Biden turns to familiar faces to grapple with a changed worldNovember 24, 2020
If President-elect Joe Biden’s emerging national security team looks awfully familiar, that’s because it is — with most of the names announced so far those of people who held senior jobs in the Barack Obama administration.
But the world they’ll inherit has changed significantly, often for the worse, since they were last in power. President Donald Trump and his aides are making last-minute moves designed to reduced their successors’ room to maneuver. And the incoming Biden team’s hands may be tied further if Republicans keep control of the Senate, assuming they can even get confirmed.
So although much of the foreign policy establishment is expressing relief that Biden has picked a group of pros with deep experience, many also wonder how much and what exactly the new crew can really get done once it’s back in charge.
“You have people who are competent, but from competence to policy there’s always a leap,” said Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United States. “Are they going to simply manage the status quo? Are they going to go back — to rewind? Or are they going to be creative — to have an America that’s more cooperative, less imperial?”
On Monday, the Biden transition team unveiled the names of several key members of the president-elect’s national security roster, with few surprises.
For secretary of State, Biden has selected Antony Blinken, a longtime aide who held senior foreign policy posts during the Barack Obama years. Another Obama-era pick close to Biden, Jake Sullivan, will be national security adviser, a job that does not require Senate confirmation. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a veteran diplomat who was an assistant secretary of State in the Obama years, will be nominated as ambassador to the United Nations.
Other former Obama vets named on Monday: Avril Haines as director of national intelligence; Alejandro Mayorkas as Homeland Security secretary; and John Kerry as a special envoy focused on climate change.
Trump has yet to concede the Nov. 3 election, but he and his aides already are taking steps to entrench their policy decisions in ways that could be tough if not impossible for the new team to reverse.
Trump is reducing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban and the Afghan government are still engaged in peace talks. He is imposing new sanctions on Iran, which could make it more complicated for Biden to fulfill his promise to the rejoin the nuclear deal Obama struck with Tehran.
Trump aides also are planning new sanctions and other measures to constrain China, a rival Biden must both deal with and counter. They are further considering designating Houthi rebels in Yemen as terrorists, a move that could make it harder for the United States to help end the conflict in that country.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel, where he announced that the United States will consider the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to be anti-Semitic and that it will allow products from certain Israeli settlements to be labeled as “Made in Israel.” The decisions were just the latest of numerous blows Trump has dealt to the Palestinians, imperiling the goal of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Biden supports. And Pompeo suggested more pro-Israel moves were coming.
“There’s every reason to expect that the direction of travel for U.S. policy with respect to Israel will continue,” the outgoing diplomat — who has yet to acknowledge there will be no second Trump term — told The Jerusalem Post.
Biden allies say many of the Trump administration’s attempts to salt the earth are easily reversible. But they concede that there could be political costs to trying to undo some of the moves.
For instance: The Trump administration has labeled Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. That decision is one of many by the Trump team aimed at permanently killing the Iran nuclear deal. But for Biden to declare he’s reversing that designation could also lead to an outcry in Congress, including among hawkish members of his own Democratic Party.
Some Washington figures argue that Biden should build on Trump’s efforts instead of wholesale rejecting them, and he likely will to some extent.
Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank deeply opposed to the Islamist regime in Tehran, said Biden should use the fact that Trump has imposed so many sanctions on Iran as leverage to force that government to agree to a tougher nuclear deal.
“I worry that the political constraints of the Democratic Party and the theological nature of the adherence to the [Iran deal] may prevent them from doing what they otherwise would do as pragmatic and highly competent national security professionals,” Dubowitz said of Biden’s team. The selections have received praise from many in the Washington and beyond.
Some progressives, whose movement has pushed Biden to decrease defense spending, reduce American troop deployments and work more with Congress on foreign policy, gave cautious approvals on Blinken in particular. They noted that he was willing to listen to them during the campaign.
“Tony has at least gone out of his way and established a relationship and rapport with progressives,” said Yasmine Taeb, a senior fellow with the Center for International Policy, a progressive think tank. “Even if we don’t necessarily see eye to eye or necessarily agree, the respect he’s afforded … goes a long way.”
Michael Singh, a former George W. Bush administration official with expertise in the Middle East, wrote of Blinken, Sullivan and Flournoy: “All are highly qualified, work well across the aisle, and are just plain good people.” (Singh is an adviser to WestExec, the consulting firm co-founded by Blinken and Flournoy.)
Foreign officials say that, when it comes to the changes the world has experienced in the years since Obama, perhaps the most consequential is the growing feud between United States and China.
Many, in private conversations, say Biden should not reflexively reject the Trump administration’s efforts, through sanctions, tariffs and other means, to hold China accountable on everything from religious oppression to trade malpractice.
Biden and his aides, including Blinken, have indicated they are well aware that the U.S.-Chinese relationship is in a new phase. They insist, however, that they saw it coming even under Obama. They also have said that while they will be tough on China, they will be more strategic than Trump.
For one thing, they say they will coordinate with allies and work through multilateral institutions when feasible to counter Beijing. Trump has expressed disdain for many of America’s allies, including by imposing tariffs on them, and has taken steps to leave or otherwise weaken a number of multilateral bodies.
Biden’s pick for U.S. Trade Representative could send a message about how he plans to repair economic ties with allies chastened by Trump’s trade wars, while staying tough on China.
One figure some lawmakers say could fulfill that role is Katherine Tai, the head trade lawyer for the House Ways and Means Committee. Backers hope Tai, a former China enforcement head at USTR who is fluent in Mandarin, can help challenge Beijing on issues like forced labor and intellectual property rights while preserving a functioning trade relationship between the world’s two largest economies.
“She is uniquely prepared to tackle issues on China and knows how to partner with our allies to advance U.S. interests,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown told POLITICO.
Foreign officials expect that, at least early on, Biden will focus more on domestic challenges, including a U.S. economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic. But they hope and expect that Biden will use international levers to address those issues when he can, even if it’s something as relatively simple as resuming U.S. membership in the World Health Organization, which Trump quit.
Their expectations of how much Biden can accomplish on foreign policy are tempered, however, by the deep partisan divisions that persist in U.S. society.
Foreign diplomats are well aware that if Republicans keep the Senate, they can cause headaches for Biden on everything from the Iran deal to refusing to confirm his picks for his national security team to investigations of his son’s business dealings.
There’s also the possibility that a Republican, maybe even Trump if he runs again, could win the White House back in 2024. Given the Trump-infused populism into the GOP, that could lead to another wild swing in U.S. foreign policy, some analysts added.
“Let’s not look that far,” one foreign diplomat pleaded when asked about 2024.
The diplomat argued that, given Trump’s predilection for abruptly changing his mind, and being out of sync with the rest of his administration, it will be refreshing if Biden’s team offers “stability over the course of one administration.”
“They’ll work through institutions — that’s the main point,” the diplomat said. “At least we’re going to go back to the way things were done.”
Gavin Bade contributed.