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Opinion What the Senate should be asking Biden’s national security nominees

Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris speaks in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 24 during introductions of President-elect Joe Biden's picks for his national security team. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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President-elect Joe Biden will be completing the remainder of his top Cabinet and White House staff selections in the coming weeks. A smattering of Republicans has raised spate of disingenuous objections. (Too many Ivy League degrees!) Instead of thinking up spurious justifications to vote “no” on qualified nominees, senators might actually prepare some serious questions that would shed light on the policy challenges we face after a chaotic, corrupt and self-destructive presidency.

In particular, the foreign policy choices Biden faces are some of the most complicated and nettlesome that any modern U.S. president has confronted, made worse by the outgoing administration’s erratic conduct and self-inflicted wounds.

Designees for secretary of state (Antony Blinken), secretary of defense (retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III), director of national intelligence (Avril Haines), representative to the United Nations (Linda Thomas-Greenfield) and trade representative (Katherine Tai) and their Senate inquisitors should prepare for some substantive questions. Here are some to get them started:

  • How does the State Department build back morale, retain and recapture expertise and develop a diverse, trained workplace that can conduct effective diplomatic engagement?
  • How do we communicate to adversaries that international aggression, including cyberattacks, will not be tolerated?
  • How should we integrate defense of human rights with our long-term strategic interests?
  • What is the appropriate way to hold both friends and foes accountable for human rights violations?
  • What is our goal in the Middle East, and how do we attain it? Should we reevaluate our relationship with the Saudis?
  • How do we put the genie back in the bottle on the Iran nuclear deal now that Iran is wildly out of compliance? Should we use this opportunity to fix shortcomings in the original agreement?
  • How do we address the international refugee crisis? How do we reduce violence in Central America to reduce the impetus for people to flee to the United States?
  • North Korea has never shown interest in denuclearization. How do we reach that goal, or should we seek something less than full denuclearization?
  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which boxed out China, was a strategic tool to align ourselves with democratic regimes, open markets and create trade rules that advanced our interests. Did we blow it by not ratifying that agreement, and how should we pursue those objectives going forward?
  • How do we prepare to face new pandemics? What if anything in the World Health Organization must be fixed?
  • How do we align our national security objectives with our national security budget? Where can we reduce expenditures without jeopardizing national security, and where must we increase them?
  • The president-elect says he wants to reinforce the principle of civilian control of the military. How does he do that, specifically, with a defense secretary nominee who needs a waiver of the rule requiring a seven-year lapse between military service and service as civilian chief of the Pentagon?
  • Several administrations have failed to get at the nub of our trade complaints against China, such as theft of intellectual property. How do we alleviate tariffs that are harmful to our own consumers, businesses and farmers while applying pressure to have an impact on China’s economic conduct?
  • How, if at all, should we reform Congress’s military authorizations for use of force?
  • How should we reform intelligence oversight and prevent politicization of intelligence analysis?
  • What United Nations’ reforms are required? Should NATO be expanded — or shrunk?

In the four years since Democrats were in the White House, we have seen substantial changes in the world. Israel has a network of alliances with Arab nations. We arguably face a greater threat from domestic White nationalist terrorism than we do from foreign Islamist terrorism. Allies’ confidence in our reliability has frayed, while illiberal regimes perceive little downside in violating neighbors’ sovereignty (physically or by cyberterrorism) and international human rights.

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Holding substantive and sober hearings, for a change, would be a welcome sign that we collectively appreciate the new international environment and the extent of our foreign challenges. Unfortunately, it is far from clear that Republican senators who spent their time parroting Russian propaganda and turning a blind eye toward President Trump’s outrageous coddling of dictators and dangerous isolationism are up to the task.

Watch the latest Opinions video:

The U.S. is more politically polarized than ever. The Post’s Kate Woodsome asks experts what drives political sectarianism — and what we can do about it. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

The Post’s View: Here’s a change: A national security team with integrity, experience and skill

Antony J. Blinken and Robert Kagan: ‘America First’ is only making the world worse. Here’s a better approach.

Max Boot: Biden unveils a national security team without grifters, trolls or fanatics

Josh Rogin: The election has already changed the politics of U.S. foreign policy

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Team Biden has to show that foreign policy elites got the message

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