Security Brief

Changing of the Guard

Biden’s cabinet nominees have made a lot of promises in their Senate confirmation hearings. Whether they keep them will define the president’s foreign-policy legacy.

Antony Blinken speaks before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State in Washington on Jan. 19.
Antony Blinken speaks before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State in Washington on Jan. 19. ALEX EDELMAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief—and welcome for the first time to Biden’s America. Missed yesterday’s inauguration? Catch up with our coverage here.

What’s on tap today: A rundown of top cabinet nominees’ foreign-policy promises for the next four years, a suicide bombing hits Baghdad, and a look at Biden’s Pentagon team.

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Promises Made—Let’s See if They’re Kept 

It’s a time-honored tradition in Washington: A new president’s cabinet nominees march into Congress and face grilling from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who try to test the nominees’ mettle ahead of a confirmation vote.

Due to past few months of political dumpster fire, U.S. President Joe Biden comes into office on day one with the fewest cabinet members in place—just one—since President George H.W. Bush over three decades ago. Several of Biden’s key cabinet members have already come out of their cabinet hearings mostly unscathed and primed for confirmation with bipartisan support, despite the brewing fight over the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.

Before the administration gets underway, here’s a look at some of what Biden’s incoming national security team told Congress they would do if confirmed. As always in foreign policy, promises are easier to make than to keep. We’ll revisit them in a few months to see how they stack up.

Antony Blinken, nominee for secretary of state. On Tuesday, Antony Blinken faced the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he vowed to revitalize America’s demoralized diplomatic corps and heard tough questions from Republican lawmakers wary of Biden undoing some of Trump’s foreign policy legacies on China and Iran.

Yemen: Over the past four years, an unusual coalition of ultra-conservative and progressive lawmakers tried and failed to get Trump to halt all U.S. military involvement in the war in Yemen, which has plunged the country into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In his confirmation hearing, Blinken vowed to halt all U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and “review the entirety of the relationship” with Saudi Arabia.

Blinken also agreed to “immediately review” outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s last-minute designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, which humanitarian groups warn will have dire consequences to deliver aid.

AUMFs: A wonky term used by few outside the Beltway, AUMFs (Authorizations to Use Military Force) play a massive role in U.S. foreign policy. In 2001 and 2002, Congress granted authorizations to the executive to greenlight military operations against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and then to launch the 2003 Iraq War. They have yet to be repealed—and now legally underpin all U.S. counter-terror operations, from Syria to East Africa.

During his confirmation hearing, Blinken vowed to work with Congress to repeal and replace the AUMFs. He also said that the Biden administration does not believe the existing AUMFs authorize military strikes against Iran.

State’s dismal diversity: On the home front, Blinken pledged to tackle the State Department’s poor record on diversity, something that has become a top priority for Democratic lawmakers and frustrated career diplomats. The department’s diversity issues worsened under Trump but long preceded his administration. Many diplomats are watching closely how Blinken will make good on his promise.

Lloyd Austin, nominee for defense secretary. Lloyd Austin offered few specifics during his hours-long hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. He pledged to root out white supremacist views and sexual assault in the military and expressed his support for maintaining the U.S. nuclear triad, which some progressives have attacked.

Austin did promise to recuse himself from Pentagon business involving missile maker Raytheon, where he previously sat on the board of directors, and said he would not work in the defense industry after his government service. Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who was Raytheon’s top lobbyist before joining the Trump administration, refused to recuse himself from matters involving the company at his confirmation hearing.

Avril Haines, director of national intelligence. Avril Haines, the first of Biden’s cabinet nominees to be confirmed (with a vote of 84-10), pledged to release an unclassified report on the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi government agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi’s killing fueled public outcry around the world and in Congress.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration doubled down on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia and refused to condemn Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite a U.S. intelligence assessment indicating he ordered Khashoggi’s killing. The crown prince has denied any role in the killing.


Washington’s New Guard—Join yours truly for a virtual event next week. On Tuesday, Jan. 26, Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch will host a conference call for subscribers giving an inside look at Biden’s foreign policy machine. We’ll cover the new faces in the Pentagon, White House, State Department, and other agencies, and what they are likely to do with their first days in office. Register here.


What We’re Watching 

Declaring a genocide. On his way out the door, Pompeo declared that China’s brutal crackdown against its Uighur minorities constituted genocide. The significant diplomatic move is a parting shot at Beijing from an administration that has turbocharged Washington’s pivot to an era of great power competition with China.

Notably, Blinken said that he agreed with Pompeo’s designation, setting the stage for more diplomatic showdowns between the world’s two superpowers. Within hours of Biden’s inauguration, China responded, announcing a raft of new sanctions against outgoing Trump officials including Pompeo, former National Security Advisor John Bolton and others. U.S.-China tensions aren’t going away now that Trump has left Washington.

Biden inherits ‘nonexistent’ coronavirus plan. Biden enters office with precious little to work with in terms of a vaccination plan from the Trump administration, sources tell CNN. Some analysts question whether this line from the new White House is simply a public relations gambit, given that the vaccine rollout did begin in earnest before Biden took office.

The White House coronavirus coordinator has mapped out a goal for the United States to hit 100 million vaccinations in the next 100 days.

Suicide bombing rocks Baghdad. Tragedy hit Baghdad on Thursday when twin suicide bombs struck the Iraqi capital, killing at least 32 and injuring 110. It was the first suicide bombing attack in Baghdad in nearly two years, and it comes amid tensions ahead of the country’s elections and a growing economic crisis. No group has yet claimed credit for the attack.


Movers and Shakers

Swearing in. The Defense Department has sworn in some of the first of its political appointees of the Biden administration, according to a Pentagon press release last night. Susanna Blume, a former deputy chief of staff to the deputy secretary of defense during the Obama administration, will perform duties of the director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, while former Pentagon official Melissa Dalton will serve as principal deputy assistant secretary for strategy, plans and capabilities.

Also sworn in: John Kirby, reprising his role as chief Pentagon spokesperson from the Obama administration; new chief of staff Kelly Magsamen; and the principal deputy assistant secretary for special operations Chris Maier, who was ousted as the Pentagon’s top counter-Islamic State official at the end of the Trump administration.

Acting out. While Blinken, Austin, and other prospective top Biden officials await Senate confirmation, most U.S. government agencies will be led by acting officials. Among them is David Cohen, Biden’s CIA deputy director, who will fill in the top slot while Bill Burns is considered by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Career diplomat Daniel Smith will run the State Department, and Gloria Steele will head up the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Stacking the boards. The Trump administration added three new members to the Defense Policy Board before the transfer of power, Foreign Policy reports. They include a couple of high-profile Trump loyalists: Anthony Tata, who was performing the duties of the Pentagon’s policy chief, and Scott O’Grady, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who was once Trump’s pick to become assistant secretary of defense for international security (and who retweeted missives calling for Trump to declare martial law after the election).

Charles Glazer, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, also joined Tuesday, and Kash Patel, who was chief of staff to acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller until Biden’s inauguration, was nominated to the board. Biden is likely to reverse the moves.

Counting down the days. Pompeo is already counting down the days until 2024. On Thursday, the would-be GOP presidential contender simply tweeted “1,384 days”—the exact number left in the Biden administration.


Quote of the Week

“We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. And we’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”

Biden during his inaugural address


From the Vault

A long legacy of espionage. One of Trump’s last actions in office was to pardon the handler of a notorious double agent, Jonathan Pollard, who spied against the United States for Israel. Aviem Sella, a former Israeli Air Force officer, was indicted in the United States in 1987 on three counts of espionage for recruiting Pollard, then in U.S. Naval Intelligence, and getting him to hand over a trove of top-secret U.S. intelligence to Israeli intelligence.

Pollard was released from prison in November, after 30 years in prison. Sella fled the United States to Israel before Pollard’s arrest and was never extradited or faced prison. Read this fascinating CIA damage assessment of his espionage, declassified and published by the National Security Archives, for a firsthand account on its impact.


Foreign Policy Recommends

Off the rails. Axios has a multi-part series on the insane final months of the Trump administration, from the president’s election night meltdowns when he—or at least his advisors—realized he was likely going to lose to the campaign of baseless claims of election fraud, all the way through to the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.


Odds and Ends

Oops. From local Washington news station WUSA9: “Capitol Rioter Arrested After Sending Selfie to Girlfriend’s Brother—A Federal Agent.” Next time you’re participating in a violent insurrection against the U.S. government, think twice before sending selfies to federal agents. Or don’t do either.


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.

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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