Biden’s State Department pick reaches out for GOP allies as he promises policy shifts
Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the State Department, indicated to Congress Tuesday that he plans to emphatically redirect the trajectory of US foreign policy after four years of the Trump administration, rebuilding and reengaging alliances to confront transnational threats ranging from Russia and North Korea to climate change.
Blinken made especially clear in his Tuesday confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that if confirmed, he aims to reengage with Congress in a bipartisan fashion, an implicit criticism of his predecessor’s combative relationship with some lawmakers.
Blinken offered praise for some GOP lawmakers, agreed with their assessments of Iran, Taiwan and Beijing’s obfuscation about the Covid-19 pandemic and endorsed President Donald Trump’s belief that the US needs to take a tough line on China.
“I also believe that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China. I disagree, very much, with the way that he went about it in a number of areas, but the basic principle was the right one, and I think that’s actually helpful to our foreign policy,” Blinken said.
Blinken was equally measured about the Trump administration’s Middle East policy.
‘Whether they like it or not’
Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US embassy to the city. Both moves were controversial, as both Israelis and Palestinians claim the holy city as their capital. The status of Jerusalem is such a thorny issue that international consensus was to leave discussion about it to the end of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Previous negotiations had included the idea that each side would claim a different part of the city as its capital.
Asked if he recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Blinken said, “Yes.” And asked if the US embassy would remain in Jerusalem, Blinken again said, “Yes.”
And he praised the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and Gulf and other Muslim nations.
But he indicated that he believes the Trump administration policies may have helped push Israelis and Palestinians farther from a peace deal than they have been in decades. He stressed that a “two-state solution, however distant it may appear, is still the best and probably the only way to truly assure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state and of course to give the Palestinians the state to which they are entitled.”
“The challenge, of course, is how to move forward on that at a time when … it seems more distant than it’s ever been, at least since Oslo,” Blinken said. Blinken said he hopes the Abraham Accords create progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. “I hope that might, also might create a greater sense of confidence and security in Israel as it considers its relationship with the Palestinians,” Blinken said, “because whether we like or not, whether they like or not, it’s not just going away.”
Taking ‘a hard look’
Lawmakers raised concerns about Iran, Taiwan, Cuba, Turkey, Russia, the Covid-19 pandemic and other issues in a hearing that some lawmakers attended virtually. Many of the questions touched on areas in which the Trump administration has taken a slew of significant 11th hour decisions — policy steps that it did not appear to have the political will to take until it was leaving and wouldn’t have to bear the consequences, steps that are widely seen as an effort to complicate matters for the incoming Biden team.
Blinken reiterated Biden’s commitment to Taiwan but made clear the incoming administration would reexamine Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s last-minute move to loosen the rules governing how US officials engage with their Taiwanese counterparts.
“As you know, some regulations were promulgated by the outgoing secretary state we’re going to take a hard look at those pursuant to the Taiwan Assurance Act, and we will, we will look at that,” Blinken said. “But the commitment to Taiwan is something that we hold to very strongly.”
Blinken threaded a similar needle on Cuba. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio asked whether a Biden administration would keep in place a recent policy that forbids financial transactions with any Cuban business that has ties to a massive, military-controlled holding company. Rubio strongly supported Trump’s move to undo the Obama administration’s opening of relations with Cuba.
‘Costs or consequences’
“In terms of the objectives that you cite, that makes very good sense to me,” Blinken said. “I think the question is, and I don’t know enough to, to form a full judgment as to whether it is in fact, achieving those objectives and are there any other costs or consequences that we might want to look at.”
And asked about Trump’s acting defense secretary suddenly announcing plans to drawdown forces in Afghanistan in November, Blinken said that “the President-elect wants to make sure that even as we pull back our forces that we retain the capacity to deal with any reemergence.” He made clear that the Biden team hasn’t been given much visibility on the agreement Pompeo and the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban, which nevertheless has continued to wreak violence on Afghans.
The Biden team will “look closely at what’s been negotiated there … to understand fully what commitments were made and not made by the Taliban,” Blinken said. He added, “I don’t believe any agreement is sustainable without protecting gains by women and girls over the last 20 years.”
Blinken also expressed deep concern about Pompeo’s January 10 move to designate Yemen’s Houthis as a terrorist organization, a step that many say will result in even greater levels of starvation and humanitarian suffering, and harm efforts to reach a peace agreement.
“My concern, my deep concern about the designation that was made, is that at least on its surface it seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table, while making it even more difficult than it already is to provide humanitarian assistance to people who desperately need it,” Blinken said.
The Biden administration will “immediately review the policy to make sure that what we are doing is not impeding the provision of humanitarian assistance even under these difficult circumstances,” Blinken said. And he confirmed that the Biden administration will end support for Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
“The Houthis bear significant responsibility for what’s happened in Yemen, but the way the campaign has been conducted has also contributed significantly to that situation and so our support should end,” he said.
Blinken is one of several national security nominees to appear before Senate confirmation hearings Tuesday the day before Biden’s swearing in — a signal of the new President’s desire to ensure there are no national security gaps after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol by Donald Trump’s supporters and amid ongoing concerns about extremist violence.
Lawmakers on both sides asked about the most concerning major external threats to the US, with several mentioning strong concern about Iran. Trump left the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and instituted a maximum pressure campaign. As the President leaves office, Iran is closer to gaining a nuclear weapon than it was when he entered.
Blinken made clear the Biden administration feels the world was safer with the nuclear deal in place.
“President-elect Biden is committed to the proposition that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon,” Blinken said. “And we share, I know, that goal across this committee, an Iran with a nuclear weapon or on the threshold of having one with the capacity to build one on short order would be in Iran that is even more dangerous than it already is.”
“In my judgment, the JCPOA for whatever its limitations, was succeeding on its own terms in blocking Iran’s pathways to producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order,” Blinken said.
China was another major focus of concern. Lawmakers pointed to Beijing’s move to crush democracy in Hong Kong, its predatory lending practices, industrial espionage, and its press to tout its authoritarian model of governance as a more stable alternative to democracy. More than one lawmaker got Blinken’s agreement that China is engaged in genocide of its Uyghur Muslim population.
“As we look at China, there is no doubt that it poses the most significant challenge of any nation state to the United States, in terms of our interests the interest of the American people,” Blinken said. “There are, as I see it, rising adversarial aspects to the relationship. Certainly, competitive ones, and still some cooperative ones, when it is in our mutual interest.”
“I think, as we’re thinking about how to deal with China, I think this is reflected in the work that the committee has done, we have to start by approaching China from a position of strength, not weakness,” Blinken said, using the opportunity to gently point to contrasts with the Trump administration.
A Biden administration would start by “not denigrating our allies,” Blinken said, “leading international institutions, not pulling back and ceding,” standing up for human rights and democracy, and making “investments as necessary in our military.”
Blinken indicated Biden will chart a different course on Russia as well, pushing to renew negotiations on the New START nuclear arms treaty, which expires in weeks. And he took a swipe at President Vladimir Putin, who ordered that his leading critic — Alexey Navalny — be jailed on his return to Russia on Sunday.
It’s extraordinary, Blinken said, “how frightened Putin seems to be of one man. I think that speaks volumes.” While the massive cyber hack of government agencies widely attributed to Moscow didn’t come up in questioning, Blinken said that committee members, particularly Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, “have been very prescient when it comes to the challenge posed to us by Russia, there’s a lot to be discussed and talked about there but this is very high on the agenda for an incoming administration.”
Biden will continue some policies, Blinken said, including continuing “to support the arming and training of Ukraine’s military, the continued provision to Ukraine of lethal defensive assistance, and indeed, of the training program as well,” Blinken said. “I very much agree with you that this has actually been a real, a real success.”
Blinken outlined three priorities in his opening remarks — the first being to breathe life into a State Department hollowed out after four years of the Trump administration and undermined by Trump’s attack on American democracy.
Blinken also emphasized the need to revitalize American diplomacy after international distrust and disgust engendered by Trump’s policies. He also discussed Biden’s desire to restore the administration’s traditional foreign policy partnership with Congress, where lawmakers often complained of being shut out and ignored by Pompeo.
And where Pompeo stressed “swagger,” Blinken told lawmakers that “humility and confidence should be the flip sides of America’s leadership coin.”
“Humility because we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad,” Blinken said in prepared remarks. “But we’ll also act with confidence that America at its best still has a greater ability than any country on earth to mobilize others for the greater good.”
Blinken highlighted transnational challenges that will require international partnerships, from defeating the Covid-19 pandemic to dealing with China; standing up for human rights; reaffirming the value and strength of democratic governance; countering threats from Iran, Russia and North Korea; and taking on “the existential threat posed by climate change.”
The 58-year-old also struck a personal note in his remarks at the top of the hearing, introducing himself to the public and the committee, where he once worked for six years and senators know him well. The father of two described his pride in his family’s history of service, saying he sees it as “payment on the debt our family owes to the nation that gave us refuge and extraordinary opportunities across generations.”
This story has been updated with additional details Tuesday.