‘The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.’ U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks to Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic Festival, Sept. 29, 2023

© BFA 2023

Navigate to News section

The George Kennan Who Wasn’t

A startling string of policy failures shows the hollowness of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and its servile wunderkind, Jake Sullivan

Jeremy Stern
October 26, 2023
‘The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.’ U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks to Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic Festival, Sept. 29, 2023

© BFA 2023

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
See the full collection →︎

Peering through the clouds of vapor emitting from U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s various profilers and character witnesses over the years, here is what we learn: Sullivan is a “once-in-a-generation intellect,” according to Joe Biden, and a “once-in-a-generation talent,” “a potential future president,” according to Hillary Clinton. “The sky’s the limit,” says former Deputy Secretary of State and Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott. “He is somebody of extraordinary intelligence and temperament.” Sullivan has an admirable “habit of continually questioning his own assumptions” and a “methodical, hyperanalytical style.” He is “a genuinely nice guy” and “a good human being” with a “self-deprecating Midwestern modesty” who is a “really good listener” and “loved by everyone.”

Sullivan’s path to power is indeed impressive, from middle-class Minneapolis public school student to Yale graduate, Rhodes scholar, Supreme Court clerk, aide to the presidents of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution, chief counsel to the senior senator from Minnesota, adviser to the presidential campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, deputy chief of staff to the secretary of state, director of policy planning, national security advisor to the vice president, and finally, United States national security advisor—all before his 45th birthday. But such a meteoric rise to power still begs explanation, even for a coxswain of the Yale lightweight crew team.

There are two revealing anecdotes, often repeated in the creation of the Sullivan legend, which are meant to illuminate his dizzying ascent. The first is from June 2009, when President Obama pushed for the ouster of a member of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff who had asked Jack Dorsey to delay scheduled maintenance of Twitter because members of Iran’s Green Movement depended on it for communication. In a meeting with Obama and White House and State Department officials, Clinton reportedly stood by her staffer and Iran’s anti-regime movement against the wishes of Obama, who claimed, implausibly, that he didn’t want to harm the protesters’ cause by appearing to interfere in Iran’s domestic politics.

One of the aides present at the meeting was Sullivan, then Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. In “one of the rare occasions when Sullivan and Clinton diverged,” according to a Vox profile, Sullivan supported Obama’s position over that of Clinton, his boss. Readers of the profile are meant to come away with an appreciation for Sullivan’s independence of spirit, which he apparently showed by taking the side of the president of the United States. The supposed risk he assumed in dissenting from Clinton’s support for the Iranian protesters was rewarded shortly thereafter, when Obama entrusted Sullivan with conducting secret meetings with the Iranian government, culminating in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal.

The second anecdote concerns a trip Sullivan took to Myanmar in late 2012. During a lunch Obama hosted there for Clinton and her staff, the president reportedly turned to Sullivan—by then director of policy planning—for a brief history of the country. “‘I don’t know a whole lot,’ Sullivan began,” according to Foreign Policy, “before launching into a virtual dissertation on the topic—something colleagues say they’ve seen him do dozens of times on any number of subjects. A few weeks later, Obama asked Sullivan to replace [Antony] Blinken as then-Vice President Biden’s national security advisor.” (This is considered a promotion.)

This latter story is especially interesting, because once Sullivan joined Obama’s inner circle in early 2013, the administration would go on to devote extraordinary attention to Myanmar on the fantasy that Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and endured 15 years of house arrest, was in the process of taking power from a defeated military junta. In reality, the military was not allowing Suu Kyi to lead a “democratic transition,” as the Obama administration insisted. Instead, it used Western human rights fantasies to attract foreign investment before murdering tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims and driving hundreds of thousands more into Bangladesh.

Eight years later, shortly after Sullivan became national security advisor, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Myanmar, driving the Burmese junta closer to China even as it drove Narendra Modi’s India—a fellow recipient of human rights censure from the Biden White House—further away from the United States, which in chess terms is the equivalent of exchanging a bishop for a pawn, and then losing the pawn. Myanmar was then pointedly excluded from Biden’s 2021 Summit for Democracy, to which Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were invited “to stand together in defending against threats from autocracies.”

All of which makes one wonder what exactly the young Jake Sullivan said about Myanmar that so impressed Barack Obama (whom it is difficult to imagine suffering a dewy Clinton staffer’s “virtual dissertation” on the country), and which made such an impression on his colleagues that they’ve been repeating the story and others like it to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, The New Yorker, Politico, Vox, and Foreign Policy ever since. To find out what he actually said, I thought, might provide a key to understanding why so many of the stories meant to demonstrate Sullivan’s unusual intelligence, competence, and decency often have the opposite effect of conveying mediocrity and servility.

Alas, no one seems to remember—at least not anyone willing to talk. But there may be a partial answer in the emptiness of the memory itself. Search for any specific instance of leadership, wisdom, good judgment, erudition, originality of thought, or other such qualities in Sullivan’s record, and a diligent reporter will draw a blank.

Surely, if a good example of Jake Sullivan’s qualifications as a 21st-century George Kennan existed, it would have been rushed into print by now. 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. The failure of the administration’s Iran policy, which Sullivan has shaped and promoted for a decade, has in turn forced Israel into a war of regime change in Gaza, sinking hopes for a peace deal with Saudi Arabia while promising to fill Vladimir Putin’s coffers with spiking oil prices. It is arguably the most rapid-fire set of American foreign policy failures on record, and their handmaiden, if not their author, in each and every case, was Sullivan.

Of course, it’s the president who decides foreign policy, not the national security advisor, who is merely responsible for formulating it and managing its implementation. “He can guide [the president], but he can’t contradict him,” as one former colleague put it to The New Yorker recently. “That’s what a national-security advisor has to do, and Jake has always been very conscious, like frankly any good Washington staffer, of never getting afoul of his principal, and he never does.”

In a 2020 Politico profile, “The inexorable rise of Jake Sullivan,” a Yale roommate who somehow surmounted the obstacle of being named Sherlock Grigsby recalled that he “challenged Jake once to see who could finish Eichmann in Jerusalem first … Turns out he beat me easily. I didn’t challenge him after that.” There is more. One day in Obama’s first term, Clinton aide Philippe Reines was sitting in a yurt in Mongolia, certain he’d secured the coveted distinction of traveling to 111 countries with the secretary of state, more than any other staffer. But suddenly, out of nowhere, in walked Sullivan, who had “literally just been in Oman for secret peace talks with the Iranians, and he managed to make it to this remote part of Mongolia. So in the end he’s the only human being who went to 112 countries with Hillary. His capacity for work is just that annoying.”

During the Trump years, when he wasn’t advising Microsoft and Uber, Sullivan spent his time out of power investigating why the Democrats’ “lofty economic vision wasn’t connecting with Americans back home.” “He began thinking about how all the cogs and wheels of the international system, from international organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) to global supply chains, were all connected,” according to Elise Labott of Foreign Policy. “And he started pulling on the thread.”

It presumably wasn’t Labott’s intention to portray Sullivan as a man tugging on a thread caught in the teeth of cogs in a wheel, but her mixed metaphor was more apt than she probably knew. Over the next two years, Sullivan formed a “task force” at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to find out what normal Americans wanted out of U.S. foreign policy. The result was “Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class,” a 90-page lulu of vapid poser iconoclasm in which the American middle class is depicted not as a group of hard-working people whose relatively straightforward interests must be satisfied if only because they have the power to throw you out of office, but as an unproductive class of left-behinds whom the “liberal order” must compensate with a mix of green activism and state planning. (Sullivan’s doctrine of a “foreign policy for the middle class” was duly announced as official Biden administration policy in February of 2021. It has since been rebranded, by Sullivan, as the “New Washington Consensus.”)

As the official in charge of carrying out Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, according to The New York Times, Sullivan impressed all when he “asked many questions about its haste.” While his colleagues might have had the luxury of focusing on one issue at a time, Sullivan “was at the same time responsible for spearheading U.S. policy on everything from cyberattacks and an earthquake in Haiti to terrorist threats.” It was a difficult month, for he “would mull over each long day during late-night walks.” As nearly every profile notes in tones of awe, Sullivan was able to function on very little sleep. Napoleon, too, was like this.

The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser, whose function is to retail White House PR for the Nantucket brunch set, came closest to a plausible depiction of “the Democrats’ foreign-policy golden boy” in her own recent profile of Sullivan, who nevertheless emerges again covered in Vaseline. (“One night a few months ago, Sullivan discovered an intruder who had broken into his home at around 3 a.m., because he was still up working.”) According to colleagues, Glasser found, Sullivan “likes to look at every facet of a problem and wants to understand everything,” a virtue which nevertheless reveals “the tragedy of government—you have to make decisions behind a veil of irreducible ignorance.” “He wants a real debate, and he fosters that,” which unfortunately means “that sometimes he can blow in the wind.” But that’s the price of keeping America safe from nuclear war. Sullivan counters with the final word: “You have an obligation to the American people to consider worst-case scenarios. That’s our job.”

As it happened, The New Yorker profile arrived just in time to rescue Sullivan from the now-infamous statement he made at the 2023 Atlantic Festival: “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” Sullivan claimed on Sept. 29. “The amount of time that I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today, compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11, is significantly reduced.”

On Oct. 2, however, Foreign Affairs went to press with a 7,000-word essay by Sullivan which repeated his statement to The Atlantic, in addition to claims such as, “The Israeli-Palestinian situation is tense, particularly in the West Bank, but in the face of serious frictions, we have de-escalated crises in Gaza and restored direct diplomacy between the parties after years of its absence.” (Foreign Affairs later scrubbed at least five of Sullivan’s more embarrassing Middle East predictions in the essay’s online version, but not before the original appeared in print.)

Five days later, on Oct. 7, the genocidal regime in Tehran—the recent recipient of $16 billion in sanctions relief from the White House—drove a murderous wedge between the Sunni Arab states and Israel, turning the Jewish state into the site of pogroms worse than Kristallnacht. Nuclear war isn’t entirely out of the question.

It is not for a journalist (I’m talking about myself now) to insist that there is something morally or intellectually wrong with someone whose political analysis is baldly and repeatedly contradicted by events. But there is clearly something morally and intellectually wrong with the cult of Jake Sullivan, which in turn suggests a crisis of greater proportions than the abject analytical and geostrategic failures of a single individual.

At every step of this deranged foreign policy nightmare, Sullivan has been feted unironically as a wunderkind—the best and the brightest.

For nearly 15 years, Sullivan has been one of the American officials most responsible for managing and executing the realignment of the United States in the Middle East with the most antisemitic political and military force in the modern world—a revolution in America’s foreign policy posture which along the way has required consent to genocide in Syria, appeasement of Vladimir Putin, cash support for Iran’s expeditionary terror forces, the routine payment of ransom for hostages, the normalization and “regional integration” of Hezbollah and Hamas, the scuttling of Saudi-Israeli peace, the constraining of Israeli military options for enforcing its own red lines, the construction of an Iranian nuclear weapons program under the protective umbrella of a U.S.-backed international agreement, and now, full Israeli mobilization for an existential war.

At every step of this deranged foreign policy nightmare, perpetrated by the richest and most powerful state on earth, Sullivan has been feted unironically by the Washington foreign policy establishment as a wunderkind—the best and the brightest. “What it came down to was a search not for the most talent, the greatest brilliance,” wrote David Halberstam of Sullivan’s unmistakable antecedents in the Kennedy administration, “but for the fewest black marks, the fewest objections. The man who had made the fewest enemies.”

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. The resulting stench will not soon be forgotten, especially by the people of Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, and other nations, and American servicemen and women, who have already paid for the horrifically bad judgment of American commanders-in-chief, and of their high-class servants, with their blood.

In his famous history of the origins of the Vietnam War, Halberstam tells the story of Vice President Lyndon Johnson returning from his first cabinet meeting at Camelot with “the new breed of thinkers-doers, half of academe, half of the nation’s think tanks and of policy planning … not doubting for a moment the validity of their right to serve, the quality of their experience.” Johnson went to his mentor, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, “and told him with great enthusiasm how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next.”

“Well, Lyndon,” Rayburn answered, “you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say. But I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Support Our Work

Become a member of Tablet Magazine

Jeremy Stern is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine.