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Joe Biden Is Filling His Cabinet With Pro-War Hawks

If you were hoping for a change of heart from Joe Biden after a decades-long career as a hawk, we've got bad news: his incoming team helped shape some of the most militaristic policies of the Obama administration.

Then-deputy secretary of state and former deputy national security advisor for President Barack Obama Anthony Blinken speaks at the 2016 Concordia Summit. (Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

There was no rea­son to think that a Biden admin­is­tra­tion would be to the left of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion when it comes to for­eign pol­i­cy. Biden comes with a long polit­i­cal career of sup­port­ing the wars of the Unit­ed States and its allies, from the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq to Israel’s aggres­sion against Pales­tini­ans to the pro­tract­ed occu­pa­tion of Afghanistan.

And what­ev­er lim­it­ed over­tures he made to the Left dur­ing his cam­paign for the gen­er­al election in 2020 (while he simul­ta­ne­ous­ly ran on dis­tanc­ing him­self from the Left), for­eign pol­i­cy was almost entire­ly omit­ted, as evi­denced by the issue’s exclu­sion from the uni­ty task force with Bernie Sanders.

Per­haps the most dis­tin­guish­ing for­eign pol­i­cy posi­tion Biden took on the cam­paign trail was his saber rat­tling toward Chi­na, which was not quite as racist as Trump’s, but nonethe­less got so bad a Biden ad was rebuked by pro­gres­sive Asian-Amer­i­can groups for its racist con­tent (Biden even­tu­al­ly walked back some of the ad’s rhetoric).

Biden did say dur­ing his cam­paign that he wants to end “for­ev­er wars” (many of which he helped start) and that he’s against the war in Yemen (a posi­tion he only took after he served in the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion that sup­port­ed the war), but he nei­ther cen­tered these plat­forms nor accom­pa­nied them with con­crete pol­i­cy pro­pos­als that would actu­al­ly bring an end to end­less war.

In keep­ing with this tra­jec­to­ry, Biden is already draw­ing from a host of pro-war indi­vid­u­als from the Oba­ma era to fill his cab­i­net. Because many of these peo­ple have been around for a while and have rela­tion­ships across Wash­ing­ton, there is no short­age of well-known polit­i­cal fig­ures who are tes­ti­fy­ing to their decen­cy and smarts — that’s how the rel­a­tive­ly insu­lar world of Wash­ing­ton ​“nation­al secu­ri­ty pro­fes­sion­als” works, after all.

But for those on the out­side of the Wash­ing­ton Blob look­ing in, the oper­a­tive ques­tions are, ​“What are these appointees’ records, and what does this say about what exact­ly we are up against in a Biden administration?”

Antony Blinken — who will be nom­i­nat­ed for Sec­re­tary of State, as the Biden-Har­ris tran­si­tion team announced Mon­day — has right­ful­ly attract­ed con­sid­er­able crit­i­cism for a record of support­ing wars and so-called human­i­tar­i­an inter­ven­tions. Blinken was a top aide to Biden when the then-Sen­a­tor vot­ed to autho­rize the US inva­sion of Iraq, and Blinken helped Biden devel­op a pro­pos­al to par­ti­tion Iraq into three sep­a­rate regions based on eth­nic and sec­tar­i­an iden­ti­ty.

As deputy nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er, Blinken sup­port­ed the dis­as­trous mil­i­tary interven­tion in Libya in 2011, and in 2018 he helped launch Wes­t­Ex­ec Advi­sors, a ​“strate­gic advi­so­ry firm” that is secre­tive about its clients, along with oth­er Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion alum­ni like Michèle Flournoy. Jonathan Guy­er writes in the Amer­i­can Prospect, ​“I learned that Blinken and Flournoy used their net­works to build a large client base at the inter­sec­tion of tech and defense. An Israeli sur­veil­lance start­up turned to them. So did a major U.S. defense com­pa­ny. Google bil­lion­aire Eric Schmidt and For­tune 100 com­pa­nies went to them, too.”

But oth­er, less­er-known Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion alum­ni deserve greater scruti­ny. Among them is Avril Haines, who has been tapped as Biden’s direc­tor of nation­al intel­li­gence. Haines was one of the coauthors of Obama’s ​“pres­i­den­tial pol­i­cy guid­ance,” the infa­mous drone play­book that nor­mal­ized tar­get­ed assas­si­na­tions around the world. Here’s how Newsweek described Haines in 2013:

Since becom­ing the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil’s legal advis­er in 2011, she had been work­ing on a wide array of high­ly com­pli­cat­ed and legal­ly sen­si­tive issues — gen­er­al­ly until 1 or 2 in the morn­ing, some­times lat­er — that go to the core of US secu­ri­ty inter­ests. Among them were the legal require­ments gov­ern­ing US inter­ven­tion in Syr­ia and the range of high­ly clas­si­fied options for thwart­ing Iran’s nuclear pro­gram. All the while, Haines was some­times summoned in the mid­dle of the night to weigh in on whether a sus­pect­ed ter­ror­ist could be law­ful­ly incin­er­at­ed by a drone strike.

Dur­ing the Biden pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, there was a con­cert­ed effort by for­mer Oba­ma aides to cast Haines retroac­tive­ly as a voice of restraint and pro­tect­ing civil­ians, as cap­tured in an arti­cle by Spencer Ack­er­man. This revi­sion­ism should not be believed: What­ev­er civil­ian protec­tions Haines may have writ­ten into drone law, they clear­ly did not work, as evi­denced by the dev­as­tat­ing toll of US drone wars on civil­ians.

While the Trump admin­is­tra­tion esca­lat­ed the drone war and loos­ened restric­tions on killing civil­ians, it was the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion — aid­ed by Haines — that nor­mal­ized the widespread use of tar­get­ed assas­si­na­tions that turned the whole world into a poten­tial US battlefield.

There are oth­er aspects of Haines’ record that are wor­ry­ing. She has ​“in the past described her­self as a for­mer con­sul­tant for the con­tro­ver­sial data-min­ing firm Palan­tir,” as Mur­taza Hus­sain report­ed for the Inter­cept. Palan­tir was cofound­ed by a Trump-back­ing bil­lion­aire and is impli­cat­ed in some of the worst wrong­do­ings of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, includ­ing mass sur­veil­lance and immi­grant deten­tion. As Hus­sain reports, lit­tle is known about Haines’s role at the firm, and she scrubbed any men­tion from her bio when she came on as a Biden advi­sor. (Haines also worked for Wes­t­Ex­ec, as Guy­er reports.)

In 2018, Haines angered pro­gres­sives when she spoke in sup­port of Gina Haspel’s nom­i­na­tion for CIA Direc­tor. Haspel was wide­ly opposed for her role in run­ning CIA pris­ons where torture took place.

And then there is Lin­da Thomas-Green­field, tapped to serve as Unit­ed Nations ambas­sador. Thomas-Green­field lists her most recent employ­ment Albright Stone­bridge Group, a secre­tive ​“glob­al strat­e­gy firm” some­what sim­i­lar to McK­in­sey & Com­pa­ny, and chaired by Madeleine Albright (Thomas-Green­field is cur­rent­ly list­ed as ​“on leave” from the firm).

Albright Stonebridge Group is a black box: It’s near impos­si­ble to get any info about who its clients are. The firm claims that it does not lob­by the US gov­ern­ment or do work that is covered by the For­eign Agents Reg­is­tra­tion Act, but many of its staffers dou­ble in roles that cer­tain­ly do exert influ­ence, or have in the past. The firm’s UAE office is head­ed by Jad Mneym­neh, who pre­vi­ous­ly was in the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi’s Office of Strate­gic Affairs.

There is noth­ing remark­able about Biden appoint­ing some­one who hails from a shad­owy global strat­e­gy firm for a pow­er­ful role, but that is pre­cise­ly the prob­lem. As Guy­er points out, Jake Sul­li­van, set to be Biden’s nation­al secu­ri­ty advi­sor, went to work for Macro Advi­so­ry Part­ners in 2017. ​

“Run by for­mer British spy chiefs, Macro Advi­so­ry Part­ners has about 30 full-time staff and report­ed $37 mil­lion in rev­enue last year,” notes Guy­er. ​“Macro Advi­so­ry Part­ners has used Sullivan’s involve­ment as a sell­ing point in offer­ing ​‘trust­ed coun­sel in a tur­bu­lent world,’ with his face atop the ros­ter on their website’s land­ing page. But when Sul­li­van pub­lish­es a mag­a­zine arti­cle about U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy or deliv­ers uni­ver­si­ty lec­tures, he almost always omits this job from his biography.”

Then there is Michèle Flournoy, con­sid­ered the favorite to lead the Pen­ta­gon (though this hasn’t been offi­cial­ly announced yet). Not only is she on the board of mil­i­tary con­trac­tor Booz Allen Hamil­ton, but she cofound­ed the the hawk­ish cen­ter-left think tank Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Secu­ri­ty (CNAS) — which receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the weapons indus­try, includ­ing Gen­er­al Dynam­ics Cor­po­ra­tion, Raytheon, Northrop Grum­man Cor­po­ra­tion and Lock­heed Mar­tin Cor­po­ra­tion.

She served in the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion as under sec­re­tary of defense for pol­i­cy from 2009 to 2012 and then played a pow­er­ful role at CNAS. She was a major backer of the 2011 mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Libya, a sup­port­er of the occu­pa­tion of Afghanistan, and firm­ly opposed the com­plete removal of US troops from Iraq.

More Biden nom­i­na­tions will be trick­ling in over the com­ing days and weeks, and we have every rea­son to expect more of the same: His tran­si­tion team is a clear tell. As I report­ed on Novem­ber 11, one-third of Biden’s Pen­ta­gon tran­si­tion team alone lists as their ​“most recent employ­ment” think tanks, orga­ni­za­tions or com­pa­nies that are either fund­ed by the weapons indus­try or are direct­ly part of this indus­try.

Many of these enti­ties are well-known and even respect­ed, includ­ing influ­en­tial think tanks like CNAS and the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies. Staffers of these think tanks do not get the same bad flak that lob­by­ists receive, but they deserve it: Via pol­i­cy papers, media out­reach, and rela­tion­ships with politi­cians, these staffers effec­tive­ly do the same thing lob­by­ists do, but dressed in a more aca­d­e­m­ic veneer, and the think tanks Biden is draw­ing from have proven track records of push­ing weapons sys­tems on the US gov­ern­ment.

Indeed, in 2016 even the New York Times accused CSIS of lob­by­ing for Gen­er­al Atom­ics, a Cal­i­for­nia-based man­u­fac­tur­er of Preda­tor drones, based on a cache of emails show­ing it doing just that. And then there are the many that do not dis­close their fun­ders, includ­ing four tran­si­tion team mem­bers (Lin­da Thomas-Green­field among them) who hail from Albright Stone­bridge Group.

There is a temp­ta­tion to take a moment to breathe, to cel­e­brate that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has been vot­ed out (although Trump appears deter­mined to main­tain pow­er), and to hold on to hope that Biden will mark a turn away from some of Trump’s worst impuls­es, includ­ing his war mon­ger­ing. But we learned from the ear­li­est days of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion that it is sober assess­ment — rather than pro­jec­tion — that is called for in moments like this.

Oba­ma, with Biden at his side, over­saw inter­ven­tion in Libya, dis­as­trous involve­ment in the Yemen war, ongo­ing occu­pa­tion in Afghanistan, sup­port for the coup in Hon­duras, and much more. And Biden is now pulling from the same team of advi­sors and influ­ence ped­dlers and con­sul­tants who helped make it all happen.