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Biden’s Team and the Party of the Big Tent

Biden’s Team and the Party of the Big Tent

Tuesday, 1 December, 2020 - 18:00
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Joseph Biden has many challenges and he is not yet in the Oval Office. Readers perhaps noticed that he proposed people for Secretary of State, for Secretary of Homeland Security, for the Director of National Intelligence and for United Nations ambassador but not for Secretary of Defense and not for the Director of the CIA.

The delay is not a coincidence. The most important point to remember is that the Republican Party is still basically united under Donald Trump, but the Democratic Party is a political coalition of different interest groups. The Democrats call themselves the “big-tent party” because the party represents so many different communities together.

Observers watching the Democratic Party expected Michele Flournoy to be the Secretary of Defense if Joe Biden won the November election. After Biden’s election victory, the left wing inside the big tent shifted its attention from the campaign against Trump to the cabinet.

They are not comfortable with Flournoy. She created the consulting company “West Exec”. The company name comes from the little alley between the White House and the Eisenhower building on 17th Street in which are the offices of the National Security Council officials. Important officials cross West Exec alley daily to enter the White House. Flournoy’s consulting company has business clients, including defense companies, who need the help of West Exec to understand how to do business in Washington and how to get big government contracts. West Exec refuses to give the names of its business clients.

The left side of the Democratic Party distrusts the lack of transparency, and it wants to stop American military interventions around the world, including in places like Yemen. Flournoy appears to have business relationships with companies that build weapons.

In a manner, Flournoy represents the money and big business influence in the American government that the Democratic Party left strongly opposes. Tony Blinken also helped create West Exec, but Biden was very loyal to his aide with whom he worked for two decades. Biden doesn’t have the same personal relationship with Flournoy. Biden still needs the left wing of the Democratic Party for its help in Congress and for its help in the congressional elections in November 2022. So, he is pausing.

Together with Flournoy there is a new possible name for the Defense Secretary: General Lloyd Austin.

Biden knows him from 2009-2011 when Austin was the top American army commander in Iraq. In fact, Austin disagreed with Biden about withdrawing all the American forces from Iraq in 2011. Austin, however, did not speak to the media about his disagreement – and this is rare in modern American government.

This kind of professional standard and loyalty received its reward: in 2014 Obama made Austin commander of all the American forces in the Middle East, the CENTCOM. He was the commander leading the military forces that fought against ISIS while Brett McGurk managed the diplomatic effort. After Austin retired in 2016, he worked for the defense company Raytheon. But Austin has a political ally that Flournoy lacks. The black leaders inside the big Democratic tent want more black persons in the cabinet. One key political ally of Biden whose help saved the weak Biden campaign last spring told the press last week he was unhappy with Biden’s cabinet until now because there are not enough blacks in it.

There is a similar contest for the job of director of the CIA. Michael Morrell was the deputy director under Obama, and he criticized Trump on television regularly after the 2016 election. Morrell has excellent experience, but he also sometimes defended the CIA using torture against terrorism suspects. The left side of the big Democratic tent completely rejects torture.

When Trump named the current director, Gina Haspel, the Democratic left confronted her because she had managed the CIA operations in Thailand where terrorism suspects in CIA custody were tortured. The left wing now asks how Biden can support Morrell.

To avoid this fight, Biden might choose Thomas Donilon to direct the CIA. Donilon never worked in intelligence but he was Obama’s second national security advisor who has much foreign policy experience. (He led the Obama national security team in its response to the Arab Spring, for example.)

Perhaps Biden will choose Morrell and Flournoy in the end; they have many supporters in the big tent too. If Biden instead chooses people like Donilon and Austin it will be an indication that Biden is thinking already about the 2022 election and how to mobilize all the groups in the big Democratic tent. In any case, the new Biden national security team will be composed mostly of officials from the Obama administration.

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