Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is senior editor of the Coronavirus Daily Brief and author of the new book “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
The biggest question facing the world after Donald Trump’s defeat is: Can Joe Biden clean up the mess?
It took days for Biden to be declared the winner of the presidential election because the race was tight in key battleground states, but still he won, and as commander in chief he has broad latitude to put forward his own foreign policy and national security agenda.
Biden needs to assemble the right team and adopt policies that can restore America’s global reputation, reassert its leadership of the alliance of liberal democracies and expunge the cramped and counterproductive “America First” policies of the Trump administration.
Here’s who Biden should select for the key posts:
There was no “blue wave” that some had predicted and Republicans may well retain control of the Senate, so Biden will have to pick his confirmation battles carefully as he selects his cabinet.
Since “personnel is policy,” Biden should assemble a strong national security team that in his words “looks like the country” – racially diverse and with women in senior roles.
Michèle Flournoy is widely and rightly regarded to be the leading contender for secretary of defense and would be the first woman to hold that position. Flournoy knows the Pentagon and its massive bureaucracy well because she served in the key role of undersecretary for policy in Barack Obama’s Pentagon.
She is also widely respected on both sides of the aisle, so much so that Trump’s first secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, wanted Flournoy to be his top deputy at the Pentagon. Flournoy went to meet with a couple of officials on the Trump transition team, but in the end, she decided to drop out of consideration for the job given her misgivings about Trump.
Biden should advance Flournoy’s nomination to be secretary of defense as soon as is feasible.
For secretary of state, Biden should pick Susan Rice. The new President seriously considered Rice as his running mate. He worked closely with her during the Obama administration when she was national security adviser. Rice has the requisite experience to re-energize the State Department, where morale has suffered under Trump: he has often presented the department as part of a purported “deep state,” and many senior diplomats have departed as a result.
If she were tapped for the role, Rice would likely get some tough questions during her Senate confirmation hearing about the 2012 terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, during which four Americans were killed. But the statute of limitations has long run out on this pseudo-scandal, which revolves around the fact that immediately after the Benghazi attack Rice recited Obama administration talking points about the incident that turned out to be inaccurate.
Tony Blinken has worked closely with Biden for decades. He served as both deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration, and he would be the best choice for national security adviser, since he understands how to make the interagency process work well and Biden trusts him implicitly. Jake Sullivan, who served as Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president, would make a strong deputy national security adviser.
Trump has deeply politicized the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), one of the largest US government agencies. Biden should install a savvy leader to help to restore morale there. A great pick would be Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) who Biden had seriously considered to be his running mate. Demings, the former police chief of Orlando, sits on the House committees on Homeland Security, Intelligence, and Judiciary and understands well many of the issues that would come with running DHS.
Trump has consistently undermined the US intelligence community. To fix that, Biden needs to install an adept leader as the director of national intelligence to coordinate the work of the 17 US intelligence agencies. Avril Haines was tapped by Biden to run his foreign policy and national security transition team and is both a former deputy director of the CIA and deputy national security adviser for Obama. Haines has the intelligence experience and political savvy to be an effective director of national intelligence.
The Trump administration has turned the once-important job of US ambassador to the United Nations into a Trivial Pursuit question. At the beginning of his administration Trump selected a national figure, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, to be his UN ambassador. Quick: Who can name today’s American ambassador to the UN? It is Kelly Craft, a hitherto obscure diplomat whose main qualification for the job appears to be the large sums she and her husband have donated to the 2016 Trump campaign. Two years ago, the Trump administration downgraded the UN ambassador position to a non-cabinet level role – as it was during both Bush administrations. It is a job that was once held by diplomatic heavy hitters such as Richard Holbrooke and Susan Rice.
The UN ambassador job should be reinstated to its former status to show that the Biden team is serious about re-engaging with the UN. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, who ran for the Democratic nomination and is now on the Biden transition team, would be an excellent pick for this position. Buttigieg speaks several languages, including Arabic, Dari, French, Italian and Spanish, which would make him quite a hit at the UN. If he were to be selected and confirmed, he would be only the second person who identifies as gay to serve in an American cabinet.
Biden should also follow an honorable post-9/11 bipartisan tradition when it comes to counterterrorism as was the case even during the Trump administration which, until 2017, kept National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Nick Rasmussen, who held that role during the Obama administration. The current NCTC director, Christopher Miller, a former Special Forces officer, was Trump’s senior director for counterterrorism at the White House and is well qualified to remain in his current position.
Similarly, the Trump administration kept in place Brett McGurk, who oversaw the “Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS” at the Department of State under Obama. The Biden team should leave in place his successor Ambassador James Jeffrey, a senior career diplomat, and his deputy, Syria envoy and retired army Colonel Joel Rayburn, both of whom have deep expertise in the Middle East.
Biden should do something a little unexpected at the CIA and tap one of the nation’s top retired military officers who have publicly endorsed him to be the director of the agency. It could be someone like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who revolutionized Joint Special Operations Command to make it the superlative war fighting machine that it is today, or his successor in that role, Admiral Bill McRaven, the architect of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. Both McChrystal and McRaven have deep knowledge of the intelligence world and of how to connect the various elements of the US national security enterprise to make them work effectively.
This national security team would signal to the world that Biden wants to restore America’s place in the world as the first among equals in a rules-based international order that has served American interests so well since World War II.
(Disclosure: I have reported on national security issues in Washington DC for more than two-and-half decades, so I know many of the current and former officials mentioned in this story; some well and others only slightly.)
Here’s what policies Biden should pursue:
The New York Times reports that as soon as Biden takes office, he will begin “ramping up testing, ensuring a steady supply of protective equipment, distributing a vaccine and securing money from Congress for schools and hospitals.” And Biden would lead by example, which Trump is incapable of doing, by wearing a mask in public consistently and only attending events with proper social distancing.
But Biden could go further by creating a new White House position for the Covid-19 era, a deputy national security adviser for health who is a public health expert. This would do more than simply restore the pandemic directorate at the National Security Council which was dissolved by the Trump administration and which Biden has pledged to bring back, and it would help to coordinate the government response to the most serious public health crisis in a century.
It’s a role that could be filled by Dr. Anthony Fauci who has advised six presidents and is widely trusted by the public, or by someone like Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota who is one of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts and who served as the Science Envoy for a year at the State Department during the Trump administration. He has spent much of his career publicly warning of the type of global pandemic that we now face.
Biden’s national security team should also bring badly needed regular order to American national security decisions that are now often made by presidential tweet rather than by the deliberations of the National Security Council.
To give one telling example: In October, commander-in-chief Trump tweeted that all American soldiers should be going home from Afghanistan by Christmas, and his national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said that there will be a drawdown from Afghanistan from the 4,500 troops currently there to 2,500 soldiers by early 2021.
But General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told NPR that on the matter of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, “Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit. I’m not going to engage in speculation. I’m going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president.”
Does anyone have a clue what the Trump administration’s Afghan policy is? The confusion surely only benefits the Taliban, whose main aim is the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan. Trump officials are now negotiating some kind of peace deal with the Taliban, but they have zero leverage since Trump is already volunteering that all US troops will leave soon anyway.
Biden, who had long been a skeptic of large-scale US troop deployments in Afghanistan, should retain a light Special Operations Forces footprint for counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan and he should say publicly that the US commitment to Afghanistan is a durable one, rather than making constantly muddled statements, as President Trump has done, about US intentions in Afghanistan that confuse America’s allies and give comfort to her enemies.
As soon as he assumes office, Biden has promised that he will reverse the Trump administration’s moves to exit the World Health Organization (WHO), which made some early missteps combatting the coronavirus by not challenging Chinese falsehoods about the virus when it first emerged. This is the right move since the WHO is still the only body that can respond around the world to what is, after all, a global pandemic.
In an article he wrote for Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Biden says he will immediately rejoin the Paris climate agreement, which is a sound decision, as 2020 is on course to likely be the hottest year since record-keeping began, according to meteorologists. The agreement calls for the US to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% of their 2005 levels within the next five years. Under the Trump administration the US has formally left the Paris agreement on Wednesday.)
Biden says he will reenter the Iran nuclear deal if the Iranians observe their end of the agreement. After the Trump administration left the agreement in 2018, the Iranians restarted their production of nuclear fuel, albeit at a relatively low level that is not weapons-grade. Whatever your view of the theocratic regime in Iran, surely it would be much worse if it were on a path to acquire nuclear weapons, which the Obama administration delayed until at least 2030 with its 2015 nuclear agreement with that nation.
The President-elect should also take the simple step of no longer disrespecting our close allies, such as the Germans and the Canadians, as Trump has done repeatedly. He should also cut off praise–such as Trump has delivered– for autocrats like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. This approach to allies and enemies has yielded Trump precisely nothing over the past four years; the North Korean nuclear program continues to grow according to North Korea experts, while President Trump is widely reviled among America’s closest North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, according to Pew polling released in September.
What is the strategic benefit of all this geopolitical trumpery to the United States? It has never been clear, although it’s certainly long been a key aim of Russian President Vladimir Putin to weaken the NATO alliance.
Biden should reaffirm American commitments to NATO which Trump’s then-secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, publicly described in 2017 as the “most successful and powerful military alliance in modern history,” something that Mattis’ former boss has never seemed to understand.
At the same time, Biden should make it clear to Putin that the Russian leader’s bromance with Trump was an aberration in US foreign policy and that the US will take a strong stand on any interference in American electoral processes–including by indicting and sanctioning any of Putin’s allies who are involved in these activities.
To its credit, the Trump administration took a skeptical view of China’s military expansionism and its unfair trade practices. Biden should continue with this, but should do more to publicly criticize China’s imprisonment of some one million Uyghurs—who the Chinese government claim are only being held in “re-education camps” – and China’s deconstruction of a democratic Hong Kong.
The new president should also reverse some of the more odious immigration policies of the Trump administration, which separated more than 500 children from their families at the southern border. Biden has vowed to form a task force to reunite the kids with their families.
The Trump administration says it will let in only 15,000 refugees in the next year when the world has more refugees than at any time since World War II, according to the UN. Rightly, Biden has said he would allow 125,000 refugees to settle in the US.
Biden says he will end the “travel ban,” aimed mostly at Muslim-majority countries. The ban did nothing to prevent the jihadist terrorist attacks that occurred over the past four years in the United States which were carried out variously by US citizens, legal permanent residents of the United States and a Saudi military officer who killed three American sailors at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida in December 2019. Saudi citizens are not subject to the travel ban.
Relatedly, Biden should end the Trump administration’s warm embrace of the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed bin Salman, known as MBS, who launched a catastrophic war in Yemen in 2015 that helped to precipitate the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the UN, and did not achieve its goal to reduce the role of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Biden says he will cease any US backing for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, according to the piece he wrote in Foreign Affairs.
Above all, Biden should be, as he has promised, the leader of all Americans, not just the ones who voted for him.