WASHINGTON – In moments of great peril and uncertainty, the question of who actually runs Washington – who they are, what they think, what they know, what they think they know – takes on even more importance than it might under normal circumstances.
In this, the first in a three-part series, Asia Times will examine the current power dynamics that shape the Biden White House and his national security team.
Needless to say, the most important players in Washington are, as one might expect, the ones closest to the President, even if, for the most part, they remain unknown by the public at large: Who are the players, and why does it matter?
The second and third installments, which will follow in the coming weeks, will seek to examine how the war in Ukraine has shaped the foreign policy debate inside the two major US political parties.
Is it the case, as I wrote in Asia Times four months before the commencement of hostilities in Ukraine on February 24, that realism was, by fits and starts, becoming a force to be reckoned with in policy circles? Or has the war only strengthened what is known as the foreign policy “Blob” that has dominated Washington policy debates since the end of the Cold War?
We begin, as any Washington account must, with a look at Washington’s center of gravity: the White House.
A longtime Democratic operative told me the Biden White House works in a way that is eerily similar to the way the Ronald Reagan administration worked during its first term. Back then, a chief executive of questionable sentience relied on a small cast of political operatives to run the day-to-day operations of the White House.
During Reagan’s first term, that job fell to what was called “the Troika”, which consisted of chief of staff James Baker, counselor to the president Ed Meese and deputy chief of staff Mike Deaver.
Nominally, Meese was in charge of policy, and Deaver was the image-maker and liaison with the First Lady. According to The Man Who Ran Washington, a recent biography of Baker, he was “in charge of the paper, the schedule, the hiring and firing, the press and legislative affairs offices – in other words, the parts of a White House that really shaped a presidency.”
So, if Reagan’s first term was dominated by the Troika, the White House of Joe Biden, an ardent Catholic, might be said to be dominated by three Cardinals: White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, counselor to the president Steve Ricchetti and deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed.
The division of labor runs along similar lines as it did under Reagan. Ron Klain, a longtime denizen of “Biden World” and a sharp bureaucratic infighter, is White House chief of staff and therefore, like Baker, first among equals.
Klain, despite a career littered with high-profile failures, including overseeing the 2000 Florida recount for the Gore campaign, has had an unerring ability to make himself in demand.
Despite no background in medicine or public health, the career political operative was selected by President Barack Obama to serve as his “Ebola Czar” in 2015.
Klain also has a reputation in Washington for not knowing what he does not know, a perhaps common trait among those who inhabit the top tier of political operatives and publicists who run Washington.
Joining Klain at the top of the White House organizational chart is long-time Biden consigliere Steve Ricchetti, a veteran of the DC revolving door, including a controversial stint as a health care industry lobbyist.
Ricchetti handles White House relations with Capitol Hill. Such is his pull inside the Oval Office that three of his own children have been appointed to positions inside the administration, including his son J J Richetti, who serves as special assistant in the Office of Legislative Affairs at the Treasury.
Of the three, Bruce Reed is said to be the in-house policy wonk. No friend of progressive politics, Reed came up through the ranks as a centrist policy adviser to Senator Al Gore in the 1980s then as domestic policy advisor to President Bill Clinton.
Working closely with the Cardinals is Anita Dunn, who recently returned to the White House after a brief break. Dunn works on messaging along with senior advisor to the president Mike Donilon, brother of Obama’s national security adviser Tom Donilon, who also handles polling, messaging and strategy.
Just slightly down the White House food chain, economic and foreign policy are handled by what is said to be a collegial tandem of two young Obama administration alumni: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and the Director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese.
What these top players all have in common is that they are company men with ties to the Democratic establishment going back years if not decades. They represent, in their careers and outlook, the mainstream of the Democratic Party; hawkish on foreign policy, moderate on domestic policy and sensitive to the concerns of corporate America, they are wedded to old ideas and ways of doing business that go back to the Clinton administration.
Not so secure NSC
Much attention in recent weeks has been paid to the trials and tribulations of Biden’s struggling Vice President, Kamala Harris. Yet missing from the coverage is the fact that Harris, for all her bumbling, has built a strong foreign policy team around her.
At her side, hiding in plain sight, is one of the most competent foreign policy practitioners in Washington, Philip Gordon, Harris’ national security advisor. Gordon, like many in the Biden administration, came to prominence under Obama where he served as assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs and then, later, as the point man for Middle East policy on the NSC.
Quietly competent, Gordon also displayed that rarest of qualities among Washington establishmentarians, courage, when he wrote in his 2020 book Losing The Long Game that US attempts at regime change in the Middle East have resulted in “no case of clear success, some catastrophic failures, and universally high costs and unintended consequences.”
Gordon is a mentor to another young up-and-comer on the Biden NSC, the Senior Director for Europe, Amanda Sloat, another alumnus of the Obama-era State Department. Should Sullivan get tied up in special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the Clinton campaign’s dirty tricks campaign involving false accusations of links between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives at Alfa Bank, Gordon could be tapped to run the NSC.
Personnel decisions made further down the What House food chain also provide a window into the administration’s foreign policy approach.
It was recently announced that Biden will appoint career diplomat Bridget Brink as US ambassador to Ukraine. Brink has been described to me as a longtime “protege of Toria Nuland” – in other words, a company woman who will not deviate from the hardline Russo-phobic consensus that Nuland, the current undersecretary of state for political affairs, and her mentor, Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, have imposed on the State Department bureaucracy for much of the past 30 years.
Another more influential, yet less remarked upon Biden national security appointment, is that of Thomas Wright, who just joined Biden’s NSC as director for strategy.
The previous incumbent, Alex Bick, gained attention as the prime mover of the administration’s so-called Tiger Team, a core group of national security and military officials put together to analyze Russia in response to its late 2021 military build-up around Ukraine.
Wright is a longtime expert on transatlantic relations who headed the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. As it happens, Wright succeeded the now-famous Fiona Hill when she left to subvert the Trump administration’s Russia policy as senior director for Russia on the NSC under then-national security advisor HR McMaster.
Wright has denied the existence of the DC foreign policy Blob, telling the New York Times last September, “My impression is that people who talk about the Blob have not read or inquired into what the people in the think tanks have actually said about the topic. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
The irony of America’s current predicament is that Biden’s cast of utterly conventional, decidedly buttoned-down establishmentarians who brook no deviation from the bipartisan foreign policy orthodoxy of the post-Cold War era are the very opposite of the sort who are needed to find an off-ramp from this, the most perilous moment of East-West confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Still worse, there seems to be a growing connection between the “win at all costs” rhetoric now coming from the White House and the material reality of the American commitment to providing whatever Ukraine says it needs to win.
Given their collective outlooks, one wonders whether the wondrously well-credentialed and richly experienced Biden team even is minimally able to recognize just how dangerous a game they have embarked upon in Eastern Europe?