Security Brief

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer. Delivered Thursday. Available only to FP subscribers.

Pressure Mounts on Biden to Cancel Billions More in Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

The U.S. president has already halted some arms sales to the Gulf. How he handles the rest will be a bellwether for progressives’ sway over his foreign policy.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A fighter in Yemen stands atop a tank.
A fighter loyal to Yemen's separatist Southern Transitional Council stands atop a tank amid clashes with Saudi-backed government forces for control of Zinjibar, the capital of Yemen's southern Abyan province, on May 23, 2020. Nabil Hasan/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Security Brief. Hope all our readers are having a good week and remembering to turn off their cat face filters during their next Zoom court date

What’s on tap today: Progressives try to push Biden on Saudi arms sales, major staffing changes are announced more appointees join the Biden team, and Haiti emerges as a foreign-policy test for the new White House.

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Exclusive: Biden Under Pressure Over Saudi Arms Sales

U.S. President Joe Biden’s first salvo on foreign policy marked a 180-degree turn on ties with Saudi Arabia, cutting off support for offensive operations in the Yemen conflict, freezing arms sales, and appointing a new envoy to push Riyadh back to the negotiating table for peace talks.

Progressive groups have applauded these moves but say it’s not enough. 

Nearly 40 advocacy groups and dozens more individuals with sway on the progressive flank of the Democratic Party led by Win Without War, the Project on Middle East Democracy, and the Center for International Policy are calling on Biden to permanently cancel dozens of arms deals worth tens of billions of dollars to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to a new letter shared with Foreign Policy.

Why it matters. Progressives who helped vault Biden to the White House are trying to ramp up pressure on the new administration to advance a raft of their foreign-policy objectives, and the U.S. relationships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are a prime target. 

Rock, meet hard place. Politically, Biden is being pulled by both the centrist and progressive flanks of his party. The relationship with Saudi Arabia is particularly tricky on this front: Its dismal human rights record, including the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and its costly involvement in Yemen have drawn widespread international backlash. But at the same time, Riyadh is geopolitically important to U.S. interests in the Middle East as a major oil producer and counterweight to Iran.

The stakes. How Biden responds to these calls will reflect how much sway the progressive flank of the party has over his foreign policy. That includes prominent progressive experts who are joining his administration: Iran special envoy Rob Malley; senior National Security Council aide Sasha Baker; and possibly Matt Duss, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s top foreign-policy advisor who is rumored to be joining the administration.

“Fundamentally this administration has a unique opportunity to actually realign what we think U.S. national interests are in the [Middle East] with the well-being and aspirations of working people in the region,” said Kate Kizer, the policy director for Win Without War, one of the signatories of the letter. 

What the letter says. The groups call for Biden to scrap 28 arms sales to Gulf kingdoms worth $36.5 billion. This includes the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE and bombs the Saudis have used in their air campaign in the Yemen conflict.

“Permanently cancelling these transfers is an essential step toward ending the cycle of impunity that U.S. policy has helped create, but it does not on its own constitute peace, healing, or justice for the Yemenis – as well as countless other civilians throughout the region – who have long suffered, in significant part as a result of a virtual blank check of U.S. military support for these countries,” the letter reads. 

Meanwhile, in Biden World. By the final stretch of the campaign, Biden amassed a team of over 1,000 expert foreign-policy advisors. Now, they’re trickling into various posts across the administration. Here are some of the new members of Biden’s national security and diplomatic team: 

Biden is eyeing veteran career diplomat Brian Nichols to be his top State Department envoy for Latin America, Robbie reports.

Erica Barks-Ruggles, former U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, joined the administration as the top official in the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs.

Salman Ahmed, a former NSC and State Department official in the Obama administration, is the State Department’s director of policy planning. Other notables there include former Biden Deputy National Security Advisor Julie Smith, who many expect to be tapped for a more senior role soon.

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff, is being considered for a high-profile ambassador post, potentially to China or Japan, NBC News’ Josh Lederman and Carol Lee report.

Molly Montgomery, a former foreign service officer, has joined the administration as a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

Daleep Singh, New York Federal Reserve markets head, is expected to be named deputy national security advisor and deputy National Economic Council director, according to Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson. 

Also according to Bloomberg, Jennifer Harris is expected to become the NSC senior director for international economic affairs and labor and Gladys Cisneros, NSC director for international labor.

Andrea Flores will be NSC director on immigration issues.

Mira Resnick is the new deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security at the State Department’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau, which oversees U.S. arms sales. 

Megan Doherty is now deputy assistant administrator for the Middle East at the U.S. Agency for International Development.   

Winds of change. Anne Neuberger, Biden’s deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology, is set to lead an interagency review of the SolarWinds breach that compromised several U.S. government agencies late last year. And Biden has removed rules that impose reporting requirements on colleges and universities that harbor Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes, an eleventh-hour change by the Trump administration. 


What We’re Watching

Impeachment trial hits home. Washington is inured to political strife and chaos after the last four years, but the second impeachment trial against former President Donald Trump on Wednesday hit home for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The impeachment managers showed harrowing videos of the violent pro-Trump mob that ransacked the Capitol, leaving even Republican senators visibly shaken. Freshman Democratic Rep. Sara Jacobs, who called for Trump’s impeachment hours after the Capitol was breached on Jan. 6, told Robbie this week that not convicting Trump would undercut U.S. global standing abroad.

But Trump still looms large over the Republican Party, many members of which argued, forgetting history, that it is unconstitutional to impeach Trump as a private citizen after he left office. It’s unlikely Democrats have enough Republican support to convict him. (Sen. Lindsey Graham called the presentation by the House impeachment managers “offensive and absurd.”)

Never gonna give you up. He’s not Rick Astley, but Biden had some promises of his own for Defense Department employees on Wednesday. “I will never, ever dishonor you. I will never disrespect you. I will never politicize the work you do,” Biden said in a speech on Wednesday at the Pentagon, the second stop, after Foggy Bottom, on his rehabilitation tour of government agencies that suffered crushing morale and brain drain under Trump.

But Biden also had a homework assignment for his Pentagon team: to finish a review of U.S. military policy toward China in the next four months. Leading that push will be Ely Ratner, a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and a former Biden national security advisor.  

Close to home. A political crisis in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has emerged as an early foreign-policy test for Biden. The Biden administration has supported Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s argument that his term expires next year. But some of Biden’s top Democratic allies on Capitol Hill are criticizing Moïse and backing arguments by opposition leaders that he should leave office this year, FP’s Amy Mackinnon and Robbie report.


Movers & Shakers

Sens. Brian Schatz and Chris Van Hollen are the newest members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the Democrats. (Foreign affairs is a family affair for Van Hollen: His father was a foreign service officer, and his mother worked for the CIA.)

Sens. Bill Hagerty and Mike Rounds are the newest Republican faces on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Prominent D.C. law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck has hired Samantha Carl-Yoder, a former foreign service officer, as a policy director, Politico reports.

The Hudson Institute, an influential D.C. think tank during the Trump administration, has brought on three former Trump State Department and NSC officials: Alex Wong, Miles Yu, and Robert Greenway.


Foreign Policy Recommends

Washington’s popular new trade czar. FP’s Michael Hirsh profiles Katherine Tai, Biden’s pick to be the next U.S. trade representative. If confirmed, she will take charge of one of the toughest global trade environments for the United States since World War II. 


The Week Ahead

Rep. Peter Meijer, retired Gen. David Petraeus, and former Ambassador Ryan Crocker are speaking at an event on the future of Afghanistan on Friday, Feb. 12, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

French President Emmanuel Macron will attend a summit with leaders of the G5 Sahel group on Monday, Feb. 15, and Tuesday, Feb. 16, to discuss counterterrorism in West Africa.

NATO defense ministers are meeting via teleconference on Wednesday, Feb. 17, and Thursday, Feb. 18.


Odds and Ends

Rap battle, State Department edition. “Hi, my name is Dan. I’m from Nebraska.” So begins the latest (first?) rap video ever produced by an ambassador with the State Department, a bureaucracy world-renowned for its high-quality hip hop. Daniel Kritenbrink, the U.S. envoy to Vietnam, released the rap video to ring in Lunar New Year, known as Tet in Vietnam.

Sure, it’s a tad cringey, but when was the last time a U.S. Embassy video racked up nearly half a million views? So hats off to you, Dan from Nebraska, and whatever public affairs officer helped put this together. 


That’s it for today.

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer