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Blinken Faces Grilling at Senate Confirmation Hearing

Biden’s picks for secretaries of state, defense, and the treasury all go before Senate Committees today.

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A view of the U.S. Capitol Dome behind freshly-installed razor wire-tipped fencing on January 15, 2021 in Washington, D.C.
A view of the U.S. Capitol Dome behind freshly-installed razor wire-tipped fencing on January 15, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Biden’s cabinet nominees face confirmation hearings, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte heads for a crucial Senate vote, and Ugandan opposition party offices are raided after last week’s elections.

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Biden’s Nominees Face the Senate

The bulk of President-elect Joe Biden’s national security cabinet picks go before U.S. Senate committees today to face confirmation hearings a day before Biden is sworn in—and a contentious impeachment trial begins.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, is set to face a heated confirmation hearing. He is expected to be pressed by Democratic and Republican lawmakers on a wide range of foreign policy issues including Iran, China, North Korea, and the United States’ global response to the coronavirus pandemic. (There’s unlikely to be any time to question him on his musical abilities, however).

WestExec questions. Blinken is also sure to face questions on WestExec Advisors, an international consulting firm he co-founded in 2017. The company and its clients, which include foreign governments, has come under scrutiny in recent months given how many members of the consulting firm are expected to join the Biden administration.

“With Blinken, the committee needs clear visibility on any potential conflicts of interest to ensure the committee can fulfill its oversight responsibilities of the State Department and how U.S. foreign policy decisions may be made. Blinken has been asked to provide additional clarifying information in regards to his role at WestExec and what countries he and his organization were advising their clients on,” a Republican Senate aide told Foreign Policy.

Senate aides on both sides of the aisle have told FP that Blinken’s past business ties are not likely to be a deal breaker, but they expect clear answers from him on how he will head off potential conflicts of interest. “Even with a democratic majority, in a 50-50 Senate, Biden’s nominees will need Republican support,” the aide said.

As inauguration approaches… Get up to the minute analysis of all of the new hires and policy plans of the Biden transition with Foreign Policy’s dedicated blog.


The World This Week

On Wednesday, Jan 20, Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States.

The second impeachment trial of President Trump is expected to begin.  

On Thursday, Jan. 21, Johnson & Johnson will release the initial results of its COVID-19 vaccine trial.

The U.S. House Armed Services Committee holds a hearing to grant a waiver allowing Gen. Lloyd Austin III to serve as a civilian leader in the role of Secretary of Defense.

On Friday, Jan. 22,  a mail-in ballot takes place to confirm Armin Laschet as the next party leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union.

The United Nations Security Council holds an Informal meeting to discuss the situation in Belarus, with opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya briefing participants.

On Sunday, Jan. 24, voters in Portugal go to the polls in a presidential election. Incumbent President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa seeks a second five-year term against socialist Ana Gomes and far-right candidate André Ventura.


What We’re Following Today

Conte faces Senate vote. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte faces a decisive vote in the Senate today as he appeals to lawmakers to back his premiership following the departure of Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva from his ruling coalition. Conte survived a confidence vote in the lower house by a higher-than-expected margin, 321 to 259. Conte has promised a cabinet reshuffle and a new policy agenda if he is allowed to continue as prime minister.

Opposition offices raided in Uganda. Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine said his political party’s headquarters were raided by government troops as he prepared to challenge the results of last Thursday’s election. Uganda’s electoral commission reported a landslide victory for President Yoweri Museveni on Saturday, declaring him with the winner with 58.6 percent of the vote versus only 34.8 percent of voters supporting Wine. Museveni has dismissed fraud accusations and predicted the election would be the “most cheating-free” in Ugandan history.

Navalny detained. Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was detained almost immediately following his return to Moscow after spending months in Germany convalescing from a poison attack. He will be held for 30 days, according to his spokesman. Prosecutors accuse Navalny of violating the terms of a suspended sentence handed down in 2014, and are pushing to have Navalny serve the three and a half year jail term as a result. Navalny denies the embezzlement charges the sentence is based upon and argues the time has already elapsed.

Trump’s last day. U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to announce a final wave of pardons as he enters the final full day of his presidency. According to reports, the pardons include those close to the president as well as commutations for some drug offenders serving long prison sentences.


Keep an Eye On

Facebook to go along with new Turkish law. Facebook has said it will comply with a new Turkish social media law by appointing a local legal representative to deal with complaints about content on its services. The law makes social media companies responsible for dealing with complaints within 48 hours, and levies fines against those that do not comply. User data is also stored in Turkey under the law, raising privacy and free speech concerns. In a statement, Facebook said it was ready to withdraw its representative if it faced pressure that went against its internal standards.

WHO issues more warnings on vaccine hoarding. The World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanonom Ghebreysus has warned of a “catastrophic moral failure” if vaccines are not made more readily available to poor countries. In highlighting the divide between rich and poor, Tedros pointed out that high-income countries had distributed roughly 39 million vaccine doses so far, whereas those classified as low-income had only distributed 25 in total.

North Korean missiles. North Korea could be planning a new missile launch to coincide with Joe Biden’s inauguration, according to an analysis of satellite imagery near the site of previous tests. Analysts from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies identified a barge used for previous tests that was likely being modified for a fresh launch. After this month’s ruling party congress, a North Korean military parade showed off what appeared to be a new submarine launched missile.

Climate trouble. For the third year running, extreme weather and climate action failure were listed as the two top risks facing the world according to a survey of global leaders conducted by the World Economic Forum. Along with the coronavirus pandemic, respondents included livelihood crises as the most critical short-term threat facing the world in 2021.


Odds and Ends

Afghanistan’s traffic authorities are to stop issuing license plates with the number 39 in a bid to cut down on bribery. The figure is considered shameful to Afghans because of its associations with pimping and prostitution—a notorious pimp in the city of Herat reportedly drove a car with the number—leading car owners to go to great lengths to avoid the taboo combination. In announcing the move, Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh said that drivers had spent as much as $300 to persuade traffic officials to give them a more favorable plate number.

Abdul Qader Samoonwal, an official at Kabul’s Traffic and License Registration department, suggested a more nefarious motive behind the aversion to number 39 in an interview with NPR in 2011. “Car dealerships and those who work for the mafia started the rumors about 39 so they could buy cars with 39 plates cheaper and sell them back for higher prices after changing the plates,” he said.


That’s it for today.

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

Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn