He really was a wonk.
I know Jofi Joseph, the former White House national security staffer fired last week for his snarky and sometimes bilious tweets under the handle @NatSecWonk, and in person he was nothing like his obnoxious Twitter persona.
On Twitter, Joseph railed against the humorless stiffs of the foreign policy establishment. About a Council on Foreign Relations event he once tweeted: “Is the Guiness World Record for largest density of tools in one room about to be broken?”
That was a bit like the wrench calling the hammer a tool: Joseph was a deeply-rooted denizen of that CFR world, a foreign policy professional who specialized in the technical realm of nuclear nonproliferation. He even married another expert in the field. And in person—although I found him pleasant and likeable—he was much like those “tools”: mild-mannered, highly intelligent, and seemingly snarkless. Over lunch or coffee he was less interested in trashing colleagues than in diving deep on Iranian centrifuge capacity or deterrence theory in a post-Soviet world. Consider this email he sent me in response to something I’d written a few years ago:
Picking up on your last post, Ken Waltz, a noted [international relations] academic, made the exact same argument in a seminal 1981 paper – the spread of nuclear weapons can deter conventional armed conflict. It has invited considerable controversy – surely, more nukes is a bad thing, not a good thing — but the historical record offers considerable evidence in support of his argument. The situation in South Asia and the Cold War are just the two most notable examples.
Not wonky enough for you? Here he is on whether interdiction can stop proliferation. And here he is criticizing George W. Bush’s Iran policy: “There is an alternative course, one that worked well in the 1990s, and that is the lost art of coercive diplomacy: combining incentives and punishments to coerce recalcitrant regimes into making the right decisions.”
It’s hard to reconcile that dry academic voice with the one behind infantile, sometimes outright hateful tweets about Liz Cheney’s weight, how a former senior Bush aide is a “dumb blonde airhead,” and the alleged venality of various Washingtonians—including some of his close colleagues—even if he did occasionally offer useful observations. (“Repubs stuck w/ Bush on an Iraq land invasion out of loyalty long after it began to hurt bad. Democrats won’t stick w/ Obama on air strikes,” he tweeted in early September.)
“The whole thing surprises me,” says a White House aide who often worked with Joseph. “He was always nice and helpful to me when I had questions about really complicated non pro[liferation] issues. The whole thing is sad.”
In one of my last communications with Joseph, he mentioned that he was soon leaving the White House for the Pentagon’s office of Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics. “Just waiting for the last churn of bureaucracy,” he wrote in an email. It all sounded very dull.
That same day, unknown to me, he was tweeting as NatSecWonk with the author of a parody account spoofing Elizabeth O’Bagy, another foreign policy analyst who’d recently been fired in a scandal:
“You’re attractive enough -screw coffee, how about a drink?”
You just never know.