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.
Biden to Tap Seasoned Former Diplomat to Oversee Southern Border Policy
Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, will join the NSC and help oversee an anticipated U-turn in U.S. policy on migration and asylum.
President-elect Joe Biden is expected to tap a seasoned career diplomat to oversee issues related to the southern U.S. border at the National Security Council, as part of his administration’s plan to chart a drastically different path on migration and asylum issues than President Donald Trump’s.
Roberta Jacobson, an American diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018, will be named as coordinator for the southwestern border on the National Security Council, Foreign Policy has learned. In this newly-established NSC position, Jacobson will play a key role in implementing the Biden administration’s proposed reforms to the national asylum system and managing national security challenges stemming from Mexico and Central America.
She will also help manage Washington’s relations with Mexico and other Central American countries that experts said have frayed during the past four years amid the Trump administration’s harsh crackdown on immigration and unsuccessful efforts to build a wall along the full length of the U.S-Mexico border.
Under Trump, “there have been a lot of ups and downs with the U.S.-Mexico relationship,” said Mari Carmen Aponte, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under President Barack Obama. “From my point of view, the downs have been a lot, and very dramatic and politically difficult. And the ups? I think both sides wish that there would have been many more than there were.”
Biden’s incoming administration plans to address the root causes of migration; expand legal pathways to immigrating, including through refugee resettlement and employment programs; and explore ways to reform the asylum process, according to a Biden transition spokesperson.
But changing processes—and repairing relations with the United States’ southern neighbors—will take time, experts said.
“There’s going to be huge pressures to change everything the Trump administration did immediately, but reality dictates that there has to be an orderly process and staged process for doing that,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute.
Jacobson resigned from her diplomatic post in 2018 after more than 30 years at the State Department, and she later became a vocal critic of Trump’s policies on Mexico and immigration, condemning his “campaign rhetoric vilifying Mexicans.”
During her three decades at the State Department, Jacobson served in multiple senior diplomatic posts, including as the top State Department envoy for Latin America—the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs—under Obama. After leaving government, she worked at the global consulting firm Albright Stonebridge Group and then joined Biden’s transition team as part of the agency review team for the State Department.
In her new role, Jacobson will report to Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s incoming homeland security advisor. Earlier this month, Biden announced other senior NSC appointments including Juan Gonzalez, a veteran of the Obama administration State Department and White House, as his NSC senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Aponte praised the decision to bring Jacobson into the NSC, characterizing her as a dogged diplomat with deep knowledge of how Washington works and extensive contacts across Latin America.
Selee said Jacobson—and the rest of the incoming administration—will be tasked with striking a difficult balance, reforming the asylum system without triggering any new surges in migrants attempting to cross the border.
“There’s a real balancing act between starting to make changes, but not doing it so quickly that you incentivize large unauthorized flows [of new migrants] that undermine the space you have to work,” he said.
“Our aim is to restore order and a fair asylum process while prioritizing public health. Together with our partners, we will build a new immigration system that is fair, humane, and keeps families together,” the Biden transition spokesperson said. “We need time to build that system and there will not be immediate changes in processing at the U.S. border—putting our plans into action will take months, not days or weeks—it will not be like flipping a light switch. Migrants should not believe those peddling the idea that now is the time to come to the U.S.”
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to enact a drastically different approach to the southern border than Trump’s, vowing, “there will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration,” he said.
Trump enforced policies of prosecuting migrant adults who arrived at the U.S. border and separating them from their children, and he made marginal progress in his 2016 campaign pledge to build a wall along the entire 800-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border. (In the past four years, the government built about 452 miles of border wall—but 400 miles of that replaced existing barriers in place, meaning the Trump administration only constructed around 50 miles of new border wall.)
Rod Rosenstein, a former deputy attorney general under Trump, expressed regret over the administration policies that led to family separations at the border. “Since leaving the department, I have often asked myself what we should have done differently, and no issue has dominated my thinking more than the zero-tolerance immigration policy,” he said in a statement on Jan. 14, according to the New York Times. “It was a failed policy that never should have been proposed or implemented. I wish we all had done better.”
Under Burns, the CIA Gets a New Focus
Biden’s pick for the agency’s director shows that diplomacy is back.
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.
Daniel C. Kurtzer is a professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University and former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel.
This week, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden nominated the veteran State Department diplomat William Burns to be director of the CIA. The announcement marked the last nomination to fill out Biden’s foreign policy and national security team, but it was perhaps the most emblematic of where Biden is headed when it comes to how he intends to conduct foreign policy.
Burns, with whom both of us have worked for decades, is the first career foreign service officer to be nominated to run the CIA in the agency’s 73-year history. Previous directors have come from the military, Congress, the ranks of the CIA, and the political class. Diplomats have been excluded, perhaps not surprisingly given the agency’s focus on clandestine operations—the antithesis of aboveground diplomacy—as well as its tightly bound clubby and insular culture, a version of which foreign service officers share.
Biden’s choice of Burns, among the finest diplomats of his generation—he was only the second career foreign service office to be appointed deputy secretary, and his government service has included ambassadorships and senior roles at the National Security Council over a 33-year period—certainly reflects the president-elect’s commitment to serious diplomacy, and it is a morale booster for diplomats. Not since the era of Joseph McCarthy have American diplomats been as mistreated, maligned, and ignored as they’ve been under the Trump administration. But the choice of Burns goes deeper than that.
Burns will be a useful complement to Biden’s picks for secretary of state and national security advisor as they reinvigorate diplomacy as a critical tool of national power. Under Burns, the intelligence community can be expected to devote more attention to its mission of “intelligence in the service of diplomacy,” which will help U.S. diplomats deal with problems before they become crises and help them manage crises that do arise.
Although that mission has been long-standing—and as important as the intelligence community’s actionable intelligence in support of the military has been—it has devoted far too few resources to the requirements of diplomacy. In our careers, we have witnessed how vital intelligence was (and could have been) in dealing with diplomatic problems.
In the 1994 nuclear negotiations with North Korea, a top-notch U.S. intelligence analyst drew on decades of studying the opaque North Korean system to provide invaluable, real-time advice to U.S. negotiators. The 1995 breakthrough in the Balkans peace process derived as much from understanding the ways in which a stalemate harmed all parties as from the diplomatic magic of U.S. negotiators. And understanding what leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are thinking and the political constraints they face is as important to U.S. policymakers as counting Russian aggression or Iranian missiles.
Even if only a small additional increment of the intelligence effort is diverted to trying to answer diplomatic questions—how stable an adversary’s regime is; what are the best avenues for influence; what possibilities exist for diplomacy to deal with a protracted conflict; what do we need to know about climate change, water availability, or food security—the potential payoff for U.S. interests could be enormous. And Burns understands from his extensive experience what policymakers need to know in order to help them make smart foreign-policy decisions.
The selection of Burns—and of Biden’s entire national security team in general—also shows the value that the president-elect attaches to public service, experience, and expertise. His choices mark the return of a committed cadre of talented, selfless public servants who believe in the national interest untethered from domestic politics, vanities, the personal interests of a single individual, or the views of any one party. Burns has worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations. And he has been admired as much by James Baker as he was by Hillary Clinton. That record of bipartisanship is infused in both Biden’s and Burns’s political DNA.
In that way, Burns’s appointment—and that of Avril Haines as the Director of National Intelligence—also reflects Biden’s determination to detoxify and depoliticize an intelligence community so corrupted during the Trump administration and to ensure that professionals dominate. This theme figured prominently in the president-elect’s nomination announcement: “He shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical.” Indeed, as observers scramble to comment on what Burns’s appointment means for this or that issue, what is most certain is that Burns will not cherry-pick intelligence to support one policy or another. CIA assessments will be untethered from such agendas.
In short, the Biden national security team now has all the key players it needs—experienced, balanced, moderate, and rational practitioners of diplomacy like Burns—to offer up the honest intelligence and value-added analysis that the president-elect will require.
Biden Can’t Fight Corruption Without Help From Europe
To stop drug traffickers, criminals, and kleptocrats from laundering their loot, the United States and EU must join forces.
Kathleen Doherty is a former deputy assistant secretary of state for European Union affairs and former U.S. ambassador to Cyprus.
More than $550 billion of dirty money is laundered each year in the United States and European Union, the world’s two largest economies. The good news is that strongmen, drug traffickers, criminals, and kleptocrats may find it harder to park and hide their money thanks to recent U.S. and EU actions that tighten anti-laundering regulations, and expand monitoring and enforcement. But even more importantly, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has made the fight against corruption a top domestic and national security priority, while the EU has long been concerned about illicit and untaxed money. Neither side can act alone on this global problem—coordinated action is needed to shut down safe havens for nefarious actors. High on the Biden administration’s agenda should therefore be a transatlantic anti-corruption action plan, which would help rebuild frayed U.S.-EU relations while bolstering the security of countries on both sides of the Atlantic.
The United States is one of the world’s largest havens for illicit cash and one of the easiest places to form anonymous shell companies, which must be at the center of anti-corruption efforts. A few examples: For many years before the scheme was shut down in 2015, the Iranian regime circumvented U.S. sanctions and used an anonymous corporation to purchase a skyscraper on New York’s Fifth Avenue worth as much as $1 billion and to collect millions of dollars in rent. During the 1990s and 2000s, the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout—known as the Merchant of Death—used at least 12 shell companies in Delaware, Florida, and Texas to move funds related to his weapons-trafficking network. Mexico’s largest drug cartel, Sinaloa, secretly laundered millions of dollars in drug proceeds after purchasing a horse ranch in Two Ukrainian oligarchs, after laundering funds stolen from a bank in Kyiv through anonymous companies in Europe, used U.S. shell companies to purchase U.S. real estate and businesses; two Cleveland properties alone are worth $70 million.
But this year should be a turning point, both because of the Biden administration’s planned corruption-fighting efforts and a recent major step by the U.S. Congress to rein in shell companies. The National Defense Authorization Act, passed against outgoing President Donald Trump’s veto with bipartisan support on Jan. 1, included the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA) that will, for the first time, require millions of U.S.-registered businesses to report their true beneficial ownership to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). This measure should make it harder for criminals and autocrats to set up anonymous shell companies to hide their money. While the new law only allows access to the federal beneficial ownership registry to law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and federal regulators—but not anti-corruption NGOs, foreign investigators, or private individuals—it is the first significant anti-money laundering legislation in the United States in two decades. A coalition of banks and other corporations, realtors, national security experts, anti-human trafficking groups, religious leaders, state government officials, and chambers of commerce supported this critical legislation.
Along with the United States, Europe shares the distinction of being a global money-laundering center.
The U.S. Treasury Department now has one year to issue corresponding regulations. Once they are in place, many companies will have to disclose the name, date of birth, address, and the number of a driver-license or passport of the company’s beneficial owners. While this information can be falsified, a company submitting false information would face civil and criminal penalties. A weakness of this legislation is that existing companies will have another two years to comply once regulations are in place. An even bigger, more fundamental problem: Sectors such as private equity and hedge funds are exempt, as well as any business with more than 20 people, $5 million in gross receipts or sales, and a verifiable physical presence. During the three years before this law is fully implemented, it is expected that lobbying groups will try to carve out even more exemptions, which would be an unfortunate setback in the fight against corruption.
Along with the United States, Europe shares the distinction of being a global money-laundering center. Denmark’s largest lender, Danske Bank, for example, remains under investigation in EU member states for an estimated €230 billion in suspicious transactions that flowed through its Estonian branch office to EU and non-EU jurisdictions. According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, much of this money was transferred through shell companies in the United Kingdom. European officials are also investigating how Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s wealthiest woman and the daughter of former Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, used shell companies throughout Europe to hide hundreds of millions of euros, if not more, from unexplained sources. Meanwhile, her country remains desperately poor, ranking 148th among 186 countries on the poverty scale.
The EU, partly as a response, has been updating its money laundering directives. On Nov. 4, EU finance ministers approved the creation of a new anti-money-laundering watchdog that will have authority to intervene with national governments if they fail to comply with or enforce EU directives. This supranational body will also make it easier for law enforcement to act across borders.
While they are signs of progress, these laws and directives are not enough. The political will to implement and enforce them are key. And while the United States and the EU seem to want to put their own houses in order, only by working together will they be able to expose and prosecute those who are hiding billions of dollars obtained through corruption and crime. Therefore, the Biden administration should embark on a joint action plan with its European partners. Such a plan should include:
1. A top-level commitment to increase resources for investigators. U.S. and EU financial intelligence units are understaffed and underfunded. The Corporate Transparency Act gives FinCEN $10 million in new funds and the authority to hire more experts. That’s far less than Congress provided to FinCEN to fight terrorist finance under the 2001 USA Patriot Act, when the unit’s staffing was doubled to about 300. A similar increase in staffing and the use of technology such as artificial intelligence is needed given the new responsibilities under the Corporate Transparency Act, including the requirement to draft regulations in record time and to build an IT system for the new beneficial ownership database.
Digital currencies, digital front companies, and cryptocurrencies have created still more opportunities for money laundering.
2. Increased training—and joint training—of U.S. and European officials. The U.S. Treasury Department, State Department, Department of Justice, and Securities and Exchange Commission officials provide anti-money-laundering training programs, but their focus is on non-EU countries. Some EU financial intelligence units also need training to monitor and prevent cross-border and transatlantic flows of illicit money. As the U.S. ambassador to Cyprus, an EU country with a population of only 800,000 that is a favorite destination of and transit point for Ukrainian and Russian money of dubious origin, I saw firsthand the urgent need for a first-class, well-staffed financial intelligence operation.
3. Better use of the existing U.S.–EU Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty. The process established by this treaty is key to exchanging information between the U.S. and EU on money laundering and corruption. But the process is incredibly inefficient and can take years. I witnessed this as a deputy assistant secretary of state, when I pushed for long-delayed responses by EU member states to U.S. requests. A tighter partnership will be especially important to ensure a smooth and timely exchange of beneficial ownership information on suspect companies.
4. Inclusion of the United Kingdom. Despite several notable anti-money laundering directives, the UK remains a high-risk jurisdiction. While the post-Brexit U.S.-UK-EU agenda is already long, cracking down on shady companies including those who loot their countries or traffic in drugs or people should be a moral and political imperative.
5. Partnering on joint threat and risk assessments to address such topics as international payments using correspondent banking. This allows banks to process cross-border payments without having a branch in other jurisdictions. But the relationship only works when banks on both sides do their due diligence. Several U.S. banks withdrew from their relationships with correspondent banks in Malta and Cyprus because of money-laundering concerns.
6. Expanding the discussion beyond shell companies to include, for example, at the role played by private equity, hedge funds, and the real-estate sector in money-laundering. They are among the principal vehicles for recycling dirty money. Equally important, the United States and the EU must address the criminal use of digital currencies and of digital front companies. Cryptocurrencies have created still more opportunities for money laundering.
The United States and the EU have successfully joined forces to fight other crimes. On the high seas, they are working together to disrupt and deter piracy, armed robbery, and terrorist activities. It is time to do the same in the world of dirty money.
Now Is a Bad Time to Weaken Civilian Control Over the Military
Biden’s nomination of a retired general to head the Pentagon reinforces a dangerous trend. His confirmation must come with concrete safeguards.
Jim Golby is a senior fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Clements Center for National Security, a former special advisor to two U.S. vice presidents and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the co-host of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Thank You for Your Service podcast.
From the election of Abraham Lincoln that preceded the U.S. Civil War until last Wednesday, Americans were able to take the peaceful transition of power between presidents for granted. The value of a nonpartisan military under democratic civilian control seemed abstract and theoretical, something for other nations to worry about. The mob attacks on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 are a sudden reminder of just how vital a nonpartisan military really is—even in the United States.
President Donald Trump has largely ignored the laws and traditions governing U.S. civil-military relations. But problems in the relationship between the military, politicians, and the public began well before Trump’s tenure and will remain after he is gone. If the United States does not reverse these trends soon, it will likely find itself in an even more dangerous situation in the coming decades.
Now is precisely the wrong time to further politicize the country’s military and weaken democratic civilian control by installing another retired general as U.S. defense secretary, an unhealthy precedent established by Trump. For good reasons, U.S. law bans recently retired military officers from the position, and Congress should not allow another exemption to that law on behalf of President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee, retired U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin. At the same time, Austin’s confirmation as the first Black defense secretary would be historic. So if Congress does allow the exemption and confirms Austin, it must pass new legislation to make it more difficult for future presidents to nominate retired generals. Biden and Austin will also have to take concrete steps to ensure and emphasize that the office is that of a civilian and that the U.S. military remains under civilian control.
At first glance, there seems to be no real risk that Austin will pose any threat to civilian control of the military. Certainly, he is a highly respected former Army commander who has been a trailblazer throughout his career, attaining positions that no Black soldier had previously reached.
But by following Trump’s precedent and once again asking the U.S. Congress to temporarily revoke the ban on recently active generals serving as defense secretary, Biden has deferred some of the hard work of restoring civil-military norms and repairing the damage Trump has done. This damage will only increase with time, and a retired general is not the right person to repair it.
This blurring of civil-military lines is exactly what the National Security Act was supposed to prevent.
The Pentagon has plenty of generals. That’s why Congress created a new civilian position, the defense secretary, in the National Security Act of 1947—to insert a second civilian other than the president into the military chain of command. Because they decided to maintain a large standing military at the start of the Cold War, Congress and the president needed additional help to exercise civilian control—as required by the U.S. Constitution—of a nonpartisan military. Congress also mandated that nominees for defense secretary must “come from civilian life” and prohibited any former military officer from serving in this role for 10 years after leaving military service. (Congress changed that to seven years in 2008.) This was seen as the minimum time for any military officer—let alone a retired general such as Austin, who served 41 years in uniform before retiring in 2016—to establish a civilian identity after a military career.
Having a civilian defense secretary also helps provide a firewall between partisan politics and the Pentagon, both in Washington and in the broader U.S. political culture. Given the state of U.S. politics, restoring this cultural firewall is vital to the long-term health of civil-military relations.
The state of civilian control over the Pentagon is another real concern, especially after four years under Trump’s chaotic leadership. In late 2018, for example, the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission stated in its final report: “It is critical that [the Defense Department]—and Congress—reverse the unhealthy trend in which decision-making is drifting away from civilian leaders on issues of national importance.” This drift needs to stop, and a recently active general such as Austin is the wrong person to stop it.
Military service alone does not prepare a retired commander to serve as a political appointee. The job of defense secretary requires political skills to make value judgments on political decisions; explain policies in a transparent manner to the media and public; balance competing political relationships between the White House, Congress, and military services; and manage one of the world’s largest bureaucracies and budgets.
Reports that Austin suffered from “culture shock” during his initial engagements on Capitol Hill and his reputation of reticence to engage the media suggest he will face a steep learning curve. Citing these concerns, members of the House Armed Services Committee have presented Austin with a list of demands regarding Pentagon management. Biden has also taken steps to increase civilian control by appointing three former Obama administration officials—Kathleen Hicks, Colin Kahl, and Kelly Magsamen—into key Pentagon posts. (Disclosure: I have worked for both Hicks and Kahl.)
But the confirmation of another retired general is also likely to contribute to broader cultural expectations about the role of the military in domestic politics. As I found in my research with the Duke University scholar Peter Feaver, most Americans do not differentiate between active and retired generals. Even after former Defense Secretary James Mattis left his post, only 31 percent of Americans could correctly identify him as retired from active duty.
This blurring of civil-military lines—exactly what the National Security Act was supposed to prevent—contributes to concerning trends in the way Americans think about the military’s role in partisan politics. As a result of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, exacerbated by retired lieutenant general and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s conspiracy theories and public comments about the imposition of martial law, Americans are now having discussions about the military’s role in electoral politics that have been—and should remain—off the table since at least the end of the Nixon administration.
Biden is following Trump’s lead in breaking a vital political norm.
Americans still have more confidence in the military than most other institutions, as they have for decades. Recent analyses of public opinion suggest that this may be turning into deference to the military whenever civilian and military leaders disagree. New polling by Risa Brooks, Michael Robinson, and Heidi Urben shows that U.S. Military Academy cadets increasingly see military service as a prerequisite for service as a civilian defense secretary.
The perception that retired military officers are top candidates for political appointments is also helping to create the impression that there are now “Republican generals” and “Democratic generals.” Meanwhile, political leaders have begun to turn to “their” generals as the part of the military worth trusting. With growing breaks in the civil-military firewall, senior officers and troops see that partisan loyalty can and will be rewarded. One only needs to watch the videos that show U.S. Capitol Police officers opening the barriers to allow the mob to attack Congress to understand how dangerous partisan bias among a nation’s security forces can be. Partisanship among the troops, if not checked, can also undermine unit cohesion and effectiveness during military missions overseas.
In light of these developments—the Jan. 6 insurrection, weakening civilian control over the Pentagon, and shifting views on the military’s role in partisan politics—this is precisely the wrong time to remove the legislative ban to benefit another retired general, no matter how exceptional Austin may be. Biden is following Trump’s lead in breaking a vital political norm. Even if Austin surpasses expectations, there is a strong likelihood that the U.S. military will be drawn further into partisan and electoral politics.
That said, Austin’s confirmation would be historic. He would be the first Black man to serve as defense secretary at a time of renewed concerns about white supremacist extremism within the uniformed military. In light of these dynamics, his rejection by Congress would come at a serious cost. Moreover, Austin’s selection also highlights deep cultural and structural problems in the promotion pathways available to people of color in national security. Fixing these long-standing issues is an urgent and important challenge.
Democrats, who now control both houses of Congress, are unlikely to hand Biden an early loss on such a key appointment. And there likely will be pressure from the public not to do so. A growing body of political science research demonstrates that support for civil-military norms often breaks along partisan lines, and the narrative that Biden should be allowed to appoint a retired general simply because Trump did has already formed.
Congress should also take concrete steps to ensure that appointing a retired general as defense secretary does not become a precedent.
If members of Congress therefore decide to change the law and temporarily overturn the ban, they should at least be clear-eyed about the potential civil-military costs. Biden, Congress, and Austin himself should also take concrete steps to mitigate the long-term damage to civil-military relations.
Austin should take extreme care to assume the customs and responsibilities of a civilian. He must embrace his role as the Pentagon’s public face both on Capitol Hill and with the media. He must always be referred to as Secretary Austin, not Gen. Austin—both in public and in his relations with military officers. Biden will also need to cement Austin’s new identity and strictly forgo Trump’s habit of praising “my generals.” This shift may not come natural to Biden, who referred to Austin as “general” nine times during the nomination announcement. If Austin is serious about assuming a civilian identity, he could also consider resigning his commission before assuming office, as Dwight D. Eisenhower did before he became president.
Austin must also ensure that he builds a strong civilian staff. Austin should avoid the perception, and reality, that he relies too much on the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—as Mattis did—or the military planners in the Pentagon. Austin must fully empower his civilian team to rebuild oversight processes, especially concerning the budget, transparency, and war plan reviews. And he must back his civilian appointees, who derive a large part of their authority from others’ perception of whether the defense secretary has authorized them to speak and make decisions on his behalf. The appointments to top Defense Department jobs announced so far suggest Austin understands these challenges, but it will be difficult for him to ignore or modify existing relationships built over four decades in the military.
Congress should also take concrete steps to ensure that appointing a retired general as defense secretary does not become a precedent. It should reestablish the original 10-year ban, require a supermajority in both houses of Congress to overrule it, and place a limit on the number of recently retired military officers who can serve in Senate-confirmed Pentagon roles.
The rationale behind a law passed 74 years ago can be difficult to comprehend. But, sadly, the events of Jan. 6 have made the importance of civilian control of a nonpartisan military freshly clear. While there was never any doubt that the insurrection would fail, the speed of the military response paled in comparison to the actions of June 1, when the National Guard helped police aggressively clear Lafayette Square of largely peaceful protesters.
We can only imagine just how dangerous events could have turned if Trump had gotten the wish he made in front of the crowd before it stormed the Capitol: “If those tens of thousands of people would be allowed—the military, the Secret Service … the police, law enforcement … to come up with us. Is that possible? Can you just let them, please?”
In this environment, further politicizing the U.S. military is a real danger. Americans—especially military and political officials—must take all steps now to ensure that the uniformed military’s oath remains to the U.S. Constitution, not to a party or a leader. Events have made abundantly clear that Americans cannot take this principle for granted. Trump will leave office on Jan. 20, but broader problems in the military’s relationship to civilian society and the threat of political violence will not go away. Even if Congress ratifies Biden’s historic appointment of Austin, now is the wrong time to follow Trump’s lead by further politicizing the military.
Biden Makes His First Bold Move on Asia
The appointment of Kurt Campbell as Biden’s right hand on Asia will supercharge the incoming administration’s policy to counter China.
Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration.
There is broad consensus that the United States has been losing ground to China in Asia, despite the growing clarity that China is a global geopolitical competitor and that major players such as Japan, India, and Australia are eager to partner with Washington to restore a favorable balance of power. The Trump administration did some of that with its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, which aims to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative by promoting free trade, rule of law, and open seas. But the administration also hobbled its own strategy and retreated from major areas of competition by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatening to withdraw troops from South Korea, and ignoring diplomacy in Southeast Asia. President Donald Trump’s incompetent response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his incitement of an insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol only deepened the hole out of which President-elect Joe Biden will now have to climb.
Thus far, Biden’s top picks for his national security team have all been credible and experienced, but they primarily focus on the Middle East and trans-Atlantic relations. There were growing murmurs in Asia that perhaps the administration’s appetite for active engagement and strategic competition with China would slip, given all the other pressing challenges Biden faces, and the Obama administration’s reputation in parts of the region for having been soft on China. However, the transition team went a long way toward reversing that impression Wednesday by announcing Kurt Campbell for the post of White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific.
Campbell’s appointment will supercharge the incoming administration’s standing in Asia in three ways:
First, Campbell is widely recognized as an early and important architect of a strategy to build up alliances and partnerships to keep Beijing in check as Chinese power grew. In the mid-1990s, he was appointed as the senior U.S. Defense Department official on Asia, arriving with relatively little regional expertise but powerful strategic instincts. Within two years, he pushed through a major expansion of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, arresting years of post-Cold War drift and setting in train the close defense cooperation between Washington and Tokyo today. As assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific under then-President Barack Obama, he championed the so-called pivot to Asia. Some were critical of a metaphor that suggested the United States no longer cared about Europe or the Middle East, while others argued the policy was too provocative toward China. But the balance-of-power logic behind the pivot was sound and served as the precedent for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept. Campbell’s pivot strategy remains the core point of consensus between the incoming team and congressional leaders of both parties.
Second, the new position is unprecedented in elevating Asia’s strategic importance in the U.S. policy apparatus. When I arrived at the National Security Council (NSC) in 2001, the Europe Directorate was three times larger than that for Asia. When I left in 2005, they were about the same size, each headed by one senior director and about five directors. It looks as if Biden’s new Asia shop at the White House could have three or four senior directors, making it the powerhouse within the NSC—likely three times the current size of the Europe Directorate. This kind of major reorganization always has some collateral impact, but if it is played well, it could also be a boost to trans-Atlantic relations. NATO and much of the European Union are focused on working with the Biden administration on China—a strategic card the Trump team tossed away with its anti-European stance.
Campbell’s new position is unprecedented in elevating Asia’s strategic importance in the U.S. policy apparatus.
Third, the selection of Campbell represents an important nod to bipartisanship on China and Asia strategy. Even though the Republican National Committee urged candidates to beat up Biden on China during the 2020 election campaign, the reality is that there is very broad consensus in Congress and the foreign-policy community on the need to strengthen alliances, protect critical technologies, and press China hard on human rights and democracy—as an August 2020 poll on China policy by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found. Campbell is one of the reasons why Asia policy is as bipartisan as it is. Our long association began when I worked for him in the Pentagon before joining the NSC under George W. Bush. Randall Schriver, who until December 2019 was a very effective assistant secretary of defense covering Asia, also got his start working for Campbell in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration. Sen. John McCain and other Republicans on Capitol Hill frequently turned to Campbell for advice on China, Taiwan, Japan, and the broader region. When several of us briefed McCain before a trip he was taking to Singapore, Campbell made a strong appeal for the senator to stop in Taipei to show support at a time of increasing Chinese pressure on Taiwan—and to the chagrin of his schedulers, McCain agreed on the spot. Campbell is a proud Democrat, but at a time when the United States is painfully polarized at home, an appointment that represents bipartisanship and unity of purpose could not be more important.
Headlines across Asia will give this appointment big play—and for good reason. The incoming Biden administration has a daunting series of challenges on its plate. The scarcest commodity for a president is time. The only way to compensate is to have a strategic sense of what matters most and where to target U.S. power and influence. This requires experience but also clear strategic intent. This will not be as easy as some in the transition team may think, but Biden and his designated NSC chief, Jake Sullivan, are sending an important early signal that they are on it.
Biden Names Former U.N. Envoy to Head USAID, Beefs Up Asia Staff
Samantha Power, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., will seek to revive a troubled agency, while Obama-era veterans Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner get top Asia jobs.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
President-elect Joe Biden has tapped former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to head up the U.S. Agency for International Development, putting the high-profile former journalist in charge of the foreign-aid agency that has been crippled by budget cuts and mismanagement over the past four years.
NBC News first reported that Power, an Irish immigrant who first came to prominence for her Pulitzer Prize-winning study of U.S. responses to genocide, had been named to the job, which has since been confirmed by the transition team. The move signals that foreign aid could be a significant part of the incoming team’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, as the new administration will elevate the USAID chief to membership on the National Security Council.
Biden is shoring up his NSC by creating so-called coordinator positions that will oversee broader regions and functional areas of the world. The czar-like positions at NSC are being filled rapidly, and Biden’s latest appointments suggest continued U.S. focus on strategic competition with China.
The Financial Times reported onWednesday that Biden will tap Kurt Campbell, a former Obama administration State Department official who advocated for the United States to turn its focus toward the Pacific, as Indo-Pacific coordinator, with Brookings Institution expert Rush Doshi serving as his China director. The FT also reported that Ely Ratner, a former deputy national security advisor to Biden, is set to serve as assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, the Pentagon’s top senate-confirmed role for Asia.
In announcing the selections, Biden called Power “a world-renowned voice of conscience and moral clarity” who would stand up for dignity and humanity.
“I know firsthand the unparalleled knowledge and tireless commitment to principled American engagement she brings to the table, and her expertise and perspective will be essential as our country reasserts its role as a leader on the world stage,” the president-elect said in a statement.
As U.N. ambassador, Power led the Obama administration’s response at the institution to the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the Russian invasion of Crimea, and the Ebola crisis. A self-described idealist, Power was deeply affected by her experiences as a journalist in the Balkans in the 1990s. (To get her first press pass in the region, a young Power forged a letter of endorsement from Foreign Policy magazine, which at the time was owned by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where Power was an intern.)
Power was a vocal advocate who wrote about the need to use American might to stop spiralling humanitarian crises in Syria and Libya in the Obama administration. In her 2019 memoir, The Education of an Idealist, Power describes how during a tense situation room debate on Syria in 2013, the president snapped “We’ve all read your book, Samantha.”
Power will take over the reigns of an agency which has been sidelined and demoralized during the Trump administration, as a raft of political appointees have been appointed to top jobs at USAID. The day after the 2020 election, the White House fired Bonnie Glick, the Senate-confirmed deputy administrator of the agency. The move came the same day as the tenure of the acting head of the agency, John Barsa, was set to expire under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act and enabled Barsa to move down to Glick’s position while remaining at the top of the agency.
After the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, the agency’s White House liaison Catherine O’Neill, who served on the Trump campaign, criticized officials who resigned in the wake of the riot.
Power, whose writing first got the attention of former President Barack Obama during his time in Congress, would bring name recognition to advocates for the atrophying agency inside the administration and on Capitol Hill. The Trump administration has repeatedly sought to cut funding for foreign aid and last year proposed to cut the agency’s budget by 22 percent, but the move was halted by lawmakers. The administration has slashed full-time aid officials in some hotspots, like Iraq, down to a skeleton crew.
But though she has direct relationships with Biden, Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken, and a track record of advocacy on human rights issues, Power does not have a background in development. Her selection caps a search that saw the Biden-Harris transition team consider Ertharin Cousin, a former chief of the U.N. World Food Program, and Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior USAID official under Obama who emerged as a popular critic of Trump’s pandemic response on Twitter, among others.
Biden Can’t Make Washington a Beacon for Human Rights by Returning to Business as Usual
The world stepped up while the United States stepped back from defending human rights. The next U.S. president should join them.
Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch.
After four years of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s indifference and even hostility to human rights, the election of Joe Biden provides an opportunity for fundamental change. Trump’s disregard of human rights at home and his embrace of friendly autocrats abroad eroded U.S. credibility. Condemnations of Venezuela, Cuba, or Iran rang hollow when parallel praise was bestowed on Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Israel.
Yet a Biden presidency is not a panacea. In recent decades, each new president has brought wild oscillations in U.S. human-rights policy. Pro-rights global leaders are now understandably asking whether they can depend on Washington.
Fortunately, many governments treated U.S. unreliability as cause for resolve rather than despair. As Trump largely abandoned human rights, other governments stepped forward. So even as China, Russia, and their allies sought to undermine the global human-rights system, a series of coalitions came to its defense. They included not only Western countries but also Latin American democracies and a growing number of Muslim-majority states. As Biden takes office, he should seek to join these collective efforts.
More fundamentally, Biden’s challenge is not simply to reverse Trump’s damage to human rights but to make it more difficult for future presidents to replicate it. One step would be to reinforce a commitment to human rights by legislation, which the narrow Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress may make possible. Ideally, Biden could press for ratification of core human-rights treaties that the U.S. government has long neglected, but finding the necessary two-thirds support in the Senate might be difficult.
Biden should certainly allow justice to pursue its course with respect to Trump to show that the president is not above the law, resisting the “look forward, not back” rationale that former President Barack Obama used to ignore torture under his predecessor, George W. Bush. Like some of his own predecessors, Biden can make short-term improvements by executive action, but as in the past, that is vulnerable to being undone by a future U.S. president with less regard for human rights.
Biden’s challenge is not simply to reverse Trump’s damage to human rights but to make it more difficult for future presidents to replicate it.
Ultimately, Biden’s goal should be to change the narrative in a more fundamental way—to make upholding human rights more central to U.S. policy in a way that can better survive changes of administration.
For inspiration, Biden could look to former President Jimmy Carter, who introduced human rights as an element of U.S. foreign policy. At the time, that was seen as radical, but it struck a chord and has endured. All U.S. presidents since have sometimes downplayed human rights—Carter did, too—but none could entirely repudiate them.
For Biden to reshape public understanding in a similar way, he will need to speak about issues at home more regularly in terms of rights, while announcing human-rights principles to guide U.S. conduct abroad and adhering to them even when difficult.
Over the past four years, many global leaders saw human rights as too important to forsake just because Trump had done so. The number of nations involved, some new to the cause, typically acting in coalition made the defense more robust.
Latin American governments, for example, had rarely critiqued each other’s rights record, in part because that was seen as something Washington did. But to address the repression, corruption, and economic devastation under Venezuela’s disputed President Nicolás Maduro, 11 Latin American democracies plus Canada came together in 2017 as the Lima Group. Rather than allow Maduro to deflect criticism as “Yankee imperialism,” the Lima Group acted independently of the United States.
The Lima Group persuaded the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate Maduro’s repression. Six members asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Venezuela’s alleged crimes against humanity. Maduro continues his repressive rule but is far more isolated. Some Lima Group members have now secured U.N. scrutiny of Nicaragua as well.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of 56 mainly Muslim-majority states, saw a similar shift. In the past, the OIC rarely used the United Nations to condemn human-rights abuses other than by Israel, but that changed following the Myanmar military’s 2017 campaign of murder, rape, and arson against Rohingya Muslims.
In 2018, the OIC joined the European Union to persuade the Human Rights Council to create the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, to collect evidence for possible prosecution. In 2019, Gambia, an OIC member, brought a genocide case against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice, which ordered Myanmar to protect the 600,000 Rohingya who remain in the country. In addition, the International Criminal Court is investigating Myanmar officials for atrocities against the Rohingya during the forced deportation of 730,000 to Bangladesh.
In Syria’s Idlib province, three million civilians had been living under repeated aerial bombardment by Russian and Syrian aircraft. The German, French, and Turkish governments put sufficient pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure a cease-fire beginning in March 2020 that has largely held.
Liechtenstein and Qatar led a successful effort at the U.N. General Assembly in December 2016 to establish the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria to collect evidence of war crimes and other atrocities for prosecution. Several European governments—foremost Germany—have begun investigations and prosecutions in their own courts based on the principle of universal jurisdiction.
The Netherlands has started a process to address the Syrian government’s systematic torture, which could lead to a case before the International Court of Justice. When Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed to have won August 2020 elections, and his forces detained and tortured protesters, the EU imposed targeted sanctions on 88 people deemed responsible, including Lukashenko.
At the U.N. Human Rights Council, a core group consisting of the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, and Luxembourg secured and then strengthened an inquiry into war crimes in Yemen. Finland led a similar initiative for war crimes in Libya, as Iceland initially did for the thousands of summary executions of drug suspects under Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands secured an investigation into repression in Eritrea. Australia and then Denmark orchestrated condemnation of Saudi repression.
Abusive governments remain a potent threat. But this broader defense intensified the pressure on repressive leaders. Biden should seek to reinforce this trend.
Biden’s biggest foreign-policy challenge may be China. Trump’s inconsistent, transactional unilateralism discouraged others from joining him. Biden will need a more principled and multilateral approach.
Repression in China under President Xi Jinping has deepened in recent years, yet governments were long reluctant to criticize Beijing for fear of retaliation.
Repression in China has deepened in recent years, yet governments were long reluctant to criticize Beijing for fear of retaliation.
In 2016, the U.S. government organized the first common statement of governments willing to criticize China on human rights, but only 11 other states joined it. When Trump withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2018, many assumed such criticism would cease. In fact, it strengthened, as governments found safety in growing numbers against Beijing’s threats.
In 2019, 25 governments banded together at the Human Rights Council to condemn the repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Yet fear of Beijing still showed when no one would read the statement out loud at the council, as tradition dictated.
Since then, the British government read similar condemnations at the council and the U.N. General Assembly. Most recently, in October 2020 at the General Assembly, the German government led a condemnation of Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang that attracted 39 signatories. Turkey issued a parallel statement.
After each such criticism, Beijing organized a counterstatement of countries to sing its praise. Yet even though these pro-China statements included many of the world’s worst human-rights abusers, their numbers have been declining. The most recent statement, delivered by Cuba in October 2020 to applaud Beijing’s conduct in Xinjiang, attracted only 45 signatories—a drop from 54 the year before.
Among Muslim-majority states, the numbers supporting China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang dropped from 25 in 2019 to 19 in 2020, with the remaining 37 OIC members refusing to take part, and Albania and Turkey openly criticizing China. As China’s remaining backers approach parity with those now willing to criticize Beijing, the day may soon arrive when U.N. bodies can adopt formal resolutions condemning China’s repression.
A parallel process occurred in October as China sought a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. The last time it ran, four years ago, it received the most votes of any country from the Asia-Pacific region. This time, it received the fewest such votes other than Saudi Arabia, which was denied a seat.
Biden should embrace coalition statements even if the locale is the U.N. Human Rights Council, where Trump refused to join statements on China because the council criticized Israel. U.S. diplomats could help to expand those coalitions and reassure economically vulnerable countries of Washington’s assistance if Beijing retaliates. Having spoken in strong terms about China’s repression in Xinjiang, Biden should press for an international investigation.
Biden could endorse a strong version of proposed legislation to force companies sourcing from China to guarantee supply chains untainted by forced Uighur labor. And he should impose targeted sanctions on companies that assist Beijing’s intrusive surveillance state.
Biden cannot guarantee that a new U.S. president in four or eight years will not again turn back the clock on human rights, but he can take steps to make that retrenchment more difficult. One way would be to frame domestic issues more regularly in terms of rights, especially in the area of economic and social rights which the U.S. government has been reluctant to embrace.
The pandemic provides an opportunity for this shift. For example, in seeking to bolster access to health care in the United States, he should speak in terms of the right of everyone to see a doctor without bankrupting their family. As he pushes for unemployment assistance, he should affirm the right of everyone to put food on the table even if they lose their job. As he addresses the closing of schools, he should affirm a family’s right to educate its children regardless of whether it can afford a strong internet connection and a laptop. In providing a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, many with U.S.-citizen children and spouses, he could speak of their right to live with their family without constantly fear of deportation.
More regular invocation of rights could help to shift public perception of the fundamental values involved, making it harder for the next president to do an about-face.
To instill more consistency in U.S. foreign policy, Biden should affirm promoting rights as a core principle—and abide by it, even when politically difficult.
Biden should insist that, absent major improvements, he will curb military aid or arms sales to abusive friendly governments such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. He should be more outspoken about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s encouragement of discrimination and violence against Muslims, even if India is an important ally.
He should reembrace the U.N. Human Rights Council, even though it criticizes Israeli abuses in Occupied Palestinian Territory. He should void Trump’s sanctions on the International Criminal Court—an affront to the rule of law—regardless of the prosecutor’s steps to investigate unprosecuted U.S. torture in Afghanistan or Israeli war crimes.
Biden plans to host a “Summit for Democracy.” Unlike former President Bill Clinton, who invited allied authoritarian governments to his Community of Democracies, Biden should make respect for democratic standards the price of admission.
Turning the clock back four years will not be enough to undo Trump’s damage. Biden should address Washington’s credibility problem by seeking to enhance public appreciation of human rights in a way that his successors cannot so easily reverse. And now that many nations have responded to Trump by assuming leadership roles themselves, the new U.S. president should seek to join that enhanced defense of rights, not supplant it.
How Biden Can Help Prevent War on Iran—Right Now
Law and precedent bar the new administration from diplomacy before Inauguration Day. But that doesn’t mean its hands are tied.
Jonathan Tepperman is an editor at large at Foreign Policy, a role he assumed in November 2020 after three years as the magazine’s editor in chief. He is the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems.
Following last week’s Capitol Hill insurrection, the effort to evict President Donald Trump from the White House has started up again in earnest. Apart from the threat that he’ll stoke more violence at home, one of the most compelling reasons to remove him before Inauguration Day is the fear that, if left in charge, he’ll use his time left to launch a last-minute strike on Iran.
This idea isn’t far-fetched. The Trump administration—what’s left of it—remains stocked with ultra-Iran hawks like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Trump himself has publicly flirted with the idea of attacking Iran, and, after losing the election, reportedly asked aides about options for striking its nuclear facilities. Since November, the United States has sent B-52s to buzz the Iranian coast four times. Washington is thought to have participated in the Nov. 27 assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist just two months before the anniversary of the U.S. killing of Qassem Suleimani, a top Iranian general. And in a bizarre episode on Jan. 3, Trump personally sent the USS Nimitz—an aircraft carrier that acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller ordered home four days earlier—steaming back to the Middle East.
None of this means that Trump will definitely attack Iran in the eight days he has left as president. One can’t even calculate the odds. But that very uncertainty makes it understandable why leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are taking the possibility seriously. If there were ever any doubts about Trump’s judgment or his indifference to America’s interests, his encouragement of an armed uprising in Washington, D.C., last week killed them off.
No wonder, then, that Iran is already acting to protect itself through a measure of bluster and military maneuvers. On Jan. 7, the day after the riot in Washington, it staged a major naval drill involving more than 700 boats. This followed a large exercise involving hundreds of unmanned aircraft, including so-called suicide drones designed to fly explosives directly into a target. And on Dec. 31, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that “Iran doesn’t seek war but will OPENLY & DIRECTLY defend its people, security & vital interests.”
Iran will do everything it can to avoid a shooting war with the United States, which it could only lose. The country’s leaders know the risks and have been careful to avoid giving Trump a pretext for a strike. (The one big exception is Tehran’s recent decision to resume uranium enrichment up to 20 percent, in violation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal. Since it still falls far below the enrichment threshold needed to build a bomb, however, Iran’s leaders seem to be gambling that it won’t precipitate a military response.) But the mere fact that Iran now thinks that the United States might attack it at any minute is extremely dangerous, since it raises the risk that either country could misjudge the other and raise the stakes—forcing its opponent to reciprocate—or act in what it thinks is self-defense, triggering an all-out conflagration.
All of which raises a critical question: What can the incoming Biden administration do right now to help the United States avoid such a war?
Figuring out the answer is surprisingly difficult. Until they actually take office, President-elect Joe Biden and his team are barred by precedent and law from talking to Iran or any other foreign government. So the direct approach is out. That makes good sense as a general principle—just as the United States can have only one government at a time, it can have only one foreign policy. But the norm makes action difficult in a case like this, even if that action might save lives. Still, the Biden team has shown admirable restraint—due, no doubt, to the sour memories of the way Trump’s soon-to-be National Security Adviser Michael Flynn flouted the rule by negotiating with Russia’s ambassador shortly after the 2016 election. (Flynn was ultimately convicted of lying to the FBI about his actions but was then pardoned by Trump.)
Does this mean that Biden’s only options are to either violate the rules or sit on his hands and run the risk that Trump will drag the country into a bloody quagmire the new administration would then have to resolve?
Not quite; Biden and his aides can, and should, do two things immediately to help stave off a conflict. First, members of the Defense Department transition team, including the incoming secretary, Lloyd Austin, should use their meetings with sitting officials—especially those in uniform—to warn them off any actions that might trigger a showdown. Biden officials must be careful not to issue direct orders. But they can make their preferences clear. Most generals are savvy political operators and will take the hint; those now in uniform won’t want to act in a way could piss off the guy who will become their boss in little more than a week.
Second, Biden, his secretary of state nominee Tony Blinken, or one of his other top national security aides should give a speech as soon as possible making it clear that the United States wants to avoid another war in the Middle East. They’d have to finesse their language carefully; Biden can’t afford to take the threat of military force against Iran off the table completely, since he knows that such a threat is part of what drove Iran to sign the JCPOA in the first place.
But worded right, the speech could put Trump in a double bind. First, it could remind his supporters that Trump too has promised not to start a Middle East war—one that most of them also oppose—many times before. That could hurt Trump’s standing with his base—the one he needs if he’s going to run again in 2024—if he attacks Iran anyway.
Second, the speech should point out that the only plausible pretext for a war would be Iran’s uranium enrichment and its refusal to abide by or reenter the JCPOA under Trump. And it should then remind everyone that since both the Biden team and the Iranian government, from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei down, have signaled their willingness to resume the deal after Jan. 20, that rationale makes no sense.
Highlighting the hypocrisy of Trump’s threats on Iran and the faulty reasoning behind them might not be enough to keep a desperate, impulsive, and irrational president from lashing out during his last days in office. Trump has demonstrated his immunity to reason many times, including when his own best interests were on the line. The only guaranteed way to stop a war, then, is to get him out of the White House as soon as possible. But given how low the odds are that a second impeachment or use of the 25th Amendment will succeed in time, these steps might be the most that Biden can do right now to help avoid a conflict that neither country wants. Given the stakes, he can’t afford not to try.
Trump Team Makes Last-Minute Moves to Box In Biden on Foreign Policy
On Taiwan, Yemen, and Cuba, the Trump administration is laying political land mines for Biden on its way out the door.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
In its final days of power, the Trump administration is launching a slew of major last-minute policy changes aimed at cementing its legacy and boxing in the incoming Biden administration on issues including China and Taiwan, Cuba, and the war in Yemen.
Just 10 days before leaving office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Sunday night that the administration would be designating Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi movement as a terrorist organization, a decision aimed at cracking down on the rebel group. But international aid groups warn the sanctions designation could seriously hamper their ability to deliver lifesaving humanitarian aid to the war-wracked country.
Over the weekend, Pompeo also announced that the United States would be rolling back a decades-old policy of “self-imposed” restrictions between American and Taiwanese officials that takes aim at a central tenet of the so-called “One China” policy status quo. The United States maintains close ties to Taiwan, but China considers the island part of its territory. The move drew swift condemnation from officials in Beijing.
And on Monday, Bloomberg reported that the Trump administration planned to designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, reversing an Obama administration decision and throwing a major roadblock into the incoming Biden administration’s reported plans to swiftly pick up where Obama left off in trying to renormalize diplomatic ties with Havana.
Veteran diplomats and foreign-policy experts describe the flurry of eleventh-hour policy announcements as parting shots from the outgoing administration deliberately aimed at hampering the incoming administration’s foreign policy.
One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, referred to the moves as “fire sale diplomacy.”
The announcements themselves won’t outright prevent President-elect Joe Biden from rolling back President Donald Trump’s foreign policies, experts said, but will make it more politically and diplomatically difficult to do so.
“You have a whole group of things coming together as the administration leaves,” said Anthony Cordesman, a scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This administration is certainly going out with more of a bang than a whimper.”
Cordesman said there are ways the Biden administration can try to ignore or sidestep the latest policy pronouncements that don’t completely box in its foreign-policy priorities. But they represent diplomatic land mines the Biden administration will have to carefully work to avoid.
“If you should call back the designation of terrorism in any debate over Yemen, [opponents] can accuse the Biden administration of being soft on terrorism,” he said. “Any time that officials from Taiwan want to talk to the United States … the people who are supporters of Taiwan can point to the fact that the previous admin[istration] has taken this policy stand.”
Taiwan’s representative office in Washington praised the administration’s decision. “The State Department’s actions to further Taiwan-U.S. engagements reflect the strength & depth of our relationship,” the office said in a statement sent to Foreign Policy. “We look forward to broadening the Taiwan-U.S partnership in the months & years ahead.”
On a more basic level, the storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob last week that left five people dead could leave a lasting impression with American allies and developing nations where the Biden administration hopes to engage in democratic transition efforts. The attacks, which marked the first time the Capitol had been breached since the British burned Washington in 1814, sparked international condemnation, with close U.S. allies and even adversaries such as Russia and Venezuela calling out the violence. Some veteran foreign-policy experts are already questioning whether Biden should move forward with his grand plans to host a “summit of democracies” during his first year in office, given how events in Washington have clouded U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad.
But the terrorism designations in Yemen and Cuba will represent a thorny issue for the Biden administration, experts and officials said, because the incoming State Department would face the political burden of demonstrating that the designated groups had changed their behavior to roll back the designations or potentially risk criticism from congressional Republicans and foreign-policy hard-liners.
Pompeo, who has been circling Twitter with victory lap-styled missives celebrating the outgoing Trump administration’s purported foreign-policy accomplishments, is set for one last hurrah on Tuesday with a speech at the National Press Club outlining threats from Iran and al Qaeda. The State Department has been encouraging diplomats to pack the house for the speech despite an uptick in coronavirus cases nationally.
Pompeo has been vocal in his criticisms of the incoming administration’s plans to revive the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from as part of his administration’s so-called “maximum pressure” strategy to economically and diplomatically isolate Tehran. The Houthi designation also appears connected to an effort to sanction U.S. adversaries as the Trump administration runs out the clock.
In the weeks since the U.S. election, the United States has slapped sanctions on companies and individuals connected to Iran’s metals industry; sanctioned Venezuelan officials involved in imprisoning Americans working for the U.S. petroleum refiner Citgo; and sanctioned several Cuban military-owned companies. In late December, the administration also added dozens of Chinese companies, including semiconductor and drone manufacturers, to a trade blacklist as part of its efforts to exert pressure on Beijing in its final month in office.
On Yemen, the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group will push the country, already considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis after six years of war, closer to the brink of famine, according to aid groups and top U.N. officials.
Humanitarian organizations that deliver lifesaving supplies to civilians in Houthi-controlled parts of the country said the designation will make it immensely more difficult to operate there. U.S. lawmakers who oppose the move, including Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has also argued it will upend fragile peace talks between the Houthis and the internationally recognized Yemeni government.
“The consequences will be felt acutely across a country also hit hard by extreme hunger, cholera, and COVID-19, as banks, businesses, and humanitarian donors become unwilling or unable to take on the risk of operating in Yemen,” said Scott Paul, the humanitarian policy lead at Oxfam America. “Every day these designations remain in place will worsen the suffering of Yemen’s most vulnerable families. We call on President-elect Biden to revoke them immediately upon taking office. In this instance, acting ‘on day one’ cannot be only a figure of speech, as lives hang in the balance.”
Kirsten Fontenrose, a scholar at the Atlantic Council and former senior director for Gulf affairs on Trump’s National Security Council, said the Biden team will be able to “dive into the intel they have not seen from the past four years to learn what has led to these Hail Mary policy announcements in order to prioritize which they will address first.”
Biden Taps Career Diplomat William Burns as CIA Director
The final big name for Biden’s national security team signals a break with the CIA’s dark past.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
President-elect Joe Biden has selected William Burns as his nominee to lead the CIA. If confirmed, Burns would become the first career diplomat to lead the country’s premier intelligence agency.
Facing pressure from the progressive flank of the Democratic Party not to choose a nominee associated with the agency’s controversial drone and torture programs, Biden’s choice signals an appetite to break with darker aspects of the CIA’s recent history.
“Bill Burns is an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure. He shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect,” Biden said in a statement accompanying the announcement.
Burns spent 33 years in the U.S. foreign service, retiring in 2014 as deputy secretary of state, having become the second career diplomat in history to hold the position. (On retiring in 2014, Burns offered 10 pieces of advice for his fellow diplomats in an article published by Foreign Policy.) Fluent in Arabic, Russian, and French, Burns previously served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow, as well as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during George W. Bush’s first term in office. He is currently the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mick Mulroy, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East during the Trump administration and a current ABC News analyst, said Burns boasts “in-depth knowledge of some of the most critical national security issues we face,” playing a vital role in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Obama administration’s efforts at Middle East peace, and the elimination of Libya’s weapons program. “His selection shows how important the incoming administration views the role of the CIA in the overall national security effort of the nation.”
Though Burns doesn’t come into the CIA job with a background in intelligence, former officials said he worked well with the agency during his career at the State Department and expect him to be an effective advocate for the agency in the Biden administration after four years of attacks on spy agencies by President Donald Trump.
“An inspired choice,” Douglas London, who last served as the CIA’s chief of counterterrorism for South and Southwest Asia, told Foreign Policy in a text message on Monday. “An outsider to CIA and not. He’s worked well with us on any number of sensitive programs. Well respected, inclusive, unpretentious. Not an intelligence practitioner but a savvy customer who works the Washington scene effectively.”
Before the 9/11 attacks, the CIA director also led the U.S. intelligence community. But since the role became solely focused on the CIA in 2005, it has been led by a mix of political appointees and intelligence professionals. While a practitioner might better understand the nuts and bolts of CIA operations and how intelligence analysis is done, an outsider might bring a fresh perspective.
“Amb. Burns understands intel well, its values and risks,” London said. “He needs some insiders he can trust who are insiders; know the truth and where the bodies are buried, so to speak. I hope he chooses the right ones and is not hoodwinked by some of the old hands from CIA’s existing ruling elite.” But London added that Burns is a “smart guy” and he expects the director-designate to be savvy enough to see through the wrong perspectives.
During his term, Trump has repeatedly sought to politicize and malign the work of U.S. intelligence. Current Director Gina Haspel is reported to have fallen out of favor with Trump for refusing to declassify intelligence that could have aided him politically. One of Burns’s first challenges as director will be to boost morale in the agency and to restore public confidence in the CIA’s position as a nonpartisan provider of intelligence.
Burns will take up the reins of the agency at a time of rapidly evolving international challenges from old foes such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea and new challenges posed by an increasingly combative China and the instability wrought by pandemic diseases and climate change.
Burns is not an unfamiliar face in Beijing either, which is likely to be a focal point of Biden’s foreign policy. During his time as deputy secretary of state, Burns also dealt with China’s Foreign Ministry on tense debates over cyber-espionage that eventually led to U.S. Justice Department charges. “The exchanges were rarely fun,” Burns wrote in his 2019 memoir, The Back Channel. “We spent seven hours in one stretch laying out and debating specific information that we had about cyber-enabled commercial espionage by Chinese state organs, including the [People’s Liberation Army]. The Chinese summarily rejected our evidence.”
Burns became a vocal critic of Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s handling of the State Department, particularly in the wake of the impeachment saga that dragged career State Department officials into the hyperpartisan hearings on Capitol Hill, arguing that Trump was hollowing out America’s diplomatic corps and Pompeo wasn’t doing enough to protect career diplomats.
Pompeo in turn dismissed Burns’s criticisms as “crazy” and accused him of “auditioning” for a senior post in the next Democratic administration.
The position of CIA director is the last major position in Biden’s national security team to be announced and will not be a cabinet position, according to Politico.
“Ambassador Bill Burns will be welcomed by CIA’s rank and file as one of their own. He has worked closely with generations of CIA analysts and operators and has earned their respect,” said Larry Pfeiffer, who served as chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden.
Burns beat out several veteran intelligence professionals who were reportedly under consideration for the job. Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell was widely thought to be the front-runner but withdrew himself from consideration in late December after coming under fire from Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for his previous remarks on the agency’s use of torture. Tom Donilon, a national security advisor during the Obama administration, was an early favorite for the job but withdrew his name from consideration.
“I’ve known Bill Burns for decades. I’m thrilled for him and for the Agency,” Morell tweeted on Monday. “His command of the issues, his deep respect for intelligence, and his care for people will ensure it.”
Familiar Faces Return to State and National Security Council as Biden Staffs Up With Obama Alums
One notable absence from Biden’s announcements: CIA director.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
President-elect Joe Biden is staffing up his National Security Council and State Department with a slate of Obama-era officials, reflecting the incoming administration’s plans to rely on seasoned diplomats and subject matter experts.
The appointments reflect the Biden administration’s priorities on issues such as reviving the moribund Iran deal, global health issues in the wake of the pandemic, climate change, and tackling long-standing challenges related to Russia.
Senior appointments at the State Department will require Senate confirmation, which should prove much easier after two Democratic candidates won Senate runoff races in Georgia on Tuesday, giving Biden’s party the slimmest of margins in the upper chamber. On Friday, Biden also unveiled a slate of 21 picks to lead the National Security Council, including regional directors, the largest batch of national security picks yet for the incoming administration. They don’t require Senate confirmation.
Wendy Sherman, deputy secretary of state
Transition officials confirmed that Sherman, formerly the Obama administration’s top negotiator on the Iran deal, will be the No. 2 diplomat if she gets through the Senate. Sherman is an experienced State Department hand who also brings long-standing experience on North Korea to the table, traveling to Pyongyang with the first female secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, during the Clinton administration. She questioned President Donald Trump’s strategy on both portfolios, seeing the White House as overly optimistic about nuclear talks with Kim Jong Un and asking the New Yorker how “in God’s name can any verification or monitoring of North Korea be infallible?” Sherman headed nuclear talks with the North until 2001, when Pyongyang then promised not to make missiles that could strike the United States.
But like other nominees with long track records, Sherman is likely to face pushback for her long history in government, particularly on the Obama administration’s decision to bypass Congress on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and do the pact by executive agreement, not as a Senate-ratified treaty.
Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs
Nuland, a former career foreign service officer who served as top Europe envoy during the Obama administration as well as State Department spokesperson, would become State’s third-ranking official. As with Sherman’s nomination, the news was first reported by Politico and the New York Times, though no formal announcements have been made.
Nuland played a key role in crafting the U.S. response to the 2013-2014 Ukrainian revolution and Russia’s annexation and invasion of parts of the country. Nuland came to public prominence in 2014 when Russian intelligence recorded and released her phone call with then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt in which she said “fuck the EU,” sparking tensions with European allies as the United States scrambled to respond to the escalating crisis in Ukraine. Nuland is a prominent Russia hawk and signals that the Biden administration won’t stray from the yearslong U.S. and European campaign of isolating Moscow diplomatically and through sanctions.
Amanda Sloat, NSC senior director for Europe
Sloat, a Brookings Institution scholar and former diplomat for Europe under Barack Obama, is an expert on trans-Atlantic affairs as well as thorny issues such as Brexit and U.S.-Turkey relations. Along with several other names, her appointment could signal that the Biden administration won’t relent on criticisms of the Turkish government for its actions in Syria and erosion of democratic institutions.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, NSC senior director for Russia and Central Asia
Kendall-Taylor, a former senior U.S. intelligence officer, is an expert on European affairs, autocracy, and particularly Russia’s disinformation machine, which the Kremlin has wielded with significant effect particularly in the past four years. During the Trump administration, responsibility for Europe and Eurasia, including Russia, was rolled into one position held by the renowned Russia expert Fiona Hill, among others. One Biden campaign advisor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the split reflects the special emphasis the Biden administration will place on Russia separate from wider European issues.
Jon Finer, deputy national security advisor
Finer, a former journalist and Obama appointee, is set to take up the No. 2 position at the NSC. He was a speechwriter for Biden as vice president and senior advisor to then-Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state. Finer also served as chief of staff and director of policy planning at the State Department during Obama’s second term. Finer is one of dozens of Obama-era officials who swiftly condemned Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, saying at the time that his action threatened “American security and prosperity.”
Brett McGurk, NSC coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa
McGurk, who served as Trump’s special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, was tapped to lead White House policy on the Middle East and North Africa. McGurk, who was credited with helping to build the counter-Islamic State coalition that eventually topped out at more than 90 nations, resigned in protest after Trump announced a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria in December 2018, which was later reversed. The appointment suggests a harder Biden administration policy on Turkey, as McGurk championed the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and has been sharply critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy in Syria, which he has described as a plan to extend the nation’s border. McGurk will have served in each of the last four presidential administrations.
Sasha Baker, NSC senior director for strategic planning
Baker was a former national security advisor to Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and is one of the most prominent progressive voices in Democratic foreign-policy circles. Baker played a key role in crafting Warren’s foreign-policy platform during her failed 2020 presidential bid in the Democratic primaries. Warren has been a leading critic of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, including U.S. military support for the Saudi coalition’s war in Yemen.
Elizabeth Cameron, NSC senior director for global health security and biodefense
Cameron, who has a Ph.D. in biology, served in the State and Defense departments before helping to stand up the NSC Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense during the Obama administration. The Trump administration folded the directorate into other NSC departments as part of an effort to cut down the size of the NSC and streamline its structure. Her nomination is a sign of a return to emphasizing pandemic preparedness and response.
Juan Gonzalez, NSC senior director for Western Hemisphere
Gonzalez, one of Biden’s top Latin America advisors during his presidential campaign, previously served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the Obama administration. Gonzalez will inherit a confused Latin America policy, with the Trump administration’s efforts to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro grinding into limbo and the country’s economic and political collapse fueling a massive humanitarian and refugee crisis. Another challenge Gonzalez will face is how to manage the United States’ fraught relations with Cuba. The president-elect reportedly plans to reverse Trump-era sanctions and travel restrictions and work to normalize ties with the Cuban government but will likely face significant pushback from congressional Republicans on the issue.
Sumona Guha, NSC director for South Asia
A former foreign service officer who was drawn into Jake Sullivan’s policy planning staff at the State Department during the Obama administration, Guha worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues during a tumultuous time that saw relations deeply frayed between Washington and Islamabad. With the Trump administration facing a self-imposed deadline to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by half before Inauguration Day, Guha will help oversee the start of a new relationship between Washington and Kabul—especially if peace talks with the Taliban continue—as the Biden administration hopes to finally pivot American focus to countering China. Also on tap is the continued revitalization of the so-called “Quad” of U.S. partners that includes Japan, Australia, and India.
One notable absence from Biden’s recent spate of appointments is his nominee for CIA director, which Democratic foreign-policy experts and transition officials said is due to pushback from the progressive flank of the Democratic Party on some of his potential nominees.
The role of CIA director has not always been a cabinet-level position, and it’s unclear whether Biden’s pick to lead the agency will be part of his cabinet. The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
While the Democrats’ victory in the Senate may have given Biden more room to maneuver with other appointees, a Democratic Senate could actually narrow his options for CIA director, as candidates’ comments and relationship with controversial CIA programs such as torture and drone strikes will be subject to intense scrutiny by the party’s progressive flank. “This maybe limits, or eliminates, some people who were maybe under consideration, because it makes it harder to get them through,” said Larry Pfeiffer, who served as chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden.
Michael Morell, earlier seen as a front-runner for the job, was jostled aside, in part due to his comments about the CIA’s use of torture in the global war on terrorism. Morell withdrew himself from consideration for the role in late December.
“It’s gotten pretty quiet on the wire out there about who might be under consideration,” Pfeiffer said. One remaining front-runner: David Cohen, former deputy director of the CIA and undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department.
Other names include Sue Gordon, a well-respected career intelligence official who served as principal deputy director of national intelligence until stepping down in 2019, and Darrell Blocker, who spent almost three decades in the agency’s clandestine service and served as deputy director of its counterterrorism center. Also reported to be under consideration is Vincent Stewart, the former director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.
Why Biden’s Plan to Rejoin the Iran Deal Makes No Sense
This week’s escalation of tensions by Tehran looks like blackmail to force Biden to abandon sanctions—and give up leverage over the regime.
Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, and as the governor of Illinois’s chief of staff.
Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Iran has decided to escalate tensions with the West by publicly confirming the production of enriched uranium at an underground nuclear facility and seizing a South Korean oil tanker transiting the Persian Gulf. This escalation may be designed to put additional pressure on President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—a move that would give extensive sanctions relief to a regime under enormous economic stress. But if Biden were to give in to nuclear extortion and abandon sanctions, he would surrender his most important leverage against Tehran and never achieve his stated goal of negotiating a longer-lasting, better agreement.
Five years ago, nearly every Republican in the U.S. Congress—and many leading Democrats including Senators Charles Schumer, Bob Menendez, and Joe Manchin—opposed the Iran deal for good reasons. The agreement set expiration dates on key restrictions, ruled out on-demand inspections, and let Iran maintain its nuclear enrichment capabilities. It didn’t address the regime’s accelerating missile program, gave Tehran the financial resources to sponsor regional aggression and terrorism, and ignored its egregious abuse of human rights.
Hinting at these flaws, Biden recently said he wants to build on the 2015 deal with a new agreement to “tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as we address the missile program.” During the presidential campaign, he also promised to confront Iran’s human-rights record and its “destabilizing activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region.” But the president-elect maintains that the only way to negotiate a new framework is by first returning to the old one.
There’s one big problem with that logic. Since rejoining the original nuclear deal requires Washington to lift its most punishing sanctions, the economic leverage against Tehran that Biden inherits from his predecessor will evaporate the moment sanctions are relaxed.
Congress had worked for years to enact tough sanctions to force the Iranian regime to abandon its malign activities. Indeed, former President Barack Obama credited these sanctions with bringing Iran to the negotiating table in the first place.
If Obama contends sanctions pressure was necessary to produce the nuclear deal, how could Biden ever negotiate far more restrictions on Iran with far less economic leverage?
The obvious question, then, is this: If Obama contends U.S. sanctions pressure was necessary to produce an agreement as deeply flawed as the Iran nuclear deal, how could Biden ever negotiate far more restrictions on Iran with far less economic leverage?
Biden’s retreat from sanctions in the face of Iran’s threats to expand its enrichment-related activities, kick out international inspectors, and build additional nuclear reactors—in effect, giving in to a nuclear extortion racket—would also send a clear message to the mullahs: They can wait out a Biden administration in negotiations because he will never reimpose sanctions out of fear Iran might again expand its nuclear activities.
Another challenge to Biden’s race to rejoin the nuclear deal: The agreement has already started to expire. The deal’s first so-called sunset clause—the termination of United Nations restrictions on transferring conventional arms to Iran—already came into effect in October. Were it not for an executive order issued by the Trump administration threatening sanctions against Russia and China if they transfer weapons to Iran, such arms sales would already be underway. Biden has not said whether he will enforce those sanctions.
Developments in the nuclear realm should also prompt Biden to clarify his expectation that Tehran will return to strict compliance with the old deal if Washington rejoins it. The International Atomic Energy Agency has evidence that Iran is concealing undeclared nuclear material, activities, and sites. The agency’s investigation follows Israel’s 2018 clandestine acquisition of the Iranian regime’s secret nuclear weapons archive as well as declarations from the U.S. State Department that Iran has been keeping nuclear-weapons scientists employed at a military agency. At the very least, Biden must require Iran to fully account for its undeclared nuclear work before considering even the slightest of sanctions relief. Otherwise, he will have traded away Washington’s leverage without achieving his one and only condition.
If Biden needs another compelling reason to change course: Congress would oppose sanctions relief for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), just as Democrats and Republicans united in 2017 to pass legislation requiring the Trump administration to designate the Corps as a terrorist entity and impose sanctions on its affiliates. Notably, that vote came while the United States was still a participant in the nuclear deal.
Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the Central Bank of Iran for its financing of the IRGC’s Quds Force and Hezbollah. The U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network declared Iran’s financial sector to be a primary jurisdiction of money laundering concern—a finding reinforced when the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force urged a blacklisting of Iran’s banking system due to evidence of terror financing.
The U.S. Treasury also imposed terrorism sanctions on the National Iranian Oil Company and National Iranian Tanker Company, two pillars of Iran’s energy economy, for their financial support to the IRGC. Congress should send a clear message to the incoming administration that sanctions relief benefiting the IRGC and its auxiliaries is simply unacceptable.
Iran-deal supporters avoid debating the many fallacies inherent in returning to the agreement.
Iran-deal supporters avoid debating the many fallacies inherent in returning to the agreement. Instead, they point to Iran’s recent expansion of uranium enrichment activities and declare the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure strategy a failure. For them, the only way to contain Iran’s nuclear program is to pay the mullahs to stop enriching—even if it means funding the IRGC, rejoining an expiring deal, turning a blind eye to clandestine nuclear activity, missile testing, and human-rights abuses, and leaving Iran’s enrichment capabilities intact so that the regime can shake down the international community for more money in the future.
What the deal’s supporters ignore, however, is that maximum pressure is only a year or so old—and that it took Obama four years to get Iran to the negotiating table and another two years to get the nuclear deal.
The Trump administration remained in the Iran deal until 2018. Sanctions waivers allowed Iran to export a million barrels per day of oil until 2019. Sanctions on Iran’s main shipping line, non-oil companies, and the financial sector did not arrive until 2020. While the International Monetary Fund already reports that Iran has only a few billion dollars of remaining foreign exchange reserves, the peak impact of maximum pressure is still to come.
The deal’s supporters ignore another important fact: The regime is threatening the international community with nuclear enrichment because the agreement allowed Tehran to retain its enrichment-related capabilities. So long as the regime maintains these capabilities, it can threaten to expand enrichment at any time of its choosing.
Notably, however, the mullahs have avoided overt nuclear moves that might trigger a U.S. or Israeli military strike. The regime’s slow and steady escalation of enrichment appears intended to create anxiety and political pressure in Europe rather than trip Washington’s or Jerusalem’s red lines for military action.
The mullahs have avoided overt nuclear moves that might trigger a U.S. or Israeli military strike.
Biden’s stated eagerness to submit to the mullah’s extortion racket could alter Iranian nuclear strategy. Not only will Tehran rightly perceive that Biden will be unwilling to act on any threat to reimpose sanctions in the future—a move that would prompt the regime to return to the very same enrichment we see today—it might also assess Biden to be more averse than Trump to the use of military force—making the unanswered questions surrounding Iran’s clandestine program even more critical.
It makes perfect sense that the president-elect wants to work with U.S. allies to confront the myriad national-security challenges posed by Iran. But turning a blind eye to the clerical regime’s nuclear deception, racing back into a deal that’s already expiring, undermining U.S. negotiating leverage, and subsidizing Iranian-sponsored imperialism and terrorism—that doesn’t make much sense at all.
Should Trump Be Prosecuted?
History shows that holding former leaders to account pays off—if it’s done in the right way.
Jonathan Tepperman is an editor at large at Foreign Policy, a role he assumed in November 2020 after three years as the magazine’s editor in chief. He is the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems.
For almost as long as Donald Trump has been president, Americans have been debating whether or not he should be prosecuted for the various crimes he may have committed in office. That debate intensified on Saturday, when Trump called Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, and appeared to threaten him unless he came up with 11,000 more votes for the president. Then came Wednesday’s mass assault on Capitol Hill, which Trump did so much to incite.
Advocates of prosecuting or impeaching Trump make strong arguments, but so do those who think the country should just move on. That makes choosing the right answer difficult—especially because neither side has used much data to make a case. But the evidence is out there. To understand what the history of past attempts to prosecute heads of state can teach us, Jonathan Tepperman, Foreign Policy’s editor-at-large, spoke on Wednesday with Pablo de Greiff, who from 2012 to 2018 served as the first U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jonathan Tepperman: The strongest and most basic argument made by advocates for prosecution is that the United States is a country of laws and must do everything it can to demonstrate that no one is above those laws. Opponents of prosecution argue that a trial could turn Trump into a martyr, further energize his base, help raise even more money, and encourage him to run in 2024—so the best thing for the country might be to just turn the page.
What does the historical record tell us about whether or not prosecutions work? And what metrics should we use to judge whether these cases have been good or bad for the countries involved?
Pablo de Greiff: To start with, it makes a huge difference what you would prosecute a former leader for. It’s not an abstract debate about impunity versus prosecution. It should be a precise debate about specific charges and what consequences would follow from prosecuting them.
As for how to measure the effectiveness of prosecutions, when it comes to issues like the rule of law, metrics are very difficult to come by. It’s hard to determine whether an individual case has an impact on rule-breaking in the future.
Now, I do think that there is a case to be made for the importance of making sure that legal systems signal that no one is above the law. Therefore, for instance, Guatemala’s prosecution of its former president, Efraín Ríos Montt, was very important because all Guatemalans got to see him being forced to comply with a court of law and a judge who repeatedly told him, “No, it’s not your turn to speak. No, you cannot address me this way. No, this is not something that you can say.” Scenes like that alone were extraordinarily important for a country like Guatemala.
In deciding whether to prosecute Trump, I think two major considerations should be kept in mind. First, there has been a great erosion of the rule of law in the United States, which for me is manifested mainly in the politicization of the judicial system. I don’t know if you have noticed, but it’s become common for news reports, when referring to a judge, to specify which president appointed that judge. I’ve been in this country for almost 40 years, and that’s a noticeable change; it didn’t happen much before.
I also think that, particularly over the last four years, there have been a lot of public attempts to undermine judicial decision-making, which was once seen as almost sacred here. I mention all this because having a reliable judicial system is important when you are advocating prosecutions, and I think that the state of the judicial system in this country has declined tremendously. The erosion is both systematic and involves the way the people view the judiciary.
JT: Does that change in perception increase the importance of prosecuting Trump, since it would help fight back against the erosion of these norms?
PD: It would do that, but the erosion of norms also makes a trial more complicated. Because once the credibility of judicial decision-making has been eroded, putting on a trial of a very popular former head of state puts lots of pressure on the system, and I’m not sure it’s a pressure that the system can bear.
JT: Let’s dig into that. Are there examples of countries where the failure to hold prosecutions for crimes committed by leaders in office held those countries back, undermined their democracies, or kept them from making progress?
PD: The failure to prosecute a head of state tends to reaffirm the view that the law is only for some, rather than for everyone, and it entrenches freewheeling behavior and corruption by the elites.
JT: What’s a good example where that happened?
PD: Think about Central America. In Guatemala, you had a trial process created and supported by the United Nations that gave investigatory and prosecutorial support to the local courts. In many ways, it was a huge success. It managed to prosecute an acting head of state and an acting vice president for grand corruption. It introduced important new skills into the Guatemalan judiciary that made all these things feasible. Whereas before they would have been unthinkable.
And they were unthinkable in El Salvador and Honduras. In those countries, you see continued cycles of violence, people taking the law into their own hands, and unaccountable private security firms outnumbering public safety services, meaning that only the wealthy have some modicum of security.
I think the basic point to emphasize is that countries that have failed to do anything to prosecute former leaders who broke the law still suffer from impunity and a lack of respect for the rule of law.
JT: Even when an accountability process works, there can be downsides. In the case of Trump, there are legitimate fears that holding a trial would keep him in the spotlight, for example. How do you weigh the pros versus the cons?
PD: One thing I always keep in mind is institutional capacity. It’s not good enough to call for prosecutions when there is no possibility of holding a fair trial. And the failure of a big trial would be a big blow to the country’s legal institutions—like, for example, the failure of Trump’s impeachment in the United States.
Consider the case of El Salvador. After its civil war, the U.N. established and ran a truth commission there, which did not ultimately recommend prosecutions. Not because it didn’t find evidence of wrongdoing. It found plenty of evidence: The commission compiled a list of more than 110 military officers who seemed to have been responsible for gross human rights violations. But it didn’t recommend prosecutions because it did not trust that the Salvadoran judicial system could have withstood the pressure of holding trials or could have actually provided justice. If, with big bombast, you put someone on the dock and then fail to prove any charges against them, you weaken, rather than strengthen, the judicial system.
JT: Say more about the kinds of pressures you have to be ready to deal with if you do hold a trial.
PD: There are enormous pressures, which is one reason why most countries end up waiting a few years before seeking accountability. The timing makes a difference. It would be one thing to try to prosecute Trump in two weeks. It would be an entirely different proposition to go through a very deliberate, careful process of gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, taking statements, and then, in three years, launching a prosecution. The temporal dimension is extraordinarily important because in three years the political situation may be different; polarization may be much lower. Trump may seem much less attractive because someone else in the Republican Party has taken his role. Republicans may collectively decide they’re going to stop hitching their fate to this guy, as they have done up to this point.
That is what happened with Ríos Montt in Guatemala. By the time he was tried, the rest of the Guatemalan elite had said, “OK, enough of this,” which opened up possibilities for prosecution that had not been present earlier.
JT: One of the arguments made against prosecuting Trump is that such prosecutions are a hallmark of weak democracies, not strong ones—that only in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes do leaders prosecute their predecessors.
PD: There’s a huge confusion here between the settling of scores for purely political reasons and the very serious use of judicial investigations, prosecutions, and punishment to address crimes that have been committed. The former is objectionable. The latter is not only not objectionable; it is in fact the mark of a strong democracy. Strong democracies prosecute people whenever a crime has been committed, without selectivity, without thinking about questions of status, etc.
JT: Based on your experience, what advice would you give U.S. authorities and the Biden administration about how to handle Trump’s alleged crimes? Especially given the understandable temptation to do whatever is possible to just make him go away, to get him out of the spotlight.
PD: I share the desire to never hear from him again, but I don’t think that the judiciary should be used for political purposes. The judiciary should be used to carefully, meticulously, and with total objectivity and neutrality investigate crimes that Trump may have committed. In the end, from my standpoint, what’s more important than individual cases of rule-breaking is systematic rule-breaking. That is what erodes social coexistence.
JT: But what does that mean for Trump himself? Should he be prosecuted, especially given the assault on the Capitol?
PD: Yes. But I don’t think that targeting Trump alone would be sufficient and should be the sole objective here. There are patterns of abuse that involve others as well. Getting rid of Trump alone would be insufficient to restore faith in the U.S. justice system. Criminal investigations, prosecutions, and sentencing are important, but real justice involves more than those things alone. It requires a much broader strategy, one that complements criminal justice with other policies intended to get at root of some of the underlying problems that led to the rise of Trump in the first place.
Iran Increases Nuclear Enrichment, Posing First Challenge for Incoming Biden Administration
The newest move could be negotiating leverage, but it’s set to worsen already strained U.S.-Iran relations in the final weeks of the Trump administration.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Iran’s decision to resume 20 percent uranium enrichment at its Fordow underground nuclear facility is likely to exacerbate already heightened U.S.-Iran tensions and poses a new hurdle to the incoming Biden administration’s hopes of reviving the moribund Iran nuclear deal.
Even with renewed tensions between the two countries, top Biden advisors said the incoming administration plans to reopen negotiations with Iran to curb its nuclear program. During the Trump administration, which pulled out of the Iran deal in 2018, Iran has resumed enrichment and gotten closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon—despite the Trump administration’s so-called “maximum pressure” strategy.
“Biden has said that if Iran comes back into compliance with its terms under the nuclear deal … so that its program is back in a box, then we would come back in, but that would become the basis for this follow-on negotiation,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s incoming national security advisor, told CNN in an interview on Sunday. Sullivan added that Iran’s ballistic missile program “has to be on the table” in any negotiations that would follow a return by Washington and Tehran to the Iran nuclear deal, a key sticking point for Iran hawks and Republican critics of the Obama-era nuclear deal.
Those remarks are largely consistent with former President Barack Obama and President-elect Joe Biden’s long-standing position that a number of thorny issues—including Iran’s ballistic missile program and its military adventures in the region—would be tackled separately after the nuclear agreement was secured.
Some experts view Iran’s latest move to ramp up its enrichment program as having two purposes. One is internal: to address pressure from Iran’s parliament to increase enrichment, particularly following the assassination late last November of one of the country’s top nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The second is external, meant to shore up Iran’s leverage as it prepares to reenter nuclear negotiations with the incoming Biden administration.
“This certainly looks and feels like this is posturing prior to Biden coming in,” said Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at Columbia University and a former top sanctions official involved in Iran negotiations during the Obama administration. “There is concern on the Iranian side that they wouldn’t have enough to trade for U.S. compliance. They may feel they are not sufficiently able to punish the U.S. and have leverage in the negotiations with the U.S. to revoke [U.S.] sanctions.”
Nephew said the Fordow announcement will shorten the so-called breakout time it could take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade fuel for a nuclear bomb, which he currently estimates would take about six months or less. With a sufficient stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, the Iranians could potentially narrow the breakout time to about a month and half. The jump from Iran’s current level of uranium enrichment of less than 5 percent to 20 percent is a significant technical step, taking Tehran much closer to producing weapons-grade fuel.
“This is very troubling because there is no technical need for a civilian nuclear program to enrich uranium to 20 percent,” said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association. “They are clearly trying to increase their leverage in negotiations, but I think they are overstepping and risking the possibility that the [nuclear deal] can be saved.”
“What is going to be important is the pace,” he added. “I would expect them to be calibrating the pace with the pace of talks with the Biden administration and [other key powers]. It has been our view that Iran is not racing towards the bomb, as the leader of nuclear-armed Israel claims. They are retaliating in a measured, reversible way.”
Following the Iranian announcement, Peter Stano, a spokesperson for the European Union, which is a party to the nuclear pact, expressed concern that the move constituted a “considerable departure from Iran’s nuclear commitments under the [Iran nuclear deal] with serious nuclear non-proliferation implications.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that “Iran’s decision to continue violating its commitments, to raise the enrichment level & advance the industrial ability to enrich uranium underground, can’t be explained in any way except as continued realization of its intention to develop a military nuclear program.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview with Bloomberg News on Monday, warned that Iran was stepping up its aggressive behavior in the Middle East to put pressure on the incoming Biden administration.
“As they now think they may have a president come into office that will do a deal with them again, they’re going to raise their level of activity to threaten. And so that the Europeans and the United States will once again kowtow and enter into a deal with them that presents them with enormous opportunity in America and the Gulf States with real risk,” he said.
In the final weeks of the Trump administration, U.S. officials said they are remaining on high alert for some form of confrontation with Iran, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the U.S. strike that killed one of Iran’s most powerful and influential military commanders, Qassem Suleimani.
The Trump administration has preemptively ordered a drawdown in U.S. personnel from the embassy in Iraq and sent a pair of B-52 bombers over the Persian Gulf in a show of force—part of an ongoing effort to deploy assets into the region since the United States reimposed lapsed sanctions from the Iran nuclear deal.
On Monday, Trump ordered the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its carrier strike group to return to the Middle East, countermanding acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller’s decision to bring the group home. That same day, Iran seized a South Korean oil tanker in the Persian Gulf in a further escalation of tensions. Iranian authorities said the seizure was related to environmental pollution. But the move, which may also be meant to pressure Seoul to release embargoed Iranian funds, coincided with signs that Iran was building up its naval presence in the region, and inside and outside the Trump administration, current and former officials warned that the United States would be ready to push back in case of an attack.
“Iran has the ability to disrupt the flow of shipping through the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab, and that disruption could significantly damage the global economy,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East during the Trump administration and now an ABC News analyst.
“If they intend to attack U.S. forces, they can be confident that our military will be ready to defend itself and respond with overwhelming force. Iran testing that would be a mistake.”
Biden’s Big Day: Senate Control And Support From Pence and McConnell
In response, pro-Trump protesters storm the Capitol, forcing Congress into recess.
Even as U.S. President Donald Trump continued to rail angrily at the election results at a rally outside, President-elect Joe Biden enjoyed a series of major victories on Wednesday that will likely accelerate the departure of Trump, if not Trumpism, from the scene.
But it clearly wasn’t going quietly. After it became obvious that Trump’s effort to derail the electoral college vote would fail, pro-Trump protesters marched on the Capitol building, overwhelming police barricades, forcing Vice President Mike Pence to evacuate and putting the House and Senate into temporary recess. Protesters appeared to easily overwhelm Capitol Police, some of whom drew their weapons, and entered the chamber itself. Many people were injured and one woman was shot dead.
But by Wednesday morning, based on the outcome of the two tight Senate runoff races in Georgia, it became clear that Biden and the Democrats would control not only the White House and House of Representatives but the Senate as well, allowing him to advance some of his ambitious domestic and foreign agenda. Meanwhile, Pence ended any suspense about whether he would do Trump’s bidding and try to halt the electoral certification process. Biden was ultimately confirmed as the president-elect in the early hours of Thursday.
“It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” Pence said in a statement outside the Capitol Wednesday as the formal vote got underway.
Pence thus directly rebuked his president, who had declared at a rally earlier in front of the White House: “Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us, and if he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country.” In fact, constitutionally Pence’s role in the count of electoral votes was largely ceremonial. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also strongly opposed an effort by a minority of Senate and House Republicans to stop the electoral certification, including a proposal to set up a commission to investigate voter fraud.
In Georgia meanwhile, the Rev. Raphael Warnock was declared the winner in his runoff race against Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, while another Democratic challenger, Jon Ossoff, was later deemed the winner over Republican David Perdue. Those upset victories created a 50-50 split in the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris supplying the tie-breaking vote—giving the Democrats a slim majority in the upper chamber.
That outcome in turn raised hopes that Biden may have a chance of enacting some key parts of his domestic agenda, including his plans for imposing new taxes on the wealthy, expanding earned income tax credits for the elderly, and delivering other new tax credits. He also intends to overturn Republican-orchestrated cuts to the corporate tax rate and estate tax.
Even so the new president will face Republican filibusters on many of these issues, which under current rules requires a 60 vote majority to close debate. Though Biden was highly regarded as a deft deal-maker during his 36 years on Capitol Hill—he will be the first president since Lyndon B. Johnson to have spent most of his political career in the Senate and has long worked with McConnell—he will almost certainly run into stern opposition from a Republican Party that is habitually loath to raise taxes. If McConnell takes the leadership post again, Biden will also run into a great deal of trouble confirming judges—an issue on which McConnell is particularly obstructionist—and possibly some of his cabinet nominees.
Beyond that, the Senate has become a very different and far more polarized place than when Biden had his heyday there, often winning Republican support as chairman or ranking member of the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees, for example on NATO expansion and criminal justice reform, in the 1980s and ’90s.
“If anybody can do it, Biden can. He always worked really hard to get along with the other side,” said Kay King, who was his foreign-policy advisor in the late 1980s. “But I’m cautiously pessimistic. A few Republicans may defect, but I don’t think it will be necessarily on major issues. The Senate is so polarized and driven by money, and if McConnell puts his foot down as he did with [former President Barack] Obama and says we’re going to do everything we can to defeat this person, then he’s going to have trouble. Remember, the last thing the Republicans want is to see Kamala Harris get elected president.”
Even so, over the past four years the Senate Republicans have been more willing to challenge President Donald Trump on foreign-policy issues—and thus may end up being more receptive to Biden’s plans, especially when it comes to restoring relations with U.S. allies that have been so damaged during the Trump years.
“The Republican Senate is widely regarded as having bucked Trump on foreign policy more than anything, for example in supporting sanctions on Russia, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia,” said Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton administration official and the author of Primary Politics. And both Republicans and Democrats are somewhat united on getting tougher on trade, security, and human rights issues with America’s chief global rival, China.
Beyond that, the Republican caucus in the Senate appears to be in disarray at the moment, with even deeply conservative senators and erstwhile Trump allies like Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina saying they oppose the president’s efforts to overturn the election by repeating unfounded claims of voter fraud.
Only last week the Senate overwhelmingly overrode Trump’s veto of a $741 billion defense bill, voting 81 to 13 to enact the annual National Defense Authorization Act. And though many of the outgoing president’s policies will be hard to overturn, some Senate Republicans have been increasingly willing to defy him on various issues, including Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
Late last week Sasse, in comments on social media, sternly rebuked Trump and senators and House members who support the president’s attempt to decertify the election in a vote scheduled for Wednesday, calling it a “dangerous ploy.”
“There are actually a few points of general agreement on foreign policy between Biden and the Republicans,” said another former Biden Senate aide, Michael Haltzel. “First is repairing the damage to NATO done by Trump. Second is countering an aggressive China, albeit in a more sophisticated and multilateral way than Trump. Similarly, a third is continuing—even ramping up where necessary—opposition to Vladimir Putin’s pugnacious policies, including beefing up U.S. cyber-defenses and increasing American engagement in the Western Balkans.”
Even so, he said, Biden will run into a Republican wall if he attempts to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal rejected by Trump or take more aggressive action on climate change, although the incoming president won’t need Senate approval to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, which he has said he will do.
When it comes to trade issues, Biden will likely have more problems with some of his fellow Democrats in the progressive camp than with many Republicans who still support free trade. During the primaries the president-elect, once a firm free-trade advocate, was forced to retreat on unpopular trade pacts like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which progressive Democrats viewed as unfair giveaways to multinational corporations and short on labor and environmental rights.
As Obama’s vice president, Biden supported the TPP, which Democratic centrists and many Republicans saw as an effective way of coercing China into changing its open defiance of World Trade Organization rules regarding issues such as intellectual property and product dumping. Trump withdrew from the TPP as one of his first acts in office and launched a unilateral trade war against Beijing, to little effect.
But on the 2020 campaign trail Biden changed his tune dramatically in response to progressive and populist demands, saying that if he sought to reenter the TPP, he would renegotiate it to include “strong rules of origin” requiring more manufacturing in the United States. In any case, he said, he wanted to focus on a $400 billion “Buy America” plan before any new trade deal.
Similarly, on nuclear arms reduction, Biden would likely be able to win over some Republicans who opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the Reagan-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces pact and his failure to work to extend the New START treaty.
Trump’s fumbling response to the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the increasing chaos coming out of the White House, has also made a number of Republicans vulnerable in the next election. That in turn indicates Biden may have more maneuvering room on bipartisan issues such as infrastructure refurbishment, additional coronavirus-related relief, and aid to state and local governments.
This article was updated Wednesday, Jan. 6 to reflect the Senate races and vote count on Capitol Hill.
2021 Outlook: A Quick Recovery but a Slew of New Economic Problems
As COVID-19 is conquered, the global economy will spring back swiftly. But the old problems that fed populist politics have only grown worse—and may be even harder to solve.
As 2020 passes like a bad dream and COVID-19 vaccines are distributed en masse, many economists believe that the global economic recovery in 2021 could prove the fastest in decades. But the pandemic, and associated lockdowns, will leave a grim legacy that could also take decades to overcome, not least the worsening income inequality that will likely only reinflame populist politics in the United States and other major nations.
And even the election of Joe Biden as the next U.S. president, an avowed internationalist, won’t be enough to parry the structural threats that still plague the economies of the United States and other developed nations. The 74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump and the protectionist, neonationalist policies they both embraced aren’t going away—and neither are the serious social and economic problems that underlay them.
After a dismal year in which nearly every major economy contracted—with the apparent lone exception of China—most economists expect 2021 to bring growth back in spades. According to the International Monetary Fund, global growth is projected at 5.2 percent this year. Other economists expect the strongest performers this year to be those countries that did severe lockdowns in 2020, led by the United Kingdom and Spain. China, for its part, already returned to economic growth last year and is forecast to enjoy a return to moderately strong GDP growth this year.
In the United States, after a devastating summer, the projections are for a big rebound. “I assume that if vaccination does not get screwed up or slowed down, we are going to have a substantial economic recovery,” said Andrei Shleifer, a leading economist at Harvard University. “I hope Biden focuses on this, and is otherwise very boring for the first few months, so that tempers and emotions quiet down a bit. COVID is a major attainable victory for him in the next six months. Why would he do anything else?”
The fact is Biden likely won’t be able to do too much more—both because of the potential of Republican obstructionism and the evolution in his own economic thinking since his days as Barack Obama’s vice president. Not until after the Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia will Biden know if Republicans keep control of the Senate—essentially blocking his economic agenda—or if Democrats can wrest control, opening the door to progressive legislation like a new tax on the wealthy and expanded earned income tax credits.
But even if Biden has a relatively free hand, the incoming administration has already signaled that it is not going to simply return to the centrist, unabashedly pro-free trade policies of past Democratic presidents. A once highly regarded trade pact like the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, which many economists viewed as a much more effective way to pressure China than Trump’s trade war, may no longer be salvageable in the United States. (It continues as a smaller, 11-nation pact without Washington’s involvement.) And Biden has also indicated support for protectionist measures like “Buy American” legislation and hinted he would be willing to keep Trump’s China tariffs in place—at least initially.
“We expect Biden’s trade policy to represent a break with the last four years but not a return to the pre-2016 free trade agenda,” Oxford Economics wrote in a recent report. “Grand deals like NAFTA under Bill Clinton or the Trans-Pacific Partnership under Barack Obama have become unpopular across the political spectrum, which is likely to make President-elect Biden much less pro-trade than he was as vice president.”
“Grand deals like NAFTA under Bill Clinton or the Trans-Pacific Partnership under Barack Obama have become unpopular across the political spectrum.”
If Trump’s rise was fueled in part by the income inequality that worsened after the last recession in 2008-2009, when Wall Street was bailed out while middle-class homeowners were not, then continued inability to fix those problems spells political trouble—especially in the wake of unprecedented economic turmoil during the pandemic.
“The pandemic and recent recession made the problem worse,” said Mark Gertler, an economist at New York University. Those employed in white-collar jobs, like in the already high-paying tech sector, made out fairly well, while low-income workers, especially in service industries, took the worst hits. Though department and food stores remained open for the most part, other retail, food services, hospitality, entertainment, and leisure industries took the biggest blow, affecting a much larger fraction of the already suffering middle class, many of whom are also struggling with higher health insurance costs.
In a recent report, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists David Autor and Elisabeth Reynolds conclude that the COVID-19 crisis “will exacerbate economic pain in the short and medium terms for the least economically secure workers in our economy, particularly those in the rapidly growing but never-highly-paid services sector.”
Thus, rather than promising a major boom following the COVID-19 recession, “the economy may be too sideways to fully recover,” Gertler said. “We’re still 10 million down in jobs and without an immediate new stimulus.”
Shortly before the new year, Trump signed a new, $900 billion COVID-19 relief package after months of stalemate—and it came just as benefits from the previous $2 trillion plan expired at the end of the year. An extension of unemployment insurance and a moratorium on evictions and debt repayment will salve some immediate pain and put off some of the worst effects of inequality—but they won’t fix the underlying problems, especially as the pandemic-driven recession, unlike most previous downturns, left the rich unaffected.
“I am worried about the longer-term downside risk. The millions of people who have lost a whole lot of labor income—I’m not sure that they are coming into the post-pandemic world with a ton of financial resources. And I am worried their spending is not going to surge,” said Wendy Edelberg, a former chief economist at the Congressional Budget Office. “I’m worried we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of small businesses. In a typical recession, even those who keep their jobs see hits to their wealth, to long-term earnings. This recession has been unusual in that wealth has not taken a hit.”
The likeliest outcome: even greater societal polarization of the kind that led to the rise of Trump and other nationalist demagogues.
In Europe, the picture is much the same. Granted, the European Central Bank and the European Union rushed to put together a massive rescue package early on, passing a hefty new EU budget that eased the immediate economic threat and helped bridge the gap between Northern and Southern Europe. But the second wave of the pandemic, including a fresh round of lockdowns, closed businesses, and growing unemployment, spells similar problems as in the United States.
“The EU has had a rather good year compared to the U.S. Even so, the second spike of the pandemic has not been handled very well, with more unrest and resentment,” said Harold James, a political economist at Princeton University.
And that’s not even counting the almost certain disruption from Brexit. As December came to a close, the U.K. and the EU secured an eleventh-hour trade deal governing their future relationship; the pact calls for no tariffs or quotas on goods, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared it a big victory. But the long-delayed Brexit agreement, which was approved overwhelmingly by Parliament on Dec. 30, doesn’t appear to cover services such as finance, which account for the vast majority of Britain’s flagging economy and most of its trade with the EU. Nor will British citizens enjoy their previous rights to live and work in the EU. And the EU still has lingering trade and economic policy fights with Washington that won’t be solved by a magic wand from Biden.
“It would be a far cry for either the EU or the U.K. to think they have a very special relationship with Biden,” said James, who specializes in trans-Atlantic relations. Europeans who saw U.S. policy upended in its entirety in Trump’s first term now know how short-lived the promises of even a committed internationalist can be—and they have 74 million reminders of the possibility of more whiplash in the near future. And no matter how much Biden wants to court, rather than clobber, Europe when it comes to trade disputes, Brussels simply has different priorities.
“The big cross-Atlantic tensions will be competition and tech policy. The EU has a much more aggressive campaign toward [breaking up and fining] the big tech giants than the U.S. is prepared to do,” despite the recent federal lawsuits mounted against Facebook and Google, James said.
“The big cross-Atlantic tensions will be competition and tech policy. The EU has a much more aggressive campaign toward [breaking up and fining] the big tech giants than the U.S. is prepared to do.”
And there’s another scary economic legacy of the pandemic that could pose a huge challenge for Biden going forward. Months of virtual work during the pandemic have started to alter labor patterns, which will ultimately have a disproportionate impact on the already struggling working classes.
“There are going to be some significant shifts in where the jobs are,” said Edelberg, now the director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. “We’re not going to unlearn all the new ways of doing business after the pandemic. There will be a lot more remote work, a lot less business travel, and there will probably be much more automation in different sectors.”
Or as Oxford Economics wrote in another recent report: “The trauma of lockdowns may encourage firms to adopt more labor-saving technologies to limit any future disruption from social distancing.”
That includes, for example, more automatic checkout machines in stores and other retail businesses—expediting the need for millions of workers to shift into new sectors. That, in turn, will create the need for big federally funded retraining programs—just the thing that has been conspicuously missing in recent decades when both Democrats and Republicans underestimated the devastating effects of globalization and technological advances on the industrial working class.
The Biden transition team has made clear that ambitious job retraining programs, as well as a meaty infrastructure bill that could rebuild a crumbling nation and act as a fiscal stimulus, are big priorities. But the new president will have a harder time pushing through progressive tax legislation, such as his proposed new tax on the wealthy, expanded earned income tax credits, and new tax credits for health insurance, child care, elderly care, and homeownership.
With ultimate control of the Senate still uncertain, will Biden have the political heft on Capitol Hill to make all that happen? Or will political gridlock spell another lost decade of growing inequality, political polarization, and, ultimately, a renewal of Trumpism?
7 Reasons Why Silicon Valley Will Have a Tough Time With the Biden Administration
The coziness between Washington and Big Tech is over.
Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program and co-author of From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation.
Tarun Wadhwa is the founder and CEO of Day One Insights and a visiting fellow at Emory University's Department of Political Science.
So far, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden seems like business as usual for Silicon Valley. The industry’s upper class bankrolled his campaign, and several tech executives are likely to take senior positions in the incoming administration. After four unpredictable years, policy discussions are back on familiar ground—and companies are dusting off their tried-and-true lobbying techniques. But while this may look at first glance like a return to the past, it is not: The mood and context have changed utterly, and the traditionally cozy relationship between the Democratic Party and Big Tech is on the brink of turning much more contentious.
The Dec. 10 anti-trust lawsuit brought against Facebook by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the attorneys general of New York and other states is likely just the start of the long-expected crackdown on Silicon Valley, no matter which party controls the White House.
Here is why Big Tech is in for a rough time over the next four years:
1. Self-regulation has failed. One of Silicon Valley’s most valuable assets until now has been the cultural permission to try new things. The public has put up with arrogant rhetoric and a lax attitude toward the law in exchange for innovative ideas that meaningfully improved upon the status quo. But it was a Faustian bargain, with untrammeled innovation raising the specter of uncontrolled growth. When we learn about Airbnb endangering neighbors, Twitter failing to stop rampant harassment, or YouTube radicalizing its viewers with an algorithm that recommends extremist content, we see the destructive harm technology companies can do and their unwillingness to rein in their greed. The narrative has shifted from a question of whether there will be regulation at all to the fight over who should make the rules—and how tough those rules should be.
2. Trust is broken. Across the industry, the promises made by the titans are meeting skepticism. Before the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, we used to wonder when Mark Zuckerberg would run for president; now we ask in disbelief how he has kept his job as CEO of Facebook for so long. A decade of lofty rhetoric about an open and connected world now falls flat, and the public sees Facebook for what it is: a data-hungry corporation that evades accountability and keeps its users addicted to its products. Even within the company, internal surveys show barely half of its workforce thinks its products are having a positive effect on the world. Zuckerberg, who once symbolized hope for a better future, has instead become Silicon Valley’s Darth Vader. It has come to the point where the city of San Francisco, where Zuckerberg has a residence, is working to remove the Zuckerberg name from its General Hospital, citing him as a risk to public health.
We see the destructive harm technology companies can do and their unwillingness to rein in their greed.
3. The backlash is bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much these days, but they do agree that the technology industry has become too powerful. Whether it is Amazon systematically decimating main-street business, Instagram sapping the attention of the country’s youth, or Uber’s gig-economy practices taking advantage of workers, Americans sense an imbalance. Though the industry’s products remain popular with consumers, a consensus seems to be growing that concentrating so much decision-making power in the hands of a few billionaires is dangerous for society and democracy. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s call to regulate and break up Big Tech was just the opening shot; taking on these massive corporations will become a much more common exercise in economic populism.
4. Scrutiny is increasing inside Silicon Valley. Google used to promise to do no evil; now it appears to be suppressing anyone who suggests it may be doing harm. A recent controversy over the removal of Timnit Gebru, a well-known Google artificial intelligence ethics researcher, shows just how bad this has become. Gebru co-authored a paper that warned about the societal risks of using large language models, a machine-learning approach the company commonly employs, and was subsequently removed from her position in a cloud of controversy. This has caused a massive backlash within Google, leading to more than 1,400 employees signing a letter of protest and others to speak out publicly to defend her. As media become more critical, employees more informed, and members of the public less trusting, we can expect the internal backlash in Silicon Valley over discrimination, bias, and the spread of other societal ills to reach new heights.
5. The entire Democratic Party has moved to the left. Silicon Valley’s executive class includes some prominent Trump supporters—but there are few in the industry’s rank and file. The Valley’s predominantly liberal population—along with the rest of the Democratic Party—has moved to the left on key issues such as workers’ rights, wealth disparities, immigration, justice, and policing. The coziness that former President Barack Obama showed with Google and other industry giants would not be tolerated by today’s activist wing. In the Bay Area, technology companies are being pushed to take more progressive public stances on the issues that matter to their workforce, such as the recent controversy over cryptocurrency startup Coinbase’s attempts to quash discussion of discrimination and issues surrounding race. At the same time, the Trump era has led to heightened tensions, with supporters such as Peter Thiel having left the Bay Area, declaring it ideologically uninhabitable. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has amassed a record for workplace violations, union busting, and COVID-19 denial in California, has moved his residence to Texas.
6. The public has a better understanding of tech’s dark side. For a long time, the benefits offered by smartphones, slick software, and constant connection were so obvious that any costs seemed negligible in comparison. But a decade of being glued to our devices has caused many people to call into question whether this equation still holds. Though device usage has only increased, satisfaction with a digitally connected lifestyle seems to have decreased. Abstract issues such as loss of privacy and the power of network effects now feel real and personal: We’ve all seen our actions online lead to intrusive ads that follow us on Google and Facebook; we’ve all seen main-street businesses shut down through their inability to compete with e-commerce platforms’ massive logistical and economic advantages, including the tax and regulatory favors they’ve been able to buy.
Tomorrow’s rising political stars are going to make their name standing up to Big Tech.
7. The future of labor and inequality is at stake. Few issues animate the Democratic voter base as much today as keeping corporate power in check and obstructing tax avoidance by the rich. Companies such as Amazon have come to symbolize everything they were traditionally seen to stand against: poor treatment of workers, monopolistic power grabs, and a concentration of wealth that would make a robber baron blush. And these issues are being exacerbated at a much faster pace than you’d expect: Amazon’s size has exploded since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the robot technology that may soon replace the company’s workers is advancing exponentially, and Amazon is eyeing even more sectors of the economy to enter.
Tomorrow’s rising political stars are going to make their name standing up to Big Tech. The next presidential candidates won’t be people like Zuckerberg—instead, they may be drawn from the attorneys general pushing anti-trust lawsuits, senators curbing the power of social media companies, and House members interrogating tech CEOs in Congress. Long before then, the public will have become disillusioned with the tech giants’ claims about changing the world for the better—and become hostile toward the industry’s destructiveness instead.
Why Biden Needs to Confront Corruption
If the U.S. president-elect is serious about restoring the rule of law and democracy, he needs to first tackle the global menace of graft.
Alexandra Wrage is president of TRACE, founded to advance commercial transparency worldwide.
Michelle D. Gavin, a senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the senior director for Africa at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011 and the U.S. ambassador to Botswana from 2011 to 2014.
When U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January, he’ll immediately confront a dizzying array of near- and long-term crises—not least an economy in peril, an uncontrolled pandemic, and looming climate change. Despite this already crowded agenda, the Biden administration must not forget to make space for another priority: combating corruption. If Biden is serious about restoring trust in the rule of law and democracy at home and abroad, as he affirmed over the course of his campaign, tackling corruption will be essential. But doing so effectively will require honesty about the United States’ own failings and swift action to address them in the administration’s first 100 days, alongside a robust foreign-policy agenda that includes erecting new barriers to ill-gotten gains, reassuming the role of a global anti-corruption leader, and supporting those fighting for accountability in their own countries.
Of course, the United States cannot be an effective champion for the rule of law abroad without getting its own house in order. The U.S. campaign finance system is often described abroad as “legalized bribery,” and Washington’s reputation for corruption has only worsened over the past four years. In the TRACE Bribery Risk Matrix, which evaluates business bribery risk in 194 markets, the United States has fallen eight places in the rankings since last year, from 15th to 23rd. Instances of bribery and corruption across the government, including at the highest levels of the executive branch, have skyrocketed since 2016, according to TRACE Matrix data. Over that same period, public sector theft—stealing or embezzling public resources—has become more frequent, and fewer government officials are being sanctioned for their misconduct. Meanwhile, the federal government has become less inclusive of social groups in its selection of vendors—a trend that projects an image of nepotism and favoritism in Washington. These shifts have coincided with a decline in civil society participation, the TRACE Matrix shows, and a frontal assault on the media that leaves public officials subject to fewer nongovernmental checks.
All of these domestic problems must be acknowledged and addressed with transparency and accountability. Aside from the basics, such as refraining from gratuitous attacks on the press, Biden should follow through with his proposed ethics reforms for the U.S. government: stronger whistleblower protections, mandatory financial disclosures by candidates for federal office, and greater autonomy for government watchdogs.
Meanwhile, when it comes to countering corruption abroad, the Biden administration should move swiftly to address the most pressing priorities. First, it should deny corrupt foreign actors access to U.S. markets where they can launder and stow their plunder. Under current regulations, foreign kleptocrats have a suite of tools at their disposal to pump dirty money into the U.S. financial system. Behind the anonymity of easily established shell companies, they are free—in most American cities—to purchase real estate in cash with no scrutiny, visibility, or accountability. Through these loopholes, criminals can hide their wealth while damaging American communities: As their properties often sit vacant, there is less affordable housing, and nearby small businesses are starved of revenue.
The United States cannot be an effective champion for the rule of law abroad without getting its own house in order.
The Biden administration can take clear steps early on to make the U.S. financial system far less hospitable to corrupt foreign money. Before Biden even takes office, Washington will abolish shell company anonymity as part of a bipartisan reform rolled into this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, likely to become law this month. The Biden administration should build on this progress by mandating transparency and due diligence in high-dollar industries popular among kleptocrats, including real estate, private aircrafts, superyachts, luxury cars, and hedge funds.
Biden can also address corrupt foreign money in the United States at its source. He has already pledged to pursue kleptocrats abroad by continuing Obama- and Trump-era practices of using targeted sanctions, seizing stolen assets, and denying visas to warn corrupt actors and keep them accountable. But his administration should bring more transparency to these programs and supplement existing tools with innovative approaches. Several countries—including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and Singapore—legally require potential investors to explain the source of any questionable money with “unexplained wealth orders,” flipping the burden of proof. The Biden administration could ask Congress to subject foreign investors to a similar policy and embed unexplained wealth provisions in the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
Regulating U.S. advocacy institutions would create additional barriers to corrupt funds from abroad. Because nonprofit organizations with lobbying arms have no obligation to disclose foreign donors, there’s nothing stopping kleptocrats, including those with close ties to foreign governments, from covertly bankrolling nonprofits that play key roles in influencing U.S. policy. To prevent such actors from indirectly participating in U.S. policymaking, Biden should ask Congress to require all organizations with a lobbying function to publicly disclose a list of their foreign donors. He should also more consistently enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires individuals representing the interests of foreign countries to disclose both their ties to those governments and information about their related finances.
As he seeks to reset U.S. leadership on the international stage, the president-elect has an opportunity to frame anti-corruption as a global democratization, security, and human rights priority. The Summit for Democracy that the Biden team has already proposed offers an important opportunity to renew U.S. commitment to anti-corruption, anti-authoritarianism, and human rights worldwide. But the test of its efficacy will be in what comes next: It will be essential to commit to a concrete agenda, iterative meetings, and accountability for all parties to show that Washington is fully invested in fighting kleptocracy and the authoritarian regimes it fuels.
The Biden administration can’t just voice solidarity with democrats in other countries—it must actually help them in their quest for transparency and accountability.
In all this, the Biden administration can’t just voice solidarity with democrats in other countries—it must actually help them in their quest for transparency and accountability. Popular movements in favor of democratic accountability often collapse because they lack resources, organization, or access to information. Biden should therefore work with Congress to pass the remaining provisions of the bipartisan Crook Act, which would support the fight against corruption abroad by allocating resources to countries on the brink of democratic transition in order to bolster their civil society organizations and objective journalism. The proposed legislation has garnered widespread support, and some of its provisions are included in the 2021 defense bill—but important financial support measures are still outstanding. Journalists and activists have a vital role not only in uncovering misdeeds but also in demanding reliable financial information on government contracts and officials’ tax returns. The United States should endeavor to support these checks on government globally.
Additionally, bribery cases are complex and require specific legal and accounting expertise, and the United States’ allies depend on it for anti-corruption legal enforcement training. The Biden administration can support them by ramping up FBI and Justice Department personnel exchanges to provide support and training in countries that are developing anti-corruption legal investigative and enforcement programs.
Concrete action to combat corruption will be essential if the United States aims to restore its leadership and shore up global governance, and thus far the signs are encouraging that the president-elect will engage eagerly with this issue. In his victory speech on Nov. 7, Biden swore to marshal the forces of decency and fairness to guide the country out of an era of toxic politics, cynicism, and mistrust. Over the past couple years, he has written and spoken widely about the need to resist the creeping authoritarianism that’s taking root in so much of the world. Biden should know that the menace of corruption is one of the most daunting obstacles to realizing this vision—and if he acts soon, the world will see that trust and fairness have a fighting chance.
If Biden Wants Israeli-Palestinian Peace, He Must Break With the Past
The new administration should not simply undo Trump’s toxic legacy and return to the dead-end Oslo peace process. It must pressure Israel to accept the Arab Peace Initiative.
Avi Shlaim is a professor emeritus of international relations at Oxford University and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.
In 1967, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan epitomized Israeli triumphalism in the aftermath of the Six-Day War when he told Nahum Goldmann, the veteran American Zionist leader: “Our American friends offer us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, and we decline the advice.” The statement reflected the widely held belief that Israel could take U.S. support for granted.
“What would happen if ever America were to tell you: you can have the aid only if you also take the advice?” Goldmann asked him. Dayan, with resignation, answered: “Then we would have to take the advice, too.”
Here, in a nutshell, is the basic flaw in the U.S. approach to Middle East peacemaking since 1967: the unconditional nature of its economic, military, and diplomatic support for Israel. The United States has posed as an honest broker, but in practice it has acted more as Israel’s lawyer. This has made its policy for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict incoherent, contradictory, and self-defeating.
Since 1967, Washington has arrogated to itself a monopoly over the diplomacy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, marginalizing the United Nations, the European Union, the Arab League, and the Kremlin. It ultimately failed, however, because it was unable or unwilling to use its massive leverage to push Israel into a final-status agreement. Israel is the United States’ most difficult client because it is not just a foreign-policy issue, but also an issue in domestic politics.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel throughout his long political career. He has a consistent pro-Israel voting record in the Senate. Israel is “the best $3 billion investment we make,” he declared in the Senate back in 1986. “Were there not an Israel,” he added, “the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect our interests in the region.” Not only is Biden an ardent Zionist, he thinks that conditioning military aid to Israel is a “gigantic mistake” and “absolutely outrageous.”
During his eight years as U.S. vice president, Biden did much to burnish his already shining Zionist credentials. Then President Barack Obama himself saw Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory as a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace. He tried to secure a settlement freeze to give diplomacy a chance. But all his efforts, and those of then Secretary of State John Kerry, were sabotaged by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s right-wing prime minister.
Despite his sterling record of support for Israel and pride in his personal friendship with Netanyahu, Biden was not spared Israel’s standard operating procedure of biting the hand that feeds it. In 2010, just as Biden arrived in Israel, he was greeted with the announcement that the cabinet had approved a new batch of illegal settlements in the West Bank. Biden meekly put up with the calculated insult, thereby confirming the Israelis in their belief that they could continue to repay U.S. generosity with ingratitude and contempt.
In its last year in office, the Obama administration granted Israel a military aid package worth a minimum of $38 billion over 10 years. This was the biggest military aid package in history. In keeping with Biden’s precepts, no conditions were attached to the aid.
On one issue, however, in the twilight of their administration, Obama overruled his vice president: a U.N. Security Council resolution which fiercely condemned Israeli settlement expansion. The resolution was in line with U.S. foreign policy. Biden wanted to wield the U.S. veto to defeat the resolution. Obama chose to abstain and, with 14 votes in favor, the landmark Resolution 2334 was adopted.
When Biden enters the White House on Jan. 20, Israel and Palestine will be very low on his list of priorities. At some point, however, this issue will have to be addressed, if only because of its centrality in Middle East politics. His first task will be to confront the toxic legacy of Donald Trump, the most fanatically pro-Israel president in U.S. history. Toward the Middle East as a whole, Trump did not have a coherent foreign policy as much as a series of impulsive and ill-considered moves, many of which breached international legality.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, Trump was entirely consistent—in his partiality towards Israel. His foreign policy was virtually indistinguishable from the agenda of the Israeli right: recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights; moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; abolishing the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, the United States’ main channel of communication with the Palestinian Authority; cutting all U.S. funding from the U.N. agency that looks after Palestinian refugees; withdrawing crucial U.S. aid to the Palestinians; and closing down the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington.
Trump’s polarizing partisanship culminated in a plan for the future of Israel and the occupied territories, a plan he loudly trumpeted as the “deal of the century.” In substance it was not a peace plan at all but a free pass for expanding Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. It invited Israel to formally annex around 30 percent of the West Bank, including the illegal settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley, the breadbasket of the Palestinian population.
Predictably, the Palestinian Authority rejected the plan and refused to even discuss it. Netanyahu welcomed the plan but took no action to implement it because he saw no advantage in formal annexation of parts of the West Bank. He is content with the status quo, which gives Israel a free hand to continue its creeping annexation without triggering international sanctions.
It can be safely predicted that Biden will only engage in damage limitation rather than the wholesale reversal of Trump’s poisonous legacy. The president-elect promised immediate steps to restore the desperately needed economic and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. He undertook to reopen the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem but pledged not move the U.S. Embassy back to Tel Aviv. He is opposed to settlement expansion and to formal Israeli annexation of any part of the West Bank, but he still refuses to tie U.S. aid to Israel’s human rights record or adherence to international law. And he is firmly wedded to the pre-Trump policy of favoring a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In short, Biden is likely to revert to the traditional Democratic Party line of putting forward the United States as a so-called honest broker to help the two parties to reach a negotiated settlement. In practical terms, this means reviving what used to be called the “peace process” until Netanyahu derailed it in 2014, when it ceased to serve his own purpose.
But the peace process was always a charade—all process and no peace. It brought the Palestinians no nearer to attaining their goal of independence and statehood in the 27 years that have elapsed since the first Oslo Accord was signed on the White House lawn and clinched with the hesitant handshake between then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then PLO leader Yasser Arafat. What the peace process did do was to give Israel the cover it needed to continue to pursue an aggressive colonial project across the Green Line—the pre-1967 international border.
If Biden wants a real lasting peace, he must first acknowledge that the unconditional U.S. commitment to Israel with which he has been so closely associated has totally failed to achieve its stated aim of a two-state solution. Today it has become fashionable to say that the two-state solution is dead. The sheer size of the settlements on the West Bank, home to more than 650,000 Jews, rules out the possibility of a viable, territorially contiguous Palestinian state. Consequently, there is growing support on the Palestinian side, though not on the part of the Palestinian Authority, for the idea of one democratic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea with equal rights for all its citizens.
Biden would never adopt such a radical idea. If he adheres to the old idea of two states, he should at least take on board the changes that have taken place in Israel and the region in the past two or three decades. Israel has been moving steadily to the right, with alarming manifestations of jingoism and racism and an ever more strident stress on the Jewish rather than the democratic aspect of its identity. The July 2018 nation-state law effectively makes Israel an apartheid state by asserting that the Jews have a “unique” right to national self-determination in the area under its rule.
In addition to recognizing the illiberal and anti-democratic trends in Israeli politics, Biden would need to develop a genuine strategic dialogue with the Palestinians by dissociating himself from the policies of his predecessor, by acknowledging that the Palestinians have legitimate national rights and that they command overwhelming popular support across the entire Arab and Muslim world.
Changes in the regional balance of power also need to be taken into account. The principal change is that the Persian Gulf states no longer see Israel as an enemy and a threat but as a strategic ally in their conflict with Iran. A related change is the marked decline in the commitment of the Gulf states to the cause of an independent Palestinian state. In the second half of 2020, four Arab states normalized their relations with Israel within the framework of the Abraham Accords: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.
For Israel, a peace agreement with any Arab state is welcome, especially if it comes cost-free, like the past four. But the big prize is Saudi Arabia. Unlike the smaller Gulf states, Saudi Arabia has much to lose from an open betrayal of the Palestinians. It risks a backlash at home and in parts of the Islamic world. So far the kingdom has resisted U.S. pressure to give official expression to its covert intelligence and security cooperation with Israel.
It stands by its commitment to the Palestinians and to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative—which offered Israel peace and normalization with all 22 members of the Arab League as the reward for withdrawing from all occupied Arab land and agreeing to an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with a capital city in East Jerusalem. It also calls for a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem based on U.N. Resolution 194.
This was the real deal of the century. The Palestinian Authority under Arafat immediately embraced the initiative; the Israeli government under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected the initiative as a “non-starter.” The Arab League reendorsed the Arab Peace Initiative at its 2007 and 2017 summit conferences. But in 2018, Netanyahu rejected it as a basis for future negotiations with the Palestinians, and no U.S. government has ever put pressure on Israel to accept it.
If Biden wants to have a real impact, his best bet is to revive the Arab Peace Initiative and use it as the basis for U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This would entail penalties for Israeli intransigence. On the other hand, it would encourage and empower Saudi Arabia to clamber aboard the peace train. A bold U.S. lead would enjoy broad international support, including the Arab world, the Islamic world, the European Union, and most members of the United Nations.
Last but not least, it would enjoy the support of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and of the majority of American Jews. Young American Jews in particular are disenchanted with Israel for its colonialism, systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights, and habitual violations of international law. Only a minority of American Jews still subscribe to the traditional policy, represented by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, of blind support for Israel.
If Biden chooses to assume the mantle of a peacemaker, he would first have to free U.S. foreign policy from the dead hand of the Israeli government and its acolytes in the United States and have the political courage to follow Goldmann’s suggestion: to make U.S. aid conditional on heeding U.S. advice. Like any other politician, the president-elect is free to repeat the mistakes of the past. But it is not mandatory to do so.
Palestinians Place Their Bets on Biden Undoing Trump’s Snubs
The shifting ground in the Middle East is creating new options for breaking the stalemate.
Jonathan H. Ferziger is a Jerusalem-based non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Middle East correspondent for Bloomberg News.
Palestinians are eager to see U.S. President-elect Joe Biden take office in January, not for what he may do but what they hope he will undo. After four years in which outgoing President Donald Trump shut the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to refugees, recognized a divided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and told Israeli settlers that they deserve a third of the West Bank, expectations are low.
Forget about grand gestures like former President Barack Obama’s 2009 historic speech in Cairo to strike a “new beginning” with the Muslim world, which was followed by years of fruitlessly prodding Israelis and Palestinians to embrace a two-state solution. You won’t see Biden shuttling between Riyadh and Jerusalem as Trump did in 2017 to boast about his unique abilities to engineer an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
What Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can hope for from the incoming Democratic administration is a will to restore balance. While Trump took his Middle East policy straight from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing playbook, he mostly ignored the 85-year-old Palestinian leader, who became persona non grata at the White House. Abbas recognizes that trying to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians is not an immediate priority for Biden, who will focus in his first year on U.S. domestic issues—above all, how to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and recharge the economy.
In foreign policy, Biden’s intention to reenter the Iran nuclear deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—for stopping Iran from producing nuclear weapons, which Trump exited, will take precedence, along with addressing threats from China and Russia.
In a sign that he wants to move forward, Abbas has tempered his objections to the new Arab-Israeli peace agreements.
Prospects for making progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front are considered remote to nonexistent in 2021, especially since the lead characters haven’t changed since Obama left office. Netanyahu and Abbas detest each other, and the Trump administration’s uninhibited swing in Israel’s favor only deepened their mutual distrust. “I don’t think Palestinians are going to have a problem with the new U.S. administration as much as they’re going to have a problem with Netanyahu,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University.
But the ground has been shifting in the Middle East, creating new options for breaking what looks like a hardened stalemate. When the time comes to push further and actually try to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Biden may be able to capitalize on the new willingness of Arab countries to engage with Israel, as demonstrated by the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords that have normalized the country’s relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Though Abbas is deeply wary of the UAE, which harbors his bitter Palestinian rival, Mohammed Dahlan, he may be more willing to respond to involvement by Saudi Arabia, which has facilitated Gulf-Israel rapprochement and has its own growing ties with Israel but has resisted signing its own normalization pact.
The list of actions that Palestinians want Biden to undo is led by Trump’s cutoff in U.S. money going to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which takes care of some 1.4 million poverty-stricken Palestinians living in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their plight has been exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19 on the Palestinian economy, which is projected to have contracted 8 percent in 2020.
Also up for reversal is the Trump administration policy that settlements are “not inconsistent with international law” and goods produced in them can be labeled as being made in Israel. The European Union requires that wine, dates, and other exports from settlements indicate that they were made in occupied territory by listing their origin as the West Bank or Golan Heights.
Besides asking that the shuttered PLO office in Washington be allowed to operate and fly its flag again, Abbas also wants Biden to reopen the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem, which historically kept Palestinian affairs separate from the U.S. Embassy, whose priority was dealing with Israel. On the other hand, Palestinians recognize that Biden will probably not reverse the decision Trump took in 2018 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and transfer the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv, a move long authorized by Congress.
While Palestinians are trying to keep their expectations low, Abbas reacted quickly to Biden’s election victory in November by sending signals he was ready to engage again with Israel. The Palestinian leader restored coordination between his West Bank security forces and Israel’s military administration, which had been suspended since May. He also renewed the arrangement by which Israel collects import and export duties at its ports on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
In another sign that he wants to move forward, Abbas also tempered his objections to the series of normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states. Having accused the UAE of backstabbing the Palestinians when that country’s peace deal with Israel was announced in August, the Palestinian leader issued no such public objection when Morocco agreed to a similar pact in December.
Netanyahu, who has a personal relationship with Biden stretching back more than 30 years, is also shifting gears to prepare for the change in Washington and making low-key efforts to reach out to Democrats. At the same time, the Israeli leader will inevitably clash with the new administration as he tries to retain the support of West Bank settlers in national elections likely to take place in March. Netanyahu has also warned against Washington restoring the Iran nuclear agreement, reviving memories of his public alignment with U.S. Republicans and his protocol-breaching denunciation of Obama’s support for the pact before a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2015.
For now, however, even the Biden team has very low expectations for breaking the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. A peek into the incoming administration’s developing policy is available in a detailed report—clearly counseling a go-slow approach—that was published by the Center for a New American Security on Dec. 16. The co-authors include former Obama administration officials Ilan Goldenberg and Tamara Cofman Wittes, along with Michael Koplow from the left-leaning Israel Policy Forum. “Donald Trump’s administration has fundamentally undercut the U.S. role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking by taking a one-sided approach,” the authors write in the 69-page report. “But U.S. policy in the pre-Trump era, under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, also failed to produce lasting peace, and a simple return to those policies will not succeed.”
For all the skepticism, there are new ideas for building on the changes happening in the Middle East in ways that benefit the Palestinians.
As Biden assembles his Middle East team, he will try to learn from errors of the past. No one stands for those mistakes more than John Kerry, the former U.S. secretary of state whom Biden has designated as his climate envoy. Kerry’s approach has been lampooned through circulation of a 2016 video clip where Kerry insists that “there will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world” before an agreement is reached with the Palestinians. “Everybody needs to understand that,” Kerry said with an air of authority that makes him look especially clueless now that four additional Arab states have made peace with Israel. The episode underlines the Biden team’s desire to avoid going back to old routines. “It would be better not to fail all over again,” said David Pollock, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former State Department official who tracks Palestinian public opinion.
But for all the skepticism, there are new ideas for building on the changes happening in the Middle East in ways that benefit the Palestinians. Among the opportunities explored in the Trump era that might have special appeal for Biden is a plan to knit the region together by rail. Famous for commuting daily on Amtrak between his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and his Senate office in Washington, Biden could probably get behind the plan to connect Israel’s Mediterranean port city of Haifa with the Saudi harbor of Dammam on the Persian Gulf. The 1,100-mile route would traverse Jordan and include a stop in the Galilee serving Palestinians in the West Bank.
Biden may not be flying anytime soon between Riyadh and Jerusalem, but what a tableau it would make to see the U.S. president riding alongside Netanyahu and Abbas on a glorious railroad trip through the new Middle East.
Progressives Try to Sway Biden on Top Foreign-Policy Jobs
A gaggle of progressive groups are trying to line up candidates for top foreign-policy roles in the incoming administration.
More than a dozen progressive groups are calling on incoming President-elect Joe Biden to staff top foreign-policy jobs in his incoming administration with candidates seen as anti-war and not tied to Washington lobbying, after some of his picks raised eyebrows due to perceived establishment ties.
While progressives, some lacking foreign-policy experience to compete with centrists in the Democratic Party for top administration jobs, aren’t being considered for many leading cabinet roles, left-leaning groups are hoping to put down roots at lower levels. In a request sent to the Biden transition team today, progressives identified more than 100 candidates to fill jobs in the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council—the majority of whom are women and people of color.
Progressive groups have largely cooperated with the Biden transition so far, only staunchly opposing former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell in his bid for the top job at the agency, and raising concerns about Michèle Flournoy—a one-time candidate for defense secretary—and her ties to the defense industry. But the continued push to place their own candidates in top jobs could cause tension with the president-elect, who has mostly opted to place longtime allies like Lloyd Austin, Antony Blinken, and Jake Sullivan into top national security positions.
The cadre of progressive contenders is led by Matt Duss, a longtime foreign-policy advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders, a key behind-the-scenes operator who helped mount a congressional challenge to outgoing President Donald Trump’s war powers related to the Saudi-led fighting in Yemen. Duss is being considered for a role as deputy national security advisor or as a special advisor to the secretary of state. Trump vetoed the war powers bill that passed both houses of Congress earlier this year, but the issue became a calling card for progressives over the past four years, a time in which Duss also made a name for himself as an outspoken critic of U.S. policy toward Israel. Biden reportedly plans to continue with Trump’s push for so-called Abraham accords between Israel and Arab nations, an issue that could be a point of contention with progressives such as Duss.
Another leading candidate is Trita Parsi, the Iranian-born co-founder of the anti-war Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft think tank in Washington. Progressives want Biden to consider him for senior director for Middle East Affairs on the National Security Council. Parsi had called for the United States to engage diplomatically with Iran before negotiations began on the 2015 nuclear deal that the Trump administration later abandoned. Parsi’s Quincy Institute has called for the United States to shrink its military commitments around the world.
Dozens of organizations, including the Quincy Institute and the MoveOn advocacy group added names to the list. The effort was coordinated by Yasmine Taeb, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, and Common Defense, a veteran-led grassroots organization opposing Trump, and the Progressive Change Institute. In particular, the CIP has pushed for senators not to confirm cabinet picks with corporate ties, a move that is now backed by Rep. Raul Grijalva on Capitol Hill. The effort to land subcabinet-level picks is an outgrowth of a call earlier this month led by many of the same groups to find suitable candidates. A similar cluster of progressive groups also called for Biden to move his foreign-policy agenda to the left after he emerged as the Democratic nominee this summer, including requests to slash the defense budget and re-engage diplomatically with Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea.
Among the other names floated by the groups include Alison Friedman, who fought human trafficking during the Obama administration, to be the State Department’s Senate-confirmed undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights. That’s a broad portfolio that could allow progressives to scrutinize U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as relationships with foreign autocrats such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that have grown closer under Trump. The groups have also flagged Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America’s top policy official, to be a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and Mike Darner, who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as a senior White House policy advisor. Also being recommended is Elisa Massimino, a chair in human rights at Georgetown University Law Center, as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, and Kate Gould, a senior staffer for Rep. Ro Khanna, another architect of war-powers legislation in Congress, to serve as a senior policy advisor at the United States Mission to the United Nations, which Biden has tapped Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman, to lead.
The groups are also hoping to to bring foreign-policy voices cast out during the Trump administration into the Biden team, including Susan Thornton, a career diplomat who led the State Department’s Asia bureau on an acting basis until mid-2018, but faced pushback against her nomination for the full-time role from inside the White House and on Capitol Hill over concerns she wasn’t hawkish enough on China. Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a career civil servant removed by then-director of Policy Planning Brian Hook in 2017 after asking top Trump officials to help defend her from attacks in conservative media, is also being flagged for a role by progressives.
Progressives are hoping the Biden administration will bring back Obama-era veterans to high-level roles, such as Robert Malley, a former top National Security Council official for the Middle East and advisor to Sanders who is reportedly in the mix for a top Iran-focused job; Jarrett Blanc, a deputy lead coordinator to implement the Iran nuclear deal under Obama; and Patrick Gaspard, a former ambassador to South Africa. Sasha Baker, a top advisor to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Keane Bhatt, the current communications director for Sanders, are also being touted for top jobs.
The progressives’ campaign has intensified in part due to perceived corporate ties among many Biden picks, such as Blinken, the secretary of state-designate. A longtime Biden acolyte, he co-founded WestExec Advisors with Flournoy, which has not publicly revealed its client lists inside the government, something that progressives have worried could raise conflicts of interest. Austin, a retired Army general, who would become the first Black defense secretary if confirmed, sits on the board of Raytheon Technologies, which designs many of the smart bombs used by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and is also tied to Nucor, an American steel corporation.
Update, Dec. 18, 2020: This article was updated to provide more information about candidates to serve in the upcoming administration.
Biden Shouldn’t Rush to Restore the Iran Nuclear Deal
Moving quickly to resurrect the JCPOA, as Biden seems set to do, would start his presidency with a hugely divisive controversy.
John Hannah is a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.
It’s now clear that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is determined to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—as soon as possible after his Jan. 20 inauguration. Both Biden and his designated national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, have given recent interviews in which they underscore their intent to make Tehran a straightforward offer: If Iran comes back into compliance with the deal, the United States will do likewise. Iran would bring its nuclear activities back within the JCPOA’s limits, while the United States would ease sanctions imposed since outgoing President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018.
Rushing to restore the Iran deal virtually guarantees that Biden will start his presidency with a hugely divisive controversy. Such a step flies in the face of advice from JCPOA skeptics, who have urged Biden not to rush back into the deal. Rather than squander the leverage built up by Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign for no higher purpose than restoring a flawed arms-control agreement, Biden should exploit that leverage (and Iran’s desperate economic straits) to negotiate a better deal. Such a revised deal would delay or even remove the JCPOA’s sunset clauses—which provide for restrictions on nuclear activities to eventually be lifted. Or better yet, ban entirely Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts. Or better still, include constraints on Iran’s most threatening non-nuclear activities, especially its missile programs and regional aggression.
Biden and his team have yet to be convinced. While agreeing on the importance of a JCPOA 2.0—a follow-on agreement in which the constraints on Iran’s malign behaviors are both longer and stronger— they don’t see pursing it as a viable short-term strategy. On the contrary, they clearly fear that a failure to restore the original JCPOA is the surest route not to a better deal, but to a dangerous expansion of the Iranian nuclear program, an escalation of regional tensions, and perhaps even war.
Whatever benefits Biden might see in buckling to Iran’s extortion, the risks and potential costs should also be apparent.
Needless to say, an all-consuming crisis over Iran’s nuclear program has no place in Biden’s agenda, which he has promised will be intently focused on tackling the daunting array of challenges now confronting the American people—from the devastation wrought by COVID-19 to racial inequality, climate change, and competition with China.
That explains the allure of a rapid return to the JCPOA that promises some measure of de-escalation by reversing Iran’s recent nuclear expansion and, in Sullivan’s words, “put its program back in a box” and “time back on the clock.” Biden, similarly, told the New York Times that his overwhelming priority with Iran—and “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region”—was to bring its nuclear program back under control. Once that was done, Biden said, “in consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.”
Concerns about the current trajectory of Iran’s nuclear progress are well founded. “We’re in a dangerous situation,” Sullivan told the Wall Street Journal. “Since the United States left [the JCPOA], Iran has moved closer to a nuclear weapon.” That includes expanding its uranium stockpile, enriching to higher levels of purity, and testing more powerful centrifuges. And just two weeks ago, Iran’s parliament dramatically raised the stakes, passing a law that would require the government—within Biden’s first weeks in office should sanctions relief not be forthcoming—to embark upon its most far-reaching violations of the JCPOA yet, including deploying thousands of advanced centrifuges, building a stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, and placing major constraints on inspectors. All in all, it’s an exquisite act of nuclear blackmail designed to send an unmistakable message to Biden: Either lift sanctions or face a nuclear crisis that could derail your presidency almost before it starts.
Whatever benefits Biden might see in buckling to Iran’s extortion, the risks and potential costs should also be apparent. The U.S. domestic backlash is certain to be fierce—from the majority of Republicans, for sure, and perhaps even a few prominent Democrats. It’s worth recalling that the top two Democrats on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin, not to mention Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, all opposed the JCPOA in 2015. That fight was one of the most bitter of President Barack Obama’s tenure and there’s no reason to believe that a second round would be any easier. Biden has suggested that his presidency’s north star will be rebuilding bipartisan consensus to address the country’s most urgent problems. Opting for a bruising battle over granting an economic lifeline to Iran’s terror-sponsoring regime has all the markings of a poison pill that could derail that agenda.
Biden’s difficulties will be further exacerbated by the international reaction. Whatever chits he earns with pro-JCPOA Europeans will be offset by the opposition triggered among Washington’s most consequential allies in the Middle East. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood alone railing against the deal five years ago, he’s likely to have significant company this time around, particularly from U.S. partners in the Gulf. Things could get ugly quickly, with charges of betrayal flying fast and furious. Biden’s bid to restore U.S. credibility internationally could take a substantial beating.
It could be that the Iranians are only bluffing and that their escalation options are in fact heavily constrained.
Then there are the substantive risks associated with rejoining the JCPOA. Far and away the most important is the preemptive surrender of pressure on Iran before any of the original agreement’s flaws are addressed. Once Iran is free to sell its oil and gain access to billions of dollars, what leverage will Biden have to force Tehran into the follow-on diplomacy that he claims is essential? Liberated from the threat of economic collapse, what incentive would Iran have to make further painful concessions on issues such as its missile programs, which it views as central to its security?
Biden and his advisors suggest that if Iran resists negotiations, they’d be prepared to reimpose sanctions using the JCPOA’s so-called snapback mechanism. But under the deal’s terms, snapback is limited to instances where Iran is in significant non-performance of its nuclear commitments. It says nothing about any subsequent Iranian obligation to negotiate an extension of the JCPOA’s sunsets, much less agree to limits on its non-nuclear activities. Assuming that Iran returns to and stays in JCPOA compliance, what exactly would Biden’s grounds be for triggering snapback? He and other critics lambasted Trump for leaving the JCPOA at a time when Iran was, according to inspectors, abiding by its terms. How credible is it that Biden would now choose to blow up the agreement for reasons totally outside its terms?
Biden would be smart to task the intelligence community with providing, by Jan. 20, a National Intelligence Estimate that rigorously tests the key assumption underlying any decision to rejoin the JCPOA: that otherwise Iran will dramatically escalate its nuclear program and war will become more likely. Or could Elliott Abrams, Trump’s special envoy for Iran, be right instead when he argues that maximum pressure has made the Iranian regime so vulnerable that it will soon have no choice but to sue for economic relief on U.S. terms?
Others, such as the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, have suggested that the Biden team’s worries about Iranian nuclear blackmail are overblown. It could be that the Iranians are only bluffing and that their escalation options are in fact heavily constrained—not only by their desperation to see sanctions lifted, but more importantly by their understanding that if they push too far, they will face the implacable determination of an Israel that has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s progress toward a bomb.
Biden’s hand would be stronger if the U.S. assessment incorporated the views of Washington’s most capable intelligence allies.
A National Intelligence Estimate could shed important light on these competing claims and scenarios and help inform what is likely to be one of the most fateful choices of Biden’s presidency. Should the assessment end up supporting his instinct to rejoin the JCPOA, it could also serve as important ammunition in his efforts to manage domestic opposition and fretful friends in the Middle East. Biden’s hand would be stronger still if the U.S. assessment incorporated the views of Washington’s most capable intelligence allies, especially Israel and Britain.
In addition to an intelligence assessment that buttresses his position, Biden would be wise to couple any return to the JCPOA with something approaching a guarantee that would commit to triggering the snapback of sanctions automatically if, within a proscribed time period such as one year, Iran is not engaged in serious follow-on negotiations on the full range of U.S. concerns. It would be better still if Biden’s new snapback guarantee has the upfront backing of Washington’s key European partners. It would also be smart to include a bipartisan delegation from Congress in any follow-on diplomacy that could monitor progress and act as a check on any administration tendency to prevaricate or avoid hard decisions.
None of these measures will prevent the firestorm that surely awaits any attempt to restore the deeply flawed JCPOA. But they might help mitigate at least some of the costs that such a course will inevitably incur. Most importantly, Biden needs to have subjected his own policy biases to rigorous challenge and competing arguments that leave him convinced that, despite all the downsides, the game is truly worth the candle in terms of U.S. vital interests. Otherwise, he may be—to paraphrase scripture—left to wonder: “What does it profit a man if he gains the JCPOA but loses his presidency?”
Biden Must Reverse Course on Western Sahara
Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty dangerously undermines decades of carefully crafted U.S. policy.
John Bolton served as U.S. national security advisor from April 2018 to September 2019, and was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in 2005-2006. He is the author of The Room Where It Happened.
Outgoing President Donald Trump’s Dec. 11 proclamation that the United States would recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara marked yet another low for his administration. In an unrelated deal to facilitate the exchange of diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco, Trump’s decision to throw the Sahrawi people under the bus ditches three decades of U.S. support for their self-determination via a referendum of the Sahrawi people on the territory’s future status.
Republican Sen. James Inhofe was exactly right when he said in a Senate floor speech on Dec. 10 that Trump “could have made this deal without trading away the rights of this voiceless people.” Inhofe is one of the few U.S. experts on Western Sahara, built up through years of service on both the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Armed Services, which he now chairs. I have worked frequently with Inhofe on the Western Sahara issue over the years, dating back to my own initial involvement as assistant secretary of state for international organizations during the George H.W. Bush administration.
Warm but unofficial relations between Israel and Morocco are nothing new. Morocco has long considered recognizing Israel, and King Hassan II aggressively pursued that option during the 1990s, as did other Arab nations. Secret Israeli-Moroccan contacts have been commonplace since. Today, full relations are thus neither new nor difficult to achieve. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have recently taken the plunge, and more could follow. But what Morocco has actually agreed to remains unclear; Rabat denies it will open anything more than a “liaison office” in Israel (which it did in the 1990s), or that its deal actually involves full diplomatic relations.
In making his rash decision, Trump consulted neither the Polisario Front—which has long represented the Sahrawis—nor Algeria and Mauritania, the most concerned neighboring countries, nor anyone else. This is what happens when dilettantes handle U.S. diplomacy, and it is sadly typical of Trump’s nakedly transactional approach during his tenure. To him, everything is a potential deal, viewed in very narrow terms through the attention span of a fruit fly. Fully weighing all the merits and equities involved in complex international scenarios is not his style. Historical background and future ramifications? Those are for losers. Fortunately, Trump made no nuclear deal with North Korea or Iran; one can only imagine what he might have given away.
His casual approach to notching one more ostensible international victory raises significant problems of stability across the Maghreb. And crossing Inhofe, reelected last month to another six-year Senate term, was a major political mistake. Trump knows exactly how Inhofe feels about the Western Sahara; I was there in the Oval Office on May 1, 2019, when the Oklahoma senator explained his support for a referendum. Trump said he had never heard of Western Sahara, and Inhofe replied, “Oh, we spoke before, but you weren’t listening.”
The Washington Post reports that in recent weeks, Trump became irate that Inhofe would not accede to nongermane amendments that the president wanted in the annual defense authorization bill, such as repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields social media platforms from liability for what they publish. Trump’s advisors reportedly persuaded the president to stiff Inhofe on the Western Sahara in retaliation. But this standoff is far from over. Inhofe is a determined Sahrawi proponent, and, from his powerful position as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he will make the argument to reverse Trump’s decision directly to Biden if need be.
Where, then, does Trump’s reckless and unnecessary move leave President-elect Joe Biden and the foreign governments most directly interested in the Western Sahara?
The answer begins with the obvious—the very name of the U.N. peacekeeping operation authorized by Resolution 690 of 1991 was “Mission of the United Nations for the Referendum in Western Sahara” (MINURSO being the Spanish acronym). When Spain’s colonial rule collapsed with Francisco Franco’s 1975 death, and after an initial conflict between Mauritania and Morocco, the Polisario-Moroccan military hostilities left the territory partitioned and its status unresolved. The Polisario’s fundamental choice in 1991 was to suspend its ongoing confrontation with Morocco in exchange for a referendum, in which the choice would be between independence or unification with Morocco.
King Hassan II fully understood that this deal was, in Resolution 690’s express terms, “a referendum for self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.” The choice, stated in the first paragraph of the U.N. Secretary General’s report approved by Resolution 690, was “to choose between independence and integration with Morocco.” The 1997 Houston Accords, negotiated under James Baker’s auspices as the Secretary General’s personal envoy, reinforced that understanding. (At the time, I worked for Baker at the U.S. State Department, and I later assisted him in his work as the U.N. envoy.)
Nonetheless, Morocco has spent nearly three decades preventing the referendum from taking place. Together with France and other Security Council allies, it has tried, unfortunately with some success, to blur Resolution 690’s referendum commitment. Rabat has offered a variety of so-called autonomy proposals, not one of which has ever come close to being acceptable to the Polisario, proposing a referendum on incorporation versus “autonomy.” To the Sahrawi, this is a take it or leave it proposition, and has therefore always been unacceptable. From Morocco’s perspective, this kind of so-called peace process could go on forever: Rabat not only controls the vast bulk of the Western Sahara’s territory militarily, but, through successive waves of settlement from Morocco proper, is trying to overwhelm the ethnic Sahrawi population. Secretary General António Guterres’s statement following Trump’s announcement, for example, called for preserving the 1991 cease-fire, but spoke only about a “resumption of the peace process.”
If Morocco won’t accept a referendum, it doesn’t deserve a cease-fire or a false “peace process.”
This is a pathetic—and authoritative—admission of 30 years of U.N. failure. The Polisario did not abandon its war against Morocco for a “peace process,” but for a referendum. One obvious option, therefore, is to terminate MINURSO, and return to the status quo ante of open hostilities. With the original deal broken, and Morocco for three decades evincing no intention of accepting a referendum, why keep a U.N. peacekeeping operation on perpetual life support? If Morocco won’t accept a referendum, it doesn’t deserve a cease-fire or a false “peace process.”
In fact, a major cease-fire violation occurred last month, so serious that many believed full military hostilities might resume. For now, there is no way to tell whether this is likely, or what the outcome might be. But make no mistake, the Polisario is at a crucial juncture. It would be fully justified if it chooses to return to the battlefield, but much depends on the positions of Algeria, Mauritania, and others—and what resources are available.
For the Polisario, Trump’s about-face is more than disappointing. It broke a U.S. commitment that once looked rock-solid, and which I tried to defend and advance during my time as national security advisor—often in the face of the State Department’s determination to find a way to solidify Moroccan control of Western Sahara.
Unfortunately, the Sahrawis are not the first during Trump’s tenure to experience an assault on one U.S. undertaking after another, imperiling even long-standing formal U.S. alliances like NATO. It is perfectly appropriate for a nation to modify its responsibilities in light of changed national-security circumstances, but it is quite another to gratuitously destroy a commitment, with no consultation, just to make a so-called deal in a completely separate context. Fortunately, Trump’s time is all but over.
From the perspective of U.S. policy, the best outcome would be for Biden, once inaugurated, to reverse Trump’s acquiescence to Moroccan sovereignty. This will not be easy, given the expectations—misguided though they are—already built up in Rabat and Jerusalem. If Biden wants to do a 180-degree turn, he should do so immediately on taking office, which would minimize any damage.
There are other obstacles. Ironically, Trump’s insouciance gave the State Department bureaucracy exactly what it has wanted since Resolution 690 first encountered stiff Moroccan resistance within months of its adoption nearly three decades ago. Rabat had argued that losing the Western Sahara referendum would destabilize its monarchy, and the State Department’s bureaucrats lapped it up. In fact, the referendum’s outcome would almost certainly depend on who constitutes the voting-eligible population, yet another issue Morocco has contested despite its earlier commitment to the 1975 Spanish census defining the universe of eligible voters—an era before Morocco sought to engineer the territory’s demographics in its favor. Notwithstanding substantial Moroccan transfers of population into Western Sahara, and the supposed benefits of its rule, Rabat and the U.S. State Department both fear they haven’t done enough to achieve the result they want.
Morocco is no longer really concerned about its monarchy’s stability being undermined by formal diplomatic ties with Israel than are Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, or other Gulf Arab states yet to come around. What is really behind Morocco’s argument is that Rabat has come to believe its own propaganda, rather than its underlying reason for the occupation—which is that it wants control over possible substantial mineral resources buried under all that Saharan sand, fishing assets, and possible resort development opportunities for tourists.
Biden, of course, will have a few other things on his mind on Jan. 20 apart from Western Sahara. While Biden and his advisors formulate their own policy, they can lay down a marker that Trump’s about-face is under review, insisting in the meantime that a referendum is still a prerequisite before the United States will consider the Western Sahara issue resolved. There should be no outcome acceptable to Washington that is not approved by the Sahrawis in an internationally conducted, free, and fair vote—with a yes-or-no choice on full independence on the ballot. Morocco may gag at this option, but it has little choice but to accept it if the United States insists on it.
For Algeria, Mauritania, Israel, and European leaders, there is not much to lose if Biden reverses Trump’s misguided move. It will be a welcome relief that the prospect of conflict with Morocco has been at least postponed. These states should all insist that the Western Sahara’s future should not be shuffled aside, a development that only benefits Morocco, given its de facto control over the bulk of the territory.
Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have already freed Israel from the formal diplomatic isolation it faced for many years. Whatever Morocco does in response to a new Biden policy that reaffirms Western Sahara’s status quo will affect Israel only slightly. And graciously accepting what a new Biden administration says about the territory may well be in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s interest. In this way he could, at essentially no cost to Israel—for which the Western Sahara is a non-issue—add to his political capital with Biden for issues that really matter, like taking on the threat posed by Iran.
The European Union—especially Spain, the former colonial power, where support for the Sahrawi remains quite strong; and France, Morocco’s protector—could summon up a few words about self-determination to help move the process along. If they choose not to say anything, they should remain silent bystanders and avoid compounding Trump’s mistake.
A post-inauguration bipartisan agreement between Biden and Inhofe could repair the disarray caused by Trump’s gratuitous grandstanding. Such a deal would mark a welcome change from the past four years of chaos and division, and a return to pursuing U.S. national interests rather than those of Donald Trump.
Blinken Is Good Enough
What it takes to make a truly great secretary of state—and why the United States may not need one now.
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.
Richard Sokolsky is currently a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III, a recent book from journalists Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, isn’t just a terrific read; it couldn’t be more relevant or timely. The book portrays a time—and a Washington—when political compromise and deal-making between Republicans and Democrats was not just possible, but desirable. Against that background, it also tells the story of a great secretary of state presiding over the last time the United States was respected, admired, and even feared in the world.
That world is gone. Whether it can come back—whether a Baker or a Henry Kissinger like-figure will ever walk the corridors of Foggy Bottom—is unlikely. But the answer may not matter, or at least not matter as much as many people think. As President-elect Joe Biden and Antony Blinken, his pick for secretary of state, gear up to operate in the cruel and unforgiving world they’ll inherit, it is worth reminding oneself what makes a great secretary of state, and perhaps why—paradoxically and fortuitously—these challenging times may not require a Baker or a Kissinger to do great things. Instead, a chief diplomat who is talented and committed to helping America get its diplomatic groove back may be all the country needs.
The abysmal tenure of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has cast in bold relief the gap between the best and the worst. In the past half century, two secretaries of state stand at the top. Three essential elements defined their excellence.
First, both Kissinger and Baker not only had the respect and confidence of their presidents; their bosses knew foreign policy and could direct and validate strategy and command respect themselves. Baker’s lifelong friendship with President George H.W. Bush was closer than any pairing in history. Indeed, when one of us interviewed the late president in 2006, he made clear that choosing Baker, whom he described as a “tough trader,” was like a “gimme” in golf—the right decision that was just taken for granted. Kissinger’s relationship with President Richard Nixon was more complex and competitive. But he gave Kissinger enormous authority; indeed, in the wake of Watergate, especially during the post-1973 era of Middle East shuttle diplomacy, Kissinger was effectively running U.S. foreign policy with Nixon’s blessing. That ensured that the United States was not seen as weakened by domestic scandal. For America’s allies and adversaries alike, it takes about five minutes to figure out if there’s daylight between the president and the secretary of state—that is, whether the secretary of state is speaking authoritatively for the president. If there is even a glimmer, one might as well hang a “closed for the season” sign at Foggy Bottom.
Second, the nation’s top diplomat needs to have the mindset and skillset of a negotiator. Kissinger and Baker saw how the pieces fit together and had an intuitive sense of how to cajole, persuade, and flatter. They were both adept at understanding the positions of their negotiating partners and grasping their political needs, vulnerabilities, and the vital interests of their countries; equally important, they realized that negotiations succeed when both sides were convinced they’d won. Effective secretaries of state cannot be ideologues whose view of a negotiation is “my way or else.”
Once Kissinger and Baker sensed that a deal was possible, their tenacity in going after it became the stuff of legend. Baker made nine trips to put together the Madrid Peace Conference; Kissinger conducted 30-plus days of shuttle talks to conclude the 1974 Israeli-Syrian Agreement on Disengagement. They also understood when to walk away, as Baker demonstrated when he slammed his notebook shut and threatened to leave in the middle of a meeting with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad; or in 1975, when Kissinger threatened to reassess relations with Israel to wheedle Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to an agreement.
Third, and there’s no other way to say it, Kissinger and Baker were also lucky. No matter how formidable their diplomatic skills, without some major crisis or opportunity they could not have succeeded. Call it fortune. Egypt’s attack on Israel in 1973 offered Kissinger his Middle East moment; Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 provided Bush and Baker with their opportunity to organize the Madrid Summit to advance the cause of Middle East peace. The collapse of the former Soviet Union that same year facilitated Baker’s success in managing German reunification without a crisis. The point is, though, when their moments came, they knew how to exploit the opportunity.
When the two of us worked in the State Department’s Policy Planning Office for George P. Shultz, who also belongs in the top ranks of secretaries of state, he would often liken his role to “tending the diplomatic garden.” He used this metaphor to describe the tireless and sometimes thankless (or fruitless) effort to cultivate productive relationships with foreign countries to advance U.S. interests. Like Kissinger and Baker, Shultz understood that effective diplomacy depends on forging trust, building up negotiating capital with foreign leaders, knowing when and how to use leverage, and understanding how culture, history, geography, ideology, and national narratives drive leaders’ ambitions.
As he prepares to join the Biden administration, Blinken will need to tend a lot of gardens simultaneously to achieve job number one: keeping the United States out of trouble abroad so that the new president can focus all his time, energy, and political capital on fixing America’s problems at home. For this overriding mission, the new secretary of state does not need to be a brilliant strategist or conceptualizer—or have the stature, gravitas, or charisma of a Kissinger or a Baker. He needs to be highly competent, understand the deliberative process, have the experience to navigate Washington and the world, and reflect the president’s deep commitment to restoring America’s standing abroad.
The good news on that front is that Blinken possesses many of those qualities—as well as traits his predecessor, Pompeo, lacked. He’s got a pragmatic and prudent streak and good interpersonal and consensus-building skills. Those will help him keep problems off Biden’s plate and avoid the pitfall of issuing diktats to the other side and then refusing to negotiate and compromise when your counterpart, understandably, refuses to submit to your ultimatums. In other words, Blinken will not be an “our way or the highway” negotiator like Pompeo was—and he will know when the perfect outcome should not be the enemy of a good enough one.
It might appear like bad news for Blinken, though, that a tour of the horizon suggests precious few opportunities for heroic diplomacy and transformational outcomes. The problems that divide the United States from China and Russia are too deep seated to be resolved through quick resets or grand bargains. They can only be managed through a framework, as scholar Robert Manning recently argued in these pages, of “competitive coexistence” to avoid the worst outcomes that would distract from Biden’s domestic priorities. Making progress on global warming and pandemic response will require deft diplomatic footwork, but former Secretary of State John Kerry, the new climate czar, will own the climate change portfolio and other agencies will play the leading role in improving international cooperation on global health. A quick breakthrough in U.S.-North Korean relations is highly unlikely; at best, he can hope to start the process of building mutual trust to lay a longer-term foundation for agreements on arms control and measures to enhance security on the Korean Peninsula.
So what does that leave for Blinken? The State Department has been hollowed out and morale has tanked. As a former deputy secretary of state, he is the right person to begin the monumental task of rebuilding and reforming the institution. He will need to hit the road right way to begin mending diplomatic fences and he will be bombarded with requests to travel. But rather than go on a globe-girdling listening tour to show that “America is back,” he should focus his trips on the most significant relationships in Europe and the Asia Pacific that need care while delegating other foreign travels to subordinates. The new secretary of state will almost certainly achieve considerable success on the important goal of rebuilding and maintaining America’s alliance relationships and refurbishing trust in the United States and its image abroad, through such actions as rejoining Paris Accord and the World Health Organization, and deepening ties with our NATO allies, Japan, and South Korea.
Truly consequential secretaries of state, of course, take ownership of significant foreign-policy issues and make them better. Reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran, while extremely complicated and politically fraught, may offer such an opportunity: There is an existing framework that can provide a basis for a new nuclear deal. The sanctions the United States and others have imposed on Iran provide some negotiating leverage if there are follow-on negotiations on other issues. And there will be a deep bench of experience and expertise to help Blinken navigate the treacherous shoals of a multi-dimensional game of diplomatic and geopolitical chess that will be played out in delicate negotiations between the administration, congress, European allies, China and Russia, and the United States’ Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati partners.
The risks are quite high but so are the rewards: A failure to reach agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is the one issue that could blow up, literally and figuratively, in the administration’s face, and cause serious collateral damage to the president’s domestic agenda early in his tenure. Given the fate of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, trying to reach another is likely a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished undertaking. But after all, what are great or good secretaries of state for?
Iraq’s Economic Collapse Could Be Biden’s First Foreign-Policy Headache
If the Iraqi government fails to pay state workers’ salaries in January, it could lead to widespread instability and violence. The United States and the international community must shore up Baghdad’s finances before it’s too late.
Farhad Alaaldin is chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council and served as a political advisor to the last two presidents of Iraq.
Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the new book Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness.
A new Iraq crisis is the last thing that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden needs. Unfortunately, it may be the first foreign-policy problem he has to face.
Iraq is headed for a financial collapse, and in its current fragile state, fiscal ruin is likely to bring down its rickety political system, which could then ignite yet another round of civil war.
Over the course of the past two decades, corruption has created a two-headed problem for Iraq. Iraq’s weak, collusive, inclusionary governments have meant that every major political party gets to run one or more ministries. They administer these bureaucracies not for the good of the country but as massive patronage networks—corruption machines that suck oil revenues from the treasury and pass them on to their constituencies in the form of jobs, contracts, and other perks. The rampant graft has effectively smothered what little private sector Iraq once had, meaning there isn’t much of an alternative to public-sector jobs.
As a result, the government is now the largest employer by far and a huge percentage of the populace counts on the state for its livelihood—either directly through salaries and pensions, or indirectly via contracts or the provision of goods and services to those on the government payroll. Even small businesses in Iraq ultimately depend on the government because so many of their customers—especially in the major cities—are themselves paid by the government, one way or another. Moreover, the Iraqi government still provides a monthly “food basket” via the Public Distribution System, which remains an important element in the daily lives of working-class and poor Iraqis.
Not surprisingly, there has been a threefold increase in public workers since 2004, and the government pays 400 percent more in salaries than it did 15 years ago. Thus, the government and its oil revenues have become the principal driver of the Iraqi economy and the provider of the Iraqi people.
The upshot is that Baghdad needs $5 billion every month to pay direct salaries and pensions, as well as another $2 billion to cover essential services and operating costs, much of which constitutes indirect forms of support to the population. However, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse of oil prices (which provide some 90 percent of government revenue), Iraq’s monthly income has fluctuated between $2.5 and $3.5 billion. That means Baghdad is running a monthly deficit of $3.5 to $4.5 billion.
Now Iraq is running out of money to sustain that deficit. In October, Iraq’s minister of finance, Ali Allawi, stated in a TV interview that Iraq’s “Central Bank reserves stand at $53 billion.” Since then, the parliament passed a funding deficit law that enabled the government to borrow $10 billion to pay salaries for October, November, and December 2020. That brings Iraq’s total debt to a staggering $80 billion, according to government sources and budget proposals, and has forced the country to allocate more than $12 billion from the yearly budget to interest and principal repayment on these loans—all of which is further exacerbating the government’s capital shortfalls.
By the summer of 2021, Iraq’s hard currency reserves could be dangerously low. Indeed, the government could run out of cash to pay for most of its current, minimal obligations.
According to Iraqi officials, because Iraq’s currency reserves are already drying up, the government is being forced to print money to pay for loans to the government that cover salaries and operation costs, running the risk of unleashing rampant inflation. Because of the dangers of unchecked inflation, Baghdad may soon have to devalue the dinar instead, but this, too, entails major economic and political risks. Devaluation without accompanying economic reforms—which Iraq’s political powers refuse to consider—will cripple imports, undermine savings, and increase hardship.
Moreover, devaluation would probably cause further inflation as well. The evaporation of hard currency means that Iraq soon won’t be able to pay for imports of food and goods. Iraq is a net importer of virtually everything except oil. If money flows run low and the dinar is devalued, goods will become scarce and prices will rise. The dinar could go into free fall within six months should the government continue to draw down the remaining funds in the Central Bank of Iraq once a devaluation starts.
Some Iraqi government officials are simply hoping that a projected increase in oil prices this spring will save them. Yet most projections suggest no more than a 10 to 15 percent price hike, according to multiple oil traders and analysts—far too little to eliminate Iraq’s looming crisis. And even that could vanish if expanded Iraqi, Libyan, and Iranian oil exports cause the Saudis and Russians to follow suit and increase production to protect their market share.
If Iraq is unable to continue paying salaries, minimal government expenses, and operating costs, it would have devastating consequences. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi sounded the alarm of a coming financial reckoning in a press conference on Nov. 17, warning, “We will face the problem of paying salaries in January. I am warning you now.”
As a technocrat without a political power base, Kadhimi has been unable to push Iraq’s political parties to address, let alone solve, the problem. The government produced a white paper for reform on Oct. 13; however, it has not started its implementation. Consequently, there has been no effort to reduce salaries, pare back the numbers of government employees, or even to eliminate the hundreds of thousands of so-called ghost employees on Baghdad’s payroll for fear of upsetting important Iraqi political bosses.
When he took power, Kadhimi had widespread support: from average Iraqis and the thousands who had been protesting in the streets, from Iraq’s Shiite religious establishment, from moderate Shiite political parties, from many Sunnis, and even from the Kurds. He was seen as smart, apolitical, effective, and close to the Americans.
However, there is a growing fear across the country that Kadhimi cannot fix Iraq’s broken system. The economic crisis that would result from Iraq running out of money could be the nail in that coffin. Kadhimi would likely be completely discredited. Many of Iraq’s venal political parties would try to make him the scapegoat to avoid the inevitable popular backlash. Meanwhile, the Iranians, who oppose Kadhimi, would try to exploit the chaos to reassert their influence over the Iraqi government.
A financial crisis would almost certainly spark widespread street demonstrations, with Iraqis once again demanding a change of government. It would be challenging for the government to keep order if salaries were not being paid and the prime minister lacked authority. Armed groups and tribes, including the armed militias backed by Iran, would try to fill the vacuum and usurp the role of the primary security forces in Iraq. These same groups would also fight for territory to control. They might try to take control of revenue-generating resources such as oil fields, ports, border crossings, large businesses, agricultural land, and private properties.
In such a situation, armed conflict and land grabs could become commonplace again, except in those areas with robust security, such as the Kurdistan region. However, even the Kurdistan region will not be safe from internal economic troubles unless it can expand its resource base, because it, too, is financially dependent on Baghdad. Perhaps the Kurds’ most apparent target would be Kirkuk and its oil fields, but this would only inflame the conflict between Erbil and Baghdad, not to mention Shiite militias, who would resist such a move.
As was the case from 2005 to 2007 and from 2014 to 2017, another round of civil strife in Iraq would invariably suck in Iraq’s neighbors. Iraq is simply too important to all of them, and they could be expected to intervene to secure their interests.
Turkey would feel threatened by Kurdish gains, particularly if the Kurdistan region retakes Kirkuk. Ankara would feel obligated to defend the Turkmen ethnic group there and prevent the Kurds from reviving their dream of independence. Iran is already working to regain its dominant influence in Baghdad, and Tehran cannot afford to lose Iraqi trade revenues (which stand at around $12 billion), smuggling opportunities, and access to international financial markets.
The Saudis might well respond to any resurgence in Iranian influence by supporting Sunni groups and tribes with funding or weapons to defend themselves, especially since Riyadh cannot count on a large U.S. troop presence to handle the problem, as they could in 2006. Iraq could easily slide back into intercommunal civil war, with regional powers intervening against both the Iraqis and one another.
Given the gravity of the situation and the importance of Iraq to the region and the international oil market, the United States and the international community cannot idly stand by. Of course, during the first six months of his administration and with a pandemic and massive economic crisis at home to deal with, Biden won’t be able to afford to make this his highest priority either—but acting sooner will be cheaper and avoid harder choices later, when Iraq could be in free fall.
If the U.S. government is willing to provide some leadership, many others will likely be willing to chip in as well. International financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Persian Gulf states, and even some European and East Asian countries could be expected to pony up some cash.
Iraq’s coming crisis is a crisis of liquidity. Iraq will need money to prevent the collapse of its financial system, which would be the first domino to fall. If the United States were willing to pledge a significant amount, perhaps $1 billion, it should be possible to put together a larger package of $5 billion to $10 billion for Iraq with other countries chipping in.
The idea of providing $1 billion in emergency budget support to Iraq may seem impossible at this moment. It shouldn’t. It wouldn’t come out of the pockets of ordinary Americans in the form of increased taxes—and the last 12 years should have taught the United States two important lessons about this part of the world.
First, what happens in the Middle East does not stay there. And second, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—as Washington’s tragic policies toward Iraq, Syria, and Libya have all demonstrated.
Of course, at Iraq’s current burn rate, even $10 billion will barely last three months. That’s why the money must come with strong conditions attached: austerity measures to encourage saving, major cuts in government spending, draconian anti-corruption measures, fully integrating militia personnel into the Iraqi military—as individuals, not as militias, and therefore answerable to the Iraqi government. Subsequent aid packages should be dangled as a further incentive, but only if Iraq makes good on these requirements.
Such an international aid package would have a crucial secondary purpose. In Iraq, the only way to build support for a political agenda—and to build a power base to see it implemented—is with resources. Kadhimi has demonstrated repeatedly that he has the right intentions and ideas, but he lacks the political and military strength to follow through. Putting billions of dollars at his disposal but with strict conditions would give him the resources to build that support and use it to take on Iraq’s political parties, militias, and kleptocrats.
Such measures are what Iraq needs over the long term as well. The more that Kadhimi can blame the international community for forcing Iraq to take these steps, and the more that other Iraqis understand that either they take them or the entire system collapses, the better able he will be to do what he has always hoped to do and what the U.S. government always hoped that he would.
When Biden was U.S. vice president, he won the dubious prize of handling Iraq. Given then-President Barack Obama’s intended course of action, it was arguably the worst assignment of all. When he takes office as president, addressing the problems of Iraq may not be his priority or his desire, but Baghdad’s crisis offers him an opportunity to put the country—and U.S. interests there—on the right path in a way he never could the last time he was responsible for Iraq policy.
Where Is Biden’s Cabinet Heading?
The incoming U.S. president’s team doesn’t point in any clear direction, and progressives are worried.
Taken altogether, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet is a decidedly mixed bag that has left many Democrats confused as to whether the new administration will really challenge an entrenched economic and political system—or revert to the complacency of the Clinton and Obama years that helped deliver the White House to Donald Trump.
As Biden’s picks have been trotted out, even while outgoing President Trump continues to challenge Biden’s historic and resounding victory, the picture has only gotten fuzzier. Some are familiar faces popping up in strange places. Former National Security Advisor and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who built her entire career on foreign policy, is to be chief domestic policy advisor. Denis McDonough, who has never served in the military, will head Veterans Affairs. And a recently retired U.S. Army general, Lloyd Austin, has been nominated to run a Defense Department meant to be led by civilians.
In other cases, Biden’s picks appear like a smoke bomb meant to confuse or perhaps placate dueling progressive and centrist wings within the party. Some seem savvy choices: Treasury Secretary-designate Janet Yellen is a former Federal Reserve chairwoman with cross-aisle appeal. But Yellen is also a highly admired progressive economist who has spent her career on increasing income equality for middle-class workers. At the same time, Biden plans to nominate Adewale Adeyemo, President Barack Obama’s international economics advisor who helped negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership—an agreement severely criticized by the left—as Yellen’s deputy secretary.
Others have less impressive records as progressives. Neera Tanden, slated to take over the Office of Management and Budget, is a centrist aligned with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and she is the president of the Center for American Progress, founded by former Hillary Clinton campaign head John Podesta. Tanden has often been critical of uber-progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has pushed for universal health care and free college education.
Yet, the person in charge of Biden’s financial transition task force is a tough-minded Wall Street reformer, Gary Gensler, widely admired by progressives and considered a candidate for some senior position, possibly head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Alongside him are left-leaning fellow reformers like Capitol Hill activist Dennis Kelleher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Simon Johnson, and others who have, more than a decade after the great financial crisis, been tough on breaking up big banks.
Even one of Biden’s most recent picks, Mandarin-speaking House Ways and Means Committee trade lawyer Katherine Tai for U.S. trade representative, doesn’t offer any clear sign of where the administration is heading. Considered a centrist, Tai could be a signal that Biden intends to negotiate new trade deals with Beijing, if tougher and more multilateral than under Trump, though it’s not clear if or how long Trump’s trade war with China will linger.
Meanwhile, the leading candidate to be secretary of labor, Patrick Gaspard, recently headed the Open Society Foundations, set up by conservatives’ favorite boogeyman, George Soros. Gaspard was active in responding to the outrage spurred by the George Floyd murder this spring, shepherding $220 million in grants to Black communities.
“What is the agenda? What is the overall vision going to be?” progressive firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill. “I think that’s a little hazy.”
The new cabinet looks like a multicultural dream team—and the realization of Biden’s bid to master identity politics. Rice and Gaspard are Black; Tai is Asian American; and Tanden is Indian American, as is Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. And Austin would be the first Black American to head the Pentagon.
But some progressives are worried that “Biden is working backwards from identity,” as one longtime political observer put it, designing a cabinet stocked with diversity but less focused on making the changes that many progressives see as long overdue, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy.
“I applaud the formidable progress in the diversity of cabinet and key administration appointments. It is long overdue for America,” said Robert Johnson, the president of the Soros-backed Institute for New Economic Thinking. “But it is not a substitute for taking on monied power interests to produce reform leading to broad-based prosperity. If identity politics is used as a mask to avoid that enormous challenge, it will be very dangerous for the already polarized politics of the USA.”
Rice, for example, is considered a centrist and traditionalist who in the past has been criticized for not being a team player. As Obama’s national security advisor, she was sometimes accused of running an insular National Security Council, advocating aggressive U.S. interventions abroad, and compiling a record that failed to take on human rights abuses abroad. Her views on domestic policy and the problems of U.S. inequality—a key indicator of how she would perform as domestic policy advisor—are as yet little known.
Many of the party elite were shocked in particular by the appointment of Tanden, a former aide to Hillary Clinton and television pundit who is not an expert in budget politics but who in the past often pushed back hard against the progressive plans of Sanders. Progressives fear that under Tanden the Center for American Progress was too beholden to Wall Street and overseas donations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
And the economic direction doesn’t get any clearer when considering the rest of Biden’s prospective team. Cecilia Rouse, tapped to head the Council on Economic Advisers, is a known progressive, as is her designated deputy Heather Boushey, who helped found the left-leaning Washington Center for Equitable Growth, which has almost entirely focused on redressing economic inequality. Others on the team include Jared Bernstein, who was chief economic advisor to Biden during his vice presidency and is a left-leaning, pro-labor economist. In one way, that adds up to a progressive economic team, said Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Columbia University.
“Cecilia Rouse is all about discrimination. And Janet Yellen was the very first central banker who talked about inequality,” he said.
Yet, Biden’s choice to be head of the National Economic Council, Brian Deese, worked for the giant Wall Street hedge fund BlackRock, as did some other Biden nominees, including Adeyemo, who was a senior advisor there. That makes progressives worry they may be more captives of Wall Street than champions of the working class.
“For the most part, they fit into a consistent pattern that I would say is more progressive than Obama, but less progressive than Sanders,” Stiglitz said. “The real point is, will the Biden team remember how the Democrats lost the working class? There’s always going to be a little bit of lack of a little bit of clear consistency and vision. I’d say it’s going to be a pragmatic progressivism.”
Most of the new nominees worked in some fashion for Obama, who’s come under fire again from progressives for the lack of contrition shown in his recent memoir. McDonough was the former president’s chief of staff, while Tai, who could become the first Asian American to become trade representative, served as chief counsel for China trade enforcement from 2011 to 2014, a time when the administration did little to respond to Chinese dumping of low-wage goods or theft of intellectual property.
One early test will be Biden and Tai’s approach to the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Progressives hated the deal, which favored U.S. multinationals, but Democratic centrists and many Republicans believed it would be a way to blunt China’s trade strength in the region and eventually coerce Beijing into accepting open trade norms. Trump withdrew from the TPP as one of his first acts in office, saying it was a terrible pact that infringed on U.S. sovereignty. (The other signatories carried on without the United States and formed their own Pacific trade group.)
Biden has said he wants to join the TPP under certain conditions—but it’s not clear what those are. Progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren have criticized the deal for including clauses that give companies the right to sue governments if laws or investment conditions change while giving little attention to workers’ rights. Stiglitz called those investor dispute clauses a “sop to the Business Roundtable.”
Things are only a little clearer when it comes to national security and foreign policy, where progressives have won some early, if perhaps Pyrrhic, victories and where Obama-era alumni are vowing to change their stripes.
Biden’s pick of retired Gen. Austin did knock Michèle Flournoy out of the running for defense secretary; progressives lambasted her ties to defense firms and fondness for foreign interventions. But Austin will require only the third waiver in history for a recently retired general officer to take up the senior civilian spot atop the Pentagon. When Trump, a political and national security neophyte, sought a waiver for former Gen. James Mattis, it was readily granted, because Trump clearly needed guidance. But Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who cast his first major vote during the Vietnam War, has no such need of national security crutches.
Austin seems to indicate that defense policy will be run more out of the White House than the Pentagon—which leaves progressives to wonder whether that policy will reflect the Biden who supported the Iraq War or the Biden who later grew skeptical of U.S. deployments overseas.
Perhaps the most predictable cabinet choices are Antony Blinken as secretary of state and Jake Sullivan to be national security advisor. Both served Obama and Biden at senior levels in the past. Both are, by their own admission, looking to reinvent traditional liberal internationalism and to consider more restrained U.S. deployments overseas. Most importantly, both are trying to update traditional Democratic thinking about how international relations can work for American workers.
In an article in the Atlantic last year, Sullivan wrote that both Democrats and Republicans erred because they “came to treat international economic issues as somehow separate from everything else” and failed to address the troubles of the ailing middle class by not protecting and retraining them in the face of competition from China and other low-wage competitors. Speaking on background by email, a senior member of the Biden transition team said that this would be a major agenda item of the new administration, breaking with centrist Democratic politics of the past.
Though Trump’s neoisolationist approach was “dangerous,” Sullivan wrote in his Atlantic article, “he has surfaced questions that need clear answers,” especially regarding the “hollowing out” of the middle class.
“Those of us who believe that the United States can and should continue to occupy a global leadership role, even if a different role than in the past, have to explain why Trump is wrong—and provide a better strategy for the future.”
Why Biden Will Lose the Left—and How That Could Help Him
The Democratic coalition is already fracturing. But losing his erstwhile allies could actually make it easier to govern—and boost his standing.
Jonathan Tepperman is an editor at large at Foreign Policy, a role he assumed in November 2020 after three years as the magazine’s editor in chief. He is the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems.
Scarcely a month after the Democrats came together to help Joe Biden win the U.S. presidential election, the famously fractious party is already splintering at record speed.
Barely a day goes by without a new crack appearing. The left has pushed back faster, and more aggressively, against Biden’s cabinet picks than against those of any previous Democratic president. It already seems to have claimed one victim—Rahm Emanuel, who was reportedly under consideration to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Department of Transportation. And activist groups, joined by left-leaning members of Congress, are now fighting to block the nominations of anyone with ties to the defense industry (such as retired Gen. Lloyd Austin), big business (Jeff Zients, Brian Deese, and Adewale Adeyemo), or the aggressive, and in some cases extreme, military policies of past administrations (Mike Morell)—never mind the diverse backgrounds of many of the nominees.
Other progressives, meanwhile, have taken to the internet to warn that the not-yet-seated Biden administration may already be a lost cause. And on Nov. 7—the same day that cable networks finally called the election—the socialist magazine Jacobin tweeted, “It’s good that Donald Trump lost. But the Left now needs to pivot immediately to opposition to the Joe Biden administration.”
The fierce pushback just one month into the transition, coupled with insistence by leaders such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that Biden abandon his moderation and use his presidency to push for big progressive changes, raise an important question: Can Biden hold on to his party’s energized left wing for much longer? And what will it mean—for him, his presidency, and the country—if he loses the progressives?
By all accounts, the president-elect recognizes the scope of the challenge and has a three-part strategy to prevent it. The first element involves rhetorically signaling his support for progressive causes: His transition website, for example, ranks the fight for racial justice and against climate change as among his top priorities.
Second, when it comes to staffing, Biden is trying to balance the moderate policy preferences of many of his cabinet choices with an emphasis on diverse backgrounds (see Austin, Marcia Fudge, Xavier Becerra, Alejandro Mayorkas, Katherine Tai, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield). And he’s been careful to pick a number of prominent progressives, such as Janet Yellen, Cecilia Rouse, and Heather Boushey, for key economic roles.
Can Biden hold on to his party’s energized left wing for much longer?
As Matt Bennett, the executive vice president and co-founder of the center-left think tank Third Way, told me, “Biden did a masterful job during the campaign of suppressing tensions between the left and the center. The question now is whether he can succeed in doing the same as president.”
The answer to Bennett’s very important question depends on which left you’re talking about: the online left, the grassroots left, or the congressional left.
When it comes to the first, the answer seems an obvious no. Online progressives are itching for a fight. Jacobin has declared that there will be “no honeymoon” for the new president and that “the incoming Joe Biden administration doesn’t deserve an ounce of credit for having the right intentions or a day of progressives patiently waiting to see how it acts.” Grassroots groups are also mobilized; this Monday, the organization Code Pink warned on Twitter that it was “coming for” Austin, presumably due to his ties to the defense contractor Raytheon.
In Congress, some leftist leaders such as Sen. Bernie Sanders have thus far remained publicly supportive of the president-elect; one top aide told me that they’re planning to give Biden a chance and the benefit of the doubt. But left-leaning members of the House seem less patient; Ocasio-Cortez has obliquely warned the incoming administration not to abandon progressive priorities such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
So some kind of a break seems inevitable, both because progressives’ expectations are so high—“even if Biden delivered on another New Deal he’d still disappoint the left, because he’s not a socialist,” the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz told me—and because of the likely makeup of the next Congress.
As a result of the Democrats’ disappointing down-ballot showing in November, the party now holds only a slim House majority. In the Senate, either Republicans will retain control, or, if Democrats manage to win both Georgia seats in the January runoff election, Biden’s party will eke out a 50-50 split. But even that result wouldn’t be much of a victory, since it would make cautious moderate senators like Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Susan Collins the deciding votes on most bills. Major progressive legislation would never have a chance under either scenario. Biden could still deliver on some progressive priorities through regulatory changes and executive orders—raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for federal contract workers, offering relief on student loans, and reimposing the many environmental protections that Trump overturned. But the country’s deeper economic and social problems—and there are many of them—will require actual legislation to address. And that’s just not going to happen.
Add that to Biden’s own resolute centrism and his reading of the election results—which showed a strong preference for moderation among the electorate—and the incoming president seems destined to alienate his short-term allies on the left before long.
But so what? Could an angry left then punish Biden in any significant way?
Again, the answer depends on which left you’re talking about. While historians like Michael Kazin point out that Democrats always perform better when they’re united, a lack of unity needn’t be fatal to Biden. For starters, he just doesn’t care much about what people say about him on Twitter, and his strategy of essentially ignoring the medium has served him very well so far. As for left-led street protests that could embarrass the administration or scare away voters, those are hard to imagine short of a major war—which Biden is almost guaranteed to avoid.
Obstruction from progressive organizations and members of the House should be a bigger worry. A lack of grassroots support for the president could mean more left-wing primary challenges going into the 2022 midterm elections, which could in turn hurt Democrats’ ability to hold on to or recover more seats on Election Day itself. Progressive opposition could also lower voter turnout.
A vengeful left could also try to make Biden’s life difficult in Congress. Progressives won’t be able to pass any actual laws the new president opposes, but they could act as spoilers, blocking bills the White House favors—especially compromise deals with the Republicans. Some left-wing members of Congress are already threatening to do just that to the stimulus bill currently under negotiation.
Bad as all that might sound for Biden, however, there’s another, equally plausible scenario in which the left rejects him—and the president does just fine without them.
Progressives’ ability to block moderate compromises in the House—assuming that Republicans agree to any in the first place, which is far from certain—depends on their actual influence there, which is hard to measure. The size of the Congressional Progressive Caucus isn’t a good proxy; it boasts nearly 100 members, but a quick look at the roster reveals a lot of moderate names, such as Reps. Lois Frankel and Hakeem Jeffries.
While the November election left the Democrats with a much-reduced majority—which would increase the power of individual spoilers—only a handful or two of House members seem to fit into this category. And it’s far from clear that even these progressives would dare vote against big, if imperfect, spending deals with Republicans, when doing so would place ideological purity over the needs of their constituents. As Third Way’s Bennett put it to me, “Unlike the Tea Party, who are purely anti-government, the Squad”—as Ocasio-Cortez and her allies are known—“care deeply about governing and people. I don’t think they’ll act like the bomb-throwers on the right.”
What about the 2022 midterms? Here again it’s unclear how much damage even a very frustrated left could or would do to Biden. So far, progressives have been careful to only mount primary challenges against moderate Democrats in reliably blue districts, thereby avoiding the risk they might hurt the party’s electoral chances in the process. Meanwhile, if the rollout of the new COVID-19 vaccines go well, if the economy starts to recover, and if Biden manages to rack up a decent number of accomplishments through executive action and on the foreign-policy side (where he doesn’t need Congress for much), his popularity—which is already higher than Trump’s ever was—could help the Democrats actually retake seats in 2022, with or without the left. Given how the left’s rhetoric seemed to hurt moderates in tight 2020 races, moreover, a split from progressives could help their odds next time.
The conventional wisdom holds that first-term presidents typically get slaughtered in their first midterm elections. But that pattern only really holds when their party controls Congress for the first two years and passes major measures that many Americans judge excessive—so they then vote to reduce the majority party’s power. Given the gridlock guaranteed by the makeup of the 117th Congress, no one will be able to credibly accuse Biden or the Democrats of overreach in 2022.
Biden still has a path to moderate success, both substantively and politically.
Finally, a fight with the left could actually help Biden politically by giving him an excuse for sticking to his pragmatic guns and avoiding saying or doing anything that could alienate his moderate base. As the New York Times’ Ross Douthat recently argued, “He will not be permitted to re-enact the New Deal or the Great Society, but neither will he be tempted into ideologically driven debacles like Bill Clinton’s failed health care push or even Donald Trump’s failed attempt to repeal Obamacare.” If pundits or voters complain about his failure to do more, he’ll be able to blame extremists on both the left and the right for tying his hands.
To be clear: The best outcome for Biden, the Democrats, and the country would still be for the incoming president to find a way to hold on to the left and the rest of his party—by accomplishing enough to satisfy the majority of his supporters, and by using that record and a vaccine-induced economic recovery to build the kind of popular support that would make him very difficult for anyone, on the left or right, to challenge.
But given all the ifs and obstacles embedded in that last sentence, it’s important to recognize that even if many of these policies don’t pan out, Biden still has a path to moderate success, both substantively and politically. And that might be the best anyone can hope for given the incredible mess the country now faces.
Biden Defends Choice of Austin for Defense Secretary
Some lawmakers and many national security experts are wary of another general atop the Pentagon, but Lloyd Austin has the president-elect’s ear—and backing.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden used his introduction of Secretary of Defense-designate Lloyd Austin to defend the retired Army general’s record on civil-military relations, after the pick was met with a storm of skepticism on Capitol Hill and in the national security community over increasing challenges to civilian control of the armed forces.
If confirmed by Congress, Austin, who enjoyed strong ties with then-Vice President Biden during the Obama administration, would mark the second recently retired general in the past four years to become defense secretary. He would also be the first Black person to hold the job. Other top contenders for the role were Michèle Flournoy, who served as the Pentagon’s policy chief under President Barack Obama, and Jeh Johnson, the first Black person to head up the Department of Homeland Security.
Biden urged the Senate to waive a legal requirement that calls for officers to wait seven years after retirement to serve as Pentagon chief, invoking the extraordinary challenges awaiting the new administration on Inauguration Day—especially the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine.
“There’s a good reason for this law that I fully understand and respect. I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history didn’t call for it and if I didn’t have the faith I have in Lloyd Austin to ask for it,” Biden said. “I believe in the importance of civilian control of the military. So does the Secretary-designate Austin.”
Though Biden has championed the historic nature of the pick and Austin’s logistical acumen, some see personal ties dictating the move. Biden’s late son Beau also served under Austin in Iraq as a member of the Delaware National Guard, and Austin was seen as a team player.
“[Austin] wasn’t getting great decisions on whether we were going to leave a follow-on force,” said Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general who served as Austin’s deputy during the U.S. drawdown. “There was nothing coming back from Washington, D.C., on that, and he worked with that. He didn’t say, ‘Woe is me,’ and those tough days endeared him to [Vice President] Biden.”
Spoehr said that the then-general enjoyed a strong partnership with civilians on the ground, such as then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey, and looped in State Department personnel at meetings on even the smallest military issues, such as the sequencing of convoys out of Iraq.
Yet in spite of the pledges to uphold civilian leadership at the Pentagon, Wednesday’s rollout saw Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris repeatedly refer to Austin as “Gen. Austin.” That’s the same title President Donald Trump used with former Defense Secretary James Mattis, and it is a frequent complaint of civilian officials who have seen an increasing blurring of lines between military and civilian leadership. Austin succeeded Mattis as the head of U.S. Central Command in 2013.
“As a commander, chain of command means people must follow your direction,” one former defense official who served in Mattis’s Pentagon said. “But the Pentagon is a consensus-driven organization—almost a completely different animal—which is why people called it ‘Pentacom’ during Mattis’s time. He ran it like a [combatant command] and it created a lot of churn.”
Mattis, who civilians said cut career officials out of major conversations while working closely with then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, also brought in a team that was familiar to him at Centcom, including his chief of staff, Kevin Sweeney. And like Austin, Mattis’s formative years were spent in the Middle East—a theater the United States is trying to exit—but not as much in the Pacific, where the rise of China now presents the major strategic challenge.
“Not only were they only loyal to Mattis but they only had experiences in the Middle East,” the former official said. “So when we started sending up memos [that said] we need to do a [Freedom of Navigation Operation], it took him six months to get comfortable with making the decision.”
The pick could be uncomfortable for many of Biden’s team and Senate Democrats. In 2017, Kathleen Hicks, a former principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration who now heads up Biden’s Pentagon transition effort, testified in favor of granting Mattis a waiver to serve as defense secretary, but she expressed hope that the exemption would be a rare generational case, not a new norm. Though some Democrats, such as Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, have backed off of previous threats not to support another waiver, another Democratic member of the panel, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, told reporters this week he would not vote for a waiver to allow Austin to serve as defense secretary. Former officials said the selection could further future political considerations for senior military selections, undermining the apolitical nature of the military.
Still, despite internal skepticism about the waiver, former officials expect Biden’s team to eventually fall in line with the planned nomination.
“No one is going to sit around and get in a pissing contest,” said Jim Townsend, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO from 2009 to 2017. “We’re all here to help the secretary of defense.”
While Biden has championed Austin’s logistical aptitude in aiding the 2011 pullout from Iraq, the retired four-star would bring relatively little expertise on China, seen by the Pentagon as the top U.S. national security threat. Biden’s recent article defending Austin in the Atlantic made no mention of Beijing, sparking criticism from architects of the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which shifted the focus of U.S. efforts to great-power contests like that with China.
Austin has also faced criticism for his management of the fight to defeat the Islamic State after U.S. forces redeployed in 2014. Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter recalled that Austin’s plan to retake the caliphate’s capital of Mosul was “entirely unrealistic” and relied on Iraqi units “that barely existed on paper, let alone in reality.” He was also the target of scrutiny from the late Sen. John McCain at a 2015 hearing when he admitted that a $500 million effort to train and equip Syrian opposition forces had yielded just four or five fighters.
The Virtual Transition
Biden’s landing teams are steering clear of an administration that has often served as a COVID-19 superspreader event.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
The Trump administration has finally extended an invitation to President-elect Joe Biden’s transition teams to set up shop in offices across scores of U.S. federal agencies. But Biden’s people are declining the offer.
From the U.S. Agency for International Development to the Defense Department, the incoming administration’s transition offices are stocked with coffee machines, computers, and office supplies that are largely going unused, as Biden’s teams prefer to interact through Google Hangouts, Zoom, and encrypted video conferences. Biden team members fear that meeting Trump officials in person during a pandemic in which the president and his aides have repeatedly flouted safety guidelines could be hazardous to their health, while providing little benefit.
“They don’t get anything out of value from the White House,” a former senior Trump official working with the Biden transition team told Foreign Policy. “You go into the White House and nobody wears masks and it’s just obvious that they’re trying to make some kind of political point.”
The former senior Trump official working with the Biden transition team said the incoming administration had insisted on digital-only briefings with White House staffers, amid fear that masking protocols were being ignored by those closest to the president. Those concerns were reinforced on Sunday, when President Donald Trump tweeted that his personal attorney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, had tested positive for COVID-19, joining over 40 members of the U.S. administration or Trump’s inner circle—including the president himself—who have contracted the coronavirus, according to a tally compiled by the New York Times. And another top Trump lawyer, Jenna Ellis, reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus after attending a White House Christmas party last week without a mask.
“The president, his senior officials, engage in the stupidest behavior imaginable, which all public health experts say is irresponsible and dangerous,” said one former U.S. official who has been in touch with the transition team. “If I was in the transition I would be very concerned. I certainly wouldn’t be going to State Department Christmas parties, which I might have done in a previous transition.”
The virtual transition reflects Biden’s more judicious approach to the pandemic than the Trump administration’s. Trump has repeatedly downplayed the threat posed by the virus, which has killed more than 284,000 Americans to date and infected more than 14 million others. But it also reflects a palpable anxiety in the Biden camp about interacting directly with representatives of a president who has hosted events in the White House and massive campaign rallies that turned into superspreader events.
With the coronavirus continuing to spread uncontrolled throughout the country despite U.S. regulators pushing to clear an experimental vaccine, experts said the Biden team is already looking to do damage control instead of expecting a smooth handoff from the outgoing Trump administration.
“This isn’t a normal transition,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at the International Crisis Group. “It’s more like firefighters going into a burned-out house after a blaze to see what remains structurally sound. And on issues like Iran, the current administration is still trying to start a few more small fires.”
The infection concerns are not limited to interactions with the White House.
The Biden team conducted 21 interviews with top Pentagon military and civilian leaders as of last week, according to a senior defense official, including with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and the vice chairman, Gen. John Hyten, and have nearly 50 more meetings this week, including with Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist. While the Biden team has been provided with workspaces at the Pentagon, they are using the offices “to a minimal amount” and requesting as many as 90 percent of their meetings to be virtual, the senior official said.
Most of the briefings have been on the COVID-19 response, and personnel and readiness, expected to be major focal points for Biden. The Defense Department has also provided 1,500 pages of briefing materials on Microsoft tablets, including transition books, organizational charts, and contingency plans. The Biden transition team is also getting classified updates from Milley, the top U.S. military officer, and the secret budgets for intelligence agencies. Many meetings are taking place via secured teleconferences on classified systems, senior defense officials said.
Senior defense officials said that the Pentagon has been working with the Biden transition team, known as the agency review team, since the General Services Administration allowed the transition to go forward last month, beginning dialogue that night via email and starting virtual meetings the next morning. “The [agency review team] has asked for a preference for video teleconference meetings versus in-person,” one official said. “They have requested virtual meetings for nearly all interviews they’ve conducted to date.”
At the State Department, meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is moving forward with plans to host indoor diplomatic holiday parties with hundreds of guests, running against Washington, D.C., health guidelines and raising alarm bells among medical experts.
Last week, Biden’s landing team met remotely with the leadership of USAID, including the agency’s acting administrator, John Barsa, a political appointee who recently tested positive for COVID-19, and who is quarantining at home. Barsa also reportedly had a reputation for eschewing masks, according to the Washington Post. “There is no expectation of in-person briefings,” said one U.S. official.
The transition to the Biden presidency has already been strained by unprecedented challenges, including Trump’s refusal to accept his electoral defeat. For weeks after Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 elections, routine transition work was delayed as Trump’s General Services Administration refused to greenlight the formal transition process until the election results were made clearer. (On Nov. 23, Trump authorized the agency to finally begin the transition process).
Now, despite media reports that the Trump administration blocked the Biden transition team from meeting with Pentagon intelligence officials, senior defense say the president-elect’s landing teams are getting proper briefings.
“The DoD and its transition leadership are fully cooperating with the Biden transition team, placing national security and the protection of the American people at the forefront of any and all discussions,” acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said in a statement on Saturday.
Biden to Name Former General as Defense Secretary
Lloyd Austin would be the first Black person to serve in the job.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
President-elect Joe Biden is edging toward choosing retired U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as his defense secretary in a surprise pick that would mark the first time a Black person has been tapped to run the Pentagon, several people familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.
Austin appeared to gain a late edge in a three-way contest for the job with former Pentagon policy chief Michèle Flournoy—who was seen as the initial front-runner for the job—and former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, another Black contender who was backed by members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Biden’s inclination to choose Austin was first reported by Politico on Monday. He told reporters earlier today that he intended to announce the pick on Friday.
Biden informed Austin of his choice on Sunday, according to a person familiar with the matter. One factor that tipped the scales in Austin’s favor was his relationship with the president-elect going back about a decade, the person said. As vice president, Biden got to know Austin during countless hours in the situation room, particularly when the general led Centcom.
Austin—who has been out of the military for less than five years—would need a waiver from Congress to serve in the role due to regulations protecting civilian control of the military, a move that has typically been considered extraordinary in U.S. history. Only two former generals before Austin have been granted such leeway: former U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, picked to lead the agency during the Truman administration, and James Mattis, whom President Donald Trump chose as his defense secretary four years after he stepped down as head of Centcom.
Flournoy, a favorite among many in the Democratic foreign-policy establishment, would have been the first female secretary of defense had Biden selected her for the post. While she was widely seen as the favored candidate for the job during the campaign, in recent weeks the Biden transition team has faced pushback from the left wing of the party. Progressive groups signaled opposition to Flournoy over her role in U.S. military interventions in Libya and the Middle East in prior government positions, as well as her ties to the defense industry once she left government.
Flournoy served on the board of directors of Booz Allen Hamilton and also co-founded the consulting firm WestExec Advisors. But Austin may not help the Biden team’s optics on that front either. He is currently on the board of directors at Raytheon—a major defense contractor and a leading manufacturer of smart bombs used in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Choosing Austin would also call into question Biden’s pledge of gender diversity in his cabinet. “For women in the field, who heard the president-elect promise to appoint a gender-balanced national security team, it’s a slap in the face,” a former defense official in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations told Foreign Policy. “The Democratic field should be proud of the huge bench of diverse civilian leadership it can field at all levels. What made it necessary to turn to a retired general?”
“When I see a retired general who is statutorily ineligible for the role nominated for the most important job in national security, it is hard for me to feel like the natsec glass ceiling for women is anything but impossible,” the former defense official added.
Lawmakers and other Biden political allies have also pressured the president-elect to tap more people of color for top administration posts. Some members of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), including its chair, Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, and other Democratic lawmakers pushed for Austin. But other members of the CBC endorsed Flournoy for the role.
Having Austin in the job would also raise concerns among some security experts who were already worried about the direction of civil-military relations at the Pentagon under Trump. When Mattis served as Trump’s defense secretary, some civilians felt cut out of key military and policy decisions. In the Democrats’ 2020 platform, the party promised to help fix the state of civil-military relations, which they saw as badly damaged under Trump. Several foreign-policy experts who advised Biden’s presidential campaign voiced disappointment that he had selected a former general for the job given this issue. “I just don’t see how tapping another retired general is acceptable,” one expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.
But Biden enjoys a shared history with his defense pick that may have helped influence the decision. When Biden pushed to draw down troops from Iraq while vice president, Flournoy, then Pentagon policy chief, and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen opposed the idea. Austin did not.
A West Point graduate who served in elite Army units including the 82nd Airborne Division and 10th Mountain Division, Austin worked his way up the ranks to the top echelons of the U.S. military during his four decades of service, retiring as a four-star general.
Austin served as the commander of U.S. Central Command overseeing all U.S. military operations in the Middle East from 2013 to 2016, including when the Islamic State first surged to power and took over large parts of Iraq and Syria. His management of that campaign drew some criticism, when he admitted in Congress in 2015 that a $500 million budget to train Syrian rebels had turned out only four or five fighters. But during that time, he also drew accolades for helping form and coordinate a global alliance, comprised of dozens of countries, against the Islamic State.
Austin, whose top postings were in the Middle East, would be tasked with leading a Pentagon that is now largely focused on strategic competition with China.
It’s not clear how Austin would hold up under congressional scrutiny. Numerous progressive foreign-policy experts said Congress should not grant a waiver for Austin or any other retired general or admiral. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, a Democrat, has previously said he would refuse another waiver for a recently retired military officer, and three Democrats who are still in the Senate previously voted against Mattis’s waiver and confirmation. But unlike several of Biden’s other cabinet picks, Austin did not draw immediate criticism from Senate Republicans, whose support during the confirmation process could be crucial if the GOP retains control of the Senate.
One progressive advocate who spoke to Foreign Policy said this would not necessarily be viewed as a win for the left wing of the party. “This is more about personal views Biden had about Flournoy, not being comfortable with her and not being able to turn to Jeh [Johnson],” the person said. “So that left him with Austin, who CBC was also lobbying for.”
But other progressives celebrated the decision. “Civilian control of the military is important. Austin’s record shows that he’s more likely to achieve the intent of that principle, as he is respected for keeping a low profile and following the direction of elected officials,” said Erik Sperling, the executive director of Just Foreign Policy and a former congressional staffer.
“Progressives should prefer that to a longtime Pentagon official who promoted interventionism at every key moment in the past two decades and has opaque ties to defense contractors and foreign regimes,” he said, referring to Flournoy.
In a press call on Monday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a Democrat, said he had pushed the Biden team to strongly consider Flournoy as the pick.
Report Sheds Light on How Biden’s Future NSC Chief Wants to Reshape U.S. Foreign Policy
Jake Sullivan spent several years working on a less ambitious approach to U.S. global interests that could disappoint both internationalists and progressives.
Edward Alden is the Ross distinguished visiting professor at Western Washington University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Failure to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy.
For those wishing simply to reset U.S. foreign policy to the era before Donald Trump took the presidency, President-elect Joe Biden seemed to offer a glimmer of hope last week. “America is back,” he tweeted, adding in another tweet that his new foreign-policy team “is ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.” The subtext: Trump was but a blip in the story of the United States’ global leadership. But Biden’s choice for one of the most important members of his team tells a different story. Incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has spent the past several years as part of a group working on a humbler, less ambitious approach to U.S. foreign policy—one that offers an honest, realistic assessment of how Americans’ own views on the their place in the world have changed over the past four years under Trump.
Beginning in 2017, Sullivan and a dozen others, mostly former officials in the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama, but also some veterans of Republican administrations, did something unusual for the Washington elite: They listened to what Americans outside the Washington bubble had to say. In a project organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and led by Salman Ahmed, a former Obama administration National Security Council official, the group conducted hundreds of interviews with small business owners, farmers, educators, state and local government officials, and others in Ohio, Nebraska, and Colorado, asking them what they wanted from U.S. foreign policy. The final result, published in September, was a report entitled Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class.
The report deserves far more attention than it received in the run-up to the November elections. It embraces Trump’s most important insight—that the purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to make life better for Americans—even as it rejects Trump’s divisive nationalism on international trade and U.S. alliances. Americans want their country engaged in the world, the report argues, but not at any cost. Most Americans face massive economic uncertainty, not just from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but from decades of globalization and technological change that have lifted the well-educated and well-connected while leaving many struggling to stay afloat and provide opportunities for their children. If U.S. foreign policy fails to reflect that existential challenge, Americans will not support it.
The report takes a slap at the interventionist liberal internationalism still championed by parts of the Democratic elite.
The group presents its approach as something distinctly new and better-suited for a United States that has limited resources; faces debilitating regional, class, and racial divides at home; and has to act in a world with much wealthier competitors than during either the Cold War or the brief so-called unipolar moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union. If the report is modest and calls for a less ambitious foreign policy, that is precisely the point: “The United States cannot renew America’s middle class unless it corrects for the overextension that too often has defined U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era,” the authors wrote.
That is a slap at the interventionist liberal internationalism still championed by parts of the Democratic elite, but also at some of Trump’s potential heirs in the Republican Party. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sens. Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and Josh Hawley are all stoking the fire for a new global confrontation with China. The Carnegie report suggests they won’t find much support across the country, not even in Republican states such as Nebraska and Ohio. “There is no evidence America’s middle class will rally behind efforts aimed at restoring U.S. primacy in a unipolar world, escalating a new Cold War with China, or waging a cosmic struggle between the world’s democracies and authoritarian governments,” the report states. Most Americans, it continues, “are more concerned with proximate threats to their physical and economic security.”
The road map for what the authors call “a foreign policy that supports the aspirations of a middle class in crisis” is not an especially straightforward one. Those interviewed wanted the government “to better promote [their] interests … by fostering stability and lowering the risks of living in a more open and integrated world,” the authors wrote. The traditional liberal agenda of free trade and the rules-based global order may have provided stability, but it has not delivered sustained growth in employment earnings and viability for their local communities. The traditional arguments of economists about the aggregate gains of trade fall flat across much of the United States today. But Trump’s policy of economic nationalism has produced an equally dismal result. His global trade war not only upended international rules and thereby increased uncertainty and risk, but also hurt manufacturers with new tariffs on imports and harmed farmers when China and other countries retaliated with their own levies.
A new, post-Trump agenda would prioritize issues such as pandemic preparedness and prevention; cybersecurity; the protection of critical supply chains; support for research, development, and innovation; workforce development; and ways to bring better opportunities to struggling communities. High-speed broadband, which is vital for access to education, business, and opportunity, should be rolled out across the country with the same urgency as former President Dwight D. Eisenhower rolled out the national highway system at the height of the Cold War. Strengthening economic adjustment programs for communities hit by economic disruption would no longer be the responsibility of low-level officials; it would be a White House concern.
This new approach would require breaking down the silos that have long constrained the making of foreign policy. Until now, strategists and diplomats have focused on security and geopolitical competition while issues of domestic growth and economic equality were left to others. The future will require “better interagency coordination, interdisciplinary expertise, and some policy imagination,” the report said. Critical issues that meld domestic and foreign policy include curbing tax avoidance, reining in anti-competitive practices by large corporations, and boosting labor and environmental standards around the world in order to discourage companies from moving industry offshore. The task force calls for a national competitiveness strategy that would more closely link U.S. foreign and domestic priorities.
Climate change will be another likely area of conflict within the new administration.
The report offers some glimpses into the internal struggles that will play out in new administration. Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan, for example, still champions the old and increasingly irrelevant notion of manufacturing jobs as the best path to middle-class prosperity; Biden is promising to create 5 million of them through “Buy American” procurement and building domestic supply chains. But the Carnegie report rightly notes that manufacturing now employs just 9 percent of the nation’s workforce, and new labor-saving technologies mean “this percentage will steadily decline over the longer term.” At the same time, middle-income jobs are growing rapidly in the digital economy. Finding ways to spread these opportunities across the country deserves much higher priority.
Climate change will be another likely area of conflict. The report recognizes the job-creating possibilities of transitioning to a low-carbon economy. But in language that will frustrate progressive Democrats, it points out that most of the coal, oil, and gas jobs threatened by the climate agenda are in rural counties, some of which are poorly located for green energy projects. In places such as Weld County, Colorado, or North Platte, Nebraska, traditional energy industries provide the bulk of well-paying jobs for workers without a college education.
The same holds for defense spending. While the report favors redeploying some military spending to research and development and workforce training, it warns that large cuts to the defense budget would be economically devastating for communities with few other short-term options. The largest employer at a single site in Ohio, for example, is the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton. Most of these communities that are dependent on resource extraction and defense vote Republican, and Democratic initiatives that slashed employment in these places would only cement the partisan divide.
One smaller but critical recommendation made by the report is to open up the U.S. government’s advisory committees on international economic policy. The advisory panels for the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Commerce, for example, are dominated by corporate interests. There should be far more scope for input from state and local governments, labor and consumer groups, and ordinary citizens. The government needs to institutionalize what the report’s authors set out to do—listen to more of the country when making foreign policy.
The report offers encouragement that Americans do not want to walk away from the world—they want to embrace it in ways that make their lives better. That the incoming national security advisor’s name is on that report is a good sign that the Biden administration may be ready to take on that task.
Why Liberal Internationalism Is Still Indispensable—and Fixable
G. John Ikenberry’s new book traces what went wrong. And Biden is listening.
Joe Biden will enter office as America’s 46th president next month in a spirit of confidence for the future—but also with an almost confessional sense of humility about the past. Because Biden and his top advisors seem acutely aware of just how badly they botched things the last time they were in power.
One of their chief manifestos for change, as some of the incoming Bidenites have already privately conceded, will be G. John Ikenberry’s new book, A World Safe for Democracy. It is in some ways the crowning achievement of the Princeton University’s scholar’s decadeslong work explaining and defending the liberal international order.
Ikenberry’s research traces the origins of the liberal internationalist project—the idea of building a community of nations based on democracy, cooperation, and the rule of law—going back 200 years. He chronicles it from its inception in the Age of Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions to its near-dissolution in the post-Cold War period under the neonationalist banner of its worst nemesis, President Donald Trump.
Ikenberry, in an interview, said that his purpose was to “reframe the debate between nationalism and internationalism” and acknowledge that American policymakers are now dealing with a “liberal internationalism for wintertime rather than a Francis Fukuyama-style liberal internationalism for springtime” of two decades ago. (After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama, the Stanford political philosopher, famously suggested that the triumph of democratic liberal capitalism over communism was so complete it could constitute a kind of “end of history.” This did not turn out to be the case.)
Ikenberry says that it’s long past time for Biden and the Democrats to acknowledge that rampaging American hubris after the Cold War led to some of the worst mistakes ever made by liberal internationalists of the modern era: from a Pollyannaish Reaganite belief that neoliberalism (or capitalist free markets) would solve most problems to the equally self-deluding notion that democracy would achieve the same, especially in the Arab world (hence the disastrous Iraq War). Along the way, he writes in his book, nations and especially Washington lost the “shared narrative” of being a diverse but connected international community and became more of a U.S.-manufactured “public utility” dominated by the interests of multinational corporations.
And the former concept is what it must return to, he says. “The book tries to provide the deeper theory of the liberal project that Biden is going to try to renew,” Ikenberry said. “I think it’s the first book that attempts to look at a whole tradition and cull it for usable knowledge we can apply today. And to make the point that the post-1989 years [after the fall of the Berlin Wall] were very much an anomaly. Two centuries on, it’s much more of a world-weary, contested run of democracies struggling to build order.”
According to a senior member of the incoming Biden team, speaking on background, the new administration is paying a great deal of attention to Ikenberry’s ideas about readdressing the problems of the American middle class that were sacrificed to overzealous ideas of globalization. He also said that reinventing liberal internationalism along the lines Ikenberry recommends will be at the forefront of their efforts.
The incoming Biden team has already conceded that both they and the Republicans, pre-Trump, lost their way. They erred badly because they “came to treat international economic issues as somehow separate from everything else,” as Biden’s nominee to be national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, wrote in the Atlantic in early 2019. Under both Democrats and Republicans, “U.S. internationalism became insufficiently attentive to the needs and aspirations of the American middle class.”
In a remarkable admission, Sullivan, who served as then-Vice President Biden’s national security advisor, confessed: “During the Obama administration, when the national-security team sat around the Situation Room table, we rarely posed the question What will this mean for the middle class? Many other countries have made economic growth that expands the middle class a key organizing principle of their foreign policy.”
The United States suffered a dangerous, society-splitting populist backlash because it did not address that same question, instead recklessly embracing global neoliberalism, and engaging in a confident flinging-open of all borders. The result was the loss of any sense that internationalism was also a way of protecting social and economic equity—the kind of compact that existed after World War II. Another result was a series of policies and trade deals that opened the door to the decimation of the American middle class, particularly to Chinese competition. Beyond that, successive administrations, starting with President Bill Clinton (but in which George W. Bush’s administration was particularly culpable in not punishing Chinese dumping and intellectual property theft under World Trade Organization rules) allowed China to flagrantly violate the rules of the game.
The post-Cold War internationalists failed equally in thinking they could easily co-opt major illiberal states such as China and Russia fully into the global system, Ikenberry writes. They did not. The answer may be to make liberal internationalism less “offensive” and intrusive. Instead “it must define itself less as a grand vision of a global march toward an ideal society, and more as a pragmatic, reform-oriented approach to making liberal democracies safe.” China, the major rival to the United States, in particular could at least abide such an approach, Ikenberry argues, because even in its rise to global dominance it is still seeking to work within institutions like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the WTO.
“In effect this strategy calls for making the liberal international order friendly to China and Russia by stepping back from the vision of a one-world liberal order,” he writes. “The emphasis instead would be on coexistence, building on the ‘defensive’ liberal principles of self-determination, tolerance, and ideological pluralism. Liberal internationalism would be made more conservative.” Or, some would say, more realist.
There is little doubt about the direction the Bidenites will go, because all of them know—as Ikenberry argues—that in the end there really is no alternative. As Sullivan wrote last year: Trump’s neoisolationist approach “is dangerous, but he has surfaced questions that need clear answers. Those of us who believe that the United States can and should continue to occupy a global leadership role, even if a different role than in the past, have to explain why Trump is wrong—and provide a better strategy for the future. …
“This requires domestic renewal above all, with energetic responses at home to the rise of tribalism and the hollowing-out of the middle class.”
Ultimately, the challenges of modernity will require a reinvented liberal internationalism because, Ikenberry argues, there really is no other system available for dealing with “the problems of interdependence” other than through international cooperation. Climate change, pandemics like COVID-19, nuclear proliferation—all can only be solved through the established global system. “The pandemic is the poster child of that problem,” he said in the interview.
But even here the United States must adopt more realist approaches to liberal internationalism. “The problem of liberal internationalism is about managing interdependence, not globalizing the world,” he said.
Ikenberry concludes that liberal internationalism must recreate itself as a more restrained version of President Woodrow Wilson’s original vision of making the world “safe for democracy.” But this, again, is likely to be more a defensive than offensive approach. And at home, Ikenberry says, it means finding a brand-new way of making internationalism work for average Americans, especially with labor and environmental protections. The idea of “protectionism” can no longer simply be anathema.
Indeed, Trumpist populism will not disappear under Biden. He has already advocated a $700 billion-plus “Buy American” plan and conditioned his return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership he once advocated on greater worker protections. His political platform sounds a not a little Trumpian as well, declaring he will “ensure the future is ‘made in all of America’ by all of America’s workers.” Biden will also continue a campaign begun by former President Barack Obama—but turned into a strident war by Trump—pressuring European allies to pay their fair share of the Atlantic alliance and NATO. In the end, Biden’s return to liberal internationalism will be real, but more demanding of other nations, as was Trump’s.
Above all, his approach will focus first at home, on the pandemic and joblessness. “Looking over 200 years,” Ikenberry said, “one of the things I found and which the Biden administration intuitively understands is that in every period where a golden era of internationalism that lifted America to greater heights existed, it was tied to a progressive agenda.”
Restoring this vision means going back to the nationalist origins of internationalism, how it arose out of the wars of the 19th century, the industrial revolution, and, in hands of proto-internationalists such as the British politician Richard Cobden, how it became a means to global hegemony and economic prosperity for its first great practitioner, Britain. Cobden spoke of free trade and peace as “one and the same cause,” and at the same time new forms of social internationalism also sprung up, pushing for equanimity for all social classes. The new concept of Adam Smith-conceived free trade presaged “the dissolution of empire, the ending of territorial annexation and the abandonment of aristocratic militarism,” as the British historian Anthony Howe argues. It presaged the modern world, in other words, culminating, ultimately, in the international community institutions proposed by Wilson and imposed and perfected by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But institutions that were always meant to benefit all Americans.
These changes in the international system are now so entrenched they cannot simply be undone. Yet they remain badly misdirected at present. Somewhere along the line the idea of internationalism became, rather than a means to achieve the end of national prosperity and peace, instead an end in itself. And this is where policymakers went wrong. In Washington, especially, the domestic impact of liberalization was consistently played down by both Republican and Democratic administrations. The post-Cold War globalization of free trade did indeed create, as the economists predicted, more global equality and prosperity overall. But in the past few decades far more of that equality and prosperity has accrued to developing nations than to the working classes of the champions of globalization like the United States and Europe, where growing inequality has engendered a long-term populist reaction, one that is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
As a result, Ikenberry said, “I think we’re in for a kind of managed openness that allows us to protect environmental and labor standards, so as to shore up the democracies.”
Even Ikenberry admits there is a long way to go in restoring faith in liberal internationalism in Washington, especially now that the problems of modernity “are like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There are greater opportunities with technologies and innovation but also greater perils.” Cyber-misinformation, for one thing, that emerged out of the very technology that was supposed to bring us closer together: the internet.
“Functioning liberal democracy requires some factual agreed-upon knowledge base,” said Ikenberry, and yet Trump showed that he could exploit the fact that there was no longer such an agreed-upon base—no direction home to broadly established economic and social truths.
In the end, Ikenberry calls for a new “Wilsonian moment” but he appears to think it will be something very different from what Wilson himself conceived a century ago. In the interview Ikenberry conceded: “Some will say what we are introducing is a kind of illiberal internationalism instead.”
How Biden’s Climate Plans Will Shake Up Global Energy Markets
The new administration will use foreign policy tools to promote climate goals, boost clean energy, and punish carbon-intensive production.
Jason Bordoff, a former senior director on the staff of the U.S. National Security Council and special assistant to President Barack Obama, is a professor of professional practice in international and public affairs and the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will come to office in January with the most ambitious climate plan of any U.S. president in history. But investors and corporate executives are wondering how big an impact the Biden administration can actually have on global energy markets—including renewable energy, oil, and gas—if Republicans retain control of the Senate and the Democrats have a narrower majority in the House of Representatives. For answers, one should look not only to Biden’s domestic agenda but also to his foreign policy and choice of former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as his international climate envoy.
Given that Biden will be more constrained in passing new legislation if Republicans retain control of the Senate in the Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 5, he may lean even more heavily on areas where the executive branch has existing legislative or constitutional authority. Among the most significant is the conduct of foreign policy. Selecting someone of Kerry’s stature as climate envoy and giving that person cabinet rank and a seat on the National Security Council signal that the Biden administration intends to go far beyond just rejoining the Paris climate agreement to make climate change a top foreign-policy priority. The policy shifts that result—in areas as diverse as international trade, development finance, nonproliferation, and diplomacy—will do at least as much as his domestic agenda to shake up global energy markets and give a boost to clean energy firms and technologies.
First, Biden has promised to use the tools of trade policy to expand clean energy. The scale and pace of the transition required to meet climate goals will result in large increases in global shipments of clean energy technologies and products such as batteries, solar panels, critical minerals including lithium and cobalt, and eventually low-carbon fuels such as hydrogen. By elevating climate change as a trade concern and returning to trade norms weakened by the Trump administration, Biden can pursue bilateral and multilateral agreements that make government subsidies for clean energy companies and products more permissible under trade rules, while still combating China’s damaging practices. Climate change is likely to receive greater attention next year when Congress reauthorizes the Trade Promotion Authority, which sets parameters for the president’s negotiation of trade agreements.
Biden has promised to impose border tariffs on carbon-intensive imports from abroad. The European Union is already planning such a measure, and it would be preferable for the United States and Europe to cooperate rather than subject each other’s exports to tariffs. In the World Trade Organization (WTO), reforms to bolster clean energy might include allowing goods and services with lower carbon content to be treated more favorably even though they are alike in other respects, raising the bar or imposing delays (so-called peace clauses) before national climate measures that restrict trade can be challenged, and allowing greater state subsidies supporting lower carbon energy than permitted under current trade rules. Other possible trade agreement provisions could allow nations greater leeway for public procurement of clean energy technologies and the reduction of tariffs on clean energy products.
No relationship is more consequential for global clean energy markets than that between the United States and China.
Second, no relationship is more consequential for global clean energy markets than that between the United States and China, which together are responsible for nearly half of global emissions. On the one hand, it will be critical to build on bilateral climate diplomacy begun under former U.S. President Barack Obama. China recently pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 while barely changing its 2030 targets, so a Biden administration can be expected to push China to deliver faster progress. A return to the trade norms of the WTO may also reduce trade frictions between the United States and China and lead to greater trade in energy and clean energy products.
On the other hand, there remain significant issues of contention in the U.S.-China trade relationship, including cybersecurity, intellectual property theft, unfair subsidies, and protectionism. Biden is also likely to confront China over political repression in Hong Kong and human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang. These issues may undermine trade, including that in energy technologies and products. Yet they may also spur greater U.S. innovation in clean energy as Washington increasingly works to protect the technological leadership of U.S. firms. The Biden administration will be more likely to match China with its own policies to promote certain industries seen to hold competitive and strategic advantages for the United States. Indeed, Biden’s pick for national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, argued last year for just such an approach toward China, pairing economic competition with cooperation on transnational threats such as climate change, global pandemics, nonproliferation, and military escalation.
Third, the Biden administration will have significant influence with multilateral finance institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as many regional development banks, to put climate change at the heart of development finance and encourage lending practices that promote low-carbon energy technologies and infrastructure. The United States is now able to bring much more to the table when it partners with other development finance institutions following bipartisan legislation in 2018 that created the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). With the DFC, the U.S. government now has much greater leeway to make equity investments and loans, including in local currencies to riskier borrowers, which makes it easier to partner with other countries, multilateral development banks, and private investors.
Since energy is essential for economic development, the electricity sector is by far the largest recipient of loans from development finance institutions around the world. Development finance can also be an important source of U.S. soft power. Biden has consistently said he would “hold China accountable” for its global investments in coal projects through the Belt and Road Initiative. Doing so will require putting cleaner, yet still financially viable, options on the table for emerging-market countries as an alternative to Chinese investments. The newly empowered DFC is a powerful tool to deliver these alternatives, especially in concert with the development finance institutions of like-minded U.S. allies. By elevating climate change to a priority for DFC, a Biden administration can mitigate private sector investment barriers—such as long project timelines and local currency fluctuations—and help unlock the trillions of dollars of capital that will be needed for global clean energy investments.
Scenarios for achieving a decarbonized global energy system by 2050 show that significantly more nuclear power is needed.
Fourth, the Biden administration has pledged to fulfill the United States’ 2014 commitment to provide climate-related assistance to poor countries, of which $2 billion is still outstanding. The U.S. Treasury Department also has other tools of climate finance at its disposal, such as how it responds to the looming global debt crisis in the wake of COVID-19. Modeled on the debt-for-nature swaps of the 1980s and 1990s that linked debt relief to investments in biodiversity and reforestation, including debt-for-climate swaps in debt restructuring negotiations could drive investment into low-carbon energy, energy efficiency, or conservation of forests and other carbon sinks.
Fifth, the Biden administration has pledged a significant increase in research and development funding and multilateral collaboration on clean energy innovation. Innovation is key to achieving climate goals and attracts bipartisan support across a range of technologies such as renewables, advanced nuclear, and carbon capture. The International Energy Agency projects that to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, half of the cumulative emissions reductions will have to come from technologies that are not yet commercially available. A National Energy Innovation Mission, as recently proposed by scholars at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, of which I am the director, would triple federal funding for energy innovation, not only in early stage research but also the deployment and commercialization of technologies. Through its climate diplomacy, the Biden administration can build R&D collaboration with other countries and speed up the development of new technologies by allowing countries with different skills and capabilities to share costs and expertise. Changing the cost profile of clean energy through innovation can speed the pace of transition in other countries and open new markets to clean energy firms.
Sixth, the U.S. nuclear and construction industries may get a boost under Biden. Scenarios for achieving a decarbonized global energy system by 2050 show that significantly more nuclear power is needed. Moreover, U.S. national security interests in nuclear nonproliferation argue in favor of rebuilding U.S. leadership in nuclear energy and strengthening nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries. At present, Russia and China have become the dominant global players in nuclear technology, giving them geopolitical influence to shape and influence the rules and norms in the sector.
Finally, the Biden administration is likely to go beyond negotiations over higher emission reduction targets after reentering the Paris climate agreement and also focus on implementation tools to achieve national commitments. Targets are important, but many nations are already falling short of meeting their initial Paris commitments, let alone higher ones. The Biden administration can use foreign and technical assistance, for example through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the national laboratories, to close the gap between ambition and reality. A key priority should be developing new financial tools, technological innovations, and economic diversification strategies to help China, India, and other countries where emissions are rapidly rising, not only to stop building new coal-fired power plants but also to phase down emissions from existing plants.
A Biden presidency increases the likelihood of further Russia sanctions that could also target energy companies.
Biden’s impact on clean energy firms may be especially pronounced in the United States. That’s because underlying climate policy efforts will be a reeling domestic economy as the coronavirus pandemic continues, with unemployment at 7 to 8 percent and millions of Americans unable to pay their rent and other bills. Indeed, his domestic climate agenda is already aimed at putting Americans back to work. Given what is likely to be a divided government, foreign-policy tools that both curb emissions and spur job growth will thus be particularly appealing. That may strengthen the desire to invest in innovation; use export credits to assist strategic clean energy sectors such as battery storage; direct DFC funding to support U.S. businesses in energy technology, construction, or infrastructure that are competing for overseas investment opportunities (explicitly part of DFC’s mandate); or shape trade rules and competition with China to permit targeted U.S. support for strategic domestic sectors.
While the Biden administration’s impact on global energy markets will be significant for clean energy firms and technologies, it will affect oil and gas markets as well. Perhaps the most significant impact on these sectors would come from a return to the Iran nuclear agreement, which would result in large volumes of Iranian oil returning to an already oversupplied market as sanctions are lifted, thus depressing oil prices further, even if market optimism about getting the pandemic under control with the new vaccines would give commodities a boost. A Biden presidency increases the likelihood of further Russia sanctions that could also target energy companies. Concerns about deteriorating relations with Washington may also drive Riyadh and Moscow toward even stronger cooperation in OPEC+. Biden’s pledge to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal lands would affect domestic production over time as output from existing wells and leases gradually declines. At the same time, policies that curb U.S. gas flaring and methane leaks could make U.S. oil and gas exports more competitive in markets such as the European Union, where energy imports have to meet increasingly high environmental standards. Biden’s biggest impact on oil and gas will come over time as his ambitious efforts to achieve climate goals and promote deep decarbonization would curb the demand for hydrocarbons.
The Biden administration’s ability to drive ambitious climate action abroad is, of course, linked to its domestic agenda. Progress at home will enhance its credibility abroad and effect certain tools like border carbon adjustments. At the same time, domestic policies, even if limited by a divided Congress, can be amplified on the global stage through Biden’s authority in the international realm to use foreign policy tools to help deliver both clean-energy growth and domestic economic renewal. As a result, one of the Biden administration’s most enduring legacies in global energy markets may be how diplomacy and geoeconomic tools in international finance, development assistance, trade, and innovation will have brightened the outlook for clean energy and expanded opportunities for U.S. firms in the sector.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The Ghost of Blinken Past
In 1987, Biden’s pick for secretary of state offered a warning. He should heed it today.
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.
“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.
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.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
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.”
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.
Saeid Jafari is an Iranian journalist and Middle East analyst.
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.
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.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
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.
Israel Is the Wrench in Biden’s Iran Policy
The U.S. president-elect wants to reengage with Iran, but Israel has other plans.
Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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.”
It’s Time for an Africa Policy Upgrade
Washington has sidelined Africa for too long. The Biden administration should take a new approach.
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.
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.
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.
Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris.
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.”
Pentagon Purges Leading Advisors From Defense Policy Board
It’s unclear why the Trump administration waited until its final months to shake up the influential group of outside experts advising top Pentagon leaders.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Several members of the top federal advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Defense have been suddenly pushed out, multiple U.S. officials told Foreign Policy, in what appears to be the outgoing Trump administration’s parting shot at scions of the foreign-policy establishment.
The directive, which the Pentagon’s White House liaison Joshua Whitehouse sent on Wednesday afternoon, removes 11 high-profile advisors from the Defense Policy Board, including former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright; retired Adm. Gary Roughead, who served as chief of naval operations; and a onetime ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman. Rudy De Leon, a former chief operating officer at the Pentagon once considered by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis for a high-level policy role, will also be ousted.
Also booted in today’s sweep of the board, which is effective immediately, were former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and David McCormick, a former Treasury Department undersecretary during the George W. Bush administration. Both had been added to the board by Mattis in 2017. Jamie Gorelick, a Clinton administration deputy attorney general; Robert Joseph, a chief U.S. nuclear negotiator who convinced Libya to give up weapons of mass destruction; former Bush Deputy National Security Advisor J.D. Crouch II; and Franklin Miller, a former top defense official, have also been removed.
The board, overseen by the Pentagon’s top policy official, the undersecretary of defense for policy, serves as a kind of in-house think tank on retainer for top military leaders, providing independent counsel and advice on defense policy. The Defense Policy Board includes former top military brass, secretaries of state, members of Congress, and other senior diplomats and foreign-policy experts. The status of two other members of the panel—or who would replace the ousted members—was not immediately clear.
Officials said that the Trump administration had long tried to remake the board with figures seen as loyal to the president—and outside of the Washington establishment—but had received pushback from recently ousted Defense Secretary Mark Esper and acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Anderson, who sought to keep the board in place to allow for policy continuity. Both Esper and Anderson were removed earlier this month in a purge of Pentagon officials.
The White House had sought to add Scott O’Grady, a former Air Force fighter pilot shot down over Bosnia, to the board to prepare him to be nominated for a top Pentagon position, as well as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a close ally of President Donald Trump. The administration had also vetoed adding retired Adm. Eric Olson, a former U.S. Special Operations Command chief, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as well as Gordon England, a former deputy secretary of defense during the Bush administration, over perceived anti-Trump ties.
“If they get treated like that, then who is going to want to volunteer?” a former senior Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.
While the board has no tangible role inside the Pentagon in the policymaking process, it routinely advises senior military leadership on some of the top strategic national security threats facing the United States. The board convened in October for classified discussions on formulating a long-term strategy toward China and deterrence in space, according to a notice from the Federal Register. The meeting included briefings from the CIA, the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, and other senior Pentagon policy officials.
The composition of the board has faced scrutiny from some Republican foreign-policy analysts, who say the current members do not accurately reflect the views of the administration, including its hard-line views toward China, as the Washington Times reported in October. Given the criticism, it is unclear why the White House waited until the final months of Trump’s tenure in the Oval Office to make changes to the Defense Policy Board.
Some members of the board, including Roughead, Albright, and Harman, were added to the board during the Obama administration in 2011.
The move follows a recent decision by Whitehouse, the liaison officer, to begin political-style vetting of nonpolitical experts and employees on loan from think tanks, an effort that had only extended to political appointees in the past.
Update, Nov. 26, 2020: This article was updated to provide comment from a Department of Defense official.
Say No, Joe
On U.S. foreign policy, there’s no going back to the status quo.
Benjamin H. Friedman is policy director at Defense Priorities.
Stephen Wertheim is deputy director of research and policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.
As U.S. President-elect Joe Biden assembles a foreign-policy team of experts drawn from previous Democratic administrations—including former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken—some of its members may be tempted to turn back the clock and return the United States to its course of four years ago, before Donald Trump ever set foot in the Oval Office. It is an appealing fantasy, for sure—and one to which Biden gestured in his campaign pledge to “restore” U.S. global leadership from its alleged Trumpian aberration.
During his campaign, however, Biden struck different notes as well, indicating a desire not just to restore but also to change. Biden promised to end the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East launched and sustained by Trump’s predecessors. He vowed to terminate U.S. assistance for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and stand against Saudi Arabia’s broader misdeeds. And he repeatedly emphasized that he had opposed sending more troops to Afghanistan in the hopes of building up the Afghan state under the Obama administration, proposing instead a narrower approach of targeting terrorists.
In taking these positions, Biden practiced good politics. He recognized the unpopularity of military entanglements and made it difficult for Trump to cast him as a warmonger. Now, Biden and his team have the opportunity to implement good policy as well by actually restraining U.S. military power from the White House.
The Biden administration can draw on familiar insights to do so. Four years ago, as he left office, President Barack Obama criticized what he called “the Washington playbook” for reflexively prescribing “militarized responses” to world events. Obama was right then and is only more so today, after four years of President Trump—who has bragged about U.S. weaponry and casually eaten chocolate cake while launching missile strikes. Overextended abroad, the United States has urgent needs at home, starting with recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. But the old playbook will invariably reappear, given its popularity among foreign-policy hands and, more fundamentally, the temptation U.S. power creates to meddle and boss others around. When this happens, the Biden administration will need to be ready to say no—no to unnecessary wars and no to further U.S. military overstretch. In five areas in particular, the administration ought to vow restraint from the get-go.
Chasing global dominance brings endless wars and enormous defense costs.
First, the Biden administration should not pursue global military dominance. The unipolar moment of the 1990s turned out to be just that—a moment that has long passed. In the meantime, countries like China have grown their economies and attained military capabilities to defend their borders and surroundings. The United States, for its part, has found that chasing global dominance brings endless wars and enormous defense costs. Military spending absorbs over half of the federal government’s entire discretionary budget, meaning that more money is spent on the Pentagon than on education, infrastructure, the environment, scientific research, diplomacy, and foreign aid combined. Pursuing dominance served the American public poorly even when no major competitor existed. It carries even bigger risks now.
Instead of pursuing dominance everywhere, Biden must work alongside U.S. allies to create a stable balance of power. With its nuclear deterrents, strong defenses, and geographical separation from many threats, the United States will be remarkably secure even if it opts not to police the world. Accepting multipolarity hardly means giving up on the exercise of military power; it means limiting power to that which has strategic purpose so as to obtain security at the least cost to Americans. Where U.S. adversaries improve their capabilities, the Biden administration should ask U.S. allies to similarly scale up—rather than put the United States on the front line of every potential conflict.
Second, the Biden administration must deliver on its promise to end what are often referred to as the United States’ “forever wars.” This could prove difficult: The last two presidents opposed “endless wars” rhetorically while extending them all the same. To avoid the same fate, Biden should take decisive action. He should create a robust timeline that ensures that the United States’ ground troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia come home by the end of his first term. He should end the “war on terror” as a rhetorical and policy framework, and subject drone strikes to strict scrutiny so that they become far rarer.
Biden has promised to bring “the vast majority of our troops home” from Afghanistan and the Middle East, a stance that suggests he might leave behind contingents to combat terrorists. That would be a mistake. In Afghanistan, the United States long ago achieved its key post-9/11 counterterrorism aims of decimating al Qaeda and punishing the Taliban. Ending “forever wars” means that all U.S. forces should come home, even if peace talks among the Afghan parties prove unsuccessful. The United States should then assess the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan just as it does elsewhere, freed from the sunk-cost logic of overemphasizing Afghanistan in U.S. policymaking simply because the United States has already expended so much effort there. If there are indeed terrorists who threaten the United States, they can be attacked by local forces or long-range U.S. striking power, if necessary.
If the United States deploys combat troops preventatively—for the purpose of keeping terrorists from resurging— the country’s wars will never end.
U.S. troops should likewise depart from Iraq and Syria. They achieved their mission of destroying the Islamic State, and local forces can now handle its remnants. If the United States deploys combat troops preventatively—for the purpose of keeping terrorists from resurging— the country’s wars will never end; it can never be verified with 100 percent certainty that terrorists won’t come back in the future. Meanwhile, such missions place U.S. troops in peril, canceling out any speculative American lives saved through their deployment.
Third, the U.S. military cannot police the Middle East, and Biden should not ask it to try. In fact, once the United States’ current wars are brought to a close, U.S. interests in the region will scarcely warrant any troop presence at all besides what is needed to protect naval and perhaps intelligence-gathering facilities. Because the Middle East is experiencing a competition for influence among multiple midsized powers—Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel—no one state credibly threatens to dominate the region and its oil supply. The United States will obtain more security by doing less.
Biden has already committed himself to taking steps to disentangle the United States from Middle Eastern politics. He wants to end the failed “maximum pressure” campaign toward Iran and resurrect the Iran nuclear deal. He has also called Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” suggesting he will downgrade the United States’ partnership with the kingdom. The Biden administration should build on these policies to systematically reduce America’s overidentification with one-half of the region and its excessive enmity with the other. Through evenhanded diplomacy—and avoiding any large U.S. troop presence—Biden can fulfill Obama’s goal of encouraging Middle Eastern powers to “share the neighborhood.”
Fourth, Biden must resist NATO expansion. For all his rebukes of European allies, Trump only increased U.S. security commitments to the continent. On his watch, the United States sent lethal weapons to Ukraine, intensified revolving military deployments in the Baltic States, and welcomed Montenegro and North Macedonia into NATO. That trend needs to stop, not least because the accession of the next candidates in line for NATO—Ukraine and Georgia—could provoke a dangerous response from Russia. The Biden administration should welcome initiatives from France and other European states to assume the primary responsibility for dealing with security challenges in their own region. By doing so, the United States would not only cut down on costs but also diminish the risk of being pulled into a World War III.
The next administration must temper U.S. militarism toward China.
Finally, the next administration must temper U.S. militarism toward China. In this year’s Democratic platform, the party sensibly rejected a “cold war” posture toward Beijing. Despite the country’s deepening repression and belligerence, China remains an essential U.S. partner in combating pandemic disease and climate change—far more direct threats to the American people than the specter of an armed attack. The Biden administration should therefore preserve room for dialogue and cooperation with Beijing and keep military competition from defining the bilateral relationship.
For now, the People’s Liberation Army has focused its capabilities on winning local disputes around China’s coasts. U.S. allies, such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, have the resources to defend themselves and do not wish to see their region descend into a Sino-U.S. standoff. In particular, the Biden administration should give a resounding no to growing calls to break from the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” by committing to wage war against China on behalf of Taiwan. It would be far better to help Taiwan bolster its own defenses and pursue a diplomatic course that keeps China at bay through both deterrence and reassurance.
By saying no to reckless interventions and commitments, the Biden administration would only be rejecting the false comforts of post-Cold War enthusiasms. For three decades, the United States’ pursuit of armed dominance produced all the pathologies that Trump took further—indefensible wars, strategic overstretch, runaway spending, and a culture fearful of endless threat. Trump unmasked these realities more than he created them. Biden should chart his own course.
Biden Likely to Lift Sanctions on ICC Chief Prosecutor
But it’s unlikely the next U.S. administration will be able to fully embrace the International Criminal Court as the shadow of American prosecutions still lingers.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
President-elect Joe Biden is facing increasing pressure from foreign allies, international justice advocates, and some of his own advisors to lift U.S. sanctions on Fatou Bensouda, the Gambian lawyer who leads the International Criminal Court, and a chief ICC aide.
Once he’s inaugurated, Biden has vowed to take a number of steps—including rejoining the Paris climate accord and reversing the current administration’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization—aimed at assuring key allies that the new American leader is committed to multilateralism and cooperating on a range of vexing global challenges. He has largely remained silent on his plans for the international tribunal, but sources familiar with the deliberations say that Biden is likely to lift sanctions on the court’s personnel early in his term.
“The first priority has to be on day one to rescind the executive order that authorized sanctions against court officials and those who cooperate with it,” said James Goldston, a former trial attorney with the international tribunal who serves as the executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes accountability for serious crimes around the world. “The administration should be working toward a more comprehensive and robust policy toward the prosecution of grave crimes, and one aspect of that should be reengaging with the ICC.”
In June, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order granting authority to the secretaries of state and treasury to impose an asset freeze and travel ban on foreign nationals who have participated in ICC investigations into alleged crimes by U.S. personnel or American allies. The move infuriated America’s Western allies, which have long supported the court—and they have been pressing the Biden camp to reverse course.
The Hague-based court has long had a complicated relationship with both Democratic and Republican administrations, which have worried that it might pursue criminal charges against American service members engaged in international military or peacekeeping operations. Those fears were heightened by the prosecution’s decision to pursue an investigation into alleged atrocities by U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
In the wake of the U.S. sanctions, signatories to the criminal tribunal have denounced the measures and urged the Biden administration to support the court. On Nov. 2, Germany issued a statement on behalf of 74 countries saying that “sanctions are a tool to be used against those responsible for the most serious crimes, not against those seeking justice. Any attempt to undermine the independence of the Court should not be tolerated.”
“France has been supporting the ICC from the very beginning,” France’s Ambassador to the United Nations Nicolas de Rivière said. “We are very strong supporters of international justice. We will certainly encourage the U.S. not only to drop sanctions or sanctions threats against the ICC, but we will also encourage them to support international justice and not undermine it.”
Observers say it is all but inevitable that Biden will lift the sanctions on Bensouda and Phakiso Mochochoko, a top aide, but that they are not convinced that Biden administration will be able to resume the same level of cooperation as during the Obama administration, citing the political complications posed by an ongoing investigation into U.S. service members in Afghanistan and the potential for a possible investigation into alleged crimes by Israelis.
“It’s very unlikely they will go back to where they were in 2015 or 2016,” said Todd Buchwald, who served as special coordinator in the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice during the Obama administration.
Buchwald is preparing a report for the American Society of International Law with a series of “pragmatic” recommendations aimed at furthering the cause of international justice. The ICC—which has issued only eight convictions since it began operating nearly 20 years ago and which has faced criticism even from its own supporters—represents only one piece of a broader international justice strategy. And Buchwald believes the Biden administration will “reemphasize working with friends and allies” and promoting the idea that “those responsible for atrocities should be held accountable.”
“It is imperative that they act very quickly to repeal that executive order as part of rejoining the community of states that support the rule of law—and I say that cognizant of the possible ICC investigation in Afghanistan that could implicate U.S. personnel, as well as a possible investigation in Palestinian territories,” said Richard Dicker, an expert on the International Criminal Court at Human Rights Watch.
“Obviously the relationship between the court and incoming Biden administration will have points of tension, but what is new?” Dicker added. “But that tension should not preclude, as prior administrations managed, a constructive engagement with the court, particularly in those country situations where the court’s investigative and prosecutorial work facilitate U.S. foreign policy objectives.”
Ned Price, a spokesperson for the Biden transition, declined to comment on Biden’s plans for the ICC. But he said: “The President-elect firmly believes in the principle that there must be only one president at a time guiding our country’s foreign policy and national security as he is focused on preparing to govern.”
The International Criminal Court was established by treaty in Rome in 1998, becoming operational four years later, to prosecute perpetrators of mass atrocities, including genocide; crimes against humanity; and war crimes.
From the beginning, the United States has had an ambivalent relationship with the court, which it encouraged to prosecute some of the world’s most bloodstained leaders, from the former Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir to the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, while working to secure immunity for American nationals operating in military missions overseas.
U.S. President Bill Clinton overcame his own misgivings about the court and ultimately signed the Rome Statute that established the tribunal. But his successor, President George W. Bush, withdrew the presidential signature, citing concern that the tribunal would be used to conduct politically motivated prosecutions of U.S. service members engaged in overseas operations. Even before the court came into existence, the Bush administration threatened to shutter vital U.N. peacekeeping missions to compel the U.N. Security Council to carve out an immunity provision for countries, like the United States, that had not joined the treaty. The effort failed.
Despite early opposition to the court, Bush ultimately found it could be used to pressure America’s adversaries. In 2005, the Bush administration abstained on a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a criminal investigation by the ICC prosecutor into alleged war crimes committed by Bashir’s regime in Darfur.
President Barack Obama went further, voting in favor of a 2011 U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing an investigation by the court into mass atrocities in Libya. The Obama administration also stepped up cooperation with the court, aiding in the arrest and transfer of a Congolese militia leader, Bosco Ntaganda, to The Hague, where he was convicted of war crimes.
But the Trump administration has pursued an openly hostile approach to the court.
The ICC’s prosecutor infuriated the Trump administration during its first year in office, seeking permission from the court’s judges to pursue a formal investigation into alleged crimes committed by the United States and other combatants during the Afghan War, and in previously secret CIA detention centers outside of Afghanistan. And in December 2019, Bensouda sought permission from the court’s judges to pursue an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Israeli forces during the 2014 conflict in the Gaza Strip.
In response, the Trump administration took a number of punitive steps against the prosecutor, initially revoking her visa to travel to the United States. This June, the White House issued an executive order paving the way for sanctions on the court on the grounds that the Afghan investigation constituted an infringement of U.S. sovereignty that threatened the national security of the United States. In September, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sanctions on Bensouda and a top aide, Mochochoko, dismissing the court as a “thoroughly broken and corrupted institution” and vowing that the United States “will not tolerate its illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction.”
How Israel Should Prepare for Biden’s New Approach to Iran
Israeli officials should urge the new administration to maintain U.S. economic leverage over Iran while avoiding the personal vendettas and public policy feuds of the Obama era.
Eldad Shavit is a senior researcher at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies and previously served in senior roles in Israeli Defense Intelligence and the Mossad.
Ari Heistein is a Research Fellow and Chief of Staff to the Director at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
The Iranian threat—both conventional and nuclear—has a major impact on Israel’s policy calculations. While Jerusalem’s concerns regarding the dangers of a potential military conflict with the Palestinians or Hezbollah are real, they are limited in scope, as those confrontations would not put Israel’s very existence in jeopardy. In contrast, the prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon is viewed as a potentially existential threat by the Israeli security establishment; this explains why the government has allocated a large proportion of its attention and resources to slowing advances within the Iranian nuclear program and preventing its weaponization, both independently and together with allies.
Changes and fluctuations in the U.S. approach toward Iran and its nuclear program impact key Israeli national security calculations on how it ought to advance its goals of maximizing the time it takes Iran to develop a nuclear weapon while preventing the eruption of a war. The incoming Biden administration is expected to take a different approach to Iran—and Israel will need to prepare accordingly.
In recent years, during the tenure of President Donald Trump, Israel and the United States were in lockstep regarding the U.S. policy of withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposing a so-called maximum pressure sanctions campaign on the Iranian economy. The U.S. government has proved that its economic power gives it the ability to exert enormous economic pressure—even when acting primarily alone and targeting countries that are not very deeply tied into the international economic system. The dismal economic situation in Iran following the reimposition of sanctions was significantly worsened by the health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet despite the U.S. success in garnering a great deal of economic leverage from its maximum pressure campaign, it is now all but a foregone conclusion that maximum pressure will not force Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Trump before his term expires. Iran proved more defiant than was anticipated by the White House and Israel, and Tehran responded with its own campaign of “maximum resistance,” which included attacks on the oil infrastructure of U.S. allies, advancing its nuclear program in violation of the deal, and a refusal to negotiate. When Trump leaves office on Jan. 20, 2021, the regime’s nuclear program will be closer to the threshold than it would have been under the terms of the agreement.
When sizing up the incoming Biden administration, based on President-elect Joe Biden’s own statements as well as those of expected appointees Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Israel could once again be faced with some of the policy issues that led to bad blood between the two governments during Barack Obama’s presidency. If the Biden administration rejoins the nuclear deal in accordance with its stated intentions, the bitter controversy over the agreement from 2015 may end up being relitigated between Israel and the United States. The key question will be whether this time around the two governments can more successfully bridge the policy gaps and mitigate any personal vendettas.
Despite Israeli concerns, Biden does not appear poised to try to turn back the clock four years to return to the final days of the Obama administration in a manner that will seek to reverse all of Trump’s policies and ignore the ways in which the strategic environment has changed since January 2017. From the Israeli perspective, it is important that Biden avoid quickly forfeiting the economic leverage over Tehran that the United States has derived from its maximum pressure campaign.
From the perspective of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Biden’s inauguration will present the regime with the opportunity, difficult as it may be to capitalize on, of striking a more favorable balance between Tehran’s mistrust of Washington and its desperate need to alleviate the economic distress, which has posed numerous challenges including consistent but sporadic unrest. That window to reach an agreement may close if the hard-line candidate wins in the Iranian presidential election set for June 2021, but not necessarily, as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is also capable, if less inclined, to take a pragmatic approach to improving Iran’s economic situation through sanctions relief.
When considering the factors impacting Iranian decision-making, it seems that the regime’s dilemma will only intensify over time if the Biden administration avoids rushing into reversing the maximum pressure policy. The fact that Iran is seeking to improve its dismal economic state should inform a restrained U.S. approach to incentivizing an Iranian return to the negotiating table. It is possible that small confidence-building measures, such as the approval of a loan to Iran by the International Monetary Fund or European countries extending limited lines of credit, will be necessary in order to resume talks; the COVID-19 pandemic provides a context to present these gestures as humanitarian in nature rather than long-term concessions that reduce Washington’s negotiating leverage.
As soon as it is possible, Israel should begin coordinating positions on Iran and discussing the respective countries’ core interests with the incoming Biden administration. In addition, the Israeli government should avoid seeking to take advantage of symbolic last-minute favors from the Trump administration, which would nurture hostility and suspicion from the Democratic Party. Despite the delay in doing so, acknowledging Biden’s electoral victory was an important step by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so as to avoid preemptively poisoning Israel’s relationship with the new White House—but Netanyahu’s subsequent and very public challenge to Biden’s planned return to the 2015 deal sets the stage for a tense relationship between the two. Discretion in its collaboration with both incoming and outgoing administrations is the name of the game for Israel.
It will be important, in Israel’s view, for the U.S. government to clarify to Iran that it will not lift all of the reimposed sanctions before striking a new and improved agreement that includes additional concessions from Iran. Israel will ask the Biden administration to focus the bulk of its efforts on the nuclear issue: extending limitations on quality and quantity of centrifuges and stockpiled fissile material so that they do not begin to expire in five years’ time, restricting research and development on advanced centrifuges, and implementing a more intrusive inspections regime.
Certainly Israel would also seek an agreement that includes restrictions on Iran’s missile program and destabilizing activity in the region, but closing the nuclear loopholes of the 2015 agreement is the main priority, and the possibility of doing so should not be dependent on reaching an understanding on nonnuclear matters (which might be handled on parallel tracks, as Sullivan has suggested).
The phrase “all options are on the table” should also return to the discourse on Iran’s nuclear program. That approach was used during the Obama era to intensify Iran’s perception of risk for failing to reach an agreement, and Biden would benefit greatly from adopting that approach as president while taking steps to prove that such talk is more than just rhetoric.
Past experience indicates that despite the Iranian supreme leader’s disdain for and distrust of the United States, he is also aware of the risks accompanied by overly provocative steps that could push the relationship between the two countries to combustible new lows. Even if the Iranian negotiators drive a hard bargain, they will ultimately seek to avoid a scenario in which their domestic situation continues to deteriorate, and they would undoubtedly take the necessary steps to avoid the existential risk posed by a military conflict with the United States.
Should the new U.S. administration fail to take Israel’s concerns regarding the Iranian nuclear program into account, we can expect a return of the paradigm of tension that characterized Obama-Netanyahu relations as well as greater Israeli appetite to act independently in order to prevent Iran from reaching the nuclear threshold. Given the close relations between the two countries and the tremendous amount of overlap between their views on the Iranian nuclear issue, that is a scenario both parties have an interest and responsibility to prevent.
Despite Biden’s apparent willingness to rejoin the nuclear deal, Israel should not and likely will not shy away from presenting its concerns regarding the loopholes of the 2015 agreement. While the deal was certainly flawed, it bought time that could have been used by the U.S. and Israeli governments to prepare solutions for the deal’s sunset clauses and loopholes—preparations that have thus far been neglected despite the fact that Iran’s nuclear program has now advanced well beyond what the 2015 pact allowed.
The Trump administration has not achieved the better deal it promised, but it did open the door to correcting the agreement’s flaws—simply closing that door rather than making the most of U.S. leverage would hardly resolve the issue.
Trump’s Pentagon Now Vetting Nonpolitical Experts
Political-style vetting is now being applied to special government employees and other hard-to-find outside experts.
The Trump administration has opted to extend background vetting of U.S. Department of Defense appointees to nonpolitical roles, current and former U.S. officials told Foreign Policy, a move that is said to be hampering top think tank experts and outside advisors from consulting with the Pentagon on policy matters.
The recent decision made by freshly minted Pentagon White House liaison Joshua Whitehouse, a loyalist to President Donald Trump and former New Hampshire state representative, could keep outside experts out of the Defense Department if they are found to hold anti-Trump views in a background check, which includes checking social media accounts. The positions are usually used to keep a continuity of knowledge inside the Pentagon amid personnel churn inside the building.
While the Trump administration has long policed social media accounts of possible hires, those decisions have typically been limited to political appointees at the Schedule C rank and above.
“The vetting is a black box,” one former official said on condition of anonymity. “No one is getting an SGE through,” the official said, referring to special government employees, one of the categories impacted by the decision.
Though the decision has apparently stalled nonpolitical experts from getting advisory jobs in the Pentagon, most of which allow outside advisors to work 150 days per year on Defense Department projects, it was not immediately clear how many appointees had been halted.
Officials said the decision would extend to those labeled highly qualified experts and special government employees, and also applies to appointees who come in through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, a law that allows think tank experts to serve in nonpolitical civilian jobs in the Pentagon while remaining employees of their home organizations.
Other officials described the move—which appears to target people who have made remarks critical of Trump on social media—as not just about finding new talent loyal to Trump but an effort to build out the Republican national security bench in the two months before the end of his term. That rationale has also been used to explain the promotion of several Trump allies through the Pentagon’s ranks after the firings of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Anderson in a postelection purge earlier this month, including former National Security Council staffers Kash Patel, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, Joe Francescon, and Tom Williams, who now hold high-profile roles near the top of the Defense Department’s organizational chart.
Extending vetting to specialized experts, including positions related to nuclear weapons infrastructure and innovation, is drawing criticism from former officials who fear the move could scare away hard-to-find experts.
“These roles aren’t political,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, the vice president of research and evaluation at the Partnership for Public Service, who served as a senior advisor on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
“DODs own policies demand these positions be free of political influence. The [White House liaison] office should [have] no voice here, and including them in a system designed to bring in apolitical, tough-to-source expertise is extremely risky,” she said.
Whitehouse has also had interviews with outside experts in recent weeks, sources told Foreign Policy, though many of the questions appeared to stay in their policy lanes. But he has also angered some in the Pentagon for not respecting senior leaders in the building and failing to abide by mask mandates, current officials said.
The vetting of nonpolitical experts appears to be an expansion of an ongoing effort to weed out perceived Trump detractors from the ranks of political appointees. Earlier in the administration, the Presidential Personnel Office would find and flag social media posts of appointees at the Schedule C rank and above that were deemed to be a slight to Trump. But the Trump administration has shown interest in remaking the career civil service, too.
In October, Trump issued an executive order creating a new class of at-will employees in the career service known as “Schedule F,” and giving politically appointed agency heads wide latitude to hire and fire them, a move that prompted concerns that the administration would seek to further politicize key agencies. The directive asks cabinet officers to decide whether career and political officials in their agencies should be classified as at-will employees before Inauguration Day—a move that could also potentially give Trump appointees more latitude to stay put. According to an internal Office of Management and Budget memo reported on by Federal News Network, the agency’s director Russ Vought has classified 88 percent of his workforce, 425 people, as Schedule F.
There has also been a push at the Defense Department to target some civil service members. Foreign Policy previously reported that Whitehouse, the liaison officer, had pushed the Pentagon’s powerful policy office to oust Steven Schleien, its chief operating officer, despite civil service protections that likely made his dismissal illegal. The Presidential Personnel Office, led by influential former Trump body man John McEntee, spent several weeks this summer interviewing political appointees across the U.S. government for perceived loyalty to Trump, including inside the Pentagon.
Hires through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, known as IPAs, were first brought into the Defense Department from national labs to help with the U.S. nuclear program. The program has been expanded in recent years as the Defense Department’s policy shop has lost civilian employees, and it has also been used to bring on experts who can’t be hired permanently.
“The notion of doing political background checks on HQEs and IPAs is fucking insane,” said one former defense official. “That’s rank politicization of an apolitical body.”
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.”
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.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
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.
Trump’s Scorched Earth Farewell
Not only is Trump attempting a coup, he’s trying to leave everything in flames for the Biden administration.
The problem is not just that President Donald Trump is denying the outcome of the Nov. 3 election and seemingly attempting a coup to reverse that result. It’s that on almost every front from COVID-19 response and economic rescue plans to the fate of hotspots such as Afghanistan and Iran, the outgoing president is sowing chaos within his own administration that has left every world capital in a muddle and President-elect Joe Biden in a bind.
The most immediate and dangerous challenge is the Trump administration’s failure to respond to the alarming upswing in COVID-19 cases, or to coordinate pandemic response or vaccine distribution with the incoming Biden team. But that same scorched-earth policy applies to the economic carnage caused by the virus, which is likely to persist next year as cases and deaths increase dramatically.
The latest confusion erupted Thursday when U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell in a letter that he wants the Fed to close down most of its emergency lending facilities, even as COVID cases reach new highs across the country that will no doubt be exacerbated by the coming winter weather, flu season and holiday travel.
In a rare public disagreement, the Fed retorted that it “would prefer that the full suite of emergency facilities established during the coronavirus pandemic continue to serve their important role as a backstop for our still-strained and vulnerable economy.” The U.S. outbreak has already exceeded 11.5 million cases and 250,000 deaths, and vaccines remain in early testing stages as thousands of schools and businesses shut down anew.
On Friday CNN reported that more than 2,300 Americans could be losing their lives every day by Dec. 18, according to new numbers from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). “We expect daily deaths to reach a peak of over 2,500 a day in mid-January,” the IHME modeling team said.
There’s little progress on additional economic aid, either, as Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remain stalemated over renewed financial relief, and after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky sent the upper chamber on recess. Meanwhile, Trump is threatening the growing number of Republicans who are challenging his efforts to overturn the election; Trump pointedly fired the head of the government cybersecurity unit that touted the “most secure” election in U.S. history.
Rather than focus on the pandemic, or the lingering economic pain it has caused, Trump has poured all his attention into staying in power, reportedly trying to strongarm Republican lawmakers in Michigan to certify him as the winner of that battleground state, despite a resounding margin of victory for Biden. Trump met with two of Michigan’s top state lawmakers at the White House Friday afternoon in a last-ditch effort to reverse the will of the voters. At a news conference Friday he declared once again that he had “won” the election.
“It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president,” Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, a frequent critic of Trump, tweeted on Friday.
Longtime political observers say that, as with so much Trump has done during his presidency, all this behavior is unprecedented. “The chaos and the complete abandonment of the basic principles of orderly transition of power are undermining our ability to provide global leadership,” said former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.
Trump is also breaking all sorts of diplomatic crockery when it comes to foreign policy. In Afghanistan, Trump purged Pentagon leadership to ensure a hasty pullout of most of the remaining U.S. troops in the country, even though the conditions on the ground for the U.S. withdrawal have not been met, according to U.S. commanders. That’s leading to some rare intra-party fights. McConnell, usually a stalwart Trump ally, blasted the troop withdrawal.
“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.”
“Trump’s behavior suggests he does not care about what happens in or to Afghanistan as long as he gets to claim to his base that he did what he promised to do,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. “In acting against the advice of almost everyone, Trump wants to force Biden to resend troops to Afghanistan after Biden’s inauguration. Trump would then be able to crow that he is against forever wars while Biden is the one who sent troops back to Afghanistan.”
Haqqani added: “President Obama had also set a schedule for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan but he stopped its implementation closer to the 2016 election, saying he did not want to tie down the hands of the next president.”
Trump is also still ramping up his maximum pressure campaign on Iran to limit the Biden administration’s room for maneuver. The administration is reportedly weighing additional rounds of sanctions to further squeeze Iran’s battered economy. And this week, the New York Times quoted officials saying Trump sought options for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities before leaving office, since he has failed to persuade Tehran to negotiate with him after abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal. Officials reportedly dissuaded Trump from doing so.
But some government officials are concerned about more surprises to come. According to one well-placed Capitol Hill source, some intelligence professionals expressed concern that Trump, outraged by what he called the role of the “China virus” in his defeat, may be planning action of some kind against Beijing. Those worries have increased with the firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other senior Pentagon officials, and their replacement by Trump loyalists.
Yet the most urgent crisis lies with COVID, and the administration’s ongoing refusal to sign off on additional rescue money while allowing five of the Fed’s nine emergency facilities to expire at the end of the year. As fall turns to winter, and Covid cases continue to rise, most experts expect further economic turbulence just as the Biden administration comes into office. That makes the decision to hobble the Fed look like a landmine.
“With the COVID-19 crisis worsening and activity slowing in the absence of fiscal aid, the decision to curtail the Fed’s firepower could unsettle markets and exacerbate economic stress,” wrote Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics on Friday.
Will Trump Try to Bomb Iran Before He Leaves the White House?
This is a lame-duck presidency unlike any other and the potential for surprises—and conflict—are high.
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.
Matthew Kroenig: It has been an interesting couple of weeks. There has been a slow transition process to the new administration. Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and other senior national security officials, leading some to fear that a coup was underway. And everyone is speculating about who will land cabinet posts in a Biden administration and what that will mean for the future of U.S. foreign policy.
Emma Ashford: I heard we’re actually transitioning to the second Trump administration. Of course, it was from a pretty non-reputable source: Mike Pompeo, secretary of state.
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.
But even most Republicans now accept that the election is officially over, and that Biden won. In Washington that can mean only one thing: jockeying for positions in a new administration! But other than Michèle Flournoy—the perennial next Secretary of Defense—we don’t actually know a lot about Biden’s potential national security appointments yet.
Anyone you have your eye on in particular? Or any foreign policy issues?
MK: Biden’s long-time confidant Tony Blinken is a near lock for national security adviser. There was talk of Susan Rice for secretary of state, but Senate Republicans say she’ll never be confirmed. And her past closeness to the party now involved in a civil war against the Ethiopian government could make her politically unpalatable for other reasons.
Regardless of who lands these posts, they might inherit a changed landscape in the greater Middle East. According to press reports, Trump may pull out of Afghanistan and bomb Iran all before Jan. 20. It could be a busy holiday season for national security professionals.
EA: Ah, Donald Trump, the world’s foremost dove. I remember when the New York Times ran an opinion article hailing Trump as “Donald the Dove.” And here we are only four years later, and the man has barely managed to pull 2,000 more troops out of Afghanistan, and is suggesting he might bomb Iran. I doubt even this Afghanistan move would be enough to actually fulfill his 2016 campaign promise to end the United States’ wars overseas.
MK: It is for these reasons that I warmed to Trump while he was in office. I worried about many of his proposed policies on the campaign trail, but by the spring of 2017, he showed he was comfortable with American power, promising to build a nuclear arsenal at “the top of the pack” and striking Assad for gassing his own people.
EA: I bet you’re not pleased about the Afghanistan decision, though?
MK: Pulling out would be the wrong move. The Afghan government would likely fall to the Taliban without U.S. support and that is not an outcome I want to see. People talk about ending endless wars, but U.S. forces are there at the behest of the Afghan government, helping them secure their country. No one complains about endless wars because we still have troops in Germany and Japan.
EA: The last I checked, U.S. troops in Germany weren’t actively fighting insurgents. Twenty-two servicemen and women died in Afghanistan last year alone.
U.S. strategy for Afghanistan is effectively non-existent. The troops there are engaged in a perennial war with an enemy that wasn’t beaten with ten times the troops. And what’s the plan? Just leave troops there forever? I rarely give Trump credit for anything, but his decision to talk to the Taliban, and to pull troops from Afghanistan is long overdue in U.S. foreign policy.
MK: So you would be OK with the Taliban taking back control of the country?
EA: I wouldn’t be thrilled about it. It would be bad for liberty, for women’s rights, and for the Afghan population. But the fact I dislike something doesn’t necessarily make it a national security threat. There’s no evidence the Taliban will go back to hosting terrorist groups, and political processes like the Doha talks can work to tie that objective to concrete incentives that make it less likely.
MK: But the United States won’t have any leverage in the peace talks if it retreats regardless of what happens at the negotiating table. And there is a strategy: help the Afghan government control the capital and most of the country even while recognizing it’s not possible to decisively defeat the Taliban. That is a stable and tolerable outcome that can be achieved at a reasonable cost. Not all foreign policy problems can be solved; this is one we will just have to manage.
EA: What you describe as a tolerable outcome is effectively a perpetual U.S. military presence in the country. For how long? It’s been almost 20 years at this point, and those “reasonable costs” are still being borne by U.S. troops and their families.
And my bigger point is that Washington can effectively achieve the same aims without a major presence on the ground in Afghanistan. The U.S. military is already adept at using drones—if perhaps, too willing—and other remote capabilities to strike at terrorist groups abroad if needed, and always retains the option to send troops back to Afghanistan if the Taliban invites al Qaeda back in. If we’re considering U.S. interests—rather than Afghan ones—there’s no real difference between these strategies!
MK: There is no shot clock in international security. U.S. troops should stay as long as they have to. Again, no one is counting the years for U.S. deployments in other allied and security partner nations. And it is much easier to stay than it is to withdraw now only to fight one’s way back into a difficult situation later.
We might agree on one point, however. Trump is the elected commander-in-chief and, if his intention is to pull out, then the Pentagon should do its best to responsibly carry out that order.
EA: If the order is legal, absolutely. Military leaders have a responsibility to refuse unconstitutional or illegal orders, like committing war crimes, or dispersing peaceful protesters by force. But on something like troop withdrawals, if the president says “jump,” the Pentagon response should be: “How high?”
I don’t know how much credence to put into the rumors that Trump fired much of the civilian Pentagon leadership over their opposition to Afghan troop removals, as opposed to what he perceived as insufficient loyalty on issues like using troops on protesters.
MK: You put the question well. These firings were almost certainly about long-simmering policy and personal differences and Trump was just holding off on major staff changes until after the election. The talk that this was all preparation for a coup was just the latest (and I hope final) example of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
EA: Oh God. That’s a term best confined to the dustbin of history.
But the bigger point is that Trump’s term in office has been characterized by appointees who have done their best to undermine his policy choices. You can argue that Trump is so erratic that these officials were doing us all a service, but that’s a very risky argument. Who gets to decide what’s bad? We’re a democracy. Why should someone like Syria envoy and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Jim Jeffrey get to decide that troops belong in Syria rather than the elected president?
MK: So we are in agreement then that if Trump orders a strike on Iran in his waning days of office, then the Pentagon should act on it?
EA: Of course. If it isn’t an illegal order—something blatantly unconstitutional—the Pentagon needs to do it. Even the war powers act allows the president to commit U.S. troops to conflict for up to 60 days without congressional approval.
Not all bad ideas are illegal, unfortunately. And I think the possibilities being floated in various publications—that Trump will strike Iranian nuclear sites, or that he’ll give the Israelis the green light to do it for him—are truly terrible ideas.
MK: I used to work on the Iran desk in the Pentagon and have written extensively on this issue in the past. A limited strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be better than living with the dangers of a nuclear Iran for years to come. And, if you believe Obama’s and Trump’s public statements, they agree with me.
But we are not there yet. According to public estimates, Iran’s breakout time to a bomb is 3.5 months. So, it is not too early to have this discussion, but we don’t need to pull the trigger tomorrow.
EA: Look, the fundamental question is one of permanence. A strike might well undermine Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons, but only temporarily.
Two other points: So far as we know, Iran hasn’t actually crossed the rubicon from enrichment to weapons development since the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal. And the only reason we’re having this discussion is that Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement brought us to a point where Iran now has 12 times the highly enriched uranium it did under the deal!
MK: Do you think the enrichment program is a high-school science project? There is only one logical purpose for a country like Iran: to make fuel for nuclear weapons. The IAEA caught Iran designing nuclear warheads. And Iran has the most sophisticated missile program in the region. The last remaining piece is to acquire one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade fissile material. Iran is inching closer and the best estimates are that that can be achieved 3.5 months after Iran’s Supreme Leader says: “Go.”
EA: The IAEA caught them designing warheads in the 1990s. As someone who was a teenager in the 1990s, I’d prefer we didn’t hold people to account for things—like fashion crimes—that they did three decades ago.
Sarcasm aside, the enrichment program is political in nature. It serves the regime’s domestic political needs by thumbing their nose at the West, and it serves their international needs in providing them a bargaining chip to encourage future U.S. administrations to come back to the nuclear deal.
Look, even if a strike undermines their nuclear capabilities, what’s to stop them building it again, this time further underground?
MK: If Iran is on the verge of developing weapons and the U.S. military doesn’t strike, then it will have nuclear weapons. Washington doesn’t want to make the same mistake as in North Korea and simply watch as a rogue state joins the nuclear club. Military strikes at least keep the non-nuclear path open.
They might rebuild, but they might prefer not to waste additional years and billions of dollars only to get bombed again.
And I dare them to rebuild further underground. The Fordow uranium enrichment facility near Qom is already built into the side of the mountain under 300 feet of rock and it is still vulnerable to U.S. bunker-busting bombs.
EA: I have a healthy regard for human ingenuity. If they can’t bury it, they’ll hide it. The list of countries that have successfully hidden some form of nuclear development from the international community is lengthy, even if only some of them succeeded in getting the bomb: North Korea, South Korea, South Africa, Israel, Brazil, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and more.
And the political incentives to rebuild Iran’s nuclear program are huge; otherwise, the regime looks weak domestically. It seems to me military strikes just put the U.S. government in a situation where it has to find increasingly complex ways to strike the program every few years. It would surely be better to defuse the issue through diplomacy, inspections, and safeguards. Conveniently, those are all things that open the country up economically, support reformist voices, and undermine the power of groups like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
MK: Of course, diplomacy would be the best possible solution, but it hasn’t been easy. The Trump administration offered to negotiate, and it was Iran that refused. And even the nuclear deal did not solve this problem permanently; it only kicked it down the road 10-15 years. It would be great if we could talk Tehran out of the bomb, but I am not optimistic.
EA: I’m hardly surprised that Iran didn’t jump at the opportunity to negotiate with an administration that pulled out of the deal and then called on them “to behave like a normal nation.”
It sounds like what Trump is trying to do here is foreclose the diplomatic option for Biden. I’ve always felt that presidents had a duty to not screw things up on purpose for their opponents and successors. Some presidents have clearly felt differently, like when Reagan negotiated for the release of Iranian hostages behind Jimmy Carter’s back. But Trump is still piling on new sanctions and considering military strikes to lock in his maximum pressure campaign against Iran. It’s far from the worst thing he’s done, but it’s still not good.
MK: Maybe we can end on a note of agreement. Trump is a lame-duck president. The responsible thing would be to keep the ship of state on a steady course until the handover on Jan. 20. So, that means no Iran strike and no Afghan troop withdrawal. It will then be up to Biden to decide.
EA: You may be right there. Of course, there’s a lot more likelihood of continuity between Biden and Trump on Afghanistan than on Iran.
But I think you might be being unrealistic again. This president has refused to accept the election results and is denying his successor access to classified intelligence and transition resources. I don’t exactly see him honoring the incoming administration’s foreign-policy preferences.
Perhaps that’s why so many foreign leaders—with the notable exception of Benjamin Netenyahu and Mohammed Bin Salman—seem so happy to see a Biden victory? It will be refreshing to get back to a president whom we can criticize on policy, but don’t need to be embarrassed about.
MK: I am not easily embarrassed by the democratically elected leader of the world’s greatest country. That is, unless the Onion is correct and we need to worry about a shirtless Uncle Joe washing his Trans Am in the White House driveway.
Biden Can’t Free Palestine
The Oslo paradigm has proved dangerous for Palestinians. It’s time to look beyond it.
Salem Barahmeh is the Executive Director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy / Rābet.
Palestinians let out a collective sigh of relief after U.S. President Donald Trump’s election defeat. Like much of the rest of the world, they had been anxiously awaiting the outcome—and lamenting the fact that a political process halfway around the world continues to have an undue impact on the trajectory of their lives.
While President-elect Joe Biden’s win—or, rather, Trump’s impending exit—offers Palestinians a brief reprieve, it also presents them with a sobering reality with which they must now contend. The Biden administration may prove less threatening to the Palestinian cause than its predecessor, but it is not likely to facilitate a path toward Palestinian freedom or rights.
Far from it, Biden will likely usher in a return to the suffocating pre-Trump normal of the Oslo paradigm—the framework, based on the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords, that advocates for a two-state solution through bilateral negotiations mediated by the United States. Flawed for numerous reasons—not the least of which being that it is sorely outdated—the dormant Oslo peace process renders the United States the playmaker in Palestinians’ collective fate.
Pursuing a political strategy rooted in dependency on a rotating slew of U.S. presidents—and now, the Biden administration—won’t deliver Palestinians their freedom. To achieve liberation, Palestinians must take the next four years to look internally and revive a national movement that has been on its deathbed for decades.
Over the course of the past four years, the Trump administration relentlessly assaulted the Palestinian right to self-determination—essentially seeking its outright erasure. The White House targeted pillars of Palestinian society and politics: recognizing Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem, pressuring the Palestinian Authority to cut welfare payments to the families of political prisoners, and eliminating funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
This week, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank, breaking a decades-long taboo in Washington.
Under Trump, the United States moreover cut diplomatic ties with the PLO and pushed for normalization agreements between Arab states and Israel so as to isolate the Palestinian leadership. The president’s strategy, in effect, was to force Palestinians into capitulation as millions suffered. Now, as a lame-duck president, Trump has enabled the demolition and displacement of an entire Palestinian community, labeled the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement as anti-Semitic, and normalized Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land.
This week, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank, breaking a decades-long taboo in Washington. To make matters worse, Pompeo announced that wine made in the illegal settlement—including a red wine named after him—would be labeled as “Made in Israel,” thereby recognizing Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank.
What made Trump’s approach all the more flagrant to the architects—and enablers—of the Oslo process was that it violated the paradigm’s rules, which have come to define the last 30 years of policy paralysis. Trump defied the Oslo proponents’ unspoken holy grail: paying lip service to the two-state solution while in practice acquiescing to the very one-state reality Israel is shaping on the ground.
With his so-called “deal of the century,” Trump rightly recognized that the two-state solution under the Oslo paradigm was no longer feasible because Israel had deliberately turned a prospective Palestinian state into a series of Bantustans.
Rather than further the illusory rhetoric in favor of a two-state solution heralded by previous U.S. administrations, Trump’s deal merely formalized the reality on the ground—which resembles a fragmented Palestinian archipelago sinking in an encroaching sea of Israeli control. For the first time, a U.S. president openly endorsed the vision of “Greater Israel,” in which Palestinians would be second- and third-tier subjects in a system of perpetual supremacy of one people over another, otherwise known as apartheid.
Trump and his so-called “peace plan” exposed the facade of a system—Oslo—that is structurally flawed. For the last three decades, the foreign policies espoused by countries around the world have been unable to end Israel’s systems of oppression and injustice, let alone safeguard the two-state solution from oblivion. Yet the Oslo paradigm persisted because it offered policymakers a tolerable equilibrium that removed the imperative to act and hold Israel accountable.
This system has been propped up by foreign aid poured into a state-building project—the Palestinian Authority—that allows Palestinians to maintain just enough of a standard of living so as not to provoke an uprising or humanitarian crisis. It moreover allows Israel to “manage the conflict” with no real cost by subcontracting the occupation to the Palestinian Authority through security cooperation and service provision agreements. The political glue that has held this charade together is the empty mantra of trying to “get both sides back to the negotiating table” in a U.S.-brokered “peace process,” as if we were on the doorstep of 1991 rather than 2021.
The Oslo paradigm is dangerous—a purgatory that shackles and suffocates any real progress toward addressing the systemic injustices Israel inflicts against the Palestinian people. Instead of envisioning a new path forward—one that reflects the realities of all that has changed over the past three decades—Oslo’s proponents are busy rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic as the ship itself sinks. These same individuals then feign surprise at the ever worsening status quo faced by millions who live under a one-state reality where freedom and rights are afforded by ethnonational identity.
Palestinians are in dire need of a radically different approach—one that Oslo, by design, cannot provide. Nor can the Biden administration. In many ways, Trump’s approach to the conflict was less a departure from standard U.S. policy than a culmination of it—coming on the heels of a decades-long trajectory set by U.S. presidents and bipartisan policy consensus in Washington at which Biden and Harris were front and center. The single-most critical failure of that policy was not challenging Israel.
Today, there are growing calls by the U.S. progressive movement—led by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—to condition military funding to Israel. But, if the past is any indication, the Biden-Harris administration will seek to bolster the U.S. relationship with Israel rather than challenge it. In 1986, Biden famously said on the Senate floor that U.S. military funding to Israel was “the best $3 billion investment we make.” He added: “Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect its interests.”
Palestinians cannot afford to return to the hamster wheel of Oslo and engage in a political strategy of dependency for the next four years—or more. Biden won’t deliver Palestinian liberation or even the so-called state many seek within the Oslo paradigm. For now, the best Palestinians can hope for is Biden reversing or remedying some of Trump’s harmful policies. Even then, those expectations must be tempered.
With the best-case scenario in Washington being stasis, it’s time for Palestinians to look internally for solutions—reawakening a national movement that has suffered one of its darkest chapters in history. Palestinians must invest in an inclusive, representative, and democratic political system that can offer millions of disenfranchised individuals a voice to shape their future. This could be through reform and elections to the PLO, or it could take the shape of a new political system designed to bring Palestinians together—ending the political, social, and geographic fragmentation that has until now stood in the way of a unified national project.
A new political space should bring with it new visions for the future of Palestine. The majority of Palestinian society is under 30 years of age, meaning they are part of the Oslo generation: those who were promised a state but never got one. These Palestinians are solution-agnostic with no ideological leanings toward two states or one. All they want is to be free and have their full rights, but the current system denies them both.
A vision for the future must center the need to dismantle the system of ethnonational supremacy in the one-state reality and offer a new social contract for all people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea that is built on freedom, equity, justice, and rights not contingent on ethnic or religious identity. Achieving this aim will require a movement of like-minded Palestinians and Israeli Jews intent on building a better future for all.
But this new vision cannot take shape without the global community creating a hospitable environment in which it can flourish. Unfortunately, the Oslo process rendered many countries complicit in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. But it has also given many countries the power to sway Palestinians’ lived realities—for better or for worse. Now, they can either choose more of the same or opt to support a new path toward systemic justice. The latter option requires holding Israel accountable for its violations of human rights, civil rights, and international law.
What would this accountability look like? First, countries must condition and ultimately end military funding and arms sales to Israel as a result of its human rights abuses. Second, countries, especially the United States, must end charity tax exemptions offered to its citizens over financial support to illegal Israeli settlements. Third, privileges such as open visas, travel, and trade offered to settlers living on occupied land must be stopped. Fourth, countries must ban products and services produced in illegal settlements within the occupied Palestinian territories—and hold accountable entities that either operate in or have relations with those who operate in occupied territory, such as Airbnb and Psagot wine.
The European Court of Justice has taken a good first step by mandating that products made in settlements and sold within the European Union must be labeled accordingly. Finally, foreign aid must be leveraged to make sure democracy is being respected—and ensure the suffocating political structures of Oslo aren’t reinforced or exacerbated.
Of course, these policies are only a start toward ensuring a more promising future for all. But even a start is a radical shift away from stagnancy. Palestinians understand that the global community cannot deliver them freedom, but it does have the power to choose either to support or impede the Palestinian people in their quest for it.
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.
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.
Biden’s Irish Roots Promise a New Kind of Special Relationship
But it won’t be a “great bonanza.”
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
It’s been 170 years since U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s great-great grandfather Patrick Blewitt fled the Irish potato famine and settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania. But Biden’s Irish roots and Catholic faith are a cornerstone of his self-identity, an embrace that the Emerald Isle has enthusiastically reciprocated—setting nerves on edge in London that Brexit Britain could find the special relationship with the United States a little less special.
Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, tweeted that Biden “hates the UK” after a video clip surfaced of Biden rebuffing a question from a BBC journalist by saying, “I’m Irish.” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisors were, according to the New York Times, concerned that the British leader’s warm relationship with outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump could put him on the back foot with Biden. Widening the gap between the two governments, John Taylor, a member of House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber of the British Parliament, described U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as simply “the Indian” in a tweet earlier this month.
While outgoing Trump was vocal in his support of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, Biden has long made known his distaste for the move—and for Johnson. Speaking at a fundraiser last year Biden described the prime minister as a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.
Biden has made clear where his red line is with London, and it runs through the island of Ireland. On the campaign trail, he said that any future trade deal between the U.K. and the United States would be contingent on London’s respect for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. The U.S.-brokered deal did away with the hard border between Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the European Union.
But the Irish border has become a major sticking point in Brexit negotiations. Johnson’s government recently reneged on an agreement with Brussels to respect the agreement and the open border, raising fears of a return to a hard border and a renewed conflict. Biden raised the issue with Johnson in his first chat with an overseas leader as president-elect.
And Biden’s emphasis on that agreement is one area where his Irish roots definitely seem to come into play.
“I think President Biden’s understanding and instincts will stem specifically from his identification as Irish and Irish American and understanding of this issue,” said Anne Anderson, who served as Irish ambassador to the United States during the Obama administration, when Biden served as vice president.
“He’s visited Ireland, he knows these issues backward, and we don’t need to educate him in any way about the Good Friday Agreement and its importance to the north-south relationship on the island,” she said.
But even though Biden and Democrats in Congress are expected to toe a hard line on Brexit and the Irish border, experts and former Irish and American diplomats say that any concerns of favoritism are overblown. While Biden’s priorities may align closely with Dublin’s, it mostly has to do with a shared worldview, rather than heritage.
“We believe in the same kind of things that President-[elect] Biden believes in,” Anderson said.
Even as Britain lurches ever closer to a no-deal exit from the European Union at the end of next month, Biden’s known opposition to Brexit doesn’t necessarily have to derail the decades-old close relationship with London, even as Johnson’s big election win last year has turbocharged die-hard Brexiteers who were more comfortable with Trump in office.
“I don’t think the president-elect will hold it against the United Kingdom. They had an election, they voted, that’s what they decided, and we’ll deal with it,” said Kevin O’Malley, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ireland during the Obama administration.
Many experts expect Biden’s Irish roots will actually help cement better relations among the three countries and Europe.
“I think it’s totally compatible for someone to be Irish American and that be an important part of who they are and to also have a close relationship with the U.K., because Ireland also wants a close relationship between the European Union and the U.K.,” said Thomas Wright, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution think tank.
Ireland, which has been actively trying to mediate between the U.K. and the rest of Europe as Brexit reaches its end game, is diplomatically punching well above the weight its 5 million population would suggest. Earlier this year, the Economist wrote that Ireland has “a good claim to be the world’s most diplomatically powerful country” on a per capita basis. Ireland has an embassy in every EU country, and the Irish government is one of the biggest spenders in Washington when it comes to foreign lobbying.
In June, Ireland beat Canada to secure a seat on the U.N. Security Council, having thrown in performances by Riverdance and U2 to boost their chances. In July, Ireland’s Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe clinched the leadership of the Eurogroup, a club of eurozone finance ministers.
Ireland’s extensive diaspora, making up some 10 percent of the U.S. population, as well as its cultural soft power have long proved potent diplomatic tools. Ireland’s taoiseach, the country’s prime minister, is the only world leader with an automatic invite every year to the Oval Office, for St. Patrick’s Day—and not just for green beer. O’Malley, the former U.S. ambassador, noted that the meetings are “full-on substantive” and are followed by a lunch at the Capitol with the speaker of the house, and then a big reception with Irish Americans and Irish government and commercial interests. “It’s a big deal,” he said.
Those commercial ties have turned a relationship once anchored in kith and kin into something else. Ireland has become a magnet for U.S. tech and pharmaceutical giants attracted by low taxes and a well-educated, English-speaking workforce. Pfizer, Boston Scientific, Johnson & Johnson, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Twitter all have a significant presence in Ireland.
Still, Irish eyes might not be smiling forever. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, have been vocal in their support of Ireland’s border stance, but neither is getting any younger.
“Biden, Pelosi, and Richie Neal are that generation’s last gasp. They’re not going to be around forever,” said Trina Vargo, a former foreign-policy adviser to Sen. Ted Kennedy, founder of the US-Ireland Alliance, and author of Shenanigans: The US-Ireland Relationship in Uncertain Times.
Another type of generational turf-cutting is also apparent. Rep. Joe Crowley, a big Ireland booster, was ousted from his New York seat in 2018 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. More recently, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, another rising Democratic star from New York, unseated Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a former co-chair of the Congressional Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs.
Even with backers still in power, Ireland’s diplomatic clout in Washington has its limits. For decades, immigration reform has been a top priority for successive Irish governments, as over 10,000 Irish citizens are estimated to be living in the United States without legal status. But these efforts have yielded little. The latest attempt to secure more work visas for Irish citizens was approved by the House in March, but it now languishes in the Senate. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton squashed the same bill two years ago.
At Ireland’s embassy in Washington, Ambassador Daniel Mulhall—who, unlike his British counterpart, weathered the Trump presidency without incident—is cautiously optimistic about Ireland’s prospects now.
“It’s a good thing that we will have a president who has this kind of depth of understanding of Irish affairs, which is bound to be beneficial to us,” Mulhall said. “Not that I’m expecting any great bonanza. I’m clear about that.”
Trump Abused U.S. Sanctions and Failed to Get Results. Biden Can Do Better.
From maximum pressure to terrorism designations, the Trump administration engaged in transactional diplomacy with little to show for it. The next government must use these tools wisely.
Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, director of its Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations.