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Jake Sullivan’s ‘Quieter’ Middle East Comments Did Not Age Well

In a 7,000-word essay for Foreign Affairs magazine published this week, Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, tried to sum up the state of the Middle East.

“Although the Middle East remains beset with perennial challenges,” he wrote in the original version of the essay, “the region is quieter than it has been for decades.”

In the face of “serious frictions,” he wrote, “we have de-escalated crises in Gaza.”

Mr. Sullivan’s assertions did not age well.

Just five days after his article was sent to print on Oct. 2, Hamas launched a devastating terror attack inside Israel, killing at least 1,400 Israelis and taking hundreds of people hostage. Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes against Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, have killed thousands of people and led to a humanitarian crisis.

And while nobody can be expected to predict the future, the essay offers a rare insight into how the United States misread an explosive situation in the Middle East. In the end, all of the diplomacy, intelligence sharing, check-ins and visits did not anticipate the worst breach of Israeli defenses in half a century.

Before the article was posted online, Foreign Affairs asked Mr. Sullivan to update it to reflect the Hamas attack. The online version scrubbed Mr. Sullivan’s “quieter” sentence, as well as his assertion that the Biden administration had “de-escalated” crises in Gaza. (An editor’s note included a pdf of the original essay, which appears in the November/December 2023 issue.)

Mr. Sullivan had made similar public comments to those in his essay.

On Sept. 29, he shared his assessment with some of the nation’s foreign policy, political and media circles: “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” Mr. Sullivan told attendees at a festival held by The Atlantic, ticking through a list of examples that included a lengthy truce in Yemen a ceasing of attacks on U.S. troops by Iran-backed militias. The Hamas attack happened a week later.

The president’s critics have pounced. A fund-raising email sent to supporters by the Trump campaign on Wednesday chastised “Biden’s Delusional National Security Adviser” with a link to a story about Mr. Sullivan’s comments. Conservative media publications have followed suit.

Not all of Mr. Sullivan’s critics are on the right.

Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement in the Obama White House, said Mr. Sullivan was driven by “a myopic focus on some diplomatic deliverable over a real strategy.”

“Jake’s brilliant, but he’s never spent any significant amount of time in any of these places,” said Mr. Bruen, who called for Mr. Sullivan’s firing after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, when 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghans were killed.

Still, he praised Mr. Sullivan, an alumni of the Obama administration and a former close adviser to Hillary Clinton, as a foreign policy talent who helped lead an “impressive” U.S. response to the attack on Israeli civilians.

As for Mr. Biden’s experience in the region, Mr. Bruen said “experience can also be a liability when you’re looking at the world the way it was a couple of decades ago, not the way it is now.”

He added: “And Jake doesn’t disabuse him of that.”

On Thursday, several officials in the Biden administration pushed back on the idea that Mr. Sullivan was offering a lasting view of his thoughts on the Middle East. Instead, they said, Mr. Sullivan was offering a snapshot of a region that appeared calm after years of war, regime changes and refugee crises.

One senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the administration’s process in the aftermath of the attacks, said that no expert could have predicted that Hamas would invade Israel, overrun defense forces, kill civilians and take hundreds hostage.

Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in an email that the social media criticism swirling around one sentence uttered (or written) by Mr. Sullivan amounts to “a lazy take.”

She pointed out that Mr. Sullivan had logged countless hours on the issue, including by meeting with Ron Dermer, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, two weeks before submitting the Foreign Affairs essay. Mr. Sullivan, she and other officials noted, traveled to Israel and to the West Bank earlier this year to work on “a major Palestinian component” of the normalization process, which was also an emphasis of his travel to Saudi Arabia in August.

“While the world has changed — as it often does — the past two weeks only underscored the importance of building on the approach to the region that we already had, like building relationships that can be relied upon to solve this crisis or the next one,” Ms. Watson wrote.

Mr. Sullivan declined to comment for this article.

But his supporters noted an important caveat toward the end of both versions of his essay, which is titled “The Sources of American Power” — apparently an allusion to an oft-cited Foreign Affairs essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which was written in 1947 at the start of the Cold War.

“The United States has been surprised in the past,” Mr. Sullivan wrote, noting the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. And, he added, “it will likely be surprised in the future, no matter how hard the government works to anticipate what is coming.”

Edward Wong contributed reporting.

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