In Defense of Jake Sullivan

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks to reporters Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)
October 31, 2023 Topic: Jake Sullivan Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn Tags: GOPJake SullivanRealismJoe BidenDemocrats

In Defense of Jake Sullivan

Today, as the administration deals with a welter of crises, Jake Sullivan, like Biden, is displaying, more often than not, something that has been in markedly short supply in recent decades—prudence and realism about American interests and power.

Is Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, an unmitigated failure, a servile lackey of the foreign policy establishment, a complete dunderhead? This is what Jeremy Stern, in a vituperative essay in Tablet, would have you believe.

The bill of indictment is sweeping: “His record includes a rapidly escalating stampede of failures: the botched Afghanistan withdrawal, the failure of deterrence in Ukraine, the failed Ukrainian counteroffensive, the economic war with China, America’s disastrous border policy, and now, decisively, U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran—which enjoyed the financial and diplomatic backing of Biden and Sullivan as it enabled the rape, murder, and kidnapping of thousands of Israeli Jews by a fascist death cult.”

My, my. The only thing missing is that Sullivan has not created world peace, solved global warming, ended inflation and figured out how to ensure the safety of NFL quarterbacks.

Stern’s strongest case centers on Afghanistan, where Biden bucked the very foreign policy establishment that Stern complains that Sullivan exemplifies. No doubt the exit was harum-scarum, but Biden made the right call. Had America not left Afghanistan, it would be unable to support Ukraine adequately in its struggle against Russian tyranny. Stern implies that Russian president Vladimir Putin could have been deterred from marching into Ukraine, but it’s hard to see what would have prompted him to abstain from trying to seize it. Biden himself repeatedly warned Putin, including in a phone call on the eve of the invasion, that it would end very badly for him, which it has. Anyway, to depict Ukraine as a Biden administration disaster flies in the face of reality. Biden, like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, recognizes the stakes and has ensured that Putin has come to grief, not to mention helped steward the further expansion of NATO, an outfit that was headed toward a state of inanition before his presidency.

Then there is the matter of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which Stern deems a failure. It isn’t. The Ukrainians were not the ones who created hypertrophied expectations about the counteroffensive. Yes, Biden moved more slowly than the Ukrainians would have liked in providing offensive weapons, including ATACAMS, to Kyiv. But his careful strategy—and it was a strategy—of gradually upping the ante foiled any ambitions Putin might have entertained about resorting to nuclear weapons. It’s also the case that in laying any Biden administration shortcomings in Ukraine at Sullivan’s doorstep, Stern skates over the fact that he is not the Decider. It’s Biden. With his decades of experience in foreign affairs, Biden is not going to allow himself to be dictated to by his national security adviser. Quite the contrary.

What about the now-famous Foreign Affairs imbroglio? Sullivan was imprudent enough to claim success in the Middle East, writing, “Although the Middle East remains beset with perennial challenges, the region is quieter than it has been for decades.” This howler will probably go down in the annals of legendary misjudgments, but it isn’t as though this perception wasn’t widely shared in Israel itself. Since the Hamas attack, the Biden administration has deftly handled the crisis, aligning itself with Israel in order to restrain it from compounding the original disaster. Biden’s words of caution in Israel, presumably drafted in coordination with Sullivan, about not replicating the blunders that America committed after 9/11, when it lashed out in a spasm of rage against Iraq, were well-chosen. Biden and Sullivan have also managed to keep the war from turning into a wider one, a key American objective. The blunt fact is that a war that ranged from Turkey to Iran to Saudi Arabia would not only prove catastrophic for the region, but also terminate any hopes Biden himself harbors about being reelected as oil prices doubled or tripled.

The bottom line, however, is that the administration’s successes and failures can hardly be ascribed to Sullivan whose job, after all, is to coordinate the various national security agencies, not singlehandedly to fashion and implement American foreign policy. Stern, however, detects something of a foreign policy cabal in Washington: “Jake Sullivan’s rise, and the avalanche of bien pensant flattery that has validated disaster after disaster, contrary to every real-world indicator, as marks of genius, is as sure a sign as any that the United States is once again ruled by a vain and arrogant aristocracy that prizes credentials over experience, and prestige over integrity, and which spends its days endlessly gratifying each other.”

A vain and arrogant aristocracy? Pshaw! If anything, it seems shaken by the rise of Trump and determined to salvage what it can from the wreckage of his previous presidency, while cowering at the notion that he might return. No, Jake Sullivan is not a foreign policy genius, a new Machiavellian unerringly charting America’s course in a sea of new world disorder. But nor is he a bumbling innocent abroad.

Stern complains that Sullivan is “the George Kennan who wasn’t,” but then again George Kennan wasn’t really George Kennan, either. He turned on his own containment strategy almost as soon as the ink on it was dry, issuing calls for neutralizing Europe and treating with the Kremlin. Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson told him that the government was hardly the appropriate venue to “preach your Quaker gospel.” Thank goodness, Sullivan is no Kennan. Today, as the administration deals with a welter of crises, Sullivan, like Biden, is displaying, more often than not, something that has been in markedly short supply in recent decades—prudence and realism about American interests and power.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He has written on both foreign and domestic issues for numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street JournalFinancial TimesForeign AffairsReutersWashington Monthly, and The Weekly Standard. He has also written for German publications such as CiceroFrankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Der Tagesspiegel. In 2008, his book They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons was published by Doubleday. It was named one of the one hundred notable books of the year by the New York Times. He is the author of America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators, coming in 2024.

Image Credit: White House Flickr/Creative Commons.