Antony Blinken and a Gun at Your Head

When Joe Biden selected Antony Blinken to be his Secretary of State, Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, worried that the selection represented, not a correction, but a continuation of past interventionism and incompetence.

As evidence, Zunes cites Blinken’s integral and irresponsible role in clearing the way for the disastrous war in Iraq, his confident support of the disastrous invasion of Libya, his push for a larger and longer US war in Syria and his long support for arming Ukraine.

Recently, Melvin Goodman, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a former CIA analyst, mourned that the worries expressed by Zunes had been realized. And he added that "Antony Blinken, a life-long Democratic staffer, does not appear to be up to the task of conceptualizing and implementing foreign policy." Goodman explained, in a personal correspondence, that "As a staffer, Blinken merely went along with the agreed positions, including the misuse of force in Libya in 2011 and the extensions of force throughout the tragedy of Afghanistan." As for his performance so far as Secretary of State, Goodman says, "He didn’t handle himself well in Alaska in the first meeting with the Chinese counterparts, and he doesn’t appear up to the task of dealing with a real pro like Russia’s [foreign minister] Lavrov. Apparently, he didn’t warn the White House about the obvious French reaction to AUKUS, which is surprising in view of Blinken’s knowledge of the French.  His public appearances have certainly not provided clues to his ability to conceptualize the strategic challenges that we face."

In support of Goodman’s evaluation are a host of statements by Blinken that manifest either an underdeveloped sense of history or an overdeveloped sense of irony and hypocrisy: statements that would be comical if they were not dangerous.

In December 2021, Blinken warned Africa away from investment partnerships with China, accusing China of partnering with African nations on “international infrastructure deals [that] are opaque, coercive” and that “burden countries with unmanageable debt. . . .”

Hypocrisy or comedy? The deliberate creation of debt has been a major feature of American foreign policy since at least 1955. The US provides major loans to a country, then drives up interest rates, forcing the debt shackled nation to turn to the IMF for loans that come with conditions featuring structural adjustments that open their economy up to American markets and ensure their loyalty whether the US demands access to resources, the hosting of military bases, political fealty or cooperative voting at the United Nations. As for Africa, Naomi Klein cites an IMF senior economist who designed structural adjustment programs in Latin America and Africa and who later confessed that “everything we did from 1983 onward was based on our new sense of mission to have the south ‘privatize’ or die; towards this end we ignominiously created economic bedlam in Latin America and Africa. . . .” So, be careful of China!

Blinken has also repeatedly accused Iran of not being serious at the reincarnation of the JCPOA nuclear talks: “What we’ve seen in the last couple of days is that Iran right now does not seem to be serious.” Iran’s not being serious? That’s pretty funny, since Blinken readily admits that Iran wouldn’t even have to be at these talks if the US hadn’t illegally pulled out of the agreement. It’s even funnier to accuse Iran of not negotiating seriously when you represent the party that refuses to guarantee that it will honor the agreement and its commitments as binding even for the duration of the term of the president who will put his signature on it. It’s funnier still when the US has entered the talks with the admission that it "doesn’t see any evidence that Iran’s Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei] has made a decision to move to weaponize.”

Similarly, Blinken has threatened Russia with "massive consequences and severe costs" for an invasion of Ukraine when the CIA has shyly admitted that “U.S. intelligence agencies haven’t concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin will invade Ukraine.”

But Blinken has recently come back out with an encore that may feature his best one liner yet. On the eve of the most important security talks between US and Russian officials, America’s top diplomat says that “It’s very hard to make actual progress in any of these areas in an atmosphere of escalation and threat with a gun pointed to Ukraine’s head.”

That is blinding hypocrisy from a man who said in an article he coauthored with Robert Kagan just two years ago that the only way to negotiate with Russia and China is with a gun to their heads. In that article, Blinken argued that "As geopolitical competition intensifies, we must supplement diplomacy with deterrence. Words alone will not dissuade the Vladimir Putins and Xi Jinpings of this world." If his point wasn’t blatant enough, Blinken adds, "force can be a necessary adjunct to effective diplomacy." That’s not ignorance of history: that’s bold hypocrisy.

It also can’t be ignorance of history that Blinken misses the point that Russia is demanding talks precisely because the US has a gun pointed to Russia’s head. US and NATO troops have marched to Russia’s very borders and surrounded Russia with guns by land, sea and air. As for Ukraine and who’s pointing a gun at whom, the US provided Ukraine with $400 million in security assistance in 2021 alone. That "security assistance" is to be topped off with a new $60 million package that includes lethal weapons.

Blinken’s blinding hypocrisy may be supplemented with a large dose of historical amnesia. The complaint that it is impossible to negotiate with a weapon pointing at you has been made before: against America, not by it.

Cuban negotiators frequently complained that it was impossible for them to negotiate while being strangled by the embargo. In Back Channel to Cuba, William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh quote one Cuban negotiator who complained that “We cannot negotiate under the blockade." Anticipating Blinken’s formulation, Castro would often remind the US that Cuba cannot be expected to negotiate with “a dagger at our throats.”

Decades later, Iranian negotiators would later make the same point in the same words. The Iranian ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht Ravanchi, would complain that “You cannot negotiate with somebody who has a knife in his hand putting the knife under your throat.”

Like Cuba and Iran, it is NATO encroachment that has put a knife to Russia’s throat. It is the crossing of the final red line into Ukraine that has finally put a gun to Russia’s head. Hypocrisy or historical ignorance, Blinken’s performance would be comical if it weren’t so deadly serious.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.