Evaluating the Biden Appointments: Hawkish or Progressive?

Henry Bergles, Editor

As Joe Biden unexpectedly became the Democratic nominee after his rival, Bernie Sanders, conceded, there was much debate about how Joe Biden would be able to attract voters to his left. Before the Democratic National Convention, many within the Bernie Sanders campaign were able to push Joe Biden to adopt somewhat more progressive stances on healthcare, criminal justice, and environmental policy. Notably absent, however, were any substantial changes to Joe Biden’s foreign policy positions. The statements, advisors, appointments, and policy proposals of the future Biden administration that are currently available indicate that any substantial structural reform or progressive shift in terms of American foreign policy will not occur during the Biden administration.

Much more powerful than the progressives to Joe Biden’s left that worked to elect him were the neoconservatives, who backed Biden from the right. These neoconservatives were, for the most part, not interested in criticizing President Trump’s virulent racism, fascist tendencies, or his conservative Supreme Court appointments. Prominent political action committees, such as the Lincoln Project, which was co-founded by former Bush campaign staffers including Rick Wilson, promoted the oversimplified view that a simple dislike of Donald Trump constituted its own political position. [1]

Before the Democratic National Convention, over 275 Bernie Sanders delegates and other progressive activists signed a letter urging Joe Biden to reconsider some of his foreign policy choices. The letter expressed the hope that a Biden administration would refrain from military regime change operations and pursue a more diplomatic and less hawkish approach to foreign policy. [2]

The Biden Campaign officially responded to criticism from the left by ignoring the legitimate concerns about the advisors’ human rights records. Biden staffers highlighted the experience of fmr. UN Ambassador Susan Rice, fmr. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and former CIA director Avril Haines, while minimizing and ignoring some of the very controversial and very real issues on their records. [3] On November 24, 2020, Anthony Blinken was appointed by Biden as the next Secretary of State and Avril Haines was selected as National Security Advisor.

The Biden campaign did not mention that Blinken is the founder of WestExec Advisors, which has been involved with a partnership with the Pentagon to develop artificial intelligence to enhance drone strike capabilities. [4] The Biden campaign also did not mention that Avril Haines was involved with helping to design a system of extrajudicial drone killings during the Obama administration. [5] Even though the popular slogan to oppose Trump and support Biden was, “resist,” Haines was surprisingly limited in her opposition to Trump’s foreign policy hires. In fact, she vocally supported the appointment of Gina Haspel as CIA director, who was involved in a CIA black site torture operation in Thailand, which involved waterboarding. Haspel, who Haines advocated for later admitted to destroying 92 recordings of CIA torture that took place including torture she was directly responsible for at the Thailand black site. [6]

The trend is not limited to these individuals. Most recently, on November 10th it was announced that President-elect Biden had selected individuals for his agency review teams. Within Biden’s Department of Defense agency review team, over a third, 8 out of 21 selections, were most recently employed at think tanks and organizations funded by defense contractors that sell weapons. [7, 8] The CSIS, in particular, which the Department of Defense agency review team’s leader belonged to, receives funding from Raytheon, which supplies weapons to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. [9] It is frightening that individuals within Biden’s transition teams would be involved with an organization that supports more bombing in Yemen, and the continuation of what is currently the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Very few opposing voices without ties to the military-industrial complex were given space on either his Department of Defense or Department of State agency review team.

Regime change, drone killings, and torture have unfortunately been staples of the foreign policy agendas of both Democratic and Republican administrations in recent history. From the interventions in Yugoslavia under Bill Clinton’s presidency to widespread Democrat and Republican support of the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to Obama’s drone programs in Syria and Yemen, it seems that the popular concept of ‘political polarization’ applies much less to foreign policy.

These conflicts between the progressive camp of the Democratic Party and the 

supporters of war and regime change highlight a fundamental difference in the way that moderates and the left view foreign policy and potential candidates for a cabinet. Moderates value officials that have been in positions and have experience in the past in many kinds of foreign policy work. Even if a potential candidate promoted torture or could have used their power to stop human rights abuses, their extremely objectionable actions do not block them from being handed a position. The defense industry has a large stake and a considerable amount of influence on these appointments. Neoconservatism, as it does not pose a threat to the military-industrial complex, has been effectively rehabilitated and framed as an acceptable foreign policy ideology. What is not acceptable, is any change that threatens complete American hegemony or the profits of defense contractors.

[1] Stahl, Lesley. “Inside the Lincoln Project’s Campaign against President Trump – 60 Minutes.” Cbsnews.com, October 11, 2020. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-lincoln-project-republican-strategists-super-pac-trump-60-minutes-2020-10-11/.

[2] Akbar Shahid Ahmed. “DNC Delegates Call Biden Foreign Policy Team ‘A Horror Show’ And Ask For New Hires.” HuffPost. HuffPost, August 5, 2020. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/biden-foreign-policy-dnc_n_5f2adbd3c5b64d7a55ed7fd7.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Guyer, Jonathan. “How Biden’s Foreign-Policy Team Got Rich.” The American Prospect, July 6, 2020. https://prospect.org/world/how-biden-foreign-policy-team-got-rich/.

[5] Akbar Shahid Ahmed. “DNC Delegates Call Biden Foreign Policy Team ‘A Horror Show’ And Ask For New Hires,” OP. CIT.

[6] Ackerman, Spencer. “The Proxy War over Joe Biden Adviser Avril Haines.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast, July 6, 2020. https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-proxy-war-over-joe-biden-adviser-avril-haines.

[7] “Agency Review Teams | President-Elect Joe Biden.” President-Elect Joe Biden, December 3, 2020. https://buildbackbetter.gov/the-transition/agency-review-teams/.

[8] “One Third of Biden’s Pentagon Transition Team Hails From Organizations Financed by the Weapons Industry.” In These Times. in-these-times, November 11, 2020. https://inthesetimes.com/article/joe-biden-department-of-defense-pentagon-transition-team-weapons-industry-military.

[9] “Corporation and Trade Association Donors.” Csis.org, 2020. https://www.csis.org/corporation-and-trade-association-donors.

[10] Robinson, Nathan. “What Do Progressives Make of Joe Biden’s Cabinet Picks so Far?” The Guardian. The Guardian, November 28, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/28/joe-biden-cabinet-administration-antony-blinken.

Image: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/joe-biden-could-send-message-black-americans-reparations-bill-n1252916