From The New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today, I'm pleased to announce nominations and staff for critical foreign policy, national security positions in my administration today.
It's a team that reflects the fact that America is back ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.
Part two of our look at the cabinet of President elect Joe Biden.
As secretary of state, I nominate Tony Blinken, David Sanger on Biden's nominee for secretary of state.
I've seen him in action. Tony is ready on day one.
And what kind of foreign policy is possible after four years of American isolationism? It's Wednesday, December 2nd. David, I want to start by asking you the same question I asked our colleague Gina, smiling about Joe Biden's selection of his treasury secretary. And of course, we're going to be talking about his choice of secretary of state.
How important is the role of the secretary of state going to be, do you think, in this incoming administration?
Well, historically and constitutionally, Michael, the secretary of state's always been the most important cabinet post after the president and the vice president and the first cabinet member who's in line for the presidency. But it's particularly critical right now because Joe Biden is going to be consumed in his first six months by covid-19, by domestic imperatives. And yet the world's given up for dead. And so the secretary of state is going to have to show that America is back, that America cares about allies and that America is ready to lead.
And the secretary of state is the chief spokesperson for the president around the world and of course, has to be somebody who the rest of the world thinks really is in sync with the president, somebody who the rest of the world believes literally speaks word for word for the president.
The most powerful secretaries of state in recent times have been those who no one doubted had a relationship with the president. That was so close that when the secretary spoke, it was like the president speaking. And Joe Biden has picked in, Tony Blinken, somebody who has been with him for 20 years, who can finish his sentences, who Biden once said could do any job in his administration. And they will know that when Blinken speaks, they might as well be listening to Biden.
So I want to get to this extremely close relationship between Biden and Lincoln. But I want to start with the back story of Tony Blinken. He's not a household name like the secretaries of state that you just mentioned.
And I wonder where his story starts, Mr. President elect as president. Chris, thank you for your trust and your confidence.
He's not a household name, though. He's known well in Washington in foreign policy circles, but he's got this very rich backstory for my family.
As for so many generations of Americans, America has literally been the last, best hope on Earth.
And actually, Lincoln told a little bit of the story when President elect Biden formally announced his nomination as secretary of state.
My grandfather, Boris Glinka, fled pogroms in Russia and made a new life in America. His son, my father, Donald Lincoln, served in the United States Air Force during World War Two.
And then as a United States ambassador born in New York, parents divorced when he was about eight years old.
And he moved to Paris, where his new stepfather is very well known lawyer and my late stepfather, Samuel Fiza, but had been a survivor of concentration camps.
He was one of 900 children in his school in Bialystock, Poland, but the only one to survive the Holocaust after four years in concentration camps.
He was a Jewish kid whose entire town had been swept up by the Nazis.
At the end of the war, he made a break from a death march into the woods in Bavaria. From his hiding place, he heard a deep rumbling sound. It was a tank. But instead of the iron cross he saw painted on its side a five pointed white star, he ran to the tank. The hatch opened. An African-American guy looked down at him. He got down on his knees and said the only three words that he knew in English that his mother taught him before the war.
God bless America and is really an amazing Holocaust survival story, but he told BLENKIN the stories of his survival from the camps and it deeply affected the way Blinken viewed the world.
That's who we are. That's what America represents to the world.
However imperfectly to what I think that story did for Blinken was cement his view that the United States has a singular role in the world, defending freedoms, defending human rights, a country that sometimes needs to intervene to guarantee the rights of others. And that really keeps showing up after he launched his career in diplomacy.
Well, tell me about that career. Well, he left Paris, went to Harvard, dabbled in journalism and filmmaking for a while, but eventually decided that what he really wanted to do was be a diplomat. He's fascinated by diplomacy.
What makes the world tick goes in to the State Department young. But his really formative period of time is ending up as a young staffer in Bill Clinton's National Security Council. And I think the story of Lincoln's career has sort of been pushing up against that instinct that shows up so often in American history that the United States really should stay out of things more than get involved. And, you know, nowhere was that conflict clearer than in 1994.
More than a hundred thousand are trying to escape Rwanda's capital, trying to escape this terrifying killing field.
Tribal massacres continue in the Central African nation of Rwanda.
In one of the latest, hundreds of refugees were pulled out of a former U.N. compound and slaughtered by government troops with grenades.
Machine guns and machetes were exposed to death every day of night when Bill Clinton hesitated about sending American troops into Rwanda to stop a genocide.
Our aim is to move food, medicine and other supplies to those in need as quickly as possible. And later on, Clinton said that that was the biggest regret of his presidency. Where if we'd gone in sooner, I think. I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost. Remember, they died in a hurry. But I think it was also a very critical moment for Lincoln because he recognized that while there's a significant cost when the United States gets overstretched, what we used to call imperial overstretch, there's also a cost when the U.S. pulls back and people die.
Right. In this case, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi Rwandans were murdered in a genocide.
That's right. And there are many who came out of the Clinton administration thinking that with a relatively small showing of force, the United States might have saved those people, although that would have been an action that wasn't a vital American national interest.
Right. Instead, it is a humanitarian interest. Right.
But it sounds like as the stepchild of a Holocaust survivor, Blinken leads unmistakably toward intervention in a case like that. I'd say that Lincoln shows more streaks of interventionism than many in his political party and even many of his colleagues, but you can see this really comes from his heart.
No, no, Grover, it's not the UN building. It's the U.N. building.
You hear it when he talks about why the United States needs to care about refugees.
And one of the issues we're going to talk about is something really important to refugees.
He even had a moment where he was explaining that to Grover on Sesame Street.
These are people who had to leave their homes because life in their countries was not safe for them. Grover, can you imagine how difficult it would be to have to leave your home?
No, I cannot. I would never want to leave Sesame Street. I cannot imagine leaving my apartment or or my pet turtle Rufus behind.
And so eventually, of course, Blinken links up with Joe Biden. When is that and what are the circumstances?
Well, about 20 years ago, he ends up on Biden's foreign relations staff and quickly becomes Biden sort of chief national security adviser. And Biden, you have to remember, spent 17 years either as the chairman or the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, flying around the world, meeting world leaders, convincing himself that much of diplomacy is all about personal relationships. And when you look at the photos of those meetings, it was always Blinken who was standing just off to the side there as Biden strategist.
And how did Lincoln's views, his inclination towards intervention? How does that line up with Biden's during this period when they're working together?
Well, this is one of the more curious things about the relationship between Lincoln and Biden, because it's very close. Biden deeply respects Lincoln's views. He's the first one he goes and turns to for his opinion on these things. But frequently their instincts are different. Let me give you a few examples. When Biden becomes vice president and Lincoln is his national security adviser. The first issue they had to go tackle in the Obama administration was should the U.S. pull its forces out of Afghanistan?
And while the commander in Afghanistan was calling for a force of over one hundred thousand and Hillary Clinton was debating about 50 or 60 thousand, Biden was taking the view that, no, the US should be down to just a very small crew of counterterrorism operators, that we couldn't get anything done there.
And Blinken actually sort of more sided with the Hillary view of the world.
What's interesting is that that view won the immediate day and Obama ended up doing a surge of forces. But Biden in the end, kind of won the war because now everyone from Donald Trump to Joe Biden is of the view that the U.S. should keep a pretty minimal force in Afghanistan. That's what Trump did. And I suspect that's what you'll see Biden do as well.
But importantly, in that story you just told, Blinken was not on the same page as Biden and it seems found a way to vocalize that he was pushing for a greater level of troops in Afghanistan.
That's right. And, you know, it happened a second time then. On the question of whether the United States should intervene in Libya to drive out Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, this was at a moment when there was an uprising in Libya. Gadhafi was on the run. The Europeans wanted to go in and help the rebels by bombing them. Obama was very cautious. Clinton wanted to go join the Europeans in this effort.
Joe Biden thought that this was a bad idea. Lincoln thought it was a good idea. And of course, in the end, Gadhafi was driven from power. He was on the run for months. Eventually, some local rebels pulled him out of a ditch and shot him. But you could also argue that Biden's caution was understandable because Libya has been a mess ever since. But here again, Blinken disagrees with Biden, but this time Lincoln's view does win out in Libya.
That's right. And a dictator was ousted, although I wouldn't say that the United States or anyone else had a strategic plan for what they would go do with Libya thereafter. And, of course, it's been a pretty messy story ever since. Right.
So the lesson here is pretty complicated. Blinken and Biden seem to disagree a lot. And Biden's restraint has in many cases been proven pression, proven protection from an American view of vital interests.
Right. Because this gets to the core question that Lincoln's whole career kind of raises, which is humanitarian interventions are frequently important and critical to American values, but they're not defending vital American interests because you're going in and intervening in places where the conflict really has very little to do with the safety of the United States or the safety of Americans.
David, of course, by the time Barack Obama leaves office and Anthony Blinken is no longer at the State Department, we now know that Americans and America had become deeply fatigued by all manner of US entanglements overseas. And we know that because Donald Trump is elected on this message of America first on this message that America should get out of the world.
And that very much felt, I have to imagine, like a rejection of blankness of this interventionist approach. And so I wonder how Blinken responded to that. He didn't respond well, he thinks that Donald Trump squandered the most valuable part of American power, which is the power of the American example. There's a general sense that we've lost our North Star people are increasingly confused, they feel a sense of chaos. They don't know which end is up, whether we like it or not, the world tends not to organize itself.
And what that means is that it's the United States that's going to have to step in to play that role if we're not doing a lot of that organizing in terms of shaping the rules and the norms and the institutions through which countries relate to one another, then one or two things, either someone else is doing it and probably not in a way that advances our own interests and values, or maybe just as bad no one is, because if we're not, it's not like no one else is going to play that role.
Vacuums will be created and then you tend to have chaos and a vacuum that may be filled by bad things before. So by good things.
He believes that Trump failed time and time again to do that. It failed at NATO. It failed in the East Asia. It failed in putting together a common response to China. And yet he recognizes half of America believes that Trump was essentially right here, that we're overextended and that when we get out into the rest of the world, we get taken to the cleaners. So the tension in the next few years is to see whether Blinken has the skills at home and abroad to make his case, to convince Americans that involvement in the world is in its interest and to convince the world that America is back and that once again, it will be the organizing center of global diplomacy.
We'll be right back. This episode is supported by Trafficked with Mariana Vanzella, premiering Wednesday, December 2nd at nine eight Central, a National Geographic investigative journalist, Vanzella dives into the most dangerous black markets on the planet, from tiger traffickers and international scammers to counterfeiters and gunrunners to give insight access into the world's trillion dollar shadow economy. After each episode, check out the trafficked podcast available wherever you listen to podcasts starting December 3rd.
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So, David, let's presume Anthony Blinken turns out to be a relatively skilled diplomatic salesman.
What do you think his version of American foreign policy will actually look like in practice, given where everything now stands in America's relations with the rest of the world?
What would the allies, Michael? I think the early days will be pretty much a welcome back home festival, right. Because they're going to spend the first few months rejoining the world or rejoining agreements that Donald Trump walked away from. They're going to sign the Paris Accord on climate change in the early days. They're going to rejoin the World Health Organization, which President Trump walked out of in the middle of covid, arguing that the Chinese had too much influence while the U.S. paid the bills.
They're going to go announce a recommitment to NATO. So they're going to do a lot of dismantling, of the dismantling, you know, among Lincoln's friends.
They call it the great undoing that they're trying to go undo the Trump era. But of course, a couple of things are going to get in the way.
The biggest example of this may be Iran, right where we know that President elect Joe Biden wants to return to a pre Trump diplomatic relationship and specifically wants to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.
That's right. But because of what President Trump has done over the past two years and because of what the Israelis are believed to have been responsible for in the past few days, that's going to be a really, really tall order. David, explain that.
Well, over the past few years, President Trump has done everything he could to unwind and complicate the Obama era Iran nuclear accord. And in the past few days, the Israelis have tried to put the final nail in the coffin of that agreement.
Tonight, Iran says its most senior nuclear scientist has been assassinated near the capital, Tehran.
With this assassination on the streets of a little town outside of Tehran last Friday, he was a protected and prized scientist where the leading Iranian nuclear scientist driving to his summer place.
Iranian officials say Mohsen Farzat was ambushed in his car by what they call armed terrorists.
Spraying the windshield with bullets is intercepted by a group of assassins and killed in broad daylight.
Iran's president Hassan Rouhani, blamed Israel for the killing on Saturday.
There's a lot of evidence that this was done by the Israelis. Iran is already vowing revenge and a fair bit of speculation that the Israelis wouldn't have done it without first giving warning to the United States. We don't know that yet. This is now making it extremely difficult for Iran to come back to the table. And for Biden to re execute a workable strategy for Iran.
But what we do know is that the result is that the assassination took what was already an incredibly difficult diplomatic challenge, reassembling the nuclear deal and made it vastly harder because now Blinken and Biden walk into a world in which the Iranians are understandably hopping mad and will believe themselves that the Americans were in on it. And the hard liners will say, see, you never should have entered that deal to begin with.
So this is a very clear example of how the Trump foreign policy approach may actually make it all but impossible for the Biden Blinken foreign policy approach to actually work. Because if the Iranians say, hey, you've trashed this deal and you have taken out our top nuclear scientist, why on earth would we rejoin an agreement with your country?
The Iranians are going to take that view. But it gets even more complicated than that, because while there are a lot of people who would say, let's just rewind the clock to January 20th, 2017, when Barack Obama left office, the fact is the world's moved on. Right. The Iran situation is far more complicated than it was in twenty seventeen. And that's not the only place around the world where it's more complicated. The North Koreans, for all those love letters that they wrote to President Trump, have built a lot more fuel for nuclear weapons.
The Chinese have expanded their footprint in the South China Sea and become much more aggressive in their technology exports. All around the world.
You're finding places where issues that Biden and Lincoln were familiar with and thought they might have a handle on when they were leaving office have now come back with a vengeance.
And it will not be easy for the US to just insert itself back like a key in ignition. That's absolutely right.
So now Blinken comes in with his view that America must be the organizing force.
But, you know, in all those cases, Michael, it's not clear that the world is particularly interested in seeing the United States come back in as an organizing force, because there's a fundamental question that Blinken and Biden are going to have to face, which is that the world's going to say to them, why should we trust you? Sure. We're glad to see an engaged America come back and we're delighted you're coming back into all these treaties.
But supposing this is just a four year blip and that when we look back at it, Trump ism ultimately is going to rule the day and the next president's going to go undo whatever you go do in the next four years. Hmm.
So Biden and Blinken have to not only convince the world that America is back and not only convince them that they should trust us as an organizing force, but they also have to convince them that the whole concept that we call liberal internationalism, that the United States brings its values with it around the world and will back those up with force or with money or with influence, that that's a view that's actually going to stick.
You know, Blinken has this phrase that he's used many times, which is superpowers don't bluff. And the trick for him and for President Biden over the next few years is going to be convincing them that in saying we're back, we're not bluffing. So, David, the challenge for Anthony Blinken, if he is confirmed as our new secretary of state, will not just be, as you said earlier, selling a skeptical United States electorate on this approach to foreign policy, which is in and of itself a pretty tall order.
It's actually selling a deeply skeptical world that this can be counted on for more than just a few years.
That's exactly right, Michael. He's got to go convince Americans that are reengaged. America is truly in American's own interest and in the interest of American workers. And he's got to convince our allies that we are actually there to stay, that Trump and Trump ism isn't coming back. And those are tall orders both at home and abroad. Well, David, thank you very much. We appreciate it. Michael, great to be with you. Be right back.
This episode is supported by Trafficked with Mariana Vanzella, premiering Wednesday, December 2nd at nine eight Central on National Geographic, investigative journalist Vanzella dives into the most dangerous black markets on the planet, from tiger traffickers and international scammers to counterfeiters and gunrunners to give insight access into the world's trillion dollar shadow economy. After each episode, check out the trafficked podcast available wherever you listen to podcasts starting December 3rd. Here's what else you need to know. The Times reports that President Trump has discussed the possibility of issuing preemptive pardons to his three eldest children, Donald Jr.
, Eric and Ivanka, to his son in law, Jared Kushner, and to his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, before Trump leaves office, fearing that they could all face prosecution. Trump reportedly spoke with Giuliani about a pardon for him as recently as last week. Giuliani has been under investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan for his business dealings in Ukraine and for his role in ousting the American ambassador there.
A plot at the heart of Trump's impeachment.
And in an interview on Tuesday, Attorney General Bill Barr said there was no evidence of voter fraud that could alter the outcome of the election, directly undercutting claims by President Trump.
Barr's comments to the Associated Press made him the most high profile member of the president's cabinet to affirm Joe Biden's victory.
That's it for The Daily, I'm Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow. This episode is supported by Trafficked with Mariana Vanzella, premiering Wednesday, December 2nd at nine eight Central on National Geographic, investigative journalist Vanzella dives into the most dangerous black markets on the planet, from tiger traffickers and international scammers to counterfeiters and gunrunners to give insight access into the world's trillion dollar shadow economy. After each episode, check out the trafficked podcast available wherever you listen to podcasts starting December 3rd.