Meet Kurt Campbell, Biden’s new deputy secretary of state

The longtime foreign policy hand is a China hawk who has expressed a strong commitment to the US-Israel alliance

Kurt Campbell took office this month as the deputy secretary of state — the No. 2 job at the State Department — launching the foreign policy veteran into the heart of multiple global crises.

Campbell’s decades-long career across several presidential administrations has taken him across the spectrum of federal government agencies, including stints at the Defense Department, State Department, Treasury, National Security Council and U.S. Navy. He’s also served at a series of influential nongovernmental institutions, including as a founder of the Center for a New American Security. 

But Campbell — most recently the national security council coordinator for the Indopacific, known colloquially as the Asia czar — has, for decades, focused on Asia and the Indopacific, making him less of a known quantity to some longtime Middle East hands than some of his predecessors.

William Wechsler, the senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council, told Jewish Insider he first met Campbell in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, when Campbell was assigned to create a new Plans and Analysis group — a group that aimed to “get out of the day to day… and to look around the corners of what was coming.”

Wechsler described Campbell as “one of the sharpest and smartest people that I’ve worked for. He’s a real big thinker… Kurt likes to get deep on the portfolio.”

He added that Campbell held “very traditional views about the importance of American power and the role that America plays” and “a real commitment to long-standing American allies like Israel.” He said he’d expect Campbell to be fully supportive of President Joe Biden’s approach to Israel and other issues in the region.

During his December Senate confirmation hearing, Campbell voiced his opposition to placing conditions on U.S. aid to Israel, arguing that concerns with Israel’s military operations in Gaza were best handled in direct conversations with Israel, rather than in public. He was also optimistic about the possibilities for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Wechsler added that, in the early 90’s, Campbell shared concerns about challenges including Iranian nuclear weapons and rising Islamic extremism, issues that the policy planning group worked to tackle.

At his confirmation hearing, Campbell expressed concerns about Iran’s activities globally, including its support for terrorist groups in the Middle East, its backing of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its increasing ties to China.

“At probably every level, Iran is our strategic nemesis,” Campbell said. They are seeking to undermine American purpose in the region, and we must contest that purposely across the board.”

Campbell said that Iran’s increasing provocations mean the U.S. “must be sending a military message that provocations will be met and met with stern responses.” He expressed support for isolating Iran on the world stage and working to bring U.S. allies to join the U.S.’s sanctions on the regime.

But he also defended the administration’s move to release $6 billion to Iran for humanitarian purposes as part of a prisoner swap deal last year.

He also ruled out the possibility, “in the current environment,” of returning to the 2016 nuclear deal with Iran: “It’s just not on the table, it’s not up for discussion.” Campbell’s predecessor, Wendy Sherman, had been a chief negotiator for the original nuclear deal.

After his time with the Pentagon Plans and Analysis group, Campbell became the deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, which has become his career focus in the ensuing years; he went on to be the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific as well as founded The Asia Group, a strategic consulting group.

Wechsler said that this specialization could drive a focus on strategic competition with China in the Middle East.

“Anybody who understands China knows how important the Middle East, and in particular, the Gulf region, is to China,” Wechsler said, “and will be having discussions with our partners in all of these countries — some very difficult conversations — to make sure that they are fully aware of the realities of… issues that are related to China.”

He noted that such work is already happening, but that Campbell “would know better than anyone” its importance.

During his confirmation hearing, Campbell described the U.S.’s efforts in the Middle East and Ukraine as “necessary” and “critically important,” but added “I believe that fundamentally, our long-term interests over the remainder of the century will play out largely in the Indopacific.”

He warned of the risks of “strategic surprise” in Asia, pledging to shore up the U.S.’s defenses and alliances in that region.

Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Middle East peace negotiator, told JI that Campbell “is wicked smart; a master bureaucratic player; knows US foreign policy — both process and substance; and has a real sense of how to work with allies and stand up to adversaries. Knows Foggy Bottom inside and out. And has ideas to make it less foggy.”

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