US President Joe Biden took office in January with a deep bench of talents ready to get to work. Yet despite this apparent head start in staffing a new government, his administration struggled to name – let alone confirm – critical roles in foreign policy and national security.
Now these struggles pose a threat to the national security of the United States.
Quick out the door to fill non-confirmable positions and appointments, Team Biden was very late recent presidents to hire for critical positions. On nearly eight hundred meetings monitored by the Partnership for the Public Service at the beginning of August, only 115 had been confirmed by the Senate. Meanwhile, the administration has yet to even appoint staff for at least 245 appointed positions. These include senior officials and ambassadors from the State Department as well as senior national security officials from the Treasury Department.
It’s not just about bureaucracy. The lack of people in these leadership positions undermines the government’s preparedness for emerging threats and hampers progress on important issues, those that may not dominate the day-to-day front pages. Surprisingly, an administration that was so well organized and staffed as a campaign was more dysfunctional in its appointments and confirmations than the Trump administration, which took office with virtually no plans for how to form a government (and suffered from it).
While staff shortages have undermined the Biden administration’s ability to tackle key challenges in many areas, national security is perhaps most important. The inaction of the administration results in real problems.
Consequences in the real world
For example, the United States has fallen behind the European Union (EU) in imposing sanctions on Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka – choosing to wait until August 9, the first anniversary of his stolen election, rather than acting in concert with Brussels two months since. The understaffed offices of state and treasury departments likely played a role in the delay, which may have reinforced Lukashenka’s sense of impunity. Just last month, a Belarusian sprinter defected from the Olympics after an apparent kidnapping attempt in Tokyo, while a Belarusian opposition activist found dead in Kiev in the midst of mysterious circumstances.
Further east, the Biden team seemed content to counter the myriad of problems posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps believing that the escalation with Russia could distract attention from bigger issues. Still, Putin tends not to let the White House wait until she is ready to deal with him. The Biden administration needs options to coerce an aggressive Putin, even if it prefers not to act on them. To do this, it needs senior government and treasury officials to examine these options and prepare the administration to act quickly if necessary.
Meanwhile, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) still lacks the $ 60 million it needs, and Congress has recommended creating a centralized database for beneficial ownership data. of all corporations in the United States, as well as the many other benchmark reforms 2020 Anti-Money Laundering Law. Launching the database is arguably the law’s most critical task, and the lack of such functionality has long been a black mark on the US financial system. It’s no coincidence that the Treasury Department lacks key staff: FinCEN has been headed by two acting directors in a row, while two key leadership positions – the Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence ( to which FinCEN reports) and the Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes – have yet to receive confirmation votes from the Senate.
This is probably why the Biden administration has been slow to find a funding mechanism for this incredibly important challenge. The result of inaction will be continued opacity and vulnerability of the US financial system to a wide range of malicious actors, a fight that had been seen as a major goal of the Biden presidency.
Finally, the State Department still lacks a deputy secretary for Europe and a senior energy representative was missing until this week. These are the same people who should have led the negotiations over the challenges posed by the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Negotiating the project, especially with German companies in the crosshairs of the sanctions imposed by Congress, was always going to be a big deal. delicate diplomatic enterprise. Washington’s compromise with Berlin last month sparked bipartisan complaints that the United States received too few guarantees from Germany and made Ukraine and Poland even more vulnerable to exploitation by Russia .
What is behind the backlog
Several factors are to be blamed for the slow selection of candidates.
On the one hand, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) blocked State Department appointments– while Republicans sit on the Senate Banking Committee hold back the roles of the Treasury Department – on the Nord Stream fiasco. The Senate should consider reworking its rules if one or a small handful of its members can thwart the advice and consent of their whole body. But the Biden administration’s problems extend beyond the upper house of Congress.
The White House Presidential Personnel Office, which handles verification and nominations, has also struggled to nominate candidates for critical positions, despite the abundance of talent waiting to serve. And when it does, infighting among Democrats hampered the process: Heidi Crebo-Rediker, a respected economist in government service, recently saw her appointment as undersecretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department. inexplicably withdrawn, apparently thanks to progressive democrats. An extremely experienced administration like Biden’s shouldn’t make such mistakes.
One of my former graduate professors, who was a senior national security official under President George W. Bush, used to say that the White House can only really focus on one big thing and half at a time. The Biden team wisely focused on the global response to COVID-19, domestic infrastructure spending, major cyber attacks, and attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Yet these are not the only problems plaguing the United States and its allies. National security challenges never work on a set schedule, and the rambling responses to the challenges that have emerged this year are the result of not having the right people in place.
Going forward, an understaffed administration will threaten Biden’s effectiveness in responding to a rapidly changing world. His administration and Congress must work together to address this national security vulnerability.
Brian O’Toole is a non-resident senior researcher at the GeoEconomics Center and a former senior official in the US Department of the Treasury.
Wed Jul 21, 2021
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