Skip to main content

Where does Joe Biden's cabinet stand on Middle East issues?

From crafting drone policies to defending Israel, Middle East Eye takes a look at some of Biden's cabinet picks and their record in relation to the region
President-elect Joe Biden released an array of nominees to head foreign policy and national security agencies under his incoming administration (AFP)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

President-elect Joe Biden unveiled a slate of top foreign policy and national security picks on Monday, many of whom served in the White House for several years under former President Barack Obama.

The announcement included the confirmation of Antony Blinken, Biden's top foreign policy aide, as the next secretary of state, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the US ambassador to the United Nations and Jake Sullivan as national security adviser.

The appointments come as President Donald Trump has continued to refuse to concede the election despite a resounding projected victory for Biden.

Trump has not allowed 40 agencies to cooperate with Biden's team. Commentators say this will undermine America's national security while Biden has asserted the delay would hamper America's chances to redeem itself on the world stage. 

In a statement, Biden said there is "no time to lose when it comes to our national security and foreign policy".

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


"I need a team ready on Day One to help me reclaim America’s seat at the head of the table, rally the world to meet the biggest challenges we face, and advance our security, prosperity, and values," Biden said. "These individuals are equally as experienced and crisis-tested as they are innovative and imaginative."

Middle East Eye takes a look at some of Biden's longtime advisers and confidants, and their records when it comes to the Middle East.

Secretary of state: Antony Blinken

Antony Blinken, a close to adviser to Biden throughout his presidential campaign, served as deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser during the Obama-Biden administration. He has advised Biden on foreign policy since 2002.

Blinken helped shape the American response after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, which, according to the New York Times, achieved "mixed results in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya".

Blinken shares Biden's support for Israel and told the Democratic Majority for Israel that any decision Biden made concerning Israel would not be tied to US military aid, which he said was "unconditional".

Israel receives $3.8bn in US military aid annually as the result of a memorandum of understanding signed by Obama during his final year in office.

Blinken has also reiterated the campaign's pro-Israel stance, denouncing the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which seeks to pressure Israel through non-violent means to end its abuses against Palestinians. 

Who is Tony Blinken, Biden's incoming secretary of state?
Read More »

"You've probably heard the vice president say this. He opposes any effort to delegitimise or unfairly single out Israel, whether it's at the United Nations or through the BDS movement."

At the same time, the incoming chief diplomat has advocated for a return to the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump walked away from in 2018.

"[Biden] would seek to build on the nuclear deal to make it longer and stronger if Iran returns to strict compliance," Blinken said during a talk with the Aspen Institute in August.

Blinken has also signed onto a 2018 letter from Obama-era officials calling for an end to US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Under Oba­ma, the US sup­plied arms to the coali­tion, helped iden­ti­fy bombing tar­gets and provid­ed mid-air refu­el­ing of Sau­di and UAE war­planes.

The letter said the decision in 2015 to provide initial support for the Saudi-led coalition was a mistake and was now being used by Trump to give Riyadh a blank check to wage war in the country.

"However, rather than learning from that failure, the Trump administration has doubled down on support for the Saudi leadership's prosecution of the war, while removing restrictions we had put in place," the letter said.

"It is past time for America's role in this disastrous war in Yemen to end."

Secretary of defence: Michele Flournoy

Michele Flournoy has been a top contender to lead Biden's pentagon for quite some time. She previously served as undersecretary of defence for policy in the Obama administration.

She was widely thought to be Hillary Clinton's pick for secretary of defence in 2016 and has previously wrote that the US needs to build a foreign policy that fits global challenges, including climate change.

Flournoy has deep ties to the defence community and co-founded the think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which receives sizable donations from the country's top defence contractors.

US elections 2020: A who's who of Joe Biden's foreign policy team
Read More »

On the Middle East, her views on policy seem to be influenced by those with ties to weapons manufacturers, as she has previously advocated for sending counter-drone technology to Saudi Arabia.

Middle East Eye reported last year that the drone strikes which paralysed the kingdom's oil industry, forcing it to halve its output of crude oil, were made by Iranian drones launched from southern Iraq.

"Flournoy's call to increase US investment in unmanned military systems does not bode well for the Middle East, where multiple countries are terrorised by US drones whirring overhead and wedding parties can end in tragedy," Marcy Winograd, a 2020 delegate for the Democratic National Committee and anti-war activist, told MEE last week.

"Her stated desire to instil more confidence in the Saudi regime to keep the Middle East in line is chilling, particularly in the aftermath of the murder of a Washington Post journalist critical of Saudi leadership."

Earlier this year, in a conversation with the Hudson Institute, Flournoy said Washington should not lift sanctions on Iran, despite the sanctions being a key barrier to Iran returning to the nuclear deal, something that Biden has been adamant about doing.

Director of national intelligence: Avril Haines

Avril Haines is a former deputy director of the CIA who helped craft Obama's policies on drone warfare as well as the administration's tough approach to North Korea which Biden has promised to revive.

While she has advocated for the release of Guantanamo detainees and promoted restricting Washington's drone campaign, she was responsible for crafting the contentious drone policy alongside former CIA director John Brennan which led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

She also helped redact the Senate Torture Report and spared CIA employees for spying on Senate torture investigators.

Haines supported Gina Haspel for CIA director, who had been directly implicated in the infamous torture programme.

If confirmed, the former Obama official would be the highest-ranking woman in the US intelligence community, surpassing Haspel who has led the CIA under Trump.

National security adviser: Jake Sullivan

Jake Sullivan previously served as national security adviser to Biden when he was vice president and helped establish back-channel talks with Iran via Oman that led to the Iran nuclear deal.

On Iran, Sullivan has advocated for returning to the nuclear deal as well as lifting sanctions under the condition that Tehran abides by the terms of the agreement.

"They've set out this set of demands that Mike Pompeo laid out in the Heritage Foundation speech a couple of years ago that are simply unrealistic and unreasonable," he said of the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran, at an event in June hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

During the CSIS talk, Sullivan also spoke about Saudi Arabia and how a Biden administration should put out a "more aggressive condemnation" of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and call for greater transparency over what occurred. 

Trump's approach has led to the "wrong direction on jailing dissidents, curbing speech, punishing women, and murdering a U.S. resident and prominent journalist in a grotesque and almost sort of ostentatious way", Sullivan noted.

UN ambassador: Linda Thomas-Greenfield

Linda Thomas-Greenfield was chosen to represent the US at the United Nations due to her previous experiences in diplomacy under the Obama administration, where she served as the top US diplomat on African affairs.

She has previously served as US ambassador to Liberia, as well as serving posts in Pakistan and Kenya. 

Thomas-Greenfield does not have experience when dealing with key US ally Israel, however, will more than likely follow the policy crafted by others in the Biden administration - such as Blinken.

The longtime diplomat has been a proponent of revitalising the State Department and pushing for a diplomacy first approach instead of a military-first approach that was seen in the first decade of the 21st century.

"U.S. diplomacy has to accept the country’s diminished, but still pivotal, role in global affairs," Greenfield said in an article co-authored alongside Nicholas Burns.

"It has to reflect the overriding priority of accelerating domestic renewal and strengthening the American middle class, at a time of heightened focus on racial injustice and economic inequality".

Greenfield has also been a vocal critic of Trump and his policies, including the Muslim Ban, which in a recent iteration added a number of Muslim-majority African countries including Nigeria and Sudan.

CIA director

Biden has yet to announce a pick for CIA director, but there are a number of people who could potentially take on the role.

Thomas Donilon previously served as national security adviser for Obama from 2010 to 2013, and has also worked in three different presidencies dating back to 1977 when he worked for former President Jimmy Carter.

During his tenure under Obama, the former adviser worked to move the administration away from focusing on Iraq, Afghanistan and the "global war on terror" towards the broader challenge of China.

Susan Gordon has spent four decades in US intelligence and previously served as the number two in the national intelligence community. 

Ilhan Omar urges Biden to reverse Trump's Middle East deals
Read More »

After serving under Trump for three years, she resigned from her position in 2019 over differences regarding North Korea, Iran, and Russia.

In an opinion piece published by the Washington Post in September, Gordon said that, contrary to the Trump administration's belief that Iran was bent on US destruction and regional instability, Tehran's focuses were more internal.

"Iran’' interests are narrower and more focused on Tehran’s internal priorities: to lessen economic pressure on itself, to impede our ability to build coalitions against it, and to reduce our presence and influence in the Middle East so that it might have more freedom of action," she wrote.

Michael Morrell, who entered the CIA at the same time as Gordon, is also a potential candidate to lead to the intelligence agency.

He served as deputy director of the CIA from 2010 to 2013, where he had been a prominent part of the US operation to hunt down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Morell has been a vocal critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, blaming both him and Iran for the high civilian death toll in the country's bloody war.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.