After four years of Trumpian national security policy that was, by turns, assailed as “rudderless,” “schizophrenic,” “incoherent,” and “riven with contradictions,” the conventional wisdom says that the incoming Biden administration will pursue conventional American statecraft akin to the Obama White House.
President-elect Joe Biden’s first picks for senior national security posts — Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence — served in the Obama administration and are now being hailed as the sort of steady hands that America needs after the chaotic Trump administration. But that’s not the good news it seems to be. The Biden plan, outlined on his presidential transition website, suggests a “normal” version of national security that includes the deep flaws of the centrist-liberal approach. There is a call for continued mammoth Pentagon budgets (“the investments necessary to equip our troops for the challenges of the next century”) with an emphasis on emerging battlespaces (“cyberwarfare … new challenges in space”), the endorsement of ossified Cold War-era security partnerships (“keeping NATO’s military capabilities sharp”), and veiled references to confronting China (“strengthen our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and other Asian democracies”), as well as business as usual in the Middle East (“ironclad commitment to Israel’s security”).
The costs of normalcy have been grave. “It’s worth keeping in mind that the global war on terror has killed more than 7,000 U.S. servicemembers — more than twice the number of people killed by the 9/11 attacks — and more than 800,000 lives worldwide,” said Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA’s director of Security With Human Rights. “It’s also cost the U.S. more than $6.4 trillion. It’s hard to see why a Biden administration would want to continue on this trajectory.”
Biden’s presidential team of national security advisers is loaded with leading members of the Beltway foreign policy establishment unaffectionately known as “the Blob.” It’s a well-worn group of advisers who backed or waged the disastrous wars of the last two decades, and the group is notable for keeping the military-industrial complex’s revolving door greased and spinning. His transitional advisors include, for instance, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin (of Raytheon), former principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy Kathleen H. Hicks (of Aerospace Corporation), and the former No. 2 civilian at the Pentagon, Robert Work (of Raytheon and Govini), among many others in the incoming administration’s orbit. The most emblematic and illustrative of Biden’s military-industrial warriors is the current frontrunner to be his defense secretary: Michèle Flournoy.
Flournoy’s pedigree is Blobby in the extreme, beginning with studies at Harvard University (like many past defense secretaries) before she crossed the Atlantic to take a master’s degree in international relations at Oxford. At the Pentagon in the 1990s, she served as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction, and deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy. In 2002, she rotated out of government and into the mainstream (that is, hawkish) Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank largely dependent on Pentagon largesse and funding from the weapons industry. In 2007, she co-founded her own Beltway think tank, the Center for a New American Security, which is not only highly influential in policy circles but now ranks second only to the RAND Corporation in funding from the U.S. government and its defense contractors, including the arms-merchant heavyweights Northrop Grumman and Boeing.
From CNAS, Flournoy went on to co-lead President Barack Obama’s transition team at the Defense Department before serving as undersecretary of defense for policy from February 2009 to February 2012. She then spun back through the revolving door to the Boston Consulting Group, whose military contracts jumped from $1.6 million to $32 million after she became a senior advisor.
In 2017, Flournoy co-founded WestExec Advisors, which boasts of being “a diverse group of senior national security professionals with the most recent experience at the highest levels of the U.S. government.” Another of its co-founders was none other than Antony Blinken, the secretary of state-designate. And one of WestExec’s consultants was Avril Haines, the Biden nominee for director of national intelligence who is a member of the CNAS board of directors and whose affiliation with the controversial data mining firm Palantir disappeared from her biography when she joined the Biden campaign. As Flournoy describes it, WestExec functions as “a smart insurance policy for our clients, giving them higher confidence in their business decisions and in their ability to anticipate and prepare for the future.” In an analysis for the Project on Government Oversight, Winslow Wheeler and Pierre Sprey defined WestExec’s business another way: “helping defense corporations market their products to the Pentagon and other agencies.”
Flournoy has rubbed elbows in the right places: the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, the CIA Director’s External Advisory Board, and the Defense Policy Board. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Strategy Group, as well as a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “We’re all familiar with her,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former congressional adviser now with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing Washington think tank, who described Flournoy as a “known entity” in Beltway defense circles. Last month, at a typically chummy get-together for leading lights from the Pentagon and its contractors, the Potomac Officers Club’s Artificial Intelligence for Maneuver Virtual Event, Flournoy had a virtual “fireside chat” with Greg Wenzel, an executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. When asked how the next administration should conduct national security strategy and how it will change, Flournoy said, “There is a fair amount of consensus on the diagnosis of the problem, which is China and Russia.”
Biden appears well on his way to squandering a unique opportunity to demonstrate that it won’t be business-as-usual at his Pentagon. If Biden wants to buck the trend, as a first step he could agree to the recent request from Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan to “commit to appointing Secretaries of Defense with with no previous ties to defense contractors.” A pledge to alter the cast of characters making defense policy would be prudent move, according to William D. Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. “I’m not necessarily for an all-out ban on all people with those backgrounds serving in a new administration, but they should be balanced with appointees who are independent of those kinds of ties,” he told The Intercept. “Anyone with defense industry ties should be thoroughly questioned on those connections in confirmation hearings, and pledge to recuse themselves from issues relating to former employers or clients.”
Altering the expected national security brain trust could be followed by a few quick wins on the policy front. Heather Brandon-Smith, the legislative director for militarism and human rights for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker group, is hopeful that language in the 2020 Democratic Party platform advocating the repeal and replacement of “decades-old authorizations for the use of military force” might provide a starting point for broader and bolder initiatives. The place to start would be the 2002 Iraq Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, which authorized the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and was cited earlier this year in the Trump administration’s justification of the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani. “I am quite optimistic that, even possibly as a first 100 days achievement, we could see the repeal of the 2002 Iraq AUMF,” she told The Intercept. “I’m hopeful that the Biden administration will see it as an outdated, unnecessary authorization that remains open to future abuse. It could be a first step to ending forever wars.”
A number of experts told The Intercept that if President-elect Biden makes good on his stated pledge to “end our support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen,” it would also be an important early effort that demonstrates a willingness to break with allies who violate international law and ends a policy that has fostered a humanitarian disaster. “There’s a significant possibility with Yemen,” said Phyllis Bennis, who directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. “There’s some room for a real shift that changes a very dangerous and damaging aspect of U.S. foreign policy.” In practical terms, Bennis said ending support meant three key policy changes: making permanent the suspension of U.S. refueling of Saudi aircraft and prohibiting any direct participation in wars waged by allies; ending the sharing of intelligence that Saudi Arabia uses for targeting purposes; and, since it’s nearly impossible to hold nations to the “end use” agreements in terms of weapons systems, halting military sales to Saudi Arabia.
There has already been significant bipartisan consensus around withdrawing U.S. support to the Saudi coalition for strategic and humanitarian reasons. “Ending our engagement in the conflict in Yemen not only prevents further civilian harm, but it also makes clear to our partners around the world that we take issues regarding the effects of our security assistance seriously,” said Ursala Knudsen-Latta, the legislative representative for peacebuilding at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Many experts similarly believe that the tremendous U.S. Covid-19 death toll — more than 250,000 and climbing — has underscored the fact that many national security threats cannot be confronted militarily. Even Flournoy has been forthright on this. “We are defining national security too narrowly. Dealing with pandemics and safeguarding the health of the American population from a threat like [Covid-19] should be part of our national security thinking and rubric,” she said earlier this year. “Maybe this pandemic will change that. But we have got to think about public health preparedness as part of our national security going forward.”
But experts warn that to effectively shift the national security narrative, the standard Beltway foreign policy paradigm has to be reengineered by attacking the defense budget.
Andrew J. Bacevich, the president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, sees ending the global war on terror — and replacing the military counterterrorism rubric with a law enforcement model — as part of an ambitious three-pronged plan to fundamentally remake a national security policy, which he sees as currently structured around armed overseas interventions, staggering levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases, and an overly influential arms industry.
In addition to halting the forever wars in the greater Middle East and Africa, Bacevich advocates an end to the trillion-dollar nuclear weapons modernization plan announced by Obama and then taken up and expanded by President Donald Trump. “In a time of so many fiscal demands, that would be a strong statement — that we’re not going to spend a trillion-plus dollars building new bombers, missiles, and nuclear submarines,” he told The Intercept. “That would be a sign of real change.”
The third leg of Bacevich’s national security sanity triad makes him an outlier in traditional foreign policy circles: an American withdrawal from NATO. “It’s time for the United States to insist that Europe take responsibility for its own security,” he explained. “That means beginning a gradual move toward a NATO that doesn’t include the United States. I think it’s a way of showing that we don’t have to have a military presence everywhere.”
In addition to a fundamental reorientation of U.S. policy, the triple transformation advocated by Bacevich would make it easier for the Biden administration to finance its ambitious domestic agenda. Bacevich argued that these types of major policy shifts would allow a “significant opportunity to rethink the military budget and free-up resources so that Biden can implement his healthcare, infrastructure, and ‘Build Back Better’ program.”
Bennis, of the Institute for Policy Studies, advocates reductions in the defense budget on the order 50 percent. “We can cut $350 billion and still be safe,” she said. She’s far from alone in advocating meaningful cuts. In July, for instance, Reps. Mark Pocan and Barbara Lee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders advocated parallel measures in the House and Senate to reduce Pentagon spending by 10 percent, a savings of more than $70 billion. The Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, a group of former White House, Pentagon, and congressional budget analysts, retired military officers and other experts from across the political spectrum, put together an even more ambitious plan to cut $1.25 trillion in proposed Pentagon spending over the next decade. Bennis advocated immediately cutting the long-troubled Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the Pentagon-funded border wall construction, the Overseas Contingency Operations funding which keeps the forever wars going, as well as closing down overseas military bases.
Bennis believes that making significant cuts to the Pentagon budget is the lynchpin of any effort to provide the social programs that have galvanized the Democratic base. “Movements are now talking about military budgets beyond the anti-war and anti-militarism crowd,” she explained. “People are recognizing that as long as you’re spending 53 cents of every discretionary federal dollar on the military, there’s not going to be money to pay for a Green New Deal and Medicare for All and free college education and a jobs program. If you’re looking for the money to pay for all these things, then you need to start with the military.”
Flournoy recently acknowledged that cost-cutting may be coming to the Pentagon, noting that the Covid-19 pandemic and “competing priorities” will put “downward pressure on the defense budget.” But she also suggested the opposite in a policy paper she co-authored earlier this summer, insisting that the U.S. military “must take a series of much bigger and bolder steps to keep its military-technological edge over great power competitors such as China.” The paper conveniently lays out exactly what the next secretary of defense should prioritize as the department’s “top investment priority” and where the U.S. should place its “big bets.” Her recommendations center on big-ticket efforts clustered around the so-called network of networks, which means the combination of artificial intelligence, cyberwarfare, as well as manned, unmanned, and autonomous weapons systems. The report leaves room for debate about exactly which “big bets” should be placed, but not if they should. “Whether or not these are the right big bets can and should be debated,” Flournoy and her co-author wrote. “The important thing is for the department leadership to decide and coalesce around a set of big bets, and then to pursue them relentlessly and urgently in service programs and budgets.”
At first glance, Biden’s national security blueprint might look like a departure, even a repudiation, of the Obama template and his insistence on fighting the “right war” in Afghanistan. “Biden will end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure,” reads the plan for “Leading the Democratic World” at JoeBiden.com. “Staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts only drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.” But Biden’s plan isn’t actually what it seems. The fine print reads: “Biden will bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and narrowly focus our mission on Al-Qaeda and ISIS.” So, on second glance — even after inheriting Trump’s negotiated settlement with the Taliban and the outgoing president’s sizable troop reduction — Biden’s pledge to “end the forever wars” appears to be less about an “end” and more about “forever.”
Earlier this year, Flournoy co-wrote an op-ed calling the U.S. deal with the Taliban “the best chance we have to spare another Afghan generation a life of war.” But it was also larded up with the type of national security axioms that ensure forever wars. “If the United States just pulls out, Afghanistan would in short order descend into chaos and become once again a haven for terrorists, a source of regional instability and a threat to the United States,” reads the piece, which ends with a call to “bring our troops home with honor.” “Peace with honor” and fears of a bloodbath have long been trotted out by those clinging to, and unnecessarily prolonging, failed wars they have made their own through escalation.
Afghanistan is far from the only failed war baggage toted by Flournoy, Blinken, Haines, and others who served in the Obama administration. The bulk of Obama’s national security policy was, in fact, typified by headline-grabbing victories that amounted to little strategically, like the killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden; seemed mostly illusory, like the “pivot to Asia”; or was deep-sixed by his successor, especially the Iran nuclear deal. Embracing and expanding key features of President George W. Bush’s war on terror, especially the use of drones and special operations forces in quasi-wars from Somalia to Yemen, succeeded in producing little more than stalemates and civilian casualties. And then there was the 2011 U.S.-led NATO air campaign that helped overthrow Col. Muammar Gaddafi, the longtime Libyan dictator.
Blinken broke with Biden, his boss, to champion the U.S. intervention that Obama quickly hailed as a success. Later, the president would admit that “failing to plan for the day after” the overthrow of Gaddafi was the “worst mistake” of his presidency. (Blinken offered only a half-hearted mea culpa. “I have to acknowledge that we obviously did not succeed in the Obama-Biden administration in getting that right,” he said this summer.) That failure has left Libya as a near-failed state in near-constant crisis and destabilized the African Sahel, prompting a humanitarian disaster in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso that is, almost a decade later, mushrooming as Biden prepares to take office.
America’s military misadventures and their fallout — from the forever war in Afghanistan to support for the Saudi war in Yemen, from a decade of chaos in Libya to the expanding crisis in the Sahel — offer the most compelling reason to forge a new national security policy. It would require the United States to acknowledge that its military cannot solve the problem of terrorism, and cease the extrajudicial killings of suspected terrorists, according to Amnesty International’s USA’s Daphne Eviatar. “It also means doing a far better job of protecting civilians when the U.S. is engaged in actual armed conflict, by clarifying and limiting who can be lethally targeted, and ending the use of explosive weapons in civilians areas, and of course the use of cluster bombs.”
Beyond the savings for infrastructure, health care, education, and the Green New Deal, said Bennis, is a simple reason that’s often ignored in discussions of policy priorities and Pentagon budgets: the human toll. Eschewing a return to national security normalcy means saving lives. “It means that we don’t kill as many people around the world,” said Bennis. “And that’s a good thing just by itself. Period. Full stop.”