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No time for softballs: 10 questions we want Tony Blinken to answer

Biden's Secretary of State pick inherits a lot of trouble, but we want to make sure he has the right solutions.

Analysis | Washington Politics


Antony Blinken has served in powerful positions throughout two Democratic administrations dating back nearly 30 years, but it’s clear today that his nomination as secretary of state comes at a time of extraordinary, if not unprecedented challenges home and abroad.

One of those challenges will be to repair the damage done by outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is not only blamed for gutting the agency, but for planting a series of political and diplomatic landmines for the incoming Biden administration on his way out the door.

That would include recent moves that position the United States for future conflict with China, particularly on the issues of maritime security and Taiwan. It also encompasses four years of putting Israel’s interests before the Middle East peace process, including the recent Abraham Accord agreements, which each carry their own separate booby traps for regional peace in the immediate future. Recent terror designations taint U.S.-Cuba relations and put war-torn Yemen more at risk for disease and poverty.  

And let’s not forget every recent attempt by the Trump administration to obstruct future efforts  to get back into the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran.

As Daniel Larison wrote in these pages, Blinken has been an advocate for returning to the nuclear deal, as well as the New START treaty with Russia, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in each country’s arsenals. He is well-respected internationally, and thanks to his experience, can hit the ground running in regards to repairing multilateral relations.

But there are important questions as to whether he is firmly dedicated to scaling back interventionist policies that have mired the United States in conflict since 9/11. Blinken was an early supporter of the wars in Iraq and in Yemen, the coalition bombing of Libya, and military action in Syria — all of which continue on varying levels today. He has been criticized for his approach to negotiations with Kim Jong Un in North Korea, and it is not entirely clear if he wants to leave a “residual force” behind in Afghanistan instead of the United States withdrawing troops entirely. 

This is not the time for softballs. In order to suss out what kind of secretary of state he might be, we present these ten key questions for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday:

1. The United States's entanglements in the Middle East appear to neither have served the interest of the region, nor the security of our country. Our policy is a function of how we define our interest in the Middle East. Some define it prudently, arguing that fundamentally, we must protect the U.S. from attack and facilitate the free flow of global commerce. Neither warrants the major American military presence we have there now. How do you define our interest in the region and how will you ensure that your definition doesn't get us entangled in unnecessary and never-ending war there? 

2. The Obama administration achieved the JCPOA, but little time existed to move beyond that to address America's other challenges with Iran in the region. If the nuclear deal is revived through compliance-for-compliance, and if add-on agreements successfully address remaining challenges, will your administration seek a new relationship with Tehran, perhaps even normalization? 

3. Climate change is, according to the new administration, an existential threat. As you know, comprehensively addressing it will involve China’s cooperation. That said, will the new administration’s policy vis-a-vis China be subordinate to the U.S. climate policy, or the other way around? 

4. On Afghanistan, President-elect Biden has said he would be willing to leave a small “residual force” behind to engage in counterterrorism activities, despite a U.S.-Taliban agreement that would require all U.S. troops to leave the country by May 1, 2021. How does the new administration plan on handling that deadline, and is it truly your aim to leave forces behind there after 20 years of war?

5. Officials from several countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, including U.S. allies, have expressed discomfort in recent months and years with how Washington under the Trump administration has sought to pressure them into choosing sides between the U.S. and China as part of a zero-sum great power competition and economic decoupling. How can we signal to countries that it will instead listen to their concerns, engaging them on their own terms and not just as possible partners in containing China?

6. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has been a destabilizing actor in the Middle East by all accounts. He kidnapped the Lebanese Prime Minister, imposed a blockade on Qatar, waged a ruthless war in Yemen, and ordered the beheading of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. President Biden has vowed to “make (Saudi Arabia) … the pariah that they are.” How will your administration treat the Kingdom as a pariah? Will you ban U.S. arms sales to the kingdom? Impose sanctions? Support American citizens suing the Saudi regime for their role in 9/11?

7. You’ve expressed regret that the Obama administration could have “done more” in the Syrian civil war. So what is the goal of the new administration in Syria: Regime change, or an end to the civil war followed by a diplomatic process to find a political solution — even if it may leave Asad in power? If the former, on what basis do you think regime change can be achieved, mindful of the fact that Asad — for all practical purposes — has won the civil war?

8. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has positioned himself as the foremost opponent of the JCPOA. He became Donald Trump's closest ally and boasted about having convinced Trump to breach the nuclear agreement. Netanyahu has once again vowed to oppose any U.S. return to the deal and a member of his cabinet has even threatened to start a war over it. How will your administration deal with the belligerence of the Netanyahu government and its disregard for U.S. national interests?

9. As Deputy Secretary you led the vice foreign ministerial dialogues between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. While trilateral cooperation can unlock progress in transnational issues in which the three countries share common interests like trade, cybersecurity, and North Korea, pressuring Japan and South Korea to bandwagon on an anti-China agenda will likely cause friction and provoke economic retaliation by Beijing. What is your plan for strengthening cooperation without making it all about containing China?

10. During the Obama administration you were considered one of the architects of U.S. sanctions on Russia after Putin annexed Crimea, and at the time unsuccessfully pushed for Washington to arm the Ukranians in their war against Russia. You have also talked about bolstering NATO as a matter of continued deterrence. Is Russia an enemy and a threat to U.S. interests today? More so, do you support NATO enlargement to incorporate Ukraine? 


Contributing: Trita Parsi, Rachel Esplin Odell, Jessica Lee, and Steven Simon.

Antony Blinken in 2020. (vasilis asvestas/Shutterstock)
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