White House shifts from Middle East quagmires to a showdown with China

Under the new structure, Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell’s domain is growing, while the directorate overseen by Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk will be more limited, several current and former officials said.

The changes essentially flip the structure of the Obama-era NSC, where the Middle East directorate was much bigger than it is now and the Asia portfolio was managed by a handful of more junior staffers. Obama’s second term featured an onslaught of national security threats and priorities emanating from the Middle East, from the Islamic State and the Iran nuclear deal to the Libyan and Syrian conflicts and the resulting migration crisis in Europe.

But Biden and his team now believe the biggest security challenges will emerge from the so-called great power competition between the U.S., China and Russia, current and former national security officials say, and are shifting their resources accordingly.

“What we’ve seen over the last few years is that China is growing more authoritarian at home and more assertive abroad,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday. “And Beijing is now challenging our security, prosperity, and values in significant ways that require a new U.S. approach.”

Biden’s team also wants to avoid another quagmire in the Middle East and strengthen core alliances in Asia and Europe that they argue were neglected or spurned under former President Donald Trump, the current and former officials noted.

“Given the structure of the NSC staff, I think they’re pretty determined to stick to their affirmative priorities instead of getting sucked into the Middle East,” a former Obama official said. Sullivan’s professional credo — making foreign policy work for the American middle class — is also a factor, given the enormous stakes the U.S. and Asia have in each other’s economic prosperity.

“Transferring policy resources from the Middle East to Asia is a better reflection of America’s economic realities,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Asia policy is directly relevant to American farmers, corporations and tech companies in a way that the Middle East is not, especially given America’s domestic energy resources,” Sadjadpour noted. “After two painful decades in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s also little bipartisan popular support to do more in the Middle East.”

The new priorities have been clear from the Biden team’s initial outreach to key European and Asian allies. Sullivan’s first calls, the day after Biden’s inauguration, were with his counterparts in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan, according to NSC readouts of the conversations, and he’s also spoken with South Korea’s national security adviser. Biden’s first calls were to the leaders of Canada, Mexico, and the U.K., and he spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga this week (he also held a testy call with Russian President Vladimir Putin). While Sullivan has spoken with counterparts in Afghanistan and Israel, Biden has yet to reach out to those countries’ leaders, according to a review of the White House’s readouts.

As it stands now, the Middle East portfolio will be handled by McGurk and one senior director below him, Barbara Leaf. The Indo-Pacific portfolio overseen by Campbell, meanwhile, has three senior directors — Laura Rosenberger as the senior director for China, Sumona Guha as the senior director for South Asia, and Andrea Kendall-Taylor as the senior director for Russia and Central Asia. On the Obama NSC, the China portfolio was not at the “senior director” level, and the Asia portfolio did not have an overarching coordinator, a former official noted.

“This is basically a continuation of the pivot of Asia without perhaps saying as much publicly,” the former Obama official said, referring to the new NSC’s expansion of the Asia portfolio.

In 2011, Obama publicly declared that he had instructed his national security team “to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority,” as he signaled that the United States needed to rebalance its focus away from Europe and the Middle East after neglecting to confront China’s rapid ascendancy. The shift became known as the “pivot to Asia” following then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration that the U.S. was standing “at a pivot point” as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down.

Campbell, who is now leading the Indo-Pacific portfolio, was a key driver of the new strategy as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the Obama administration. But its success was mixed, and it was viewed skeptically by Middle East and European allies.

The former official said that the quiet restructuring — without fanfare or grand proclamations of a new foreign policy direction — therefore appeared deliberate. “We saw the response when Obama talked publicly about the ‘pivot to Asia,’” he said. “We probably got less credit in Asia than blowback in the Middle East. It’s better to just do it than just talk about it.”

The apparent shift is not limited to the NSC. Asia experts are being seeded across the new administration, including at the Defense Department, where former Biden aide Ely Ratner has been tapped as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s principal adviser on China and Kelly Magsamen, who served as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs until 2017, has been named Austin’s chief of staff.

Austin, a former Centcom commander, is keenly aware that the Biden administration wants to shift the Pentagon’s emphasis eastward. “Globally, I understand that Asia must be the focus of our effort,” Austin said during his confirmation hearing. “China presents the most significant threat going forward because China is ascending.”

One of Austin’s first moves in his new job was to install three special advisers on key issues — China, the Covid-19 pandemic and climate. The Middle East was notably absent.

At the State Department, Asia-Pacific expert Mira Rapp-Hooper has been installed as senior adviser on China in Policy Planning and at the United Nations, Jeffrey Prescott, who served as deputy national security adviser and senior Asia adviser for then-Vice President Biden, has been nominated as deputy ambassador.

The bolstered emphasis on Asia comes after a 2020 presidential campaign that heavily featured China, with both Trump and Biden working to outflank each other on who would be tougher on Beijing.

“China represents a special challenge,” Biden wrote in an op-ed for Foreign Affairs magazine last year, about how he would “rescue” U.S. foreign policy after Trump. “I have spent many hours with its leaders, and I understand what we are up against.”

There’s only so much Biden can control, however. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not anticipate the Iraq war or the Arab Spring, for example, when they were laying out their first-term foreign policy priorities.

“Every foreign policy agenda begins with a pivot to Asia and ends with divots in the Middle East,” one foreign policy expert remarked. “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. It’s not surprising to me that this is how they’re beginning, but things are eminently unpredictable.”