The Week in Blob

Biden fails his Jordan test, China hawks seize NYT turf, Israel vs. Iran, etc.

Welcome to The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media and also consider subscribing.

  • Is Biden's professed commitment to promoting democracy and human rights real? Or (as Peter Beinart recently suggested) does the Biden foreign policy team deploy its righteous indignation selectively, excoriating authoritarian adversaries even as it conveniently overlooks repression practiced by allies? That question was put to the test this week when Jordan's King Abdullah detained former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein—who has criticized the regime for corruption—and around 20 other prominent figures. Abdullah’s rationale for the crackdown—that the detainees had been colluding with foreigners to overthrow the government—raised eyebrows among some Jordan watchers. For example, among the arrested was a technocratic former finance minister who holds wildly different policy views than the populist Prince Hamza, making the two an unlikely pair of co-conspirators. In the Washington Post, political scientist Bessma Momani, citing this and other incongruities, argued that the arrests weren’t about stopping an actual coup but about sidelining prominent dissenters and “coup-proofing an already struggling state whose economy has been battered by the pandemic.” This explanation is consistent with a long-term trend toward authoritarianism in the country—a trend that has included the shuttering of Jordan’s largest union and the arrest of leading activists. The country’s democratic backsliding is so evident that Freedom House, a democracy-tracking think tank known for being soft on US allies, recently downgraded Jordan from "partly free" to "not free". Nonetheless, the US has stuck firmly with King Abdullah, and this week’s events didn’t change that policy. In a Wednesday call, Biden reassured King Abdullah of American support for Jordan's efforts to "safeguard its stability," noting Amman's key role in political, economic, and security-related issues in the Middle East. No mention of Amman’s role in human rights and democracy issues.

  • The Biden administration announced that it will reverse Trump's decision to cut off aid to the Palestinians. The $235 million in restored funding will help underwrite programs that assist Palestinian refugees and economic development.

  • Blobsters who favor a more belligerent stance toward China won a victory this week, in the form of a New York Times piece that highlights and grants new legitimacy to the once marginalized policy they advocate: an explicit American commitment to go to war with China if it attacks Taiwan. This would be a sharp departure from the half-century-old policy of “strategic ambiguity,” which pointedly leaves open the possibility of defending Taiwan but makes no guarantee. The hawks cited in the Times piece say they come in peace; they believe a clear commitment will deter Chinese aggression, whereas continued fuzziness will be seen as weakness and invite war. Well, maybe. But there are two things to be said in defense of fuzziness (and the Times piece does mention them, though, regrettably, not until near the end). First, a public vow to defend Taiwan would be seen as a challenge to China, putting political pressure on Xi Jinping to invade. Second, there’s the “moral hazard” argument, classically expressed by political scientist Barry Posen in a 2013 essay: “U.S. security guarantees also encourage plucky allies to challenge more powerful states, confident that Washington will save them in the end.” A declaration of independence by Taiwan, for example, could well trigger a Chinese invasion. And then there’s this: China would win a war fought 100 miles off its coast—and, according to Lyle Goldstein of the Naval War College, would do so in a few weeks. So the change of policy sought by hawks would put China in a position to make America choose between a humiliating military defeat and a humiliating admission that it had been bluffing. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken is known for saying “Superpowers don’t bluff.” 

  • The Intercept reported Wednesday that, two months after promising to end support for offensive Saudi operations in Yemen, Biden has still not notified Congress of changes to US policy

  • The US and Iran took a small step toward restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal Tuesday by creating twin working groups that will help define paths by which each party can return to compliance with the agreement. This could set the stage for discussions of more complex issues, including which sanctions the US will lift in exchange for Iran’s return to the deal. The reason that question is less straightforward than it sounds is that Trump reimposed nuclear-related sanctions by reclassifying them as punishment for human rights violations or terrorism—a strategy aimed at making it politically risky to lift the sanctions. Biden’s team recently implied that they’re up for the challenge. “We are prepared to take the steps necessary to return to compliance..., including by lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the [original deal],” said a State Department spokesman. But hawks aren’t going down without a fight: In response to the news that Biden’s team may lift Trump’s sanctions, Iran hawk-extraordinaire Mark Dubowitz tweeted that the statement was a “clear warning that the Biden administration will be lifting terrorism sanctions as part of the JCPOA return."

  • Meanwhile, an Israeli mine damaged an Iranian ship in the Red Sea. While US and Saudi intelligence say the boat is a covert military vessel, Iran says it’s a civilian boat stationed in the area for anti-piracy purposes. Recent reports shed light on the “piracy” that Iran may be concerned with: According to an investigation by Haaretz, Israel has attacked “dozens” of Iranian oil tankers headed for Syria over the past two years, apparently as a form of vigilante sanctions enforcement. (Iran has allegedly responded to these attacks by damaging Israeli ships.) On Twitter, Joe Cirincione of the Quincy Institute worried about Israel's strategy: “Israel is aggressively attacking the ships of another nation. It is not at war with that nation. If these attacks continue, it soon might be.” So far, the foreign policy establishment has stayed conspicuously silent, despite the risk of escalation. Even this week’s incident, which happened to coincide with US-Iran negotiations that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu hopes to sink, has failed to garner so much as modest pushback from the Blob.

  • Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced Monday that the US will work with the G20 to establish a global minimum tax rate for corporations. The aim is to undermine corporate tax avoidance, which costs the US nearly $50 billion in revenue each year, according to a report from the Tax Justice Network.

  • The IMF projects that covid will worsen economic inequality within nations, citing the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on workers who are young, low-skilled, or female. The organization called on developed countries to establish a temporary tax on high-earners and urged governments to consider a special tax on firms that had unusually high profits over the past year.

Readings

  • In Foreign Exchanges, Kate Kizer argues that Biden has not lived up to his campaign promise of a foreign policy for the middle class. “Instead, it appears his team has decided to prioritize the views of the foreign policy establishment (the ‘Blob’) over the needs of working people,” Kizer writes.

  • On the Foreign Exchanges podcast, the Quincy Institute’s Annelle Sheline joins host Derek Davison for a deep dive into allegations of an attempted coup in Jordan.

  • On the Power Problems podcast, host John Glaser speaks with political scientist Dominic Tierney about how negativity bias—a tendency for negative things to have stronger psychological impact than positive things of equal magnitude—clouds American decision-making, especially regarding Iran, China, and Afghanistan.

  • In a lengthy Twitter thread, RT journalist Bryan MacDonald lists some things American and British media have accused Russia of “weaponizing.” A few highlights: Charlie Sheen, dolphins, “cuddly puppies”, and (*checks notes*) the weather.

                                                                           —Robert Wright and Connor Echols

My weekly conversation with famous frenemy Mickey Kaus can be found after 9:30 p.m. ET (give or take an hour) this evening on The Wright Show podcast feed or at bloggingheads.tv or the bloggingheads YouTube channel. And our after-podcast podcast—the Parrot Room conversation, which is available to paid subscribers and Patreon supporters—can be found around the same time by going to the NZN Substack home page—right here—and clicking on this week’s Parrot Room episode.

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.