The Biden Transition
All the new hires and plans in one place.
While Donald Trump still hasn’t conceded, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has already gotten to work on building a new administration. Scroll down for Foreign Policy’s coverage on a fraught transfer of power—and what it means for the United States and the world.
Meeks Makes History as First Black Lawmaker to Chair House Foreign Affairs Committee
The New York congressman fended off a progressive challenge in an unusually public race.
New York Rep. Gregory Meeks was selected as the next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after a rare three-way race for the influential congressional leadership post that will play an outsized role in helping shape U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy from Capitol Hill.
The Democratic caucus on Thursday voted to make Meeks the next chairman of the influential committee. He beat a long-shot progressive challenger, Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, by a vote of 148 to 78, congressional aides told Foreign Policy. Meeks will make history as the first Black chairman of the committee in its 198-year history. California Rep. Brad Sherman, another contender, bowed out of the race earlier this week.
The race between the centrist Meeks and Castro reflected broader rifts within the Democratic Party over its foreign-policy platform. Progressive lawmakers are pushing Biden and other centrists in the Democratic Party to shift left on foreign policy, particularly on issues like military spending, U.S. troop deployments abroad, and international trade agreements.
When he becomes chairman in January, Meeks will have an outsized role in Congress’s work on national security, foreign aid, trade, and reforming the State Department.
In a statement issued after he was elected chair, Meeks outlined the committee’s priorities as Biden enters the White House.
“The committee under the next Congress will preside over an historic shift in US foreign policy, and there is no shortage of work ahead of us,” he said. He said the committee would work to have the United States rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and World Health Organization, reversing departures under President Donald Trump, and “take back Congress’ constitutional authority” on war powers that “have led to ambiguous forever wars.”
He also said the committee “must take a leading role in how we rebuild the State Department.”
The intraparty tensions seen in the race for the committee chairmanship are also playing out for the incoming White House too, as the left flank of the Democratic Party pressures Biden over his expected picks for the heads of the CIA and Department of Defense.
In a statement, Castro outlined the common goals that he and Meeks shared for the committee despite the centrist-progressive divisions within the Democratic Party.
“I look forward to working together with Chairman Meeks, particularly on our common goals such as promoting diversity at the U.S. State Department and rejoining the Iran nuclear deal,” he said. “To my colleagues who believed in our vision and supported my bid for chair, especially those who dedicated their time to speak on my behalf, thank you. I also appreciate the passionate advocates for their strategic organizing, and I’m proud to be part of a growing progressive foreign policy movement.”
Congressional aides familiar with the matter said that they expect Castro to keep his leadership position on the committee as chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
On the other side of the aisle, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul was reselected by House Republicans to be their top member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. McCaul has been a vocal supporter of the Trump administration’s hawkish policies toward China.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the outgoing chairman, helped lead Democratic investigations into Trump’s handling of U.S. foreign policy, including the impeachment investigation, inquiries into expedited arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and probes of other allegations of mismanagement at the State Department under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Both Meeks and Castro previously told Foreign Policy they would keep those investigations open after Trump leaves office in January.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Will Biden’s National Security Team Include Members of the Democratic Party’s Progressive Wing?
The president-elect’s picks have deep experience in the Washington establishment. It’s unclear whether the party’s left can make its voice heard in the new administration.
Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! Did you have a good Thanksgiving? Or were you too distracted by our prediction from the last column coming true?
Last time around, we asked if Donald Trump would try to destroy Iran’s nuclear program before he leaves the White House, and just as we were all recovering from our Thanksgiving turkey comas, Iran’s senior nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated by parties unknown.
Matthew Kroenig: We may have been prescient. But most speculate that it was the Israeli Mossad (not Trump) behind the attack. And, indeed, Israel has a history of covert action against weapons of mass destruction programs in the region going all the way back to Egypt’s nuclear and rocket programs in the 1950s—and most famously Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981.
What is your assessment of the reasoning behind the attack and its likely effectiveness?
Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center. They debate foreign policy and the 2020 election.
EA: It was definitely the Israelis. As you point out, they have a history of doing this kind of thing. There are historical reasons for the willingness of the Mossad to take actions others might consider immoral, like assassinations or kidnappings. And certainly, no one objected when it was former Nazis they were chasing down.
But it has produced a security service with almost no compunction about engaging in behavior that Americans would be appalled to see from the CIA, for example. In this case, there’s little doubt that Trump at least implicitly condoned the assassination of an Iranian scientist on Iranian soil. Should Americans really be comfortable with that?
MK: The U.S. government has had a ban against assassinations for decades, so you are right that it would disapprove of the CIA doing something similar. And I doubt Israel asked permission. It has taken bold action, including destroying Iraq’s reactor in 1981, without notifying Washington.
EA: Right, but they wouldn’t have done it if they thought it would seriously anger the United States. And I think it’s worth thinking about why Washington is comfortable letting the Israelis do these things—and implicitly condoning them—if Americans don’t want the country’s own intelligence services to do them.
You said it will slow Iran’s nuclear program. And I want to raise a problem with a lot of the coverage of the assassination, which describes Fakhrizadeh as the head of Iran’s “nuclear weapons program.” There’s a big problem: Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program. It hasn’t had one since the early 2000s. So killing this scientist might be a hedge against future weaponization, but it will have no impact on Iran’s civilian program and enrichment capabilities.
MK: I want to raise a problem with that kind of hair splitting. Iran does not have a civilian nuclear program. It is not economical for Iran to enrich its own uranium to provide fuel for its single power reactor. It would be much more efficient to buy nuclear fuel on the open market like nearly every other country with a genuine civil nuclear program, like Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, and South Korea. There is only one reason for Iran to enrich uranium itself: to have the option to build nuclear weapons.
EA: All nuclear programs are to some extent latent weapons programs. Even states with no intention to weaponize—Japan, for example—can be so-called threshold nuclear states if they’re technologically advanced; it would take many just a few months to convert their civilian programs to weapons if they wanted.
And I agree that it’s a hedge on the part of Iran. But many other countries have taken similar steps. The Saudi government, for example, announced last year that it intended to start domestic enrichment activities. Should U.S. intelligence agents—or the Israelis—be assassinating Saudi or Emirati scientists now? An Israeli scholar was featured here at Foreign Policy recently arguing that those programs could be a threat to Israel someday.
MK: The United States has resisted and will continue to resist the spread of enrichment capabilities to all countries, including Saudi Arabia. When asked about a possible enrichment program in the kingdom, the U.S. State Department said that “we oppose the spread of enrichment and reprocessing” and encouraged “strong nonproliferation protections.” Riyadh might still try to build an enrichment plant, but to do so it would need to deceive, and then risk facing the wrath of, Washington.
And, to return to your earlier statement, this will impede Iran’s enrichment program. The top scientist has been eliminated. Other nuclear scientists will have second thoughts about taking his place, and younger talent will consider safer fields. Moreover, the Iranians will have to carefully review their security protocols to see if there’s a traitor in their midst and how they can better protect scientists in the future. These are all obstacles to their progress. It won’t be enough to stop the program in its tracks, but it will slow it down and increase the pressure on Tehran.
EA: You’re probably right there. But there was no urgent risk here to justify this assassination— other than Israel’s fear that President-elect Joe Biden will seek a new deal with Iran. And that brings me to my next point: How often do we think that the United States or its allies can do this kind of thing before it creates blowback? Sure, this was the Israelis, not the United States. But when you add it to the Qassem Suleimani killing at the start of this year, I have to wonder how long it will be before Iran—or some other country—decides that it’s OK to assassinate senior U.S. military or intelligence officials driving home from work in suburban Virginia.
At least here, the risk is low because of the change in U.S. administration. What do you think? Will this all make it harder for Biden to deal with Iran?
MK: I think the risk is low mostly because of U.S. escalation dominance. Iran doesn’t want a major war with the Pentagon. Tehran will talk about retaliation, but it will choose a de-escalatory, face-saving response (such as a cyberattack) if it does anything at all.
Most commentators say this will hurt the chances for diplomacy, but I am not so sure. Americans tend to think that one prepares for diplomacy by being nice, but Iran only makes concessions under pressure. The last spate of assassinations of Iranian scientists from 2010 to 2012 directly preceded serious negotiations toward the 2015 nuclear deal.
EA: I don’t think this will hurt the chances for diplomacy too much, but I have no doubt that’s what it was intended to do. A lot of the actions that the Israelis—and the Trump administration— have taken toward Iran in recent months have been designed to make it as domestically unpalatable as possible for Iranian leaders to push for renewed diplomacy with the United States. But the incentives are still huge.
As Biden pointed out just this week, dealing with the nuclear issue is still the best way to start pushing for regional stability and improving Iran’s behavior in other areas. The new administration is keen to get diplomacy moving here.
MK: Indeed. I suspect a return to the 2015 nuclear deal is in the works whether one likes it or not.
Speaking of the new administration, the other prominent national security discussion in Washington this week is about Biden’s cabinet picks, which he announced since our last column. I must say, I think it is the start of a good team. I have a lot of respect for the experience and judgement of people like Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan. And I hope Michèle Flournoy is named defense secretary. I worked for her when she was President Barack Obama’s undersecretary of defense for policy, and she was a great boss and is widely admired.
EA: You know, that’s what I keep hearing from everyone. That she’s a nice person, a wonderful mentor, and extremely well-qualified. There’s also a strong argument to be made that getting a woman into the defense secretary’s job would be a major step forward for the cause of gender equality in national security.
That said, I’d like us to get to a place where it’s not a trade-off between gender equality and problematic foreign-policy views. Because Flournoy has some worrying views. She’s consistently supported military interventions throughout her career, she’s always pushed for bigger defense budgets, and she’s extremely hawkish on China. Hardly a good match for Biden’s views.
MK: Interesting. My only concern about her views is that she may be insufficiently committed to defense spending. Specifically, she has questioned the need to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad, and I believe all are critical for nuclear deterrence.
But we are in a major-power competition with China, the military balance in Asia is shifting, so I think we need a defense secretary who understands the gravity of the challenge and is ready to stand up to Beijing.
An understanding of the defense industry is an asset for the secretary of defense. A large part of the job is overseeing the part of the Pentagon that plans the future force and buys the weapons to equip U.S. troops. Why is it a problem?
EA: That’s kind of my point, Matt. If defense hawks believe that Michèle Flournoy’s views will make her an excellent defense secretary candidate, I’m concerned!
But at the end of the day, it’s not obvious that the alternatives are any better. Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin also has ties to defense contractors and would represent yet another retired general officer in a role that should be held by a civilian.
MK: Yes. To ensure healthy civilian control of the military, I think it is important to have a strong civilian in this role, not a recently retired general.
But an understanding of the defense industry is an asset for the secretary of defense. A large part of the job is overseeing the part of the Pentagon that plans the future force and buys the weapons to equip U.S. troops. Why is it a problem?
EA: The complaint is mostly about the cozy nature of the defense industry’s revolving door. We’ve seen it repeatedly during the Trump administration, where officials with long careers at defense contractors have stuck in their oar on procurement decisions to try to favor their old employer. But it’s hard to tell when it’s going to be a problem. And almost no one gets defense experience without some ties to industry.
Many of the other names in the mix—Sen. Tammy Duckworth, for example—simply don’t have the necessary Pentagon know-how despite having combat experience.
I see the same problem across most of Biden’s national security appointees, like Blinken or Avril Haines. You simply can’t get the experience needed for these senior roles without some government or industry experience; that makes it difficult to get those with true outsider perspectives into the room. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party doesn’t yet have the bench of experienced foreign-policy hands that it needs if it wants to staff an administration. That’s a work in progress, and it leaves us with less than ideal candidates for the Biden administration.
MK: Who would progressives like to see in these roles?
EA: The problem is that there is no good bench of alternative talent. The progressive and “restrainer” foreign-policy movement has come a long way since 2016, when Sen. Bernie Sanders barely mentioned foreign policy in his presidential run. But most of the brightest thinkers in that space are still relatively junior. One hope I have for a Biden administration is that it may provide them with an opportunity to gain the government experience that would one day qualify them for secretary of defense.
Until then, the choices are limited.
MK: Well, in the meantime, Trump is president for another six weeks, so I have a few more opportunities to point out that the administration is doing a better job than it gets credit for. It looks like Operation Warp Speed is working and we could have a vaccine very soon.
EA: We could have two! Both Pfizer and Moderna have submitted their vaccine candidates for approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Once they’re approved, then it’s a question of production and distribution. And I agree with you, Operation Warp Speed is something that the Trump administration should probably get more credit for. Vaccine rollout will still be slow, but far faster than it would have been otherwise. It’s also a victory for the U.S. free market system, which helps to foster ingenuity in biotech and other fields.
Of course, this raises some big foreign-policy questions: How will developing countries access the vaccine? Will the United States and other developed countries continue to stick to “vaccine nationalism”? And will the fact that at least some of the final vaccines were developed right here in the United States rehabilitate America’s image after a truly terrible early response to the coronavirus?
MK: Good questions. I have a few of my own to add. Pick it up here next time?
EA: Sure. Just as long as our next column is Christmas-themed. After the rest of 2020, I’m spending all of December looking for holiday cheer!
MK: Good idea. We’ll toast. I know I won’t be the only one drinking Australian wine this holiday season.
Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China.
Kamala Harris Taps Ex-Diplomat to Be Her National Security Advisor
Nancy McEldowney is one of several former senior foreign service officers expected to join the senior ranks of the new U.S. administration.
U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has tapped a former senior foreign service officer to serve as her national security advisor, the latest diplomat to join the incoming administration as President-elect Joe Biden and Harris build out their national security team.
Her pick for the job, Nancy McEldowney, served in the foreign service for over 30 years, including posts as U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, director of the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, and chargé d’affaires and deputy chief of mission in Turkey and Azerbaijan.
McEldowney is one of several former career diplomats expected to join the senior ranks of the Biden administration, signaling a stark shift in staffing from the Trump White House, where the president viewed career diplomats with a mix of suspicion and disdain, particularly after the impeachment trial that put his handling of foreign policy and State Department officials in the crosshairs. Biden picked Linda Thomas-Greenfield, another former senior foreign service officer, as his choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
In prior interviews with Foreign Policy, McEldowney openly criticized President Donald Trump for alienating close U.S. allies and allowing his son-in-law, White House advisor Jared Kushner, a real estate developer, broad and ill-defined influence over U.S. foreign policy. She has also joined a chorus of former diplomats who rebuked the Trump administration for mismanaging and weakening America’s diplomatic corps and its repeated attempts to push through steep budget cuts to the State Department and foreign aid programs.
McEldowney, who taught at Georgetown University from 2017 to 2020, was more recently involved in a major study by Harvard University calling for an overhaul of U.S. foreign service to confront “one of the most profound crises in its long and proud history.” The report urged the Biden administration to cut back on the practice of granting political supporters senior State Department and ambassador posts and highlighted other sorely needed structural reforms to the department.
In a statement, Harris said McEldowny’s “distinguished Foreign Service career and leadership abroad will be invaluable as we keep the American people safe and advance our country’s interests around the world.”
McEldowney is one of several key appointees Harris announced on Thursday. Harris also tapped Hartina Flournoy, a longtime Democratic Party operative, as her chief of staff, and Rohini Kosoglu, her former chief of staff in the Senate, as her domestic policy advisor.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The Ghost of Blinken Past
In 1987, Biden’s pick for secretary of state offered a warning. He should heed it today.
“The Atlantic Alliance is showing serious cracks,” declared President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. “On a number of seemingly unrelated fronts, the United States and Western Europe are at each other’s throats … mounting protectionist sentiment has pushed the allies to the brink of economic warfare … Republicans and Democrats alike are tired of seeing the U.S. devote almost one half of its defense budget to NATO and receive little more than complaints in return … more generally, a new climate of isolationism is in the air—a belief that Europe is becoming less relevant, that American attention would be better devoted to the Pacific basin.”
The year: 1987. The president: Ronald Reagan. The dilemma: What to do about the new gas pipeline that Europe was building to Russia, one of America’s key foreign policy rivals. Blinken’s first book, Ally Versus Ally: America, Europe, and the Siberian Pipeline Crisis, was published by a then-unknown young writer in 1987. But the dilemma it explores bears remarkable similarities to the challenges the Biden administration is about to face when it takes office. In fact, looking at Blinken’s analysis of U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s provides some tantalizing clues as to how he plans to guide American diplomacy if he is confirmed as Biden’s secretary of state.
The “Siberian pipeline crisis” that formed the subject of Ally Versus Ally has been forgotten by all but specialists. During the mid-1980s, though, it was a source of angry debate in U.S.-European relations. Under the Reagan administration, the United States was tightening the screws on the Soviet Union—applying diplomatic pressure and cutting off commerce. Washington’s campaign was unpopular in Western Europe, where the consensus opinion was that the Soviets needed to be engaged, not defeated. Europeans saw Moscow and its Warsaw Pact satellites as valuable trading partners and wanted to import natural gas from the vast Siberian gas fields that Russia was just then beginning to develop.
To Europe, tapping those seemed like an obvious way for it to diversify its energy supplies. To Washington, the pipeline was a scheme that would end up funding the Soviet military machine. When Europe started laying pipe against U.S. objections, Washington the sanctioned European companies involved. European governments pushed ahead anyway. A foreign-policy disagreement was becoming a commercial crisis. And the alliance that had held the West together since World War II risked fracturing. It was “the beginning of the end of the Atlantic Alliance,” France’s foreign minister declared.
When French President Emmanuel Macron declared NATO “brain dead” last year, he was far from the first French leader to call the Western alliance into question. Today’s transatlantic divisions have to the crisis of the late 1980s. Now, Germany is building a new gas pipeline from Russia—Nord Stream 2. Washington has again levied sanctions on companies involved, causing German politicians to accuse the United States of “neo-imperialism,” “blackmail,” and even “economic war.”
Then as now, the nuclear order in Europe was also in crisis, with the United States and Russia threatening to build up force levels in Europe. Such threats of escalation, too, intensified divisions between Washington and its European allies, many of which were skeptical of the utility of adding nukes on their territory. And just like today, the West feared that the center of gravity in international politics was shifting toward Asia; it was the period of “Japan as Number One,” as one influential book put it. This, too, seemed to bode poorly for the Atlantic Alliance.
In Ally Versus Ally, Blinken evinced little sympathy for the Reagan administration’s campaign of maximum pressure against the Soviet Union, though he also thought the Europeans’ hope that “expanded economic relations will produce positive change in the Kremlin’s foreign and domestic policies” was “wishful thinking.” However, he argued, U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union was less important than U.S. policy toward its European allies. The key geopolitical prize was not changes in Soviet behavior—which were difficult to predict or to shape—but alliance unity.
“By promoting a more harmonious alliance, rather than one divided over an issue as fundamental as East-West trade relations, the West will be in a better position to meet the challenges posed by its adversaries,” Blinken wrote. The reason was that the U.S. strategy of containing Soviet influence primarily depended on the durability of the transatlantic alliance. “If the Siberian pipeline crisis teaches us anything, it is that the Western alliance must look inward, and not simply outward, if it is to remain secure.” Alliance management generated less enthusiasm than strategy toward the Soviet Union, Blinken believed, but it was ultimately more important.
Assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, Blinken will face a familiar set of challenges upon his arrival in Foggy Bottom in 2021. The United States and some European allies are divided not only over Russian gas pipelines but also by debates over strategy toward Iran and China. Biden’s desire to return to a nuclear deal with Iran will remove one major foreign policy irritant. On China—which is likely to remain as central to Biden’s foreign policy as it has been to Trump’s—the United States and Europe still have different perspectives when it comes to defining the challenge or devising a strategy to respond.
Blinken’s predecessor, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, devoted substantial diplomatic energy to encouraging skepticism of China in Europe, especially on Huawei and 5G. Pompeo scored some successes but also left many in Europe uncomfortable that they were being asked to take sides. If Blinken’s analysis of the 1980s is any guide, he’ll place less emphasis on pressuring allies and more on listening to their concerns. After four years of America First, Europe will be glad to get friendlier treatment from a secretary of state who has written an entire book on the importance of being nice to allies. The test of Blinken’s strategy, though, will be whether he can heal the alliances by making them work better, not simply by asking allies to do less.
Chris Miller is an assistant professor at the Fletcher School, the Eurasia director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the author of Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia.
Biden Expected to Put the World’s Kleptocrats on Notice
The U.S. president-elect and his top advisors have made the fight against dirty money one of their early priorities.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to make a crackdown on illicit finance both at home in the United States and abroad a centerpiece of his administration, a move that could have profound implications for anti-corruption efforts around the globe.
Biden, who as vice president spearheaded the Obama administration’s fight against corruption and kleptocracy, has repeatedly vowed to make it a focus as president. Two years ago, Biden and his former advisor Michael Carpenter warned in Politico about the threat posed by foreign money of unknown origins to the integrity of U.S. elections. He echoed those concerns in a Foreign Affairs essay this spring.
“I will lead efforts internationally to bring transparency to the global financial system, go after illicit tax havens, seize stolen assets, and make it more difficult for leaders who steal from their people to hide behind anonymous front companies,” he wrote. And Biden’s pick for national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, told Politico that one of his chief goals was to “rally our allies to combat corruption and kleptocracy, and to hold systems of authoritarian capitalism accountable for greater transparency and participation in a rules-based system.”
A transition official said that “President-elect Biden made countering corruption at home and around the world a staple of his agenda.”
“It’s going to be absolutely essential for the next administration. I think they have a broad agenda to tackle corruption and kleptocracy,” said Carpenter, now managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.
And the prospects look promising, since cracking down on corruption and improving financial transparency enjoy support from both sides of the aisle—no small matter with Republicans likely to maintain control of the Senate.
Legislation that would create a beneficial ownership register—which would make it much harder to register anonymous shell companies in the United States—has been included in the National Defense Authorization Act, alongside a slate of other anti-corruption legislation. The United States is one of the last remaining advanced economies that continues to allow for the creation of anonymous shell companies, the likes of which have been enabled human trafficking, terrorism, and sanctions evasion. At present, more stringent identity checks are required to obtain a library card than to open a shell company in every U.S. state.
“You have the national security community as interested in these issues as the anti-poverty community,” said Gary Kalman, the Director of Transparency International U.S.
Estimates of the cost of corruption to the global economy range from $1 trillion to $2.6 trillion annually, much of it coming from the developing world. If even a fraction of that money were caught and kept in its country of origin each year by anti-corruption efforts, it would far outstrip development assistance spending, which in 2018 hit almost $166 billion worldwide.
“You would literally change the economics of global poverty,” Kalman said.
There’s a national security case, too. Over the past decade authoritarian regimes, principally Russia and China, have spent $300 million—much of it by exploiting legal loopholes—to influence the politics of dozens of countries around the world, according to a report released earlier this year by the German Marshall Fund.
“It also pushes back on countries like Russia and China that use our very porous and opaque system to first and foremost park their money in the U.S. where it’s safer but then even at times to use that for influence inside our country,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration.
Sullivan’s emphasis on working alongside allies is likely to find a ready reception, especially in other major banking and economic hubs. “The U.K. is absolutely desperate to start working more closely with the U.S. on this,” said Nate Sibley, a research fellow for the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative. “That’s the two major global financial centers.”
Biden has also outlined his intention to make international commitments to combat corruption a core tenet of the global summit of democracies that he pledged to host during his first year in office.
“This needs to be injected, mainstreamed if you will, into all of our multilateral engagements,” Carpenter said.
Biden’s expected focus on fighting financial opacity and corruption is a carry-over from his previous stint as vice president, when he was even more aggressive than President Barack Obama, according to Kalman. “This is not just a new thing you’re hearing from the campaign. This has been a passion of Biden’s for years,” he said.
Biden oversaw U.S. policy toward Ukraine as the country charted a rocky but ambitious path of reforms in the wake of the 2014 revolution, and he leaned heavily on the country’s then-President Petro Poroshenko to clean up corruption. Biden went as far as threatening to withhold $1 billion in U.S. aid to persuade the Ukrainians to oust the country’s notoriously corrupt prosecutor general Viktor Shokin. (That effort, which had broad support from the U.S. government, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund, was later used against Biden by Republicans during the 2020 presidential campaign.)
In Central America, Biden spearheaded a $750 million aid package intended to address the root causes of refugee and migrant flows, making much of the funds contingent on anti-corruption efforts, and he leaned on the former president of Guatemala to extend the work of a pioneering U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission.
U.S. support for the commission was kneecapped during the Trump administration as President Donald Trump sought Guatemalan support for policies key to his reelection bid. The Biden team’s plan for Central America promises to put “combating corruption at the heart of U.S. policy in Central America.”
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Biden Needs to Move Fast if He Wants a New Deal With Iran
Moderates will lose the June 2021 presidential election in Iran unless there is a new agreement and sanctions relief—and the United States can forget diplomacy if hardliners win.
Although President-elect Joe Biden had promised before this year’s U.S. election that he would return to the nuclear deal with Iran, doing so will be very difficult for him and for all those who hope that the 2015 agreement will be revived with U.S. support.
Biden will take office on Jan. 20 and will not have much time to revive the deal if that is his plan. There will be about five months while moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration signed the deal, is still in power in Tehran. That’s because the next Iranian president, to be elected in June 2021, will likely be one of Iran’s hardliners. They opposed signing the deal long before outgoing President Donald Trump withdrew from it in May 2018—and they would harshly criticize Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for signing what they perceive as a weak agreement with the United States.
Although Rouhani himself will not be able to run again due to term limits, members of his cabinet or politicians close to the reformists and moderates will certainly compete. Under the current circumstances, reformists and moderates have no chance of winning the election unless the deal returns to the center of Iranian politics.
A revival of the deal by Biden would boost the Iranian economy and more importantly lead to the appreciation of the Iranian rial ahead of the presidential election—a significant issue for ordinary Iranians suffering from inflation and one that could convince them to vote for pro-diplomacy reformists. Even so, the moderates will have a difficult job persuading voters in the upcoming elections to come to the polls, and without the deal’s revival, they will definitely lose.
Politicians from various factions believe that low turnout will help the hardliners win the election as this year’s parliamentary elections proved. In the February 2020 parliamentary elections, the lowest turnout since the 1979 Revolution gave an absolute majority to the hardliners.
According to the official figures, the turnout stood at only 42 percent overall in the whole country with only 26 percent of the people in Tehran province coming to the ballot box. Although there is no official polling in Iran, reformist and moderate politicians are not optimistic about their base in the next year’s presidential election. Mahmoud Sadeghi, a former lawmaker from Tehran in the previous parliament predicted in an interview on June 20, 2020 that no more than 30 percent of the population would turn out in next year’s presidential race.
Since low turnout in the Islamic Republic elections has historically meant hardliner victories, this decline in turnout rate would be good news for conservatives. They could return to power and the world will face a similar experience to what it went through during the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from 2005 to 2013.
Iran’s hardliners are already angry about Biden’s victory in the U.S. election because they believe that if Trump had been reelected, they would have been able bring down the reformists and moderates. But they are now worried that the opposite camp could stay in power with Biden at the White House.
“A government that has for many times sought to negotiate with Trump over the past four years lacks the ability to distinguish opportunity from threat,” Mehdi Mohammadi, an adviser to hardliner Parliament Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, tweeted on Nov. 13. The hardliner politician and columnist with the Vatan-e-Emrooz newspaper, one of the main conservative media outlets in Iran, added: “If only one thing is certain, it is that JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] cannot lift the sanctions.”
Anti-negotiation arguments like these are common in the Iranian media these days. On Nov. 10, Ahmad Naderi, a lawmaker in the Iranian parliament representing Tehran, described the nuclear deal as dead. “There is nothing left of the JCPOA, and if wisdom prevails in our foreign policy, we should never return to this agreement to which no one is committed anymore,” Naderi added. “Democrats have always imposed the most sanctions on Iran, but the pro-Western current in Iran still thinks that Biden’s presidency will solve the country’s problems, which is very unrealistic.”
Such statements and warnings followed the Biden team’s statement promising that: “If Tehran returns to compliance with the deal, President Biden would re-enter the agreement, using hard-nosed diplomacy and support from our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.”
Meanwhile, in a speech on Nov.15, Qalibaf criticized the Rouhani government’s poor economic record and advised the president to focus on the country’s internal capabilities. He urged Rouhani to look for solutions to the problems at home, not from Washington.
On the same day, a column in the weekly Sobh-e Sadegh belonging to the political bureau of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) called for returning responsibility for leading the nuclear talks from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—headed by Zarif, a moderate—to the Country’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) when Biden takes office. The SNSC is run by Admiral Ali Shamkhani, and Saeed Jalili—the former nuclear negotiator during Ahmadinejad’s era—is a senior member.
If Biden sets any non-nuclear preconditions as prerequisites for returning to the deal, he would simply be letting down all those who are hoping to revive the accord.
If Biden sets any non-nuclear preconditions—issues such as addressing Iran’s missile program or the human rights situation in the country—as prerequisites for returning to the deal, he would simply be letting down all those who are hoping to revive the accord and play into the conservatives’ attempt to sabotage a deal.
Hardliners, after all, have been arguing for decades that the United States will not ease its pressure unless the Islamic Republic fundamentally changes or disappears. With such limited time to reach a deal, adding any other issues to the negotiations will make it impossible for the two sides to reach a deal in the next few months. Biden will simply not have time to lay the groundwork for a process similar to the one that led to the signing of the landmark 2015 agreement.
Meanwhile, the wide-ranging sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on Tehran has left almost no room for the Rouhani administration to maneuver in the domestic political arena, and he appears empty-handed when he comes under attack from his hardliner opponents.
As a result, it will not be surprising if hardliners in Iran and the groups they control resort to acts of sabotage in the region in the coming months in order to disrupt any possible agreement between Iran and the United States. That’s because hardliners are trying their best to undermine an atmosphere conducive to negotiations between the Rouhani government and the Biden White House. The incoming administration needs to be even more prepared for further destructive action by the Iranian hardliners—both inside and outside the region—with the aim of hindering a new deal.
Recently, despite Zarif’s repeated denials that he has no intention to run in the next presidential election, some political activists and media outlets close to the reformists have been pushing for his candidacy. On the opposite side, the hardliners have recently intensified their campaign to defame the foreign minister for fear that if he enters the race, it will be harder for them to win.
Despite increasing attacks on Zarif from the right, he has remained popular and is capable of garnering the support of Iranians. In various published polls, Zarif is among the most popular figures in the country, and his extraordinary rhetorical skills would cause problems for his rivals in an election campaign.
Even if the deal is revived and Zarif enters the race for president, there would no guarantee that the dissatisfied, tired, and angry people of Iran would be willing to turn out at the polls.
But there is one definite possibility: If Biden fails to revive the JCPOA in the coming months, and the pro-negotiation camp fails to win the June 2021 election, his foreign-policy team will have to prepare themselves to negotiate and deal with a conservative president similar to Ahmadinejad and a hardliner diplomat like Jalili for the next four years. They would be far less amicable negotiating partners than Rouhani and Zarif.
Saeid Jafari is an Iranian journalist and Middle East analyst.
Biden Eyes Humanitarian Experts to Lead U.S. Agency for International Development
The next USAID chief will grapple with a pandemic, galloping food insecurity, and allegations of chronic mismanagement under Trump.
A former senior United Nations executive and food security expert is among several people in the running to lead to the U.S. Agency for International Development under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, according to people familiar with the matter.
Ertharin Cousin, a former executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, tops the narrowing list of people favored to take the helm of the leading U.S. aid agency.
Other names that have been floated for the job in Democratic foreign-policy circles include Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a nonprofit group; Frederick Barton, a former senior U.N. envoy and U.S. diplomat in the Obama administration; and Jeremy Konyndyk, a seasoned humanitarian expert who was a senior USAID official during the Obama administration and is a member of the Biden transition’s teams for the State Department and Department of Health and Human Services.
Experts in Biden foreign-policy circles cautioned that no final decision has yet been made for who will take the helm of USAID under Biden. The president-elect has yet to announce a nominee, and his transition team declined to comment when approached for this story.
When reached for comment, Cousin said she did not know if she was shortlisted for the job but said she is a strong supporter of the president-elect and “made it very clear that I would be able to serve” if called to do so. Barton also said he had not been contacted about being under consideration for the top USAID job. Neither Konyndyk nor Schrayer offered comment.
Whomever Biden ultimately picks to lead USAID will have their work cut out for them. The global coronavirus pandemic has strained already limited resources to deal with spiraling humanitarian crises and heightened health risks for U.S. aid officials and other humanitarian aid organizations across the world.
In Washington, the next administrator will inherit an agency that has buckled under controversy, allegations of mismanagement, and leadership vacancies in the latter half of the Trump administration. Several political appointees came under fire for anti-LGBT and Islamophobic remarks; others have been accused of mismanaging programs meant to prevent conflict in the world’s most fragile countries and promote democratic transitions.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic that has strained international aid programs, the agency has been without a full-fledged leader for over seven months, following the departure of Administrator Mark Green in April.
Earlier this month, the White House abruptly ousted USAID’s second-highest-ranking official, Deputy Administrator Bonnie Glick. Current and former officials said she was fired to pave the way for Trump’s acting USAID chief, John Barsa, to remain de facto leader of the agency and get around federal vacancy laws that limit the time appointees can serve in senior posts in an acting capacity without Senate confirmation. Barsa is now acting deputy administrator, performing the duties of the acting administrator.
Barsa recently joined a growing number of President Donald Trump’s political appointees to test positive for COVID-19. He reportedly often failed to wear a mask at work.
The U.S. aid agency has been a prime destination for anti-abortion advocates popular with the Trump administration’s evangelical base. In the past four years, they have steered foreign aid to Christian communities in the Middle East and beyond, and pushed back at efforts at the United Nations and other international agencies to promote access to sexual and reproductive health care services.
Current and former USAID officials said the leadership vacancies and controversy sown by some Trump political appointees have hampered the agency’s effectiveness and sapped employee morale.
Seasoned humanitarian experts familiar with the Biden transition team’s thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity, hailed all four possible candidates as strong contenders for the job given their decades of experience and expertise.
Cousin has shown an instinct for picking the winning horse out of the gate, backing both Barack Obama and Biden in the early stages of their respective presidential primaries before it was clear they would win the Democratic nomination.
An expert on food security, Cousin served as U.S. ambassador to the Rome-based U.N. agencies for food and agriculture from 2009 to 2012, and then as executive director for the World Food Program from 2012 to 2017. Since stepping down from her role at the World Food Program, Cousin has served as a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, at the university’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, and as a distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a think tank.
Konyndyk, currently a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, served as the director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance from 2013 to 2017 and was involved in the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He has been involved with the Biden campaign’s transition and is a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Schrayer, a seasoned political strategist with close contacts across the political spectrum on Capitol Hill, heads the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, an organization that supports U.S. diplomacy and development abroad. She serves on USAID’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid and prior to that worked as national political director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for over a decade.
Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman for Kansas and secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton who has worked with Schrayer at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, said she is a strong candidate for the job, particularly given her relationships on Capitol Hill.
Barton is an academic and former senior diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state for conflict and stabilization operations and U.S. envoy to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations under Obama. He also served as deputy high commissioner at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1999 to 2001 and founding director of USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives from 1994 to 1999. He is currently a lecturer on international affairs at Princeton University.
Update, Nov. 30, 2020: This article was updated to include comment from former Rep. Dan Glickman.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Israel Is the Wrench in Biden’s Iran Policy
The U.S. president-elect wants to reengage with Iran, but Israel has other plans.
TEL AVIV, Israel—If one thing can be learned from the assassination of the top Iranian nuclear scientist outside Tehran last Friday, it is this: Israel and the incoming Biden administration are on a collision course over Iran policy.
Analysts in Israel chalked up the timing of the operation, widely attributed to Israel’s Mossad, to the coming change of administrations in Washington and U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to return to the nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015. Outgoing President Donald Trump withdrew from the arms-control agreement in 2018, with backing from the Israeli government, citing flaws in the deal.
In the wake of the recent U.S. election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear he opposes any reengagement with Iran. While there is near consensus in Israeli political circles with Netanyahu’s hard-line policy on Iran, some former Israeli security officials hold a more nuanced position.
“There can be no going back to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy of ensuring that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said earlier this month.
In a joint appearance with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jerusalem earlier this month, the Israeli premier went further, expressing gratitude for Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign of increased sanctions on Iran and defending Pompeo’s list of 12 demands to Tehran.
“Your 12 points set the standard for what Iran needs to do if it wants to be treated like a normal country. Those who claim that your 12 points are either unnecessary or unrealistic simply want to give Iran a free pass. … The tyrants of Tehran deserve no free passes,” Netanyahu said.
Biden and his presumptive foreign-policy team have already indicated that “maximum pressure” and Pompeo’s “12 points” for Iran—including halting its nuclear programs, missile development, and support for regional proxy militias—will not be part of the new diplomatic push.
Biden has called Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal a “self-inflicted disaster” and said that once in office he would “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy.” Both Biden and his incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken have indicated the United States would rejoin the agreement (and almost certainly provide some sanctions relief) if Iran resumes abiding by the restrictions set out in the accords. That arrangement would serve as a basis for follow-on talks aimed at “strengthening and extending” the nuclear deal’s provisions and other areas of concern.
Netanyahu and other Israeli officials view such a move as a repudiation of all the ostensible leverage garnered over the last two years under Trump. Last week’s assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, considered the father of Iran’s military nuclear program, was likely not a coincidence.
“The timing has to do with the situation that emerged as a result of the [U.S.] presidential elections and the fact that … Biden was a part of the team that cooked [up] the deal with Iran, and he has said during the campaign that he intends to go back to the deal,” retired Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, a former senior Israeli military intelligence officer, told foreign journalists on Sunday.
One unnamed Western intelligence official went further, telling Israel’s Channel 12 on Saturday that the assassination marked the “last chance [for Israel to strike a blow against Iran] before Biden enters the White House and returns to the nuclear agreement that will give the Iranians immunity.” (Israeli intelligence officials are known to use the cover of “Western intelligence officials” when discussing sensitive matters in the media.)
The Fakhrizadeh operation was only the most recent and palpable manifestation of Israel’s displeasure with Biden’s planned diplomatic outreach—if not an outright attempt to sabotage it. In line with Netanyahu’s public warnings, Israel does not want to see any concessions granted to Iran.
“My message to the Biden administration is: do not rush to the table with the Iranians,” retired Brig. Gen. Jacob Nagel, a former national security advisor to Netanyahu, told Foreign Policy. “The Iranians are under pressure. If they want a negotiation with the U.S. on the deal you can’t say, from the beginning, that the Biden administration should atone for what Trump did [in pulling out of the nuclear deal]. It’s the opposite. Iran should atone.”
Critics of this approach point out that the pressure Iran is under has not translated into tangible behavioral changes—quite the opposite. Since 2018, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has grown twelvefold, missile development work has continued, and its support for regional proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East rumbles on.
“Iran is far from falling to its knees, it has not folded,” Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom, the outgoing head of Israeli military intelligence’s research division, told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in October. Shalom justified the “pressure strategy” on Iran and highlighted the holes in the original nuclear accord. But he stressed that Tehran had “shortened its jumping off point to the bomb” since Washington’s withdrawal from the deal.
“The nuclear agreement, despite its shortcomings, also had space to influence other issues,” Shalom added. “It has not yet been proven that the exit from the nuclear agreement served Israel.”
Israeli government officials have ostensibly rejected this more nuanced analysis by their own national intelligence assessor. One Israeli government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was “no daylight” between Netanyahu and his political rival (and coalition partner) Defense Minister Benny Gantz on the question of “maximum pressure” on Iran.
Other Israeli security analysts have pointed to positive elements in the 2015 nuclear deal, even as they acknowledged its flaws.
Retired Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, the former military intelligence chief and now the head of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told Foreign Policy that he rejected the two polar analyses surrounding the original 2015 nuclear accord: It was neither “the best non-proliferation agreement ever reached … [nor was it] a second Munich Agreement, or maybe a second Holocaust … like some in Jerusalem, Riyadh, and elsewhere” would have people believe.
Yadlin credited the agreement with rolling back Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon from two months to one year, and (contingent on Iranian compliance) possibly a decade. “It is better than the situation was in 2015 … and this is something you can’t underestimate as an achievement,” Yadlin added.
And yet, it would be wrong for the Biden administration to go back to the original 2015 nuclear agreement, Yadlin said, laying out a litany of concerns that must be addressed in any new negotiation: Iran’s ballistic missile development and nuclear weapons research, along with a harsher international inspection regime and a 20-year extension to the deal’s sunset provision.
The question for the Biden administration is whether such a deal with Iran, along the lines demanded by Israel, is even possible.
“I find it difficult to resolve the Israeli, American, and Iranian positions, which are almost impossible to bridge,” Raz Zimmt, a former Iran watcher in the Israeli military, told Foreign Policy.
“Biden wants to go back to the nuclear deal [in some fashion], and the Iranians won’t agree without sanctions relief—so the strategic decision in Washington is whether you pay to get Iran back into compliance. The Israeli position is wishful thinking and doesn’t correspond with reality.”
Zimmt did allow that Netanyahu likely “truly believes” that maximum pressure will, in the long term, lead to Iran’s capitulation—“not Pompeo’s 12 points, but something significant.” Yet Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would almost certainly never relent.
“Khamenei may believe that giving up all these things—a threshold nuclear program, missiles, and regional proxies—is more a threat to the regime than economic collapse.”
The Biden administration, upon taking office in late January, will inherit this escalating policy dilemma—and in extremis, as Zimmt put it, “will have to essentially choose between Israel and Iran.”
Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
It’s Time for an Africa Policy Upgrade
Washington has sidelined Africa for too long. The Biden administration should take a new approach.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy toward Africa will be remembered by its tone of disrespect, from his calling African nations “shithole countries” to canceled cabinet-level trips to the region. But while he needs to restore civility to U.S. foreign policy, President-elect Joe Biden shouldn’t fully reject Trump-era Africa policy when he takes office. In part, that’s because Africa policy is unique. It has historically been uncontroversially bipartisan, and U.S. presidents from Bill Clinton to Trump have continued their predecessors’ Africa programs.
Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. presidents have built their policy towards Africa on a series of promising but standalone programs. Clinton’s African Growth and Opportunity Act, George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, Barack Obama’s Power Africa, and Trump’s Prosper Africa have all, to some degree, been—and continue to be—successful in enhancing trade, improving health, or expanding needed infrastructure on the continent. As a series of siloed programs, however, they have been less equipped to advance 21st-century U.S. geostrategic priorities such as transitioning to a green economy, combating insecurity, and peacefully managing a rising China.
The Biden administration can improve in that regard. Now that African countries are becoming younger, more urban, digitally connected, and globally integrated—and now that great-power competition with China is on the rise—engagement with African nations should have a central place in the United States’ grand strategy, advancing more than just regional interests. It’s time for Biden to give Africa policy an upgrade, while still drawing on elements of his predecessors’ initiatives, so that the United States can truly work alongside African nations to address globally shared challenges.
Before looking ahead, the Biden administration should recognize two positive aspects of Trump’s Africa policy. First, Trump’s approach to Africa was rooted partially in his broader framing of U.S. foreign policy—namely, confronting a rising China, which then National Security Advisor John Bolton mentioned more than a dozen times when he announced the establishment of Prosper Africa in December 2018. While Trump officials’ zero-sum thinking on China is excessive, the administration has correctly acknowledged that African partners are critical to peacefully managing a rising China. Partly, that’s because African nations have an important role in international governance: They maintain a voting bloc of 44 in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and 54 in the United Nations. They’re also increasingly important in the global economy. Each year, citizens of Africa make up more of the global labor force, and the continent is home to elements and minerals, such as lithium, cobalt, and rare earths, that are crucial to future U.S. competitiveness in energy storage and high-tech industries.
The Trump administration correctly acknowledged that African partners are critical to peacefully managing a rising China.The focus on managing a rising China largely aligns with Biden’s own thinking. In a 2019 speech, Biden acknowledged the need to be tough on China and “to build a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behavior.” That front includes African nations, a plurality of which still maintain a slightly higher public opinion of the United States than of China.
Second, through Prosper Africa and the newly expanded Development Finance Corporation (DFC), which provides financing for projects in emerging markets, the Trump administration prioritized commercial ties to African countries. Prosper Africa’s aim to double two-way trade and investment in African markets speaks to African countries’ dual economic priorities of attracting capital and creating millions of jobs. Prosper Africa has brought increased visibility to African opportunities, improved coordination among U.S. government agencies to support U.S. investors interested in African markets, and eased access to Washington’s commercial support for companies doing business in Africa through political risk insurance and long-term trade finance. Since becoming operational in December 2019, the DFC has approved more than $2 billion in environmental and energy projects in the region, including a natural gas pipeline in Egypt, marine conservation in Kenya, and a natural gas power plant in Mozambique.
The Biden administration should build on this progress to further support trade and investment, as African markets continue to evolve rapidly and become more powerful in the global economy. Despite COVID-19’s economic damage, the underlying structural trends supporting African growth and opportunity remain in place. These include a young, increasingly urban population, whose tech-focused, entrepreneurial spirit contributed to African start-ups’ raising $2 billion in funding in 2019 in sectors as varied as financial technology, logistics, energy, and health. And once the African Continental Free Trade Area, the largest free trade area to be established since the founding of the WTO, starts being implemented in January, Africa will begin to integrate its fragmented markets into a single market home to 1.2 billion people. By eliminating restrictions on the free movement of goods, people, and capital, the free trade area will create an attractive opportunity for U.S. companies to sell and invest in a combined consumer and business base of $6.7 trillion by 2030.
Fundamentally, the Biden administration needs to base the United States’ relationship with African nations on respect.Recognizing the shifts in African markets and the continent’s rising geopolitical importance, the Biden administration needs to prioritize Africa more than Trump and his predecessors did. And, fundamentally, it needs to base the United States’ relationship with African nations on respect. The underlying values, tone, and execution of all policies need an overhaul. Trump’s rhetoric and other administration slights, such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s decision to cancel his appearance at the U.S.-Africa Business Summit in Mozambique in 2019, hurt the United States’ image as a trusted, committed partner. To remedy this, the Biden administration should make presidential and other cabinet-level trips to African nations within the first 18 months in office.
In particular, the Biden administration will need to prioritize and actively engage with regional giants. Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Morocco, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo hold considerable economic and political weight compared with their smaller neighbors. Based on International Monetary Fund data, Africa’s three largest economies—Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt—account for almost 50 percent of the continent’s gross domestic product. While other nations should not be overlooked, Biden should make sure to give these nations attention through meaningful investments and partnership initiatives early on.
The Biden administration also needs to integrate the continent into more of its global priorities—not just competition with China. Notably, these include climate change and the fight against extremism. On these issues, regional efforts should continue, such as the United States-Africa Leaders Summit, a three-day White House summit hosted by Obama with 50 African leaders in 2014 to deepen partnerships in trade, investment, and security. But more than that, in its foreign policy more broadly, Washington should work with African nations along with their Asian, European, and Latin American counterparts to create forums that can systematically address global challenges and opportunities, such as the rise of megacities.
African nations have a wide variety of potential partners—including Japan, Russia, China, Britain, and the European Union—so Biden should also play up the United States’ comparative advantages to position his country on the continent. One way of doing that is to leverage the United States’ most competitive sectors, which include technology, entertainment, financial services, agribusiness and renewables, specialized oil and gas services, and the creative industries. The United States can’t really compete, for instance, with China on large-scale infrastructure projects, but it does have the wherewithal to increase investment in the service and creative sectors—and especially music, movies, and sports—which strengthens U.S. soft power and builds closer people-to-people ties between the continents.
Another U.S. advantage is its African diaspora. As of 2015, there were 2.1 million African immigrants living in the United States—a number that’s risen drastically in the past few decades. The Biden administration should involve the diaspora in the formation and execution of Africa policy, which could include partnering with the International Career Advancement Program and Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to recruit African immigrants in the administration and increase the number of Black Americans in the foreign service. Biden’s team should also find ways to support the already extensive financial flows that the African diaspora directs to the continent—in 2017, for example, Nigeria received an estimated $6.19 billion in remittances from the United States, more than from any other country.
Come January, Biden will have the chance to draw an immediate line in the sand from Trump’s approach to Africa while still continuing the commercial progress of the past four years. A new commitment to Africa would come at the right time, since the Biden administration wants to return to multilateralism and heal Washington’s political divisions. The bipartisanship that has always characterized Africa policy would be a welcome break from the divisiveness of the Trump era and promote future collaboration across the aisle. Hopefully, the Biden administration will seize the moment and define a new era in U.S.-Africa relations.
Aubrey Hruby is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Africa Center and an adjunct instructor in the African Studies Program at Georgetown University.
Europe May Cheer Biden’s Win—But It Threatens Macron’s Grand Project
France is going to have a harder time selling “strategic autonomy” without the foil of the Trump administration to drive it.
In many European capitals, Joe Biden’s election victory has been welcomed with a sigh of relief after four years of trouble with President Donald Trump. But alongside the rejoicing over America’s promised return to multilateralism, Biden’s win is laying bare old and new rifts regarding Europe’s role on the world stage.
French officials in particular find themselves wondering to what extent Biden’s presidency will hamper their already difficult push for a more geopolitically independent EU, a pet project of President Emmanuel Macron in recent years, but one which seemed to draw power from Trump’s Europe-bashing and unilateral approach.
“Is the change in the American administration going to see Europeans letting up” on the effort to build greater strategic autonomy?, wondered Macron in a lengthy recent interview. Macron fleshed out his vision of a Europe that can hold its own in a world dominated by giants like the United States and China. While Macron called the United States “our historical allies,” he also stressed the cultural and geopolitical differences between the two sides of the Atlantic, and made clear that Europe should pursue strategic relevance “for itself” and “to prevent the Chinese-American duopoly.”
Concretely, he argued, this means further efforts to beef up European defense, while tackling technological dependence on the two superpowers when it comes to 5G networks and cloud data storage. He also urged action against Washington’s financial clout, which became apparent when U.S. financial sanctions threatened EU firms doing business with Iran after the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.
A stronger France via a stronger Europe has been a mantra of Macron’s for years.Coming from Paris, none of this is particularly new. A stronger France via a stronger Europe has been a mantra of Macron’s for years—and has been part of France’s political DNA for decades. The Elysée’s attitude towards NATO, for instance, has been ambivalent since President Charles de Gaulle, who in 1966 withdrew French forces from the alliance’s command—a decision that would be fully reversed only 40 years later.
“If you look at how France has positioned itself in the West from de Gaulle onwards, it’s precisely this: ‘We are an ally of the United States, with which we have common values, but we are no vassals and we must be respected,’” said Christian Lequesne, a geopolitics and international relations professor at Sciences Po university.
The key question for Paris is whether, absent Trump as a foil, its European partners will still embrace the same attitude. In recent years, thanks to Trump’s trade wars, NATO-bashing, and political and economic fights over everything from Iran to climate change, Europe seemed ready to carve out a bigger independent role for itself. French and German officials, incensed by U.S. economic pressure, spoke openly of restoring “economic sovereignty.” In 2018, then-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker entitled his State of the Union speech “The hour of European sovereignty.” Last spring, German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded “greater strategic sovereignty for the EU.”
Talk was cheap, though, and that’s clearest when it comes to defense. A European Defense Fund was set up to develop military technology and improve cooperation, but the resources allocated by the latest seven-year EU budget are 40 percent lower than the figure originally proposed by the Commission. The European Defense Agency says that aggregate spending in this area only got back to pre-financial crisis levels last year, with the share of research and technology in defense budgets still substantially lower than it was in 2007. And despite a military cooperation agreement signed in 2018, an integrated European army remains little more than a fantasy at this stage.
Those fault lines have become evident in recent weeks due to an unusually public argument between Macron and German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. In a POLITICO op-ed, she argued that “illusions of European strategic autonomy should come to an end: Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider.” Macron said later he “profoundly” disagreed with that view.
In recent years, Europe seemed ready to carve out a bigger independent role for itself.In some ways, the divisions look deeper than they really are. Last week, the French and German Foreign Ministers penned a joint column acknowledging that the transatlantic partnership must become “more balanced.” Especially in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull thousands of U.S. troops out of Germany, Berlin knows that Europe will have to accept more burden-sharing, as American resources are increasingly devoted to the confrontation with China.
The bigger difference is one of emphasis. Kramp-Karrenbauer insists that Europe needs to boost its military spending and take on some of the United States’ security tasks in its own neighborhood—but as a way to be taken more seriously by Washington and reinforce NATO and trans-Atlantic ties, not to supplant them.
Macron’s problem is that, even if he settled for the German approach, it’s not clear it would materialize. One minister’s point of view is not necessarily the position of the entire government, especially a cobbled-together coalition like the one that governs Germany, noted Hanns Maull of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Any continuity in Germany’s current approach is further clouded by Merkel’s planned departure from the Chancellery next year.
In that sense, this month’s Franco-German spat could be an attempt by Macron to keep up the pressure, noted Maull, given a general lack of trust in Berlin meeting its commitments on defense spending. While Germany’s defense budget has gone up in recent years, it remains below the nominal 2 percent of GDP threshold that NATO states are supposed to spend on defense. Germany is now estimated to be spending about 1.6 percent of its GDP on defense, compared with France’s 2.1 percent. And when it comes to expenditure in major equipment and related research and development as a share of the total, Germany’s is one of the lowest among NATO members. The German armed forces’ top brass has long been sounding the alarm about the poor state of the Bundeswehr, a situation that Maull described as a “mess.”
That, as much as Biden’s victory, is what makes it seem unlikely Macron will see any big breakthrough in his vision for a more muscular Europe. Further, other EU and NATO members, like Poland and (to a lesser extent) Hungary and the Baltic countries, are even less willing than Germany to pursue strategic independence from the United States.
“The French President is quite isolated,” said Lequesne, of Sciences Po. “Many EU states are still relatively eager to accept American hegemony, and that’s where Macron’s project is faltering.”
Biden Has the Team Obama Always Wanted
The next U.S. administration will feature the most cohesive group of foreign-policy hands in at least a generation.
In the summer of 2007, when I spent many hours talking to presidential candidate Barack Obama about his view of world affairs, I was surprised to find that he looked to the administration of George H. W. Bush as a model of professionalism, prudence, and stewardship of American national interests. For all his own transformational impulses, he wanted to put together a team like the one led by Secretary of State James Baker and national security advisor Brent Scowcroft.
Unlike Bush, Obama arrived in the White House with scant experience in national security. He needed to demonstrate his seriousness. And so when it came time to choose his own team, Obama turned to a superstar, Hillary Clinton, for secretary of state, and to James Jones, an erudite general he barely knew, as national security advisor. Clinton turned out to be a fine choice; Jones was a disaster, soon replaced. Obama did finally put together the team he wanted, though it never meshed quite as smoothly as the Bush machine.
With the announcement on Sunday night that he plans to appoint Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Jake Sullivan as national security advisor, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as United States ambassador to the United Nations, President-elect Joe Biden, who will be the first president since Bush Senior to arrive with deep foreign policy experience, may have built precisely the kind of team that Obama had in mind, and that national security professionals have been yearning for since the Bush era.
Professionalism is not, of course, a substantive point of view about the world. There will now be much minute parsing of texts for the views of these three figures, and of the others whom Biden has since named. Within hours of the announcement, I found in my inbox copies of Blinken’s recent discussion of foreign policy at the Hudson Institute and Thomas-Greenfield’s co-authored article on diplomacy in Foreign Affairs. Feel free to parse away; but don’t waste time looking for the eccentric apercu. The views you find will not stretch very far beyond the 40-yard-lines as they are understood in the Council on Foreign Relations and the other mainstream foreign policy think tanks.
The Biden team promises restoration, not transformation. Everyone hoping for sharp departures from the pre-Trump past—leftists like Bernie Sanders who recoil from shows of power, unreconstructed neoconservatives who have had it with “leading from behind,” astringent realists who believe that America has been on a reckless bender ever since the Berlin Wall fell—is going to be disappointed. Thomas-Greenfield and her co-author, William Burns, both career diplomats, write that a prudent foreign policy will reject both “the restoration of American hegemony” and “retrenchment.” That will be the Biden sweet spot.
A restorationist foreign policy does not, as I pointed out in my series on Biden‘s likely foreign policy, mean a return to the status quo ante. The world has changed drastically since 2016. Biden‘s team will have to stand up to new challenges from China and Russia, reaffirm the centrality of democracy in the global order, coordinate the global response to the pandemic, and forge long-term changes on trade, taxation, and regulation in order to create a more equitable global economy. My conversations with Biden‘s key advisors left no doubt that they recognize the magnitude of the challenge.
What is to be restored, then, is not a set of policies but rather the actual practice of statecraft, which is the art of applying available means to desired ends. What was truly bizarre about outgoing President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, after all, was not so much the ends, some of them quite familiar, as the means chosen to achieve them, which could be explained only in reference to Trump’s own whims. Trump bargained with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un with no plan save to rely on his negotiating skills; he withdrew troops from Syria, abandoning our Kurdish allies, to curry favor with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; he proposed a “Middle East peace plan” designed to prop up Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than actually create peace. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, stood by while Trump castigated, and then fired, the diplomats who told the truth about the secret policy towards Ukraine that got the president impeached.
Biden and his team certainly have a sense of ends, which have to do with restoring America’s moral, economic, and diplomatic leadership—American exceptionalism in a new key. Some of those ends will not differ very much from Trump’s; but they will choose means most likely to actually attain those ends. For example, both Biden and his chief advisors, very much including Blinken, have said time and again that the way to induce China to behave according to the rules of both global economics and state sovereignty is to act in concert with allies and to insist upon respect for the rule of law. That‘s a pretty low bar, but it’s one Trump only rarely met.
Absolutely anyone Biden could have appointed to senior national security posts would have represented a return to normalcy. Yet the appointment of Blinken as secretary of state is revealing. Biden could have chosen a global celebrity like Hillary Clinton or John Kerry or Colin Powell who could stand as equals before heads of state. He could have chosen a wise old dealmaker like Warren Christopher, or even State’s senior-most diplomat, William Burns. But Biden doesn’t need those things; he already knows everybody.
Antony Blinken is family; he has been thinking, talking, and traveling with Biden for the last 18 years. What each believes is an extension of the beliefs of the other. I have known Blinken since 2009. He is a careful thinker with an even keel, neither unduly optimistic nor proudly tough-minded, in the manner of the hard-bitten realist. He does not feature in his own stories, and is very unlikely ever to upstage the president. He is, like his boss, an extremely decent person. He has a very pleasing, almost velvety voice, and an elegant manner. His French is perfect. Altogether, in fact, Blinken puts one in mind of “the Wise Men,” Robert Lovett and John McCloy and Chip Bohlen, the prep schoolboys and Ivy League chums who forged American foreign policy after World War II. He may, however, have some trouble locating the voice of authority suitable to a secretary of state rather than a senior aide.
Jake Sullivan is also family. Yet it was easier to imagine the discreet and finely balanced Blinken as national security advisor, and Sullivan as a kind of super-counselor-on-all-things. Sullivan ranges beyond the 40-yard-lines, on both foreign and domestic policy, and he has thought deeply about the connection between the two. Earlier this year he and economist Jennifer Harris wrote a piece in Foreign Policy arguing that for the last 30 years, grand strategy has depended on a neoliberal economic paradigm that has now exhausted itself. Thinkers on the left have looked to Sullivan to import their ideas into Biden‘s world. That is not normally a job for the national security advisor. Yet Sullivan, like Blinken, is so close to Biden, and has such an important role in policy matters, that he may have a remit that runs well beyond the honest broker role of national security advisor.
I do not know Thomas-Greenfield. The U.N. position is often filled by a political celebrity like Bill Richardson, who served under President Bill Clinton, or an ideologue like John Bolton, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, or Andrew Young. Given that, at least skipping over Trump, you‘d have to go back to Clinton’s first term to find two white men running State and the National Security Council, no doubt it was important to place a Black woman in a senior national security position. Yet Biden chose a professional diplomat—the first since John Negroponte, who served in George W. Bush’s first term as president Since Biden, unlike Bush, plans to take the U.N. seriously—and thus has elevated the ambassador to Cabinet-rank—the appointment also constitutes a validation of the Foreign Service, which has been so mercilessly abused over the last four years.
It’s also worth noting that even a ludicrously partisan Republican Senate majority may find very little pretext to withhold nomination votes for either Thomas-Greenfield or Blinken (a consideration that may have helped rule out Susan Rice at State).
Unless the Democrats win both Senate seats in the Georgia run-off in January, Mitch McConnell will remain Senate majority leader, and he will do everything in his power to foil ambitious domestic legislation. Real change may have to wait until after the 2022 by-election. Foreign policy is different; it depends far more upon action by the executive branch than upon legislation. Biden and his team can do a great deal to restore America to that position between hegemony and retrenchment from which it can exercise leadership. They will be able to start right away.
James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a 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.
Yellen’s Mandate: Massive Stimulus, Assuaging Fears of Inflation
New Treasury nominee hailed as the right woman for the moment.
“Out of the box” is one of Janet Yellen’s favorite phrases, her fellow economists say—as in, think outside of it. And now the Yale-educated economist who made history in 2014 by becoming the first female Federal Reserve chairman is expected to do so again—think outside the box as President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for Treasury secretary (also as the first woman in that post).
Because by the time she is sworn in early next year—her confirmation is considered highly likely—the U.S. and world economies might be facing a new wave of pandemic-induced unemployment.
“She’s a great choice. She understands that the main challenge facing America is generating growth that includes everyone, and she has an evidence-based approach to making policy,” said economist Karen Dynan, a former Federal Reserve and Treasury official now at Harvard.
“Pushing through more fiscal stimulus is going to be a high priority on her agenda. The economic harm from the enormous job losses we’ve suffered since the pandemic began has been mitigated by the fiscal measures put in place last spring but the cushioning provided by those policies is rapidly playing out.”
Indeed the endless dickering between current Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has led to no subsequent program, suggesting that by Biden’s inaugural day Jan. 20 the need will be desperate if the $2 trillion CARES Act remains the lone response.
Yellen, 74, has primarily been a labor economist academically from the old progressive tradition of believers in Keynesian, counter-cyclical stimulus. And many economists say she’s the right fit for the job ahead because she understands as well as anyone—especially due to her recent stint at the Fed—that the economy needs massive deficit spending right now, and that the fiscal side must rescue the monetary side, which is running out of tools. She also understands that the national balance sheet can sustain such stimulus spending: Federal budget deficits no longer are as dangerous because low interest rates make them more manageable and private sector lending isn’t being crowded out. Inflation is not an immediate danger. Yellen herself has warned in the past decade that fiscal stimulus plans were being dragged down by super-antiquated fears of debt and inflation.
Because of her long Fed experience and reputation as a data-based moderate, the markets will likely have faith in Yellen’s credibility to hold that line but pull out all the stops to avert another recession. “She cared about labor markets and economic pain when she was at the Fed,” said Wendy Edelberg, former chief economist at the Congressional Budget Office. “Those priorities are just what we need right now.”
As Fed chairman, Yellen was widely praised for growing the labor market while keeping inflation historically low. She was in particular lauded for striking a delicate rhetorical balance between progressives, constantly warning the labor market has “yet to fully recover” (thus pleasing progressive economists who played down inflation fears), but also warning that inflation might be a problem in the future (thus placating fiscal hawks). She came up with new ways of assessing the labor market more qualitatively, devising a metric of 19 different indicators under a “Labor Market Conditions Index,” though this was later dropped as a measure.
Even so, studying the unemployment problem has long been her concern. According to colleagues I spoke to for a profile of Yellen that appeared in National Journal and the Atlantic in 2013, she takes the nation’s worst problems, especially chronic unemployment and underemployment, as a deeply personal challenge.
“How deeply you care about the unemployed comes in part from your viscera rather than your intellect. And with Janet Yellen, it’s very strong,” Alan Blinder, a Princeton professor and Yellen’s former Fed colleague, told me then. “She spent a good part of her career studying why unemployment stays high. I can remember a conversation between the two of us at the Fed in the Nineties—I was vice chairman and she was a governor. One day, we tried holding back [the Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed’s chief decision-making body] from going overboard on raising interest rates. She said, ‘Maybe we saved 500,000 people their jobs.’ “
Indeed, Yellen’s main work as an academic focused largely on studying the nature of unemployment. One of her most important papers, written with her husband, Nobel Prize winner George Akerlof, showed that workers who feel underpaid will be less productive. Before that she ran the Council of Economic Advisers under former President Bill Clinton, who managed to produce more equalized wage growth in his final years in office. But now that her main task will be to manage the fiscal side, her more than 10-year-long Fed experience will also go a long way toward assuring Wall Street about her fiscal program.
Yellen is also known to take a tough stance on banking regulation, which could prove crucial in the months ahead since she will be the chair of the financial stability oversight council (“FSOC”), which consists of the 12 major bank and market regulators.
Trump has spent four years trying to roll back those regulations, but “in the face of a feared oncoming massive COVID-led recession or depression, systemic risk and market collapses are much more likely now,” said former federal financial regulator Michael Greenberger.
“So FSOC will have its hands full restoring the many Dodd Frank regulations that really did protect against chain reaction systemic breakdowns.”
“So this is a big task for Yellen,” added Greenberger. “And no one is better equipped to deal with all of these tasks.”
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Biden’s Likely Defense Secretary Pick Flournoy Faces Progressive Pushback
From concerns about ties to defense contractors to worries about forever wars, at least one of the president-elect’s potential nominees is raising hackles.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden named a slate of experienced hands for his national security team on Monday—but stopped short of selecting a defense secretary. Now, backers of Michèle Flournoy, his likely pick for defense secretary, are trying to head off a last-minute push by some left-leaning Democrats trying to derail her selection, with many progressives seeing her nomination as a continuation of what critics refer to as America’s “forever wars.”
In a letter obtained by Foreign Policy organized by No Exceptions, a mostly inactive nonprofit that previously advocated for opening more military service roles to women, expected to be signed by more than 100 former U.S. and military officials and national security experts, Flournoy is described as a consensus-builder able to heal the tensions and mistrust sown during the Trump administration.
“This level of wide-spread trust and confidence will enable Michèle to build a coherent defense strategy and restore trust amongst allies and partners,” the authors wrote. “She will repair the actual and reputational erosion of the last few years, while recruiting and sustaining talent to set our country on a confident and renewed course.”
For weeks, the left-leaning Center for International Policy has petitioned the Senate not to confirm cabinet picks on the incoming Biden team with corporate and lobbying ties, an effort that has been backed by Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva. The organization is also working with the Congressional Progressive Caucus on a letter seeking clarity on Flournoy’s client list at WestExec Advisors, the consulting firm she started in recent years, and asking the former top Pentagon official to recuse herself if she worked on major weapons programs in the private sector.
Progressive groups led by Just Foreign Policy and Demand Progress are planning a letter asking Flournoy and Biden’s already-announced top national security picks, Avril Haines and Antony Blinken, to account for perceived past foreign-policy mistakes, including U.S. policy in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and with regards to Saudi arms sales.
The dueling letters reflect the simmering tensions between the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party as Biden tries to hold Democrats together while he prepares to enter the Oval Office. On Monday evening, Biden got a boost in efforts to begin his stalled transition as General Services Administration chief Emily Murphy finally issued a letter of ascertainment certifying the former vice president as the winner of the November election, a move that will formally allow his team access to federal transition resources and to begin onboarding at U.S. government agencies.
The Biden transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But several foreign-policy experts in contact with the transition team said that it is highly unlikely the pushback would derail Flournoy’s likely nomination. Additionally, it is unclear who progressives would like to replace Flournoy in the event their campaign to quash her nomination gained traction.
In a letter earlier this month, progressive Democratic Reps. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Barbara Lee of California urged Biden not to select a new nominee for the Pentagon job with a track record of working with defense contractors—a trip wire during the confirmation hearing of President Donald Trump’s former Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The former secretary, who was recently fired by tweet, was a senior lobbyist for Raytheon, a major defense contractor, before joining the Trump administration. Flournoy serves on the board of Booz Allen Hamilton and, along with Blinken, founded WestExec Advisors, a Washington consulting firm that reportedly advises the defense industry, private equity firms, and hedge funds.
But Flournoy’s wide experience in the Defense Department, which began nearly three decades ago in the Clinton administration as a principal deputy assistant secretary of defense and carried her through the Obama administration, where she served as the agency’s Senate-confirmed undersecretary of defense for policy, is seen as likely to help her clear a possible Republican-controlled Senate. She also became known for co-founding the Center for a New American Security in 2007, a bipartisan think tank focused on defense issues.
Still, some progressive foreign-policy experts view her consulting work as a liability, fearing her ties to the defense industry could pose conflicts of interest if she were to take up the top post at the Pentagon.
Mandy Smithberger, of the nonpartisan group Project on Government Oversight, has questioned whether Flournoy’s policy proposals for a new administration “benefit the bottom line of current or former clients of her consulting firm” in a piece on the influence of defense contractors over a Biden administration’s Pentagon.
Moreover, as Smithberger noted, one-third of Biden’s Pentagon agency review team work for think tanks, organizations, or companies that receive defense industry funding—a point of contention with progressive foreign-policy circles.
Notably, Blinken, who was picked for secretary of state, has faced less public pushback for his work with WestExec than Flournoy. Some Democratic foreign-policy experts said that is because the Pentagon is simply a bigger institution where conflicts of interest with defense contractors would more quickly arise than at the State Department. Others said Blinken has done a better job making inroads with progressive groups in the runup to the elections. Still others attribute it in part to sexism; Flournoy is being unfairly held to a different standard than male counterparts, they said.
Progressive foreign-policy experts who have questions said that the future administration could allay these concerns by requiring nominees like Flournoy and Blinken to more fully disclose their investments and business dealings before taking up their government posts.
Andrew Albertson, the head of the advocacy organization Foreign Policy for America, described Flournoy as extremely qualified for the job of defense secretary and said some of the pushback from the left wing of the party was less about her and more about grievances over U.S. defense policy overall.
“I think progressives are frustrated by the fact that the defense budget has grown to more than half our discretionary budget every year and shows no signs of stopping, and frustrated that they haven’t found a real formula for turning the [National Defense Authorization Act] from a wish list into a real policy document that makes hard choices,” he said. “And that’s some of what you’re seeing bubble up.”
Despite widespread support of Flournoy from many foreign-policy experts, who dismissed any nefarious influence from her past ties to the defense industry, some progressive Democratic lawmakers have raised a battle cry.
“Flournoy supported the war in Iraq [and] Libya, criticized Obama on Syria, and helped craft the surge in Afghanistan,” Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive backer of Sen. Bernie Sanders and an architect of the 2019 War Powers Resolution to end U.S. involvement in Yemen, tweeted on Sunday. “I want to support the President’s picks. But will Flournoy now commit to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan & a ban on arms sales to the Saudis to end the Yemen war?”
Flournoy, as Pentagon policy chief during the Obama administration, clashed with Biden when he was vice president over the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, as did much of the Obama administration, and in the past pushed to keep more U.S. forces in Iraq.
Opposition to Flournoy is tempered, but not fully allayed, by the historic prospect of a first female defense secretary. In a call with the likely pick earlier this month, progressives specifically raised issues with Flournoy’s ties to defense contractors and expressed frustration that she wasn’t willing to agree to an outright ban on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, instead favoring just a ban on offensive weapons sales. Some progressives have also been frustrated by the Biden team’s unwillingness to commit to defense spending cuts and to redirect more of the Pentagon budget toward domestic priorities. News of the call was first reported by Politico.
Some others on Capitol Hill weren’t as committed to opposing Flournoy and other Biden picks, and simply sought to get assurances on key policy decisions for progressives.
“I think you’ll find the concerns with Biden’s picks to be fairly limited,” said one House aide.
Update, Nov. 25, 2020: This article was updated to provide further details on progressive pushback over Biden cabinet picks.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
In Break From Trump, Biden Opts for Experience, Expertise for Top National Security Jobs
The U.S. president-elect laid out most of his national security team even as more Republicans abandoned Trump and his legal battles over the election results.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden named senior members of his national security team on Monday, including a raft of seasoned diplomats and Obama administration veterans, signaling a return to experience and expertise after a sharp four-year break under President Donald Trump.
After tapping longtime policy advisors Antony Blinken for secretary of state and Jake Sullivan for national security advisor, Biden also announced his picks for director of national intelligence, secretary of homeland security, United Nations ambassador, and special envoy to fight climate change, which the president-elect has characterized as one of the country’s most pressing national security threats. (One big job that was not on the list: secretary of defense. Michèle Flournoy, a defense expert and former senior Pentagon official, is widely favored for the role, but Biden has yet to make an announcement.)
Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence. In 2013, Haines became the first woman to serve as deputy director of the CIA, before going on to become the first woman appointed deputy national security advisor. If confirmed as director of national intelligence, Haines would smash the highest glass ceiling in the U.S. intelligence community, becoming the first woman to be the nation’s spy chief. Her career path has been unconventional, training at an elite judo academy in Japan after high school and later working as an auto mechanic during college. In the late 1990s, Haines and her husband ran an independent bookstore in Baltimore, and she also worked as a community organizer.
“When I was doing community work, I found that the people that really understood the most about how to change society, how to work the system, how to improve things, were lawyers for the most part,” she said in an interview with the Belfer Center in 2017. That experience led her to enroll in Georgetown law school in 1998. Since then, Haines has accrued extensive experience in U.S. national security and developed a reputation as a workhorse. Her appointment will mark a sharp departure from Trump’s picks for the position, who were seen as highly partisan and unqualified.
Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor. Sullivan, who was a contender for a cabinet-level post on Hillary Clinton’s team if she had won in 2016, instead had to wait out the Trump years in a series of academic posts after a meteoric rise through the Obama administration that included stops at the National Security Council and the State Department. The Clinton confidant was one of the first Obama administration officials to establish backchannel talks with the Iranian regime in Oman that led to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. He will be a key player for a Biden administration that is looking to get back into the nuclear agreement, which Trump jettisoned more than two years ago. The Associated Press also reported that during the Obama administration, Sullivan was a key advocate pushing for greater outreach to Asia and Latin America. Notably, Sullivan will be 44 years old when he takes office, the youngest person to hold the job since McGeorge Bundy served in the Kennedy administration.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, United Nations Ambassador. Linda Thomas-Greenfield is a former career diplomat who served as director-general of the foreign service and assistant secretary of state for African affairs. At the time she left the State Department in 2017, she was the highest-ranking African American woman at the department. If Thomas-Greenfield is confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first U.N. envoy who hailed from the ranks of the foreign service to permanently take up the U.N. ambassador post since 2004, a signal that Biden plans to empower career diplomats whom Trump viewed with suspicion and disdain during his time in the White House. The Biden campaign said that the U.N. ambassador will again be a cabinet-level position, giving the new envoy additional clout and influence in Washington.
John Kerry, Climate Change Envoy. A fixture of Washington politics for nearly four decades, the former secretary of state and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee will join the Biden administration as its top climate official, sitting on the National Security Council. Kerry has recently led a bipartisan coalition dubbed World War Zero calling for a warlike mobilization to halt rising global carbon emissions by 2050.
His first order of business is likely to be a U.S. return to the Paris climate agreement, which he helped negotiate, and which Biden has pledged to rejoin on his first day in office. The issue of climate change will be followed closely by left-leaning Democrats pushing for a Green New Deal, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. One progressive organization, Justice Democrats, said it was encouraged by Kerry’s appointment but wanted to see the incoming Biden administration put in place a domestic climate change czar as well.
Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security. The Cuban-born Mayorkas would become the first Latino secretary of homeland security after rising from a U.S. attorney to become a deputy secretary in the agency during the Obama administration. He has supported the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program after Trump’s acting Homeland Security head, Chad Wolf, tried to suspend the program. Mayorkas has also urged more cooperation with the private sector to combat cybercrime. Republicans boycotted his confirmation hearing for his last Homeland Security job, however, after a leaked inspector general probe said he had provided special access for acquaintances of political allies, such as then-Sen. Harry Reid, then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s brother, for green cards to bring wealthy foreign investors to the United States.
The Biden team’s announcements signal that they are plowing ahead with the transition process despite Trump’s refusal to concede his election loss. Trump, without ever presenting any evidence, maintains there was widespread voter fraud. After his legal team lost dozens of court cases in battleground states, a growing number of influential Republican lawmakers and White House allies have urged Trump to accept the results.
“We have no time to lose when it comes to our national security and foreign policy,” Biden said in a statement. “I need a team ready on Day One to help me reclaim America’s seat at the head of the table, rally the world to meet the biggest challenges we face, and advance our security, prosperity, and values.”
Most of Biden’s top national security team will require Senate confirmation before taking their jobs, a matter that hinges on two Senate runoff races in Georgia in January, which will determine whether Republicans keep or lose control of the Senate.
“It is in our national security interest to ensure the President-elect can have his cabinet of choice, especially as the State Department was decimated under the previous administration and needs to rebuild to manage global diplomacy and defend our national interest,” New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “The work to counter the massive loss of experience, knowledge, and relationships over the last four years cannot wait.”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Biden’s Secretary of State Pick Bodes Return to Normalcy for Weary Diplomats
Diplomats express relief over Blinken’s expected nomination after four years of bruising political battles and mismanagement under Trump.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to pick Antony Blinken, one of his closest policy aides and confidants, to be secretary of state, according to people familiar with the matter. A former State Department No. 2 and longtime advisor to the former Delaware senator, Blinken has decades of foreign-policy experience dating back to the Clinton administration and signals the return of the foreign-policy establishment to power after the disruption of the Trump era.
Blinken has advised Biden for nearly two decades, first as staff director at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was chairman, and later as national security advisor to the vice president. He served as deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017, when he played a pivotal role in the Obama administration’s Syria policy and the U.S. response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea.
Blinken is seen by many in Democratic foreign-policy circles as a centrist, and his expected nomination to the country’s top diplomatic posts dashes hopes in the left wing of the Democratic Party that Biden would tap a more progressive candidate, such as Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy.
Additionally, people familiar with the Biden transition team’s plans say that the president-elect is expected to select Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a seasoned and well-respected former career diplomat, as his ambassador to the United Nations. Foreign Policy previously reported she was expected to be chosen for a senior role in the administration. Jake Sullivan, another campaign advisor and Obama administration veteran, is expected to be named as Biden’s national security advisor, as the Washington Post reports. Sullivan served in the same role for Biden when he was vice president before becoming a major player on Obama’s Iran policy at the State Department, holding secret meetings in Oman that laid the groundwork for the 2015 nuclear deal.
In Foggy Bottom, news of Blinken’s expected nomination was met with relief, after four years of career diplomats being treated with distrust and disdain by President Donald Trump’s inner circle, particularly after Trump’s bruising impeachment trial. “Blinken’s appointment will be a salve to a wounded State Department and will reassure U.S. allies, who know him well,” said one former diplomat.
Some foreign-policy experts close to the campaign see Blinken’s expected nomination as an indication that the Biden team isn’t hopeful about Democrats taking control of the Senate after a January runoff for two seats in Georgia. Senior Republican lawmakers have signaled they would confirm centrist nominees, but not further-left progressive nominees, if they retained control in the Senate. Those experts also said that another top contender for the secretary of state position, Obama’s former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, would have faced significant hurdles getting confirmed in a Republican-controlled Senate.
Even though Blinken is seen as a centrist, he held regular calls with progressive groups during the campaign and is seen as flexible by advocates on major priorities for the left, including supporting efforts to bring the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end, reforming the War Powers Resolution, restoring the refugee resettlement program curtailed by Trump, and cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Blinken’s nomination could also signal a return to prominence for what traditionally was a main driver of U.S. foreign policy. During the Obama administration—and Trump’s single term—some diplomats said that the White House and National Security Council had overshadowed the State Department, leaving it with less clout and influence in making foreign policy. Especially given Blinken’s close relationship with Biden, the pick is seen as a shot in the arm for the State Department.
“His relationship with the president matters a lot,” said one diplomatic source, noting it “could be a positive sign of the relative role of State vs. the NSC.”
The son of a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary during the Clinton administration, Blinken worked his way up from roles in President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council to staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to deputy secretary of state under Secretary of State John Kerry.
During the campaign, Blinken had repeatedly vowed that, once elected, Biden would repair U.S. relations with its closest allies after four years of tension under Trump and restore U.S. stature in international institutions. He has consistently defended Biden’s foreign-policy stances, including controversial ones such as the proposed federalization of Iraq and reluctance to put more boots on the ground in Afghanistan during the Obama administration. While serving as deputy secretary of state, Blinken pushed back against plans in the early stages of the Syrian civil war to hold the Bashar al-Assad regime accountable for crimes against Syrian civilians, lest it derail the political process for peace talks between the warring sides.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Biden and Flournoy Have Clashed Over Policy in Past
The putative front-runner to be U.S. defense secretary hasn’t always agreed with her future boss.
Michèle Flournoy is widely considered to be a front-runner to become President-elect Joe Biden’s pick as secretary of defense, the first woman to serve in the post. But Flournoy, a highly regarded career defense official, hasn’t always been on the same side of policy debates as her future boss, and that could potentially affect the Biden administration’s future approach to security concerns around the globe.
The disagreements between the two in the past have ranged from the U.S. policy stance from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria.
In Afghanistan, while Biden as Barack Obama’s vice president advocated for a pared-down counterterrorism (CT) approach that would focus narrowly on eliminating al Qaeda, Flournoy argued for a broader and more troop-intensive counterinsurgency or COIN strategy that would combine military and civil tactics to win over the population.
“You’re right to foresee a possible difference of opinion between them. Their instincts are different,” said David Kilcullen, a leading counterinsurgency expert who briefed Biden and other leading officials of the incoming Obama administration in 2009. “She was always more focused on engaging and trying to stabilize Afghanistan for broader geopolitical and humanitarian reasons, and he was focused on pulling out (with a CT figleaf).”
“That said, I don’t think it’s going to be a huge deal this time, largely because the horse has already bolted on Afghanistan. I am not privy to Michele’s thinking at all, but from a straight strategy perspective I don’t think she would see much alternative to a withdrawal, given the strategic realities of the campaign as it stands. And if she is picking her policy battles, this looks like a fairly forlorn hill to die on, this early in a new administration.”
As Obama writes in his just-released memoir, A Promised Land, Biden was consistently the determined outlier in the debate about putting more troops into Afghanistan, expressing little faith in the Afghan government’s reliability under then-President Hamid Karzai. “Whatever the mix of reasons, he saw Afghanistan as a dangerous quagmire and urged me to delay a deployment…” Obama writes.
Aided by tens of thousands of U.S. troops, COIN has not worked since then; initial hopes for spreading so-called “ink spots” of stability and political control in larger areas of the country to keep out the Taliban—winning over most of the Afghan population with aid and a multibillion-dollar policy to “clear, hold, and build” towns while at the same time killing insurgents threatening those towns—is already considered a lost hope in the Pentagon, which has mostly abandoned the strategy,
Biden himself has already indicated he wants a swift pullout soon, with some on his team suggesting he might even want to keep on Trump’s envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, who is in the middle of negotiating with the Taliban on an accelerated timetable that would draw down to 2,500 troops by Jan. 15 and have all U.S. troops out by the spring of 2021, scant months into Biden’s tenure.
The pragmatic Flournoy, meanwhile, has admitted her views have shifted in recent years as counterinsurgency efforts have been frustrated and the Taliban have been resurgent. In a recent podcast with retired Gen.Stan McChrystal–former commander in Afghanistan—she said that if she had it to do over again she would have asked more stringent questions about when and where COIN can work. She indicated that she had overestimated the ability of Kabul to take over from the Americans. “I think we went in believing we had a different kind of partner in the Afghan government than we actually did.”
But speaking at an Atlantic Council Forum in Dec. 2012, just after Obama’s re-election, Flournoy had taken a more aggressive approach in supporting COIN. She admonished the U.S. military for becoming “risk-averse” because of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, adding “we have to be careful not to fall into the Vietnam Syndrome where we believe we’ll never do that again.” She said traditional Pentagon planning programs were “unsatisfactory” and “stale” and cramped by “an aversion to failure.” To produce the adaptive and flexible leaders needed to face the uncertain future threats, America needed to develop new asymmetric warfare techniques and “we have to be willing to fail,” she said, noting “we don’t get to choose” the nature of future conflicts. Flournoy was apparently not only talking about counterinsurgency in this context but also creative new uses of technology, for example creating a “network of networks” for command and control to fend off cyber disruptions, among other innovations.
As one of the founders in 2007 of the new think tank Center for a New American Security, which questioned the administration’s approach to Afghanistan, Flournoy had long been known as a strong COIN advocate against Vice President Biden’s later views. And notably it was former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, known for his extreme skepticism about the surge in Afghanistan and Iraq, whom Obama picked as his second-term defense secretary over Flournoy, though she had been Obama’s chief foreign policy spokesman during the 2012 campaign and previously undersecretary for policy.
“She did want to engage more rather than less,” said retired Army Col. Tony Pfaff, a professor at the U.S. Army War College who was involved in intelligence and planning during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “But now, I don’t think anyone can advocate for an adventurous COIN strategy anywhere, so not sure they’ll have a lot of room to disagree. Unless it is about building up advisor capacity in the regular Army–that’s a thing now” that he suggested Flournoy may support.
On Iraq, Flournoy also took a different, also more activist approach than Biden, who along with foreign affairs veteran Leslie Gelb called for a greater federalization of Iraq, in effect turning the country into three autonomous regions, Sunni, Kurd and Shia, and then getting out. Here too Flournoy pushed for national unity and a more troop-intensive COIN strategy. ”In Iraq I think she was more interested in maintaining the presence we have there, in part because of the threat from Syria,” said Kilcullen.
In a 2007 article she wrote with her late CNAS colleague Shawn Brimley, Flournoy argued for “a strategy focused on maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as creating an internal balance of power among Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds that reduces the chances of mass violence and improves the chances of political reconciliation.” Her article said “the United States must retain sufficient ‘top-down’ engagement with Iraq’s federal government in order to retain leverage, influence behavior within Iraq’s army and National Police, and maintain a degree of situational awareness.”
Biden was later criticized for negotiating a too-rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, leading to the rise of the Islamic State—one of the outcomes that Flournoy and other hawks had feared. Indeed, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a rare parting of ways with Trump on foreign policy, has warned the president—and by implication Biden—that something similar could happen in Afghanistan.
“The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism,” McConnell said on the Senate floor this week. “It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”
A spokesman for the Biden transition did not respond to a request for comment.
Since she became undersecretary of defense for policy, considered the third most powerful civilian role in the department, Flournoy has become renowned in military circles for her creative approach to maximizing the effectiveness of U.S. military forces with minimal expenditure; she has urged the slashing of infrastructure and overhead to preserve training and modernization. She also shares with Biden the determination to find new ways to confront the rise of China while at the same time pushing for areas of cooperation on threats like climate change and containing North Korea.
“Even if differences existed then I doubt they continue today,” said retired Brig. Gen Jim Warner, a former senior Pentagon official. “Flournoy is the fastest and deepest learner I know. I wouldn’t assume she holds the same opinions at this point as in the earlier Obama days. There were a lot of very smart and thoughtful people … who preached variations of the COIN gospel.” And who now admit they were wrong.
Flournoy appears to have a good relationship with Biden—in June 2016, when it was expected Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, Biden jokingly addressed Flournoy as “madame secretary” at a speech and added, “I’m writing a recommendation for her, you know.” But the president-elect is also considering several other candidates as defense secretary, including Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a disabled Iraq vet, former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson, who would become the first African American defense secretary; and retired Adm. William McRaven, who served as head of U.S. Special Operations Command and oversaw the missions that captured Saddam Hussein and killed Osama bin Laden.
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Can Biden End America’s Forever Wars?
Delivering on his promise will prove extremely difficult—but so may the consequences of not doing so.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced plans to bring home half of the 5,000 U.S. troops still stationed in Afghanistan, as well as 500 of the 3,000 servicemembers now based in Iraq. The promise, on which the administration pledged to make good by Jan. 15, was unpopular among military brass and defense experts, but it handed an unexpected gift to President-elect Joe Biden.
The reason? Throughout this year’s campaign, Biden vowed repeatedly to end America’s “forever wars”; now President Donald Trump has suddenly moved the country 3,000 bodies closer to that goal. But Biden will soon face a much larger, and tougher, problem: How will he deliver on the rest of his pledge when he finally takes office? At this point, his odds of succeeding don’t look very good.
To see why, you first have to define what the term “forever” or “endless” war actually means. The answer turns out to be surprisingly hard to pin down. That slipperiness explains why virtually every Democratic presidential candidate in this year’s race, and Republican candidate Trump before them, were able to embrace the idea. You know that if Elizabeth Warren and Trump can agree on a policy, it’s got to be pretty vague.
To his credit, Biden has at least tried to articulate what exactly he means. His biggest, and easiest, priority is avoiding more large-scale combat operations such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya. That should be eminently doable: After all, no major wars loom on the horizon. The one possible exception is Iran—but even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the cabinet’s uber-hawk on the issue, reportedly argued against Trump’s idea of launching strikes on Iran’s main nuclear complex last week.
Ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, as Biden has also promised, should also prove pretty easy; even numerous Republican senators agree on that one.
Progressives define ending forever wars much more expansively than Biden does.
But beyond that, things get much trickier. Progressives define ending forever wars much more expansively than Biden does. For example, Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, includes formally confronting all the negative aspects of the war on terror, including the use of torture, targeted killings, and cooperation with authoritarian governments: a process that could do wonders for U.S. policy in the long term but would prove so divisive and controversial in the short that it’s hard to imagine Biden having the stomach for it.
Meanwhile, the president-elect’s determination to maintain a robust counterterrorism presence around the world will also spark anger among some of his allies on the left, who include counterterrorism operations in their definition of endless wars. And even if he wanted to, there are several powerful reasons why Biden would find it hard to end these low-scale combat missions—which as recently as 2018 involved fighting in 15 different countries—and to bring most U.S. troops home.
First, as the last 20 years have shown, groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State are very good at shifting form, moving into new countries with weak governments and very angry citizens, and then coopting that anger into their ultimate goal of global jihad. As they do so, they create dangerous new international threats in the process.
Second, every U.S. president who takes office promising a more peaceful approach to foreign policy inevitably gets mugged by reality when unexpected threats arise, or his generals start pointing out the potentially disastrous consequences of abandoning or avoiding existing conflicts. As Kori Schake, head of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, put it to me, “It’s much easier to criticize the practice of dealing with threats where they’re emerging when you’re not responsible for assuming the risk of getting it wrong.”
Every U.S. president who takes office promising a more peaceful approach to foreign policy inevitably gets mugged by reality when unexpected threats arise.
A large majority of Americans may favor bringing U.S. troops home, and keeping them there. But do you really want to be the president who abandons the long-suffering Afghan people to the brutal depredations and strictures of the Taliban? Or the one who accepts the risk that pulling back America’s global military presence could spark new conflicts or even terror attacks on the West (a remote but not impossible outcome)? Meanwhile, let’s say you’ve pledged to support human rights—as Biden, like every Democratic candidate, has—and another round of ethnic cleansing breaks out somewhere. Are you really going to sit on your hands and just watch?
The answer to all these questions is probably not—which is why President Barack Obama, for example, entered office making similar promises but ended up sending more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, getting involved in Syria’s civil war, and helping to topple Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi.
So what should Biden do to make good on his commitment? As president, he’ll have three main options. The first could be called the Jim Jeffrey approach: just lie. As Jeffrey, a well-respected career diplomat who just stepped down as Trump’s special envoy for Syria and the fight against the Islamic State, said in an exit interview last week, his team consistently deceived the White House about the real number of U.S. troops in Syria—a number that remained much larger than the 200 servicemembers Trump thought he was leaving there after his loudly touted withdrawal last year.
Another, less duplicitous approach to ending forever wars would be to do what political scientist Charli Carpenter and many other scholars and advocates have suggested over the last 20 years: treat global terrorism as a legal problem, and use international law-enforcement tools to attack it. But this option carries so many risks and potential problems—both political and technical—and would be such a radical shift from long-standing U.S. policy that it’s hard to imagine a moderate consensus-oriented leader like Biden embracing it.
Biden’s best option might be to follow the advice of Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, and to focus on process: improving the procedures that govern when the United States uses force, and enhancing the transparency of the system. Both Sanders and Buttigieg have stressed that a critical first step would be getting Congress to resume its constitutional duty to decide when the United States goes to war.
This approach would have obvious merits: Virtually all U.S. military operations of the last 19 years have been conducted under legislation, called the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed in 2001 to give the George W. Bush administration broad latitude in its response to the terror attacks of 9/11. That’s absurd; the law should never have been allowed to justify almost two decades of warfare around the globe, in countries as different as Niger and the Philippines.
But even the Sanders/Buttigieg strategy would face problems. Start with the fact that Congress has shown close to zero interest in taking more responsibility for America’s wars. Attempts by Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and a few others to introduce legislation to repeal the 2001 AUMF (and another similar law passed in 2002 to enable the war in Iraq) have fallen flat again and again. Congress has preferred to leave the hard decisions to the White House and then criticize it when things go wrong. It’s hard to imagine why a majority of legislators would abandon that approach, cynical as it is, anytime soon.
What all this means for Biden is that he’s unlikely to make much progress on what was one of the key foreign policy positions he took during the campaign—one that became very popular with his supporters. In my next column, I’ll get into what this failure could mean for Biden’s ability to hold onto the progressives who are a key part of his coalition. For now, it’s enough to say that the longer the United States’ forever wars continue—and Americans keep coming home in body bags—the higher the price Biden may end up paying. The national-security risks of retrenchment may be grave—but so could be the political risks of not doing so.
Jonathan Tepperman is an editor at large at Foreign Policy.
Team Biden Urged to Keep Trump’s Afghan Envoy
Biden’s foreign-policy team is weighing the merits of letting Zalmay Khalilzad keep his job or letting him go.
Afghan policy experts are quietly urging the Biden transition team to consider asking President Donald Trump’s Afghan peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to remain on the job as a transitional negotiator after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20.
The effort reflects a belief that the ultimate end game sought by Trump and Biden—the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan—is largely the same and that a move to immediately replace Khalilzad at a sensitive stage in U.S. peace negotiations with the Taliban could complicate that effort.
Khalilzad, a veteran diplomat from the George W. Bush administration who grew up in Kabul, has a deep relationship with Afghan leaders such as President Ashraf Ghani dating back decades and command of the major languages of the region. But his contacts with the Taliban, with whom he negotiated decades ago on behalf of a California oil company looking to build a pipeline through Afghanistan, has badly dented his popularity in Kabul. Afghan government officials resented being largely cut out of Washington’s secretive deal-making with the group that once harbored Osama bin Laden.
While Biden shares Trump’s goal of ultimately withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Trump has drastically accelerated the timeline of the withdrawal in the past week, announcing a further reduction of troop levels in the country, to about 2,500. The move has rattled NATO allies and angered Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill, who warn a sudden drawdown could destabilize the country and undercut U.S. leverage in peace talks with the Taliban—thereby leaving a Biden administration with an even more precarious situation in Afghanistan.
Biden’s top foreign-policy advisors, including Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and Michèle Flournoy, are said to be open to considering a possible extension for Khalilzad but are by no means committed.
“I think there are scenarios in which the new administration may seek to build on what Zal has done, and there are scenarios in which they may opt for something different,” one former U.S. official said. “If there is progress over the next few months and Zal is in a good position to continue that progress, I can certainly see a scenario where they would ask him to stay for some period of time. But I don’t think anyone should expect they are indispensable in a circumstance like this.”
Officials close to the campaign say they don’t expect the Biden administration to make any major policy or personnel decisions on Afghanistan during the transition and that any final decision will be formed by a coldhearted assessment of what approach would best serve U.S. interests—and how Trump’s rushed troop drawdown will alter the prospects for peace talks with the Taliban once Biden inherits the matter in January.
For now, the campaign’s top foreign-policy advisors are essentially soliciting recommendations from a wide range of foreign-policy experts, including some who have called for Khalilzad to stay and others who say it is time for a new approach.
For those who favor an extension, Khalilzad’s contacts and institutional knowledge of the peace negotiations are irreplaceable as Washington transitions from one president to the next, even as progress on the talks has sputtered and stalled amid a huge uptick in Taliban terrorist attacks.
“Zal is uniquely positioned to move forward the peace process in Afghanistan,” said Christopher Kolenda, a former senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Barack Obama-era Defense Department. “The dynamic circumstances will require some agile approaches and a willingness to make new mistakes.”
But even if he doesn’t succeed, there may be some logic to letting him continue.
“The people I’ve spoken to all feel there is no rush to replace Zal,” said another U.S. analyst familiar with the internal deliberations. “Let him finish the job he started.”
“He is also arguably the best qualified person to negotiate with all the parties,” the analyst added. “He knows them all, he knows the language, he knows the cultural context. There are a bunch of Biden people who agree with what he is doing.”
But others are not so sure.
“Zal is clearly trying to position himself as acceptable to the Biden team,” said another former U.S. official. “But this decision is going to be made partly on policy and partly on politics. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is kept on for a brief transitional time. My personal wager is ‘not for long.’”
“I see a stronger logic for replacing him than keeping him,” the official added. “It’s not like he is having wild success.”
The Biden transition team declined to comment for the story, and the president-elect has not publicly given any indication on whether or not Khalilzad or other Trump diplomatic appointees would retain their posts in the new administration.
Khalilzad’s relations remain strained with some House Democrats, who are still steaming that they had to threaten him with a subpoena to brief them on his peace talks in Afghanistan—though the decision to refuse the congressional request was reportedly taken by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In the hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington, Biden’s transition team is facing pressure, particularly among the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, to expel all Trump-era appointees from government for a fresh start, according to several experts who advised and consulted the Biden campaign. Moreover, Khalilzad himself is the source of controversy within Afghanistan, where he once reportedly weighed running for the presidency himself.
Khalilzad’s controversial standing among many corners of the Afghan government was thrown into the spotlight last year, when Afghanistan’s top national security advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, accused Khalilzad of trying to unseat Ghani and take power for himself in colonial-style rule. His comments drew sharp backlash from the State Department but underscored the tensions between the U.S. and Afghan governments during Khalilzad’s negotiations with the Taliban.
Trump has used the lame-duck period to set the Pentagon on a course to draw down to 2,500 U.S. troops in the country by Jan. 15—five days before Biden is to be inaugurated as president. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters on Tuesday that the administration wants all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq by the spring of 2021.
“By May, it is President Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely—and in their entirety,” O’Brien said. “I want to reiterate that this policy is not new. This has been the president’s policy since he took office.”
But the hasty, and partial, pullout has plenty of detractors. “There’s no rationale here really for cutting the force now. It doesn’t serve any purpose,” said James Cunningham, who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014 and who said the decision would leave foreign allies who have fought alongside U.S. troops for years in the lurch. “It just is going to make life more difficult until the new administration comes in.”
Biden has pledged to leave a residual counterterrorism force in the war-torn nation, setting the table for potential turbulence as the handoff occurs. With the peace talks wavering in October, the Taliban embarked on a military offensive in Afghanistan’s strategic Helmand province that displaced as many as 35,000 people.
The case for an extension of Khalilzad’s mandate as Afghan envoy has emerged in discussions among members of the Afghanistan Study Group, co-chaired by Kelly Ayotte, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire; Joseph Dunford, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Nancy Lindborg, the former president and CEO of the U.S. Institute of Peace. The study group includes key policymakers such as Flournoy, who has been mentioned as a potential defense secretary under Biden, and Stephen Hadley, a former U.S. national security advisor under George W. Bush. And several of the participants have been providing informal advice to Khalilzad.
Hadley suggested that there could be a case made for keeping Khalilzad at least during the transition. “I don’t see [the Biden team] shutting [the talks] down. I could see them resetting the position of the United States in the negotiations and try to correct some deficiencies and problems that have emerged,” he said.
If that is the case, he added, “you can argue that you don’t want to fire him on day one, but you would want to have Khalilzad for a period of time to transition. You’d want to keep the talks alive until you reset, and once you reset, you can decide whether you want a new negotiator.”
Hadley said the latest plan by the Trump administration to draw down the U.S. military presence to 2,500 troops could have been worse.
“I think it’s basically a compromise to allow the president to say he has dramatically reduced our troop levels and that we are on the road to ending these so-called endless wars without going to zero, which everyone agrees would be precipitous and disruptive, undermine the talks, and would not be in America’s interest.”
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
After Biden Win, U.S. Intelligence Community ‘Probably Doing Cartwheels’
Long maligned and vilified under Trump, the spy agencies hope to restore normality under Biden.
People working at the White House often take guests on tours of the historic building. But unlike others, during his two terms as vice president, Joe Biden made a point of taking guests down to the Situation Room, said Larry Pfeiffer, a veteran intelligence official then serving as the room’s senior director.
Biden would look over the team of analysts monitoring world events, point to them, and tell his guests, “These are the smartest people in the world,” Pfeiffer said. “That was something you didn’t have to do, but it went a heck of a long way to raising the morale of people who were working 12-hour shifts around the clock. It demonstrated a guy who really had a lot of respect for intelligence.”
When U.S. President-elect Biden takes office in January, he will have his work cut out for him as he inherits an intelligence community that has been demoralized by President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks maligning and politicizing the work of the country’s spy agencies. But former intelligence officials said Biden’s election will likely be seen within the 17 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community as the welcome beginning of a less turbulent relationship with the executive branch.
“I think the intelligence community is probably doing cartwheels in the halls,” said Pfeiffer.
While Trump was easily bored by intelligence briefings, former intelligence officials who have worked with Biden say he has shown a deep understanding and respect for the work of intelligence agencies.
“I knew then-Vice President Biden as an interested, appreciative consumer of intelligence. He always asked thoughtful, substantive questions,” said James Clapper, who served as director of national intelligence during the Obama administration.
With over three decades in the Senate, including 10 years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and two terms as vice president, Biden is also familiar with many of the people who make up the senior ranks of the U.S. intelligence agencies. Former CIA Director John Brennan, who worked closely with Biden during the Obama administration, described him as an “avid” and “diligent” consumer of intelligence. “He’s somebody who has intimate familiarity as well as respect and regard for the importance of the work in the mission and the people,” Brennan said.
That will be welcomed by Biden’s briefers—though, contrary to all past practice, Biden has not yet been given access to the daily intelligence briefing a president-elect normally receives.
“We’re dealing with people who know what intelligence is supposed to do, and what it’s not supposed to do,” said David Priess, the chief operating officer of the Lawfare Institute, who served as a president’s daily briefer during the George W. Bush administration.
Trump increasingly favored loyalty over experience in his choice of people to helm the country’s intelligence apparatus. For weeks there has been mounting speculation that Trump may look to fire current CIA Director Gina Haspel, who is reported to have fallen out of favor with the president for pushing back on requests to declassify information that could be politically beneficial to him. (On Tuesday, Trump fired the head of the government’s cybersecurity agency for declaring the 2020 elections the most secure in history.)
Biden has not named his picks to lead the CIA or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, but those reportedly under consideration, including former acting CIA Director Michael Morell and former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon, are all career national security officials with a deep understanding of the intelligence community.
“He will return the IC to pre-Trump ‘normal,’ where a premium is placed on professional competence, not incompetent loyalty,” Clapper said.
Something that Biden could do in the early days of his presidency to signal his support for the intelligence community would be to make a visit to the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said Marc Polymeropoulos, the CIA’s former chief of operations for Europe and Eurasia who retired in 2019. Biden could “reassure the employees that they’re not the ‘deep state,’ that he has faith in the product,” he said.
Another early priority for the Biden administration will be to bolster checks and balances on the intelligence agencies and rebuild the system of whistleblower statutes and inspectors general, Polymeropoulos said. Protections for intelligence community whistleblowers are relatively new, signed into law in 2012, and were little tested before Trump and his allies sought to expose the identity of the CIA whistleblower whose complaint triggered the House impeachment investigation into Trump.
One of Biden’s tasks will likely be “expressing the sanctity of the whistleblower statutes and a robust Inspector General, all of the things that have sort of fallen apart under the Trump administration,” Polymeropoulos said.
Trump’s attacks on U.S. intelligence agencies, which determined that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to bolster Trump’s chances, began even before his inauguration, when he likened them to Nazis. That has taken a toll on morale, but it won’t take much to repair the relationship.
“[The intelligence community] doesn’t need petting and stroking, it just needs not to be beat on,” said John Sipher, who spent 28 years with the CIA, serving in Moscow in the 1990s and later running the agency’s Russia operations.
One key aspect of that will be restoring balanced congressional oversight of the intelligence community. As vice president, Biden helped mediate between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA, which were embroiled in a bitter fight over allegations the CIA had spied on Senate staffers, Brennan recalled in his memoir Undaunted, which was released last month. “‘We have to get this behind us, folks. There are too many important national security matters that the committee and the CIA need to work on together,’” Brennan recounts Biden saying.
As president, Biden could seek to reprise that role. “I’d expect that to be what President-elect Biden feels his role is, to sort out these differences and make sure that there is oversight of the intelligence agencies that doesn’t cripple the intelligence agencies’ functions,” said Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst with the Government Accountability Project.
But that doesn’t mean the next administration should be unquestioning cheerleaders of the intelligence community, either.
“We want an administration that challenges assumptions,” Sipher said. “You don’t want an intelligence community that has people downtown saying, ‘Oh yeah, you guys are great.’ That’s not comfortable either.”
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
The National Security Risks of Trump’s Temper Tantrum
Refusing to concede and start the transition creates mostly hindrances, not disasters. But on key issues, obstructing Biden puts America in danger.
By refusing to accept the election results and blocking the normal work of a presidential transition, U.S. President Donald Trump is putting the United States at risk for no good purpose. Even if he had a legal case that the election results might be overturned—which he assuredly does not—there would be no harm in letting President-elect Joe Biden’s team begin the transition work, which could always be halted in case Trump achieves the outcome he desires. If anything, blocking the transition effort underscores how weak Trump knows his legal case to be. Once again, he is displaying his own personal weakness to a watching world.
But while this interruption creates real problems for the incoming Biden team, one shouldn’t exaggerate the damage. The world’s collective nerves are frayed enough without compounding our worries about how delays in the U.S. presidential transition could lead to a domestic or international crisis.
For starters, the Biden team is well prepared to deal with some of the most direct and tangible problems Trump’s truculence throws its way. Indeed, it is the best prepared for governing since the incoming administration of George H.W. Bush, who had also served two terms as vice president, knew the ways of the White House and federal government, and brought with him a ready pool of experienced talent.
Because Trump’s director of the General Services Administration has delayed “ascertainment,” the technical step that sets the presidential transition in motion, the Biden team is currently denied roughly $10 million in transition funds, access to workspace, and access to U.S. State Department translators to facilitate congratulatory calls from foreign leaders. The process of applying for security clearances has been put on hold, and the Trump team has instructed the federal bureaucracy not to communicate with Biden’s people in preparation for the transition. Biden and his immediate team are also barred from accessing the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), the intelligence report that would normally help the president-elect prepare for what he will be facing on day one.
The 9/11 Commission flagged eliminating such delays as an important lesson learned from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
This is annoying but not devastating. Biden himself has acknowledged that his campaign has the resources it needs. In times of COVID-19, most work is conducted online, not in government offices. Sure, the State Department’s translators and note takers would help, but as Biden’s people have shown with their press notices on the calls with foreign leaders that have already taken place, they are professionals who can manage this on their own if necessary. Not receiving the PDB is a bit more serious: For newly elected presidents who have never worked at the White House level, this is an important training vehicle, especially because the PDB’s daily insights on national security give a cumulative view of threats and developments over time. But Biden and his team have exceptional experience in national security and foreign policy and will be able to get up to speed very quickly.
These hindrances and harassments are symbolically important, not materially important.
Trump’s refusal to set the democratic transition in motion, however, has more pernicious effects. For starters, it is delaying the already cumbersome and lengthy process of getting security clearances for Biden’s team. Biden will not need a security clearance come Jan. 20; Vice President-elect Kamala Harris already has a security clearance through her position on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Most of Biden’s likely incoming team will have had clearances in the past; some of them may still be active. But as George W. Bush’s team discovered, even when you are bringing in the A-team, there can be a delay in updating clearances. The 9/11 Commission flagged eliminating such delays as an important lesson learned from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There is no good reason why this crucial lesson should be ignored now.
But here, too, there is no reason to despair: With the exception of a few loyalists whom the Trump team appears to be trying to install in key posts, especially at the Defense Department, one can expect that the permanent civil service and career military staff will greet the incoming Biden administration with relief and facilitate a smoother start than other transition-delayed administrations faced (of which the most obvious recent example is Trump himself, who refused to properly prepare himself and his inner circle for the job). Biden’s start on Jan. 20 will be closer to a welcome home party than a hostile takeover.
A second genuine concern is the delay in access to the detailed “what we have been doing” reports that the outgoing teams prepare for the incoming landing teams. To be sure, incoming administrations usually read these reports with a great deal of skepticism, viewing them as exercises in self-justification and revisionist history that aim to hype the legacy. There will doubtlessly be lots of that, as evidenced by the strident reviews of Trump’s foreign-policy record by supporters of late.
Both the success of these covert and military operations and the security of the agents and soldiers involved depend on a seamless transition.
Nevertheless, the outgoing team reports have a special urgency this time around. Given the chaotic ways of the Trump administration, it is very likely that the picture of what has actually been happening at the department and agency level will be confused and contradictory and take longer than usual to sort out. Part of the reason is that there has never been a White House with such a large gulf between a president’s public claims and the invisible actions of the rest of the administration. As Trump’s outgoing Syria envoy, James Jeffrey, admitted, even many political appointees—let alone the civil servants—sought to hide the true policy from Trump for fear of how he might sabotage it with a tweet. Biden’s people will know the most damaging tweets by heart and have already forged policies and communications strategies to repair the damage. What the landing teams have been barred from learning by Trump’s delay is what has actually been transpiring at lower levels—out of view of the media and perhaps Trump himself.
A third genuine worry is that there are sensitive national security policies where the incoming team will need to assume immediate operational control on Jan. 20. This especially concerns ongoing covert intelligence actions and military special operations that will still be underway on Inauguration Day. Both the success of these operations and the security of the agents and soldiers involved depend on a seamless transition. For this, the Biden team needs to be briefed now. Otherwise those missions—and the people involved—will be at risk.
Fourth, the Trump team may be considering last-minute legacy-chasing maneuvers that could lay yet more obstacles into Biden’s path. That includes most obviously a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan (regardless of how that could sabotage ongoing peace negotiations), but could produce other surprises, such as additional troop withdrawals from Germany or even a last-minute declaration that the United States will exit NATO. Biden’s team could not stop such grandstanding. Even if Trump’s neoisolationist stance—especially on Afghanistan—intersects with the kind of pressure Biden will get from his own far-left flank, an effective transition would still be crucial for avoiding the problems that a rush to the exits would produce. A normal transition would also help the Biden team learn in more detail which last-minute decisions could easily be walked back and how.
Trump’s people will be implementing his orders until Inauguration Day with greater or lesser urgency. They will know better than anyone else how to fix what they are unraveling and could convey that to the incoming team. That would enable Biden to spend his political capital on those cases where Trump’s damage is irreversible.
Finally, much has already been said about how Trump’s refusal to set the transition in motion damages the United States’ credibility in the eyes of the world—especially as an exemplar of democracy. There is a long-running debate in the democracy field over whether the United States should have a mission of promoting democracy in other countries or should instead just be a model for other countries to choose to emulate. Trump’s refusal to concede his loss and uphold a cornerstone of democracy—the peaceful transition of power—makes that debate moot for now. He has sabotaged the United States’ mission and besmirched its model to the world.
There is nothing good that comes from delaying the transition, and the bad ranges from annoying to dangerous. If the Biden team were as shambolic as Trump’s was four years ago, the United States would be going through a genuine national security crisis. Luckily, that isn’t the case, and if Americans keep calm and carry on, the country can make it through. But the sooner that happens, the better.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
Democrats Urge Outgoing Trump to Be Flexible on Sanctions
Lawmakers are redoubling efforts to ensure all countries can get essential medical equipment during the pandemic despite ramped-up U.S. sanctions.
Democrats on Capitol Hill are pushing back on the Trump administration’s plan to unveil stepped-up sanctions against Iran and other U.S. rivals, urging the outgoing president to show leniency and allow coronavirus aid to be sent.
In a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week, Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with 73 other House and Senate Democrats, called on the Trump administration to issue a worldwide temporary general license that would cover testing kits, respirators, and personal protective equipment needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic has laid bare the ways in which our broad application of sanctions is undermining public health systems, imposing sweeping economic penalties that restrict commerce in the material and equipment necessary to respond to the coronavirus and harming ordinary people,” the lawmakers wrote. “Blocking or slowing the flow of medical resources neither enables an effective outbreak response around the world, nor does it serve our national security interests.”
The incoming Biden administration would likely be able to quickly write exemptions to ease the flow of U.S. coronavirus assistance around the world, but the next few months are critical. The pandemic is raging globally, and the Trump administration is seeking to use its final weeks in office to box in the next administration when it comes to U.S. financial warfare.
In coordination with Israel, the administration has planned a flurry of new Iran sanctions and several other moves, such as the pending terrorist designation of Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, a move that aid groups fear could impede the flow of goods to fight the virus in the middle of one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes.
President-elect Joe Biden has called on Trump to create licenses to allow goods to flow from pharmaceutical and medical device companies into Iran, and to create dedicated channels for banks and service firms to allow Iranians access to life-saving medical treatment. Similar licenses, issued by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, have been previously used by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to provide aid to Iran during devastating earthquakes over the past two decades.
“It is bad enough that the Trump administration abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in favor of a ‘maximum pressure’ strategy that has badly backfired, encouraging Iran to become even more aggressive and restart its nuclear program,” Biden wrote in a Medium post in April. “It makes no sense, in a global health crisis, to compound that failure with cruelty by inhibiting access to needed humanitarian assistance.”
On Monday, Biden called for the immediate passage of the HEROES Act, a coronavirus stimulus package approved by the House earlier this year that includes $10 billion in foreign coronavirus assistance. García, the Democratic lawmaker, has also supported the use of International Monetary Fund special drawing rights to give financial relief to nations desperate to pay for much-needed medical imports.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Watch Out Wall Street: Biden May Be Coming for You
His new financial advisors include some of the toughest proponents of banking regulation from the 2008 financial crisis.
In a tumultuous 10 days in which U.S. President Donald Trump refused to concede to President-elect Joe Biden, paralyzed the presidential transition, purged the Pentagon, and washed his hands of the pandemic, very little about the future of American policy has become clear.
But one trend line may be clarifying itself: Biden’s willingness to strengthen the regulation of Wall Street in a perilous international financial environment. He has convened a financial reform transition team led by Gary Gensler, an aggressive regulator who made a remarkable progression in public life from Wall Street employee and loyal acolyte of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (who deregulated Wall Street in the 1990s) to one of the financial sector’s most threatening nemeses.
As head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in the 2010s, Gensler implemented major new rules on derivatives trading around the world and strengthened the Dodd-Frank regulatory law that Trump has sought to weaken. He also led the charge to toughen the so-called Volcker Rule seeking to bar banks from risky proprietary trading, especially when it became clear that banks could evade it by shifting trading to their overseas operations.
“He was deemed to be among the most progressive of the regulators,” Michael Greenberger, a former CFTC official now at the University of Maryland, said of Gensler. “This task force is a pretty good signal.”
Gensler is joined by other prominent progressive voices, including Simon Johnson, the former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who co-wrote the book 13 Bankers, which called for a breakup of the big Wall Street banks, and Dennis Kelleher, the head of Better Markets, an advocacy group critical of the revolving door lobbying that let some of those responsible for disastrous deregulation return to power. Also serving on the task force is Damon Silvers, a AFL-CIO attorney who fought hard after the financial crisis to toughen up Dodd-Frank restrictions on big banks.
Some financial reformers, such as former Biden aide Jeff Connaughton, said the selection of the task force clearly reflects the influence of the chief of Biden’s 2020 transition, former Sen. Ted Kaufman, who has also been a leading voice for Wall Street reform in the past.
Such transition review task forces are intended to be fairly technocratic, to provide incoming officials with a list of issues to focus on, but not to recommend policies. That said, Gensler will almost certainly get a senior position in the new Biden administration, possibly as deputy treasury secretary under an equally progressive figure such as Federal Reserve governor Lael Brainard, a leading candidate for the top Treasury post.
If Biden adopts an aggressive stance toward Wall Street, that could help to assuage angry progressives in his own party who believe that the anti-corporate proposals of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been given short shrift.
Rolling back Trump’s deregulation of Wall Street will be a tough task—and the president’s not done yet. In 2018, Trump signed a bill rolling back some Dodd-Frank restrictions on bank lending, and he is trying to stock the Fed’s Board of Governors, which oversees financial regulation, with ultra-conservatives such as Judy Shelton, who is expected to be confirmed by the Senate next week.
Since taking office, task force member Kelleher has written, “the Trump administration has set about dismantling the core pillars of financial reform by: lowering banks’ capital requirements, weakening stress testing and living wills, allowing more proprietary trading, enabling more unregulated derivatives dealing, rolling back consumer and investor protections, reducing prudential regulation of systemically significant banks, [and] neutering the regulation of systemically significant nonbanks and the shadow banking system.”
“President Trump has merged the White House with Wall Street and adopted big finance’s priorities as this administration’s top priorities,” Kelleher wrote last year in the American Prospect. “The critics of financial reform have claimed that the law and rules would kill banks’ revenue and profits, which would prevent them from lending and would in turn kill economic growth and jobs. In fact, in virtually every quarter since 2009, including throughout 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, the biggest banks have recorded or eclipsed record revenues, profits.”
Kelleher wrote that the Trump administration’s decision to deregulate important nonbanks, which do not take deposits and can engage in credit-card and lending services in an unregulated way, is especially significant, “because it illustrates the Trump administration’s sheer recklessness.”
Kelleher, in an email on Thursday, said he would have no comment on his current role on the task force and its advice or influence, other than to say, “Anyone who answers such questions at this point or in the near and maybe medium term don’t know what they are talking about, no matter how confidently they speak!”
And despite the zeal of the task force, it’s not clear that even their desire to avoid the regulatory mistakes that fueled the 2008-2009 financial crisis will be enough to carry out root and branch reform, which would mainly require legislative and Fed reform. Even so, Trump has sought to soften the rules of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created by Dodd-Frank, as well as capital requirements for banks.
Robert Johnson, the head of the progressive Institute for New Economic Thinking, calls the Biden task force a “real good group.” But he then asked: “What power will they really have … after the power of money bends the best designs in a self-interested direction?”
Gensler was chief financial officer of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, but he had little influence on policy there. Even when he was first tapped to run the CFTC in 2009, his Wall Street past tainted him in the eyes of progressives. Sanders and Sen. Maria Cantwell put a hold on his nomination, and he was also criticized for his Goldman Sachs ties by then-Sen. Tom Harkin.
Even so, Gensler was more willing than some of his peers to admit that he made mistakes in letting Wall Street run amok by supporting the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which effectively deregulated the global market in over-the-counter derivatives.
“Looking back now, it is clear to me that all of us—all of us that were involved at the time, and certainly myself, should have done more to protect the American public through aggressive regulation, comprehensive regulation,” Gensler said at his confirmation hearing in 2009.
Now Wall Street banks and shadowy nonbanks have to confront the idea that one of their most zealous wardens could well up in a senior spot in the Biden administration.
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Trump Appointee Stonewalls Congress on Transition Progress
The General Services Administration is ignoring congressional deadlines for answers about the stalled transition that has forced the Biden team to improvise.
The General Services Administration has failed to meet a deadline to share with Congress its plans to certify the election results, Foreign Policy has learned, setting up a further standoff between Democrats on Capitol Hill and the Trump administration, which has pushed back on letting the presidential transition process begin as it continues to tout baseless allegations of voter fraud.
After GSA Administrator Emily Murphy refused to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory last week, a move that typically takes place immediately after a winner is declared, three House Democrats, Reps. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, Gerry Connolly of Virginia, and Dina Titus of Nevada, requested answers by Wednesday as to why the outcome was not apparent, what actions the agency had taken to ascertain the victor, and whether President Donald Trump or the White House had directed the agency to block a potential transition.
But Murphy failed to respond to the letter, sent on Monday, or to provide an immediate briefing to Congress on efforts made to initiate the transition, a silence that could prompt further questions from Capitol Hill. “If the GSA does not recognize President-elect Biden’s victory, the House is looking at its options to stop GSA’s dangerous games,” a House aide said. The aide did not respond to follow-up questions.
While it was not clear what ability Congress would have to intervene to force GSA’s hand, Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford said he would intervene by Friday if the Trump administration does not give Biden access to daily intelligence briefings, and other colleagues, including acting Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio, have also echoed the need for Biden to receive classified briefings. The House aide did not respond to follow-up questions. In a letter to Murphy on Thursday obtained by Politico, more than 150 former top officials who served under Trump and other administrations warned that the certification delay could have grave implications for national security.
Access to transition resources “is essential to ensure continuity of government from one administration to the next, and each day the Administrator delays is another day that the Biden team will be without critical information to prepare to combat the threats that the nation faces,” wrote the authors, including former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden.
Biden has already named a detailed transition team to prepare for the inauguration, and on Wednesday night chose veteran Democratic operative and longtime aide Ron Klain to be his White House chief of staff. But with the official U.S. certification still up in the air, the president-elect has yet to receive the President’s Daily Brief, the intelligence community’s high-level national security rundown typically provided to all incoming U.S. administrations. The move is also preventing federal funds from flowing to the Biden team, as well as the arrival of “landing teams” at agencies across the government that will map out and fill politically appointed positions.
“The American people resoundingly voted to remove Donald Trump from office. By failing to ascertain Biden’s and Kamala Harris’ clear victory, you are undermining the urgent need for a prompt and effective transition of power in the midst of a global pandemic that must be focused on the safety and well-being of our citizens,” the lawmakers, led by Pascrell, wrote on Monday. Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine also asked Murphy to explain the delay, as the White House reportedly began to plan next year’s budget in a sign they are likely to continue to defy the transition.
The effects of the delayed transition have already been felt this week, as the Trump administration has overhauled key agencies while failing to grant access to the incoming Biden team.
Over the past two days, the Trump administration has remade the Pentagon’s leadership by booting officials seen as insufficiently loyal to the outgoing president, such as Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his chief of staff Jen Stewart—who was slated to lead the Defense Department’s transition effort for the departing team—with loyalists preparing for an unlikely second term. CNN reported on Wednesday that the Trump team is also preventing Biden officials from getting messages from foreign leaders to the president-elect that are piling up at the State Department, though Biden has begun taking calls with foreign leaders.
Meanwhile, the Biden team has started to look at end-arounds to pursue a transfer of power despite the current legal limitations, including reaching out to former Trump administration officials willing to help aid the transition, a former senior Trump administration official said. Members of Biden’s team are under strict orders not to have contact with current Trump administration officials and also lack the ability to field sensitive phone calls on secure lines, according to The Washington Post, which also first reported on the outreach effort to recently departed officials.
“They’re reaching out to people they think would be willing to partake in some form of transition and either aren’t partisan or are willing to work [with them],” the former official said, adding that the effort extended to most of the key strategic regions of the world where a future Biden administration will be adding staffers.
Update, Nov. 12, 2020: This article was updated with further details on members of Congress and former U.S. officials pushing to give President-elect Joe Biden access to daily intelligence briefings.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Trump Loyalists Primed to Further Remake Pentagon
Officials in the Pentagon see this week’s purges as a sign the White House will be even more aggressive in bending the Pentagon to its political whims.
When acting U.S. Defense Secretary Christopher Miller arrived at the Pentagon on Monday, stumbling up the steps and taking off his mask, four Defense Department officials—all loyalists to President Donald Trump—were waiting for him inside. They had been given a heads-up by the White House that Miller was on the way.
By the end of the next day, the four men would be at or near the top of the Defense Department’s radically altered organization chart after a White House-directed bloodletting remade the agency’s leadership. Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to contest President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory, citing unfounded claims of voter fraud, and is plowing ahead with preparations for a highly implausible second term, leaving officials fearing that more firings could be in the offing.
In the twilight of his administration, Trump has reshuffled these loyalists into positions for which current and former colleagues said they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get Senate confirmation. Officials in the Pentagon see this as a sign that the White House will seek to become even more aggressive in bending the Pentagon to its political whims, according to seven current and former officials who were interviewed for this story, many speaking only on condition of anonymity. The turmoil comes after Trump abruptly ousted Defense Secretary Mark Esper from his post via Twitter on Monday and then forced out acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Anderson on Tuesday, denying the incoming Biden administration a proper transition and moving the United States toward the full withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Middle East that Trump pledged to execute years ago.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata—who once stumped for Trump on Fox News and spun conspiracy theories on social media—now controls the Pentagon’s policy shop, replacing Anderson just four months after the administration rescinded his nomination for the Senate-confirmed role when tweets peddling his Islamophobia and conspiracy theories about a former CIA director trying to assassinate Trump surfaced in the media. (He later apologized for some of those social media posts in letters to senators on the Armed Services Committee.)
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, an acolyte of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was fired after less than a month as Trump’s first national security advisor in 2017 and who later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, will oversee the Pentagon’s intelligence operations. This includes the Defense Intelligence Agency, an agency Flynn previously headed before he was fired during the Obama administration. Beneath them are Joe Francescon, who has risen from a career National Security Agency official to Miller’s deputy chief of staff, and Thomas M. Williams, now serving as the temporary No. 2 official in the policy shop.
The advancement of Tata and Cohen-Watnick, and the separate hiring of Trump ally Douglas Macgregor as a senior advisor to Miller, are signs that the administration could be pushing to drastically curb U.S. military involvement in the Middle East in the final months of the Trump administration. Both Tata and Macgregor—who were both presented to Esper as White House picks for the top policy job this summer—have called for a reduced U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, and one official described Cohen-Watnick as suspicious of the defense industrial complex trying to extend the so-called forever wars. Biden has said that he plans to draw down U.S. forces from Afghanistan, but leave several thousand troops to stop al Qaeda and the Islamic State from launching attacks against the United States.
Macgregor, like Tata, was up for a more senior post in the administration, but those plans faltered because of a cool reception from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Trump planned to tap Macgregor to be his next U.S. ambassador to Germany, but lawmakers opposed him on the grounds of past controversial remarks, including violent xenophobic comments about refugees and immigrants in the United States and Germany.
Macgregor, like Trump, harbored skeptical views of NATO, and in past op-eds, he disparaged the alliance as outdated. “NATO is simply a zombie periodically reanimated through various methods, usually voodoo magic,” he wrote in the National Interest last year. “It’s time for the NATO zombie to expire.” He has also favored a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, a policy priority that aligns with the Trump administration and his supporters outside of government.
The Pentagon’s top policy official for Europe and NATO, Michael C. Ryan, was recently ousted after falling afoul of Trump loyalists, officials said. Officials described Ryan as a skilled and seasoned expert on transatlantic policy. The Trump administration has sought to remove about one-third of the 36,000 U.S. troops from Germany, a decision which critics charge was made with no strategic rationale.
Miller, the new acting Pentagon chief—who did tours as a Green Beret in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—rose from the National Security Council’s counterterrorism directorate to lead the federal government’s largest agency in the span of less than a year, and is not viewed as a partisan. But he has cultivated close ties with Trump loyalists such as Kash Patel, his new chief of staff, who sought to undermine the Russia probe during his time as a Republican House aide. The New York Times reported that Miller devised a diplomatic mission to reach out to Qatar to buy off senior leaders of the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, but the idea was shot down by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The spate of firings may only be the first step of many as Trump’s political loyalists dig their heels in on the president’s refusal to accept the election results. One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that meetings to discuss routine matters of a transition process to the next administration have been “postponed indefinitely” and that other influential Pentagon officials could be targeted in a new wave of resignations or firings.
There is suspicion that the new leadership may target Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s top Senate-confirmed acquisition official, and Lisa Hershman, the chief management officer, in the coming weeks. Mark Tomb, Anderson’s deputy chief of staff, was also let go yesterday, Foreign Policy confirmed. The Intercept first reported on concerns about Lord’s job security and Tomb’s firing.
Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who has known Miller for 20 years, including service together in Afghanistan, and who has described him as a “consummate professional, highly intelligent and competent” and dedicated to the nation, has called for officials to rally around the new acting Pentagon chief. But the firings have still raised concerns about stability in the Pentagon.
“Stability at the Department of Defense during this time of transition is very important,” said Mulroy, now an ABC News national security analyst. “Secretary Esper’s leadership in keeping the military out of any domestic political issues and continuity of the chain of command was critical. Replacing him as well as other senior leaders now and all at once was not responsible, nor consistent with ensuring stability.”
And it’s not just the score-settling that took place over the past two days that has officials worried, headlined by the firings of Esper and Anderson, who spent the last few weeks of their tenure trying to protect colleagues—both political appointees and career professionals—targeted for removal by White House loyalists. In mid-October, Esper managed to forestall the firing of Joseph Kernan, the agency’s top intelligence official, who was eventually replaced on Tuesday.
Trump’s new executive order curbing civil service protections has also deepened the desire of loyalists to remove career officials not seen as being on board with the White House’s agenda. The new White House liaison at the Pentagon, Joshua Whitehouse, known as a Trump ally, also recently demanded that the policy shop oust Steven Schleien, the chief operating officer in that office since 2015 and responsible for its budget and human resources. Anderson protested that Schleien had civil service protections for his job, likely making his firing illegal, a message that the Pentagon’s general counsel then relayed to the White House. Whitehouse has also drawn complaints for repeatedly walking into Anderson’s office in recent weeks unannounced without a mask or taking a temperature check, concerning officials worried about a recent U.S. spike in coronavirus cases.
In a statement, a Pentagon spokesperson said the building has imposed a mandatory face cloth wearing policy and emphasized personal protective measures and following COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The Department of Defense fully respects and adheres to legal protections for civil servants,” the spokesperson said.
The personnel changes have former officials and experts worried about a lack of experience in top Pentagon jobs. Francescon has risen from a career-competitive civil servant attached to the NSC to one of the acting defense secretary’s closest advisors in the past five months, while Williams has moved into the No. 2 Pentagon policy job after being bumped up to perform the duties of an assistant secretary, an unusual jump several levels from his career position.
“He’s barely qualified to be an action officer in policy, let alone an [assistant secretary],” another former Trump administration defense official said of Williams when he was promoted this summer. “I cannot express how incredibly messed up this is. This is the person that is supposed to go toe-to-toe with the vices and three-star programmers over major budget and program decisions. God help us.”
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
And the Top Contenders for Biden’s Cabinet Are…
Biden’s final picks could ultimately hinge on two runoff Senate races in Georgia, which will determine who controls the upper chamber.
Even as U.S. President Donald Trump refuses to concede his loss in the 2020 election—and even appears to be preparing for a second term in office—President-elect Joe Biden is carrying forward with plans for a transition to the White House in January.
Over the course of a contentious election cycle, Biden made clear his direction for the country on the global stage if he won the presidency, signaling a return to multilateralism and repairing relationships with some of Washington’s closest historic allies. How he does so depends a lot on how he staffs his administration. (As the old adage in Washington goes, personnel is policy.)
Whom he’s able to get through Senate confirmation hinges in large part on who controls the Senate, and Republican control of the chamber depends on two heated runoff races in Georgia in January. “They shouldn’t have to factor in at all, but they will. I think we’re still so polarized that the Georgia runoff will have more effect on immediate nominations than might otherwise be the case in normal times,” said one Democratic foreign-policy insider, speaking on condition of anonymity.
If Democrats win a majority in the Senate, Biden will likely face more pressure from the left flank of his party to tap progressives to lead the State Department and other federal agencies. But if Republicans keep the Senate, it’s unlikely they would confirm such nominees, leaving Biden with a likelier pool of more centrist candidates for top jobs. No position is set in stone, and neither Biden nor Harris has spoken publicly about specific names for cabinet-level positions and other senior posts.
But based on conversations with nearly a dozen outside advisors to Biden’s campaign, Democratic foreign-policy experts, and other former officials, here are the top contenders for key administration posts in a Biden administration.
Secretary of State
Susan Rice. Rice, once a top contender for Biden’s running mate, has been a mainstay in Democratic foreign-policy circles since the Clinton administration. During the Obama administration, she served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during President Barack Obama’s first term and then as national security advisor for much of his second term. Rice was in the running to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state but withdrew her name from consideration following the controversies surrounding the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks. Democratic foreign-policy insiders describe her as a top pick for secretary of state but concede she could face a difficult confirmation process if Republicans retain control of the Senate.
Antony Blinken. Blinken is another veteran of the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team and has been one of Biden’s closest advisors and confidants going back to his time in the Senate. Blinken served in the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and then as a senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while Biden, then a Delaware senator, served as chairman of the committee. He was an important figure in Obama’s foreign-policy team, serving as deputy national security advisor and then deputy secretary of state. Blinken is viewed by Democratic insiders as a more centrist pick for secretary of state. Other people close to the Biden campaign expect him to be tapped as national security advisor, not secretary of state, given his close personal relationship with Biden.
Sen. Chris Murphy. Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has emerged as one of the strongest voices on foreign policy on the progressive left. Months after Trump entered office in 2017, Murphy released his own lengthy foreign-policy vision that is seen by some in Washington as the backbone for a progressive Democratic foreign-policy doctrine. Even in the bitterly partisan environment of Trump’s Washington, Murphy has teamed up with Republicans across the aisle to advance substantive legislation and reforms on foreign policy. This includes legislation on war powers and pressing the Trump administration to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and crafting legislation to establish the State Department’s Global Engagement Center to combat disinformation from U.S. adversaries like Russia and China. Campaign advisors and congressional aides said that given Murphy’s good rapport and working relationships across the aisle, he’s more likely to be confirmed than other progressive picks if Republicans keep control of the Senate.
Sen. Chris Coons. Another member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Coons has a close relationship with Biden as a fellow Delaware senator and is widely regarded as one of the more centrist bipartisan lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Far from a partisan firebrand, Coons has a reputation as a policy wonk and legislative workhorse who has strong working relationships with Republicans. He crafted bipartisan legislation that overhauled U.S. international development finance and the Global Fragility Act, which established the first-ever U.S. government strategy to tackle violent extremism and allocated over $1 billion for conflict prevention and peace building in fragile countries. Even amid the partisan rancor in Washington, Coons has openly called for a return to bipartisan foreign policymaking. “I am not naive. Building a better bipartisan foreign policy is a tall order and won’t happen overnight,” he wrote in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs. “But after four years under an unconventional, unpredictable president, it is easy to forget that such consensus exists within this diverse country.”
Other names that have been floated include Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Republican Sen. Mitt Romney; and William Burns, the former deputy secretary of state and career foreign service officer who is currently president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Michèle Flournoy. It has been a long time coming, but Flournoy is poised to become the first female U.S. defense secretary, nearly six years after she turned down the job late in the Obama administration. Flournoy could face questions from progressives in a possible confirmation over her business at WestExec Advisors, a strategic consultancy she founded after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat. She has pushed for the U.S. military to sharpen its military might against China by investing in cutting-edge technologies, including dealing with Beijing’s strengthened weapons systems to deny U.S. access to the Western Pacific.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth. Though Flournoy appears to be the prohibitive favorite to take over at the Pentagon, Duckworth, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot during the Iraq War who lost both her legs after her aircraft was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, has come up in conversations as a dark horse. Duckworth garnered interest as a possible vice presidential hopeful before Sen. Kamala Harris was picked, and has been a staunch critic of Trump’s foreign policy, striking hard at the White House after the New York Times reported this summer that Russia had placed bounties on the deaths of U.S. troops for Taliban militants.
Jeh Johnson. The former Obama Homeland Security secretary served as the Pentagon’s top counsel early in that administration, an experience that could give him needed policy and legal chops coming into the defense secretary role. But though Johnson would make history by becoming the first Black defense secretary if picked, he has several bullets on his résumé that could raise eyebrows among progressives in the Senate. Johnson serves on the board of the defense contractor Lockheed Martin and was seen as a legal architect for the Obama administration’s counterterrorism efforts, according to his biography.
Director of National Intelligence
Robert Cardillo. Another career professional, Cardillo has spent 35 years working in the intelligence community including as deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Most recently, he served as the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency from 2014 to 2019. Cardillo was one of 780 retired national security officials who signed a letter in support of Biden’s candidacy.
Sue Gordon. A career CIA officer who has spent nearly four decades working in intelligence, Gordon is widely respected by both Republicans and Democrats. “Sue Gordon has had every experience necessary to lead the intelligence community,” said Carmen Medina, the former CIA deputy director of intelligence. “She’s inspired other people, which is the sign of a great leader.” Gordon served as the No. 2 at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and was expected to take over the top job after Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats announced his stepping down in July 2019, but after being passed over for the job, Gordon turned in her resignation letter, which was accompanied by a handwritten note that said she was leaving out of “patriotism, not preference,” adding that the president should have his “team.”
Lisa Monaco. The onetime chief counterterrorism and homeland security advisor to Obama is a contender for a few roles, including the director of national intelligence. Monaco has long-standing ties to the president-elect, having worked on Biden’s Senate Judiciary Committee staff in the 1990s. Prior to her tenure in Obama’s White House, she spent 15 years at the Justice Department as a federal prosecutor and as counsel and chief of staff at the FBI. From 2011 to 2013, she was the assistant attorney general for national security—the first ever woman to serve in that position.
Thomas Donilon. A fixture of Democratic foreign-policy and national security officials, Donilon served as Obama’s second national security advisor and has worked closely with three U.S. presidents since taking up his first job in the White House in 1977 during the Carter administration. Donilon and his brother, Mike Donilon, who served as chief strategist to the Biden campaign, have long been close with the president-elect. Tom Donilon’s wife, Catherine Russell, served as chief of staff to Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, when she was second lady. Given his close relationship with the president-elect, Donilon could also be a contender for the position of director of national intelligence.
Avril Haines. Haines has broken a number of glass ceilings during her career, becoming the first woman to serve as deputy director of the CIA and then as deputy national security advisor during Obama’s second term. Haines joined the Biden campaign in June to oversee its foreign policy and national security transition team.
Michael Morell. A career intelligence official who worked his way all the way up to acting director of the CIA before leaving in 2013 during the Obama administration, Morell was also considered by the then-president to take over the agency after retired Army Gen. David Petraeus resigned amid a sex scandal, but John Brennan was selected instead. “I think he’d be seen as a real professional, dedicated to analytical integrity, speaking truth to power, which I think Joe Biden is going to want,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House Situation Room. While he has come out against Trump over the past four years and is beloved by agency types, Morell—who defended the Obama administration’s stepped-up campaign of covert drone operations and criticized the Senate’s analysis of CIA torture—could cause headaches as a potential nominee with progressives in the upper chamber.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations traditionally has outsized influence and public stature in U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Democratic administrations where presidents have made the post a cabinet-level position. (Trump included his first U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, in his cabinet but downgraded the position after she left.) The top contenders for the post include:
Wendy Sherman. Sherman, a Harvard Kennedy School professor, is a former senior diplomat in the Obama administration who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs, the third-ranking official at the State Department. During her time in that position, from 2011 to 2015, she played an integral role in crafting and implementing the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has since abandoned. Biden has pledged to restore U.S. commitments to the nuclear deal once in office, making Sherman’s expertise, contacts, and institutional knowledge with the deal potentially invaluable, though the deal will be tough to resuscitate.
Pete Buttigieg. Many Democratic Party members see Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as having a bright political future ahead of him after his rise to national prominence as a Democratic presidential contender in the 2020 primaries. Democratic foreign-policy insiders said Buttigieg, a Rhodes scholar and military veteran, is a strong contender for U.N. ambassador despite his relative lack of experience in Washington foreign-policy making because of his clout in the party and effective communication skills. If Buttigieg were eventually nominated and confirmed by the Senate for the post, he would be the first openly gay U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Nicholas Burns. Burns, a former career diplomat, served in the senior ranks of the George W. Bush administration as U.S. ambassador to NATO and undersecretary of state for political affairs. Burns has been an advisor to Biden’s foreign-policy campaign and has long-standing connections with Blinken, another one of Biden’s top campaign aides.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Thomas-Greenfield is another experienced former senior career foreign service officer who served as director-general of the foreign service and assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Since leaving the department in 2017, she has been a vocal proponent of reforming the State Department and improving its diversity while criticizing the Trump administration for mismanagement and marginalizing career experts at the department. Thomas-Greenfield is leading Biden’s agency review team for the State Department that will lay the groundwork for the transition in January. When she left in 2017, she was the highest-ranking African American woman in the State Department.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Here’s How a Transition Is Supposed to Work
And why this year’s dumpster fire is so dangerous.
For only the second time in history, the head of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has refused to formally kick-start the presidential transition. What’s needed is a letter of ascertainment, a hitherto little-known piece of Washington bureaucracy that officially gets the transition process underway.
But four days after Democratic nominee Joe Biden was projected president-elect, after winning the key state of Pennsylvania, Emily Murphy, a Trump political appointee who heads the GSA, has refused to issue the letter. That’s due to the blizzard of baseless legal challenges by the Trump campaign alleging voter fraud and corruption. Still, the delay has consequences—$10 million in federal funds to support the transition are kept from the Biden team’s hands, as is access to all the government agencies it will soon have to staff and run.
The way power is handed over from one administration to the next has been refined through a process of trial and error over decades and is intended to ensure that the new administration can hit the ground running. Since that whole process is off the rails this year, here’s a quick reminder of how things are supposed to work—and what happens if they don’t.
Did they just sort of wing it before?
In a word, yes. The first modern-day effort to formalize the handover of power between administrations was spearheaded by Harry Truman, who, having taken office in 1945 after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, found himself to be underprepared for the demands of the job. Famously, it was not until he was sworn in that Truman, who had served as vice president, was told that the United States had developed the atomic bombs that he would later drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But the process wasn’t formalized until the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, which allocated funds and office space for the incoming administration. Over the years, more legislation was added to address challenges that arose in the handover process, said Martha Joynt Kumar, the director of the nonprofit White House Transition Project.
This did happen once before, right?
President Donald Trump’s legal challenges to the election results have drawn comparisons to the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case in 2000, which delayed formal announcement of the winner of the election until Dec. 12, eating into an already short transition period. It was the only other time in history when the GSA has significantly delayed the release of a letter of ascertainment.
It wasn’t cost-free. The 9/11 Commission, which investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, concluded that the delayed transition “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees” and recommended that since “a catastrophic attack could occur with little or no notice, we should minimize as much as possible the disruption of national security policymaking during the change of administration.”
The experience left George W. Bush determined to have as smooth a transition as possible at the end of his second term in 2008. “He told Josh Bolten, who was his chief of staff, that he wanted to have the best transition because they had two wars [and] to make sure that they had a smooth handover of power,” said Kumar, the author of the 2015 book Before the Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama Managed a Transfer of Power.
But both sides already started planning months ago, didn’t they?
Traditionally, and by law, transition planning begins well before a winner is declared. Handing over the levers of power of the U.S. government is no small task. “The numbers themselves are extraordinary. … You’re looking at north of $5 trillion, 4 million people and 4,000 political appointees, and hundreds of operations units, so it’s a really phenomenally difficult takeover,” said Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington-based nonprofit whose Center for Presidential Transition has issued best practice guidelines for transitions. “A smart campaign invests not just in election time but well before then in order to be ready.”
Presidential campaigns tend to begin planning for the transition in the spring of election year, by naming a transition chair and assembling a team to oversee the process. The number of transition staff is typically around a few dozen before the election, quickly expanding to thousands if a candidate clinches the presidency. For its part, the (potentially) outgoing administration is bound by law to begin planning for the transition six months ahead of the election.
And after the election has been called—then what?
Ordinarily, the GSA would issue a letter of ascertainment shortly after a winner is projected, and then it’s off to the races as the clock counts down to Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. The delay this year affects four broad groups of transition planning, Stier said.
The first is identifying and rigorously vetting candidates to fill 4,000 positions, some 1,250 of which require Senate confirmation. But until the transition process is formally initiated, the Biden team can’t begin processing applicants’ conflict of interest and financial disclosure forms with the Office of Government Ethics.
The second task is to get to grips what is currently going on in the government. Despite the standoff, on Tuesday the Biden campaign announced its agency review teams, the hundreds of people who will go into the federal agencies, such as the State Department, Education Department, and the CIA, to get the lay of the land from the people currently serving there and begin preparations for a handover. The Washington Post reported that political appointees at many agencies have told their staff not to respond to any outreach from the Biden teams until the GSA administrator gives the green light to proceed with the transition.
The third area of focus is policy and translating campaign pledges into action for the first 100 and 200 days in office. Biden will take office with an unusually full plate and has said tackling the pandemic will be one of his top priorities. The Biden team unveiled its COVID-19 task force on Monday, but the delay in initiating the transition has left it frozen out from federal agencies and government information that could be critical in informing its strategy—just as COVID-19 cases are spiking across the United States.
The final area of consideration is how to use the president-elect’s time. Biden has already had phone calls with world leaders offering their congratulations, but another consequence of the delay to the formal transition is that the State Department has not facilitated the calls or assisted with translation and talking points, as it usually does. Such coordination is intended to ensure that the current and incoming administrations don’t give mixed signals on matters of foreign policy and national security.
Additionally, under a normal transition, Biden would begin receiving access to the President’s Daily Brief, a high-level intelligence briefing, to prepare him for the kinds of challenges that he will face once he takes office and clue him in on any covert operations currently underway. That hasn’t happened yet, according to NPR. While the results of the 2000 election were still undecided, President Bill Clinton decided to allow Bush to receive the briefings. As vice president, Al Gore was already receiving them.
What’s Biden doing in the meantime?
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Biden described Trump’s refusal to concede as an “embarrassment” and, despite the delays, struck an optimistic tone about the transition. “We’ve already begun,” he said. The Biden team is pressing ahead with identifying candidates for top White House jobs and hopes to name its picks for several cabinet positions by Thanksgiving. Although they can’t go into government agencies, there is nothing stopping them from reaching out to recently departed career officials to get their inside scoop. Until the GSA formally kicks off the transition, the Biden team will be frozen out from some $10 million in federal funds intended to support the handover. But the New York Times reported that the Biden campaign began fundraising for the transition back in May and is thought to have raised at least $7 million.
What other impacts could the delay have?
A peaceful and orderly transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of a democracy. A delayed or disorderly transition could have significant implications for U.S. national security, but it could also undermine American credibility the next time the State Department calls out a foreign leader looking to cling to power in the wake of a democratic election. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday spoke of the transition—but called it a transition to a “second Trump administration,” angering U.S. diplomats and bewildering U.S. allies overseas.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Here Are the Experts Leading Biden’s Transition at Federal Agencies
Normally, they’d already be landing inside government agencies, preparing for a smooth transfer of power—but can’t yet as Trump levels unfounded claims about election fraud.
On Tuesday, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden released the names of hundreds of experts and former officials who will lay the groundwork for the eventual transfer of power at various federal agencies despite President Donald Trump’s ongoing refusal to accept Biden’s election win.
The agency review teams consist of groups of experts assigned to different agencies—including the State and Defense departments, foreign aid agencies, and the intelligence community—to do the spadework for the transition.
The review teams offer an early window into the personnel and priorities for the Biden administration’s foreign policy, though members of such teams are not necessarily guaranteed posts in the agencies they are assigned to review. Most are serving in the roles on a volunteer basis and come from a variety of think tanks, consulting firms, universities, and private industry.
Biden vowed on Tuesday that his teams will get “right to work,” but compared with past incoming administrations, his teams face significant challenges in getting started—a delay that, as seen in the George W. Bush administration, can have lingering impacts on national security readiness.
The Trump administration has not formally kicked off the transition process. The General Services Administration, led by Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee, has so far refused to send a so-called letter of ascertainment certifying Biden’s win to begin the transition. The letter is the key to unlocking government funds for the transition teams and to allowing his “landing teams” to get seated inside the federal government to get briefed on the latest intelligence and map out more than 4,000 political appointments, from low-level special assistants all the way up to Senate-confirmed jobs. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has said he doesn’t expect the standoff to end before Friday.
Despite Trump’s roadblocks, the Biden transition team appears to be moving forward with routine plans for a transition, downplaying frustrations with Trump’s refusal to accept the election results and not giving any indications that the delays have altered the transition plan.
The experts staffing the agency review teams also give early signs that the Biden campaign will make good on its promises to diversify the administration’s national security team, both on racial and gender diversity. For example, of the 23 members of the Pentagon agency review team, 15 are women. And of the 30 members of the State Department’s agency review team, 18 are women.
The team that will oversee the State Department indicates, unsurprisingly, a sharp departure from Trump. The State Department agency review team comprises some former senior diplomats who were forced out of their jobs under Trump or resigned in protest to some of his controversial policies and who have since become outspoken in their criticisms of how the Trump administration has sidelined career diplomats and spurned traditional U.S. alliances and engagement with international institutions.
The team lead for the State Department is Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former career diplomat who served in the State Department for decades and held senior posts including director-general of the foreign service and assistant secretary of state for African affairs. At the time she stepped down from her job in 2017 under Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, she was the highest-ranking African American woman in the State Department. Current and former diplomats describe Thomas-Greenfield as a highly respected and balanced diplomat. Since leaving the department, Thomas-Greenfield has been an outspoken advocate for reforming the State Department and helping to improve its record on diversity, another indication that such issues will be a priority under the Biden administration.
Another member of the State Department team, Roberta Jacobson, resigned from her post as U.S. ambassador to Mexico in 2018. Jacobson, who served in the State Department for over 30 years, was one of the department’s top experts and most experienced hands on Latin America. She later publicly condemned internal mismanagement at the State Department and Trump’s policies toward Mexico, saying the U.S.-Mexico relationship was being “destroyed” under Trump.
Biden’s transition team for the National Security Council includes former senior members of the Obama administration NSC who helped craft the Iran nuclear deal and have been outspoken critics of Trump’s handling of Iran policy since he abandoned the deal in 2018. This includes Jeff Prescott, former deputy national security advisor to then-Vice President Biden and senior director for Iran, Iraq, and Syria at the NSC; Colin Kahl, former national security advisor to Vice President Biden; and Kelly Magsamen, another seasoned Middle East expert who held posts in the Pentagon and NSC during the Obama administration. Magsamen is the vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, an influential progressive think tank in Democratic foreign-policy circles.
With Michèle Flournoy widely expected to become the first woman to be defense secretary under the Biden administration, the Pentagon transition team is headlined by several high-profile female voices on national security—many focused on boosting the agency’s high-tech weapons to prepare for a possible conflict with China. Spearheading the effort is Kath Hicks, who led the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) at the Defense Department while she served in Flournoy’s powerful policy shop, which sought to prepare the United States for confronting irregular warfare used by terrorist groups. She also led the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, which pushed for the agency to focus on the Asia-Pacific and to deal with Chinese weapons meant to deny U.S. access to the region as the agency bristled against budget caps imposed by Congress. She’s joined by Christine Wormuth, who was confirmed as the Pentagon’s top policy official in 2014 and who led the follow-on 2014 QDR; Susanna Blume, a former deputy chief of staff to Obama-era Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work; and retired Adm. Michelle Howard, the first Black woman to attain the Navy’s top rank. Former Biden Deputy National Security Advisor Ely Ratner and former Defense Department Comptroller Mike McCord are also on board.
The 17-agency U.S. intelligence community has long been a target of Trump’s ire as president, and Biden’s efforts to restore the relationship with the new administration will be led by Stephanie O’Sullivan, a former principal deputy director of national intelligence under Barack Obama, and Vince Stewart, a retired three-star Marine general who was the first Black man to lead the Defense Intelligence Agency and a top deputy at U.S. Cyber Command.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
America’s Economy Is Fragile. So Is Biden’s Economic Team.
In today’s Democratic Party, inheriting Obama’s economic legacy may be a burden, not a benefit.
As the transition to the next administration under Joe Biden begins, several lists of potential economics team members are already in circulation. Longtime Biden advisors Jared Bernstein and Ben Harris are in the frame. So too is Heather Boushey of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, formerly of Hillary Clinton’s transition team. Lael Brainard at the U.S. Federal Reserve is one of the most experienced technocrats of her generation. She is odds on to be the first woman to serve as U.S. treasury secretary.
These are the intellectual picks. At the other end of the spectrum are operators like the businessman Jeff Zients, Barack Obama’s Mr. Fix-It and the head of his National Economic Council. Zients is one of four co-chairs in the Biden transition team and a “staunch capitalist” vouched for by the Business Roundtable.
The economic agenda of the Biden administration will likely be defined by such splits in personal background and by the wider left-center axis that runs through the Democratic Party. At this stage, these divides seem much more pronounced than under Obama. The economics team of Obama’s early years was taken straight from Bill Clinton’s roster. When Biden’s team announced this year that it was taking advice from Larry Summers, Clinton’s last treasury secretary and a key figure of continuity in the Obama administration, it provoked a storm of protest from the left. Since then, Summers has removed himself from consideration for jobs in the Biden administration.
In truth, whereas the Obama administration inherited a narrative of success from the Clinton era, Obama’s legacy for Biden is more mixed. This reflects the slow recovery from the 2008 crisis; the failure to implement radical reform of the financial system; and the growing awareness of the problems of inequality and structural racism and the challenges of Big Tech, an industry that used to be seen as the salvation of U.S. capitalism. Today, it is no secret that there are huge differences within the Democratic Party on questions of wealth taxes and antitrust regulations, among others.
It is easier to agree on macroeconomics. There is general agreement that the Obama administration would have done better to push for a bigger fiscal stimulus in 2009. Faced with America’s current recession, that is also something on which Biden’s team can agree. The United States needs the largest feasible stimulus to make good on Biden’s promise to “build back better” and kick-start the country’s energy transition.
But getting a multitrillion-dollar package depends on control of the Senate—a prospect that seems likely out of reach for Democrats. If, come January, Mitch McConnell still controls the Senate, that will not only curtail any spending package designed by the Biden White House. It also risks exposing divisions throughout the Democratic camp. Compromise with Senate Republicans will be a bitter pill for the left wing to swallow, and it will force policy to focus on areas such as regulatory change that do not require congressional approval but on which it may be much harder to find agreement within the Democratic Party’s own increasingly diverse coalition.
Adam Tooze is a history professor and director of the European Institute at Columbia University. His latest book is Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, and he is currently working on a history of the climate crisis.