The Best and The Brightest, Redux

Reprinted with the author’s permission from the American Committee for US-Russia Accord.

Well-heeled and highly credentialed, the proteges of powerful political patrons with ties to New Haven, Cambridge, Oxbridge and corporate America occupy the highest councils of government and advise a sitting US president who, while blessed with long experience as a US Senator, hails from rather less-exalted circumstances than his own advisers. These advisers, with their degrees and pedigrees, stir within their chief a toxic combination of envy, resentment and insecurity which manifests itself through occasional outbursts of bad temper.

The president’s advisers believe (or say they do) in a theory of international relations called the Domino Theory, which means, in the shortest of shorthand, that should a democratic country fall to a hostile authoritarian state, then others will soon meet a similar fate. Hence it is imperative that the United States, beacon of goodness and protector of democracy, stave off the darkness, no matter the cost.

Yet as the course of the war proceeds, it becomes clear to many that victory, once assured, has slipped further and further from reach. In the face of an increasingly skeptical public, the president, who also believes in the Domino Theory (or says he does), urges Congress to stay the course.

If this sounds familiar, it is because it is.

But in this newest iteration of the drama, the title role is filled not by Lyndon Johnson of the Texas Hill Country, but by Joe Biden of Scranton, Pennsylvania. And while the mise en scene of the war in question has moved from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe, the rationale laid out by the President’s men for continued American involvement remains much the same. As Biden’s Secretary of State, a product of Dalton, Harvard and Columbia, recently put it, “The issue here is not just Ukraine’s security it is the security and safety of the entire Euro-Atlantic space.”

When President Biden named Jake Sullivan to the position of Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, he referred to Sullivan as a “once-in-a-generation intellect.” People used to talk that way about Johnson’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, who, among other laurels, was, at age 34, the youngest Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

As it happens, Sullivan, at 44, is the youngest national security adviser since Bundy. And here is how Sullivan, in a gushing profile published this October in The New Yorker, describes his view of what is at stake in the war in Ukraine,

…As a child of the eighties and ‘Rocky’ and ‘Red Dawn’ I believe in freedom fighters and I believe in righteous causes, and I believe the Ukrainians have one. There are very few conflicts that I have seen – maybe none – in the post-Cold War era where there’s such a clear good guy and bad guy, and we have to do a lot for that person.”

This “once-in-a-generation” intellect then went on to compare the foreign policy challenge posed by Russia to a scene from the Mike Meyers comedy Austin Powers,

…in which “there’s a steamroller on the far side of the room, and a guy standing there, holding up his hand, and shouting, ‘No!’ Then they zoom out, and the steamroller is moving incredibly slowly and is really far away.” He added, “I was determined that we were not going to be that guy – just waiting for the steamroller to roll over Ukraine. We were going to act.”

Whatever the merits of these reflections, what is true is that the policy of near limitless financial and material support to the Zelensky regime has only succeeded in killing thousands of Ukrainian civilians and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers who might otherwise have lived had Sullivan, Blinken and Biden showed even a modicum of interest in the very real peace proposals that circulated between Russia and Ukraine in the opening months of the conflict.

A key difference between then and now is that Johnson had, within the highest councils of State, a brilliant, determined dissenter. George Ball, who served as under secretary of state, and later, as US Ambassador to the UN, tirelessly pressed Johnson and his inner circle to re-think the wisdom of their chosen course with regard to the war in Vietnam.

The lesson to which Ball worked for years to draw Johnson’s attention was how quickly, despite the best laid plans, wars can escalate. And like Johnson, Biden has been drawn into an escalatory spiral from which he will find it increasingly difficult to jump off.

As recounted by the journalist and author David Halberstam, Ball challenged “that greatest of American assumptions, that somehow, whatever we did, the other side would lie down and accept it.” In a 1964 memo to Bundy and Pentagon chief Robert McNamara, Ball point out  that, “Once on the tiger’s back we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount.”

As Biden sinks the US and what little is left of its reputation into a second war now being waged with the full, indeed shamelesssupport of the administration, Ball’s warnings about the dangers of inadvertent escalation from a half century ago take on a renewed urgency.

One wonders then: Does Biden have a George Ball of his own; a seasoned veteran who can cut through the cant and nonsense funneled to him on a daily basis from the likes of Blinken and Sullivan? Or is Biden wholly reliant on the slim reeds of his own intellect and the disastrous advice of his most senior aides? Is there anyone else – besides this latest iteration of the American establishment’s “best and brightest” – advising Mr. Biden?

And if so, does he possess the strength of character to find it within himself to listen?

James W. Carden is a columnist and former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the U.S. Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, The Los Angeles Times, and American Affairs.