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Forever Wars & the Middle East: People & Positions
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Forever Wars & the Middle East

The Biden Power Players

UPDATED August 19, 2021
  • Christine Abizaid

    Director, National Counterterrorism Center, Office of the Director of National Intelligence

    Relevance to the Biden Agenda:

    The National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) partners with all major government agencies and departments to analyze and respond to global terrorism threats. It was established under former President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to improve information sharing across intelligence agencies. To date, the agency has focused primarily on foreign terrorist threats and has not addressed domestic terrorism—an issue Biden has taken on early in his administration. The NCTC is responsible for monitoring activity across the Middle East involving numerous groups identified as terrorist threats by the U.S., including Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, and Hezbollah. With Biden pulling troops out of Afghanistan—and potentially Iraq as well—the NCTC will play a crucial role in monitoring the strength of terrorist groups in the region, in the absence of U.S. military presence.


    Abizaid was the Director for Counter Terrorism at the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013. She previously had worked as a counterterrorism analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency for nearly a decade. In 2014, she joined the Department of Defense (DOD) as the deputy assistant secretary for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, serving during the 2015 Taliban resurgence in the war in Afghanistan. At the DOD, Abizaid led the newly created Defense Innovation Unit’s branch in Austin, Texas, where she served until 2017. There, she assisted in the DOD’s efforts to integrate the military with emerging technologies in the private sector. Following her government service, Abizaid joined Dell Technologies as its chief of staff for global operations. Abizaid’s father, John Abizaid, was the head of U.S. Central Command from 2003 to 2007, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He also served as the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2019 to 2021.

    Points of Interest and Notable Connections:

    Abizaid has a long history as a counterterrorism analyst, serving at the Department of Defense from 2002 until 2016 in counterterrorism roles focused on the Middle East and Central Asia. After leaving government, Abizaid served in the private sector as chief of staff for Dell Technologies’ global operations and as a strategic advisor to JPA Partners, founded by her father, former director of U.S. Central Command John Abizaid. In her confirmation hearings, Abizaid stated that she would examine the connections between domestic and foreign terrorist and extremist groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda. As Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Abizaid will be overseen by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

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    • Michael Orlando

      Deputy Director, National Counterintelligence and Security Center, Office of the Director of National Intelligence

    • Stephen Vanech

      Deputy Director, National Counterterrorism Center, Office of the Director of National Intelligence

  • Lloyd Austin

    Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense

    Relevance to the Biden Agenda:

    Forever Wars & the Middle East:  

    Austin will have a strong voice in determining U.S. policy across a wide range of Middle East conflicts, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Israel. Following Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal order, he works alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken to secure a long-term resolution between the Afghan government and the Taliban while overseeing U.S. troops remaining in the Middle East. He also will need to sustain U.S. regional military cooperation with Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

    Arms Control & Nuclear Proliferation:

    Austin accompanied Antony Blinken on early diplomatic trips to South Korea and Israel to discuss containment strategies for nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran. After the Trump administration canceled major joint military exercises with South Korea, Austin has sought to increase military cooperation and has reaffirmed the U.S.’s defense commitments to South Korea. He will be responsible for updating and expanding U.S.’s nuclear weapons and technologies, including the development of new nuclear cruise missiles and space missile defense systems. He will also be in charge of allocating the Department of Defense's (DOD) $740 billion budget, which will determine the types of weapons and technology investments the Biden administration makes.

    Climate Change:

    Austin identified the climate crisis as a destabilizing force, noting increasing resource and geostrategic competition in the Arctic and potential drought, hunger, and population displacement across Africa and Central America. He plans to comprehensively assess the potential damage from climate change to U.S. interests globally and to take action on reducing the DOD’s environmental footprint, for which he has pledged to redirect portions of the DOD budget. Potential climate-related investment plans include securing military supply chains against extreme weather events, developing clean energy technologies, and incorporating climate risks into the department’s project plans.

    Cyber & Tech:

    Austin will direct the U.S. Cyber Command, led by General Paul Nakasone. He stated in his confirmation hearing that the DOD would conduct a comprehensive review of its cybersecurity operations. He has emphasized the need for the U.S. to take a proactive approach to countering cyber campaigns from China and Russia, similar to the cyber strategy the U.S. deployed when Austin led the 2014 campaign against ISIS. Austin will work alongside NATO allies to secure critical supply chains and infrastructure in cyberspace, and he will oversee the DOD’s expanding campaign to invest in emerging technologies that bolster U.S. cyber capabilities.

    Economic Competitiveness:

    Austin will be tasked with securing U.S. supply chains and trade routes, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, where U.S.-China tensions are disrupting traditional trade relationships. He will play a critical role in rebuilding relationships with key U.S. economic partners in the region, such as Japan, South Korea, India, the Philippines, and Australia. Austin accompanied Antony Blinken on trips to Japan and South Korea in March 2021 and released statements re-affirming the U.S.’s defense commitments to both countries.

    Immigration & Asylum:

    The DOD is now directly involved in caring for migrant children who cross the U.S.’s southern border and in managing migrant shelters, after Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra requested assistance. It is also contributing to the Biden administration’s comprehensive aid package for Central America, contributing $26 million in funding for education, health, and disaster-relief services. Austin will also work alongside Antony Blinken to prevent a refugee crisis in Afghanistan, stemming from increased violence post-U.S. troop withdrawal.

    Pandemic Response:

    The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is coordinating with other U.S. agencies to provide oxygen-related equipment, test kits, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to nations at risk during the surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the emergence of the Delta variant. Austin is working alongside Antony Blinken and Linda Thomas-Greenfield to coordinate global support efforts and logistics. Domestically, Austin was directed by President Biden to produce a plan to vaccinate all military personnel. As of August 2021, Austin is expected to mandate vaccinations for active troops, following the example of other federal agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) which, on July 26, 2021, became the first agency to require its employees to be vaccinated.


    Austin is a former Army four-star general and served as head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), responsible for protecting U.S. security interests from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia. In 2014, Austin led the U.S. and 60 coalition partners in a military campaign against ISIS, where he instructed U.S. soldiers to work with the Iraqi government to train Iraqi security forces to battle ISIS. Prior to serving as CENTCOM Commander, Austin was the Commanding General in Iraq, overseeing the U.S. withdrawal of its armed forces in 2011. He left the military in 2016 and joined the boards of several private companies, including the defense contracting firm Raytheon, the steel producer Nucor, and multinational healthcare services company Tenet Healthcare. In January 2021, Congress approved a special waiver allowing Austin to serve as Secretary of Defense despite being retired from active-duty military service for less than seven years. Critics of the decision argued that granting a waiver for Austin—following a similar move by Congress in 2017 former Secretary of Defense James Mattis—undermines civilian control of the armed forces, weakening a long-standing government principle.

    Points of Interest and Notable Connections:

    Austin served in the army for 41 years. Upon leaving the military in 2016, he joined the boards of several private companies, including the defense contracting firm Raytheon, the steel producer Nucor, and the multinational healthcare services company Tenet Healthcare, and he served as a trustee for the Carnegie Corporation of New York. He has traditionally been an advocate for a strong U.S. military presence abroad and opposed withdrawing troops in 2011 as commander in Iraq. Austin did urge for U.S. restraint in Syria in 2015, when he opposed setting up a U.S. no-fly zone or buffer zone for Syrian refugees, and he has now stated that he will work to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan under the Biden administration. He has emphasized the U.S.’s need to contain China and deter Russian conflict and sees U.S. investment in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing as critical capabilities for deterring both nations. Austin has a strong working relationship with President Biden, who oversaw him in his position as commander of the U.S. military in Iraq in 2010 and worked closely with him on the campaign to defeat ISIS.

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    • Samuel Brannen

      Deputy Assistant Secretary for Plans and Posture, U.S. Department of Defense

    • Kathleen Hicks

      Deputy Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense

    • Colin Kahl

      Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, U.S. Department of Defense

  • Antony Blinken

    Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State

    Relevance to the Biden Agenda:

    Forever Wars & the Middle East:  

    In conjunction with defense secretary Lloyd Austin and national security advisor Jake Sullivan, Blinken is playing a significant role in shaping and directing U.S. military engagement in the Middle East. He led diplomatic talks on the removal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, with his most recent unannounced visit to Afghan leaders in mid-April 2021 signaling the administration’s “ongoing commitment to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan.” Nevertheless, after U.S. troop removal, Afghanistan has now fallen under Taliban control, imperiling hopes for any future U.S.-Afghan relations and complicating the U.S.’s ability to influence counterterrorism efforts or prevent al Qaeda from re-obtaining a foothold in the country. In April 2021, Blinken and Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs Fuad Hussein kicked off discussions in early April 2021 regarding bilateral security coordination, with plans to develop a timeline for U.S. forces to leave Iraq and provide primarily training and advisory support rather than combat operations. Aligned with the administration’s commitment to working through multilateral systems to address critical global challenges, Blinken and Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield are spearheading discussions on human rights and humanitarian assistance, particularly with respect to Syria and Russia’s veto on the UN Security Council. In February 2021, Blinken announced that the U.S. will seek election to the Human Rights Council for the 2022–24 term.

    Arms Control & Nuclear Proliferation:

    Blinken is leading U.S. discussions with Iran, North Korea, and Russia on arms control and emerging security issues. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in particular, is central to the Biden administration’s foreign policy, with Blinken stating that in addition to getting Iran back in the nuclear deal, provisions must be “longer and stronger,” suggesting that a new agreement must go beyond 2030 with stricter constraints on Iran’s fuel production, missile abilities, and support for proxy forces in the Middle East. Negotiations are anticipated to be longstanding as Blinken and the Biden team attempt to renew discussions with Iran and balance U.S. relations with Israel. Blinken is playing an essential role in reinvigorating arms control discussions following the Trump administrations’ rollbacks. With Great Power competition increasingly defining the international arena, he has called on China and Russia for transparency and the development of standards and norms of responsible behavior in weapons development. Blinken sees an opportunity for China to work with the U.S. to address North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and for Russia to cooperate with the U.S. to protect their mutual interests in strategic stability via the New START treaty.

    Climate Change:

    As the Biden administration centers the issue of climate change across its decision-making apparatus, the Department of State will play a critical role in supporting John Kerry’s efforts abroad to ensure that countries step up their goals to cut emissions and that U.S. clean energy innovators are more competitive in the global market. All foreign relations between the U.S. and its friends, partners, allies, and multilateral institutions will critically consider sustainability in all discussions, with Blinken promising to mobilize resources, institutional know-how, and the technical expertise of the American private and public sectors to enhance countries’ efforts to reduce emissions and build resiliency measures to prepare for the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Blinken will also lead U.S. efforts to reform multilateral institutions, particularly NATO, to adapt military readiness and reduce the Allied forces’ reliance on fossil fuels. In 2017, NATO joined the U.S. Department of Defense in deeming climate change a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing conflicts and presents new security concerns, such as Russian and Chinese activity in the Arctic and migration where natural disasters force people, particularly those in Central America, to relocate.

    Cyber & Tech:

    Following President Biden’s call to create global rules on cyber and technology security to combat Chinese and Russian threats, Blinken has vowed to elevate international engagement on cyber issues by renewing the Department of State’s focus on emerging technology, especially as Great Powers race to develop and deploy new technologies. He will play a critical role in shaping U.S. foreign policy toward cybersecurity, calling on likeminded countries and allies to establish “guardrails against misuse” in order to preserve an open democratic society and mitigate threats to speech and privacy. Blinken notably supported the Trump administration’s creation of the State Bureau of Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies, however, plans for the bureau remain unclear, particularly with regard to it would fit with other Department of State divisions that similarly tackle digital-economy cybersecurity issues through oversight of international economic and business affairs. As Congress looks to enhance diplomatic norms in cyberspace via the Cyber Diplomacy Act and the State Department Authorization Act, Blinken will be tasked with reconciling the various efforts both within the Department of State and across agencies to bolster U.S. cyber leadership throughout the foreign policy apparatus.

    Immigration & Asylum:

    As the advent of climate change and COVID-19 exacerbates pre-existing socioeconomic problems across countries and worsens conditions for migrants and refugees, Blinken is leading the State Department’s initiatives to address “the root causes of migration, particularly from the countries in the Northern Triangle – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.” Blinken pointed to these countries alongside Mexico to address drivers of migration, including corruption, lack of opportunity, and insecurity; and stated that the department will revise the citizenship and asylum processes to ensure it is “safe, secure, and humane.” Blinken has also noted his intention to elevate U.S. re-engagement in multilateralism and the necessity to bolster work in Central America, Ethiopia, and Mexico through the UN Refugee Agency. In June 2021, Blinken expressed concern over democratic backsliding in the region and pledged U.S. support for efforts to contain migration and promote COVID-19 vaccination campaigns. Blinken has also criticized the State Departments’ historical failure in protecting refugees and calling for interventionism to protect human rights. As the Taliban retake control of Afghanistan, Blinken is leading the U.S. effort to relocate tens of thousands of Afghans who supported the U.S. mission and are now at risk of retaliatory Taliban violence. This effort, known as Operation Allies Refuge, will require Afghans to await their application status in a third country or territory.

    Pandemic Response:

    Working alongside the coordinator for global COVID-19 response and health security, Gayle Smith, Blinken will lead U.S. efforts to bolster global vaccine production and inoculation initiatives. In early April 2021, Congress approved more than $11 billion for America’s global COVID-19 response, which Blinken asserts will enhance broad and equitable vaccine access, provide aid to mitigate the secondary impacts of the pandemic such as hunger, and enhance countries’ preparedness for future biological threats. In partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO), the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility, the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, Gavi, the ACT Facilitation Council (the U.S. recently elevated its engagement from observer to participant in the council), among others, Blinken is seeking to reassert U.S. leadership in global public health. As of 2020, the U.S. is the largest donor to global health in the world, with its funding totaling $11.2 billion and is the single largest contributor to the international COVID-19 response. To further reassure U.S. commitment to the WHO following the former administration’s criticisms, Blinken has stated that the U.S. will fulfill its financial obligations to the WHO while supporting institutional reformation to ensure that it has the support to lead future global responses. He also supported the UN secretary general’s calls to address the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable and marginalized communities, such as women and people of color, calling on these groups to participate in the decision-making process.


    From 2015 to 2017, Blinken served as deputy secretary of state, where he supported diplomatic efforts to address ISIS, the global refugee crisis, U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict, and U.S. economic and strategic ties with the Asia-Pacific. During his tenure, he established the Innovation Forum and a Department of State presence in Silicon Valley in an effort to enhance collaboration and information-sharing. Previously, he served as assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor to former President Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Biden, where he helped craft U.S. policy and responses to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the raid to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and U.S. policy on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Iranian nuclear program. For over 25 years, Blinken has held senior foreign policy positions with a firm belief that the U.S. must work with its allies, particularly those in Europe, and within international treaties and organizations to advance critical policy areas.

    Points of Interests and Notable Connections:

    As secretary of state, Blinken wants to highlight the value of foreign affairs to the American public, which he says often feels disconnected from people’s daily lives, because events are happening on the other side of the world, and diplomacy often occurs out of sight. As such, Blinken’s approach is grounded on the principle of delivering “foreign policy for the middle class”—a clear complement to the Biden administration’s focus on bolstering economic competitiveness through the protection of jobs and U.S.-based manufacturing. Although some Trump-era policies will continue under Blinken’s leadership, such as the U.S.’s tougher stance on China, support to the Ukrainian military, recognition of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, and the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem among others, Blinken has been highly critical of President Trump’s approaches to foreign policy, pointing to the former administration’s downgrading of the Department of State’s role in international relations, the demoralization of the diplomatic corps, and the alienation of U.S. allies. As a “defender of global alliances,” one of Blinken’s chief goals is to re-establish the U.S. as a trusted ally that is prepared to rejoin global agreements and institutions with a key focus on balancing U.S.-China competition and cooperation.

    At the first meeting between Chinese and American counterparts in March 2021, Blinken pointed to climate change, Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan as issue areas where their interests intersect, which the Chinese Foreign Ministry echoed, suggesting that there may be room for enhanced U.S.-China collaboration. Conversely, in partnership with defense secretary Lloyd Austin, Blinken is focusing on supporting Asian allies, in particular Japan and South Korea, to “push back against China’s aggression and threats” across a range of issues, including human rights, cybersecurity, and supply chains, among others. Given the various stakeholders involved across policy areas, Blinken’s experience at WestExec as co-founder and managing partner positions him to address private- and public-sector partnerships, as he provided advisory services to technology companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, and AT&T and to Microsoft-owned subsidiaries like LinkedIn as well as Uber Technologies. However, concerns regarding potential conflicts of interest have led Blinken to agree not to participate in matters involving former clients until 2022. Blinken will face additional challenges in balancing the Department of State’s resources and attention across the various priorities on the administration’s agenda and identifying what roles the department will play among the wave of issue-focused positions that President Biden has established. Cyber and technology security, for instance, has been identified alongside China, climate change, and COVID-19 as a “top priority” by the administration, but as of April 29, 2021, there is no clear strategy about the department’s approach and what its responsibilities are, particularly with respect to Chris Inglis’s and Anne Neuberger’s newly established positions. Similar questions have arisen regarding John Kerry’s role as U.S. special envoy for climate and Blinken’s responsibilities as secretary of state, which commenters suggest may lead some countries to view Kerry as an alternative route to the president and an avenue for compromise if they do not agree with Blinken.

    Key Support Staff | Click names to connect at (login required)
    • Salman Ahmed

      Director, Office of Policy Planning, U.S. Department of State

    • John Godfrey (Acting)

      Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Special Envoy to Defeat ISIS, Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, U.S. Department of State

    • Tracey Jacobson

      Director, Afghanistan Task Force, U.S. Department of State

    • Tim Lenderking

      Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran, Iraq, and regional multilateral affairs, U.S Department of State

    • Victoria Nuland

      Undersecretary for Political Affairs, U.S. Department of State

  • Barbara Leaf

    Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (Nominee), U.S. Department of State

    Relevance to the Biden Agenda:

    Leaf’s current position will see her serving alongside Brett McGurk as one of Biden’s senior Middle East advisors on the National Security Council. However, she is also nominated as the Department of State’s assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs—the top Middle East envoy. Leaf served as the U.S. Ambassador to the UAE from 2014 to 2018, and her role in the Biden administration is likely to focus on building the U.S. alliances in the Gulf, while attempting to re-engage the Palestinians in peace talks, after they were notably excluded from the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations among Bahrain, Israel, and the UAE. Leaf will also be tasked with addressing the UAE’s ongoing offensive in Yemen. She recently advocated for moving forward with U.S. arms sales to the UAE—a measure that senate Democrats voted nearly unanimously to block.


    Leaf served as Principal Officer in the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq during the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. Following her stint in Iraq, Leaf oversaw the State Department’s branches in Iraq and later the Arabian Peninsula. In 2014, She was confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to the UAE, where she worked to temper Gulf nations’ anxieties about Iran as the U.S. negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. After leaving her ambassadorship, she joined the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, heading the organization’s research on U.S. policy in Middle East. She was cautiously critical of the Trump administration’s Middle East policies, condemning the decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem without extracting broader concessions from Israel and claiming that the Trump administration took too much credit for its role in the Abraham Accords.

    Points of Interest and Notable Connections:

    Leaf has spent nearly her entire career in government, assuming her first post at the U.S. embassy in France in 1996. Since then, she has had a long diplomatic career, serving under every presidential administration since Clinton. She served as the State Department's first director of the Office of Iranian Affairs from 2007 to 2008, and from 2010 to 2011 she directed the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq— civilian-military organizations meant to achieve political objectives, conduct counterterrorism, and promote social and economic development. Leaf left government in 2018 and worked at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (a pro-Israel think tank) and WestExec Advisor—the consulting firm founded by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As of April 29, 2021, Leaf is pending confirmation to the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs role.

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    • Hady Amr

      Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israel and Palestinian Affairs, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State

    • Natalie Baker

      Director, Office of North African Affairs, U.S. Department of State

    • Sylvia Curran

      Director, Office of Iraq Affairs, U.S. Department of State

    • Jonas Wechsler

      Director, Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs, U.S. Department of State

  • Brett McGurk

    Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, National Security Council

    Relevance to the Biden Agenda:

    As the highest-ranking position on the National Security Council (NSC) related to the Middle East, McGurk will be directly responsible for advising Biden on his Middle East policy. Overseeing all of the key Middle East appointments on the NSC, McGurk will play a role in renewing nuclear negotiations with Iran, brokering a peace deal in Yemen, and overseeing Israel-Palestinian negotiations, among other challenges. Following Biden’s announcement that the U.S.’s combat mission in Iraq will end by the close of 2021, McGurk met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi to negotiate the drawdown’s parameters. McGurk worked extensively under the Obama administration in its efforts to defeat ISIS and will continue to place a strong emphasis on counterterrorism efforts in his new role. He will also have influence on the staffing for other NSC roles. Biden has already brought on Sam Parker as Iran director and Zehra Bellas director for Iraq and Syria, both of whom worked under McGurk in his role as the special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State under both the former Obama and Trump administrations.


    McGurk served as the U.S. special envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS from 2015 to 2018. McGurk resigned from the position following former Secretary of Defense Mattis’s resignation in protest of former President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Upon his resignation, McGurk criticized Trump’s lack of loyalty to America’s Kurdish allies in Syria. Trump declared ISIS defeated in 2018, but McGurk has stated that the U.S.’s fight against the enduring ISIS ideology in the Middle East is far from over. He previously served deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran under the former Obama administration and served as an advisor on negotiations to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. He also helped to broker a successful prisoner exchange with Iran in 2016 and was an advocate for the 2007 Iraq War surge strategy while he served as the senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan on the NSC under former President George W. Bush. 

    Points of Interest and Notable Connections:

    McGurk is set to serve under his fourth consecutive administration, after beginning his career in government in 2005 as George W. Bush’s director for Iraq on the NSC. McGurk has built nearly his entire career working on U.S. conflicts in the Middle East and in this time has established himself as a firm Kurdish ally. Turkey blames him for arming the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, whom Turkey considers a terrorist group, in its fight against ISIS. In his posts at the Department of State during the Obama administration, McGurk spearheaded some of the administration’s largest Middle East accomplishments: brokering Iraq’s government transition in 2014, uniting a 65-country alliance to combat the ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and leading negotiations to free the American hostages held in Iran. In his roles advising the U.S. strategy to combat ISIS under the Obama and Trump administrations, Sam Parker and Zehra Bell both served under him—they now join him in the Biden administration. McGurk has faced criticism domestically as well, notably for his lack of ability to speak Arabic and his support for of Nouri al-Maliki, who served as Iraq’s prime minister from 2006 to 2014. McGurk also sat on the board of the artificial intelligence company Primer, which contracts directly with the Department of Defense.

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    • Zehra Bell

      Director for Iraq and Syria, National Security Council

    • Kenneth Evans

      Director for Political-Military Affairs and Yemen, National Security Council

    • Ann Rohrhoff

      Director for Counterterrorism, National Security Council

    • Evyenia Sidereas

      Director for the Arabian Peninsula, National Security Council

Other Key Players

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  • David Brownstein

    Special Envoy for Syria, National Security Council, Executive Office of the President

    Brownstein served from 2019 to 2020 as the director of the Office of Near Eastern Affairs in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization at the Department of State. In April 2021, he met with regional leaders, including Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, to demonstrate U.S. support for multi-ethnic cooperation in northeast Syria. Brownstein urged unity among two Kurdish opposition factions in Syria, the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdish National Council, to present a singular negotiating team before international peace talks.

  • Zalmay Khalilzad

    Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, U.S. Department of State

    During the Bush administration, Khalilzad served as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the U.N. Khalilzad was instrumental in drafting Afghanistan’s new constitution and the formation of a post-Taliban government. After initially supporting the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, he now supports Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, concurring with the administration’s shift in focus toward prioritizing other challenges such as the pandemic response, containing China, and managing emerging technologies. In a meeting with India’s foreign minister in June 2021, Khalilzad committed the U.S. to working together with India to protect Afghanistan’s stability after the withdrawal.

  • Robert Malley

    Special Envoy for Iran, U.S. Department of State

    Malley served as a chief negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama administration. Later, as Obama’s “ISIS czar,” he was instrumental in devising the administration’s response to the growth of ISIS in the Middle East. After leaving government, Malley worked as the president and CEO of International Crisis Group (ICG), overseeing ICG’s efforts to salvage the Iran nuclear deal. He has published considerable research on democracy in Algeria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Read more about Malley’s role in the Biden administration here.

  • Thomas Nides

    U.S. Ambassador to Israel (Nominee), U.S. Department of State

    Nides is currently the vice chairman of Morgan Stanley and was a prominent donor to President Biden’s campaign in 2020. He previously served as the deputy secretary of state for management and resources from 2011 to 2013. In 2013, former President Obama appointed Nides to be the chairman of the board of the Woodrow Wilson Center. Nides has argued against limiting aid to the U.N. agency that provides support to Palestinian refugees, claiming that such actions hamper the U.S.’s ability to be an even-handed player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  • Sam Parker

    Director for Iran, National Security Council, Executive Office of the President

    Parker was the director for Iraq on the National Security Council (NSC) during the tail end of the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. He later served as the director for Syria at the NSC and as the acting deputy director of the Office of Sanctions Policy and Implementation in the Department of State. Since 2017, Parker has been a senior advisor on the Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

  • Julie Sawyer

    Director for Israel-Palestine, National Security Council

    Sawyer worked under Martin Indyk, the lead Israeli-Palestinian negotiator, from 2013 to 2017, both as special assistant and later chief of staff. During that time, Indyk and Secretary of State John Kerry aimed to restart stalled negotiations in the 2013–2014 peace talks. In 2019, Sawyer joined the Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs as a senior advisor. Previously, Sawyer had been the director for Arabian Peninsula affairs at the National Security Council (NSC) from 2012 to 2013.

  • Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall

    Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, Executive Office of the President

    In the Obama administration, Sherwood-Randall served as the White House coordinator for countering weapons of mass destruction and arms. In that position, she oversaw the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. Previously, she was the senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council (NSC), where she worked to strengthen U.S. alliances with the EU, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

  • Dana Stroul

    Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East, U.S. Department of State

    From 2018 to 2021, Stroul was a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on issues of Arab politics. She went to the Washington Institute from her position as a senior staff member at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2013 to 2018, covering the Middle East and North Africa regions and USAID. Prior to that work, Stroul was an analyst in the Middle East Policy department in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2008 to 2013. Along with Brett McGurk, Stroul visited the Middle East as part of a federal delegation in May 2021, stopping in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The trip was, in part, intended to show support for U.S. allies in the region who are wary of the U.S. re-entering the Iran nuclear deal.

  • Jake Sullivan

    White House National Security Advisor, National Security Council, Executive Office of the President

    At the Department of State during the former Obama administration, Sullivan focused on U.S. policy toward Libya and Syria during the civil wars in those countries, and shaped U.S. relations with Myanmar. As national security advisor, Sullivan is tasked with overseeing the U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan. Read more about Sullivan’s role in the Biden administration here.

  • Linda Thomas-Greenfield

    U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. Mission to the United Nations, U.S. Department of State

    From 2013 to 2017, Thomas-Greenfield served in the Department of State as the assistant secretary of state for African affairs. In that position, she was responsible for the implementation of U.S. policy in sub-Saharan Africa, working to enforce human rights and combat terrorism. She previously served in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration from 2004 to 2006. Read more about Thomas-Greenfield’s role in the Biden administration here.

Read the Full Policy Priority Briefing ➞

The Biden Plan for Ending the War in Afghanistan and Addressing Ongoing Middle East Conflicts

Key challenges:

  • There is no straightforward way to end the U.S. conflict in Afghanistan, and Biden’s decision to withdraw troops completely risks plunging the region into a renewed civil war.
  • A complete withdrawal from Iraq and Syria risks a repeat of the disastrous U.S. withdrawal in 2011, which created a power vacuum that contributed to the rise of ISIS.
  • While Biden has promised to be stricter on Saudi Arabia, the key role that the kingdom plays in containing Iran inhibits the U.S. from eschewing it as an ally.