National Security

Five things to know about Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for State

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President-elect Biden this week picked Antony Blinken, a longtime aide and one of his closest foreign policy advisers, for secretary of State. 

Blinken has an extensive background in foreign policy matters, and if confirmed, he will face a series of arising and persisting challenges, all amid a dangerous pandemic.

Here are five things to know about Blinken.

Blinken has a years-long working relationship with Biden

Blinken and Biden’s relationship dates back decades. 

When Biden served as chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Blinken served as his Democratic staff director for six years. He then followed Biden to the White House when the senator was elected vice president, serving as Biden’s national security adviser. 

Blinken later went on to serve in various capacities in the Obama administration including as an assistant to President Barack Obama and as the president’s principal deputy national security advisor.

He was again at Biden’s side after he launched his presidential bid, serving as a key foreign policy adviser for the campaign. 

Blinken in Tuesday remarks accepting his nomination said his relationship with the president-elect has been the highlight of his professional career.

“Mr. President-elect, working for you — and having you as mentor and friend — has been the greatest privilege of my professional life,” Blinken said.  

And Biden, in announcing Blinken as his foreign policy chief pick, called him one of his “closest and most trusted advisors.”

Blinken has had hyperfocus on Middle East

Blinken has acknowledged that he became hyperfocused on foreign policy in the Middle East after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and again during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

When Biden was in the Senate, Blinken helped him craft a plan to address divisions in Iraq. He advocated for trying to divide Iraqis by their ethnic or sectarian identities in order to create three zones that would have the ability to govern themselves. The idea, however, was widely rejected, including by Iraq’s prime minister at the time.

Still, Blinken did shape U.S. policy in the Middle East. 

During the Obama administration, he was responsible for building a coalition of dozens of countries that worked to counter ISIS in the region. Blinken also chaired the administration’s efforts for deciding foreign policy, which addressed matters like Afghanistan and Iran’s nuclear program.

Blinken wants to raise State’s morale

As deputy secretary of State during the Obama administration, one of Blinken’s final – and more memorable moments depending on who you ask – was held out of public view at the agency’s holiday party, where he took up the guitar in the State Department’s band to play a riff on a Bob Dylan tune, with the lyrics changed in a tribute to staff. 

“He’s been playing with his colleagues in government for some time,” said Halie Soifer, who served at the State Department under Blinken.

Also in the band was Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who at the time was serving as Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Blinken, when accepting his nomination for secretary of State in Delaware on Tuesday, thanked his “bandmates” alongside his colleagues in the Obama and Clinton administrations, the Senate and the State Department. 

“That’s really what it symbolized. He wasn’t just a leader as deputy secretary, in terms of making decisions at the top, he was a leader in terms of supporting the entire building,” Soifer said.  

Lew Lukens, who served as deputy chief of mission to the U.S. embassy in London in the Obama administration until 2018, described Blinken as “humble and understated” but said he would bring a deep understanding and appreciation for the State Department and is “knowledgeable and thoughtful about Biden’s priorities.”

“I think it is clear that this will be a team that recognizes the importance of working with allies and partners to address global, transnational threats,” Lukens said. “They understand that we can best address terrorism, pandemics, climate change, and other threats by working collaboratively with like-minded nations instead of pursuing an ‘American first/alone’ approach.”

Blinken is stepson of a Holocaust survivor

Blinken has credited his view of the U.S. as being shaped by both his father, who served in the Air Force during World War II and was an ambassador to Hungary, as well as his stepfather, a Holocaust survivor who saw the U.S. as a beacon of freedom and liberty. 

He highlighted both their stories in his Tuesday remarks accepting his nomination, calling his father Donald Blinken his role model and hero. 

Blinken also told the story of how his step-father, Samuel Pisar, came to America. Pisar, one of the few surviving members of his family, was hiding in the woods in Bavaria to escape one of the final death marches at the end of World War II, when he saw a tank with a white, five-pointed star painted on it. 

“He ran to the tank. The hatch opened. An African American G.I. looked down at him. He fell to his knees and said the only three words he knew in English that his mother had taught him: ‘God Bless America.’ The G.I. lifted him into the tank, into America, into freedom,” Blinken said. 

Dan Fried, a former US ambassador and veteran of the Foreign Service who has known Blinken for decades, said he believes this story illustrates Blinken’s foreign policy view. 

“I’ve never told him this, but I suspect his foreign-policy thinking is derived from his sense of America’s identity as a country of values,” he said in an interview with The Atlantic Council, “a country that could lift his refugee stepfather right into America, and a country that knew that the advance of its values and interests were somehow linked.”

Blinken has two young children

Blinken will be stepping into the demanding job at a time when he and his wife have two young children at home, making him the first secretary of State in modern times to have young toddlers, including a one-year old.

Blinken is married to Evan Maureen Ryan, who has also been active in U.S politics. The two met while serving in the Clinton administration. 

During his time in government, Blinken also showed an interest in early education. In September 2016, Blinken appeared on the famed children’s show Sesame Street as part of an effort to raise awareness about the plight of refugees and the work of the United Nations.

“It will be inspiring for working parents everywhere to see America’s top diplomat in action as he also helps raise two toddlers,” tweeted Samantha Power, his former colleague who served as Obama’s U.N. ambassador. “Thanks to Tony & the incomparable Evan Ryan for their family sacrifice.”

Tags Afghanistan Barack Obama Foreign policy Iran Iraq Middle East Samantha Power Tom Malinowski
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