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How Biden can curtail corrupt influences on US foreign policy

Biden administration national security personnel without conflicts of interest can help establish a more ethical and just US foreign policy.

Despite laughable claims otherwise, Joe Biden has unequivocally won the White House. He now faces the already complex task of staffing a new administration that reflects the vibrance of the nation, with the added complication of Trump loyalists being placed throughout the government in an attempt to corrupt the civil service. 

To say that there has been a lack of accountability in the national security sector is a gross understatement. For decades, Washington has relied on and recycled the same ideas and people who have led us down militarized-rabbit hole after militarized-rabbit hole, only to resurface again with the same failed ideas years or decades later. 

We don’t have to look far to see this in real-time: How about the foreign policy establishment’s reaction to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s decision to question the credibility of convicted liar, regime change advocate, and aider of war criminals, Elliot Abrams (who now ironically leads State Department “diplomatic” efforts on Iran and Venezuela)? Or did you notice the fact that “think of our Indian wars” and Iraq war advocate Max Boot has contorted himself into a #Resistance hero in the pages of the Washington Post? Accountability for the foreign policy elite who have led the country astray for decades is essential to bringing new and creative thinking into the national security space.

Thankfully the Biden-Harris administration has the opportunity to finally make progress in ending this cycle of impunity. While it is only a first step, the transition should start with a strong public ethics pledge for executive branch personnel that seeks to end the tyranny of conflicts of interests, the revolving door, and the institutional erosion brought about by pay-to-play politics across government. 

While it won’t fully resolve the eroding influence of money on our political system, such a pledge is a necessary step towards accountability for the ways in which corporations and their tools of influence have manipulated the public and warped our public policy debates –– national security among them — and, ultimately, limit their ability to do so in the future. It would also have the added bonus of building trust with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, a key necessity for governing.

Such an ethics pledge should build on, at minimum, the requirements of Executive Order 13490 issued by former President Barack Obama. In an ideal world, no political appointees would have worked for or served on the board of a for-profit entity that received money from the agency they would work in; has worked for or served on the board of an entity that received money from an undemocratic foreign government or its auspices; or has been affiliated with, is a member of, or received funding from organizations or individual donors to such entities that espouse hate, xenophobia, or racism against a particular group or community, in the last ten years.

Of course such broad requirements might be near impossible for some in the president-elect’s inner circle — and the Washington foreign policy establishment in general — to meet. In that case, to be offered any executive branch appointment, any candidate with such conflicts should be required to fully and publicly disclose their previous clientele and related projects, recuse themselves from decisions that would affect previous clients, employers, or corporations in which they have a previous financial interest in for the duration of their federal government service, and divest any industry-related assets or commercial profits into a qualified blind trust. Waivers should not be an option.

This should not be taken as a resolution for a slew of other national security anti-corruption measures that should also be taken. Such a pledge would, however, definitively move the Biden-Harris administration away from business as usual, likely require the inclusion of new people in the national security space, and would be a critical signal that anti-corruption and accountability will be a serious focus of the new administration.

Biden will inherit a country on a precipice come January 20 and returning to the old ways of bipartisanship won’t solve the existential, transnational threats all people face. If Biden truly believes Donald Trump is not an anomaly, but actually a symptom of a larger disease ailing this country, he must resist business as usual.

This isn’t about litmus tests. It’s about bringing integrity and accountability back into government; in the words of Joe Biden, this is a key aspect of “restoring the soul” of the country. This also shouldn’t be controversial, given that such an across-the-board commitment by personnel would build on previous measures taken by the Obama-Biden administration to close the revolving door and limit the influence of lobbyists in government. Under Trump, these problems have only become worse (which feels like an insufficient euphemism given the unprecedented amount of industry influence and access under Trump), revealing the need for broad reforms rather than piecemeal measures. 

Who gets appointed into the next administration and how committed they are to serving the interests of people instead of corporations will be critical to setting the United States on the new course necessary to meet the existential challenges we face this century. A clear commitment to limiting the influence of corporate profiteers and human rights-abusing governments through a strong ethics requirement for political appointees is a common sense first step toward advancing working people’s interests in both foreign and domestic policy. 

But industry won’t go down without a fight. Progressives are ready to fight for ethical, accountable governance and policies that benefit working people here and around the world. The question is whether the Biden-Harris team will join us.

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