‘Getting the gang back together’: Familiar faces in Biden’s foreign policy team prompt relief and concern

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Borzou Daragahi
·7 min read
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US President-elect Joe Biden has reassembled familiar faces for his foreign policy team (AFP via Getty Images)
US President-elect Joe Biden has reassembled familiar faces for his foreign policy team (AFP via Getty Images)

William Burns, who led secret talks with Iran under former President Barack Obama, is coming back, this time as CIA director. Wendy Sherman, who oversaw negotiations between the US and both North Korea and Iran, is returning as US deputy State Department chief. Brett McGurk, who served as Obama’s envoy to the Isis war before quitting under Donald Trump , will return as White House coordinator to the Middle East.

Even John Kerry, the Secretary of State who oversaw the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran and the Paris climate accord, will have a post in the new administration as head of a new office on global environmental issues.

The administration of President-elect Joe Biden is assembling a foreign policy team that appears a lot like the one he and his former boss Obama put together during their two terms in office. That is a worry to some but a great comfort to others.

“I’m quite optimistic about the gang getting back together again,” says Sanam Vakil, deputy Middle East director at Chatham House.

“You’re bringing together people who have immense experience and an opportunity to perhaps revisit difficult issues and have a do-over,” she says. “I see this as a positive sign — bringing back seasoned, qualified , experienced people who really want to do things differently, not just from President Trump but perhaps having learned from their experiences under President Obama.”

Not everyone will agree, including countries that had close relations with the Trump White House and tense ones with Obama are nervous. Turkey is unhappy about the return of McGurk, who is seen as too pro-Kurdish and highly critical of Ankara’s manoeuvres in Syria.

Israel is so alarmed about the return of so many players involved in the forging of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal that it vehemently opposed and convinced Trump to sabotage, it is revising its entire military posture regarding Tehran, according to a report in the paper Israel Hayom.

“Concerning Iran, it will be very difficult to bridge between the Israeli position and the US position,” says Raz Zimmt, a Middle East specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Whether this leads to a collision depends on what Israel is going to do.”

The Saudis and others will have to adjust to a new presidency after being so close to Donald TrumpREUTERS
The Saudis and others will have to adjust to a new presidency after being so close to Donald TrumpREUTERS

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States are concerned by signals that Biden will take a more dovish position on Iran and a much tougher line on their human rights transgressions. The Gulf monarchs enjoyed direct lines of communication to the White House via Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and protection from the presidency whenever Congress was poised to act against them, such as in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s henchmen.

“Saudi Arabia will have so many problems with the new administration,” says Zimmt. “Eventually it will have to adjust itself to the new reality.”

On the other hand, times have changed.

“Biden is different from Obama, and maybe Obama [today] would be different from Obama [then],” says Ali Shihabi, a Saudi businessman close to the leadership in Riyadh. “The fear is that, like the Trump administration, they will instinctively try to go in the opposite direction of what the Trump administration did, and that will be chaotic.”

The return of the Obama-era foreign policy team will run deep. Samantha Power, the Irish-American who served on Obama’s National Security Council as well as envoy to the United Nations, will head up USAID, the vast American international development agency. Both Jake Sullivan, who served in the White House, and Jon Finer, who worked on Middle East issues, under Kerry, are set to return to the White House.

Most western diplomats are delighted, relieved to see familiar faces after what they described as toxic relations under Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They are heartened by the multilateral approach touted by figures such as incoming Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who also served with Biden in the Obama White House.

William Burns, a former deputy secretary of state, returnsAFP via Getty Images
William Burns, a former deputy secretary of state, returnsAFP via Getty Images

“It’s a really experienced expert team who know the background and history and that’s really great news for all of us,” says one senior diplomat overseeing Iran policy for a major European nation.

“We’re anticipating a return to engagement with Iran and a package of incentives alongside some of the harsher measures,” the diplomat says, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We are expecting some form of return to the JCPOA and are ready and keen to support the Biden administration as we try to do that, and as they try to reach some kind of understanding with the Iranians.”

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani will likely view the appointment of familiar figures with relief. He will be out of office by mid year, and has a brief window to reinvigorate the JCPOA.

The deal, which was to place limits on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, has been damaged by escalating US economic restrictions and increasing Iranian nuclear activity. On Wednesday, Iran disclosed that it would begin producing sensitive materials that some non-proliferation experts worry could aid in the building of nuclear weapons.

Biden’s team knows it has to act quick, and it can; both the Iranian and American negotiators of the JCPOA likely still have each others’ numbers saved on their mobiles, and can reach out quickly once Biden is sworn in on 20 January.

“They don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to diplomacy,” says Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The sorts of people who have been tapped for crucial roles in foreign policy, particularly on Middle East policy, have either negotiated the nuclear deal or were very much involved with the implementation of the deal in the final year and have for the past four years defended the nuclear deal,” she says. “The Iranians would have to be blind to think that these people will bring the same mentality as the Trump administration.”

Still, a lot has changed in the Middle East and the world since Obama’s team left government. Hardliners in Tehran hostile to any negotiations with the US are on the ascent, and Iran is approaching sunset clauses on limits to its nuclear programme that may make a return to the deal less politically palatable in Washington.

The question is did they rebuild the team that is going to do the same stuff again, or did they rebuild the team that has absorbed everything and is going to try to learn from the past.

Former Obama administration official

The Obama administration’s Syria policy, once possibly viewed as prudent, is largely viewed as incoherent and even disastrous, with Bashar al-Assad still in power and a cataclysmic refugee crisis continuing to fester. There is a strong bipartisan consensus in Washington that the US needs to cut a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan and withdraw its troops, and Trump’s Afghanistan negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, may stay in his post under Biden.

Over the last four years, Russia and Turkey have become forces to be reckoned with in Eurasia, potential spoilers in conflicts from North Africa to the Caucasus. China has increased its diplomatic and economic power. Much of the world is more mistrustful of the US.

Such realities are not lost on Biden’s foreign policy team.

“They’re bringing back a group of people they’re all very comfortable with, and this is a group of people who know each other quite well and worked with each other quite closely,” says a former Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The question is did they rebuild the team that is going to do the same stuff again, or did they rebuild the team that has absorbed everything and is going to try to learn from the past.”

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