Monday, September 27, 2021

Jake Sullivan: The Well Protected Golden Boy

We’ve all seen it; those who promote, protect, and mentor the “deep select” Golden Boy become personally – and professionally – invested in their success. 

Not content to give them opportunities to succeed or fail on their own, when things do not turn out a perfect as the CV and as those mentors promised they would, the wounded instead make excuses, defend, and deflect any criticism of The Chosen One. Though years and decades pass, they still treat grown men on the edge of middle age as if they are still that promising young staffer they once were – poised for greatness at some point in the future. They never really achieve regular success, but give you the appearance that they are ready to claim success should it fall in to their lap simply because … well … look at the CV. Of course. 

The promising future is always almost there, even if the date of measure has already passed. Someone so right, you see, cannot be so wrong. Someone so highly recommended could never be suboptimal. All the right schools, all the correct mentors, all the right jobs so early.

These are smart people. These can be important parts of any successful team, but success is not granted, it is earned. Where it is not earned, but demanded – then you have dysfunction when the real world calls your bluff.

So, we have President Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan.

In normal times, this might just be a snarky post aimed at a highly mockable Smartest Person in the Room™ - but these times are too serious and too much accountability remains undistributed. 

We are less than a month removed from the last spasms of our great national humiliation in Afghanistan. There are too many people who are just waiting for the layers of news cycles to cover up their responsibility. 

Well, no. Accountability needs to be placed and underlined.

Let’s dive into Julian Burger’s latest in The Guardian. Yes, Sal reads The Guardian.

Joe Biden was with a team of advisers and on receiving the news he asked two of them, secretary of state Tony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, to accompany him to his private dining room to mark the moment with a call to the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin.

Blinken has been a constant presence at Biden’s side since 2002. By contrast, before he joined the 2020 campaign, Sullivan had worked for Biden for just 18 months, and that was six years earlier as the then vice-president’s national security adviser. His whole career on the national stage before then had been as Hillary Clinton’s right hand man.

People are policy. 

Yes, Biden has his own ideas, but he is briefed and supported by a staff. 

“It was a significant moment and the president wanted Jake to be there,” a senior administration official said. “I’ve watched him turn to Jake for advice on both domestic and foreign policy over the last two years. He has enormous respect for Jake’s judgment and relies on him intently.”

These are the men – and they are all men – who bear the responsibility for our national humiliation. They have been measured and found wanting. 

The White House has vigorously defended Sullivan, arguing that no one around the table in the situation room had predicted how fast Kabul would fall, and stressed the national security adviser’s role in coordinating the evacuation of 124,000 civilians, the biggest civilian airlift in US history.

That is a classic defense of a Golden Boy. Rhodes scholar. Yale law school. He can’t be the problem. It must be others.

Aged just 44, Sullivan is the youngest national security adviser American has had since McGeorge Bundy counseled John F Kennedy 60 years ago.


“Despite being probably one of the smartest people in the building, he’s not somebody who has walled off his process. He’s really interested in hearing what others bring to the table,” Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, said.

McGeorge Bundy? Really? You say that like it’s a good thing.

Where is there any evidence that there was a diversity of opinion at the table? Where is any of this connected to the world as it is?

One of Sullivan’s themes in the job is connecting US actions on the world stage to the lives and welfare of ordinary Americans, with the mantra of “a foreign policy for the middle class”.

Excuse me? How much experience in his adult life does Sullivan have with “the middle class” to the point he knows what a foreign policy for them would look like? What does it produce? What is its focus?

How does Jake come to this world view?

So, he left Yale law school at age 27. Clerked for a circuit judge then a SCOTUS judge. 

After practicing and teaching law in Minneapolis, Sullivan’s first foray into politics was as chief counsel to Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar. Klobuchar introduced him to Hillary Clinton, who lured him away to work on her 2008 presidential run.

Spent some time as a junior lawyer at a firm before being plucked four years after law school at age 31 to work for Sen. Klobuchar. From there, mainlined in to (D) presidential campaign support and staff.

She drew on his debating expertise (he came second in the 2000 World University Debating Championship in Sydney)

That is farcical. Maybe one step above an adult man – or his mentor – bragging to others about all the awards he received at the Model UN the summer after their junior year of high school. No wonder she lost to Trump. 

It was only much later that Reines was informed where Sullivan had been – in Oman with the CIA director, William Burns, in the first secret talks with Iranian officials that ultimately led to the breakthrough 2015 nuclear deal. At the time, Sullivan was 35 years old.

“It just speaks volumes about him that the secretary of state of the United States and the president of the United States thought that he could co-lead the negotiations with one of our strongest adversaries on one of the most difficult issues,” Reines said. “There’s no situation you can put him into that is over his head.”

Complete lack of self-awareness. Were the pallets of cash his idea? Does he know how played we were by the Iranians? 

As for the “over his head” comment. I’m sorry, but it is blazingly clear that he was over his head in Afghanistan – intellectually and as an advisor to the President.

“I think that’s incredibly misplaced,” she said. “I think numerous participants in the process, from [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General Milley to Secretary Blinken to [Director of National Intelligence] Haines, have all said that there was no indication that the Afghan government would collapse in 11 days.”

Self-selecting arrogance is no excuse. Just clear that he doesn’t bring in “what others bring to the table” because he isn’t inviting anyone with a different view to this table. 

A bunch of field-grade planners in Kabul the winter of 2009 cautioned about a rapid collapse as a possibility. This was always a known possibility. You were only shocked if you demanded that only people who agreed with you were allowed at the table, and certain things could not be briefed. 

“Trump and Biden received the same assessment: the country could collapse in days or weeks with little notice,” said London, whose book The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence is published next week.

“The Trump White House simply didn’t care. But the Biden White House did not accept the conditions on which that assessment was based as being credible, so dismissed that scenario as unrealistic.”

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Sullivan did voice anxiety and question the speed of the withdrawal, and particularly the abrupt abandonment in early July of Bagram airbase, the nerve centre of the US war in Afghanistan for two decades. But Biden ultimately approved the plan.

A White House official said there would be no comment on Sullivan’s advice to the president to “protect the integrity of the process”.

Bruen, who worked in the Obama White House at the same time as Sullivan, argued that the Bagram debate showed he had not shrugged off the instincts of a staffer.

“There is this tendency to be deferential, and that’s the staffer role,” Bruen said. “As a staffer, you are someone whose raison d’etre is to find justifications to support the principal’s position. Your role is very different as a national security adviser. You have to, many times, challenge the president’s views on an issue, help them to see there may be some assumptions they’re making that are wrong.”

However, when a president has made up his mind on a subject, one of Sullivan’s former colleagues said, no national security adviser could stand in the way of the elected commander-in-chief.

“I don’t have any doubt, based on my observations, that Jake Sullivan was clear on his advice,” one of Sullivan’s former White House colleagues said. “It’s very difficult for anybody to penetrate the conversations between the president and the national security adviser, but at the end of the day the president’s views prevail.”

…and “who” at the White House would that be? Jake Sullivan, that’s who.

So, let’s end this as we started. The end of the article is an attempt by one of his defenders to make excuses for Sullivan. Read this twice. In an objective reading this does not defend Sullivan at all – it actually makes the argument that he is unfit for the job.

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