An Obama restoration on foreign policy? Familiar faces could fill Biden's team

Mr Biden's early national security appointments are likely to contrast with those of Mr Obama. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US President-elect Joe Biden's national security team is likely to be largely staffed by former Obama Situation Room regulars prepared to restore foreign policy principles discarded by President Donald Trump.

An Obama redux would be a source of enormous relief to establishment insiders, who are desperate to see seasoned hands regain control of national security.

But that likelihood is also causing disquiet among some younger, more liberal Democrats impatient with their party's pre-Trump national security instincts, which they consider badly outdated.

It is of course Mr Biden who will direct policy: As a former vice-president and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, he needs expert foreign policy advice far less than his recent predecessors. But he will also be consumed in his early months by the coronavirus and his economic agenda, potentially giving his top appointees unusual influence.

They are almost certain to include Mr Antony Blinken, a deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser under Mr Obama who previously worked for Mr Biden in the Senate; Ms Avril Haines, a deputy at Mr Obama's Central Intelligence Agency and on his National Security Council; Ms Susan E. Rice, Mr Obama's last national security adviser; and Ms Michèle Flournoy, the Pentagon's top policy official under Mr Obama.

"I think virtually everybody who gets named will have served under Obama," said James Mann, the author of books about foreign policy advisers to Mr Obama and former President George W. Bush.

While their collective résumés are impeccable by the standards of the Council on Foreign Relations, some party insiders and analysts say Mr Biden's team-in-waiting may be too cautious and conventionally minded at a moment when party insurgents and activists are challenging Democratic orthodoxy on subjects like Israel, military spending, and counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and North Africa.

To some they are representative of what Mr Obama's former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes famously derided as "The Blob" - a Washington foreign policy establishment too confident in American hegemony and too willing to resort to force.

They also grumble about their corporate connections, noting that Mr Blinken and Ms Flournoy in 2017 founded the Washington consulting firm WestExec, whose slogan has been "Bringing the Situation Room to the Board Room". Its roster of current and former employees is a who's-who of likely Biden appointees that includes Ms Haines, a former principal.

"They're bringing in the usual suspects. There are no new faces here," said John Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and a frequent critic of Washington's foreign policy elites.

"And to the extent there are new faces and younger people, they sound just like the usual suspects."

Most of the people around Mr Biden represent a risk-averse, centre-left approach to foreign policy, Mearsheimer said, one that envisions a more active role for US economic, diplomatic and, in some cases, military power than many rank-and-file Democrats favour.

Mr Biden's early national security appointments are likely to contrast with those of Mr Obama, who took office after just a few years in Washington and with only a handful of foreign policy aides under his wing. For his national security adviser, Mr Obama chose a retired Marine general, James L. Jones, whom he had met just once. The relationship never took and Mr Jones was gone in less than two years.

But Mr Biden will be surrounded by very familiar faces, beginning with Mr Blinken, 58, an aide who has worked for him since 2002, when he became the staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Mr Biden was the chairman.

Mr Blinken, a wavy-haired rock and jazz music aficionado with smooth mannerisms in the classic diplomatic style, may aspire to become secretary of state, though some predict Mr Biden will want his confidant in the West Wing as national security adviser.

Another top candidate to head the State Department has been Ms Rice, with whom Mr Biden spent countless hours in the Situation Room and nearly chose to be his running mate.

But her prospects look dimmer now that Republicans may retain control of the Senate: Ms Rice has been a special target of congressional Republicans, accused of dishonestly downplaying terrorism as the motive for the deadly 2012 attack on a US compound in Benghazi, Libya. Their obsession with the episode - which some allies of Ms Rice attribute to sexism and racism - persuaded Mr Obama in 2013 to name her national security adviser, a job that does not require Senate confirmation, and not secretary of state as he had originally planned.

An alternative is Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a close ally of Mr Biden who holds his former Senate seat and has been an active member of the Foreign Relations Committee. In temperament and ideology, Mr Coons, a Democrat, is a relative moderate respected by his Republican colleagues and might be far easier to confirm.

Ms Haines is a likely choice to run the CIA. Some progressives complain that she was not a more active critic of the agency's torture practices during the Bush era, but Obama officials say she supported reining in drone strikes against terrorists that were causing civilian casualties.

Ms Haines understands the agency without being a captive to its views, according to one of her admirers from the Obama White House. An alternative would be Michael Morell, a former deputy and acting CIA director.

Ms Flournoy is the expected choice to run the Pentagon. Respected by Republicans, she would most likely encounter little confirmation resistance. But Mr Biden may prefer someone with more political experience than the cerebral military strategist - particularly given potential battles with liberals who will demand big defence cuts that Ms Flournoy would probably resist.

Another contender for defence secretary or attorney general is Jeh C. Johnson, a former general counsel at the Defence Department who as homeland security secretary under Mr Obama has run a Cabinet department before. His old job could go to Lisa Monaco, who helped Biden vet his potential running mates during the campaign.

Ambassador to the United Nations has often been a steppingstone for promising or rising figures - someone like Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is said to be interested in the post and did not serve in the Obama administration.

Though he has never practised diplomacy, the multilingual Buttigieg served as a Navy officer in Afghanistan and spoke in more depth about foreign policy than most of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

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