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Biden’s First Cabinet Picks Signal 4 More Years of Imperialists in Office

The president-elect, Joe Biden, recently announced his choices for a National Security Team. Their belief in U.S. exceptionalism, support for regime change, and connections to the military-industrial complex highlight the continued need for an anti-war Left.

Samuel Karlin

November 27, 2020
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Photo: Kamran Jebreili

As President-elect Joe Biden rolls out his cabinet picks, a clear picture of what to expect from a Biden administration is emerging, particularly in terms of foreign policy. On November 23, the president-elect announced a handful of national security nominees and appointees. Biden has run on a promise to “restore the soul of our nation.” This round of cabinet picks makes clear that the “soul of our nation” is just as militaristic as the U.S. was under Trump and plenty of other American presidents.

Anti-China, Anti-Russia

One of the most immediately worrying and consistent stances among many of the people Biden chose to guide foreign policy is their rabid desire to escalate a conflict with China. This should not be a surprise: on the election trail, Biden repeatedly tried to depict himself as tougher on China than Trump. Of course, Trump is known for his escalating tensions with China—from the trade war, to the closing of the Chinese consulate in Houston and the consistent racist rhetoric about the “China virus.” Biden’s imperialist plan is to find ways to reign in China— the same as Donald Trump. 

Biden appears to be following through on his promise. His nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, intends to “coalesce skeptical international partners into a new competition with China, according to people close to the process,” as reported in The New York Times. Blinken will find an ally in Biden’s nominee for National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, who Forbes Senior Contributor Kenneth Rapoza describes as “a Peter Navaro-like China hawk.”

If the world manages to miraculously avoid further escalations between the U.S. and China over the next four years, there’s still plenty of risk that further conflict between the U.S. and Russia could break out. The same New York Times reports that “Mr. Blinken has turned more hawkish on Russia as the extent of its interference in the 2016 election and throughout Europe has become clearer.”

In fact, what’s become clearer since 2016 is that Russian interference in the U.S. election was the standard practice of shaping foreign policy that all nations with the ability to do so engage in. In an interview on Useful Idiots podcast, former product manager for Facebook, Antonio García Martínez, explains that “[Russia] spent $100,000 on ads, which is nothing. That’s like whistling into a tornado when it comes to Facebook.” The United States has influenced more foreign elections than any other nation— in fact the U.S. is well known for organizing coups to overthrow election results that aren’t favorable to U.S. corporations. This results in huge  civilian death tolls. 

Sullivan actually played a direct role in exaggerated claims of Russian interference in U.S. elections. He is a member of the advisory council for the Alliance For Securing Democracy, a think tank which developed a “disinformation” tracker to spot Russian bots. The tracker instead flagged many real accounts, including the U.S. military newspaper, Stars and Stripes.

Biden’s nominee for U.N. Ambassador, Linda Thomas Greenfield, at first glance seems to be a rational voice in avoiding devastating conflict with China and Russia. An article she co-wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year states, “The restoration of American hegemony is not in the cards, given China’s rise and the diffusion of global power,” and suggests that U.S. diplomacy “must develop a greater awareness of the United States’ position and more humility about the wilting power of the American example.”

However, Thomas-Greenfield should not be viewed as an anti-imperialist. She would not be chosen for – nor would she accept – a position on Biden’s national security team if she was not willing to go along with the administration’s plans. As recently as August 17 of this year, Thomas-Greenfield defended the regime change in Libya, claiming that Susan Rice (one of the policy’s fiercest advocates) “was tireless in her effort to bring peace to the region.”

No Change on Regime Change

Countries in the Middle East are also likely to be victims of Biden’s warhawk cabinet. The biggest conversation in this area seems to be whether Biden will return to the Iran nuclear deal, if it can even be restored after the Trump administration’s years of extremely aggressive attacks on Iran. Blinken supports a return to the Iran nuclear deal; in fact he played a key role in shaping it when he worked in the Obama administration. His support isn’t exactly worth praising — while it would arguably be better than relations with Iran under Trump, which has included “max pressure” sanctions and the assassination of a top general, it’s still a form of U.S. imperialism in which a foreign nation is only allowed the bare minimum sovereignty from an empire under one-sided conditions. Sanctions and drone strikes will continue under Biden, especially given that both programs began under Obama. Blinken’s support for a return to the nuclear deal is, however, the closest he comes to a decent stance in the Middle East. It’s all downhill from there.

Not only did Biden vote in favor of the Iraq War in 2002, he also rallied other Democrats to vote in favor of it as well. While Biden chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time of the vote, Blinken was the Democratic staff director in the committee. Ryan Grim reports in The Intercept that Blinken “helped craft Biden’s own support for the war.” On the campaign trail, Biden claimed his support for the Iraq War was “a mistake.” His appointment of Blinken suggests the opposite.

Blinken’s support for regime change also extends to Syria and Libya, two countries he helped the Obama administration destroy. As Deputy Secretary of State in the Obama administration, Blinken helped to escalate Syria’s civil war by arming “rebel groups,” many of which turned out to be hard-line Islamic-Jihadists. Blinken also helped the Obama administration’s move to assassinate Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. These two interventions have respectively resulted in 5.5 million Syrian refugees from a single nation and open slave markets in Libya.

Little Hope for Palestine and Yemen

Another staple of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is support for oppressive regimes. The United States has backed Israel’s war crimes against Palestinians and Saudi Arabia’s and the United Arab Emirates’ genocide of Yememis. Biden and his cabinet are set to continue support for these regimes.

In his own words, Blinken has said he “would not tie military assistance to Israel to any political decisions that it makes. Period. Full stop.” Biden has publicly claimed he’s committed to ending U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s crimes against Yemen, (a war he helped start). Blinken has sided with Saudi Arabia, not Yemenis, as in his Obama years, Blinken sped up the sale of arms to Saudia Arabia — arms Saudi Arabia would use to terrorize Yemenis.

Conflicts of Interest

On November 11, In These Times reported that one third of Biden’s transition team came from organizations funded by the weapons industry and had connections to companies like Gen­er­al Dynam­ics Cor­po­ra­tion, Raytheon, Northrop Grum­man Cor­po­ra­tion, and Lock­heed Mar­tin Cor­po­ra­tion. As a result, the national security team is also full of unsavory connections to pro-war think tanks that stand to benefit from a pro-war agenda.

In fact, Blinken launched his own think tank along with Michele Flournoy (who’s rumored to potentially be chosen as Secretary of Defense). Though much of the work of the think tank, WestExec Advisors, remains unclear due to nondisclosure agreements with clients, reporting by Jonathan Guyer in The American Prospect reveals that some clients include an Israeli surveillance startup, a major U.S. defense company, and Google billionaire Eric Schmidt.

Avril Haines, Biden’s nominee for Director of National Intelligence, previously served as foreign policy advisor to the Obama administration, where she played a large role in creating one of Obama’s most imperialistic policies: his infamous drone program which has resulted in rampant civilian death in countries the U.S. is terrorizing to establish regional influence. Statistics from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan have killed at least 1,700 civilians, 400 of whom were children. Though the U.S. has resisted serious investigations into the harm of the drone program, so the victim count is certainly far higher than what’s been made public. Haines also worked for WestExec and was a consultant for Palantir, a pro-Trump data-mining company that helped Trump expand on the U.S. surveillance state and target immigrants. Haines has taken measures to scrub her involvement with Palantir.

Foreign policy advisor nominee Sullivan was employed at the consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners (founded by a former British spy chief), where he represented Uber, in opposition to labor unions. Sullivan also spent his time at Macro Advisory Partners forecasting for corporate clients what the Iranian economy may look like in coming years, based on his experience helping to negotiate the Iran nuclear deal within the Obama administration.

U.N. Ambassador nominee Thomas-Greenfield has spent her most recent years as a Senior Vice President at Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG), a “global strategy firm.” Like most of these militaristic think tanks, there is little to no transparency regarding the firm’s clients. However, Sarah Lazare highlights in her research on ASG that many of its employees have done business with the United Arab Emirates. The U.A.E. has used U.S. provided arms to further Saudi Arabia’s genocide in Yemen. The connection to the U.A.E. further confirms any skepticism that the U.S. will withdraw support for genocide of Yemenis. Currently, Thomas-Greenfield’s bio on the ASG website lists her as “on leave.” 

The past and current support among these cabinet picks for a militaristic United States is alarming but entirely unsurprising. Even before independent journalists and anti-imperialists began pointing to the connections to the weapons industry in the Biden transition team, it was safe to expect that warmongers would be calling the shots.

As long as we live in a capitalist world, we should expect imperialism to be at the core of any elected government. The only thing that seems to have changed in recent years is the lack of effort on the part of the hawks to hide where they stand.

The Left in the United States has long needed a militant anti-war movement, the likes of which were seen throughout the Vietnam War and the early days of the Iraq War. It is essential to rebuild an anti-imperialist left in the United States. So far the US left has failed in this task, with Democratic Socialist sector of the U.S. Left has taken a more nationalist approach, working within the imperialist Democratic Party in hopes that they will cede some reforms to the US working class. Anti-imperialism is on the backburner.

Anyone on the Left who believes strong opposition to imperialism is a concern only for workers of other countries, and thus, less of a priority, should think critically about how a conflict between the two biggest economic superpowers or the two biggest nuclear superpowers will impact us all. Even if such conflicts can be avoided, the wars in the Middle East will continue the funneling of resources toward war and away from providing for workers’ needs. The role of the military industrial complex within the U.S. government also directly opposes any organizing efforts for healthcare, debt relief, or other material needs of U.S. workers because the lack of financial security in the U.S. allows for recruitment through a poverty draft. The Left cannot afford to treat imperialism as a secondary concern any longer. Anti-imperialism is a priority on moral and practical grounds.

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Samuel Karlin

Samuel Karlin is a socialist with a background in journalism. He mainly writes for Left Voice about U.S. imperialism and international class struggle.

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