A closer look at Biden’s foreign policy team

The appointments of Tony Blinken as secretary of state and Jake Sullivan as national security advisor drew broad praise from Jewish leaders and Mideast experts

President-elect Joe Biden announced key appointments to his White House national security team on Monday as he begins to assemble his Cabinet. 

Among the appointments requiring Senate confirmation are senior foreign policy advisor Tony Blinken as secretary of state; Alejandro “Ali” Nicholas Mayorkas, a former Obama administration official, to head the Department of Homeland Security; former NSC and CIA official Avril Haines as director of national intelligence and former senior State Department official Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the U.N.

Biden also announced the appointment of former White House aide Jake Sullivan as national security advisor and former Secretary of State John Kerry as a special envoy on climate and a member of the NSC, the first time the council will have a dedicated position on the issue. 

The president-elect is expected to formally introduce the team on Tuesday. In a statement, Biden explained that he chose to roll out his national security team first because “we have no time to lose when it comes to our national security and foreign policy.” 

Many of the appointees share not only long-standing professional relationships with Biden, but also a pragmatic approach to the challenges facing the next administration, former administration officials and Mideast experts stressed in interviews with Jewish Insider

Rob Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JI he felt “very much encouraged” by the appointments, describing Blinken and Sullivan as “smart, experienced, pragmatic centrists who have a balanced approach” to using America’s leadership role to “advance U.S. interests in security and peace.” 

Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), described the announcement as a “good early indicator that Biden is going to govern as a moderate, as a centrist, and he’s choosing people from this same wing of the Democratic Party. That’s a good sign of moderation to come.”

A former senior national security official, who wished to remain anonymous, said the broad consensus about the Biden team is they are all “seriously bright, experienced, thoughtful, personable, and knowledgeable across the board” and “are broadly respected and superb organizers and leaders.”

The selections were also welcomed by broad swaths of the Democratic Party. Blinken and Sullivan are two experts “with immense experience in the Middle East who at the same time are open to rethinking the U.S.’s approach to the region,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, told JI. The think tank — founded in 2019 and funded by the unlikely pairing of George Soros and Charles Koch — calls for an end to American military intervention and a refocus on diplomatic strategy. 

“Unlike many of the other contenders for top jobs in the Biden administration, they both have successfully negotiated with Iran,” Parsi explained. “They know that diplomacy with Iran can work, they know what is realistic and unrealistic, and are as a result less susceptible to demands and pressures by those who outright oppose talks with Tehran or who seek to impose poison pills onto the agenda in order to sabotage diplomacy.” 

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said that his organization “could not be more pleased” with the choices. “These are two individuals who we are excited to work with, and believe are qualified for the jobs they’ve been nominated for,” Ben-Ami said. 

Former U.S. Ambassador for U.N Management and Reform Mark Wallace, who serves as CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran, told JI that while he opposed the 2015 nuclear deal and supported the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign on Iran, he sees the Biden team as “talented, thoughtful and reasonable.” 

“I think that they’re both pragmatic, self-aware to see what we see,” he explained. “And to the extent that they want to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement, that they understand their negotiating counterparty better, and the leverage and the tools that we have in our toolkit to bring about a successful negotiation.” 

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to reporters in Baghdad on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. (U.S. State Department via AP)

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Blinken began his career in Washington as a staffer on the National Security Council, later becoming a senior director for strategic planning. In the 1990s, he worked as a speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton. After serving as a staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the George W. Bush administration, Blinken joined Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign, later becoming part of the Obama-Biden transition team. 

During Obama’s first term, Blinken served as the vice president’s national security advisor. In 2014, he was tapped to serve as deputy to Kerry, who had replaced Hillary Clinton as secretary of state during the latter four years of the Obama administration. During Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, Blinken served as a top foreign policy advisor, reaching out to key advocacy groups around the country while also serving as a channel for Jewish and pro-Israel organizations to connect with the campaign.

In a tweet following the announcement, Blinken said that assuming the role “is a mission I will take on with my full heart.” 

Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East program and a former State Department official, described Blinken to JI as widely respected amongst the foreign policy establishment. “He is a centrist. He’s not going to have to have interesting new creative policies. But that’s what we need right now, that’s the moment we are in,” Yerkes said. 

Blinken’s return to Foggy Bottom will allow the State Department to reassert control over a number of key foreign policy issues that were shifted to the White House during the Trump administration, Yerkes suggested.

“I think for the most part, on virtually every foreign policy issue, the decisions are going to be coming out of the State Department,” said Yerkes, who was on the policy planning staff and also served as a foreign affairs officer in the Office of Israel and Palestinian affairs under Obama. “Yet, because Blinken is right in line with Biden — he knows how Biden thinks and has his trust — I think you’re going to see a much more unified executive [branch] when it comes to the foreign policy space in general.” 

Jewish Democratic Council of America executive director Halie Soifer, who worked at the State Department with Blinken, maintained that because the president-elect and his choice for secretary of state have worked together for so long, “when world leaders speak to the secretary, they will know that he has the ear of the president. And that’s very important.” 

Dr. Dore Gold, former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, recalled a meeting he had with Blinken in Foggy Bottom in early 2016. Though tensions between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration were at an all-time high following the finalization of the nuclear deal with Iran, Gold, who was leading a Foreign Ministry delegation to discuss strategic relations between Israel and the U.S., found Blinken “to be open to our arguments with a capacity to listen. He was not highly ideological like others in Washington at that time.”

Gold expressed hope that if Blinken “continues to be pragmatic,” he will be “an important factor” in strengthening the bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship under Biden. 

Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense in the Bush 43 administration and one of the top Republican national security officials who supported Biden during the campaign, told JI he knows Blinken personally. The longtime Biden ally, Zakheim said, is not a controversial choice because he’s “widely respected and he is acceptable to both the progressive and the moderate wings of the Democratic Party.” 

While Blinken and the team “share Biden’s school of thought,” retired Brig. Gen. Efraim Sneh, a former Israeli deputy defense minister, told JI, the Biden administration will be judged by “how it chooses to take on the role of leadership on the world stage” in confronting Iran over its influence in the Middle East and relaunching the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Sneh was hopeful that the incoming administration will “take seriously the concerns of its allies in the region,” and “not disparage our various concerns” and that Biden will prioritize Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The socioeconomic and humanitarian situation in the Palestinian Terorrities, Sneh explained, is “a ticking bomb and a smoldering fire.”

“To sweep this whole thing under the rug, it is not a favor for Israel. In the long run, it’s dangerous for Israel,” Sneh said. 

Zakheim cautioned that Blinken’s strong support of a two-state solution could cause friction with Israel because it is “not Netanyahu’s favorite approach.” Nonetheless, Zakheim described  Blinken as “ a well-known quantity in Israel,” adding, “He’s certainly not hostile, not negative.” 

The Washington Institute’s Satloff told JI that a priority for the new administration will be to strengthen alliances around the world. “I doubt that also means purposeful efforts to weaken alliances that are working, such as between Washington and Jerusalem,” he noted. 

Israel can also expect to see the Biden administration vocally oppose settlement activity, Yerkes said, adding that it is unlikely that opposition will take action beyond issuing statements. Yerkes suggested that while the new administration will not try to undo the normalization deals with the Arab world, ”I don’t think they’re going to necessarily push more countries to adopt normalization.” 

Yerkes told JI that when the initial reports came in about the new team, the general sense amongst foreign policy experts was that “finally the adults are back in charge. We can breathe a sigh of relief.” Yerkes added, “Even at its worst, Blinken is not going to do anything close to as terrifying or as sort of polarizing as we saw under Mike Pompeo and Rex Tillerson.”
 

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Jake Sullivan speaks with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Sullivan, 43, started his political career as an advisor to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) during her 2008 presidential bid, and then to Obama during that year’s general election. When Clinton was tapped as secretary of state, Sullivan served as deputy chief of staff and director of policy planning. He was part of the team that established the backchannel talks with Iran that led to the 2015 nuclear deal. 

During Obama’s second term, Sullivan moved to the White House to serve as national security advisor to Biden. In the 2020 campaign, Sullivan was part of Biden’s small team of advisors. His wife, Maggie Goodlander, was senior policy advisor to the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Circuit Judge Merrick Garland.

On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to reenter the Iran deal if Tehran returns to compliance, and said he hopes to work with U.S. allies to “make it longer and stronger.” Sullivan recently explained that Biden’s “diplomacy first” approach is a “durable way” to stop Iran from getting the bomb “without resorting to military force” — while restoring trust with U.S. allies and partners.

FDD’s Dubowitz told JI that from his experience, Sullivan is “one of the brightest minds” in the national security field and “has also a tremendous ability to work with both sides of the aisle.” 

Dubowitz maintained that Sullivan’s approach “will be very important if there’s going to be any hope of fashioning a bipartisan foreign policy that starts at the water’s edge.” He added that he is “hopeful” that the Biden administration is “not going to give in to the theology” of the Iran deal and that once in office, “will use the leverage that the current administration has provided them to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that addresses the [original deal’s] fatal flaws.” 

Wallace described Sullivan as a “talented guy,” who “can take from what we’ve learned about Iran and the circumstances of economic pressure on Iran, and their behavior since the JCPOA, and understand that we have much more leverage than was imagined at the time when we entered the [deal].” 

Quincy’s Parsi told JI he expects Blinken and Sullivan to take a step further in not only reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, but also recognizing “the need to begin talks not only about regional concerns but also the very nature of U.S.-Iran relations going forward.” 

For Jewish Democrats, JDCA’s Soifer suggested, Sullivan and Blinken share the same goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and will “immediately get to work to ensure that that does not happen, including trying to go back to a diplomatic resolution where Iran is in full compliance with its previous commitments.” 

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Thomas-Greenfield, a 35-year veteran of the foreign service, served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in Obama’s second term. She is currently a senior counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington. 

Like former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, the next U.N. ambassador will serve at the Cabinet level, which requires Senate approval.

While her experience does not involve direct engagement with matters involving Israel and the Middle East, Soifer said she expects Thomas-Greenfield to be guided by Biden when it comes to defending the Jewish state at the U.N. Security Council.

“If you know where Joe Biden stands on Israel, you know where his nominee to the U.N. will stand on Israel,” Soifer explained, “because you know the calls on Security Council resolutions relating to Israel — but also just defending Israel in general — that policy will be set by the White House.”

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