Security Brief

What Will Biden’s Foreign Policy Team Look Like?

While nothing is set in stone, here are some of the experts in the president-elect’s orbit that could take key posts in the administration.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks as his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, looks on in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 12.
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks as his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, looks on in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 12. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today:

What’s on tap today: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden looks to staff up mid-level national security posts, humanitarian groups call out the G-20 for arms exports in the war in Yemen, and another Trump appointee is in hot water for snarky tweets.

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Not Biden His Time on Foreign Policy

There are 62 days until inauguration. While U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to reverse the election results looks bleaker by the day, though not for lack of trying, President-elect Joe Biden and his top campaign aides are starting to staff his national security team.

The frontrunners for secretary of state and defense are well-known on the Washington rumor circuit. Veteran defense expert Michele Flournoy is the top contender to run the Pentagon, while longtime Biden advisor Antony Blinken, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, or one of a handful of influential Democratic senators could become the nation’s top diplomat.

But it’s important to track who will take up important senior and mid-level posts at the Pentagon, State Department, and National Security Council. They won’t be household names, but they will be the ones in the trenches implementing Biden’s foreign policy priorities.

While the Biden transition team is taking pains not to publicly telegraph who it has in mind, here are some names that several experts in Biden’s foreign policy circle have said they consider to be in the running for administration jobs.

Defense. Biden has stacked his transition team with budget and policy stalwarts from the Obama-era Pentagon, including former policy chief Christine Wormouth and Kath Hicks, who spearheaded the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. Notably, Biden has kept former top military officials as briefers during the transition.

Those include Ret. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the ousted commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan under Obama, and Ret. Gen. Lloyd Austin, a former chief of U.S. Central Command. Also in the mix are Adm. Bill McRaven, a former U.S. special operations command chief known for his role in organizing the 2011 Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Vince Stewart, a former Defense Intelligence Agency chief.

Middle East. Some of the names being floated for senior Middle East posts are also Obama administration veterans. They include Robert Malley, the current CEO of the International Crisis Group and former top Obama NSC advisor on the Middle East; Mara Rudman, a former senior U.S. Agency for International Development official; Daniel Benaim, a former Obama White House Middle East advisor; Andrew Miller, another veteran of the Obama NSC; and Dafna Rand, a former State Department official in the Obama administration.

Africa. Those rumored for posts at the State Department or NSC include Michael Battle, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the African Union under Obama and Michelle Gavin, a senior fellow for African Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the U.S. ambassador to Botswana from 2011 to 2014. Allison Lombardo, who helped manage the Biden campaign’s working group on African issues, is also rumored to be in the running.

Asia. Some foreign policy experts in Biden circles expect Ely Ratner and Jung Pak to take up administration posts. Ratner and Pak both headed the campaign’s working group on Asia. Ratner, now with the Center for a New American Security and served as Biden’s deputy national security advisor from 2015 to 2017. Pak, a veteran senior U.S. intelligence official and an East Asia scholar at the Brookings Institution, is considered one of Washington’s top experts on North Korea.

Latin America. Juan González, a former deputy assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration and an advisor to Biden on Latin America, is likely in line for another high-level post. There was also buzz that Julissa Reynoso, a former senior diplomat in the Obama administration who served as U.S. ambassador to Paraguay from 2012 to 2014, would take up a senior diplomatic role again, but on Tuesday she was named chief of staff to Jill Biden, the future first lady.

Other names for senior posts in the National Security Council or other agencies include Julianne Smith, a former deputy national security advisor to Biden while he was vice president. Also in the mix is Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Biden transition team lead for the State Department who was a senior career foreign service officer and former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs.

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, also expressed interest in a senior foreign policy role in the Biden administration, including an ambassador post, after losing his seat in a bruising primary challenge this summer.

Additionally, influential Afghanistan policy experts are urging the future Biden administration to keep on Trump’s envoy for Afghanistan peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad—though it’s unclear whether that will happen.


What We’re Watching

Trump’s last-minute moves on Yemen. The Trump administration is poised to designate the Iran-backed Houthi rebel movement in Yemen as a terrorist group, as we reported this week. The move aims to curtail Iran’s influence in the Gulf and sharpen the Trump administration’s support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. But it could derail precarious peace talks and make it harder for humanitarian groups to deliver life-saving assistance to the country.

After six years of conflict, Yemen is considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with millions on the brink of famine and most of the country reliant on humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, Oxfam is calling out G-20 countries for exporting $17 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia over the past five years, while giving only about one-third of that amount to humanitarian aid in Yemen.

The Brereton report. An explosive new report from Australia’s military inspector general finds that Australian special forces were allegedly involved in dozens of unlawful killings of civilians in Afghanistan. The findings of the so-called Brereton report, released after four years of investigation by Maj. Gen. Justice Paul Brereton, determined that a small number of soldiers within Australia’s elite Special Air Services murdered at least 39 Afghan civilians between 2006 and 2013.

The chief of the Australian Defense Forces, Gen. Angus Campbell, vowed to act on the report and called its findings “deeply disturbing.” One SAS whistleblower told the Sydney Morning Herald, “We were attacked at the time for speaking out, but what we have done has probably saved the regiment.”

Green betrayal. A former U.S. Army Green Beret pleaded guilty in U.S. court on Wednesday to charges of providing sensitive national security information to Russian intelligence agents. Court documents show that Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins periodically traveled to Russia and was selected for a special forces post after being urged to apply by Russian agents.

Debbins allegedly disclosed information about the chemical and special forces units he served in, his classified missions, and the names of his fellow soldiers. Debbins served in the Army from 1998 to 2005 and allegedly passed secrets to the Russians until 2011.

Remaking the Peace Corps. A new report from an advisory council to the National Peace Corps Association is calling on the U.S. government volunteer program to get with the times—specifically by increasing recruitment of diverse volunteers, support for volunteers when they face discrimination in-country, and recruitment at historically Black colleges and universities and low-income communities.

For the organization to reflect U.S. society as a whole, it “also means ensuring that perceptions of a ‘white savior complex and neocolonialism are not reinforced,” the report says.


Movers and Shakers

Assistant secretary of snarky tweets. Trump has nominated Scott O’Grady, a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who was famously shot down in Bosnia in 1995, to be the Pentagon’s top international security affairs professional. But O’Grady took little time to celebrate, instead jumping on Twitter to bash his critics. “Obvious joke: I thought Trump didn’t like fliers who got shot down,” one reporter joked, alluding to Trump’s 2016 criticism of the late Sen. John McCain, who was downed over North Vietnam in 1967 and spent nearly six years as a prisoner of war.

“Would you like to tell me that in person,” O’Grady responded, before jumping into the direct messages of other critics. Reporter Yashar Ali also noted that O’Grady killed two elephants during a hunting trip in Zimbabwe in 2014 and later testified before Congress to protest against the temporary suspension of elephant trophy imports from Africa.

Mudge. Twitter has named Peiter Zatko, best known by the handle Mudge, to lead its security operations, after a data breach over the summer allowed young hackers to access the accounts of Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk. Zatko previously headed up cybersecurity grants at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

He first became known in the 1990s for his role in the Cult of the Dead Cow and the Boston-based hacker collective l0pht that testified in front of Congress about weak U.S. government cybersecurity in 1998.

Got a tip about recent Trump administration firings or the transition? Get in touch with Jack (jack.detsch@foreignpolicy.com) or Robbie (robbie.gramer@foreignpolicy.com). 


Quote of the Week

“I have become the new God. I rule the universe, nature and humanity … Now I shall be president.”

Arstan Abdyldayev, an underdog—but clearly very confident—candidate for president in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential elections


The Week Ahead

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif travels to Russia to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday, Nov. 23.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns speaks at an event on U.S. diplomacy at George Washington University on Monday, Nov. 23.

The U.N. Security Council convenes a meeting on Iraq on Tuesday, Nov. 24.


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Correction, Nov. 19, 2020: Julissa Reynoso was named chief of staff to Jill Biden. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated her role in the incoming administration.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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