Analysis

Is Joe Biden Missing a Team of Rivals?

The U.S. president appointed longtime staffers to his most powerful foreign-policy roles—and is now suffering the consequences.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with his national security team.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with his national security team for an operational update on the situation in Afghanistan at the White House in Washington on Aug. 22. White House via Getty Images

In former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, one senior official assigned himself the role of The Iliad’s Cassandra, warning against grand designs that would, he felt, come to grief. That was then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Biden told Obama the counterinsurgency strategy his generals were recommending in Afghanistan was doomed to fail and the plan to seize al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was too risky to try. He was right on the first one and wrong on the second. Cassandra may have given some lousy advice as well; that comes with the territory.

Who, today, is Joe Biden’s Joe Biden? The answer, plainly, is no one.

When Biden chose Antony Blinken as U.S. secretary of state and Jake Sullivan as national security advisor, I wrote he had assembled the kind of national security team that “national security professionals have been yearning for since the Bush era.” The president I had in mind, George H.W. Bush, had placed around him two genuine peers with long experience in global affairs: then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and then-U.S. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. I believed Blinken and Sullivan fit this same mold.

In former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, one senior official assigned himself the role of The Iliad’s Cassandra, warning against grand designs that would, he felt, come to grief. That was then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Biden told Obama the counterinsurgency strategy his generals were recommending in Afghanistan was doomed to fail and the plan to seize al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was too risky to try. He was right on the first one and wrong on the second. Cassandra may have given some lousy advice as well; that comes with the territory.

Who, today, is Joe Biden’s Joe Biden? The answer, plainly, is no one.

When Biden chose Antony Blinken as U.S. secretary of state and Jake Sullivan as national security advisor, I wrote he had assembled the kind of national security team that “national security professionals have been yearning for since the Bush era.” The president I had in mind, George H.W. Bush, had placed around him two genuine peers with long experience in global affairs: then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and then-U.S. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. I believed Blinken and Sullivan fit this same mold.

Nothing has changed my view of the talents Blinken and Sullivan bring to the job, but I now realize I overlooked something important: Baker and Scowcroft really were peers, not only in age but in experience and stature. Biden, by contrast, has surrounded himself with his own former staff members, at the level of principals and, in many cases, deputies. None can address him as a peer.

Since it is generally through orchestrated leaks that one learns of high-level dissent, the public’s sense that no one is playing the role of Biden’s Biden may be a mistaken inference from a tight-knit policy process that does not tolerate leaks. It may be that the decision to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan or to sell nuclear subs to Australia despite the consequences for French relations provoked furious internal debate that did not escape the White House’s confines. If so, good for them. But the greater likelihood is no one who mattered enough warned Biden sternly of consequences that lurked around the corner.

Why not? Why didn’t someone say: “Look, boss, this is a great opportunity for us to help a key ally stand up to China—and to sell some expensive hardware in the bargain—but it’s going to outrage an even more important ally, so let’s figure out how we can limit the damage?” The damage done is very real. Even if French President Emmanuel Macron calms down and returns his ambassador to Washington—which he surely will at some point—the United States has told him—and, by extension, other European leaders—that their own political and economic well-being weigh so little in the balance that they don’t even rate an advance warning.

How does that comport with all the trumpet fanfare over the return to multilateralism, which Biden sounded once again in his address before the United Nations General Assembly? What of the insistence, which Biden also reiterated, that democracies must stand together against autocratic menace? Biden also made a point of asserting the United States is not seeking “a new Cold War.” Yet an ally would reasonably conclude he is prepared to inflict all sorts of collateral damage in the name of improving the U.S. position regarding China.

An administration that genuinely believes in diplomacy has committed several unnecessary diplomatic blunders. I accept that Biden needed to end the United States’ troop presence in Afghanistan; yet he managed the withdrawal in a way that both irked allies who had their own troops posted there and felt blindsided as well as—and much more importantly—treated the extraction of endangered Afghans as a kind of sideshow rather than a supreme moral obligation.

Presidents do not need Abraham Lincoln’s fabled “team of rivals.” Obama did not make Hillary Clinton his secretary of state because they differed on foreign policy. (They didn’t.) Bush the elder chose fellow pragmatists Baker and Scowcroft. After decades of experience in foreign affairs, George H.W. Bush knew his own mind, as Biden knows his. But that’s not enough, even for the worldliest: A president is isolated in a way that a vice president or senator is not. Just ask Lyndon Johnson, who also served in all three of those roles and went from being a garrulous legislator to a solitary leader unwilling to hear bad news about Vietnam from aides who understood the situation on the ground far better than him. He never had someone he felt he had to listen to, as former U.S. President John Kennedy had with former Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.

This is why Biden needs his Biden. It’s not in his nature to quash debate, but a subordinate who owes his career to his boss does not have the same standing—and perhaps not the same independence of mind—as one who has arrived by his or her own path. It may also be the case that officials who spent their lives in staff positions or think tanks—as is true with much of Biden’s senior foreign-policy staff—lack the fine-grained knowledge of people and places that allows one to anticipate real-world consequences of even the most analytically defensible policies.

I am, of course, assuming Biden and his team accept they have made unforced errors. Maybe they don’t. Maybe we are only now waking up to how very different this Biden is from the senator and vice president who, like Bush the elder, loved nothing more than endless palaver with his fellow heads of state. This Biden faces immense pressure to show the American people he can pull them out of the ditch they have fallen into, believes foreign policy matters only insofar as it can be used to improve the United States’ domestic position, and feels ill-tempered toward allies reluctant to see China as the menace he believes it is. This Biden is impatient with obstacles and is looking for the shortest line between two points.

One can feel a dangerous new consensus forming among Western allies that the new Biden is every bit as prepared as former U.S. President Donald Trump was to throw Europe overboard when it suits the United States’ interests. That’s much too pat.

This is, after all, the same Biden who lifted long-standing U.S. objections to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project despite concerns it would enhance Russian leverage over Europe because he understood how important it was to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

That said, you can’t fail to feel the new mood in Washington. It’s not 2016 anymore. The world has gotten much more dangerous, and yesterday’s niceties—not all that nice even in Obama’s time—have become today’s unaffordable luxuries. The Europeans are grousing that “consultation” has become a formality? The French have gone nuclear over the United States’ nuclear subs? They’ll get over it.

Yes, they will. But who’s going to tell Biden about the price he is now paying in the name of confronting China and keeping a restive American public from eating him alive? The answer, it seems, is no one.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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