Nov 4, 2023 - World
Axios Explains: Israel-Hamas war

Biden's "war cabinet": The key people advising him on the Israel-Hamas war

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photos: Evan Vucci/AP Photo/Bloomberg, IM WATSON/AFP, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

President Biden has been deeply involved in the U.S. response to the Israel-Hamas war — one of the thorniest challenges of his presidency so far — receiving briefings at least once per day and speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu several times a week.

The big picture: Biden is leaning on a tight circle of trusted aides and officials. Here's a look at who's in the room when major decisions are being made.

Tony Blinken, Secretary of State

  • America's top diplomat and Biden's longtime confidante, Blinken arrived in Israel on Friday on his second trip to the Middle East since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. He has also been working the phones, talking to several leaders in the region.
  • Blinken has also arguably been the primary public face of the U.S. response, making numerous media appearances.

Lloyd Austin, Secretary of Defense

  • Austin has been speaking daily with his Israeli counterpart to get updates on the military operation in Gaza and coordinating closely with Biden and the White House.
  • He has also been working on bolstering the U.S. military presence in the region and encouraging Israeli officials to listen to advice from U.S. military planners.

Jake Sullivan, National Security Adviser

  • Sullivan is nearly always in the room with Biden when major foreign policy decisions are being made, including during the Israel-Hamas war.
  • For most of Biden's presidency, Sullivan had advocated for de-prioritizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and limiting any U.S. objectives to containing it. Now, war has pushed the issue to the top of the agenda.

Jon Finer, Deputy National Security Adviser

  • Finer oversees inter-agency coordination on foreign policy in his role as Sullivan's deputy. He's also one of the few senior administration officials with first-hand experience of conflict in Gaza — both as a top aide to former Secretary of State John Kerry and as a reporter for the Washington Post.

Bill Burns, CIA Director, and Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence

  • Biden has been receiving briefings at least once a day from the U.S. intelligence community, with Burns and Haines both playing key roles during the crisis.

David Satterfield, Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues

  • Biden brought Satterfield, a distinguished career diplomat, out of retirement and tasked him with overseeing the U.S. humanitarian response in Gaza.

Brett McGurk, NSC Coordinator for the Middle East

  • McGurk is the White House point person for the Middle East. He has been deeply involved in the talks between the White House and the Israeli government, and in engaging with Egypt and Qatar over the situation in Gaza — in particular the hostage issue.

Kamala Harris, Vice President

  • Harris has joined Biden for multiple calls with Netanyahu, and has been in many of the key meetings and briefings on the crisis. She told 60 Minutes that she has played the same role for Biden in this crisis as Biden did for Barack Obama: being the last one in the room before key decisions are made.

Phil Gordon, National Security Adviser to the VP

  • Now an adviser to Harris, Gordon previously served as NSC coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, and has also been in the room during high-level meetings.

Roger Carstens, Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs

  • Carsten's brief is one of Biden's top priorities: ensuring the safe return of the Americans taken hostage by Hamas. Two U.S. citizens were released on Oct. 20, but 10 Americans are still unaccounted for and presumed to be held hostage.
  • Carsten's deputy, Steven Gillen, has been in Israel for most of the period since the war broke out, coordinating with Israeli officials on the hostage issue.

Gen. Erik Kurilla, CENTCOM Commander

  • Gen. Kurilla is running point on military-to-military communications with the Israel Defense Forces and overseeing the movement of U.S. troops, ships and other assets into the region.
  • U.S. Central Command, which Kurilla leads, also includes Iraq and Syria, where U.S. troops have come under attack.

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