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Antony Blinken and the limits of American diplomacy

The US risks being drawn into a Middle East war it does not want to fight.

By Katie Stallard

On 11 October, four days after Hamas’s barbarous attack on Israel, Antony Blinken embarked on what was meant to be a two-day trip to Israel and Jordan. The US secretary of state’s plans unravelled from there. Over the next six days he made 11 stops in seven countries as he traversed the region, attempting to contain the crisis. The results were mixed.

In Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman kept Blinken waiting all night for an audience, finally summoning him to his private residence the next morning. In Cairo, the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized on Blinken’s earlier remarks in Tel Aviv – where he had said he was speaking “not only as the United States secretary of state but also as a Jew” – insisting, falsely, that Jews had never been persecuted in Egypt. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, demanded to know during a phone call how Blinken would respond to someone who said they were approaching the region as a Muslim. King Abdullah of Jordan flatly refused to consider accepting any more Palestinian refugees. It was a lesson in the difficulty of trying to re-engage mid-crisis with an issue that successive American administrations have neglected.  

Shortly after Blinken announced, in the early hours of 17 October, that Joe Biden would be travelling to the region the following day, the situation deteriorated further. A huge explosion hit al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City. Palestinian officials blamed Israel; Israel blamed Palestinian militants. (A US defence department official later said they were “fairly confident” Israel was not responsible.) Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, promptly cancelled a meeting with Biden and a summit in Jordan was called off. Arriving in Tel Aviv on 18 October in what now looked like a thoroughly one-sided visit and with horrific images still emerging from Gaza, Biden hugged Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. By the time Biden and Blinken boarded the plane back to Washington, there were huge protests against the US and Israel in Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and Turkey. In Bahrain, one of America’s closest partners in the region, protesters marched on the US embassy holding posters of Biden labelled “war criminal”.

[See also: Was Israel wrong to trust Qatar?]

Born in New York in 1962, Blinken moved to Paris with his mother and stepfather, Judith and Samuel Pisar, when he was nine (he is fluent in French). His father, Donald Blinken, was an investment banker and a US ambassador to Hungary, and his uncle Alan Blinken was ambassador to Belgium. While Blinken enjoyed a privileged childhood, he was also profoundly aware of his family’s harrowing history. His paternal grandfather escaped pogroms in Russia and found refuge in the US. He has often recounted how his stepfather’s ordeal as a child during the Holocaust in Poland shaped his own view of America’s place in the world.

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Pisar, who was the only member of his family to survive, endured four years in Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau, before managing to escape during a forced march in the final months of the war. As Blinken recounted the story during his senate confirmation hearing to become secretary of state in 2021, his stepfather had hidden in the woods until he saw an American tank. He ran towards it shouting the one English phrase he had learned from his mother: “God bless America.” The soldier inside “lifted him into the tank, into freedom, into America”, Blinken said. “That’s what we represent to the world, however imperfectly, and what we can still be when we’re at our best.”

That idealism has shaped Blinken’s decades-long career among Washington’s liberal foreign policy elite. After graduating from Harvard and Columbia Law School, with a brief interlude as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic and a lawyer, he joined the State Department during the Clinton administration in 1993, before becoming the president’s chief foreign policy speechwriter. He first worked with Biden on Capitol Hill in 2002 as a staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and followed him to the White House, where he served as the vice-president’s national security adviser before becoming deputy secretary of state. It would be hard to come up with a more conventional establishment biography.

Blinken also amassed a personal fortune, estimated by Forbes to be worth around $10m, in part by co-founding a consulting firm of former White House insiders, known as WestExec Advisers, after leaving office during Donald Trump’s presidency in 2017. But in a famously gossipy town, there are no scandalous rumours about Blinken. He has a reputation among his colleagues as a hard-working diplomat who likes to play the guitar. In late September, to shrieks of delight from his junior staff, Blinken performed a thoroughly respectable rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” at the State Department to launch a new music diplomacy initiative; a video of the performance went viral. He also has three of his own songs available to stream on Spotify. In general, he tries to schedule his travel between Mondays and Fridays so that he can spend the weekend with his wife, Evan Ryan, who is the White House cabinet secretary, and their two young children.  

The criticism you hear of Blinken is not of his character, but of what he represents: the fading order of American liberal internationalists – personified in Biden – whose conviction about the importance of US leadership in the world is no longer matched by the country’s capacities or its politics. Blinken has also tended to side with interventionism, describing force as a “necessary adjunct to effective diplomacy”. He backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the 2011 intervention in Libya, and has lamented that the US did not take stronger military action in Syria. 

Together with Biden, with whom he is said to have “as close to a father-son relationship as you can get without being related”, he rallied Western support for Ukraine after the 2022 Russian invasion. But they also presided over the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, which Blinken has acknowledged should have been better prepared. Now they are confronted by a rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East, a region that neither had previously identified as a strategic priority.

[See also: The deadly logic of existential war]

Thus far, Blinken and Biden appear to be reverting to the strategy they adopted in 2021, when Hamas bombarded Israel with rockets. In response, the administration adopted what the Biden biographer Franklin Foer has described as the “Hug Bibi” approach – publicly backing Netanyahu’s right to respond, while privately pushing him to develop an exit strategy. Back then, the strategy seemed to work, but the situation now is magnitudes more serious. Even if he wanted to, there is no reason to believe that Netanyahu, cheered on by the far-right extremists in his cabinet, will pull back from a bloody assault on Gaza that will kill many more civilians. While it is true that both Blinken and Biden have urged Netanyahu to abide by international law and negotiated access for initial convoys of humanitarian aid to enter Gaza on 21 and 22 October, the US president’s embrace of Netanyahu will make his administration look complicit in the Israeli military response that follows.  

That impression will only be strengthened by the 18 October decision by the US to veto a resolution drafted by Brazil at the UN Security Council, which had called for a pause in the fighting to allow the delivery of aid. This is a gift to autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, who are already trying to portray Washington as stoking the conflict while they call for peace.

There is a danger that events in the region are spiralling beyond the US’s control. By sending two carrier strike groups, a contingent of marines, and fighter jets to the eastern Mediterranean, Washington is trying to deter Iran and its regional proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, from widening the war. But it is far from clear that this will work. In recent days a US Navy destroyer intercepted four cruise missiles and 15 drones launched by Iranian-aligned Houthi fighters in Yemen towards Israel, and two US bases in Iraq were targeted in rocket attacks.

While few would fault Blinken’s relentless diplomatic efforts during this crisis – which have been credited for the release of two US hostages on 20 October – he has also demonstrated the limits of American diplomacy. Instead of being remembered as the steady diplomat who rebuilt US alliances, he may yet be remembered as the man who tried and failed to prevent the US from being dragged into a major regional war that it does not want to fight.

[See also: Will Israel launch a ground invasion?]

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War