‘He’s always had a plan’: The inexorable rise of Jake Sullivan


Reflecting on his time in the Obama White House, Sullivan said he felt more could have been done there, too, to put the average American on the agenda in the Situation Room on a regular basis. And he paused for a long moment when asked how the rise of Trump and Trumpism had affected his worldview, attuning him more, for example, to the populist tide at home that he may have missed while focusing on international nuclear negotiations, peace deals and trade treaties.

“When you spend years in government working on the Iran deal, or working on the Asia-Pacific rebalance, or working on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it’s not that you completely lose sight of what’s happening on the home front — but your focus is more on other things,” Sullivan said. “I do think that the 2016 campaign had an impact on my thinking, but it wasn’t all about Trump. It was about the vigorous debate the Democrats had in the primary. It was about a recognition, as I left national security and entered a domestic political conversation, about how profoundly such a large segment of our country felt their government wasn’t working for them.”

Sullivan caveats that he doesn’t believe such economic anxiety was the sole driver of Trump’s 2016 victory, which he says was also fueled by appeals to identity and isolationism. But the campaign gave him a “crash course,” he said, in the importance of bringing issues of inequality, dislocation and a disconnect between working people and their government to “every table in the White House — including in the Situation Room.”

So what will a Sullivan-led National Security Council look like? It won’t be too big or micromanaging, Sullivan insists — criticisms that dogged the Obama NSC, which stood accused of stepping on the prerogatives of Cabinet agencies, be it by setting troop levels or insisting on signing off on individual drone strikes.

“I see my job as fundamentally about supporting and lifting up the work of the broader national security team in service of the president-elect’s mission and strategy,” he said. “My goal is to have a process that is able to give sufficient direction, but then empower the departments and agencies to be the tip of the spear to carry that out.”

“He is unlikely to be confined to traditional structures,” said former Obama NSC official Salman Ahmed. “He has long argued persuasively that these issues don't fit neatly within the bureaucratic lens.”

The early years of Obama’s NSC were often tense, particularly under retired Gen. Jim Jones, an outsider who often clashed with the coterie of political aides around the president and resigned just before the 2010 midterms.

Among the many challenges Sullivan will confront immediately, knowing colleagues like incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain won’t be one of them. “I’d argue no two people know each other better, have worked more closely, overlapped more or have a better working relationship on Day One than any chief of staff/national security adviser pair before them,” said Reines.

“They all worked together at one level down in the Obama administration,” another former Obama White House official said. “They are all friends — they’re not strangers, not rivals, and at the very least are all known commodities to each other.”

One could argue that might make the team insular, prone to the kind of groupthink that can lead to mistakes and missed opportunities. Mike Pompeo, the outgoing secretary of State, has already mocked his successors for allegedly living in “a bit of a fantasy world” and for practicing “multilateralism for the sake of hanging out with your buddies at a cool cocktail party.”

The former Obama White House official said the preexisting relationships among the Biden crew will make them effective — unlike the early days of the Trump presidency, which was plagued by rivalries, competing media leaks, backstabbing and constant staff turnover.

For all Sullivan’s innate caution, he seems inclined to break sharply with his predecessors’ emphasis on a traditional definition of U.S. national security: tanks and missiles, grand summits and spy satellites.

The “major focus” of the Biden NSC’s work, at least initially, will be on beating the coronavirus pandemic and restructuring the NSC to make public health a permanent national security priority, Sullivan said. China will also be put on notice, he added.

“The way you actually make sure this doesn't happen again is by sending a very clear message to China that the United States and the rest of the world will not accept a circumstance in which we do not have an effective public health surveillance system, with an international dimension, in China and across the world going forward,” Sullivan said. A key theme Sullivan repeatedly returns to is the restoration of alliances and partnerships that were neglected or spurned under Trump.

“Unlike the policy of the last few years, we will be able to rally the rest of the world behind us” on key foreign policy and national security issues, such as pressuring Iran to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal so that the U.S. can reenter negotiations, Sullivan said.

He is similarly optimistic about one of his loftiest goals: “to rally our allies to combat corruption and kleptocracy, and to hold systems of authoritarian capitalism accountable for greater transparency and participation in a rules-based system.”

That effort will need to begin at home — as has been well documented, the world’s kleptocratic regimes depend heavily on money laundering networks that commonly extend into Western centers of global finance like New York and London, aided by lax incorporation rules in places like Delaware.

But as one former Obama administration official put it, the hardest task for Biden and by extension Sullivan will be cleaning up the “shattered glass” left by the Trump administration, along with an international community that has grown weary of the whiplash induced by America’s political dramas.

“It’s a different world now,” said Ambassador Dennis Ross, a veteran diplomat who worked with Sullivan in the Obama White House. “But Jake brings experience and personal relationships that are indispensable.”

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