One of the greatest disabilities President Trump had in his 2016–17 transition was that he is not a political insider who knew people outside his own experience. Trump never understood the old Reagan-era principle that personnel is policy. That led to him picking cabinet members and White House staff in ignorance of whether those people were aligned with and dedicated to his policy agenda.
Generals and admirals, old foreign policy hands, and domestic policy experts who would dedicate themselves to ensuring that his domestic and international policy decisions would be carried out weren’t known to Trump and weren’t vetted on that basis, resulting in a number of disastrous picks.
For example, Trump’s first cabinet and White House staff included people such as former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who was never aligned with Trump’s policy agenda. (Tillerson reportedly once called Trump a “f****** moron.”)
Trump’s second national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, rejected the idea of any connection between Islam and terrorism and forbade the use of the term “radical Islamic terrorists” by his staff. Nevertheless he controlled many of the president’s policy decisions. About 100 Obama holdovers on the National Security Council staff were allowed to remain under McMaster.
Presumptive President-elect Joe Biden, judging by his selections of cabinet and staff so far, clearly understands that personnel is policy. It’s correct to say that many of Biden’s picks to date are just Obama retreads. But it’s wrong to discount their likely effectiveness in pushing Biden’s agenda.
These are people who have strong loyalty to Biden and to the Washington establishment. They know how to operate within the government, with Congress, and with the media. Many of them are friends. And many have favorite reporters in publications such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, to whom, in the past, they have leaked information.
Biden intends to nominate his long-time adviser, Anthony Blinken, to be secretary of state. Their relationship spans decades. Blinken was Biden’s staff director for six years at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and when Biden was vice president was his national security adviser until 2013. He most recently served as foreign policy adviser to Biden’s campaign.
Biden has selected another former staffer, Jake Sullivan, to be national security adviser. Sullivan succeeded Blinken as Biden’s national security adviser in 2013. Before that, he served as Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff when she was secretary of state and served as her foreign policy adviser, reportedly visiting 112 countries with her. After Biden’s announcement that he will fill the national security adviser post, Sullivan severely criticized Trump’s action moving our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, saying, “It was not about moving the peace process forward.”
Yet another Obama vet — Avril Haines — will be nominated to be Biden’s Director of National Intelligence. She had been the deputy director of Central Intelligence and went on to be deputy national security adviser in the Obama White House and is a member of the CNAS board of directors. Haines is notable mostly for her Foreign Policy article severely criticizing Trump’s politicization of the intelligence community. That article, of course, makes no mention of Obama doing the same (such as forcing CENTCOM intelligence analysts to change their reports to comply with Obama’s spin) or the Obama administration’s use of the intelligence community to spy illegally on Trump from 2016 to 2017.
All three are dedicated to Biden and will forcefully push his agenda. They can be relied on to purge any Trump holdover appointees under them.
Biden will continue the Democrats’ dedication to identity politics. We can expect more “first women” or “first black men” to have served in high posts.
Biden hasn’t yet named his choice to become secretary of defense. The leading contender is Michèle Flournoy, who may be the first woman SECDEF. Other contenders include former Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson (who would be the first black man in the job) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), another woman and a disabled veteran.
Duckworth has no qualifications to be SECDEF. Her record is devoid of significant accomplishments.
Johnson is a long-time Washington political operator. He began his Obama administration service as Defense Department general counsel and was later confirmed as Secretary of Homeland Security. He serves as a member of the Lockheed Martin Corporation board of directors. Those facts don’t qualify him to be SECDEF, but his nomination would mean an easy confirmation even in a Republican-controlled Senate.
Flournoy is much more controversial because her defense industry connections, which are anathema to the Left, vastly exceed Johnson’s. Combined with the fact that she doesn’t have a close relationship with Biden and had on occasion opposed him during the Obama years, she may not be nominated.
Flournoy’s Pentagon service began under the Clinton administration, and she served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. While serving as defense undersecretary for policy, Flournoy was one of the principal advocates of the failed “counterinsurgency” strategy — aka nation building — in Iraq and Afghanistan. She supported the 2010 Obama troop surge in Afghanistan that Biden opposed.
Trump’s first defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, asked Flournoy to be his deputy secretary, but she turned him down because serving in a Republican administration would have sunk her ability to be SECDEF in a Democratic one.
Flournoy is supposedly opposed to cuts in defense spending, but her record is contradictory. For example, she was one of the principal authors of the 2012 Obama “Defense Strategic Guidance” paper, which was contented with massive cuts and promised to do less with less.
Flournoy wants to spend less on “legacy” weapon systems and take big gambles on technology. But one thing that the Biden administration will almost certainly do is to cut funding for our nuclear arsenal and for ballistic missile defense. Biden opposes any “nuclear buildup,” which is how the Left characterizes the modernization of our nuclear forces. Flournoy has said that she is skeptical of the billions planned to be spent on modernization of our nuclear weapon systems and has stated that we need nuclear forces we can sustain from a funding standpoint.
Flournoy has also criticized the “nuclear triad” deterrent forces, comprised of ground and sea-based ballistic missiles and Air Force bombers such as the B-52 and B-2. She has stated that our ground-based missiles may not be necessary.
Last week’s successful test of a missile fired from a navy ship, which shot down an incoming ICBM, makes clear that our ballistic missile defense systems work and must continue to be developed and deployed. In a June 2020 Wall Street Journal opinion piece Flournoy co-authored with former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, she writes that “U.S. ballistic missile defenses are effective, affordable and increasingly adaptable. These capabilities are critical to protecting U.S. citizens, our forces abroad, and our allies from real and growing threats.” She could easily change her mind if a President Biden wanted to cut missile defense spending, which he almost certainly will.
Like Biden, Flournoy is a liberal internationalist willing to allow our allies — and some adversaries — to control our policy decisions.
In sum, Flournoy is probably the best SECDEF we can expect from a Biden administration. The others he could pick — Jeh Johnson, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, or even Hillary Clinton among them —would be much worse for national security.