The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

A guide to the Biden Administration’s first moves and initial set of senior officials. It is no wonder that popular disenchantment with US elites sometimes bubbles to the surface in unexpected ways.

Interest in the new US foreign policy team in Israel and elsewhere in the region is strong and growing, following the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence and Biden administration responses.  What follows is a guide to the group and to some of the individuals, with a focus on the ways that the people involved affect US policy. 

President Biden’s foreign policy people are members in good standing of the Washington foreign policy establishment. This establishment is composed of like-minded former government officials, Democrats, Republicans, and independents. They sit in office suites throughout Washington DC, and work as lobbyists, strategic advisors on government affairs, consultants, lawyers, industry association officials, and think tank scholars, with an occasional investment banker from Wall Street or adjunct professor from an elite college thrown into the mix. 

Three Common Features of the Team

Before looking at individual appointees, three generalizations about the Biden foreign policy team can be made. They are (a) experienced, (b) cautious groupthinkers, and (c) often re-entering government with undisclosed conflicts of interest. 

a. Experience

Joe Biden’s election motivated nearly the entire foreign policy establishment to submit resumes to his transition team. With pick of the litter, Biden chose former Obama officials with whom he is comfortable. There are signs that his team understands the Middle East has changed over the past four years. They have restarted talks with Iran, indirectly through the Europeans, to revive the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), while vowing to improve upon this deal once it is reactivated. They do not intend to invest senior leadership time in the Israel-Palestinian process (and thus to date no special envoy for this purpose has been appointed), but they intend to revive diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority.   

One advantage of this team is that it inherits Obama’s credibility among many US allies.  Thus, for example, when the Trump Administration sanctioned Chinese officials under the Magnitsky Act for human rights abuses, no other country joined. However, when the Biden team announced in March Magnitsky Act sanctions of Chinese officials for the very same reasons, the EU, the UK, Canada, and others followed with their own sanctions.      

b. Groupthink 

Biden team members have thrived throughout their prior careers in government in a risk-adverse, group-think environment. President Obama famously said that the key to policymaking is “don’t do stupid shit.” This would be sound advice, except that you might also subtract from the process any creative or paradigm-shifting ideas that appear to the leadership as “stupid shit.” There is no George F. Kennan in this group. (Kennan was the brilliant but unorthodox US diplomat who formulated the “containment” doctrine that is credited with winning the Cold War.) Nor is there a Richard Holbrooke. (He was the bold but prickly diplomat who brokered the “Dayton” peace accords that largely ended the Balkan conflict.)  

When it comes to the Middle East, Washington groupthink focuses on two perceived urgent needs: to get out of the region and to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. US initiatives in the region, after much blood and money expended, have all come to naught. Therefore, it is time to relegate the region to lower-level management once the immediate threat of an Iranian nuclear breakout is brought under control. So goes the conventional thinking.    

On the other hand, Biden inherits from Trump a bold and potentially paradigm-shifting initiative in the Middle East – the Abraham Accords, which led to the normalization of relations between Israel and four Arab states (UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco). If this alliance (which also includes Egypt and Jordan) can be strengthened and expanded to include Saudi Arabia, then the US perhaps can safely shift resources from the Middle East to the Far East without leaving behind a security vacuum to be filled by bad actors. 

The Biden team has welcomed the Abraham Accords and Secretary Blinken said that he expects other countries to join. The question is whether the US under Biden is prepared to take the kind of bold steps needed to bring-in other countries, especially Saudi Arabia. Under Trump, the US provided key incentives for Arab countries to break with the past and join the Abraham Accords.  

When the Trump Middle East Peace Plan was released in 2020, members of the future Biden team harshly and publicly criticized the plan, even though that plan became the catalyst that led to the Abraham Accords. The entire team, from Tony Blinken to Bill Burns (the latter is now CIA director), called it “naïve” and “counterproductive,” or in other words, “stupid shit.” This was done partly for partisan advantage in an election year. But the plan also violated their conventional thinking about Israel-Arab relations.  

The conventional thinking is that an Israel-Palestinian agreement (along the lines of the “Clinton parameters”) must come first; wider Arab normalization with Israel comes only afterwards. A deeper layer of conventional thinking is that US relations with Israel are zero sum in the context of US relations with Arab countries, meaning that closeness to Israel impairs America’s relations with Arab countries. Despite much evidence to the contrary – starting with the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979 – such Washington groupthink persists and repeatedly has led to policy failures in the Middle East. It remains to be seen whether the Biden team can decisively break with this past thinking and expand the Abraham Accords. The accords have the potential to support US, Israeli, Palestinian, and wider Arab interests in the region. 

It is worth noting that groupthink was not unique to the Obama administration. Groupthink is a frequent feature of the foreign policy establishment. Another example is the decision of the administration of President George W. Bush to invade Iraq to thwart a putative weapons of mass destruction program.   

c. Conflicts of Interest

Most Biden foreign policy team members worked part-time or full-time as strategic advisors over the past four years, when they were out of government. Strategic advisors like lobbyists use contacts and expertise gained in government service to help private sector clients. But strategic advisors take advantage of loopholes in the US law to avoid disclosure of their clients and other regulation required of lobbyists.  

Lobbying is a legal, heavily regulated fact of life in Washington. When lobbyists re-enter government service, conflicts of interest often arise between a government job and prior clients, which is why some administrations have vowed and tried not to hire lobbyists. When strategic advisors re-enter the government, these conflicts of interests often are exacerbated because it is not known, for instance, whether the officials had foreign clients.    

Does this mean that one should assume that strategic advisors are corrupt and will continue to help their foreign clients in their new positions? No, it does not. But the existence of inherent conflicts of interest coupled with non-disclosure, results in a serious appearance of impropriety, something that erodes public trust in the integrity of US governing institutions and strengthens movements to “drain the swamp.”  

Biden team members generally avoid mention of their ties to strategic advisory firms. The mainstream US media also tends to overlook these ties. Below is a short list of such ties which shows the overlapping of similar institutions.  

  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken (WestExec Advisors) 
  • National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (Macro Advisory Partners) 
  • US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas Greenfield (Albright Stonebridge Group)
  • CIA Director Bill Burns (Macro Advisory Partners)
  • White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki (WestExec Advisors)
  • Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (Albright Stonebridge Group)
  • Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland (Albright Stonebridge Group)
  • National Security Council Coordinator for Asia Kurt Campbell (The Asia Group)
  • Prospective Nominee for US Ambassador to China Nick Burns (The Cohen Group)

Public disclosure by itself will not end conflicts of interest. Lobbyists disclose their clients, and the Senate often confirms them for senior government jobs. For example, Obama’s ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, has been a lobbyist for Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva; Amos Hochstein has lobbied for oil giant Marathon before becoming Obama’s acting Assistant Secretary of State for Energy. Conflicts of interest, whether disclosed or undisclosed, are simply a feature of the revolving door between the US Government and the foreign policy establishment. The way to eliminate such conflicts of interest is to ban lobbyists and strategic advisors from re-entering government service. Biden is moving in the oppositive direction.

A Look at the Players 

Having surveyed the general terrain, it is time to examine individual members of the Biden foreign policy team who are relevant to Middle East policymaking.

Tony Blinken, Wendy Sherman, and Victoria Nuland at the State Department

For the first time in history, the top three State Department officials are Jews, and furthermore they proudly acknowledge that identification. It used to be considered a social and professional liability in elite US circles.  

A senior official’s Jewishness does not translate into understanding Israel in a meaningful policy sense. It seems patronizing to be informed that a US official, whether Jewish or not, “understands Israel in his or her kishkes (innards).” Such talk is intended primarily to reassure Democratic Jewish voters in places like Miami. 

All three Biden appointees held senior State Department jobs under Obama when the US abstained on an anti-Israel vote in the UN Security Council for the first time in US history.    

Non-Jews generally may be better placed to champion Middle East policies that are both pro-Israel and pro-US. They do not face dual loyalty insinuations from the foreign policy establishment which Jews sometimes still do. President Truman’s advisor Clark Clifford was the key insider to push US recognition of Israel in 1948. The very unsentimental Secretary of State Jim Baker successfully pressured the Arab states to end their boycott of Israel and got them to attend the Madrid Peace Conference in 1992.   

Despite his Obama era background, Tony Blinken might overcome groupthink to take concrete steps to support expansion of the Abraham Accords and add European support in the process. He is certainly saying the right things. He is a potentially powerful Secretary of State with the full trust of the President, and already has shown the ability to set a policy course for the administration on other issues. His strongest suit may be his capacity to rebuild transatlantic ties eroded under Trump, including restoration of a consensus on containing Iran if talks to renew the JCPOA break down.   

Two Other Players at State: Barbara Leaf and Hady Amr

Biden is making good on his campaign promise to restore the position of career professionals at the State Department through appointments at the Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary levels. His nominee for Middle East Assistant Secretary is Barbara Leaf, a former career diplomat with Gulf, Iran, and Israel experience. She knows Israeli-Palestinian issues from the ground level, having served as head of the visa section in Jerusalem during the First Intifada.  

Hady Amr is the senior most official at State who works full-time on Israel-Palestinian issues. However, his position of Deputy Assistant Secretary is middle level management and not Senate confirmed. Thus, it was surprising that he was sent to the region as the Biden envoy during the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas. His expertise is in economic issues, garnered at the US development agency AID and with the Kerry peace team. His internal memo proposing a Biden reset with the Palestinians was leaked to the press and caused a momentary flurry in Israel.  

Thomas Nides, Prospective US Ambassador to Israel

If Thomas Nides is nominated and confirmed as US ambassador to Israel, then Israelis will encounter something new to them but very familiar to Europeans – the US donor ambassador.  In an arguably corrupt practice, unique to the US among developed countries, a donor who raises enough money for a winning presidential campaign can get rewarded with an embassy to run and ambassadorial title to carry for life. The practice is expressly prohibited by US law, but this prohibition is never enforced.

Nides is Vice Chairman of Morgan Stanley Bank and a major Biden fundraiser. His nomination would serve as a reward signal to other Wall Street financiers who are increasingly putting big money behind Democrats. Nides also served for two years as a Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources (during which time he visited Israel), and thus he is by no means new to government. He is a member of the New York auxiliary to the foreign policy establishment. If confirmed, he would be the first US ambassador to Israel to be appointed because of his fundraising.  

Israel has had other political appointee US ambassadors (Martin Indyk under Clinton, Dan Shapiro under Obama, David Friedman under Trump). But each of them had worked for the president; Indyk and Shapiro as senior directors for the Middle East in the National Security Council, Friedman as Trump’s personal bankruptcy lawyer. Nides is a smart player with lots of midwestern charm, but he will not arrive with a truly personal connection to the president.  

Jake Sullivan, Jon Finer, and Brett McGurk at the National Security Council

US administrations usually designate a “go-to” person on Israel in the White House. (This a term of art which includes the National Security Council and vice presidential staff). In the early days of this administration that person is national security advisor Jake Sullivan, which is good news for US-Israel relations. However, over time Sullivan will delegate this role to another senior person in the White House, given Sullivan’s other responsibilities. 

Sullivan cultivates the appearance of being cold, dry and matter of fact, but also polite and less ego-driven than many others in his position. He was a Congressional staffer who was promoted by Hilary Clinton to run her policy planning staff at State, and he later moved to be Biden’s national security advisor in the Obama administration, replacing Tony Blinken in that role. He accompanied Clinton on her Middle East trips as Secretary of State and prepared her for meetings with incisive briefings. Though a senior member of the team that negotiated the JCPOA, he may be sufficiently flexible to insist on significant changes to that deal now, rather than wait for a hoped-for second deal – something that Iran may never agree to. It remains to be seen whether Sullivan uses his considerable intellectual resources to try to move the administration in the right direction. 

Who will be the “Israel hand” in the White House? It probably will not be deputy national security advisor Jon Finer, a former Washington Post reporter and chief of staff to John Kerry – who does not have the necessary regional experience. It could possibly be NSC Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk (originally a George W. Bush Republican). McGurk has reassured Israel (and Gulf states) about US policy regarding the Iranian presence in Syria and Yemen.  It might be any one of the former officials not yet appointed who seek to return to government through the revolving door.    

Nancy McEldowney and Phil Gordon in the Vice President’s Office

In an administration marked by the most progressive Democratic policies in generations, Vice President Kamala Harris is the principal progressive. Her National Security Advisor Nancy McEldowney and Deputy National Security Advisor Phil Gordon are both Europeanists with Turkey experience. They worked together at the NSC and State Department during the Obama Administration. (In US government taxonomy, Turkey is part of Europe because of NATO.)

McEldowney was an impressive leader of the Foreign Service Institute, the training academy for American diplomats.  Through her boss Vice President Harris, she may be a channel to the progressive faction in the party. If there is perceived progress on Saudi human rights and Palestinian issues, then this powerful Democratic faction might shift from skeptical to neutral on bold moves to expand the Abraham Accords.  

Gordon is a standard-fare groupthinker when it comes to the Middle East. After serving in the Obama National Security Council on the Middle East, he wrote a book about US failures in the Middle East from Iran to Iraq, echoing conventional wisdom that America should pivot away as fast as possible. It was “book of the week” according to Fareed Zakaria; or, to paraphrase Bob Gates, the book had the half-life of a bottle rocket. 

Lloyd Austin and Colin Kahl at the Department of Defense

Lloyd Austin required a congressional waiver to become secretary of defense, because he was a sitting US general. He vowed in his Senate confirmation hearings to uphold civilian control of the military. Well known as a team player in his prior job as commander of US forces in the Middle East, Austin will keep a good relationship with his Israeli counterpart Benny Gantz (who is also a retired general). He will give Colin Kahl and other civilians some latitude in formulating key elements of US security policy. Austin is less of an independent operator than either Donald Rumsfeld in the George W. Bush administration, or Jim Mattis, the other recent general who became Trump’s Secretary of Defense. 

Under Obama, Kahl frequently visited Israel as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East. He had good relationships with Israeli counterparts at the Ministry of Defense. In the process of getting confirmed as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, he became a near-victim of the zeitgeist. He must have thought he was being a loyal soldier for zealously attacking Republicans on social media – “returning fire” on behalf of the team. But he was not thinking through his next career moves including Senate confirmation scenarios.  He apologized to the Senate for his tweets and was confirmed by a tie-breaking vote of the Vice President.

Kahl’s fiery tweets may indicate a temperament problem. But if so, that would be a problem for Secretary Austin and others at DOD, something not likely to affect his foreign interlocutors. Given the overriding importance of US-Israel cooperation on Iran’s growing regional threats, Colin Kahl will be a critical player for Israel and a reliable handler of the Israel file at the Department of Defense.    

Conclusion 

This guide is intended to aid the Middle East watcher’s understanding of the Biden Administration’s first moves and initial set of senior officials. Some parts may seem like US domestic trivia (for instance, the discussion of conflicts of interest). But this background is important. It helps explain ongoing popular disenchantment with US elites which sometimes bubbles to the surface in unexpected ways. 

The Biden team may find an Iran deal, especially a longer and stronger one, to be out of reach. Instead, if it breaks through instinctive caution and groupthink, it might find in the Middle East another, more promising diplomatic achievement – the expansion and strengthening of the bold new alliance between Israel and some Arab states. The latest Israeli-Palestinian violence underscores the need for such an alliance. If Biden and team can expand and solidify it, then perhaps the US could shift resources from a Middle East anchored in a stable pro-Western alliance towards new and growing needs in the Far East. 

Bob Silverman, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, was a senior US diplomat and president of the American Foreign Service Association. He also is a lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and president of the Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance (IJMA).


JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.


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