Progressives Try to Sway Biden on Top Foreign-Policy Jobs

A gaggle of progressive groups are trying to line up candidates for top foreign-policy roles in the incoming administration.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden gives a thumbs-up as he leaves Pennsylvania Hospital after a follow up appointment at the radiology department December 12 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden gives a thumbs-up as he leaves a hospital in Philadelphia on Dec. 12, 2020. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

More than a dozen progressive groups are calling on incoming President-elect Joe Biden to staff top foreign-policy jobs in his incoming administration with candidates seen as anti-war and not tied to Washington lobbying, after some of his picks raised eyebrows due to perceived establishment ties.

While progressives, some lacking foreign-policy experience to compete with centrists in the Democratic Party for top administration jobs, aren’t being considered for many leading cabinet roles, left-leaning groups are hoping to put down roots at lower levels. In a request sent to the Biden transition team today, progressives identified more than 100 candidates to fill jobs in the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council—the majority of whom are women and people of color.

Progressive groups have largely cooperated with the Biden transition so far, only staunchly opposing former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell in his bid for the top job at the agency, and raising concerns about Michèle Flournoy—a one-time candidate for defense secretary—and her ties to the defense industry. But the continued push to place their own candidates in top jobs could cause tension with the president-elect, who has mostly opted to place longtime allies like Lloyd Austin, Antony Blinken, and Jake Sullivan into top national security positions.

The cadre of progressive contenders is led by Matt Duss, a longtime foreign-policy advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders, a key behind-the-scenes operator who helped mount a congressional challenge to outgoing President Donald Trump’s war powers related to the Saudi-led fighting in Yemen. Duss is being considered for a role as deputy national security advisor or as a special advisor to the secretary of state. Trump vetoed the war powers bill that passed both houses of Congress earlier this year, but the issue became a calling card for progressives over the past four years, a time in which Duss also made a name for himself as an outspoken critic of U.S. policy toward Israel. Biden reportedly plans to continue with Trump’s push for so-called Abraham accords between Israel and Arab nations, an issue that could be a point of contention with progressives such as Duss.

Another leading candidate is Trita Parsi, the Iranian-born co-founder of the anti-war Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft think tank in Washington. Progressives want Biden to consider him for senior director for Middle East Affairs on the National Security Council. Parsi had called for the United States to engage diplomatically with Iran before negotiations began on the 2015 nuclear deal that the Trump administration later abandoned. Parsi’s Quincy Institute has called for the United States to shrink its military commitments around the world.

Dozens of organizations, including the Quincy Institute and the MoveOn advocacy group added names to the list. The effort was coordinated by Yasmine Taeb, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, and Common Defense, a veteran-led grassroots organization opposing Trump, and the Progressive Change Institute. In particular, the CIP has pushed for senators not to confirm cabinet picks with corporate ties, a move that is now backed by Rep. Raul Grijalva on Capitol Hill. The effort to land subcabinet-level picks is an outgrowth of a call earlier this month led by many of the same groups to find suitable candidates. A similar cluster of progressive groups also called for Biden to move his foreign-policy agenda to the left after he emerged as the Democratic nominee this summer, including requests to slash the defense budget and re-engage diplomatically with Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea.

Among the other names floated by the groups include Alison Friedman, who fought human trafficking during the Obama administration, to be the State Department’s Senate-confirmed undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights. That’s a broad portfolio that could allow progressives to scrutinize U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as relationships with foreign autocrats such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that have grown closer under Trump. The groups have also flagged Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America’s top policy official, to be a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and Mike Darner, who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as a senior White House policy advisor. Also being recommended is Elisa Massimino, a chair in human rights at Georgetown University Law Center, as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, and Kate Gould, a senior staffer for Rep. Ro Khanna, another architect of war-powers legislation in Congress, to serve as a senior policy advisor at the United States Mission to the United Nations, which Biden has tapped Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman, to lead.

The groups are also hoping to to bring foreign-policy voices cast out during the Trump administration into the Biden team, including Susan Thornton, a career diplomat who led the State Department’s Asia bureau on an acting basis until mid-2018, but faced pushback against her nomination for the full-time role from inside the White House and on Capitol Hill over concerns she wasn’t hawkish enough on China. Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a career civil servant removed by then-director of Policy Planning Brian Hook in 2017 after asking top Trump officials to help defend her from attacks in conservative media, is also being flagged for a role by progressives.

Progressives are hoping the Biden administration will bring back Obama-era veterans to high-level roles, such as Robert Malley, a former top National Security Council official for the Middle East and advisor to Sanders who is reportedly in the mix for a top Iran-focused job; Jarrett Blanc, a deputy lead coordinator to implement the Iran nuclear deal under Obama; and Patrick Gaspard, a former ambassador to South Africa. Sasha Baker, a top advisor to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Keane Bhatt, the current communications director for Sanders, are also being touted for top jobs.

The progressives’ campaign has intensified in part due to perceived corporate ties among many Biden picks, such as Blinken, the secretary of state-designate. A longtime Biden acolyte, he co-founded WestExec Advisors with Flournoy, which has not publicly revealed its client lists inside the government, something that progressives have worried could raise conflicts of interest. Austin, a retired Army general, who would become the first Black defense secretary if confirmed, sits on the board of Raytheon Technologies, which designs many of the smart bombs used by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and is also tied to Nucor, an American steel corporation.

Update, Dec. 18, 2020: This article was updated to provide more information about candidates to serve in the upcoming administration.

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

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