Biden’s Sleepily Reassuring Appointments

If you wonder how Biden’s appointees will govern, just close your eyes and imagine yourself back to 2016.

Antony Blinken, Michèle Flournoy, and Jake Sullivan
Cliff Owen / Charles Dharapak / Jose Luis Magana / AP

About the author: Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

The name “Sleepy Joe” was meant to be pejorative rather than prophetic. But today President-elect Joe Biden’s team leaked the names of three likely appointees, and they are the equivalent of a warm cup of Ovaltine with a melatonin chaser. According to reports, Antony Blinken, Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of state, will be nominated for secretary of state. Michèle Flournoy, an under secretary of defense under Obama, is widely expected to be nominated for secretary of defense. And Jake Sullivan, Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, will be appointed national security adviser. They will barely need to order new business cards: A felt-tip marker to take out a word or two will suffice. If you wonder how these people will govern, just close your eyes and imagine yourself back to 2016, before you developed that nervous tic that causes you to rip out your hair by its roots whenever your phone buzzes with a news alert.

Do you remember that time? First the good news: Blinken, Flournoy, and Sullivan are not widely remembered by ordinary, non-Beltway people, because they were hypercompetent public servants who tended not to make hilarious, unforced errors. They did not, like the current secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, joke about canceling the result of a U.S. election, or swear at a journalist while quizzing her about world geography. They knew their job and took it seriously—unlike, say, Rick Perry, who discovered only after his nomination as secretary of energy that his main task was to oversee a nuclear arsenal capable of rendering the planet uninhabitable. At any point in the past eight years or so, you could have shaken Blinken, Flournoy, and Sullivan awake in the middle of the night and appointed them to these positions, and they would have been at their desk and ready to do their job by sunrise.

Biden had alternatives and could have packed his Cabinet with appointees not known primarily for their bureaucratic skill: Mayor Pete Buttigieg or Senator Mitt Romney at State, say, or Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois at Defense. Buttigieg or Duckworth would reassure Democrats that new voices can still rise in the establishment. A Romney nomination would reassure Republicans that Biden does not intend to hunt them to extinction for the sin of enabling Donald Trump. Instead, Biden chose three Democratic policy virtuosos, the exact people you would choose if you wanted to reassure everyone, at the risk of boring them, that the incoming administration will resemble the one that left in 2017, with a modest generational upgrade.

Sullivan articulated the goals of this familiar team in The Atlantic last year. His manifesto’s bland decency is characteristic of our shared home state of Minnesota. “Despite its flaws,” Sullivan argued, “America possesses distinctive attributes that can be put to work to advance both the national interest and the larger common interest.” Forget Ovaltine—too spicy! This is a tall glass of warm milk. America shouldn’t be conceited. We should admit error and do better next time. Our purpose is to “protect and defend the American way of life,” not just for us, but for other countries whose blessings have not placed them in a position to lead the world against “aggression, authoritarianism, and malignant corruption.” Pompeo famously said he would bring “swagger” to the State Department. Sullivan’s essay heralds the cancellation of that particular initiative, which sounded doomed anyway, since nothing is less swaggery than announcing one’s intention to swagger.

So hypercompetence is coming back. The bad news is that 2016, the last full year in which this hypercompetent team was in power, was a bit of a nightmare, particularly in the Middle East. The Obama administration had learned the lesson of Iraq, where regime change and nation building had failed. Instead it tried supporting Libyan rebels with weapons but not nation building, and supporting Syrian rebels with neither weapons nor nation building. Both countries devolved into apocalyptic messes. I seem to remember a group called ISIS that would slaughter dozens of innocent civilians at a time, not only in Iraq and Syria but also in places such as Paris and Orlando. Central Europe had to digest a massive refugee flow from Syria and Afghanistan, and the resulting borborygmus upended European politics and enabled a populist wave that has yet to crest.

Blinken and Sullivan negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran deal. In theory, the Iran deal froze the Iranian nuclear program, in exchange for sanctions relief, cash, and other goodies for Tehran. Stopping Iranian nuclear development is a proper goal, but even the deal’s defenders acknowledged that it guaranteed the survival of an odious regime and did little to constrain its nonnuclear misbehavior across the region. Maybe the deal was worth cutting; nuclear nonproliferation is worth a concession or two. Even if it was, it should have made you wince, and prepare for a tumultuous future of proxy wars. None of the hard-won negotiations with Iran yielded a result as concrete as the diplomatic normalization between Israel and three Arab states, a Trump achievement that Obama wouldn’t have managed in a third term, or possibly even a fourth.

Four years of Trump were four years of constant stimulation, pleasurable for the MAGA set, painful for others. Personally I feel like the victim of a sadistic dentist who has finally drilled out every tooth and vivisected the last live nerve within. Now my mouth is packed with gauze, and the numbness is a deliverance: What a luxury to see the Cabinet gradually populated with low-key operators who do not view manic stimulation of the electorate as a sign of a job well done. The real sign of a job well done would be actual restoration of the wholesome vision of American-led idealism that Sullivan has promised, and that his team never quite delivered the last time it was in power.

The names Blinken, Flournoy, and Sullivan make me rest a lot easier than their analogues Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Michael Flynn did four years ago. (Still less comforting is the veritable Insane Clown Posse of unhinged acting officials currently running sectors of the government, now that Trump has ceased bothering to appoint permanent officers.) I’ll enjoy that rest while it lasts—but melatonin wears off eventually, and the problems of the world will still be there when it does.