Secretary of State Blinken’s “Dark Money” Track Record
Biden’s choice for secretary of state spells an unrestrained foreign policy in the name of progressivism.
When Trump chose Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state, there was much uproar among even centrist outlets about his CEO position at ExxonMobil. They reasoned that an individual from such a background would have conflicts of interest when considering agreements with foreign nations, oil companies, defense contractors, and so on. This liberal press coverage, reminiscent its coverage of Dick Cheney during the Bush years, is a well-known avenue that by now needs little elucidation.
But are the glossy experts that Democrats pick all that different? Sure, they may play the part of educated, disinterested clergy sworn to a life of peacekeeping for the postwar liberal international order. Beneath the surface, though, their people are doing the same things to make money, only with more rhetorical fluff.
Far from standing on the moral high ground and motivated purely by progressive ideals and world peace, the infamous expert class Biden has picked from to run his administration is just as involved in the corporate world as any run-of-the-mill advisor a Republican would pick. It is an illusion—that was never true in the first place—to think any Washington liberal policy adviser is in any conceivable way detached from corporate interests, “dark money,” or any of the other things their activists complain about.
One of the best examples of this is Antony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state, who was confirmed on January 26, 2021. Blinken feels more at home coauthoring op-eds with neoconservatives castigating non-interventionist schools of foreign policy than he would be among the war-skeptic conservatives and progressives addressed in the piece.
“I’ve never told him this,” Daniel Fried, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, said about his colleague, “But I suspect his foreign-policy thinking is derived from his sense of America’s identity as a country of values, a country that could lift his refugee stepfather right into America, and a country that knew that the advance of its values and interests were somehow linked.”
When put like that his views sound very nice, but what do they mean in practice?
They mean reckless interventions under the guise of humanitarianism, like the 2011 campaign to help overthrow Libya’s dictator, Col. Muammar Gaddafi. At the time, Blinken was serving under Vice President Biden. He went against Biden to agitate for the operation. Obama initially gloated about the mission before coming to realize that his administration had insufficiently prepared for the aftermath, calling it the “worst mistake” of his presidency.
Or as The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported: “Mess is the president’s diplomatic term; privately, he calls Libya a ‘shit show,’ in part because it’s subsequently become an ISIS haven—one that he has already targeted with air strikes.”
The Libyan chapter of ISIS acquired over 200 square kilometers of land by 2016, forming “what many called a fallback caliphate where it could retreat to in case it was pushed out of Syria and Iraq.”
In July 2020, Blinken finally admitted it was a failure: “I have to acknowledge that we obviously did not succeed in the Obama-Biden administration in getting that right.” But it apparently doesn’t matter that he messed up, since he got the big job and will likely pursue the same policy of unrestrained interventionism that engendered ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Libya.
More Madeleine Albright Than Obama
In that same interview with the Atlantic Council, Fried went on to say, “In core views, Tony may be closer to Madeleine Albright (for whom America is also a personal beacon of liberty) than to the cooler outlook Obama brought to America’s foreign-policy purposes.” In other words, Blinken is less temperate and will be more inclined to incite conflicts than Obama was.
Some elements of Biden’s foreign approach already announced—an emphasis on rebuilding America’s alliances, especially with Europe, and bringing together the world’s democracies from all continents to deal with aggressive authoritarian powers—follow from Tony’s past record and probably reflect his input.
These aggressive authoritarian powers include Putin’s Russia and the Chinese regime. Blinken has already condemned Putin, threatened China, butted heads with Biden on the status of China’s treatment of the Uyghur population, and met with EU leaders to assess their commitment to resisting China and other world powers. All this at a time when America is at its weakest, least organized, and most polarized point in decades, and the U.S. is in no position to begin trolling for conflicts. In response, European leaders expressed wariness with the prospect of inadvertently creating “potentially dangerous new Cold War blocs” and instead seek a multilateral order in which China would play a significant role on the world stage.
CSIS and CNAS
There were rumors that Biden would pick Michèle Flournoy as his secretary of defense. He has since chosen Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III instead, but Flournoy plays an interesting role in this story.
Flournoy is a military policy veteran, having served in the Pentagon under both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Like Blinken, she advocated for the 2011 Libyan invasion. Her hawkishness influenced Obama’s Afghanistan policy, which escalated tensions and increased American presence in the region.
In 2007 she co-founded the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a liberal foreign policy think tank deeply entrenched in the Washington swamp. She served on and off as its CEO over the past decade. The center has received funding from defense contractors like Northrop Grumman, oil companies, banks, the U.S. State Department, tech giants like Google and Microsoft, and private foundations like the Carnegie Corporation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Skoll Global Threats Fund, and Ploughshares Fund.
CNAS ranks second only to the RAND Corporation in think tanks that receive the most government and defense contractor funding, according to a recent study by the Center for International Policy (CIP). Almost half of CNAS’s funding between 2014 and 2019 came from five defense contractors: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. CNAS received more from defense contractors than any other think tank CIP analyzed.
Flournoy had worked as senior advisor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) for several years before the founding of CNAS. CSIS, sixth on that list of which CNAS was second, was also the home of Antony Blinken for some time.
Pine Island Capital Partners
Another connection between Blinken and Flourney is a private equity firm called Pine Island Capital Partners. Both were listed as partners of the firm as of December 2020. Pine Island was formed in 2018 by three heavy hitters in the financial world and focuses on the aerospace and defense industries, boasting to clients about how “deeply-connected” its partners are with government and military officials.
Advisers to Pine Island include one of its founders, Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, four former senators, three former ambassadors, and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen.
In 2017, Flournoy and Blinken founded WestExec Advisors, a consultancy firm for defense contractors. Its name derives from West Executive Avenue, a small private street that runs between the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Flournoy no doubt brought her rolodex assembled during her years at CNAS and CSIS, and Blinken likewise has his list of names accrued from his time under Biden and Obama. As of November 2020, both Blinken and Flournoy were working as managing partners of the firm. To give an idea of Flournoy’s power through contacts (and no doubt Blinken’s is similar), in her time at Boston Consulting Group she increased its defense contracts from $1.6 million in 2013 to $32 million in 2016.
Their positions at Pine Island Capital Partners make sense given that WestExec Advisors is formally partnered with the investment firm. The two groups share insights back and forth in the world of for-profit defense contracting, no doubt sharing data on their clients in the process.
WestExec defines itself as “a strategic advisory firm that offers unique geopolitical and policy expertise to help business leaders make the best decisions in a complex and volatile international landscape.” The Project on Government Oversight offered a more clear-cut description of their business practices: “helping defense corporations market their products to the Pentagon and other agencies.”
Strategic consultancy firms like WestExec blur the distinction between the public sector and the private sector. Yet this separation of powers is crucial to maintaining a free republic—namely, a genuinely liberal democracy that does not boil down to a mere oligarchy ruled by an entrenched, privileged class that controls both commerce and the state.
WestExec not so subtly tries to influence Washington’s foreign policy establishment to pursue objectives that would enrich its clients. For example, in 2019, Blinken and Flournoy were chairs of the biannual meeting of Foreign Policy for America, a liberal organization that gathers foreign policy state officials and over 50 representatives from various national security think tanks to discuss dozens of topics pertaining to international affairs. When the war in Yemen was brought up, many progressive attendees argued that U.S. sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia should be completely cut. Flournoy objected and began a lengthy argument as to why they should be reduced only partially. Some attendees confided to journalists that they felt suspicious about Flournoy’s stance, insinuating that she might have been on Raytheon’s payroll.
WestExec has its staffers sign nondisclosure agreements and does not release the names of its clients to the public. While Jonathan Guyer at the American Prospect repeatedly requested WestExec’s client lists and was rejected every time, he wrote:
In conversations with members of the firm, I learned that Blinken and Flournoy used their networks to build a large client base at the intersection of tech and defense. An Israeli surveillance startup turned to them. So did a major U.S. defense company. Google billionaire Eric Schmidt and Fortune 100 companies went to them, too.
Flournoy has confirmed elsewhere that Jigsaw, a Google-connected think tank, and Boston Consulting Group are partnered with WestExec.
The founders are usually quiet to the press about WestExec’s activities, but Flournoy has previously opened up about the firm’s role in helping Silicon Valley get deals with the Pentagon. “The name of the game is how do you enable the Department of Defense to really access that cutting-edge commercial technology and adapt it to military purposes,” Flournoy said in a 2019 interview.
Politico referred to WestExec as “a government-in-waiting for the next administration” considering “21 of the 38 WestExec employees listed on the firm’s website donated to the Biden campaign,” WestExec principals Bob Work and David Cohen briefed Biden during the transition process, and employees Blinken, Flournoy, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Press Secretary Jen Psaki, and Deputy Attorney General nominee Lisa Monaco have all been appointed or considered for cabinet positions.
As such, one would have expected Congress to force the firm to hand over all relevant financial information about these staffers: Who paid them? Whom did they work with? Which regions of the world did they have dealings with? In a word, where potential conflicts of interests might lie.
But as an intelligent swamp operation, WestExec complied only with the bare minimum of disclosure requirements, requirements that they had preemptively skirted around by craftily constituting their organization as a consultancy firm rather than as a lobbying group.
Since WestExec is not technically a lobbying group, it does not have to disclose the identities of its clients. Likewise, appointees who worked at the firm are not inhibited by existing laws preventing incoming presidential administrations from appointing individuals who have lobbied in the past year. Essentially, WestExec employees can influence transactions between foreign and domestic corporations and the military industrial complex and keep the nature and scope of that influence hidden.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) called this practice “lobbying by remote control,” a clever method that “simply circumvents the legalities” usually surrounding the relationships between government officials and private interests. Identifying as strategy consultants rather than lobbyists makes it “impossible to assess the influence they have on federal expenditures,” a spokesperson from POGO told Politico.
So, what did WestExec do when it was time for Congress to scrutinize its relationship to foreign influences? Well, it simply scrubbed certain mentions of countries like China off its website. “WestExec can advise on strategies to screen foreign research partners and donors, reduce risk associated with operations in China and . . . navigate these issues with the Defense Department,” one removed line read. These changes were brushed aside by one WestExec spokesperson as updates to more “accurately reflect its current work.” But a paragraph highlighting how the firm helped a “leading American pharmaceutical company” and “a multi-billion-dollar American technology company” expand their market access in China remains, meaning its current work still involves China and it likely removed that line only because it mentioned the Defense Department.
On top of that, the Biden transition team website made no mention of Blinken’s roles in WestExec Advisors and Pine Island Capital Partners, hoping people would overlook it.
Blinken was sworn in quickly—only six days after Biden’s inauguration. His review before the Senate’s foreign relations panel went swimmingly, and he went on to be confirmed with a bipartisan vote of 78-22. Some Senate Republicans, like Lindsey Graham, were overjoyed to find out how much they had in common with him, such as their mutual determination to keep Iran sanctioned. Others, like Rand Paul, voted against Blinken due to his support for the Libyan intervention. But since the Senate and the Biden administration were trying to rush him into office (“The world is on fire right now, with pressing crises in every region and hemisphere,” explained Senator Bob Menendez), he was not questioned much about WestExec.
WestExec Advisors does not plan to close down now that Biden has become president. In fact, it sees its alumni working in the Biden White House as potential leverage. “Think about it: If Biden were to win, we do think that companies will start coming to WestExec, for ‘Hey, what is the commerce secretary thinking?’” one firm member told American Prospect in July 2020. “Because we likely have a history with that person or that staffer in our network somewhere.”
While Blinken’s role in WestExec has been singled out in this piece, he is but one Biden foreign adviser among many with similar backgrounds that could be or have been confirmed, including:
- Jake Sullivan of Macro Advisory Partners (confirmed as National Security Advisor);
- Julianne Smith, also from WestExec Advisers (a potential pick for NATO ambassador who now works as the senior advisor to the secretary of state);
- Nicholas Burns of the Cohen Group (rumored to be a top contender for China ambassadorship);
- Kurt Campbell of the Asia Group (who was chosen for a new Asia-related position in the National Security Council); and
- Wendy Sherman of the Albright Stonebridge Group (chosen for deputy secretary of state).
Return of the Old Democratic Guard
The establishment restoration is underway: The ascendant Biden administration simply wants to revert to the status quo under the Liberal World Order that Trump threatened with extinction. As Guyer wrote, “With Blinken as secretary of state, we’re likely to see a return to an old guard of Democratic foreign policy.” This is because, as he went on to argue, Biden has never had a clear-cut philosophy on foreign affairs, leaving a vacuum open to be filled by his advisers.
That Liberal Order is responsible for all the military, CIA, and State Department meddling in foreign affairs since WWII, things American leftists have traditionally criticized relentlessly. But since such leftists are mere reformists who attempt to work within the system and bring the Democrats to the left, they end up getting played time and time again: Their demanded change never happens in deed, only ever in word. The aesthetics of their slogans about domestic and international social justice always get appropriated by corporate Democrats, who use their progressive language to paint over the ugliness of their avaricious and bloodthirsty policies. The only difference between the two parties’ foreign policies is whether the interventionism is being carried out with the United Nations or with adventurist neocon allies—whether Uncle Sam’s bomber is being flown by Blinken or Pompeo.
What remains to be seen is if the new wave of establishment-counter-establishment critics of interventionism will actually fight against the Biden administration in any substantial way now that “normalcy” has been restored.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has not been silent about their disapproval of Blinken: In fact, more than 275 DNC delegates signed a letter protesting Biden’s choices for his foreign policy and intelligence teams, with Blinken being called out by name. “We ask you not to rely on foreign policy advice from those who may have a conflict of interest as a result of their relationships and lobbying on behalf of merchants selling weapons and surveillance technology,” read one line.
The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a new think tank that calls for a non-interventionist policy (or at least for a significant curbing of American military adventures and overseas presence), should be the most vocal critic of Biden’s new foreign policy department. It has been decent in its coverage of Biden so far, but we will see if it amounts to anything. Likewise, The Hill’s show Rising has hosted guests that have criticized the recent airstrikes in Syria. Good on them. But the raggedy populist movement is still far from truly preventing or reversing America’s solidification into an empire and the dissolution of its status as a republic.