Joe Biden’s First Diplomatic Fight Will Be at Home

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In the dawning days of the Arab Spring, as throngs gathered in Cairo to demand that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak step down after nearly 30 years in power, the aging autocrat could count on the support of a longtime friend in the White House.

Joe Biden, then Barack Obama’s vice president, was watching the revolutionary fervor in Egypt with unease. He sympathized with the desire of Egypt’s young people to have a real democracy and more economic opportunities. But in meetings at the White House, according to others present, he was among those voicing worries that a sudden departure by Mubarak could lead to unfriendly Islamist rule, if not outright chaos. Biden believed Mubarak had worked well with the United States in tackling terrorism, keeping the peace with Israel and other strategic interests. Plus, he’d known the 82-year-old Egyptian strongman forever and didn’t think he was all that bad. In fact, as the protests unfolded, Biden told PBS, “I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

Mubarak fell two weeks later, in February 2011, and before long, another dictator took over—Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, an Army general who presided over the slaughter of more than 800 Muslim Brotherhood supporters as he consolidated power. The Obama administration, desperate for some stability, refused to call Sisi’s seizure of power a coup. It froze arms sales for a time but ultimately lifted those restrictions. And things have moved further in Sisi’s favor under President Donald Trump, who has bragged about his love for Sisi—“Where’s my favorite dictator?” he reportedly once quipped—and even granted him a White House visit.

These days, as Biden seeks to oust Trump from the White House, his tone toward Egypt—and autocrats in general—is a bit different than it used to be. The Democratic nominee has promised to make the promotion of human rights and democracy a foreign policy priority. Earlier this year, after the release of an American from Egypt’s prisons, Biden promised via tweet: “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’”

For many progressives whose preferred candidates lost to Biden during the Democratic primary, Biden’s pledge was exciting and energizing. Was he actually suggesting he would cut off billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Egypt? Nearly 50 years after Biden first took public office—decades when he largely hewed to established nostrums about American power—progressives saw the 275-character tweet as a hint of a larger shift in his worldview. They wondered whether he would venture outside his comfort zone, even if it meant breaking with a close Arab ally that has made peace with Israel.

The left has long felt marginalized in America’s national security debates. But decades of costly, inconclusive U.S. military interventions abroad have increasingly emboldened progressives arguing for an approach guided by restraint and moral rectitude. Now, progressive activists are regularly talking with Biden’s campaign in a bid to shape the Democrat’s foreign and national security policy agendas, and there are plenty of signs that Biden and his aides are listening.

But the lingering suspicions about Biden among many progressives foreshadow a passionate intraparty brawl over the shape of his foreign policy if he is elected—a domestic squabble that could sorely test his diplomatic skills.

“You think, first and foremost, that Joe Biden’s saying the right thing. This is the signal you want,” says Stephen Miles, executive director of the advocacy group Win Without War, about Biden’s slap at Sisi. “But it makes you wonder if the actions of a President Biden will match up with the rhetoric of a candidate Biden.”

It’s not just Egypt that brings these questions to mind for progressives. Officially, the former vice president already has roughly 1,800 people on some 20 foreign policy and national security committees offering him advice from a variety of perspectives. In reality, he’s relying heavily on a coterie of advisers with long D.C. résumés, including several who advised him during the Obama years. This unnerves progressives who fear a return to a pre-Trump world mindset—a restoration instead of a reinvention.

Biden, whose campaign offered limited comments for this story, has promised to end the “forever wars,” elevate diplomacy and champion human rights as well as democracy. But progressives look at the 77-year-old candidate’s track record and wonder whether he will keep such lofty promises. They wonder what devils lie in the details of his pledge to “build back better.” They worry that, like many predecessors, he will treat Americans’ economic security as secondary and separate from U.S. military primacy. They question whether Biden’s record and longtime relationships with foreign leaders mean he will break new ground or revert to old habits.

All of these uncertainties are why, if Biden wins in November, leading figures on the left say they have no intention of shutting up. Instead, they plan to call him out and hold him accountable in what some described as a permanent opposition mentality.

“The reality is that progressives have been able to significantly move the debates on a handful of important issues,” says Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a favorite of progressives who is often mentioned as a future presidential contender and potential Biden secretary of State. “That is just a new reality that will greet the next Democratic president.”

None of this is to say Biden has to worry much about his left flank in the election itself, at least not on foreign policy. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton had to contend with a Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, who painted the former secretary of State as a dangerous hawk and gained enough purchase in some swing states to possibly tip the election in Trump’s favor.

Today, progressives face no such dilemma. Biden might not be Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but he is not Trump, whom they see as crude, inhumane and easily manipulated on the world stage. To the left, Trump’s “America First” foreign policy has meant squandering America’s power and moral authority by abandoning diplomatic agreements, punishing allies, embracing autocrats and, most alarmingly, bringing the United States to the precipice of new wars—despite the president’s halting efforts to bring U.S. troops home.

Progressives see an opening with Biden and don’t want to miss it, but they are not a monolithic group. They differ among themselves, for instance, on one of the most vexing dilemmas in foreign policy: when to use U.S. military force to advance human rights, such as trying to stop a genocide. Broadly speaking, though, progressives have in recent months settled on some top priorities. They want to reduce U.S. defense spending and cut back on America’s global military footprint; devote more resources to diplomacy; and engage more with allies and partners on transnational challenges—as well as with adversaries when there are common interests. When compared with moderate Democrats or traditional Republicans, progressive foreign policy thinkers are more likely to put economic issues, such as the impact of trade deals, at the heart of their strategies.

In letters to Biden, progressive groups have laid out specific demands. They have requested that he commit to significant cuts in defense spending—at least $200 billion, according to one May letter. They want the former vice president to lift broad-based economic sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, arguing those penalties hurt civilians instead of the ruling regimes. They want Biden to commit to pushing for an all-out debate in Congress on whether to end ongoing military interventions and to repeal current authorizations for the use of military force. And they want him to agree to condition military aid to Israel on how it treats the Palestinians.

Over the spring and summer, Biden’s team worked with Sanders, his last opponent in the primary, to set up joint task forces that focused on finding common ground on a handful of issues. The resulting committees covered climate change, education, the economy, criminal justice reform, health care and immigration. Not covered? Foreign policy. That upset many progressives, although a Sanders aide acknowledged that neither side pushed hard for a joint group on the topic.

Much of progressives’ focus since Biden emerged as the victor of the primary has been on shaping the Democratic Party platform. And on foreign policy, they feel they succeeded in making this year’s platform less hawkish than 2016’s. In spots, the new platform reads like it could have been ripped from a Sanders stump speech. It calls for an end to “forever wars,” though it caveats that by saying the endings must be “responsible.” The 2020 document also disavows the idea of U.S.-imposed “regime change,” including in countries like Iran.

Progressives faced significant pushback on Israel-related matters, however. Sanders’ allies couldn’t persuade the Biden crowd to mention the possibility of conditioning military aid to Israel; the platform says the party’s commitment to Israel’s security is “ironclad.” But while progressives failed in having the word “occupation” used in reference to Israel’s territorial moves, this year’s platform does state that Democrats “oppose settlement expansion” by Israel, a contentious issue not mentioned in 2016. It also nods to freedom of speech even as it condemns the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that targets Israeli policies toward Palestinians.

“The platform is not a policy statement. It’s a politics statement. And I think it showed that the politics are changing, and the party establishment has recognized that in a way they didn’t feel they needed to in 2016. They had to tip their hat to it,” says James Zogby, a Sanders ally and president of the Arab American Institute, who helped shape the platform.

As the campaign has sped forward, progressive organizations have sought special channels to influence Biden. That has included a call once every six weeks between a handful of leading progressive groups and Antony Blinken, one of Biden’s top advisers and a former deputy secretary of State.

“It’s very friendly,” says Yasmine Taeb, senior policy counsel for one of the participating groups, Demand Progress. She adds, however, that “even on those calls, it’s so difficult to get very specific commitments from them.”

Biden’s allies say the campaign has done careful intraparty diplomatic spadework. A campaign adviser said the former vice president “is consulting with a wide array of foreign policy experts, including progressives, as he considers the global challenges that would face him as president.”

Progressives also are trying to influence Biden’s hiring decisions. Some have quietly been coming up with lists of potential hires for a Biden administration, including people who can serve in critical, midlevel positions such as assistant secretaries of State or Defense. People familiar with the issue declined to share potential candidates’ names, saying they didn’t want to make them targets, but they say they’ve handed the lists to the Biden campaign.

At the same time, progressives have been vocal about the types of hires they’d like Biden to avoid. Some of the demands are so broad—puritanical, even—that they would wipe out a huge swath of candidates. For example, in one letter, several groups on the left urged Biden not to hire anyone who has advocated (and has not disavowed their support) for “U.S. military interventions in pursuit of political objectives” or “covert operations that resulted in civilian harm.” The activists acknowledge they are setting a high bar, but they say they want to send a message that they are watching Biden as much as the Republican opposition is.

Progressives are already singling out some top Biden campaign advisers by name. Numerous Democratic National Convention delegates signed an open letter to Biden urging him not to rely on the advice of people such as former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, whom he considered for the vice presidency; former senior Defense official Michèle Flournoy, a potential contender to lead the Pentagon; or even Blinken, one of Biden’s most trusted senior campaign aides. These and other Washington hands “have demonstrated poor judgment on national security issues,” the letter asserts, slamming them for their roles in Obama-era military actions, as well as their private sector affiliations.

Biden and his team may be listening to progressives now, but whether they will be able to implement the policies progressives want is another story.

Obama, for example, pledged to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, a promise Biden also makes and which progressives want him to keep. But during the Obama years, jittery Democrats in Congress joined Republicans to block the executive branch from transferring the detainees to the U.S. mainland. Obama reduced the number of inmates by releasing dozens who were taken in by other countries, but he couldn’t keep his promise to shut down the prison itself. He disappointed many progressives by failing to end the U.S. military role in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also were unhappy with his use of drone strikes, deportations of undocumented immigrants and support for some trade deals.

Progressives blame themselves, too, for assuming Obama had their priorities covered—and for failing to pressure him more effectively. Some credit Obama’s second-term push for the Iran nuclear deal, which went into effect despite a vicious fight with Republicans in Washington, as catalyzing coalition-building among disparate progressive organizations that supported the agreement. They also credit what they see as Obama’s failures—such as an intervention in Libya that went beyond its initial humanitarian goal—for heightening their wariness of Biden.

Trump’s tenure has helped progressives grow in ranks, organization and political savvy. Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, and earlier this year, as he edged close to an all-out military conflict with Tehran, progressive groups responded rapidly with anti-war actions of their own. Growing public disenchantment with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has even led progressives to form alliances with libertarian-minded conservatives. The “war on terror” mindset is fading as new threats, from a rising China to climate change to the coronavirus pandemic, have made even conservatives rethink U.S. priorities.

Biden’s campaign has at times been taken aback by progressive activists’ willingness to criticize the man who stands between them and another four years of Trump. When his team released a digital ad earlier this year that made him out to be tough on China, some on the left lashed out at its tone and language.

“There are a number of very serious and valid critiques of the Chinese government,” Tobita Chow, director of the progressive group Justice Is Global, said at the time. “It is possible to do that in a way that is not racist and not nationalistic.”

Progressives say they are hopeful that if Biden doesn’t listen to advocacy groups, he’ll at least listen to a growing group of progressive-minded Democrats in Congress. “I think, overall, we can likely push Vice President Biden in a more progressive direction across policy issues,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a prominent face of the movement, was quoted saying in a recent interview. “I think foreign policy is an enormous area where we can improve; immigration is another one. There are some areas where we just fundamentally disagree, but that’s OK.”

There also are more established figures such as Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, who is vying for the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is vocal about the need for Congress to claw back some of the authority over foreign policy it has ceded to the executive branch.

And in a New York primary battle that did not go unnoticed in foreign policy circles, the current Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, a hawkish figure who voted against the Iran deal, recently lost his seat to a progressive insurgent, Jamaal Bowman, who promises to “fight for schools and education, not bombs and incarceration.”

Bowman thinks it’s best for the left to try to work with Biden, not against him—but he hinted at the friction yet to come. “To become really progressive, it’s going to take the work of myself and many others working in collaboration with a Biden White House,” he said in an interview. “When I say collaboration, understand, I mean healthy tension, healthy conflict, accountability, pushing where we can push.”

Murphy, the Connecticut senator, points to the growing Democratic support for his effort to restrict weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, a frequent target of progressive ire, as a sign of where things are headed within the party.

“Today, there’s probably not a single Democrat in the Senate who would support selling another round of precision-guided missiles to the Saudis,” he says. “The ground has shifted pretty significantly.”

Biden’s sheer longevity, especially in the foreign policy realm, has given his detractors and supporters plenty to mine, whether from his years in the Senate, where he chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, or his tenure as vice president. His many years in public office also make it challenging to crystallize a so-called “Biden doctrine” because, for every example one points to, there’s a ready counterexample. Biden voted against the first Gulf War that pushed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but he voted for a resolution authorizing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In the 1990s, he supported U.S.-NATO military strikes to end massacres in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but during the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions he opposed U.S. military intervention in Libya, arguing that the U.S. had no serious national security interest there and should not stride into another Middle Eastern conflict. In the grand scheme, observers say, Biden has a middle-of-the-road, liberal internationalist mindset that has evolved since the 1990s from a fervent belief in America’s power to shape the world to a more modest sense that the United States is quite limited in that ability.

“It’s that arc that lots of people went through: overestimating, sobering up and becoming more cautious,” says Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

That said, Biden is not veering anywhere near isolationism. He extols the virtues of international alliances, a feature that distinguishes him from Trump. He has vowed to devote more resources to diplomacy while indicating he won’t slash and burn the Pentagon’s budget. And while Biden may pull regular combat troops from countries like Afghanistan, he is expected to keep some Special Forces there to pursue the anti-terrorism fight. In other words, the forever wars won’t truly end.

One striking feature of Biden’s foreign policy plan that should delight many progressives is its extensive focus on domestic and economic issues. Under the umbrella of foreign policy, Biden has included goals such as restoring the Voting Rights Act, ending the practice of anonymous shell companies and raising the minimum wage to $15—the notion being that the United States must tackle its own economic and democratic challenges if it is to have the strength to lead the world. He also strongly emphasizes the need to promote democracy abroad, another distinction from Trump. And Biden promises to use America’s trade might, ideally in partnership with fellow democracies, to “shape the future rules of the road on everything from the environment to labor to trade to transparency, nonproliferation to cyber theft, and data privacy to artificial intelligence.”

Biden isn’t the first presidential contender to talk about the concept of “nation-building at home”—Obama and even Trump did so. But Biden and his aides talk as if they actually mean it, promising to ignore age-old silos and treat foreign, domestic and economic policies as essentially one body. Some progressive foreign policy thinkers argue this is a must, especially given that U.S. adversaries like China weaponize their economic power to shape political relationships with other countries. They also assert that progressives will not tolerate foreign policy justifications for economic policies (including trade deals) that exacerbate inequality in the United States. The coronavirus pandemic, progressives say, has brought home just how interconnected even health policy is with international affairs and the global economy. While progressives say they won’t rest on their laurels if Biden wins, there’s hope that, with public sentiments increasingly against overseas military adventurism, Biden can follow through on this integrated approach.

Privately, top Biden aides say they understand that the world has changed and new formulas are needed. Some Biden advisers, in particular Jake Sullivan, a former Obama administration national security aid and top hand to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, have devoted extensive time since that brutal loss to studying ways to integrate foreign, domestic and economic policies. Under headlines like “America Needs a New Economic Philosophy” and “Competition Without Catastrophe,” Sullivan, who did not respond to a request for comment, has authored or co-authored a number of essays laying out progressive-tinged visions for the Middle East, China and U.S. funding for national security.

Murphy, for one, says he is willing to give these Obama-era veterans the benefit of the doubt. “I obviously am rooting for some new faces to show up at the State Department, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council,” he says, “but I also have seen how many of the people who were making policy in the Obama administration have changed some of their views. … Some eyes have opened to some of the mistakes of the Obama administration.”

As Castro puts it, “the world has changed a lot” since the Obama years, not least because of the extremes of the Trump years. “Bear in mind,” he says, “with President Trump we’ve moved away from that Obama baseline a lot.”

Few American political figures can match Biden’s international Rolodex. He has, after all, been around long enough to have met China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, as well as its current increasingly authoritarian ruler, Xi Jinping. Biden, with his love of personal banter and overall charm, provided a helpful counterpoint to Obama, whom foreign leaders often found cool and too focused on the business at hand. Biden aides say he has a perennial line that goes along with his approach: “All foreign policy is an extension of personal relationships.”

Michael Gwin, a campaign spokesman, touted Biden’s global acquaintances as a key reason the candidate is uniquely qualified to steer the United States away from Trump’s “chaos” and reestablish “the alliances and the trust in the United States that have long made us the most powerful country in the world.”

Trump, too, values his personal relationships with foreign leaders. He’s met face-to-face three times with Kim Jong Un, and continues to speak warmly of the totalitarian North Korean leader even though the nuclear diplomacy between the two countries has gone nowhere. He also has taken pains to avoid criticizing Xi directly, even as the relationship between the U.S. and Chinese governments sinks to new depths. (In a sign of the shifting politics, Biden, who once said, “A rising China is a positive, positive development,” now calls Xi a “thug” and accuses Beijing of economic cheating and genocide against Uighur Muslims.)

Biden supporters dismiss Trump’s emphasis on relationships as being more about his personal ego than the national interest. Despite his willingness to learn the names of foreign leaders’ grandchildren, they say, Biden is no fool when it comes to understanding their countries and the challenge they may pose to the United States. Biden has in the past described playing hardball with everyone from Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic (Biden says he told Milosevic that he’s a “damned war criminal”) to Russia’s Vladimir Putin (“I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul,” Biden claims to have told the Kremlin leader).

“I found him to be an utter realist, somebody who didn’t have any illusions about what he was up against,” says Daniel Russel, a former top Asia hand in the Obama administration who is not part of the Biden campaign. “He knew that dealing with Xi Jinping or the Chinese Communist Party was in large part rolling a rock uphill. I also saw he had absolutely no compunction about being tough and direct with his Chinese counterparts. He understood that there isn’t a lot to be gained by tip-toeing around.”

Biden’s awareness of what U.S. interests are in play is why progressives take his pledges to promote democracy and human rights with a grain of salt. During his August speech accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, Biden appeared to say that only dictators who don’t work with America need to worry. “I will be a president who will stand with our allies and friends,” he said. “I will make it clear to our adversaries the days of cozying up to dictators are over.”

For progressives, this raises the question: What about allies who are dictators?

A Biden campaign adviser points to several examples of his boss criticizing U.S. partner countries, such as Hungary, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, over democratic backsliding and human rights abuses. Biden, the adviser says, “won’t hesitate to hold our partners accountable when they fall short of the values we strive to uphold.”

It all could come down to how Biden defines “accountable.”

In 2011, as Egyptians rose up against Mubarak, Obama aides split into two camps, largely along generational lines. The younger crew, led by National Security Council officials such as Ben Rhodes, urged Obama to side with the street and urge Mubarak to immediately step aside. Egypt’s young people would never forgive Obama if he sided against them, they argued—nor would history. More experienced Obama administration figures, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Bob Gates, urged caution. It wasn’t that they didn’t want Egypt to have democracy—they simply argued in favor of an “orderly transition,” giving Mubarak a graceful exit. That slower approach, they hoped, would also give time for political forces beyond the Muslim Brotherhood to get organized. At the same time, this managed approach assumed Mubarak would eventually quit, something the protesters weren’t likely to believe.

Biden was not as vocal or forceful in this debate as some of the other principals, often asking questions rather than making assertions, according to people present during the debates. Few, if any, know what he told Obama in private. Still, during the discussions and in his public comments, Biden was clearly unwilling to simply drop Mubarak, a man he had known for many years and, by his own account, spoken with “fairly regularly.” Biden, along with other senior officials, saw in Mubarak a faithful American partner, someone who had upheld a peace accord with Israel and cooperated with the United States, including on fighting terrorism. The U.S. military didn’t have to worry about losing access to the Suez Canal so long as Mubarak was in charge. Plus, Biden, like others in the older group, had been around long enough to remember a pre-Mubarak Egypt that was much more of a hotbed for radical groups. He also was in the Senate when a popular revolution toppled a U.S.-backed autocrat in Iran, leading to ongoing repressive Islamist rule and resulting regional turmoil.

“He took to heart Mubarak’s emphasis on the risks that would follow should he be removed from office. Mubarak would say, ‘It’s either me or the Muslim Brotherhood.’ Biden gave that much more credit than the president or many others,” one former Obama administration official says.

In hindsight, Biden’s concerns weren’t unfounded. The Muslim Brotherhood won elections held after Mubarak’s fall, spurring discontent as it failed to deliver on promises and took steps that appeared increasingly autocratic. Sisi came to power less than three years after Mubarak fell in February 2011. By nearly all accounts, Sisi has been a far more oppressive ruler than Mubarak, jailing everyone from workers for nongovernmental organizations to dissident bloggers to medical professionals speaking out about the coronavirus.

For the left, America’s support for Arab dictators is a moral stain—and a test of the country’s character and values. Progressives often point to Trump’s ongoing support of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, which has resulted in thousands of deaths and a horrific humanitarian crisis, as an example of failed American policy, not to mention U.S. hypocrisy on human rights. This view appears to be influencing Biden. He has promised to end U.S. support for the Yemen war and called the Saudi government a “pariah.”

All of this is why Biden’s rare comment on Egypt, a tweet promising “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’” intrigues activists on the left.

Among those who have urged Trump to take a harder line on Egypt is Murphy. The Connecticut senator has repeatedly castigated Sisi for his brutal repression and has called on Trump to condition U.S. military aid to Egypt on meeting human rights benchmarks—a demand he is prepared to make of Biden as well.

“If six months into the Biden administration, Egypt is still acting the way they are today, I don’t know why they should be a U.S. security partner,” Murphy says.

When asked what Biden meant by his tweet, former U.S. officials who know him predict the former vice president will seek a middle path that is far from Trump and somewhat to the left of Obama, but nowhere near what some progressives would like to see. In the instructive example of Egypt, Biden is unlikely to change the relationship fundamentally by cutting off all or a significant portion of military aid. But he probably will be much more openly critical of Sisi and will refuse to meet with him. Such moves do matter, the former officials argued, because American rhetoric and diplomatic maneuvering still have a lot of power.

Whether that sort of nuance will mollify a left demanding a more purist approach to foreign policy remains an open question. But progressive leaders say they are prepared to needle Biden as much as necessary to nudge him in their direction.

“There is no question that some of the work he’s going to have to do in the days immediately after getting elected, a lot of the work will be a damage assessment and then repairing that damage,” says Castro, the Texas congressman. “By that I mean it’s going to take some time, I think, to get us to where people would say we’re really moving in a progressive direction.”

Besides, as New York congressional candidate Bowman put it, when the alternative is Trump, Biden is “absolutely the one.”

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