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Will President Biden’s Likely Secretaries of State End Forever Wars?

A look at Biden's top picks, and whether Biden will echo the national security policies of the administration he previously served.

ROCK HILL, SC - AUGUST 29: Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden addresses a crowd at a town hall event at Clinton College on August 29, 2019 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Biden spent Wednesday and Thursday campaigning in the early primary state. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

As the election nears, politicos and prognosticators are hotly debating whether a Joe Biden presidency will echo the national security policies of Obama, to what extent Biden will be beholden to the far left, and who he will choose to lead the State Department. 

The Bernie Sanders wing of the left had an outsized role in crafting the Democratic National Committee (DNC) platform. They included a series of pledges sought by the progressive left: scaling back open-ended counterterrorism conflicts, ending the “forever wars” and U.S. military support for the Saudi Arabian-led military campaign in Yemen, and ceasing the Trump administration’s attempts at regime change in Iran and beyond.

Afterinterviewing more than a dozen Democrats familiar with Biden’s transition process, Politico reports that the Biden campaign is attempting “to assemble a center-left amalgamation of personnel designed to prioritize speed over ideology in responding to the coronavirus and the resulting economic ruin. Think Susan Rice, but also Elizabeth Warren. Pete Buttigieg, but also Karen Bass.”

Politico reports that in discussions with various foreign policy observers, they “heard around 10 names” mentioned, “from Foreign Service luminaries such as William Burns to way-outside-the-box picks like Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.”

“Does it mean that the chief of staff won’t be [longtime Biden advisers] Ron Klain or Steve Ricchetti or something? No, but it does mean you’re going to see some unusual suspects in the government, I think,” said one Democratic strategist.

However, what policies are actually pursued, and what are left on the cutting room floor, will likely be determined by whoever is chosen to lead the State Department. That pick will largely largely determine whether U.S. foreign policy will plunge us back to the days of ill-fated missions against Gaddafi in Libya, the arming of Syrian rebels, and further foreign deployments.

Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE.) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) are both actively pursuing a starring role in leading a Biden administration’s national security policy. They’ve both been busy penning opeds and appearing on foreign policy panels and cable news shows.

Sen. Chris Coons

Coons has been praised by the media as a moderate that is the “GOP’s favorite Democrat,” allegedly in the same vein as Biden. That’s also earned him the wrath of progressives, who put up a challenger against him arguing “he’s not running on how he’s used his power to make our state better” and that instead his campaign has been “very much about Donald Trump… not about the things that he’s actually done for us.”

Coons has served for ten years in the Senate seat once held by Joe Biden, and has spent 10 years on the Foreign Relations Committee and is a leader of the bipartisan Senate Human Rights Caucus. Coons spoke in favor of Biden at the Democratic National Convention in August on the same night that Biden accepted his party’s nomination.

“The United States does not have to choose between being the world’s policeman and total retrenchment: it can engage the world more selectively, in principled and pragmatic ways that better serve the interests of working Americans,” writes Coons in an oped written a year ago titled, “A Bipartisan Foreign Policy Is Still Possible” published in Foreign Affairs.

Despite saying this, Coons goes on to criticize what he calls Trump’s “precipitous withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan [announced] by tweet before consulting with our partners or Congress, much less his own advisers” and he believes that Putin’s Russia is “a persistent danger to our democracy, to our European allies, to democracy globally, and to the rule of law… Putin will only stop when we stop him.” 

He argues that the Trump administration’s break from traditional foreign policy has been a disaster, and that the U.S. needs to return “the assumption that alliances make the United States stronger, that removing trade barriers benefits U.S. consumers, that democracy and human rights belong at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy, and that the liberal international order created after World War II benefits the United States as much as it does the rest of the world.”

Instead, U.S. leaders should “lead the United States to take actions overseas that make American families more secure and that promote the common good,” writes Coons.

Coons says that most Americans support countering China, and that this tops his list of priorities. He strongly disagrees with Trump’s trade policies, as he believes they’ve poisoned the relationship with U.S. allies in Asia and strengthened President Xi’s hand.

In a statement provided by Coons, he comes very close to openly admitting he wants the job of Secretary of State.

“Joe Biden and I have very similar, closely aligned views on foreign policy. He’s got a lot of great folks from whom to choose, but if he were to consider me as well, I’d certainly be honored.”

Coons has received conservative commentator George Will’s stamp of approval: “As secretary of state, Coons’s placid temperament, his robust proclamations that his nation represents universal values … equip him to repair the recent damage to his nation’s prestige and security.”

Sen. Chris Murphy

Meanwhile, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy has positioned himself as the progressive alternative on foreign policy. Just this year, he has authored several articles on the subject, and appeared in a variety of foreign policy forums, including a panel hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. In “Rethinking the Battlefield,” a policy document authored by Murphy, the Senator suggests a number of changes to current foreign policy, including an enormous increase of employees at the State Department and USAID.

Earlier this year, Murphy met with Iran’s foreign minister over Trump’s objections. He has also authored legislation that limits U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of its involvement in the Yemen war.

In August, Murphy reintroduced legislation designed to prioritize the federal government’s purchase of American-made goods that closes loopholes and increases the domestic content percentage requirement from 50 percent to 60 percent for products to be labeled as American-made.

Murphy was also quick to leap into the fray on China. In an opinion piece for War on the Rocks, Murphy frames President Trump’s decision to defund the World Health Organization as a decision rooted in a too-soft approach to China. He argues that Trump sides with “China apologists.” He suggests changes in U.S. policy that pit America precariously close to a cold war with China. 

In a piece for USA Today, Murphy again blasts the Trump administration’s China policy, arguing that Trump’s withdrawal from the WHO and his trade policies have strengthened President Xi’s hand.

“Trump’s China policy has been a gold-leaf wrapped gift to Beijing,” he writes. The Trump administration has destroyed relationships with  Japan and South Korea, moving them closer to China while bolstering the hand of dictators like Duterte in the Philippines, he argues.

“Four more years of Trump’s disastrous China policy will likely help vault Beijing into a position of global prominence from which it may never be dislodged. If Trump wants to make China policy a centerpiece of the coming campaign, his opponents should welcome it,” Murphy wrote.

A piece in The Atlantic Murphy wrote a year ago offers several clues on his foreign policy thinking.

In “How to Make a Progressive Foreign Policy Actually Work” Murphy argued that “the test of any Democratic presidential candidate’s foreign-policy ideas should not be ‘How different are they from Obama’s?’ Democrats running in 2020 shouldn’t be shy to pine for a return to the basics of Obama’s foreign policy, which led America to actively defend democracy and human rights abroad, invest in nuclear and climate diplomacy, nurture allies, and improve its reputation in nearly every corner of the world. Obama left a lot of work undone, but his basic philosophy of global engagement is a foundation that should be built upon, not torn down.”

Murphy writes that “there are also ways that the next Democratic president can thoughtfully pivot from the strategy employed by the Obama administration.”

For those that are opposed to constant American military interventions overseas, Murphy offers some reassuring words.

He writes:

“First, progressives should insist on compliance with the War Powers Resolution and require all major military action overseas to be explicitly approved by Congress… No more massive, unconstitutional, open-ended grants of military power to the president.

Second, progressives should get the United States out of the business of waging secret wars. The Cold War practice of covertly arming or training rebels abroad doesn’t work (see Syria). Hell, America has trouble overtly training and arming government forces (see Iraq and Afghanistan)…  And while we’re at it, America’s drone-strike campaign is not delivering actual security gains. Studies show that in Pakistani tribal areas where the most drone strikes hit, Sunni insurgent groups grew the fastest. We kill one, two more sign up….”

Murphy writes that the U.S. shouldn’t support foreign military intervention if the ultimate problem we are trying to solve is fundamentally a political, rather than military, nature, citing the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an example where the U.S. invaded a political problem, and was unprepared to deal with the complicated tribal, sectarian, and political fallout of regime change. Today’s crises in Syria, Yemen and Venezuela should not tempt American military intervention, because they are ultimately political problems.

“Progressives should be humble and realistic about the limits of U.S. military power. The 2011 American airstrikes in Libya, which led to the toppling of the Gaddafi regime, are a stark example of a well-intended military intervention turning into a massive failure…. The civil war that erupted in the wake of Gaddafi’s downfall is still ongoing eight years later…. Sometimes, military restraint, though it may feel unsavory in the face of evil, is still the best policy. Military action can create more new problems than it solves.”

Despite these conciliatory overtures to non-interventionists, one must remember that even senators that strongly opposed war have notoriously changed their positions when they entered the White House, as Obama did.

Murphy’s flurry of activity in the foreign policy space “has not gone unnoticed by people in and around the Biden campaign,” Politico reports. Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as vice president suggests that when it comes to a seat within his administration, he is susceptible to Sens. Murphy and Coons’ style of self-promotion.

Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice

Any list of Secretary of State contenders would not be complete without mention of Susan Rice, Obama’s former national security adviser who was rumored to be under consideration as Biden’s vice president. She’s frequently mentioned as guaranteed a top seat in Biden’s cabinet.

On Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan, Rice was at the table for every Obama debacle. Rice’s influence on the Obama administration was strong, and she used it to push for the bombing of Libya and Syria. She also supported aid to so-called free Syrian rebels, as well as an escalation in Afghanistan.

Biden had worked closely with Rice in the White House, but he was not as persuaded to her positions as Obama became. In his first few months as vice president, he strongly protested Obama’s decision in 2009 to commit 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan.

“The Pentagon’s strategy was too broad, too expensive, and too focused on the Taliban insurgency, instead of al-Qaeda,” he argued.

“I wish I could say Biden was a student of history and understood how problematic nation-building would be in Afghanistan,” said one an anonymous former top Obama Pentagon official. “That’s not Biden. He has gut instincts.”

Biden also opposed the bombing of Gaddafi in Libya, advised Obama not to launch the risky raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and urged Obama not to offer his famous “red line” announcement if Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons.

Other possible Secretary of State candidates in a Biden administration include Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of State now working as a top Biden campaign aide.

Historically, Biden has been all over the map on the biggest issues of war and peace, which should give voters pause when considering whether a Biden administration would further enable U.S. interventions overseas.

He voted against George H. W. Bush’s Gulf War, then argued the U.S. should have removed Saddam Hussein after the liberation of Kuwait. After Biden came back from a trip to the Balkans in 1993, he lambasted President Bill Clinton for ignoring the slaughter of besieged Muslims. 

Later, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden voted to give President George W. Bush the broad authority to go to war in Iraq. But he didn’t just vote for the war—he helped sell it to the American public, even though the majority at the time did not support taking immediate military action.

Biden didn’t call the war in Iraq a “mistake” until 2005—not because he thought his vote for it was wrong, but because in his estimation we should have sent more troops. Obama’s former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates complained in his memoir “Duty” that Biden was wrong on “nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

Unlike his plagiarism, Biden’s foreign policy decisions had far-reaching, devastating international consequences.  If he becomes president, that will be doubly true. It remains to be seen if his Secretary of State pick can ensure that cooler heads prevail, or whether they will enact their own set of disastrous foreign policy initiatives.

about the author

Barbara Boland is TAC’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Previously, she worked as an editor for the Washington Examiner and for CNS News. She is the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General George Patton in World War II, and her work has appeared on Fox News, The Hill UK Spectator, and elsewhere. Boland is a graduate from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.  Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.

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