Meet the Biden Administration’s Middle East Policy Makers

Since his inauguration, President Joe Biden has moved to staff his administration despite the fact that Washington was paralyzed from the outset with the historic impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump and efforts to pass a nearly $2 trillion government stimulus package. The president needed to appoint some 4,000 people, about 1,250 of whom require Senate confirmation. Because of other priorities as well as a lengthy stalemate––over how to operate a Senate deadlocked between Democrats and Republicans––that delayed action, many positions requiring confirmation remain vacant. As of March 17, only 20 nominees have been confirmed by the Senate.

Elsewhere, President Biden has been busy filling positions that are subject to presidential appointment but do not require Senate confirmation. Every federal government agency has numerous positions of this kind, but these are most prominent in the White House where the president has broad discretion to pick and choose his team without consulting members of the Senate. Here, President Biden has made laudable progress, having created a competent team—many of whose members are alumni of the Obama Administration—and tasked it with executing domestic and foreign policy. President Biden was particularly eager to stand up his foreign policy team and he installed a number of seasoned policy veterans to oversee issues at the White House National Security Council (NSC). The NSC is a crucial “collective that oversees the execution of the president’s national security priorities” and each administration organizes the council as it sees fit. Accordingly, President Biden swiftly issued a “Memorandum on Renewing the National Security Council System,” outlining which advisors and cabinet officials will sit on the NSC and who will serve on the Principals and Deputies Committees of the body.

As President Biden moves forward with his 100-day agenda and seeks to undo many of the drastic changes initiated under his predecessor that prioritize domestic policies, it is important to explore the officials on whom the president will depend when crafting and executing Middle East policy. The following information reflects what is known about his foreign policy team inside and outside the White House at this time. However, it is in no way an exhaustive list of the hundreds of bureaucrats in Washington who will be tasked with implementing President Biden’s preferred policies.

White House

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (Appointed) – At 44, Jake Sullivan is one of the youngest individuals ever to serve as the president’s top national security hand. After advising lawmakers and presidential campaigns, Sullivan joined the State Department as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff before moving on to serve as deputy assistant to President Obama and the national security advisor (NSA) for then-Vice President Biden. Sullivan appears to have the skills to be a deft manager of the NSC, which is necessary for providing the president, vice president, and cabinet members with the information critical for formulating and executing their policies. Personally, Sullivan was reportedly instrumental in the Obama Administration’s early efforts to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program, so he clearly is interested in diplomacy with Tehran. However, progressives have viewed Sullivan warily in the past for his closeness to former Secretary Clinton, whose foreign policy positions were typically viewed as more hawkish, and for his own past support for aggressive US policies in places like Libya and Syria. Recent history has shown an evolution in Sullivan’s thinking, however, as demonstrated by his signing a 2018 letter denouncing US support for the war in Yemen. Overall, however, some view Sullivan as more hawkish than the president and others in his cabinet, meaning that Sullivan’s influential voice could push for more aggressive posturing toward the Middle East.

National Security Advisor to the Vice President Nancy McEldowney (Appointed) – Vice President Kamala Harris tapped Nancy McEldowney, a long-time diplomat, to serve as her NSA. McEldowney has spent time as deputy chief of mission in Turkey (2005-2008) and she later served as US ambassador to Bulgaria for a stint between 2008 and 2009. After that assignment, she returned to Washington where she served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs from 2009 to 2011. As a career diplomat, McEldowney could elucidate the nuances of diplomacy for the vice president, who has little foreign policy experience but clearly wants to boost her credentials.

Coordinator for Middle East and North Africa at the NSC Brett McGurk (Appointed) – Brett McGurk is a known commodity to many Middle East observers in Washington, as he begins his tenure for the fourth consecutive president. McGurk has held several positions focused on Iraq—including as the point man for the country at both the State Department and NSC—and he also helped craft the US response to the rise of the so-called Islamic State. In this role, he focused on US policy not only in Iraq but also in neighboring Syria, where he has developed a reputation as an ardent supporter of the Kurds, much to the chagrin of the Turkish government. McGurk’s history shows him to be an interventionist who seeks US involvement in conflicts and counterterrorism operations throughout the Middle East. He has advocated for multilateral diplomacy to counter Iran in the region, but he has also applauded Saudi Arabia as a strong national security partner even as he has been critical of Riyadh’s war in Yemen. Ultimately, McGurk is a stalwart of the US national security establishment, so one can expect him to advocate for a traditional US posture in the region, one that includes stationing troops and taking kinetic military action in the name of securing US interests.

Senior Director for Middle East and North Africa at the NSC Barbara Leaf (Appointed) – Ambassador Leaf is an alumna of both Republican and Democratic administrations and has a great deal of experience working on the ground in the region. Most recently, she served as US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Interestingly, Leaf is reportedly under consideration to be Biden’s nominee as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs that oversees US policy in the Middle East. She was critical of many of the Trump Administration’s policies toward regional actors and she has somewhat tempered expectations about Biden’s policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, diplomacy with Iran, and arms sales to states like the UAE.

Other Notable Appointments

  • Jonathan “Jon” Finer – Deputy NSA
  • Ella Lipin – Senior Advisor to the Deputy NSA
  • Philip Gordon – Deputy NSA to the Vice President
  • Julie Sawyer – Director for Israel-Palestine
  • Zehra Bell – Director for Iraq and Syria
  • Josh Harris – Director for North Africa
  • Max Martin – Director for Lebanon and Jordan
  • Evyenia Sidereas – Director for the Arabian Peninsula
  • Sam Parker – Director for Iran
  • C. Evans – Director for Political-Military Affairs and Yemen
  • Maher Bitar – Senior Director for Intelligence Programs
  • Shanthi Kalathil – Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights
  • Mallory Stewart – Senior Director for Arms Control, Disarmament, and Nonproliferation
  • Annie Rohrhoff – Director for Counterterrorism

Department of State

Secretary of State Antony “Tony” Blinken (Confirmed) – Secretary of State Blinken has long been one of President Biden’s top aides, having served then-Senator Biden when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he was also a top advisor during Biden’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2008. Overall, Blinken has served in an array of government roles in the Clinton and Obama Administrations. Blinken and Biden were reunited in 2009 when the former served as Vice President Biden’s NSA. Blinken would then enjoy a stint as President Obama’s Deputy NSA before being confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State in 2014. Blinken has received some support from progressives who were unenthused with the Trump Administration’s disinterest in diplomacy, but he has also garnered a reputation as being reflexively more hawkish. He has reconsidered his support for the US invasions of and interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Syria—although he did also sign the aforementioned letter on Yemen. He has already demonstrated that he views as necessary international laws and institutions that benefit the United States, but he has little time for those that constrain the United States or its allies (e.g., the International Criminal Court). Overall, Blinken is likely to push for a US Middle East policy approach that sees Washington remain engaged without fundamentally altering the status quo.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (Nominated) – Like many of Biden’s choices for senior foreign policy positions, Wendy Sherman has held multiple roles going back to President Bill Clinton’s time in office. Sherman, who enjoys the rank of ambassador, served as advisor to President Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright before becoming Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in 2011. She is considered one of the most dovish foreign policy advisors and has played a critical role in past diplomatic efforts with Iran. However, her experience in negotiating the JCPOA has engendered distrust among Republicans in the Senate and her nomination is among the most vulnerable. It is probable that she will be confirmed but it might well be a close vote that falls roughly along partisan lines. Should she be confirmed, Sherman is expected to be a major proponent of diplomacy over the use of force. However, on the JCPOA specifically, she has made it known that she is supportive of US efforts to rejoin, lengthen, and strengthen the deal.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland (Nominated) – President Biden has tapped Victoria Nuland to serve as the third-ranking official at the State Department, which will inherently place her in a position to help dictate the agency’s Middle East policy. Most of Nuland’s experience has focused on Europe and Eurasia, so it is difficult to gauge her policy preferences regarding the Middle East. It is clear, though, that on issues she is passionate about, she is extremely hawkish, particularly toward Russia. That fact alone could prove problematic if Washington seeks to engage Moscow on issues related to the wars in Syria or Libya. If an internal Biden Administration debate over policy becomes deadlocked, one can expect Nuland to support the more heavy-handed approach.

Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield (Confirmed) – Linda Thomas-Greenfield won confirmation as US ambassador to the United Nations and has already begun serving at UN headquarters. Previously, Thomas-Greenfield held multiple deputy assistant secretary positions at the State Department, and in 2013 she was confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Thomas-Greenfield has stated her desire to fight against what she views as bias against Israel at the international forum, and she has taken steps to renew scrutiny of actors like Syria. Like most US ambassadors who serve at the United Nations, it is likely that she will take actions that support US allies—even problematic ones—while she seeks to pressure those that the United States views as malign actors.

Other Notable Appointments

  • Bonnie Jenkins – Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs (Nominated)
  • Uzra Zeya – Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (Nominated)
  • Jeffrey Prescott – Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations (Nominated)
  • Andrew Miller – Unnamed Role with Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield
  • Salman Ahmed – Director of Policy Planning
  • Hady Amr – Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli-Palestinian Affairs
  • Daniel Benaim – Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs
  • Aimee Cutrona – Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs and Acting Special Representative for Syria Engagement
  • Karen Sasahara (Holdover from Previous Administration) – Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for North Africa 
  • Joseph Pennington (Holdover from Previous Administrations) – Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq
  • Mira Resnick – Deputy Assistant Secretary for Regional Security
  • Timothy Lenderking – Special Envoy for Yemen
  • Robert Malley – Special Envoy for Iran
    • Jarrett Blanc – Although his position is unlisted, reports have stated that Blanc, who played a major role in overseeing the implementation of the JCPOA, has joined Malley’s team.
  • Richard Nephew – Deputy Special Envoy for Iran
  • Ariane Tabatabai – Senior Advisor to Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security
  • Asha Castleberry-Hernandez – Senior Advisor to Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs
  • Alexandra Bell – Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
  • Jeffrey Feltman – Special Envoy for Syria (Reportedly under consideration for appointment)

Department of Defense

Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin III (Confirmed) – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III became the first African American to serve as Pentagon chief when he was confirmed shortly after President Biden’s inauguration. Throughout his military career, Austin has served on the Joint Staff, commanded US troops in Iraq, and most recently, he served as the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US operations in the Middle East and North Africa. Austin has been a vocal advocate of a robust US military presence abroad and during his stint leading troops in Iraq, he opposed the idea of a military drawdown. He also has strong ties to the defense contractor industry that profits significantly when the US military is active around the world. For all of these reasons, it is difficult to see Austin supporting initiatives to withdraw troops from positions in the region—although he has said he will work to draw down troops from Iraq for this administration—or even significantly alter the Pentagon’s broad activities in the Middle East and North Africa.

Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks (Confirmed) – Kathleen Hicks has a long history as a civil servant working at the Department of Defense. During President Obama’s tenure, Hicks served as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Forces, then later transitioned to the role of Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. While none of her stated goals touch on Middle East policy, Hicks is still the second-ranking civilian official in the Pentagon and she will have influence on US policy both at the Department of Defense and as a member of the NSC Deputies Committee.

Under Secretary for Policy Colin Kahl (Nominated) – Dr. Colin Kahl is among the most controversial nominees picked by President Biden to serve as part of his broader foreign policy and national security team. After having worked for a time as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, Kahl left government work and became a fierce critic of Republican foreign and national security policy. His nomination is easily the most vulnerable and, according to a report, Secretary Austin has reached out to key members of the Senate in an effort to salvage Kahl’s confirmation bid. From a policy perspective, Kahl said multiple times during his recent confirmation hearing that he supports President Biden’s efforts to rejoin and strengthen the JCPOA with Iran and to recalibrate US-Saudi relations. In addition, and despite critics’ claims to the contrary, he is an ardent supporter of US-Israel security relations and he takes credit for undertaking the initiative that saw the Pentagon purchase and deploy Israeli Iron Dome technology.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Middle East Dana Stroul (Appointed) – Stroul has many years of experience working on US Middle East policy both inside and outside the government. She was on the staff of the US Embassy in Cairo and later served at the Pentagon, helping to formulate US policy toward the region. She worked for roughly five years as a senior staff member supporting the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, after her departure, she was tapped by Congress to cochair the Syria Study Group. As cochair, she helped compile a report in 2019 that recommended policies that would simply prolong the war there until certain conditions were met. As a scholar at a Washington think tank she authored analyses that argued for greater “soft power” engagement with countries like Lebanon and Iraq, but she also agitated against relaxing sanctions on Iran when the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the country’s sanctions-battered health care system. It is unknown at this time what her priorities are—and, of course, she will have to take her cues from higher-ranking officials in the Biden Administration—but like other Obama-era alumni, she most likely will seek to maintain or increase US engagement in the region in order to support partners and allies and pressure and deter foes.

Generals Mark Milley and Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, Jr. – In addition to civilian leadership, President Biden has indicated that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and Commander of CENTCOM Frank McKenzie are likely to stay on in their roles. Both were elevated to their respective positions during the Trump Administration but, at least early on in this administration, they have not appeared to voice dissent about the president’s policies. Granted, their support for Biden’s policies is understandable if one subscribes to the idea the president’s current policies have not departed far from his predecessor’s, considering that he carried out airstrikes in Syria and has continued with a military show of force in the Arabian Gulf. These two generals will have some room to influence US defense policy in the region; ultimately, they are responsible for executing operations decided by the civilian leadership.

Other Notable Appointments

  • Richard Johnson – Deputy Assistant Secretary for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction
  • Brian Katz – Special Assistant to Under Secretary for Intelligence
  • Carrie Gay – Special Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Stability and Humanitarian Affairs 
  • Mara Karlin – Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs
  • Christopher Maier – Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Operations

While the White House and the National Security Council, as well as the Departments of State and Defense, are most visible in conducting US foreign policy, there are other actors throughout the new administration who will have varying degrees of influence on Biden’s policy in the Middle East. The secretaries of the Treasury and of Energy will oversee sanctions and energy policies, respectively, that will likely affect states in the region. The following personnel will also be involved in executing aspects of US policy related to economic development, immigration and refugees, and intelligence, meaning that they, too, will have influence over how the United States interacts with both the governments and the people of the region.

Other Important Positions

  • Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm (Confirmed)
  • Deputy Secretary of Energy David Turk (Nominated)
  • Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for International Affairs Andrew Light (Appointed)
  • Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen (Confirmed)
  • Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas (Confirmed)
  • Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines (Confirmed)
  • Administrator of USAID Samantha Power (Nominated)
  • Director of the Central Intelligence Agency William “Bill” Burns (Nominated)
  • Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency David Cohen (Nominated)

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here