Biden’s White House: Are we nearing ‘The Klain Mutiny’?

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White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, left, shown in a June 6, 2021, file photo with President Biden, is said to be a micromanager.

The Biden administration is losing the short game when it comes to U.S. national security, and President Biden’s upcoming July trip to the Middle East is yet another case study in how the White House keeps misfiring and setting the president up for failure. It would be one thing if the administration’s missteps were merely unforced errors, but they are not. They appear to be systemic in nature — they begin with chief of staff Ron Klain and extend to national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Biden may have hoped to be rid of “forever wars” such as Afghanistan, but we live in a world dominated by a hot war in Ukraine, ongoing U.S. military involvement in Syria, “mounting tensions” between the U.S. and China in the Pacific, and Iran and North Korea emerging as potential nuclear threats.

Given this evolving reality, Klain’s glaring lack of substantive national security or foreign policy experience, either at a Cabinet or command level, is proving problematic. It is his job, as gatekeeper to the Oval Office, to balance the competing exigencies of Biden’s domestic and international teams and agendas. Now, 17 months into Biden’s presidency, it is clear that Klain, Sullivan, Blinken and Austin are incapable of prioritizing, let alone apolitically balancing, the two — with U.S. national security (and Biden) paying an unacceptable price.

Consider Israel, for example. Jerusalem no doubt was viscerally an enticing presidential international stage — particularly for an unpopular president reeling from 40-year high inflation, skyrocketing fuel prices, a stalled domestic agenda and some Democratic insiders arguing that an aging Biden should not run again in 2024. Fair enough — it is a tried-and-true tactic. Fuel up Air Force One to the hilt and fly the president as far away as possible from Washington and, fingers crossed, hope it revives his flagging approval ratings, now down to 36 percent

But to what intended strategic purpose? Preventing a nuclear Iran? Pushing a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia involving the Straits of Tiran? Or simply — as it is increasingly appearing — was this initially meant to be a poorly timed stopover largely designed to prop up a collapsing Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid coalition government in Israel?

In any event, the national security team’s timing was inexplicable, as was its stunning lack of understanding of Israel’s rapidly deteriorating domestic political situation. Even the most casual observer of Israeli politics knew that Bennett was unlikely to survive as prime minister past June 30, when Israel’s Defense Regulations expire.

Bennett’s governing coalition, for months now, was rupturing under the weight of its overly broad coalition of political parties and factions, many of which are fundamentally ideologically opposed to each other. Most perplexing, if not unpardonable, is why Biden’s national security team failed to foresee that longtime Obama-Biden administration nemesis, Benjamin Netanyahu, was eagerly waiting in the wings to use the impending expiration of the regulations as the coup de grâce to put an end to the coalition that ousted him as prime minister in June 2021.

Netanyahu did just that, instructing his opposition Likud party to withhold support for a renewal of the regulations it otherwise supports. As a result, the first reading of the bill failed in the parliament and Bennett and Lapid faced a fait accompli. Either end their careers as politicians and let the regulations expire on their watch or dissolve the 24th Knesset, thereby automatically extending the regulations for six months. Boxed in — something the national security team should have foreseen on their own calendars and that of Biden’s — Bennett and Lapid chose the latter.

Thus, while Biden will be meeting with Lapid, as interim prime minister, it is Netanyahu — the ghost of Israel’s past, present and potentially future — who will overshadow, if not eclipse, the president’s visit to Jerusalem.  

Biden’s second stop, the West Bank, will offer more of the same. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is seriously ill, and Biden has little to offer the Palestinian Authority other than photo ops. Hamas, in turn, will use Biden’s appearance as a reminder that Washington is, in the minds of many Palestinians, the primary reason that Palestine is not yet an independent state with its capital in east Jerusalem.

Biden’s last stop, in Saudi Arabia, is potentially more domestically rewarding but at a steep price. No matter how the administration might try to spin it, given Biden’s “pariah” characterization of Saudi Arabia, repeated condemnations of the kingdom’s human rights abuses and unwillingness to meet one-on-one with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since U.S. intelligence concluded he “ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi,” Biden will appear as coming hat in hand for Saudi oil. If successful, it will be a marginal domestic political win, but one that makes Biden — and by extension, the presidency — appear small, if not desperate, on the global and national security stage.

The Biden administration’s national security team had a far better alternative: a Mideast trip that was Iran-centric. Biden could have united Israel, Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf states by drawing a “red line in the sand” over Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons — and exacted oil production commitments in exchange. Instead, they chose, or at least facilitated, a disjointed agenda that will make Biden look needlessly weak at every stop.

The current state of the national security team is evocative of Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Caine Mutiny.” Set on a minesweeper languishing in the Pacific during World War II, the crew of the fictional USS Caine devolved into shared dysfunction under the command of an ill-suited, domineering captain, eventually leading to mutiny. While Klain certainly is no Lt. Cmdr. Queeg, he is reported to be a “micromanager,” and the collective failures of Biden’s national security team happening on his watch portend the beginnings of a Caine-like “mutiny” — particularly as Sullivan, Blinken and Austin slowly begin to grasp that Klain is unwittingly jeopardizing U.S. national security in order to try to fix Biden’s short-term domestic political woes.

Biden must recognize he is now a war president and that he must make changes to his national security team to reflect this reality. He should start by appointing a James Baker-type chief of staff who is adept and experienced at winning the short and long national security games. Politically, Biden cannot afford more foreign policy errors, nor should U.S. national security be jeopardized again by this administration’s habitual pattern of being late to the game — as egregiously evidenced by Biden’s initial hesitancy to fully back Ukraine militarily.

Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.

Tags Antony Blinken Benjamin Netanyahu Biden Biden White House Jake Sullivan Lloyd Austin Middle East Naftali Bennett National security Ron Klain Ron Klain Russian invasion of Ukraine Yair Lapid

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