For US President-elect Joe Biden’s Secretary of State-elect Antony Blinken, a self-confessed Beatles nut, it’s been a long and winding road back to the State Department. He plays the guitar in a band and his four-minute, 10-second single, ‘Lip Service,’ has been on Spotify for two years now.
This Monday morning when the news broke that he was being named to the sanctum sanctorum, Blinken’s 2016 appearance on the children’s programme ‘Sesame Street’ went viral on social media. He was seen speaking to a cartoon character called ‘Grover’ on the value of protecting refugees across the world. Perhaps Blinken was speaking to his own two toddlers.
“These [refugees] are people who’ve had to leave their homes because life in their countries was not safe for them,” the US Secretary of State-elect said. “Grover, can you imagine how difficult it would be to have to leave your home?,” Blinken asked the cartoon character.
The message was meant to be seriously cute – or cutely serious – linking up indirectly with Biden’s criticism of outgoing president Donal Trump’s ‘America First’ approach. But the truth is that only a man with great self-belief can pull this off without squirming at the cheesiness of it all.
Blinken, 58, probably likes to believe he is A Moral Animal, after the book of the same name written by one Robert Wright, a theologian who writes on Buddhism and other things and who Blinken professes to admire enormously. So when Wright graded Blinken on five areas – military restraint, cognitive empathy, international law, international governance and universal engagement – and gave him a C-, Blinken blinked again.
“Sigh. This pains me in light of my admiration for Robert Wright. The Moral Animal is among the most brilliant books I’ve read. Well, maybe I’ll evolve…” he tweeted.
That’s the problem with US Democrats: They are all things to all people. At least you knew Donald Trump was a self-obsessed misogynist with traits of grandeur. With the Democrats, you never know where they really stand, although they are seemingly united on uplifting matters such as democracy.
The Osama matter
Let’s start with Barack Obama. In his memoir, A Promised Land, released to much acclaim last week, the former US President says the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad was carried out without telling the Pakistanis as certain people in Pakistan’s intelligence agencies maintained close ties with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
But if Asad Durrani, Pakistan’s former ISI chief is to be believed, the Pakistanis cooperated in the raid, by opening up gaps in the radar that allowed the US choppers to fly in.
Why would Obama not speak the whole truth? Is this because the Americans realise that they need Pakistan even more today to get their puppeteers, the Taliban, to stop the violence that continues to wrack Afghanistan despite talks between the Afghan government and the insurgents?
None other than Blinken was Biden’s National Security Advisor when the raid against bin Laden took place in May 2011. He would have known what happened. Naturally, he won’t talk. Foreign policy is a reflection of national interest and Tony Blinken, for the moment at least, is its keeper.
Biden’s vote for war and Blinken
It’s not as if Blinken is a stranger to war. In 2003, when Republican President George Bush over-ruled the United Nations and invaded Iraq, Blinken was not just Biden’s close aide but also the Democratic staff director to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Other Democrats refused to authorise Bush’s war effort, but Biden, however much he demurred initially, was one of 77 Senators who agreed that Bush should go ahead.
Blinken tried to put out that Biden’s vote was “merely a vote for tough diplomacy.” In a January 2019 article Blinken and Robert Kagan wrote for The Washington Post, Blinken described the problem with the Iraq war as “bad intelligence, misguided strategy and inadequate planning for the day after.”
Not once did Blinken think it was morally wrong to invade another country, which was merely suspected of having weapons of mass destruction – a hypothesis that was proved false later – that snowballed in ways that no one would have thought of.
For a start, the “good war in Afghanistan” against the Taliban was marginalised and lost its bearings. The Taliban, until then in disarray, began to regroup itself.
Cut to the present, when the US, bloodied and weakened from the war in Afghanistan, is having to request an ally against whom it conducted a daring raid to take out bin Laden, for help to talk to the Taliban.
The India goal
The second manifestation of this weakness will be the Biden presidency’s likely decision to cooperate and compete, rather than actively obstruct China’s continuing rise to the top. In September, Newsweek reported that Blinken had said it was unrealistic to cut ties with Beijing as the Trump administration had proposed to do.
“Trying to fully decouple, as some have suggested, from China…is unrealistic and ultimately counter-productive,” Blinken said, “it would be a mistake.” Instead, he said, it would be more worthwhile to expand alliances with partners in the region. India.
Certainly, New Delhi is keeping a keen eye out for the minutest shifts in US strategy. It is unlikely that Biden-Blinken will have the time or energy to be intrusive in India’s domestic politics, whether Kashmir or the Citizenship (Amendment) Act – notwithstanding Blinken’s cute act on Sesame Street.
In an interview with Hudson Institute in July, Blinken did cite “real concerns” on some of the Narendra Modi government actions, such as “cracking down on freedom of movement and freedom of speech in Kashmir and some laws on citizenship”.
But Blinken seemed much more taken up with the fact that he had got the Modi government on board the Paris Agreement on climate change. “It wasn’t easy, it was a challenging effort…(But) you’re always better engaging with a partner and an important one like India when you can speak frankly and directly in areas where you have differences even as you’re working to build greater cooperation and strengthen the relationship.”
Blinken knows well that the world is not Sesame Street, even if he’s offering marshmallows to some of his interlocutors. Perhaps he can’t help it. It’s been a long and winding road to Foggy Bottom and he’s finally back to where he once belonged.
One can’t help thinking that America will be so caught up in its own music for some time that PM Modi and his team will have no option but to recreate their own melodies. It might be just the push New Delhi needs. Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla’s visit to Nepal later this week is a great start.
Views are personal.