Sept. 29, 2023 – Jake Sullivan a week before Hamas attack on Israel: “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades”

In Email/Dossier Investigations, Featured Timeline Entries by Katie Weddington

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.”

‘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 (Credit: BFA)

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. Such a meteoric rise to power indeed 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. (Read more: Tablet, 10/26/2023) (Archive)