As Joe Biden kicks his presidential campaign against Donald Trump into high gear, concern is growing inside the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that the foreign policy and political outreach teams he has assembled don’t come close to reflecting the change—and reduced military spending—they hope to see after the November election.
The unrest is building as Senator Bernie Sanders, whom many of the dissidents supported, is privately expressing doubts about the direction of the Biden campaign and asking the former vice president to reach out more to the left. But Sanders has said little about foreign policy or national security since Biden secured the nomination, leaving the floor to rank-and-file Democratic activists.
They are particularly concerned about the influence of people like Antony Blinken, the chief foreign policy adviser to the Biden campaign. He was Biden’s top aide when he voted in 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“We don’t want the same people who took us to war in Iraq to be the stewards of our foreign policy,” says Marcy Winograd, a longtime anti-war activist in Santa Barbara, who was elected as a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention in August, in an interview. “Why would Biden want these people advising him? You’d think he’d want to keep as much distance as possible between himself and people who steered him in the wrong direction in the past.”
Voices like hers are a sizable presence within the party. During the online convention, over 400 delegates signed an open letter to Biden asking him to “hire new foreign policy advisors” and ensure they “have a track record for advocating and implementing diplomatic solutions rather than disastrous military interventions involving invasions, occupations, torture and drone attacks.”
Meanwhile, a group of Muslim Americans, many of them Sanders supporters, have been critical of Farooq Mitha, a former Pentagon official who is Biden’s senior adviser on Muslim American engagement. His high-profile presence in the campaign, along with other former defense officials, has split the Muslim community and detracts from the need to siphon the military budget into technologies needed to fight climate change, said Nadia Ahmad, a Sanders supporter from Florida. “That’s our top national security challenge,” Ahmad, an environmental law professor in Orlando, told The Nation. Mitha declined to comment.
In addition to Blinken, Democratic activists have focused on Michèle Flournoy, a former Pentagon official and military investor reportedly slated to become secretary of defense; and Avril Haines, the former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who will lead the foreign policy side of Biden’s transition team if he wins. She crafted President Obama’s policies on drone warfare as well as the administration’s tough approach to North Korea, which Biden has promised to revive.
Blinken and the Biden team have not responded to the criticism. But in the past, Blinken has characterized the 2002 resolution on Iraq as “a vote for tough diplomacy,” while Biden has said his “mistake” on the Iraq War was to assume President Bush “would use the authority we gave him properly.” (Blinken did not return e-mails seeking comment.)
But policies are not the only issue: Biden’s critics have also focused on the ties of his advisers to the military-industrial complex, which run deep.
After leaving government, Blinken and Flournoy created WestExec Advisors, a “strategic advisory firm” that works closely with military contractors and was modeled after the high-powered consultancy pioneered by Henry Kissinger during the Cold War, according to a recent profile in The American Prospect. Its influence within the Democratic Party is significant.
Flournoy, who also sits on the board of directors of intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, was an adviser to vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, as was WestExec principal Matt Olsen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center under Obama. Haines, the former CIA official heading the transition team, is also a principal with WestExec.
Winograd, a retired teacher who ran for Congress three times in Los Angeles, including twice against former Democratic representative Jane Harman, is leading the effort to pressure Biden not to appoint Flournoy. Her potential nomination to the Pentagon was endorsed earlier this month by conservative columnist George Will.
In communications with Democrats, Winograd has pointed in particular to Flournoy’s role as cofounder of the Center for a New American Security, which during the Obama years became a champion of the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan. Under Flournoy, CNAS also became one of the most hawkish voices on confronting China. (In June, Flournoy suggested in Foreign Affairs that the United States should have “the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours” as a way to deter Chinese leaders from aggressive military action.)
“This is a woman who is a war profiteer, is well-invested in militarism, and will expand the military rather than de-escalate on the world stage,” says Winograd. “Flournoy’s a dangerous person and should not be considered as a secretary of defense.”
The conservative tilt to Biden’s foreign policy team was also the driving force behind the Muslim Delegates and Allies Coalition, a new group that “aims to ensure a broad consultation and coordination with the Muslim constituencies across the United States.” Several of its members have led the attacks on Mitha, the Biden adviser, whose role in the campaign has opened a schism within the Muslim community of Democratic voters.
Mitha is one of the cofounders of Emgage USA, the nation’s largest Muslim outreach group, which endorsed Sanders during the primary but later threw its support to Biden. In July, the former vice president addressed the group in a “Million Muslim Votes Summit” held online. Although Mitha has severed his formal connection with Emgage, he still retains close ties to the organization through his family, The Electronic Intifada reported on September 9.
Tensions about Mitha and Emgage came to a head in August after Biden campaign officials disavowed statements made by Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour in favor of the BDS movement, which supports boycotting, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel. That prompted a heated meeting between Muslim and Palestinian leaders, including Mitha and members of Emgage, and Blinken. That meeting left some participants fuming because Blinken, while expressing “regret,” did not offer an apology, according to Ahmad, the Sanders supporter from Florida, who was on the call.
On Tuesday, Ahmad and other members of the Muslim Delegates group released an “open letter to Muslim leaders” asking them to “drop Emgage” and requesting the Biden campaign to remove Mitha from his position with the campaign. As part of their case, they charged that Mitha and another Emgage leader “sought to obtain concessions in the form of more appointments in the Biden campaign and/or transition team in lieu of a public apology. Such an apology was the specific demand of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim American leaders and activists.”
Over 100 Muslim community leaders and activists signed the letter, including Palestinian activists, Sanders supporters, academics, and members of the Democratic Socialists of America. They charged that Mitha and other “high-ranking” Emgage officials and board members have “worked in lockstep” with AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, which they said “engages in deep Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian activity.” The letter also cited Mitha’s work “at the Pentagon during the Obama administration, helping to normalize ties between Israel and Arab nations under the banner of ‘Track II diplomacy.’”
Wa’el Alzayat, the CEO of Emgage, released a statement to The Nation taking strong issue with the letter. While he didn’t respond directly to the volatile charge about AIPAC, Alzayat said that Emgage is “deeply focused on turning out Muslim American Voters.”
That work, he said, “has been, and will be, essential to taking back the White House in 2020. And to say otherwise undermines the efforts of organizers and activists that are part of our Million Muslim Votes campaign.” He added that Emgage “has played critical roles electing Muslim Americans to public office,” including raising funds to support Representative Rashida Tlaib’s recent re-election campaign, who has praised Emgage as “incredibly important.”
Ahmad, who has been active in getting out the vote for Biden in Florida, told The Nation that the criticism of Mitha and Emgage reflects a desire on the part of progressive Muslim Americans to energize voters concerned about the impact of militarism and climate change on their states and communities.
“There needs to be people at the top of the Biden campaign who understand the nuances and concerns of our community instead of being identified with special-interest lobbying groups, especially if they’re working for military contractors or worked at the Pentagon,” she said.
While praising Biden’s pledge to “build back better” by investing $2 trillion in US infrastructure, Ahmad, who has published widely on climate change, told The Nation that much higher amounts—of $8-10 trillion—are needed. “I see a decrease in our military spending as critical to survival of the country and the planet,” she said. If Biden is serious about tackling climate change, he would hire a “cadre of activists for environmental justice. Bernie supporters feel betrayed in a lot of ways.”
Could Biden follow her lead? Possibly: Over the weekend, as fires ravaged California and Oregon, he tweeted, “The science is clear, and deadly signs like the fires out West are unmistakable—climate change poses an existential threat to our way of life.”
But any chance that Biden might significantly decrease military spending was considerably dampened in an interview he gave to Stars and Stripes. “I don’t think [defense budget cuts] are inevitable, but we need priorities in the budget,” Biden told the military newspaper. “I’ve met with a number of my advisors and some have suggested in certain areas the budget is going to have to be increased.”