Nov 18, 2020 - World

Biden's Middle East team might look a lot like Obama's

Biden visits Jordan in 2016. Photo: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP via Getty

Biden and his team are in the early stages of staffing his administration, and I've been sounding out my sources on who is expected to handle Middle East policy at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon.

The state of play: Nothing is set in stone, but several people in Biden's foreign policy circle said they expect many of the senior staffers to be veterans of the Obama administration.

Driving the news: Biden’s review team for the State Department included three Middle East experts, in a likely sign they'll have roles in the new administration.

  • Puneet Talwar was a top Middle East adviser to Barack Obama and helped open talks with Iran prior to the nuclear deal. He later served as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs under John Kerry.
  • Hady Amr was the deputy special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process under Kerry, focusing on economic issues. More recently, he worked at the Brookings Institution.
  • Dana Stroul was a Middle East adviser at the Pentagon under secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, and she later served as a Middle East adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She's now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Several other Obama-era officials are also likely to play a role in the new administration.

  • Robert Malley, Obama's senior Middle East adviser and now the CEO of the International Crisis Group, is mentioned as a possible Iran negotiator in the new administration.
  • Dan Shapiro, who was senior director for the Middle East at the National Security Council and later served six years as ambassador to Israel, is a likely candidate for a senior post in Washington or, potentially, to return for a second stint as ambassador.
  • Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs under Hillary Clinton, is also a candidate for a senior post on the Middle East.
  • Dafna Hochman Rand, one of Wittes’ successors, is also mentioned as a likely appointment.
  • Mara Rudman, who was Middle East director at USAID during the Obama administration and advised the Biden campaign on Middle East policy, is also a likely pick.

Three other names that I've heard floated for senior roles:

  • Ilan Goldenberg, who worked on Kerry's Middle East peace team and is now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
  • Andrew Miller, who worked on Middle East issues on the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
  • Daniel Benaim, who was Biden’s Middle East adviser when he was vice president.

The bottom line: Apart from Iran, the Middle East doesn't rank high on Biden's agenda. But as his predecessors have found, the Middle East will produce a lot of work for the new administration whether they like it or not. 

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