Biden’s National Security Team

by Matt Daley

President-elect Biden has started to form his national security team with several announcements being made, apart from the Department of Defense where a vigorous debate is raging behind the scenes. Anthony Blinken has been chosen as Secretary of State, Jake Sullivan as National Security Advisor, Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence, Alejandro Mayorkas as Secretary for Homeland Security and John Kerry as Special Envoy for Climate Change. Of this group, only John Kerry could fairly be described as a “household name” and we can only speculate about the significance of lodging the position of Special Envoy for Climate Change with cabinet rank under the national security umbrella.

The choices of Blinken and Sullivan in particular draw a sharp contrast with President Trump’s early choices. While not well known beyond the Beltway and the foreign policy elites, they are both highly experienced in governance, well regarded in their personal capacities and, importantly, well known to Biden himself.

President Trump’s selections for National Security Advisor and Secretary of State were relative strangers to him and, whatever their merits, had rocky and brief tenures. Blinken served as Staff Director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) when Biden was a Senator and later Deputy Secretary of State under President Obama and national security advisor to then Vice President Biden. Sullivan too was national security advisor to Vice President Biden, later worked in key positions in the State Department under Hillary Clinton and was a policy advisor to Biden’s campaign.

Blinken and Sullivan are also comforting picks for the international community which has been uneasy with the disruption of the Trump Administration. They are personally acquainted with many world leaders who view them as mainstream internationalists. In approach and process, the Biden Administration will revert to the “regular order.” Both men have substantial policy records, but it would be a mistake to assume that American foreign and national security policy will revert to that of the Obama Administration. The world has changed. China has unambiguously become our greatest challenge and there is bipartisan recognition of this reality. The tectonic plates of the Middle East are shifting even as attitudes towards Israel within the Democratic Party are evolving.

Other members of the national security team bespeak competence, even if their professional backgrounds are not uniformly solid preparation for their new positions. John Kerry as climate change tsar with cabinet rank will likely have influence on more than his stated remit.

Alejandro Mayorkas will bring to the Department of Homeland Security a wealth of experience, including a stint as Deputy Secretary of DHS under President Obama. He has substantial experience in the immigration arena where much that was done by President Trump by executive order will quickly be undone. An advocate of broad immigration policy reform, he is more likely to be frustrated by gridlock in Congress (unless the Democrats retake the Senate) and to preside over an undeclared, but substantial shift towards open borders.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, as a former career Foreign Service Officer, checks all the boxes to be our representative at the United Nations. That she will not be a member of the cabinet suggests less of a policy role than that of John Kerry. Avril Haines, who is in line to be the Director of National Intelligence. is a lawyer who worked for Biden on the SFRC and was a deputy national security advisor in the Obama Administration, but it is not clear if she had a significant role in intelligence policy or oversight.

Overall, it is a solid, substantial team that should serve the President-elect well. Some, including Blinken and Sullivan are expected to face detailed scrutiny on potential conflict of interests, a development foreshadowed by both the

Washington Post and the New York Times. My guess is that the ethics policy to be announced by the Biden team will provide a framework to ease the path to confirmation. The space to watch are appointments at the Department of Defense. And then the policy debates will begin in earnest.

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