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The Obama Mideast expert guiding VP Harris on foreign policy

Phil Gordon has carved out an unusually influential role as national security advisor to the VP

In every presidential administration, vice presidents face an uphill battle to prove their relevance and impact policymaking. Vice President Kamala Harris is no different. 

As the Israel-Hamas war drags on, Harris has begun to play a more active role in conversations about the war and its aftermath in Gaza. She’s offered tougher words for Israel than President Joe Biden, and Politico reported that she wants senior White House leaders to express more sympathy for civilians in Gaza. 

At the center of Harris’ circle of foreign policy advisors is Philip Gordon, her national security advisor. Gordon previously served as former President Barack Obama’s top Middle East advisor in his second term, when Gordon emerged as one of the biggest boosters of the Iran nuclear deal. 

His position advising the vice president might seem relatively inconsequential. But both of the top foreign policy officials in the Biden administration — National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Tony Blinken — previously held the same job as Gordon when Biden was vice president. To the extent that Harris has a future role to play in the Democratic Party, Gordon will likely remain an important player, and a window into where Democrats might be moving on foreign policy. 

It was a shrewd decision by Gordon, who first entered the Biden-Harris administration as Harris’ deputy national security advisor, working under a woman who had once worked under him at the State Department. He was promoted last year. 

“Many people remarked, when he got that deputy position, that it was kind of a step down for him. I did ask him about it,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s a common view amongst people who’ve been in these high reaches of government that the important thing is to be in the room. It’s a little bit less important what your position is.” 

The bet has paid off for Gordon, who is often seated besides Harris when she is meeting with foreign leaders. “I believe that [Vice President] Harris depends heavily on Phil’s advice given his deep experience and knowledge of all the players,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who served as the U.S. envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from 2013 to 2014. 

Earlier this month, Gordon took an unusually high-profile trip to Israel and the West Bank to meet with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, including Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. It was part of an all-hands-on-deck diplomatic effort that has seen senior American leaders ranging from Biden to Blinken to CIA Director William Burns, as well as scores of lower-level officials, travel to the region since the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel. 

“I would think they’re promoting him because he’s effective as a messenger for the president’s policies,” said Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. ambassador to India who has worked under Republican presidents. A White House official called Gordon “a trusted advisor to the vice president and a valued member of the president’s overall national security team.”

Gordon is well known by Israeli officials, and in 2016 he authored a bipartisan report with Blackwill about repairing the U.S.-Israel relationship after years of what he described as “serious differences [between the U.S. and Israel] on a long list of policy issues.” 

“I have known Phil for years and have always enjoyed working with him,” Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog told Jewish Insider. “I have high regard for his professionalism and integrity.” 

Gordon, who did not respond to an interview request, started his career as a Europe expert, advising then-President Bill Clinton on European affairs toward the end of his second term. That’s how he initially joined the Obama administration: as assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, before moving to Obama’s National Security Council staff. After stepping down from his position in 2015, he became one of the strongest public advocates for the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“I think he’s very much on the progressive wing of the national security continuum,” said Foundation for Defense of Democracies CEO Mark Dubowitz, who participated in several public debates on the Iran deal with Gordon in 2015. “He’s Obama redux.” 

Biden has taken a different tack toward Israel than Obama, who was more willing to publicly criticize Israel. The Biden administration, meanwhile, has tried to handle major policy disputes in private. Biden often calls himself a Zionist and more firmly places himself in the pro-Israel camp, and traveled to Israel a week and a half after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

“This was the president’s gut from the beginning, saying, ‘I’m with Israel, this is a historic moment, and I’m all in,’” said Robert Danin, a former career State Department official who worked in Jerusalem during the Obama administration. “When the president is so out front on an issue like this, everyone just falls into line.” 

White House officials deny that there is any difference in the way that Biden and Harris are approaching the conflict in Gaza.

“There is absolutely no divergence in worldviews,” the White House official told JI on Thursday. “The president and vice president have very clearly laid out our policy priorities repeatedly, and every member of our administration is executing these policies every day: Israel has a right to defend itself, Hamas cannot control Gaza, humanitarian aid must be provided, civilians must be protected and we must provide a hopeful political horizon for the Palestinian people.”

US Vice-President Kamala Harris speaks with her National Security Advisor Philip H. Gordon during a meeting with Caribbean Leaders during the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, California, June 9, 2022. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

But even some people close to the Biden administration acknowledge a difference in tone between Harris and Biden. Harris is generally believed to be more receptive to the demands of the political left, including on this issue. 

“[Biden’s] commitment to stand by Israel is deeply unpopular among some in the Democratic Party,” Indyk said. “At his side during critical moments, [Harris] is in a position to provide reliable advice on the political dimensions of his decisions. She has also played an important role in publicly signaling Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu when the president feels his message is not getting through.”

One Middle East policy expert working in Washington, who asked not to be named because he has worked with Gordon in the past, said that “there was bound to be political signaling on this” because “what’s happening in Gaza is truly, truly horrifying.” But, the expert added, “it seems to me that this is rhetorical,” noting that Biden continues to pledge his support for Israel and lobby for Congress to pass a supplemental spending package with billions of dollars of security assistance for Israel. 

If there is a difference on the politics of Israel, “that’s the difference between Obama and Biden. Biden is very, very different from Obama,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. That’s the camp Gordon came from — but it’s also where Sullivan, who served as director of policy planning in the Obama State Department, worked. 

But where Sullivan and Blinken threw their lot in with Biden’s campaign early in the 2020 primary cycle, Gordon chose to support Harris in her primary bid, for which he served as a foreign policy advisor. 

“I think Phil was smart and probably saw that Harris was going to potentially become president,” Dubowitz said. “That could potentially be a very savvy call.” 

At the end of the day, Gordon’s a policy wonk, with a PhD and nearly a dozen books that he’s written or edited under his belt. But that doesn’t mean his ambitions end there. 

“From what I know, he isn’t some D.C. Machiavellian trying to game the system kind of person,” said Sachs. “If you’re national security advisor to the vice president, then you’re very successful at the D.C. game. But some people can play the D.C. game in an honorable way, and many people have done it in other ways. I really do think he’s in the former camp.”

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