What to Watch for as Biden Staffs Up
Who the U.S. president-elect picks to fill lower-level posts in the State Department, the Pentagon, and other agencies will say a lot about his foreign policy.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief.
What’s on tap today: What to make of the Biden administration’s personnel picks for defense and diplomatic posts, the Pentagon considers cutting support for the CIA’s counterterrorism operations, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s outgoing Syria envoy unloads his frustrations.
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BREAKING: Morocco and Israel have agreed to normalize diplomatic ties, Trump announced on Twitter. Morocco will become the fourth Arab country to do so, following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan. In exchange, Trump will agree to recognize the disputed Western Sahara as Moroccan sovereign territory. This is a developing story.
Who Will Drive Biden’s Foreign Policy Behind the Scenes?
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has already announced many of his most important cabinet-level posts, including the secretaries of defense and state. But Beltway insiders are closely monitoring who will be tapped to fill other administration leadership roles below the senior level—ones that often don’t make the headlines but carry out the spadework of foreign policy. Team Biden hasn’t started announcing those picks yet, but here are the ones we’re watching most closely.
Deputy secretary of state. Traditionally, the deputy secretary of state has overseen much of the internal management of the State Department. Whoever Biden picks will need to help reform and overhaul a dispirited diplomatic corps. For four years, diplomats have sounded alarm bells on the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the foreign service. During the impeachment saga, career diplomats also faced heated political attacks from top Trump allies with no public support from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Some of Biden’s top campaign advisors on foreign policy have called for the incoming administration to reform the department to strengthen U.S. diplomacy amid new great power competition from China. That responsibility could largely fall on the shoulders of whoever is deputy secretary.
Undersecretary of defense for policy. During Ret. Gen. Jim Mattis’ tenure as defense secretary, civilian officials said they were boxed out of critical policy decisions by the Joint Staff, led by Marine Gen. Joe Dunford and Mattis, himself a retired Marine commander. The office hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed chief for nearly a year and has recently been stocked with Trump loyalists. After selecting another recently retired general, Lloyd Austin, to lead the Pentagon, Biden’s team will be under pressure to nominate a strong civilian policy chief to rehabilitate this office, which has struggled with attrition since the late Obama years.
NSC senior director for Asia. Matt Pottinger, the Mandarin-speaking former Wall Street Journal reporter, was incredibly influential in this position behind the scenes. His successor may also play hawk to China—and could be just as influential by playing a key role in designing a Biden-era National Security Strategy.
One dynamic to watch: The Biden team already appears to be enhancing functional portfolios on the NSC. Incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has pledged to reprioritize public health to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, and Biden has tapped former Secretary of State John Kerry to serve as a special envoy for climate change with a principal role on the NSC. Biden will need an influential Asia director to deflect Republican concerns that his cabinet picks don’t have enough experience with China.
Undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Biden will quickly be faced with salvaging the last arms control agreement with Russia before it expires. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits U.S. and Russian arsenals of strategic nuclear arms, is set to expire in February. Top Trump administration arms negotiators failed to make headway on extending or altering the treaty, leaving a last-minute scramble for Biden’s negotiators.
If they can negotiate an interim extension, whoever Biden picks to be his top State Department arms control envoy will play a crucial role in recrafting New START, as well as determining whether to revive other arms treaties with Russia—such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia that Trump withdrew from in 2019—or try to forge new ones with China.
Undersecretary of treasury for terrorism and intel. Financial wonks at the Treasury Department have become the sharp end of the spear in many of the United States’ most ambitious offensives against terrorist organizations, human rights abusers, and top officials in Russia and China. The use of targeted sanctions as a tool of American foreign policy has exploded in recent years and remains—for better or worse—one of the swiftest ways to lash out at adversaries.
The undersecretary of treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence takes the lead in this job, which is expected to be an essential tool of Biden’s foreign policy as it was under Trump.
What We’re Watching
Under further review. The Defense Department is threatening to curtail its support for clandestine CIA counterterrorism operations in the waning days of the Trump administration, Defense One reports, thanks to a political appointee who is seen as a loyalist to the president. The review, led by Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick, will determine whether U.S. troops detailed to CIA missions should be repurposed to help counter China and Russia, the Pentagon’s top two priorities.
Former officials fear the move could pull the rug out from under CIA officials performing sensitive missions in combat zones such as Afghanistan.
Weak on China? Biden is taking heat across party lines for cabinet picks who are seen as less experienced on Asia, despite the national security strategy framing China as the key U.S. national security rival. Biden did not mention China once in his op-ed in the Atlantic or his speech in Wilmington, Del., yesterday defending the choice of Austin as defense secretary. Former presidential contender and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, another Asia novice, is seen as a leading contender to become U.S. ambassador to China.
“For weeks, my conservative colleagues have been taking to the airwaves to argue Biden will be weak on China,” Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in the Washington Post today. “As a strong supporter of Biden, I am reluctant to give them any fodder. But the nomination of Austin suggests that they may be right on this one.”
Movers and Shakers
Biden’s secretary for veterans affairs. Biden is expected to announce Obama’s former White House chief of staff and deputy national security advisor, Denis McDonough, to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, Politico reports. If selected and confirmed by the Senate, McDonough will take over a vast federal agency riven with management issues and tasked with distributing coronavirus vaccines to millions of U.S. veterans.
Rice, Rice baby. Susan Rice, the former Obama administration national security advisor who was a recent contender for secretary of state, has been tapped by Biden to lead the White House Domestic Policy Council, the Associated Press reports. Rice—who is also a veteran of the Clinton administration National Security Council and State Department—has spent nearly her entire career working on foreign policy issues.
Trading places. Biden is expected to tap Katherine Tai, the top trade lawyer for the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, to be the next U.S. trade representative. If confirmed, Tai will take the job after Trump pushed through protectionist trade policies and sought to tear down the international trading order.
Marocc-in, Marocc-out. The return of Pete Marocco, a controversial Trump appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) who sought to remake the agency’s programs, lasted less than a week. Marocco was forced to take leave in October after trying to scale back funding for the Bureau of Conflict Prevention and Stabilization. He was placed back on leave on Tuesday, after just six days back at the agency.
John Anderson, a top USAID religious advisor, will take over Marocco’s job on an acting basis. It was not immediately clear why the move was made.
Quote of the Week
“This was CENTCOM out of control. This was the classic, ‘We’re just here to fight terrorists, let the f—heads in State Department take care of Turkey, and we can say or do anything we want that pleases us and pleases our little allies, and it doesn’t matter.’”
—James Jeffrey, the State Department’s outgoing Syria envoy, unloading on the Pentagon and other administration officials in a markedly candid interview with Al Monitor
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Double standard? While no one doubts the historic nature of Biden’s choice for Pentagon chief, it is raising questions among women in national security—who saw a top female candidate once again passed over for the job—about whether there’s a gender imbalance when it comes to scrutiny over defense industry ties, Military.com’s Oriana Pawlyk reports.
While Michèle Flournoy, a former Pentagon policy chief once seen as a frontrunner for the top job, was scrutinized for her ties to Booz Allen Hamilton and WestExec advisors, critics said that Austin—who could make history as the first Black defense secretary—received more deference even though he sits on the board of Raytheon, a major arms maker.
The Week Ahead
The United Nations, Britain, and France will host a global climate summit on Saturday, Dec. 12, to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate accords.
U.S. distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine is set to begin from Dec. 13 to 18.
That’s it for today.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch
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