An array of progressive foreign policy groups came together last month to recommend national security personnel to President-elect Joe Biden. Their list included around 100 names of policy experts who could fill a wide range of second-tier positions—jobs whose occupants have a major impact on policy but rarely make headlines.
The list seems to have gone straight to Biden’s spam folder. Instead of bringing in new faces, Biden has continued to staff his team with Obama administration alumni—in effect, charging them with solving the problems they created in a past life. Three of these second-tier appointees are particularly concerning, both for their lack of repentance for past sins and their potential to do harm going forward.
1) Victoria Nuland, Biden’s nominee for under secretary of state for political affairs, the third-ranking post in the State Department. Nuland is best known for an infamous leaked phone conversation from 2014 in which she and the US ambassador to Ukraine discuss which opposition leaders the US should back to supplant then-President Viktor Yanukovych. At the time, the Ukrainian leader faced large-scale protests after moving to end a rapprochement with the European Union in favor of preserving his country's close relationship with Russia.
The call sparked outrage on several fronts. First, it revealed that Nuland was directly meddling in Ukrainian affairs despite repeated public claims to the contrary. This interference and Yanukovych’s subsequent ouster raised the stakes for Vladimir Putin, who feared being surrounded by an expanded European Union (and possibly NATO’s guns). All of this contributed to Putin’s eventual decision to occupy and annex Crimea and fund insurgents in Eastern Ukraine, plunging US-Russian relations into their current sorry state.
At one point in the phone conversation, Nuland said, “fuck the EU,” apparently out of exasperation at Europe’s limited response to the Ukrainian crisis. With one phone call she had managed to anger half the heads of state from Lisbon to Moscow.
This episode illustrates two big problems with Nuland: she is a famously undiplomatic diplomat, and she is extremely hawkish toward Russia. (When she and Daniel Fried were later tasked with crafting sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea, a colleague jokingly asked Fried whether “the Russians realize[d] that the two hardest-line people in the entire U.S. government [were] now in a position to go after them.”)
Nuland seems to have maintained her hawkish inclinations during her time out of government. Last year, in an essay titled “Pinning Down Putin,” she advocated the creation of “permanent bases along NATO’s eastern border,” a move sure to raise tensions with Moscow at a time when we desperately need to work with Russia on issues like nuclear arms control, Covid-19, and climate change.
Speaking of arms control: Nuland also cautioned against a “free rollover of New START,” which is currently the only treaty that puts a cap on the arsenals of the world’s two largest nuclear powers. She argued that simply renewing the treaty would be a gift to Russia, and that it should instead be “provisionally extended for a year or two” while we try to get Putin to discuss caps on other weapons.
2) Samantha Power, Biden’s pick to lead the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID. Power’s past support of ill-fated humanitarian interventions has made her a living symbol of good intentions gone awry. The main current concern isn’t what she’ll do with USAID, but rather that Biden somewhat inexplicably elevated her position there to the National Security Council, meaning that Power may influence discussions that go well beyond where to build schools or fund NGOs.
Power rose to prominence by writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. The work narrates episodes of ethnic cleansing and genocide and argues that the U.S. could have and should have acted to stop many of them.
Known for her commanding presence and moral certitude, Power lobbied to apply the book’s lessons during her time in government, notably with her famous crusade for intervention in Libya in 2011. Power has been unrepentant about the disaster that ensued, highlighting the risk that Muammar Qaddafi had posed to civilians in Benghazi while downplaying her role in plunging the country into chaos and destabilizing its neighborhood.
Power would have also preferred that the US use more military force in Syria, including instituting a no-fly zone that would have necessitated “destroying Syria’s air defenses,” according to Foreign Affairs. Taken together, her roles in Syria and Libya show an enthusiasm for military intervention that should give us pause. We can only hope that her primary job will keep her far away from the war room.
3) Kurt Campbell, Biden’s pick for “Asia tsar.” Campbell’s reputation suffers in anti-war circles from his role in co-founding, along with Michèle Flournoy, the hawkish Center for a New American Security. His background is on balance less worrying than that of Nuland or Power, but his policy leanings could nonetheless create further rifts in America’s most important bilateral relationship.
Campbell is known for his central role in the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia.” From a progressive realist perspective, this initiative was a mixed bag. Focusing more closely on the Indo-Pacific meant trying to end, or at least scale down, forever wars in the Middle East. At the same time, moving American troops and attention to China’s backyard helped create a feeling of encirclement in Beijing that has contributed to a chilling of US-China relations.
Campbell is expected to continue the current pattern of hawkish interactions with China, though the tone of the relationship will undoubtedly feel calmer than what we saw during the Trump administration. Recent statements indicate that he will seek to partially decouple the American and Chinese economies while building stronger ties with America’s friends in the region. Campbell has also advocated increasing the military efforts of the US and its regional allies. The goal is “deterrence,” but the price could be additional strain on relations with Beijing, not to mention the risk of explosive miscalculation on one side or the other. (He has, however, made clear that the US needs to work with China on issues of global import like climate change and nonproliferation, arguing that this is “not a concession but a fact of life.”)
Campbell could face pushback from progressives for the work of The Asia Group, a strategic advisory firm he co-founded shortly after leaving government in 2013. The firm specializes in helping companies penetrate markets in the Indo-Pacific region, and its clients include defense contractors. The Asia Group’s website touts, among other exploits, a project in which the company helped an unnamed defense contractor get a multi-billion dollar contract with the Australian government. The fact that Campbell advocates a more muscular military presence in the region while potentially profiting from that posture raises questions about a conflict of interests.
Among the reasons these second-tier hawks are concerning is that they could reinforce the hawkish tendencies of such top-level aides as National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Tony Blinken. But hope springs eternal: While Biden hasn’t tapped any appointees from outside the “Blob,” he has at least selected a few of the less hawkish establishment figures—most notably two pragmatic career diplomats: Wendy Sherman, who will serve as the second in command at the State Department, and William Burns, who will lead the CIA.
Perhaps most importantly, the fight to fill positions is not over. Nuland will need to be approved by the Senate, and some people are already agitating against her confirmation. In addition, many lower positions in the sprawling national security apparatus remain open. American interests would be well served if Biden’s team chooses to take recommendations from anti-war groups more seriously than it has so far. The list of 100 candidates that Biden received last month would be a good place to start.
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