Harry Truman. That’s who Jake Sullivan listed as his “political hero/inspiration,” in a Time Magazine “40 Under 40” profile. Fed a question so vague that he could’ve chosen anyone from Cleopatra to Clinton, that Sullivan selected a consummate product of Kansas City’s backroom “machine” politics, and liberal hawk exemplar, is more than instructive – it’s downright disturbing. “Give ‘em Hell” Harry unnecessarily dropped two atomic bombs on babies, and bombastically blundered into a Cold War that nearly ended the world on more than one occasion. So what will Truman’s admiring fellow Midwesterner have on offer?
So far, America’s inbound insider of a national security adviser hasn’t gotten half the attention he deserves. Despite President-elect Joe Biden’s spate of national security picks last Tuesday, most media eyes remained fixed – or transfixed – on Michèle Flournoy, the as-yet-unannounced frontrunner for the nation’s first female secretary of defense. The rest of the attention has focused, though to a lesser extent, on the incoming secretary of state Anthony Blinken. But Jake Sullivan is my dark horse candidate for the new administration’s hyper-hawk. Frankly, given his record, he’s more like a sure thing.
Come January, the 43-year old Sullivan will become the youngest national security adviser in almost 60 years. Yet for those who know him, Jake’s remarkable rise seemed almost fated. One of his oldest friends, Sarah Rathke said of his early days that, “Looking back at everything he did during those years, it’s clear he’s always had a plan.” Still, something’s just not right about the guy. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it’d been bothering me for a long time. Ten days – and plenty of too-deep diving – after Biden blessed off on him, it’s clear to me Jake is 360-degree’s worth of worrisome.
Three elements of the Sullivan enigma in particular are troubling enough to raise serious alarm bells: his personality, philosophy, and policies.
Jake Sullivan is the archetypal Biden bro – he sprang from the Ivy League (Yale); apprenticed with a congressperson (Amy Klobuchar); was appointed to mid-tier roles on Barack Obama’s foreign policy team (deputy chief of staff for Secretary Hillary Clinton and Vice President Biden’s top security aide); then joined a consultancy firm (the former British spy chief-led Macro Advisory Partners); was a senior fellow at a war industry-funded think tank (the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – funded by 10 separate military agencies and defense contractors); and married someone who’s also in the game (Margaret Goodlander, onetime advisor to hawkish Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain, who’s previously worked for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for a New American Security – the second-largest think-tank recipient of government and defense industry largesse). Yet, Sullivan’s story starts way earlier – in southwest Minneapolis.
Born in Vermont, Sullivan moved to Minnesota for the fourth grade. Talent and drive brought success at an early age and by high school he was student council leader, editor of the school newspaper, and voted “most likely to succeed.” His friend Sarah remembers that a teenage Jake had an unusual fascination with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Fitting, then, that Sullivan the government servant would so strikingly resemble the “best and brightest” John F. Kennedy-appointed holdovers in LBJ’s administration. Like the young “whiz kid” Rand think-tank analysts brought to the Pentagon by then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Jake soon played out the dark, flip-side of Democratic interventionism. Also, like those cocky and book-smart-brightest of the Vietnam War, Sullivan would plan, cheer, and manage wars he’d never considered lacing-up his own boots for. It doesn’t appear to have crossed his mind.
Theory, arguments, analysis – that much Jake knew, and knew well. He was a champion debater both in high school and at Yale – later, on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford he finished second in the world debate championship. Then he headed back to Yale for law school, graduating in 2003, just as over a hundred thousand Americans his age and younger were flooding into an Iraq quagmire that’s not quite ended.
Whether it would or wouldn’t have been the “right” call, Sullivan certainly could have joined them – if not as a grunt or combat officer, perhaps as a military judge advocate general (JAG). After all, Beau Biden did just that in late 2008. In fact, exposure to base burn pits in Iraq may have caused the cancer that killed the president-elect’s eldest son. Me, I’d just finished my sophomore year at West Point and was off to paratrooper training in Fort Benning, Georgia. Options abounded for men of our age.
Jake’s a bit older, but we’re from the same generation – informed by the same temporal touchstones. Only our chosen paths, and conclusions, couldn’t have diverged further. In 2005, when I graduated and commissioned into the cavalry scouts, Sullivan was clerking for federal judges, including Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. When I left for Iraq in late 2006, Jake worked as chief counsel to Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. It was she who introduced him to Clinton.
Within a couple of years he was prepping his future State Department boss for her 2008 presidential primary debates. I supported Hillary’s opponent, who’d at least opposed the invasion as an Illinois state senator – so desperate was I to end a hopeless war I’d just spent 15 months in, during which I buried three fellow soldiers. When she dropped out, Jake jumped ship and did the same for Barack Obama in the general election campaign. My son, Alexander James Michael, was born the night before the first such debate, named for those three dead troopers.
Jake was back in the Clinton camp after the Obama triumph – first as her deputy chief of staff, then, at 34, as the youngest director of policy planning in State Department history. During that first Obama-term, Jake was bullish on Libyan and Syrian military interventionism, and like Hillary opposed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s pleas to at least talk to the Taliban without the preconditions. In fact, Sullivan was in the room when Holbrooke’s heart literally burst as the ambassador delivered impassioned arguments on this very issue. Holbrooke, who died a few days later, had been right (so had Biden, it must be said) – and Obama, Clinton, and Sullivan wrong, as it turned out.
That was December 2010. I’d just taken command of the 82 scouts of B Troop, 4th U.S. Cavalry and, only a month would head off to the same war that Jake – from the comfort of his State Department meeting rooms – had been so wrong about. Within a year, three had lost their lives; others, multiple limbs. I’ll never know how many Afghans died under the bombs I dropped through the “comfort” and convenience of my flak-vest-attached radio. So it goes on the forward-edge of Washington’s foreign policy.
Nonetheless, it was up and onward for Sullivan. In 2013, after impressing the president with a no doubt astute briefing on and in Myanmar, he was offered a job as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser. I was in graduate school preparing to teach at West Point. That August, the weight of seven years’ worth of white-knuckled post-traumatic stress boiled over something fierce. After a near nervous breakdown, I walked into my first therapy appointment. Dark years followed. I survived. One of my wounded Afghan-alum soldiers didn’t – he was 22. Neither would my marriage.
Personality: The Perils of Ambition
After Obama left office and Jake’s prime patron Hillary’s stunning 2016 loss, Sullivan settled into the Biden shadow team’s standard Trump-era holding pattern in the think tank and strategic consultancy worlds. He held a senior fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment, but also worked for Macro Advisory Partners – which reported $37 million in revenue during 2019. He joined the ex-Brit-spy-chief consultancy the very month Obama stepped down. The group foregrounded Sullivan as a prime organizational selling point, boasting that he offered “trusted counsel in a turbulent world.” Jake’s face was even plastered atop the staff roster on Macro Advisory’s website. Yet, instructively, Sullivan’s various biographies almost always omitted this affiliation.
Nevertheless, he was active in some of the consultancy’s top-tier work as recently as early 2020. Sullivan then spent several months representing Uber in antagonistic negotiations with labor unions, seeking an alternative to California’s Assembly Bill 5 legislation – hoping to help the $61 billion company avoid extending benefits to its contractors. Early in his tenure, Jake also traded on some insider knowledge by providing forecasting services to corporations. For example, he used information acquired from the Iran nuclear negotiations to help companies profit from the newly opened Iranian economy, according to The American Prospect.
Such revolving door work is admittedly harder to trace than the overt old school model whereby Trump appointed a veritable Raytheon plant, Mark Esper, atop the corporate war-profiteer’s prime Pentagon customer. But Macro Advisory’s work is no less corrupt or defense industry-complicit. As a source familiar with the group put it: “This is a step up from the military-industrial complex, it’s the information-industrial complex.” By the way, in addition to serving as Biden’s foreign policy “gatekeeper” on the campaign trail, Sullivan was also on the candidate’s economic policy team. All in the game, as they say.
Overall, Sullivan credits at least some of his professional success to interpersonal skills and a demeanor bred by the famed politeness of the “Minnesota Nice.” Yet even here, Jakes makes strange hedges and admits a certain climber’s attitude that prioritizes promotion over people. In 2015, he told the MinnPost that “A core lesson is don’t be a jerk,” but then alternate between ambitious and humane motives:
Of course it’s the right thing to do to be a good person and care about your neighbor, colleagues, and people less fortunate. But I’ve also found that if you want to advance your career and make an impact, you need people who are going to be your champion, and that means showing them that you’re not just in it for yourself.
Call it tactical humanitarianism.
Jake’s meteoric rise did, in fact, largely stem from hitching his star to Secretary Clinton. The two became inseparable and traveled together to over 100 countries. Indeed, she asked Sullivan to review chapters of her book, Hard Choices. In it, Clinton called him “discreet, earnest and brilliant.” A senior Obama aide said, “Jake did everything for Secretary Clinton.” She once joked that, “When Jake Sullivan first came to work for me, I told my husband about this incredibly bright rising star – Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law School – and my husband said, ‘Well, if he ever learns to play the saxophone, watch out.’”
See, Sullivan is a mind-melder, the sort that military men would call a “career aide-de-camp” – not unlike David Petraeus – punching necessary command “tickets,” but always hitching his star to senior generals’ stars. Such sycophants are ubiquitous enough in army life that a popular novel’s fictional character – Courtney Massengale – has entered the military lexicon. Jake strikes me as a “Massengale man.” Perhaps that’s why Anne-Marie Slaughter, who ran the State Department’s policy planning office in Obama’s first term, called him “the consummate insider.”
Sullivan especially excels at one thing – anticipating his boss’s wants and needs, thus making himself indispensable. Consider the advice that legendary diplomat Holbrooke gave the new deputy secretary of state in 2010: “Let me tell you, the only person and the one person you need to get to know, who is loved by everyone in the institution and gets things done, is Jake Sullivan.”
America’s next national security adviser is nothing if not a company man – a technocrat’s technocrat, sure, but with the ambition of a man on a mission straight to the top. When he was traveling the world with Secretary Clinton, she said she’d talk to global leaders who wanted to “meet a potential future president of the United States – and of course they mean Jake.”
If his ambition strikes you as somewhat shameless, one look at Sullivan’s personal philosophy and un-fresh take on American exceptionalism and patriotism is even more revealing.
Philosophy: Beware True Believers
Republican Senator Marco Rubio was for once right – if for all the wrong reasons – in his tweeted assessment of Joe’s status quo squad: “Biden’s cabinet picks went to Ivy League schools, have strong resumes, attend all the right conferences & will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline.” Only it’s worse than all that, since Sullivan, at least, shall not go gently into that good night of retrenchment or national humility.
Instead, Jake writes clarion calls on “rescuing” and “reclaiming” American exceptionalism – the clinical cult of delusion that’s delivered much of our modern woes. His 2019 Atlantic article conjures the apocryphal Einstein quote – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” In his piece, Sullivan almost protests too much in asserting that “Everything is up for debate when it comes to the basic purpose of US foreign policy” – everything, that is, except “American exceptionalism,” which Jake argues is “the basis for American leadership in the twenty-first century.”
This isn’t mere rhetoric. Sullivan is the sort to marry theory and practice. Problem is, his theory’s all wrong – criminally naive and grounded in a nefarious misread of history. In a 2019 New Yorker interview, Jake posited three reasons that America is, in fact, exceptional. Almost any serious scholar would scoff at each element of the simplistic and demonstrably disprovable trio.
First, Jake says the US is “unique … in having been founded on an idea, not on territory or tribe, and … a sense of aspiration, a sense of human rights and freedoms.” Well, maybe we can grant him aspiration, but ask Mexicans or those native “tribes” whose “territory” was conquered on behalf of that “idea” about America’s foundational “sense of human rights.”
Second, Sullivan surmises that “American foreign policy, unlike [others] through history, has not been zero-sum, has not relied on a notion that a dog-eat-dog world’s O.K., as long as you’re the biggest dog.” Strange sentiments, indeed, emanating from the capital of history’s hyper-ist of hegemons – one with a “sum” total of 800 military bases forward-deployed in at least 80 countries. Perhaps Jake just requires a recommended reading list of recent works on American empire – for starters: A.G. Hopkins’ American Empire (2018), Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire (2019), and Stephen Wertheim’s Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy (2020). Or, for a brief primer, I’ll dare offer the final chapter in my own American History for Truthdiggers series – “A Once, Always and Future Empire.”
Third, Jake offers a nuance-free assessment of America’s global role that might seem beneath his intelligence and esteemed education. He’d have you believe that “we are a nation of problem-solvers in a world full of problems.” At best, this is artless and absent any real sense of recent history. Only given his own public service record since graduating Yale Law the very year America invaded Iraq, one suspects something more noxious afoot. By almost any serious measure, especially since 9/11, Americans are failed problem-solvers in a world full of problems they largely created.
From the West African Sahel to Libya to Somalia to Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, there are more than one hundred million survivors of around a million dead loved ones killed in conflicts caused or catalyzed by US wars of choice – who’d take serious issue with Sullivan’s arrogant assertion of American good will. Particularly since, in Libya and Syria, Jake played key roles shaping the disasters.
All that said, it’s exceedingly difficult to know the true measure of a man. Either Sullivan – and exceptionalists of his breed – are true believers, or rank cynics driven by ambition and blessed with enough raw intelligence or charisma to say whatever’s needed to justify such snake oil sales. If the former, certain career military officers – especially the West Point bred among them – might recall the pained assessment of Colonel Caldwell in that oft-assigned novel Once an Eagle. Speaking of US interventionism way back in the First World War, he admitted that:
We are a race of headlong altruists. We rush to a foreign land in a deluge of embattled sympathy … We do everything in our power to proclaim our good intentions, our nobility of purpose, our loftiness of soul … and all because we think we’re too good for the rest of the world.
So it is with Sullivan. For though he lead an interview response with the hedge that it “is not that America is better than other countries,” he quickly – and boldly – recants his humility and pivots in ways recalling Colonel Caldwell’s fictional caution. Not two transcript sentences later, Jake asserted that “the United States has unique and distinctive attributes and capacities that really do distinguish us from any previous power in history and any potential future power.”
Does he believe any of this – I mean deeply … viscerally? It’s hard to know.
What’s provable is that Sullivan profits – pecuniarily and professionally – from saying so, from justifying the interventionist ruse, and all the wonk-work that’s generated in the doing. So beware Jake’s ambition, of his desperate desire to consort close to the crown. His is a dangerous lot, believe me. I’ve worked for many of his tribe – the sorts who move men with PowerPoint slides and sly asides to powerful men.
No doubt Sullivan is qualified, that is if one accepts the contours of the concept as currently defined. He’s risen fast because of it. Still, to return to the classic novel, there’s something troubling about the man, just as there was something troubling about Courtney Massengale. When the wife of the book’s protagonist said that Court had “all the qualities needed” to “go a long, long way,” her husband countered with a warning, and a Sullivan-like sneaking suspicion:
All but one. He doesn’t care enough. About people. There’s something lacking there, some funny little-lack … He doesn’t think people are important. Not desperately important, I mean. More important than thrones and symphonies and triumphal arches.
To understand this point, and Jake’s relation to it, one only need look to his language when he evokes or explains past and present policy positions.
Policy: Worrisome Words and Deeds
There will be no paradigm shift from Biden’s status quo squad. Sullivan is no exception. Expect no systemic change from a guy whose first Foreign Affairs column’s subtitle reads, “How the System Can Endure!” In fact, his March 2018 article argues “the US foreign policy community should prepare for the world after Trump,” which he actually sees as “a window of opportunity” to “reconstitute the old consensus on new terms.” In other words, Jake’s is a back-to-the-future foreign policy. Moreover, he takes serious issue with anyone who questions his tribe of trusted foreign policy hands.
In one of his more illustrative pieces in that same journal – published by the Council on Foreign Relations, the seventh-largest think tank recipient of US government and defense contractor funding – a Sullivan review absolutely drips with passive aggression. He targets authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer who dared to target the establishment “blob” Jake lives in. Sullivan thinks they did so in “bad faith,” naturally. The entitlement implicit in Sullivan’s review transcends past and present realities of US policy disaster in a disturbingly offhand manner. In fact, Jake has the near-impressive gall to claim that such “scholars … owe policymakers a presumption of good faith and honest service.” Has he not heard tell of WMDs, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Libya, Syria, or the Afghanistan Papers?
No, Sullivan remains trapped in should-be-discredited interventionist thinking. He’s almost a human time capsule from Obama’s 2009 inauguration, when cleaner and tech-savvy – but still martial – alternatives to George W. Bush’s overt invasion-occupations were in vogue. “Smart power,” they then called it – and he and Hillary were serious subscribers. According to the ultimate Obama man, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, “[Jake’s] in line with [Hillary]. On the spectrum of people in our administration, he tended to favor more assertive US engagement on issues” and “responses that would incorporate some military element.”
Perhaps that’s why a Vox profile referred to him as “the man behind Hillary’s hawkish foreign policy.” Of course, Sullivan likes to mask his militarism in meaningless rhetorical flourishes like a Foreign Affairs subheading: “From Dominance to Leadership.” In practice, Jake was an early advocate of arming Syrian rebels when he worked for Clinton and, as Biden’s national security adviser, for supplying weapons to the Ukrainian military – which Putin “puppet” Trump later did. On Syria, it was Sullivan, after all, who typed a now infamous February 2012 email to Secretary Clinton, offhandedly noting that “AQ [Al Qaeda] is on our side.”
Unapologies, Hedging & Evasions
What’s striking about Sullivan – and raises serious questions about his commitment to actual human beings – is his unapologetic assessment of bloody Obama-era policy disasters (that he helped craft). Consider the ongoing crime against Yemen. Jake offered this casual and lifeless retrospective evasion regarding America’s approval and support for a Saudi terror war and blockade that may already have starved 85,000 children to death and has killed thousands of Yemenis both directly and indirectly:
“The view of the [Obama] Administration at the time was that our participation would be a net positive to reducing the worst potential outcomes of the military action. After now going on four years of that experiment, it’s clear that that calculus did not bear out in practice.”
The same goes for his views on the Libya fiasco. Here’s his typically meager mea culpa, which manages to plug more interference in the Levant lunacy: “The intervention in Libya contributed in unanticipated ways to the refugee crisis in Europe, but the lack of intervention in Syria may have done so, too.” That’s an incredibly disingenuous and inaccurate claim coming from a core architect of Libya’s implosion – who’d bragged afterwards that head honcho Hillary had been “the public face of the US effort” and “instrumental in … tightening the noose around Qadhafi and his regime.”
Looking back on the macabre Maghreb misadventure in a 2019 interview, Jake remained unflappable in his circumspection – a seeming contradiction that’s somehow classic Sullivan – explaining: “I’ve struggled with the question of if we had it to do over again would we have participated in the Libya intervention. And I don’t have a definitive answer on that yet.” Of course, by the time Jake decides he’ll already be Biden’s top war-whisperer.
Sullivan offers the same sort of hedging apologia for general Saudi brutality. In a June 2020 interview, even after questions about the kingdom’s brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Sullivan doubled-down on Riyadh-support: “I think we should deepen our support for Saudi in terms of the legitimate threats it faces … I think the United States should go even deeper from the point of view of its technical assistance and security cooperation.”
So expect no major shifts in America’s force-first policies in the Greater Middle East from young Sullivan. As he put it in a June interview with CSIS (the sixth-largest think tank recipient of government and defense contractor cash): “I’m not arguing for getting out of every base in the Middle East. There is a military posture dimension to this as a reduced footprint.” And just a month earlier, he penned another piece unsubtly titled: “America’s Opportunity in the Middle East.”
So what if recent polls show that even 57 percent of veterans “feel the United States should be less engaged in military conflicts overseas;” that 71 percent (and 69 percent of military family members) “support a full withdrawal of US troops from Iraq;” fully 73 percent of veterans “support a full withdrawal of American military forces” from Afghanistan – and that these numbers are unprecedentedly higher than similarly strong civilian sentiments? The safe money says Jake remains unmoved by such minor matters as soldier and citizenry opinion inside the ostensible democracy he serves.
Backpedaling From His Finest Policy Hour
It must be said, that – in perhaps his finest policy hour – Sullivan was a key figure in the Obama administration’s secret talks with Iranian officials leading to the nuclear deal. Nevertheless, he hewed towards being a Tehran-hawk when the political winds changed and it suited his prime patron’s power prospects. In January 2016, just before the Iowa caucuses, Jake was featured in a Clinton campaign video arguing that Bernie Sanders’ rather sensible views on Iran endangered Israel.
When it comes to Israel – and so many other seminal issues – Sullivan’s statements resemble linguistic contortions, bending every which way to avoid even brushing against one of American foreign policy’s sacred cows. Jake’s so beholden to Tel Aviv’s “special relationship,” and probably terrified of Israel Lobby backlash, that he committed the cardinal sin of polite liberalness everywhere when, in September, he applauded a Trump policy. Sullivan said the new “peace” (without Palestinians, that is) between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was a “positive accomplishment” for the president, and that, “It’s good for the region, it’s good for Israel, it’s good for peace.”
Of course, it’s actually none of those things. However, given all the walking conflicts of interest in Biden’s batch of think tank imperialists (especially Michèle Flournoy’s fishy financial ties to the UAE), an honest update of Sullivan’s peace assessment is in order. Israeli-UAE normalization is in fact mainly good for Raytheon, good for Boeing, and good for Lockheed Martin. The first funds the two favored Obama-alumni soft-landing spots (CNAS/CSIS); the second donates to Sullivan’s own Carnegie Endowment home base; and the last – well, they manufacture the fifty F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets Trump just sold to Abu Dhabi for a cool $10 billion. What a world, am I right?
The Sullivan appointment also has worrisome implications for America’s ongoing and already escalating dual-front New Cold War with Russia and China – especially its Pacific theater. In a phone discussion with Politico last week, Jake began by listing all the obligatory “right” threats – pandemic and climate – on his radar, but promptly pivoted to his hawk-reflex. He said he believes China must also be put on notice.
After all, according to Sullivan’s slightly more refined alarmist take on Mike Pompeo’s West Point ’86 glory days throwback “Marxist-Leninist regime” rhetoric – the US must block China’s “Two Paths To Global Domination.” In his thus-titled Foreign Policy co-column, Jake evoked America’s 19th-century Monroe Doctrine (closing the Caribbean to European empires), but couldn’t explain how exactly the People’s Republic’s contested struggle for the same in the South China Sea amounts to global domination. After all, the Pacific Cold War encore turns on world sea lanes, where Washington still floats ten times more aircraft carriers than Beijing.
On issue after issue, Sullivan seems flip about all manner of madness sowed by US policy during his government tenure – and before and since. There’s something so lifeless about his passing apologia for policy disasters and their countless victims. Take his assessment of the Obama Administration’s overall shortfalls in a 2019 New Yorker interview:
“Others have said more eloquently than me that hypocrisy and inconsistency are the necessary by-products of a foreign policy that both has to look out for our interests and tries as best it can to advance that.”
Additionally, in a 2011 email chain encouraging the disastrous removal of Libya’s Moammar Ghadafi, Jake casually underscored that “we need to live in a world of risks.” Clearly that risk calculus was far worse for resultant waves of sometimes-drowned Libyan refugees fleeing the now-failed state to Europe. The same holds for those unfortunates living in an African world full of conflicts catalyzed when the accelerant of the Libyan dictator’s weapons stores and loyal ethnic Tuareg fighters – both of which promptly migrated south and west from the newly shattered state.
The Senator Game
This author became admittedly immersed in and fascinated by the man, wondering – at risk of self-righteousness – whether Sullivan’s ever seen a dead child, gazed upon the detritus of American empire, waded through the sights and smells of our indecency. And, worse still, wondered whether it’d matter much if he had. Forgive that dark thought – the sort that would once have sent me spiraling.
Maybe it’s impolite to ponder past what’s provable, but what if it’s obscene not to? Suffice it to say, Sullivan’s record raises all sorts of decency doubts. I know this, though. Yours truly makes no excuses for his own complicity – and likely crimes – at the “forward edge of freedom.” There’s nothing worth romanticizing about my own exceptionalism-grounded childhood fascination. Yet, in the mid-1990s, when I was playing soldier on the litter-strewn sand dunes of Staten Island’s Midland Beach – a slightly older Jake partook in rather different diversions.
That old friend, Sarah Rathke, recalls that their idea of fun was playing “the senator game” on the steps of the Supreme Court when Jake visited her at Georgetown. “One person would pretend to be the senator, and run up the steps and wave to the people, while another person would play the reporter, and the third would be the senator’s handler and just say, ‘the senator has no comment,’” Rathke remembers, adding: “That was it. That was the game…” Would that Sullivan someday sensed – as I, and so many of mine, later learned – that there’re horrifying human costs to all such Washington games.
Sullivan’s Perfect Storm
Would that this were all. Unfortunately, there’s systemic and institutional rot sure to worsen Jake’s troubling trio of personality, philosophy, and policy – specifically, the empowered position of national security adviser itself.
All told, whether the charge is strategy or basic decency – the case against Sullivan is pretty open and shut. Not that there’s much point in making one in this era of executive takeover – Jake, soon to be probably the most influential man in the room, won’t even require’ senate confirmation. In this High Age – or late stage – of American Imperialism, the elected emperor’s national security soothsayer needn’t any “advice and consent” from subjects nor sham representatives.
For decades now, the executive branch has gobbled up foreign policy power from a derelict congress happy to eschew constitutional responsibilities and their incumbent political consequences. Moreover, war policy in particular has even more recently shifted and centralized within the executive branch from senate-sanctioned cabinet departments like State and Defense to unilateral presidential appointees on the national security council.
That crew shall be led by Mr. Sullivan, a man with a proven propensity to mind-meld with princes and consistently linger close to the crown. Now he’ll have the king’s ear – at a time when foreign policy is almost solely the portfolio of an imperial presidency. As such, Jake’s national security council might merit a renaming. More accurate would be the Middle Ages Latin label curia regis (king’s court) – from which Britain’s Parliament and cabinet eventually evolved. Talk about full circle!
Sullivan’s influence could be further heightened by his familiarity with a coterie of other ex-Obama officials in the White House – particularly a special connection with Biden’s incoming chief of staff, Ron Klain. “I’d argue no two people know each other better, have worked more closely, overlapped more or have a better working relationship on Day One than any chief of staff/national security adviser pair before them,” said former State Department colleague Philippe Reines. President Abraham Lincoln’s much-touted “team of rivals,” Biden’s bunch is not.
Rather, curia regis chief Jake Sullivan’s ambition, exceptionalism-devotion, and hawkish policy-reflexes – combined with executive empowerment – amount to a perfect storm for White House war-making.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen