-first secretary of state of the United States of America at center stage.

Clad in black and wielding a scarlet electric guitar, Antony Blinken seemed less enthused about the moment than his staff had perhaps anticipated. “Listen, I know this is a really, really difficult time,” he told a small crowd of Ukrainians. “Your soldiers, your citizens, particularly in the northeast in Kharkiv, are suffering tremendously. But they need to know, you need to know, the United States is with you, so much of the world is with you. And they’re fighting not just for a free Ukraine but for the free world, and the free world is with you, too. So maybe we can try something?” And, displaying all the effort and verve of a sixty-two-year-old whose guitar skills are more rust than steel, he meandered his way through Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

The stunt didn’t play well. MSNBC worried that it conjured up “a kind of Nero fiddling as Rome burns vibe.” Ukrainian officials denounced it as tone-deaf. One Ukrainian veteran who lost both his legs in com- bat described it as “as inappropriate as possible.” And the choice of song came under attack, too. Rather than some rah-rah rocker advocating for pride in the Western world, Young’s lyrics depict American malaise and decline — which seems oddly appropriate for Blinken to misunderstand. The headline in New York magazine was blunt: “Antony Blinken Sucks at the Guitar and Should Stop Playing.”

The same week he was jamming in Kyiv, Blinken was working hard to undermine Israeli efforts to wage war against Hamas. In an approach of dubious constitutionality, the Biden administration decided — and the president jumped the gun to announce on CNN — that a congressional authorization of aid to Israel in the form of high-payload bombs would be blocked unless they agreed to a more restrained operation in Rafah. The decision prompted major backlash from Israel’s supporters on Capitol Hill, who accused the administration of catering to the extreme left and their domestic political concerns instead of standing with Israel. Apparently the lone democracy in the Middle East is no longer considered part of that whole “free world” thing.

“He was supposed to be the adult back in charge,” Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas who has been a vocal thorn in the side of the Biden State Department, told me. “But instead Blinken has turned the State Department into a woke college campus where the children run everything. Since October 7 he’s spent enormous amounts of time holding therapy listening sessions where anti-Israel and indeed anti-American children complain to him that the US needs to be more pro-Hamas. It’d be laughable if it wasn’t so incredibly dangerous.”

Blinken’s innovation regarding Gaza was to come up with an incredibly expensive pier, floating off the coast, to allow — as he described it — the US to “surge humanitarian assistance” to the area. The project, which cost $320 million, would take two months to build, deliver less than sixty trucks’ worth of aid (which was, of course, largely seized by Hamas forces), get three American soldiers injured in a forklift accident and last less than two weeks before breaking apart in the choppy Mediterranean. As an allegory for Blinken’s career, it probably won’t be topped.

“Tony Blinken has presided over the empowerment of Israel’s enemies from the moment he entered government, most egregiously his decades-long effort to enrich the Iranian regime and pave its way to a nuclear weapon,” former State Department official Morgan Ortagus told me. “He lifted sanctions on the regime to let them earn tens of billions of dollars in oil to fund their terror rampage across the world. Blinken imposes red lines on Israel, criticizes our ally at every turn and gives life to the propaganda hurled at the one Jewish state.”

Blinken’s approach is driven by a cadre of political appointees who entered the Biden State Department in hopes of changing the world — their way. It started with Josh Paul, a mid-level State official who resigned in protest over Biden’s “blind support for one side” after Israel had the audacity to respond militarily to Hamas’s violent attack on its innocent citizens. (He got a New York Times profile for his effort and a fellowship at a George Soros-funded advocacy organization.) Then there were the “dissent cables” sent to Blinken from a wide swath of State Department staffers who objected to pro-Israel policy, to which he responded in a lengthy email: “We’re listening: what you share is informing our policy and our messages.”

“The Biden administration’s approach is muddled. They are trying to have it both ways, drawing and then moving red lines — and in the process they are angering both Israel’s supporters and its critics,” says Matthew Kroenig, a former defense policy official in the George W. Bush, Obama and Trump administrations. “Many of these problems have the same source: making national security decisions to placate vocal domestic factions. The job of leaders is to determine what is in the best interests of the country and then make the case to the American people, not bend the strategy according to the public mood. The Biden administration’s initial instincts were correct right after October 7, to have Israel’s back in its war against Hamas. But with an eye to the election calendar, Washington has produced a confusing and ultimately ineffective strategy.”

That approach to strategy, or lack thereof, has been a hallmark of Blinken’s career. For more than two decades, since taking over as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under then-Senator Biden, Blinken has been at the center of the Democratic Party’s evolving foreign policy. He was an emphatic supporter of the invasion of Iraq — and helped create Biden’s idea to partition the country into three segregated states, a suggestion that was laughed out of the room. When Biden brought him into Barack Obama’s administration, Blinken was charged with a massive portfolio, shepherding the Iran deal, the Libya invasion, the war in Yemen and the supply of weapons to Syrian rebels — the latter yet another foolhardy aspect of the meandering ISIS policy under Obama and Biden. To call any of these policies successes would be quite the stretch — but no matter. For Team Biden, loyalty is always more important than success.

The first task on Blinken’s docket as Biden’s secretary of state was managing the Afghanistan withdrawal — a misbegot- ten affair that resulted in the deaths of dozens of Afghans and thirteen American soldiers. The Afghanistan After Action Report, produced by the department after a ludicrous delay, has become a point of contention within Congress over its numerous redactions. Publicly, Blinken pronounced the whole effort a success. Politically, the Afghanistan withdrawal was the first moment where Biden’s popularity went underwater, and it never recovered. Elections have consequences — in this case, those consequences were people who had assisted America’s effort for years getting blown up by terrorists and falling from the fuselage of airplanes.

It’s not like Americans weren’t warned what could happen. One of the most notable critiques of Biden comes from former George W. Bush and Obama secretary of defense Robert Gates, considered one of the most intelligent and capable SecDefs in modern history. In his 2014 memoir, he declared “I think [Joe Biden] has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Asked about the comment again in 2020, Gates stood by the claim — a criticism that effectively includes Blinken, since his record and Biden’s are one and the same.

That’s why in December 2014, John McCain — rarely one to criticize a presidential nominee — took to the Senate floor to render a blistering half-hour attack on Blinken, then up for nomination as deputy secretary of state. Describing Blinken as presiding over a “foreign policy in shambles,” McCain called him “not only unqualified, but in fact in my view, one of the worst selections from a very bad lot that this president has chosen” who “has actually been dangerous to America and to the young men and women who are fighting and serving our country.”

(If you are curious why the McCain Institute inexplicably honored Secretary Blinken as their keynote speaker at their annual conference this year, I’d like to know the answer myself — particularly as I am the senator’s son-in-law. Perhaps the fact that it’s run by a former Obama official has something to do with it, but surely that’s a coincidence.)

The world Antony Blinken has midwifed since withstanding these challenges — from the right, from the left, and from anyone who cares about America’s foreign policy — is the world we have today: one where the interests of China and Russia seem to advance with far more confidence than our own. It is a world where the United States is incapacitated, too distracted to manage a military withdrawal, support our allies effectively or even build a floating pier to deliver aid that will actually make it to the people who need it.

At least it seems like Blinken’s having fun. In the notable absence of the president as a voice for his own agenda, the secretary of state has jumped into the fray, becoming the most outspoken public defender of administration choices on the Sunday shows, on Capitol Hill and even in the more friendly climes of late-night television. A year and a half before his gig at the Barman Dictat, Blinken took to the CBS airwaves to sit down with Stephen Colbert, the most favored comedian-turned-partisan of the Biden administration, to talk up the Biden-Blinken agenda in a lengthy conversation bereft of any tough questions. They closed with a loving handshake and a clearly planned “impromptu” jam session heading into break, where it became eminently clear that Blinken’s electric guitar was not plugged into a live amp. He keeps on rocking, but the free world can’t hear him. He can’t even hear himself.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2024 World edition.

Ben Domenech is an editor-at-large of The Spectator World. He is also a Fox News contributor and writes the Transom newsletter on Substack.

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