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Biden’s Cabinet Picks, Part 2: Antony Blinken

michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

[music]
archived recording (joe biden)

Today, I’m pleased to announce nominations and staff for critical foreign policy and national security positions in my administration.

michael barbaro

Today:

archived recording (joe biden)

It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.

michael barbaro

Part two of our look at the cabinet of President-elect Joe Biden.

archived recording (joe biden)

As secretary of state, I nominate Tony Blinken.

michael barbaro

David Sanger on Biden’s nominee for secretary of state.

archived recording (joe biden)

I’ve seen him in action. Tony is ready on day one.

michael barbaro

And what kind of foreign policy is possible after four years of American isolationism?

It’s Wednesday, December 2.

David, I want to start by asking you the same question I asked our colleague Jeanna Smialek about Joe Biden’s selection of his Treasury secretary. And of course, we’re gonna be talking about his choice of secretary of state. How important is the role of the secretary of state going to be, do you think, in this incoming administration?

david sanger

Well, historically and constitutionally, Michael, the secretary of state’s always been the most important cabinet post after the president and the Vice president, and the first cabinet member who’s in line for the presidency. But it’s particularly critical right now, because Joe Biden is going to be consumed in his first six months by Covid-19, by domestic imperatives, and yet the world’s given us up for dead.

michael barbaro

Huh.

david sanger

And so the secretary of state is going to have to show that America is back, that America cares about allies, and that America is ready to lead. And the secretary of state is the chief spokesperson for the president around the world and of course has to be somebody who the rest of the world thinks really is in sync with the president.

michael barbaro

Somebody who the rest of the world believes literally speaks word for word for the president.

david sanger

The most powerful secretaries of state in recent times have been those who no one doubted had a relationship with the president that was so close that when the secretary spoke, it was like the president speaking. And Joe Biden has picked in Tony Blinken somebody who has been with him for 20 years, who can finish his sentences, who Biden once said could do any job in his administration. And they will know that when Blinken speaks, they might as well be listening to Biden.

michael barbaro

So I want to get to this extremely close relationship between Biden and Blinken, but I want to start with the backstory of Tony Blinken. He’s not a household name, like the secretaries of state that you just mentioned. And I wonder where his story starts.

archived recording (tony blinken)

Mr. President-elect, Vice President-elect Harris, thank you for your trust and your confidence.

david sanger

He’s not a household name, though he’s known well in Washington, in foreign policy circles. But he’s got this very rich backstory.

archived recording (tony blinken)

For my family, as for so many generations of Americans, America has literally been the last best hope on Earth.

david sanger

And actually, Blinken told a little bit of the story when President-elect Biden formally announced his nomination as secretary of state.

archived recording (tony blinken)

My grandfather, Maurice Blinken, fled pogroms in Russia and made a new life in America. His son, my father, Donald Blinken, served in the United States Air Force during World War II, and then as a United States ambassador.

david sanger

Born in New York, parents divorced when he was about eight years old. And he moved to Paris, where his new stepfather is a very well-known lawyer.

archived recording (tony blinken)

And my late stepfather, Samuel Pisar—

david sanger

But had been a survivor of concentration camps.

archived recording (tony blinken)

He was one of 900 children in his school in Bialystok, Poland, but the only one to survive the Holocaust after four years in concentration camps.

david sanger

He was a Jewish kid whose entire town had been swept up by the Nazis.

archived recording (tony blinken)

At the end of the war, he made a break from a death march into the woods in Bavaria. From his hiding place, he heard a deep rumbling sound. It was a tank. But instead of the Iron Cross, he saw painted on its side a five-pointed white star. He ran to the tank. The hatch opened. An African-American GI looked down at him. He got down on his knees and said the only three words that he knew in English, that his mother taught him before the war, “God bless America.”

david sanger

And he’s really an amazing Holocaust survival story, but he told Blinken the stories of his survival from the camps, and it deeply affected the way Blinken viewed the world.

michael barbaro

How so?

archived recording (tony blinken)

That’s who we are. That’s what America represents to the world. However imperfectly.

david sanger

To what I think that story did for Blinken was cement his view that the United States has a singular role in the world— defending freedoms, defending human rights, a country that sometimes needs to intervene to guarantee the rights of others. And that really keeps showing up after he launched his career in diplomacy.

michael barbaro

Well, tell me about that career.

david sanger

Well, he left Paris, went to Harvard, dabbled in journalism and filmmaking for a while, but eventually decided that what he really wanted to do was be a diplomat. He’s fascinated by diplomacy, what makes the world tick. Goes in to the State Department young, but his really formative period of time is ending up as a young staffer in Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. And I think the story of Blinken’s career has been pushing up against that instinct that shows up so often in American history, that the United States really should stay out of things more than get involved. And nowhere was that conflict clearer than in 1994.

archived recording

More than 100,000 are trying to escape Rwanda’s capital, trying to escape this terrifying killing field. Tribal massacres continue in the Central African nation of Rwanda. In one of the latest, hundreds of refugees were pulled out of a former UN compound and slaughtered by government troops with grenades, machine guns, and machetes. We’re exposed to death every day and night.

david sanger

When Bill Clinton hesitated about sending American troops into Rwanda to stop a genocide—

archived recording (bill clinton)

Our aims is to move food, medicine, and other supplies to those in need as quickly as possible.

david sanger

And later on, Clinton said that that was the biggest regret of his presidency.

archived recording (bill clinton)

Where if we’d gone in sooner, I think— I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost. Remember, they died in a hurry.

david sanger

But I think it was also a very critical moment for Blinken, because he recognized that while there’s a significant cost when the United States gets overstretched, what we used to call imperial overstretch, there is also a cost when the U.S. pulls back, and people die.

michael barbaro

Right, in this case hundreds of thousands of Tutsi Rwandans were murdered in a genocide.

david sanger

That’s right. And there are many who came out of the Clinton administration thinking that with a relatively small showing of force the United States might have saved those people, although that would have been an action that wasn’t a vital American national interest, right?

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

david sanger

Instead, it is a humanitarian interest.

michael barbaro

Right, but it sounds like as the stepchild of a Holocaust survivor, Blinken leans unmistakably toward intervention in a case like that.

david sanger

I’d say that Blinken shows more streaks of interventionism than many in his political party and even many of his colleagues. But you can see this really comes from his heart.

archived recording (tony blinken)

No, no, Grover, it’s not the un-building. It’s the UN building.

david sanger

You hear it when he talks about why the United States needs to care about refugees.

archived recording (tony blinken)

And one of the issues we’re going to talk about is something really important.

archived recording (grover)

Yeah?

archived recording (tony blinken)

Refugees.

david sanger

He even had a moment where he was explaining that to Grover on Sesame Street.

archived recording (tony blinken)

These are people who’ve had to leave their homes because life in their countries was not safe for them. Grover, can you imagine how difficult it would be to have to leave your home?

archived recording (grover)

No, I cannot. I would never want to leave Sesame Street! I cannot imagine leaving my apartment or my pet turtle Rufus behind!

michael barbaro

Hmm. And so eventually, of course, Blinken links up with Joe Biden. When is that, and what are the circumstances?

david sanger

Well, about 20 years ago, he ends up on Biden’s foreign relations staff, and quickly becomes Biden’s sort of chief national security advisor. And Biden, you have to remember, spent 17 years either as the chairman or the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, flying around the world, meeting world leaders, convincing himself that much of diplomacy is all about personal relationships. And when you look at the photos of those meetings, it was always Blinken who was standing just off to the side there as Biden’s strategist.

michael barbaro

And how did Blinken’s views, his inclination towards intervention, how does that line up with Biden’s during this period when they’re working together?

david sanger

Well, this is one of the more curious things about the relationship between Blinken and Biden. Because it’s very close. Biden deeply respects Blinken’s views. He’s the first one he goes and turns to for his opinion on these things, but frequently their instincts are different. Let me give you a few examples. When Biden becomes vice president and Blinken is his national security advisor, the first issue they had to go tackle in the Obama administration was, should the U.S. pull its forces out of Afghanistan?

And while the commander in Afghanistan was calling for a force of over 100,000, and Hillary Clinton was debating about 50,000 or 60,000, Biden was taking the view that, no, the U.S. should be down to just a very small crew of counterterrorism operators, that we couldn’t get anything done there. And Blinken actually more sided with the Hillary view of the world. What’s interesting is that that view won the immediate day and Obama ended up doing a surge of forces. But Biden, in the end, won the war. Because now everyone from Donald Trump to Joe Biden is of the view that the U.S. should keep a pretty minimal force in Afghanistan. That’s what Trump did. And I suspect that’s what you’ll see Biden do as well.

michael barbaro

But importantly, in that story you just told, Blinken was not on the same page as Biden, and it seems found a way to vocalize that. He was pushing for a greater level of troops in Afghanistan.

david sanger

That’s right. And it happened a second time, then on the question of whether the United States should intervene in Libya to drive out Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. This was at a moment when there was an uprising in Libya. Qaddafi was on the run. The Europeans wanted to go in and help the rebels by bombing them. Obama was very cautious. Clinton wanted to go join the Europeans in this effort. Joe Biden thought that this was a bad idea. Blinken thought it was a good idea. And of course, in the end, Qaddafi was driven from power. He was on the run for months. Eventually, some local rebels pulled him out of a ditch and shot him. But you could also argue that Biden’s caution was understandable, because Libya has been a mess ever since.

michael barbaro

But here again Blinken disagrees with Biden, but this time Blinken’s view does win out in Libya.

david sanger

That’s right, and a dictator was ousted. Although I wouldn’t say that the United States or anyone else had a strategic plan for what they would go do with Libya thereafter. And of course it’s been a pretty messy story ever since.

michael barbaro

Right. So the lesson here is pretty complicated. Blinken and Biden seem to disagree a lot, and Biden’s restraint has in many cases been proven prescient.

david sanger

Proven prescient from an American view of vital interests, right? Because this gets to the core question that Blinken’s whole career raises, which is humanitarian interventions are frequently important and critical to American values, but they’re not defending vital American interests. Because you’re going in and intervening in places where the conflict really has very little to do with the safety of the United States or the safety of Americans.

michael barbaro

David of course by the time Barack Obama leaves office and Antony Blinken is no longer at the State Department, we now know that Americans and America had become deeply fatigued by all manner of us entanglements overseas. And we know that because Donald Trump is elected on this message of America first, on this message that America should get out of the world. And that very much felt, I have to imagine, like a rejection of Blinkenism, of this interventionist approach. And so I wonder how Blinken responded to that.

david sanger

He didn’t respond well. He thinks that Donald Trump squandered the most valuable part of American power, which is the power of the American example.

archived recording (tony blinken)

There’s a general sense that we lost our North star. People are increasingly confused. They feel a sense of chaos. They don’t know which end is up. Whether we like it or not, the world tends not to organize itself.

david sanger

And what that means is that it’s the United States that’s going to have to step in to play that role.

archived recording (tony blinken)

If we’re not doing a lot of that organizing, in terms of shaping the rules and the norms and the institutions through which countries relate to one another, then one of two things— either someone else is doing it, and probably not in a way that advances our own interests and values, or maybe just as bad, no one is.

david sanger

Because if we’re not, it’s not like no one else is gonna play that role. Vacuums will be created.

archived recording (tony blinken)

And then you tend to have chaos and a vacuum that may be filled by bad things before still by good things.

david sanger

He believes that Trump failed time and time again to do that. It failed at NATO. It failed in East Asia. It failed in putting together a common response to China. And yet he recognizes half of America believes that Trump was essentially right here, that we’re overextended, and that when we get out into the rest of the world, we get taken to the cleaners. So the tension in the next few years is to see whether Blinken has the skills at home and abroad to make his case, to convince Americans that involvement in the world is in its interest, and to convince the world that America is back, and that once again it will be the organizing center of global diplomacy.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

So, David, let’s presume Antony Blinken turns out to be a relatively skilled diplomatic salesman. What do you think his version of American foreign policy will actually look like in practice, given where everything now stands in America’s relations with the rest of the world?

david sanger

Well, with the allies, Michael, I think the early days will be pretty much a welcome back home festival, right? Because they’re going to spend the first few months rejoining the world, or rejoining agreements that Donald Trump walked away from. They’re going to resign the Paris Accord on climate change in the early days. They’re going to rejoin the World Health Organization, which President Trump walked out of in the middle of Covid, arguing that the Chinese had too much influence while the U.S. paid the bills. They’re going to go announce a recommitment to NATO.

michael barbaro

So they’re gonna do a lot of dismantling of the dismantling.

david sanger

Among Blinken’s friends, they call it the Great Undoing. [LAUGHTER] Right? That they’re trying to go undo the Trump era. But of course, a couple things are gonna get in the way. The biggest example of this may be Iran.

michael barbaro

Right, where we know that President-elect Joe Biden wants to return to a pre-Trump diplomatic relationship, and specifically wants to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.

david sanger

That’s right. But because of what President Trump has done over the past two years, and because of what the Israelis are believed to have been responsible for in the past few days, that’s gonna be a really, really tall order.

michael barbaro

David, explain that.

david sanger

Well, over the past few years, President Trump has done everything he could to unwind and complicate the Obama era Iran nuclear accord. And in the past few days, the Israelis have tried to put the final nail in the coffin of that agreement.

archived recording

Tonight, Iran says its most senior nuclear scientist has been assassinated near the capital Tehran.

david sanger

With this assassination on the streets of a little town outside of Tehran last Friday—

archived recording

He was a protected and prized scientist.

david sanger

—where the leading Iranian nuclear scientist driving to his summer place—

archived recording

Iranian officials say Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was ambushed in his car by what they call armed terrorists, spraying the windshield with bullets.

david sanger

—is intercepted by a group of assassins and killed in broad daylight.

archived recording

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, blamed Israel for the killing on Saturday.

david sanger

There is a lot of evidence that this was done by the Israelis.

archived recording

Iran is already vowing revenge.

david sanger

And a fair bit of speculation that the Israelis wouldn’t have done it without first giving warning to the United States. We don’t know that yet.

archived recording

This is now making it extremely difficult for Iran to come back to the table and for Biden to re-execute a workable strategy for Iran.

david sanger

But what we do know is that the result is that the assassination took what was already an incredibly difficult diplomatic challenge, reassembling the nuclear deal, and made it vastly harder. Because now Blinken and Biden walk into a world in which the Iranians are understandably hopping mad, and will believe themselves that the Americans were in on it. And the hard liners will say, see? You never should have entered that deal to begin with.

michael barbaro

So this is a very clear example of how the Trump foreign policy approach may actually make it all but impossible for the Biden-Blinken foreign policy approach to actually work. Because if the Iranians say, hey, you’ve trashed this deal, and you have taken out our top nuclear scientist, why on earth would we rejoin an agreement with your country?

david sanger

That’s right. The Iranians are gonna take that view. But it gets even more complicated than that. Because while there are a lot of people who would say, let’s just rewind the clock to January 20, 2017, when Barack Obama left office, the fact is, the world’s moved on, right? The Iran situation is far more complicated than it was in 2017. And that’s not the only place around the world where it’s more complicated. The North Koreans, for all those love letters that they wrote to President Trump, have built a lot more fuel for nuclear weapons. The Chinese have expanded their footprint in the South China Sea and become much more aggressive in their technology exports. All around the world, you’re finding places where issues that Biden and Blinken were familiar with and thought they might have a handle on when they were leaving office have now come back with a vengeance.

michael barbaro

And it will not be easy for the U.S. to just insert itself back like a key in ignition.

david sanger

That’s absolutely right. So now Blinken comes in with his view that America must be the organizing force, but in all those cases, Michael it’s not clear that the world is particularly interested in seeing the United States come back in as an organizing force. Because there’s a fundamental question that Blinken and Biden are gonna have to face, which is that the world’s going to say to them, why should we trust you? Sure, we’re glad to see an engaged America come back. And we’re delighted you’re coming back into all these treaties. But supposing this is just a four-year blip, and that when we will look back at it, Trumpism ultimately is going to rule the day, and that the next president’s gonna go undo whatever you go do in the next four years?

So Biden and Blinken have to not only convince the world that America is back, and not only convince them that they should trust us as an organizing force, but they also have to convince them that the whole concept that we call “liberal internationalism,” that the United States brings its values with it around the world, and will back those up with force, or with money, or with influence, that that’s a view that’s actually gonna stick.

Blinken has this phrase that he’s used many times, which is “superpowers don’t bluff.” And the trick for him and for President Biden over the next few years is going to be convincing them that in saying we’re back, we’re not bluffing.

michael barbaro

So, David, the challenge for Antony Blinken, if he is confirmed as our new secretary of state, will not just be, as you said earlier, selling a skeptical United States electorate on this approach to foreign policy, which is in and of itself a pretty tall order. It’s actually selling a deeply skeptical world that this can be counted on for more than just a few years.

david sanger

That’s exactly right, Michael. He’s got to go convince Americans that a reengaged America is truly in Americans’ own interest and in the interest of American workers. And he’s got to convince our allies that we are actually there to stay, that Trump and Trumpism isn’t coming back. And those are tall orders, both at home and abroad.

michael barbaro

Well, David, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

david sanger

Michael, great to be with you.

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. The Times reports that President Trump has discussed the possibility of issuing pre-emptive pardons to his three eldest children, Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka, to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and to his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, before Trump leaves office, fearing that they could all face prosecution. Trump reportedly spoke with Giuliani about a pardon for him as recently as last week. Giuliani has been under investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan for his business dealings in Ukraine and for his role in ousting the American ambassador there, a plot at the heart of Trump’s impeachment. And in an interview on Tuesday, Attorney General Bill Barr said there was no evidence of voter fraud that could alter the outcome of the election, directly undercutting claims by President Trump. Barr’s comments to the Associated Press made him the most high-profile member of the president’s cabinet to affirm Joe Biden’s victory.

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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