It's Debatable

Will Biden’s National Security Team Include Members of the Democratic Party’s Progressive Wing?

The president-elect’s picks have deep experience in the Washington establishment. It’s unclear whether the party’s left can make its voice heard in the new administration.

President-elect Joe Biden departs after delivering a Thanksgiving address at the Queen Theatre on Nov. 25 in Wilmington, Delaware. 
President-elect Joe Biden departs after delivering a Thanksgiving address at the Queen Theatre on Nov. 25 in Wilmington, Delaware.  Mark Makela/Getty Images

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! Did you have a good Thanksgiving? Or were you too distracted by our prediction from the last column coming true?

Last time around, we asked if Donald Trump would try to destroy Iran’s nuclear program before he leaves the White House, and just as we were all recovering from our Thanksgiving turkey comas, Iran’s senior nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated by parties unknown.

Matthew Kroenig: We may have been prescient. But most speculate that it was the Israeli Mossad (not Trump) behind the attack. And, indeed, Israel has a history of covert action against weapons of mass destruction programs in the region going all the way back to Egypt’s nuclear and rocket programs in the 1950s—and most famously Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981.

What is your assessment of the reasoning behind the attack and its likely effectiveness?

EA: It was definitely the Israelis. As you point out, they have a history of doing this kind of thing. There are historical reasons for the willingness of the Mossad to take actions others might consider immoral, like assassinations or kidnappings. And certainly, no one objected when it was former Nazis they were chasing down.

But it has produced a security service with almost no compunction about engaging in behavior that Americans would be appalled to see from the CIA, for example. In this case, there’s little doubt that Trump at least implicitly condoned the assassination of an Iranian scientist on Iranian soil. Should Americans really be comfortable with that?

MK: The U.S. government has had a ban against assassinations for decades, so you are right that it would disapprove of the CIA doing something similar. And I doubt Israel asked permission. It has taken bold action, including destroying Iraq’s reactor in 1981, without notifying Washington.

EA: Right, but they wouldn’t have done it if they thought it would seriously anger the United States. And I think it’s worth thinking about why Washington is comfortable letting the Israelis do these things—and implicitly condoning them—if Americans don’t want the country’s own intelligence services to do them.

You said it will slow Iran’s nuclear program. And I want to raise a problem with a lot of the coverage of the assassination, which describes Fakhrizadeh as the head of Iran’s “nuclear weapons program.” There’s a big problem: Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program. It hasn’t had one since the early 2000s. So killing this scientist might be a hedge against future weaponization, but it will have no impact on Iran’s civilian program and enrichment capabilities.

MK: I want to raise a problem with that kind of hair splitting. Iran does not have a civilian nuclear program. It is not economical for Iran to enrich its own uranium to provide fuel for its single power reactor. It would be much more efficient to buy nuclear fuel on the open market like nearly every other country with a genuine civil nuclear program, like Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, and South Korea. There is only one reason for Iran to enrich uranium itself: to have the option to build nuclear weapons.

EA: All nuclear programs are to some extent latent weapons programs. Even states with no intention to weaponize—Japan, for example—can be so-called threshold nuclear states if they’re technologically advanced; it would take many just a few months to convert their civilian programs to weapons if they wanted.

And I agree that it’s a hedge on the part of Iran. But many other countries have taken similar steps. The Saudi government, for example, announced last year that it intended to start domestic enrichment activities. Should U.S. intelligence agents—or the Israelis—be assassinating Saudi or Emirati scientists now? An Israeli scholar was featured here at Foreign Policy recently arguing that those programs could be a threat to Israel someday.

MK: The United States has resisted and will continue to resist the spread of enrichment capabilities to all countries, including Saudi Arabia. When asked about a possible enrichment program in the kingdom, the U.S. State Department said that “we oppose the spread of enrichment and reprocessing” and encouraged “strong nonproliferation protections.” Riyadh might still try to build an enrichment plant, but to do so it would need to deceive, and then risk facing the wrath of, Washington.

And, to return to your earlier statement, this will impede Iran’s enrichment program. The top scientist has been eliminated. Other nuclear scientists will have second thoughts about taking his place, and younger talent will consider safer fields. Moreover, the Iranians will have to carefully review their security protocols to see if there’s a traitor in their midst and how they can better protect scientists in the future. These are all obstacles to their progress. It won’t be enough to stop the program in its tracks, but it will slow it down and increase the pressure on Tehran.

EA: You’re probably right there. But there was no urgent risk here to justify this assassination— other than Israel’s fear that President-elect Joe Biden will seek a new deal with Iran. And that brings me to my next point: How often do we think that the United States or its allies can do this kind of thing before it creates blowback? Sure, this was the Israelis, not the United States. But when you add it to the Qassem Suleimani killing at the start of this year, I have to wonder how long it will be before Iran—or some other country—decides that it’s OK to assassinate senior U.S. military or intelligence officials driving home from work in suburban Virginia. 

At least here, the risk is low because of the change in U.S. administration. What do you think? Will this all make it harder for Biden to deal with Iran?

MK: I think the risk is low mostly because of U.S. escalation dominance. Iran doesn’t want a major war with the Pentagon. Tehran will talk about retaliation, but it will choose a de-escalatory, face-saving response (such as a cyberattack) if it does anything at all.

Most commentators say this will hurt the chances for diplomacy, but I am not so sure. Americans tend to think that one prepares for diplomacy by being nice, but Iran only makes concessions under pressure. The last spate of assassinations of Iranian scientists from 2010 to 2012 directly preceded serious negotiations toward the 2015 nuclear deal.

EA: I don’t think this will hurt the chances for diplomacy too much, but I have no doubt that’s what it was intended to do. A lot of the actions that the Israelis—and the Trump administration— have taken toward Iran in recent months have been designed to make it as domestically unpalatable as possible for Iranian leaders to push for renewed diplomacy with the United States. But the incentives are still huge.

As Biden pointed out just this week, dealing with the nuclear issue is still the best way to start pushing for regional stability and improving Iran’s behavior in other areas. The new administration is keen to get diplomacy moving here.

MK: Indeed. I suspect a return to the 2015 nuclear deal is in the works whether one likes it or not.

Speaking of the new administration, the other prominent national security discussion in Washington this week is about Biden’s cabinet picks, which he announced since our last column. I must say, I think it is the start of a good team. I have a lot of respect for the experience and judgement of people like Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan. And I hope Michèle Flournoy is named defense secretary. I worked for her when she was President Barack Obama’s undersecretary of defense for policy, and she was a great boss and is widely admired.

EA: You know, that’s what I keep hearing from everyone. That she’s a nice person, a wonderful mentor, and extremely well-qualified. There’s also a strong argument to be made that getting a woman into the defense secretary’s job would be a major step forward for the cause of gender equality in national security.

That said, I’d like us to get to a place where it’s not a trade-off between gender equality and problematic foreign-policy views. Because Flournoy has some worrying views. She’s consistently supported military interventions throughout her career, she’s always pushed for bigger defense budgets, and she’s extremely hawkish on China. Hardly a good match for Biden’s views.

MK: Interesting. My only concern about her views is that she may be insufficiently committed to defense spending. Specifically, she has questioned the need to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad, and I believe all are critical for nuclear deterrence.

But we are in a major-power competition with China, the military balance in Asia is shifting, so I think we need a defense secretary who understands the gravity of the challenge and is ready to stand up to Beijing.

An understanding of the defense industry is an asset for the secretary of defense. A large part of the job is overseeing the part of the Pentagon that plans the future force and buys the weapons to equip U.S. troops. Why is it a problem?

EA: That’s kind of my point, Matt. If defense hawks believe that Michèle Flournoy’s views will make her an excellent defense secretary candidate, I’m concerned!

But at the end of the day, it’s not obvious that the alternatives are any better. Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin also has ties to defense contractors and would represent yet another retired general officer in a role that should be held by a civilian.

MK: Yes. To ensure healthy civilian control of the military, I think it is important to have a strong civilian in this role, not a recently retired general.

But an understanding of the defense industry is an asset for the secretary of defense. A large part of the job is overseeing the part of the Pentagon that plans the future force and buys the weapons to equip U.S. troops. Why is it a problem?

EA: The complaint is mostly about the cozy nature of the defense industry’s revolving door. We’ve seen it repeatedly during the Trump administration, where officials with long careers at defense contractors have stuck in their oar on procurement decisions to try to favor their old employer. But it’s hard to tell when it’s going to be a problem. And almost no one gets defense experience without some ties to industry.

Many of the other names in the mix—Sen. Tammy Duckworth, for example—simply don’t have the necessary Pentagon know-how despite having combat experience.

I see the same problem across most of Biden’s national security appointees, like Blinken or Avril Haines. You simply can’t get the experience needed for these senior roles without some government or industry experience; that makes it difficult to get those with true outsider perspectives into the room. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party doesn’t yet have the bench of experienced foreign-policy hands that it needs if it wants to staff an administration. That’s a work in progress, and it leaves us with less than ideal candidates for the Biden administration.

MK: Who would progressives like to see in these roles?

EA: The problem is that there is no good bench of alternative talent. The progressive and “restrainer” foreign-policy movement has come a long way since 2016, when Sen. Bernie Sanders barely mentioned foreign policy in his presidential run. But most of the brightest thinkers in that space are still relatively junior. One hope I have for a Biden administration is that it may provide them with an opportunity to gain the government experience that would one day qualify them for secretary of defense.

Until then, the choices are limited.

MK: Well, in the meantime, Trump is president for another six weeks, so I have a few more opportunities to point out that the administration is doing a better job than it gets credit for. It looks like Operation Warp Speed is working and we could have a vaccine very soon.

EA: We could have two! Both Pfizer and Moderna have submitted their vaccine candidates for approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Once they’re approved, then it’s a question of production and distribution. And I agree with you, Operation Warp Speed is something that the Trump administration should probably get more credit for. Vaccine rollout will still be slow, but far faster than it would have been otherwise. It’s also a victory for the U.S. free market system, which helps to foster ingenuity in biotech and other fields.

Of course, this raises some big foreign-policy questions: How will developing countries access the vaccine? Will the United States and other developed countries continue to stick to “vaccine nationalism”? And will the fact that at least some of the final vaccines were developed right here in the United States rehabilitate America’s image after a truly terrible early response to the coronavirus?

MK: Good questions. I have a few of my own to add. Pick it up here next time?

EA: Sure. Just as long as our next column is Christmas-themed. After the rest of 2020, I’m spending all of December looking for holiday cheer!

MK: Good idea. We’ll toast. I know I won’t be the only one drinking Australian wine this holiday season.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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