Was Pompeo Serious? Who will (or Should) Run Biden’s Foreign Policy? – Phyllis Bennis

Video ThumbnailSecretary of State Mike Pompeo says get ready for a second Trump term. Who should run the State and Defense Departments for President-Elect Biden? Will there be a Trump provocation against Iran? Phyllis Bennis on theAnalysis.news podcast with Paul Jay. Transcript Paul Jay Hi, I'm Paul Jay. Welcome t

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says get ready for a second Trump term. Who should run the State and Defense Departments for President-Elect Biden? Will there be a Trump provocation against Iran? Phyllis Bennis on theAnalysis.news podcast with Paul Jay.

Transcript

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. Please don’t forget the donate button at the top of the webpage.

Mike Pompeo says he’s preparing for a peaceful transition to a second Trump administration. Here’s what he said on Tuesday afternoon:

Mike Pompeo

There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration. [Snickers.] All right, we’re ready. The world is watching what’s taking place here. We’re going to count all the votes. When the process is complete, there’ll be electors selected. There’s a process. The Constitution lays it out pretty clearly.

Paul Jay

Now joining us to talk about what Pompeo had to say and, more importantly, about what the Biden administration is likely to do and what she would like to see it do when it comes to foreign policy and foreign policy appointments is Phyllis Bennis. She’s the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. And among her latest books are Understanding ISIS and The New Global War on Terror: A Primer, as well as the recently published, seventh, updated edition of her popular Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.

Phyllis Bennis

Great to be with you, Paul.

Paul Jay

So, first of all, start with what Pompeo said. It sounds like he’s serious. He says, apparently, that he’s going to go to some foreign capitals to talk about the next Trump administration. What is all this showboating about?

Phyllis Bennis

I think it’s very much about showboating. I think he’s trying to frighten Biden supporters and Trump opponents who might believe this. I don’t think it’s based on anything. There’s certainly no reasonable way to think that there’s going to be a second Trump term any time soon. And I think that his travel, which had been announced before this, was already underway. I think he’s getting out of Dodge at this moment. He doesn’t have any role to play, but his role has been one of the most loyal cabinet members, one of the most loyal “Trumpets,” if you will, along with William Barr, the attorney general. The two of them have been the most loyal in the cabinet. And I think that’s all that’s going on here. I don’t think it’s serious. It’s nothing more than his wish list: he would like to still be the secretary of state. But I don’t think it has any bearing on reality.

Paul Jay

All right, so this is not some hint that there’s a serious attempt at what would be a judicial coup of some kind.

Phyllis Bennis

I think they’re hoping for that, but I don’t think there’s any evidence. They haven’t been able to come up with any bit of evidence to convince any, including rightwing Republican, judges, that there’s any basis for a case. Until that happens, I don’t think there’s any reason to take it very seriously. I think we do have to be aware that there are people in high places, and he is certainly one of them, who are trying to orchestrate fear, are trying to delegitimize the entire election. But the bottom line is somewhere around six million more people voted against Donald Trump than voted for him. That’s important. And more important in this crazy, undemocratic system that we have, there were a lot more Electoral College votes for Joe Biden than there were for Donald Trump. Right now, that’s where we are. The president-elect is Joe Biden. It’s not Donald Trump

Paul Jay

Now, it is President Trump for 70-odd days and he can do some dangerous stuff. And with Pompeo talking this way — and I guess top of their list would be Iran. What might they do?

Phyllis Bennis

Well, there’s certainly a danger. I think the firing of the secretary of defense yesterday — sort of expected in the longer term, but done quite suddenly — is very much a signal that there could be a November, December, even January surprise that could take the form of some kind of a provocation against Iran, hoping to inspire Iran to respond militarily and make for a very difficult situation for the incoming president, when President Biden becomes a reality. And in the meantime, who knows what Trump would do under those circumstances?

It’s very reckless. It’s very dangerous. I don’t think it’s likely, but I don’t think it’s impossible either. So, I think it is something we have to be very wary of. The antagonism for this process has been extraordinarily high, and the willingness to sacrifice Iranian lives and lots of other lives in the region and beyond is not outside the realm of possibility. So, I don’t think it’s likely, but I don’t think we can completely discount the possibility of something like that.

Paul Jay

And just add to that: Pompeo and Trump have been very close to the Saudis. And Biden’s on record — one of the real firm commitments he’s talked about is not supporting the Saudi war in Yemen. The Saudis don’t want to lose a chance to weaken Iran. And Biden has also committed to getting back into the Iran nuclear deal. So, there are a lot of forces who don’t like what Biden might bring to play here.

Phyllis Bennis

That’s certainly true. I think, though, many of those forces also are not eager to see the complete level of chaos that might result from that kind of a November or December surprise. Remember, it’s a lot easier to enter a war, to create a war, to cause a war than it is to end a war. And while they may posture about wanting something like that to happen, they also know the consequences. For somebody like Trump, that’s probably not much of an issue.

But for some of the others — for the regime in Saudi Arabia, the regime in Israel — they also know what the consequences would be. It would not be pretty for them in the region as well. So, I think that all of those things are dangers. But I think right now we are looking at a scenario where the victory — in terms of votes, which is really what matters in this country, so far — the victory is that of a defeat for Donald Trump and a victory for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to be the new administration. And right now, I think that’s what we should be looking ahead to.

Paul Jay

OK, so we’ll keep an eye on whether anything batshit crazy happens on the Trump side. And given that he’s a lunatic, we shouldn’t rule it out. But let’s assume there’s going to be a Biden presidency. And while it’s not batshit crazy, there’s stuff to look hopefully towards and there’s stuff to be very concerned about. So, what are your concerns and what will tell you that Biden’s heading in sort of a less warlike direction in terms of appointments?

Phyllis Bennis

I think that the first thing we have to think about when we look at what a Biden administration is likely to be on foreign policy is two contradictory things. On the one hand, Joe Biden himself is a consummate traditional interventionist in terms of foreign affairs. He is not known for opposing existing wars. He did oppose the war in Iraq later. But initially he supported it. And in fact, as the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate, he not only voted to authorize the war in Iraq, but he orchestrated a set of hearings where instead of allowing what originally would have been at least five witnesses who were to testify about why the US should not go to war against Iraq — and I remember this because I was supposed to be one of the five — he rejiggered the configuration of who would speak. And as it turned out, there were eighteen witnesses, every one of whom supported going to war. So, he played a very major role in in making that war legal within the US context, despite its violations of international law. So, that’s one side of it.

On the other hand, we’re looking at a Democratic Party that is, for the first time in decades — really in generations — showing a powerful, new, empowered progressive wing that is very much responsible for winning the election. And Biden knows that. He’s accountable to the Bernie Sanders wing, the Elizabeth Warren wing, whatever you want to call it: the progressive wing of the party. He’s accountable to that wing far more than anybody before him in recent memory.

He was elected with the help of the Black vote in key states. That was crucial. That was clear. And the Black vote overwhelmingly — as well as the Latinx vote and the Native American vote in a couple of key states, Arizona and Nevada, particularly — all of those communities also were supporting the progressives in the congressional elections. That changes the dynamics here. He doesn’t have all the room to maneuver that other presidents might. So, there’s some things I’m concerned about and some things I’m optimistic about before we even get to the question of names.

Of course, there are a lot of names. The one that I think is the most likely at the moment is Susan Rice, one of the few black women diplomats in the State Department who was previously the national security adviser for Obama, as well as [filling] a number of [other] positions within the State Department. She has a wealth of experience. She’s quite brilliant. And she has, in my view, never seen a human rights violation or a humanitarian crisis that did not require military intervention to deal with. She was one of a small group of three. It was basically Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power who were known to be the voices that persuaded President Obama to go to war in Libya against his better judgment. He had opposed it originally, and it was those three, from all the information we’ve gotten from sources in the State Department, who convinced him to go ahead. And we know how disastrous that war became for the people of Libya.

Paul Jay

There’s been reporting that Biden actually opposed that intervention and Obama went with Rice and Clinton instead of Biden, which maybe suggests that Biden wouldn’t pick Rice.

Phyllis Bennis

Certainly possible. It’s also known that Susan Rice will have a very hard time in the Senate. She was blamed for this highly politicized claim about what happened to four US military and military contractors who were killed in Benghazi at the end of the US intervention in Libya, the direct intervention. It wasn’t actually anything that she had any responsibility for, but nonetheless, she was blamed for it. And the sense has been that she would not be able to be confirmed. I’m not convinced that’s true. It may be true. And it certainly will be a factor that Biden will look at when he thinks about whether she would be the right person for the job.

Paul Jay

So, who else would concern you if it isn’t Rice at Sec State?

Phyllis Bennis

One who is getting a great deal of attention is Senator Chris Coons. He’s now the senator in Connecticut [sic, Delaware] who took over Biden’s seat. And he’s the one of all of these people who is kind of openly competing for the job, if you will. He’s making very public that he would like the job, and he’s being talked about by a lot of pundits as a likely choice.

He’s a very dangerous choice, in my view. Among other things, he has said that he is terribly troubled by the fact that that China has doubled its diplomatic budget over the last five years. The US, in the meantime, has slashed its diplomatic budget and it continues to escalate its military budget. I don’t know if he thinks it would be better if China escalated its military budget instead. China pays — well, it’s about a third or less than a third, really, of what the US military budget is. And here they are doubling their diplomatic budget. That, to me, says something about China’s view of the importance of diplomacy. I wish the US government would take a lesson from that.

He has also said that there should be a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Instead of saying that we should just end the two authorizations — the one that authorized the Afghanistan war in 2001 and the one in 2002 that authorized the US war in Iraq, which have long since expired in any practical or legal way and should just be gotten rid of — he says, no, they should be replaced by a better one, which would allow US ground troops to be deployed by the president and which would be in place for at least five years. This is a very dangerous development. There are others, but I think that that he would be very problematic.

There’s also the possibility of Tony Blinken, Anthony Blinken, who’s a longstanding adviser to Biden going back to his years in the Senate and his years as vice president. The issue with him, I think, is that he’s more likely to emerge as something like the National Security Advisor, something closer, working very closely with the new president in the White House, in the West Wing. So, I think he’s a little bit less likely for this position, which is across town and they’re out of the country a lot. I think that’s less likely, but it’s certainly a possibility. And again, he’s very much an inside player. There’s no thinking outside the box. So, I don’t know if Tony Blinken is going to emerge as Biden’s choice, but he’s certainly in the mix. I’m troubled by all three of those.

Now, there’s a couple whom I’m less troubled by and who I think would do a good job. They’re not necessarily the person I would choose, but I’m not the president, so I don’t get to choose. But I think one is Senator Chris Murphy, who has been a progressive on US foreign policy. He opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been a consistent opponent, a very strong opponent, of the US support for the Saudi war in Yemen. He has been better than some — it’s a low bar — on Israel/Palestine and is very, very knowledgeable about foreign policy issues in general. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I think he would be a reasonable secretary of state.

The other, who I think would be the best of all of them, is representative Ro Khanna from California, who is significantly younger — he’s a different generation. He’s Indian-American. It would be an extraordinary thing to have a secretary of state, a top diplomat, who is a person of color in this country, a country that is soon to be a majority-minority country. Can’t happen soon enough.

And Ro Khanna has also played an even greater role in trying to stop US support for the war in Yemen. He has helped draft legislation on stopping US military sales to Saudi Arabia and has been far more critical than any of the others on human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. He would be a very interesting pick. He’s very experienced, although he’s relatively young. He’s been in Congress, I think, four terms now [sic, two; just re-elected to a third], but I think he would be an excellent choice.

Paul Jay

Is his name being bandied about at all? 

Phyllis Bennis

It’s been seen in a couple of articles, let’s put it that way. I don’t think it’s got the same level of assumption as the mainstream press that covers these things, whether it’s Politico or The Hill or things like that. But he’s a member of Congress who’s taken very seriously. It would not be seen as a spurious choice. He would be a very serious candidate.

Paul Jay

What about in some of the other key positions? Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor…?

Phyllis Bennis

Yeah, the Secretary of Defense, I’m afraid, is going to be Michèle Flournoy. It will be cheered by some because it would be the first woman in that position. My view is, if it’s a woman who’s got the same position as all the men who went before her, it’s no great gain for women or for anybody else, particularly women around the world who may be at the other end of the weapons.

Paul Jay

What’s her history?

Phyllis Bennis

She has a long history in the Pentagon. In the Obama years, she was the head of policy [i.e., Undersecretary of Defense for Policy]. She was actually the third ranking member of the staff at the Pentagon. She was a very high-ranking official. She hired as one of her top assistants Rosa Brooks, who is an interesting, somewhat progressive intellectual. Very smart; the daughter of Barbara Ehrenreich, interestingly. She was known for trying to redo the balance between diplomatic and military funding. She talked a lot about the need to refund the State Department.

But I think that Michèle Flournoy would play a very traditional role on issues like humanitarian intervention. I think she might have some differences with her predecessors on the global war on terror. She would certainly agree with the idea of at least partial withdrawals of ground troops. But like so many before her, she would support the continuation of what’s being called “the forever wars,” using drones and airstrikes as well as special ops as a major component of what she would do.

The guy that’s been chosen as the at least temporary replacement for the secretary of defense who was just fired comes out of the special forces. He was in the special forces in the military for about twenty years, I think. And that’s clearly his area of specialization in the Pentagon. He was in charge of one of the major sections of special operations. So, he will be putting in place — even though he’ll only be in office for two or three months, a little less than three months — he will be putting in place the privileging of special forces, if you will.

And I think that the work that we’ve seen coming from Michèle Flournoy — when she left the Pentagon during the end of the Obama administration, after the first term, she helped to create the Center for New American Security. Again, a very centrist, very establishment-oriented military think tank. And she spent a lot of time there. She was also appointed to the board of several military corporations. So, she has her own interests in the military production and the profits that come from them.

I think she would be a very traditional secretary of defense. The fact that she’s a woman is a breakthrough for the inclusion of women in high-powered positions. It doesn’t necessarily reflect anything better in the substance of what they would propose.

Paul Jay

Biden, when he wrote an article — or got someone to write it for him, I don’t know — in Foreign Affairs last January, kind of laid out his vision of foreign policy. And one of the things he says is actually a big emphasis on special ops. He wants to bring back all the most, he says, of the ground troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and then focus on the use of special ops. Where are they imagining they’re going to do this?

Phyllis Bennis

Well, I think this is not something new. This was very much a reflection of the Obama strategy in Afghanistan, somewhat in Iraq, and certainly in places like Syria and Libya, where the presence of ground troops was seen as temporary and they could be withdrawn. But the wars somehow continue. The wars are framed around this notion of the global war on terror. And despite the massive agreement — the near-universal agreement — from diplomatic experts, from military experts, from intelligence experts, from all these people that, quote, “there is no military solution to terrorism,” they’re somehow not willing to end the wars that have been the only tool they’ve used against terrorism, despite the fact that it continues to fail. It doesn’t end terror. That ends up being a kind of whack-a-mole: you suppress them there; they pop up here. Because terrorism is not an enemy. It’s a tactic that’s used by people who don’t have B-52s and Abrams tanks. You know, this is something that people do when they’re desperate. And until you deal with the things that make people desperate, you’re not going to be able to end terrorism.

So, I think that it is a problem that Vice President Biden has reiterated that position. He’s reflecting very much the Obama position on what these wars should look like: get the ground troops out. Among other things, that’s popular at home. The wars have become very unpopular. But the reality is that if the wars are not on the front page, people are perfectly willing for them to continue without paying much attention. And they’re only on the front page when Americans get killed. No matter how many Afghan civilians are killed, no matter how many Iraqi civilians, Somali civilians, Libyan, Syrian — all of these civilians — continue to be killed. Not only by the US side, but certainly many of them by the US side. In fact, in Afghanistan in the last two years, the UN has documented that US and US-backed air forces have been responsible for more civilian deaths than the Taliban.

And, of course, we saw this horrific example just I guess, about two weeks ago, again, in Afghanistan, where you had an exposé that the United States was fighting in support of al-Qaida forces who were challenging and fighting against ISIS. So, you’re picking your terrorists. You’re going to make this one your ally so you can go after this one. As soon as that one is suppressed, you’ll go after this one, but then you’ll unite with the other one to go after these guys. You know, it makes no sense because, we repeat, “there is no military solution to terrorism.”

Paul Jay

One of the sources and guiding hands of a lot of that terrorism has been the Saudis. It’s a strategic, tactical tool of theirs to use terrorism in various ways, including threatening the British, threatening the Russians. And, according to Bob Graham, being in on 9/11.

The Biden position of not supporting the Saudi war in Yemen, and if, in fact, they re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, is this a distancing from the Saudis? Is there something strategic going on here?

Phyllis Bennis

It’s hard to say how strategic it is. It certainly is distancing from the Saudis. There has been a move in Congress. There were over a hundred members of Congress, which was a first, who supported a resolution that ultimately failed. But nonetheless, having one hundred members of Congress support a resolution calling for an end to the US arms sales that were being approved? That’s huge. That has not happened before.

There’s been some amazing work done. This is always about social movements far more than about what members of Congress do. Members of Congress do stuff when they have to, when they’re responding to their constituents, to movements on the ground. We have built movements this time around on this question of Yemen, which, of course, the UN has said is the worst humanitarian crisis going on in the world. And that’s up against a lot of competition. That’s a very serious charge to make. And the UN has been saying that now for more than three years.

So, that reality, if it’s true — we know that Biden wrote that in his Foreign Affairs piece — whether he will be bound by it is going to be very much up to how powerful movements can remind him, remind the world of it, remind his voters of it and say we’re not going to let you get away with saying, “Well, that was then; this is now. I wasn’t the president then. I’m the president now, and I have different considerations.” We’ve heard that before. It’s not going to be accepted. So, I think there is a pull-back from Saudi Arabia in the context of Yemen.

One of the things we don’t know yet is what it’s going to mean when we hear Biden say he wants to go back to the Iran nuclear deal and, in fact, he wants a better deal. The last four years of the Trump administration has seen such an incredible punishment of the Iranian people with these crippling sanctions, sanctions that have just devastated the Iranian economy so that for the first time, children are dying from malnutrition in Iran. That has never happened before. Not in large numbers yet, but it will happen. And the ability at the moment of this pandemic to get medical equipment and medicines has been stripped from Iranians who once took that for granted. So, the devastation that these US sanctions have brought to the people of Iran means that if the Iranian government is prepared to come back into negotiations with the US to reopen the Iran nuclear deal, they’re going to want more than what they had before.

Paul Jay

There was a report yesterday that they are calling on Biden to come back into the agreement. Because there was some question whether they’d even want [the US] to [re-enter] the agreement.

Phyllis Bennis

Well, I think there’s no question that they would rather have an agreement that would lead to ending the sanctions, but it’s not going to be so easy for Biden politically to go in quickly. This is not like rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate, where you just go in and announce you’re going back. The Iran nuclear deal still exists because the other five signatories, plus Iran, have stayed within it. But the US can’t just go back and say, “Oh, we’re back now.” You know, we may say, well, it’s a completely different administration, but to Iran and every other country, it’s a countryCountries sign treaties, not one administration, one president — and then another says, no, and the other says, yes.

We have to be aware that it’s going to take some serious negotiation, possibly some new concessions, to get the US back into some version of the Iran nuclear deal. That’s not going to be so easy for Biden because both the anti-Iran sentiment and the actual mobilization — including, of course, Saudi Arabia, but also with Israel at the centerpiece of this region-wide anti-Iran mobilization that Jared Kushner in particular has been the orchestra leader of — is not going to simply disappear when Trump is no longer president and President Biden takes office. It’s going to be a very tricky business to dismantle that and return to diplomacy over war. That’s one of the things that Biden also has said he believes in. Making that real is going to be a significant challenge.

Paul Jay

Trita Parsi had a piece, I think, today saying that Elliott Abrams, the Darth Vader of much of U.S. foreign policy, is actually out on a tour right now, drumming up support for even more sanctions on Iran.

Phyllis Bennis

I think that the understanding is that what Elliott Abrams is going to try to do is to ratchet up the sanctions so much more intensely that it will be that much more difficult for a Biden administration to reduce the sanctions, to end the sanctions, and to go back to a diplomatic route. It’s going to be a move made at the expense of the people of Iran, but it’s also going to make the diplomacy for the future much more difficult. And I think that’s exactly the intention. It’s to make failure a much more likely outcome for the diplomacy of the Biden administration so that the Trump people can point to it and say, “See, they didn’t do it either.” I think that’s going to be a very serious problem.

Paul Jay

Just finally, Biden talks about American leadership, and what he really means is reasserting American leadership. He means competing with China. Even in his climate policy, he’s trying to break the Belt and Road Initiative and offer alternative financing to the countries that are signing on and try to get them to break away from China. I mean, that seems where his real focus is going to be.

Phyllis Bennis

Well, we’ll see. On a certain level, it would be an optimistic improvement if the US competition with China was diplomatic in nature rather than military. What we’ve been looking at has been a very dangerous military escalation in the South China Sea involving the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries that the US is trying to round up into an anti-China coalition, very much like what they’re doing against Iran in the Middle East. The potential for a clash — not even something that was planned or executed at the highest levels, but just something that is the result of the over-arming, the over-militarization of that region — has been very dangerous. So, a challenge to the Belt and Road Initiative or other diplomatic initiatives would actually be a way of ratcheting down the potential military tension.

Paul Jay

Yeah, that’s a good point. Thanks very much for joining us, Phyllis.

Phyllis Bennis

Thank you, Paul. Always a pleasure.

Paul Jay

And thank you for joining us on the Analysis News podcast. Please don’t forget the donate button at the top of the webpage. And now some music.

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