The day before President-elect Joe Biden was inaugurated, four of his senior cabinet members in the National Security Cabinet faced the Senate for a confirmation hearing.
Avril Haines addressed the Intelligence Committee to become the next director of the National Intelligence Service. Alejandro Mayorkas answered questions from members of the Homeland Security Committee to run the Department of Homeland Security. Antony Blinken addressed requests from the Committee on Foreign Relations to be the next Secretary of State. And Lloyd Austin faced the Armed Forces Committee to run the Department of Defense.
(Janet Yellen's Treasury Secretary hearing was also held Tuesday, but a good part of it was focused on the US economy and its recovery – although she said the US is ready to tackle China's abusive trade practices.)
As expected, each candidate defended Biden's overall view of the world and did nothing to derail his affirmations. This is good news for the new president as he is likely to deploy key members of his foreign policy and national security team.
Even so, each of Biden's picks caused a stir in its own way.
Haines said the US re-joining the Iranian nuclear deal was "far away" and promised to release an intelligence report on the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi – two statements that could affect Biden's Middle East policy. Mayorkas made it clear that the new administration would not immediately reverse Trump's immigration policy.
Blinken spoke generally about the need for US involvement abroad – also to control China. And Austin said he wanted to see an end to the war in Afghanistan, but left the door open for a longer campaign in the country. He also made sure he supported civilian control of the military, as he only retired as a general in the army five years ago.
Much has been said and promised, but if you haven't gotten through the hours of hearings yourself, don't worry. We have you covered. Here are the main takeaways.
Haines may have complicated Biden's Iran and Saudi Arabia policies
When the person was selected to head all 18 US intelligence agencies, Haines received questions from senators on subjects ranging from China to the politicization of the intelligence agency to the CIA's previous use of torture.
But it was Haines' answers to questions on key Middle Eastern issues that stood out the most during the candidate's two-and-a-half hour hearing.
When asked by Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) for her views on the re-entry into the Iranian nuclear deal, Haines Biden's position reiterated that he would re-include the US in the deal as long as Tehran respects its terms.
Many Democrats want this to happen as soon as possible, and many Republicans want to delay that outcome. But when Haines elaborated, it was certainly the Republicans who were more pleased with their comments.
"I think, honestly, we are far from that," she said, pointing out that Biden may not push for a quick re-entry into the deal. She also said Biden and his team "must also investigate the ballistic missile problems" and other "destabilizing activities" of Iran before re-joining the nuclear deal.
Iran is improving its missile arsenal, which threatens US allies in Europe and the Middle East, and one of the main criticisms of the Iran deal has been that it has done nothing to curb this development. It appears that Haines makes it clear that the Biden government has taken these concerns to heart – which means that the sustainability of the Iranian nuclear deal is not guaranteed.
Later in the hearing, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Haines if she would release intelligence on the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident. The US intelligence community reportedly concluded that Khashoggi was assassinated in Turkey under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's crown prince and de facto leader.
This was an uncomfortable fact for the Trump administration, which sought close ties with Riyadh, partly because Saudi Arabia is Iran's main regional rival, and partly because the kingdom likes to buy US arms. As a result, the Trump team refused to downgrade the intelligence report, despite cross-party pressure.
However, Haines made it clear that politics would soon change. "Yes, Senator," she replied after Wyden asked if she would take the report to Congress. This is a big deal, and Washington-Riyadh relations could be disrupted, especially if the document openly exposes the Crown Prince as the ultimate culprit.
That might be okay with Biden, however, as he has already said he doesn't want to partner with Saudi Arabia as closely as the Trump administration.
Biden's candidate for National Intelligence, Avril Haines, says if confirmed, she will submit an unclassified report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to Congress. pic.twitter.com/ocPUsJUeti
– NBC News (@NBCNews) January 19, 2021
Much of the rest of the Haines testimony was routine and probably won't be a headache for the incoming team. But Iran and Khashoggi's statements could potentially come back to persecute Haines – and even Biden.
Mayorkas urged patience as Biden undone Trump's legacy at the border
Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden's candidate for the DHS secretariat, tried Tuesday to meet expectations of how quickly the new administration can deviate from Trump's restrictive immigration policy on the southern border.
He made it clear that while Biden recognizes the need to renew America's commitment to providing asylum and humanitarian protection to all who qualify under the law, his administration will not be able to do so from day one to do.
"That can't be done with the push of a button," Mayorkas told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. "It will take some time to build the infrastructure and capacity so that we can enforce our laws as Congress intended."
This means that migrants subject to Trump's migrant protection protocols who have been waiting for months in Mexico to apply for asylum in the US, as well as a caravan of migrants from Honduras currently on their way to the border, may not receive immediate relief.
Mayorkas said they will need to be screened individually – a time-consuming endeavor that could be sped up if Biden brings humanitarian resources, including asylum officials, to the border as he promised on the campaign.
Mayorkas also highlighted the long-term challenge of addressing the factors driving Central American migrants to flee their home countries and reiterated Biden's call for a regional approach to migration. As Vice President, Biden worked with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to develop a $ 750 million program to improve economic development and curb violence and corruption in the region. However, the Trump administration stopped these efforts.
“If loving parents are willing to send their young child to Mexico alone to reach the dangerous southern border … because of the acute violence and severe poverty and fear of persecution, I think we need to consider the push factor address the greatest challenge for irregular migration, ”said Mayorkas.
However, that does not mean that he intends to reduce immigration enforcement closer to where he lives. He said he would not abolish US Immigration and Customs Services (ICE) or US Customs and Border Protection, as some immigrant advocates have called for, arguing that the authorities have "a critical role" in the federal government play.
Immigrant advocates have spoken out against ICE since its inception, arguing that it criminalizes and wrongly attacks color communities. Trump significantly increased the agency's resources to enforce his tough immigration policies, particularly the segregation of immigrant families that began in 2018.
Mayorkas said he would not disappoint ICE and even left open the possibility of further increasing the agency's resources.
Those pledges, however, weren't enough for Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), who announced Tuesday that he would object to a quick vote on Mayorka's confirmation as he had not given sufficient assurances to secure the border .
Hawley's objection will likely delay, but not fail, Mayorka's confirmation, leaving Biden without a critical cabinet official after assuming the presidency.
In addition to overseeing immigration services, Mayorkas was to lead the DHS's response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the growing threat of domestic terrorism following the recent violent uprising in the U.S. Capitol.
Tony Blinken managed to reassure both Republicans and progressives. (He also made some news!)
Blinken's confirmation hearing from the Secretary of State covered nearly every foreign policy challenge facing the US, from Afghanistan to Russia to Venezuela. On the bigger picture, Blinken reiterated the Biden administration's commitment to rebuilding and diversifying the US diplomatic corps and expressed the need for US leadership and commitment.
"The reality is that the world is not organizing itself," said Blinken. "If we're not engaged, if we're not leading, one of two things happens: either another country is trying to take our place, but probably not in a way that promotes our interests or values." Or nobody does and then you get chaos. Either way, it doesn't serve the American people. "
Blinken also said he wanted to restore the role of Congress in US foreign policy, which reflected what Blinken identified as the need to get the American people involved in government foreign policy decisions.
Biden's sec. Priorities of the state candidate blinking:
• "Revitalize the State Department … (recruit) to look like the country we represent."
• "Revitalizing American Diplomacy … We Will Resurface"
• "We need to restore the traditional role of Congress" in foreign policy pic.twitter.com/7OL8daungN
– NBC News (@NBCNews) January 19, 2021
China naturally faced a major challenge. Blinken attempted to reassure lawmakers – Republicans in particular – that the Biden government had clear eyes on the threat China posed. "If we look at China, there is no doubt that it is the United States’s greatest nation-state challenge in terms of our interests and the interests of the American people," said Blinken.
Blinken said the US must approach China from a position of "strength, not weakness," which Blinken said has required the US to work with allies, participate in international institutions and advocate US values, such as condemning Beijing's policy towards the US Uyghurs and Hong Kong. (Blinken also said he supported the State Department's designation that China had committed genocide against the Uyghurs today.
Biden has long said that fighting China would be his top foreign policy priority as president, despite Trump and Republicans trying to portray Biden as far weaker in Beijing. Blinken reiterated Biden's tougher stance on Republican lawmakers on the committee, offering the Trump administration just enough credit for things like the normalization agreement with Israel known as the Abraham Accords – though toned down to be sure – that he likely got the bipartisan support for it it doesn't necessarily need it, but it's always good to have.
However, Blinken may also have managed to reassure the progressives by responding to a question from Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) that the Biden government plans to increase US support for the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen to end.
Saudi Arabia's (and that of the UAE) military The intervention in Yemen has exacerbated the conflict and the humanitarian catastrophe there. Blinken told lawmakers it believed the US should continue protecting Saudi Arabia from aggression; However, he said the Biden administration will review the relationship to ensure it is in line with US interests and values.
Many Republicans kept trying to urge Blinken in order not to reverse the Trump administration's policies, while pushing Blinken on what GOP lawmakers viewed as failures of the Obama administration, such as the Iran deal and the intervention of Libya.
The Democrats wanted to hear Blinken commit to reinvesting in diplomacy, including staying out of the State Department in politics, working with allies and partners, and advocating for human rights. Good or bad, hearing Blinken was a reminder that bipartisanism in foreign policy is just a little easier than in other policy areas.
What the biggest takeaway from Blinken's hearing is that the Biden administration wants to try to be a good partner overseas, and they believe that just "showing up" and "being in the room," as Blinken puts it, is a good start .
Indeed, Blinken provided a hopeful example of this, telling lawmakers that Biden intended to join the Covax Facility, the World Health Organization's initiative to help deliver the Covid-19 vaccine to countries around the world and distribute fairly. China has joined along with 170 other countries, with the US and Russia being the main outliers. This was the first confirmation from a senior Biden official that the new US administration would join the program.
"We are committed to ensuring that the vaccine is distributed properly and fairly, to the best of our ability," Blinken said, adding that the Biden government firmly believes it can "ensure that every American gets the vaccine, however." also helps. " Make sure others around the world who wish have access. "
Austin wants the war in Afghanistan to end but has not committed to a quick fix
Many expected that the Lloyd Austin confirmation hearing would mainly focus on his need to waive a waiver as Secretary of Defense. He retired from the Army as a four-star general in 2016, and current law does not allow anyone who has left the military in the past seven years to serve as Secretary of Defense.
Austin asked questions on the matter, arguing that he should be waived the next Pentagon chief. However, the most momentous part of the Austin hearing was what he said about the 19 Years War in Afghanistan – specifically the fact that he did not demand that it end quickly.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked the Defense Minister-designate how to end the war. He said the war "must end and we must reach an agreement" between the Afghan government and the Taliban. However, he concluded by saying: "In the future we want to see an Afghanistan that does not pose a threat to America."
This is key: if Afghanistan still has terrorist groups that want to harm Americans – like al-Qaeda or ISIS – Austin may not see the country as stable enough to leave. If it does, the 2,500 or so US troops still in the country may not be able to get home anytime soon.
Of course, Austin doesn't set any guidelines. Biden does. Biden said he intended to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by the end of his first term. Until then, they will be conducting a counterterrorism mission, which basically means hunting down and capturing or killing terrorist targets in and around the country. In the meantime, the US hopes to get Kabul and the Taliban to sign a comprehensive peace deal.
Austin is expected to provide military advice, however, and a Secretary of Defense's opinion historically weighs heavily on a president. If Austin believes there are still too many threats from Afghanistan, he could tell Biden that pulling US troops from there is a bad idea. That would then mean America's longest war would continue.
He later told Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) that, if confirmed, he plans to go to Afghanistan himself to see what the US and the international coalition it leads may ask. It is possible that after going through the process, he will decide that the US needs more than the troops it has there now and that the current military leadership says that is enough to get the job done.
This is why Austin's comment – offered almost on the side – is so important. If this is confirmed, he will be the main adviser to the president overseeing the war. His views on when the US can deeply leave the matter, and right now it doesn't look like he's ready to say "let's get out".
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