Secretary of State Antony Blinken has in many respects lived a charmed life, leading to the kind of bio that features words like “Harvard,” “France” and “wealthy.”
The last several weeks, though, have not been great.
The Afghanistan imbroglio has led Blinken to face a level of criticism he’s rarely, if ever, endured. Whether it’s darts thrown by unnamed Pentagon officials, fury expressed by women’s rights activists, or anger within the State Department, Blinken is under fire. And it’s about to get worse.
On Monday and Tuesday, the chief U.S. diplomat will be on Capitol Hill to face irritable lawmakers from both parties, many eager to pin blame on someone for the still-unfolding crisis. How Blinken, a first-time Cabinet official, handles the crucible could dramatically affect his standing in Washington.
Tom Shannon, a former senior U.S. diplomat, chalked the situation up to “Washington’s tough, combative politics.” “Tony is plenty tough for this town. He will do well,” Shannon said.
Others were less charitable.
“He’s not doing well,” said Kelley Currie, who served as ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues during the Trump administration and has been involved in evacuating at-risk Afghans. “He’s in over his head, should never have been in this job and should probably resign and take everyone involved in this debacle with him.”
The rapid turn of events in Afghanistan last month caught Blinken, like most everyone else, by surprise: He was visiting his elderly father in the Hamptons just hours before Kabul, the Afghan capital, fell to the militants. Although Blinken was away from Washington, his schedule still was packed with work-related calls and meetings about the situation on the ground, a senior State Department official said.
Much of the frustration in the days since has come from his own building.
During a town hall Blinken held with State Department employees earlier this month, attendees grew emotional, complaining about what they saw as a muddled, confusing response to the chaos in a country where many of them had served. A platform allowing for anonymous comment during the event was filled with harsh statements.
“At what point is the dept finally going to take crisis response seriously…? This was worse than the blind leading the blind,” one person wrote, according to images obtained by POLITICO.
Another comment questioned why there wasn’t better planning, especially for worst-case scenarios as opposed to the most likely scenarios: “There’s a lot of anger. This amount of suffering didn’t have to occur.”
Many at State don’t blame Blinken entirely for what are some long-standing problems, especially when it comes to the department’s crisis-response infrastructure. But there’s still disappointment in him because he’s a seasoned hand — a man who’s held top positions everywhere from a Senate committee to the National Security Council.
“There was sort of an expectation that he would have run the processes better,” said one State Department employee, who like many others mentioned in this story requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Blinken has kept his cool amid the maelstrom, focusing more on the task at hand in Afghanistan than the political drama in Washington, State Department officials said.
His most immediate focus is evacuating remaining U.S. citizens, as well as U.S. legal permanent residents, Afghan translators and other Afghans eligible for U.S. visas. Overall, the number of people left behind who in theory qualify for evacuation is thought to be in the thousands.
Although he appears even-keeled, he’s passionate in particular about helping refugees, a cause he’s long-championed due in part to his own family history, State Department officials said.
The secretary has publicly said he takes responsibility for the State Department response and, according to the senior department official, told his senior staff the same thing privately. He’s also publicly promised a review of how his department handled the situation.
“He has been around this town long enough to know that with a decision as momentous, of course, there is going to be some criticism. And much of it will be unfair,” the senior State Department official said. “The way to confront that is to be armed with the facts.”
An aide to Blinken declined to say if the secretary at any point disagreed with Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and whether he voiced concerns, saying those discussions are private. When asked if Blinken at any point has considered resigning over the crisis, the aide said “no.”
Though he’ll be on the defensive, Blinken plans to use this week’s hearings to explain the circumstances he and his department faced in the run-up to the collapse of the Afghan state and why they made the decisions they made.
That explanation is likely to include overly rosy estimates from the intelligence community about how long the Afghan army and government could hold onto power after the U.S. withdrew its troops. Blinken will also likely point to the backlogged and dysfunctional Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghan interpreters and translators that the Biden administration inherited in January.
The Blinken aide stressed that the secretary views Congress as a partner in foreign policymaking and is likely to lay out potential future steps that will include consulting with lawmakers.
Critics argue that many of the challenges throughout the evacuation came down to differences between the Pentagon and the State Department over the Afghan government’s prospects of survival.
Military leaders warned that the country could collapse within weeks to months after the withdrawal, though few, if anyone, correctly predicted the fall would come in days. The State Department thought it had more time.
State officials also worried that speeding up evacuations and shrinking the U.S. diplomatic presence too quickly could publicly undermine the Afghan government and make it fall apart even faster. The department waited until mid-July to create a task force to fast-track the evacuation of Afghan translators and interpreters seeking SIV approval.
“My working hypothesis was that most of the dysfunction we saw was the result of State Department leadership — or lack thereof — rather than the Pentagon. But I don’t think that means the Pentagon gets a pass on investigation from Congress,” said GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a former Marine intelligence officer and a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
A senior defense official told POLITICO that there appeared to be “a clear disconnect between the military estimate and what State believed.”
“When this is investigated, I think we will find that State overestimated their ability to continue a diplomatic presence and underestimated the demand that a government collapse would engender for [SIV applicants] to want to flee,” the defense official said.
The Blinken aide rejected such criticisms, saying Blinken had coordinated closely with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Mark Milley throughout the process.
Blinken has acknowledged failures in the SIV program, which has been plagued for years by bureaucracy and delays. According to Blinken, when he took office nearly eight months ago, the SIV program had a backlog of more than 17,000 applicants and “was basically in a dead stall.” The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated processing delays, but so had resistance to immigration within the previous administration of President Donald Trump.
“We’ve also now learned from hard experience that the SIV process was not designed to be done in an evacuation emergency,” Blinken said in public remarks earlier this month.
Blinken said the Biden administration immediately moved to accelerate and direct more resources toward the program, restarting the SIV interview process in Kabul within weeks. By May, the State Department had reduced the average processing time for SIVs by more than a year and went from issuing about 100 visas a week in March to more than 1,000 per week in August, Blinken said.
The senior State Department official separately noted that by July, it had already reduced staffing at the Kabul embassy to a minimum, and the majority of its staff on the ground were either security officials or those processing visa applicants. Further reductions would have meant cutting either the security contingent or the consular contingent, the official said.
Blinken’s performance has elicited eyerolls now and then, not least because he can come across as excessively calm and diplomatic.
When the Taliban unveiled an all-male caretaker government filled with veteran fighters and people on U.S. terrorist lists, for example, Blinken noted “it includes people who have very challenging track records.”
But his supporters say that’s just Blinken’s style and a marked contrast to his predecessor from the Donald Trump years, Mike Pompeo, who was more combative.
“I’ve never seen him angry,” a former senior U.S. official said of Blinken. “He doesn’t believe anger is a particularly useful emotion to get stuff done.”
Plus, Blinken — like others in the Biden administration — is well-aware that for now the United States has to deal with the Taliban as it tries to evacuate Americans and others still in Afghanistan. Giving the group a verbal lashing probably won’t help that process.
The former senior U.S. official, while generally a Blinken fan, nonetheless questioned what appeared to be a shortfall of diplomatic coordination with U.S. allies who also had troops in Afghanistan.
Some European countries felt blindsided by President Joe Biden’s April announcement of the troop drawdown, the former official noted. That was a strategic failure on Blinken’s part, the former official said.
His defenders, however, insisted that Blinken is exactly the type who thinks strategically, and they rejected the claim that allied countries weren’t given enough direction or preparation, pointing to calls, visits and other contacts by Blinken and other U.S. officials.
“He is someone who’s always looking around corners, thinking about the next step, taking a step back,” the senior State Department official said.
Blinken’s defenders note that he is operating at a disadvantage because so many top positions that report to him remain unfilled. That’s largely due to efforts by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to block State Department nominees because of his opposition to how the Biden administration has dealt with a German-Russian energy pipeline.
Key unfilled roles include the assistant secretaries who oversee the bureaus that deal with Afghanistan, human rights and refugees.
Blinken, who grew up in a well-to-do family whose ranks include ambassadors and famed lawyers, has sent multiple messages to State Department employees praising their tireless actions in recent weeks.
He’s also traveled to Europe and the Middle East, meeting with Afghans who have fled and U.S. diplomats currently working around the clock.
His efforts are noticed and appreciated. State Department employees who spoke to POLITICO said he still has the good will of the building, though his standing has taken a hit.
“It’s possible to recover,” one State staffer said, “but a very steep climb.”
Andrew Desiderio and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.