President-elect Joe Biden and his team “will have the advantage of a new start with some political capital,” said Mark Cancian, a former Marine and White House budget official who is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But Cancian cautioned that a Biden Pentagon will need to identify a handful of core objectives, or it “will lack the momentum to overcome inertia and partisan opposition.”
Biden’s national security team will attempt to bring greater predictability to the Pentagon, analysts said, following a period of leadership upheaval and high-level vacancies that has included President Trump’s decision to fire his fourth defense secretary, Mark T. Esper, after the Nov. 3 election and elevate White House loyalists at the Pentagon.
Promising a break with often chaotic foreign policy, the new administration is expected to strike a less adversarial stance against Iran, which Trump has depicted as a chief American adversary. As part of its plan to revive international cooperation, Biden’s campaign opened the door to rejoining the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which Trump abandoned.
The switch could reduce the likelihood of the sort of military brinkmanship that characterized the final years of the Trump administration, when the president authorized the killing of a top Iranian general and Tehran launched missiles at U.S. troops in response. But Iran is unlikely to halt its support for armed proxy groups, which have launched attacks on American personnel under presidents of both parties.
Biden’s approach will be partly defined by the fate of the Senate, where the race for several seats won’t be concluded until early next year. Analysts said a Republican-controlled Senate will likely mean the incoming administration will propose more modest cuts to military spending, which has flattened after increases under Trump, than it might have otherwise.
A Republican Senate would also probably result in more centrist nominees for top Pentagon positions, analysts said. Leading the list of possible candidates for defense secretary is Michele Flournoy, who headed the department’s policy operation under President Barack Obama and was considered for a senior role by Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis. Flournoy, who would make history as the first female Pentagon chief, is expected to be easily confirmed if nominated.
Others who might be considered include former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson, who also served as the Pentagon’s top lawyer under Obama and would become the first African American defense secretary; and retired Adm. William McRaven, who served as head of U.S. Special Operations Command and emerged as a vocal critic of Trump.
Over the past four years, Trump frequently blindsided Pentagon leaders with Twitter pronouncements on matters from Syria to bases named for Confederate leaders. His sudden proclamations have undermined Pentagon leaders, forcing them to scramble to respond to his characterization of a troop reduction from Germany as retaliation for insufficient military spending or his moves to overturn department decisions in sensitive military justice matters.
“I think you’re much less likely to see these lurches and nonfulfillment of presidential promises,” said Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security.
Among the areas where a clear break is expected under Biden are personnel policies: The president-elect has said he would reverse Trump-era rules preventing transgender individuals from serving in the military and take steps to protect undocumented troops and their families from deportation.
But on other central policy issues, the new administration will likely embrace a similar tack. In one early pledge, Biden, echoing Trump, has promised to end America’s “forever wars.” But, like it has been for the current president, that may prove to be challenging as militant threats splinter and evolve.
In certain cases, lawmakers may object to scrapping insurgent missions, as they have regarding proposed troop cuts in Africa.
Analysts expect Biden to continue troop cuts in Afghanistan, where violence is surging as diplomats seek to advance peace talks. But while the Trump administration has sent mixed messages about whether it will withdraw all troops in coming months in line with a U.S.-Taliban deal, Biden’s campaign has suggested it would opt to leave a small force to counter al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
But uncertainty about whether peace talks will succeed and the fragility of the Afghan government if they do not could necessitate a larger ongoing American mission there.
Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Biden White House would probably seek to curtail the U.S. mission in Iraq, where Trump has already made troop reductions, and authorize a minimal military presence in Syria.
In keeping with his penchant for making bombshell pronouncements that have surprised Pentagon leaders, Trump has twice promised to pull all troops out of Syria, once forcing a scramble so hurried that American forces had to bomb their own base.
Despite that, Trump has authorized a continued force of about 700 as a firewall against the Islamic State and Iran.
A Biden administration “will be more graceful about those things, but I think with the same end point that a Trump administration and for that matter an Obama administration would have wanted,” Schake said.
The Biden Pentagon is expected to elevate China as its top defense priority, like the Trump administration has done since unveiling a 2018 strategy blueprint, as rapid advances in military technology and ambition make Beijing what American officials deem “the pacing threat.”
But it won’t be easy to make trade-offs required to free up troops and resources for a region where the U.S. military footprint has traditionally been more spare.
Overhauling the Pentagon’s procurement system will also be formidable as the United States tries to better compete with China, which can marshal private sector innovation in a way the U.S. government cannot.
Schake said the Biden administration might be tempted to exercise greater control of military decisions from the White House, a practice that was the subject of widespread Pentagon complaints during the Obama administration.
“Giving political objectives and not wanting to turn the keys on operational and tactical choices is a smarter approach,” she said. “They could buy themselves a lot of goodwill with the Pentagon.”