Michael Rubin

Blinken Provides Case Study in How Not to Do Diplomacy


After he took office, President Joe Biden declared, “Diplomacy is back.” Top aides Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan repeated the mantra. Their implication? The Trump era’s unilateralism and tweet-from-the-hip chaos were over.

A statesman embracing diplomacy, however, is akin to a surgeon wielding a scalpel: The tool depends upon the skill of its operator. While the Biden administration embraced the traditional trappings of diplomacy, its members approached the strategy with all the skill of a narcoleptic, epileptic monkey high on crack.

Put aside Sullivan’s curtailment of maximum pressure on Iran as its foreign reserves circled the drain, Blinken’s lifting of sanctions on Yemen’s Houthi militia, or the Biden team’s waiver of sanctions on Nord Stream 2 in advance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To understand just how weak American diplomacy appears both to adversaries and allies, consider Azerbaijan.

In December 2020, just a month after President Ilham Aliyev completed the first phase of Azerbaijan’s conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh, Andrew Schofer, the lead US diplomat on the crisis, traveled to Yerevan and Baku. Aliyev humiliated Schofer on live television, bragging about how Azerbaijan’s military prowess achieved what American diplomacy did not and then asking, “Why are you here?”

That episode should have colored Blinken’s approach to Azerbaijan when he entered office, but, alas, a willingness to tolerate Aliyev’s disdain for America came to define the Biden era.

The list of humiliation is long. When in June 2023 Azerbaijani snipers fired on a US Agency for International Development project in Yeraskh, killing an Indian worker, Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power went silent.

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Then, three months later acting Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States would not tolerate any Azerbaijani military offensive. Days later, Azerbaijan ordered its drones and tanks across the region to erase the region’s 1,700-year embrace of Christianity. The US response? Crickets, even after it emerged that Aliyev had lied outright to Kim just days earlier about his intentions.

Well, not quite crickets. Power, whose rise to power came by criticizing the cynicism and immorality of past American inaction against genocide, responded with a visit to Armenia to lay a wreath at the genocide memorial. Rather than do so sincerely, though, she brought a camera crew with her to document her visit. As Armenians noted, however, USAID’s investment in public relations flacks to trail Power actually surpassed what Power had offered to the 120,000 starving citizens of the region during the 11-month blockade that preceded the attack. A designated terrorist group in Gaza got airdrops of food and medicine; indigenous Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh? Glossy head shots.

As criticism grew, Blinken and Power met with European counterparts to develop an aid package for Nagorno-Karabakh refugees. Alas, Blinken and Power earmarked much of the money for climate change and LGBT issues, hardly at the top of the refugees’ list. Aliyev responded as only dictators know how: He sent his forces deeper into Armenian territory.

When the State Department finds itself in a hole, Blinken digs. The same week that the Justice Department leveled charges at Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) for allegedly corrupting his office on behalf of Azerbaijan, Blinken sent U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Mark Libby to visit Shushi, an ancient Armenian city ethnically cleansed by Azerbaijani forces. Satellite imagery from after the guns fell silent shows Azerbaijan has continued to destroy churches.

As the French recalled their ambassador from Baku due to such outrages, the US ambassador today stands on the side of genocide and destruction of churches. While the French now establish a consulate in an Armenian region Azerbaijan seeks to annex, the State Department goes AWOL.

Just as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned President George H.W. Bush against the backdrop of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, “Don’t go wobbly on me now, George,” the French are showing Biden and Blinken the meaning of backbone. Unfortunately, in the face of aggression and gratuitous anti-Americanism, the Biden team is going full invertebrate.

Topics: diplomacy

(The above article first appeared on May 9, 2024 in the Washington Examiner.)

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