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Why Transition Delays Won't Be A Problem For Biden's National Security Team


President-elect Joe Biden's new national security team is getting to work. Here's how Biden put it yesterday.


JOE BIDEN: America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it - once again sit at the head of the table.

GREENE: The task ahead, of course, is enormous. And to take it on, Biden has nominated several former senior Obama administration officials to top national security positions - Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of homeland security, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, Avril Haines as director of national intelligence.

Dennis Blair is a former Navy admiral who served as President Obama's first director of national intelligence, and he joins us this morning. Admiral, thanks for being here.

DENNIS BLAIR: Good to be here, David.

GREENE: So this is kind of a moment you know well. You began your job as DNI in the White House under President Obama, coming right out of the Bush administration - different policies, different approaches. What is that kind of pivot like for them right now?

BLAIR: Well, it's a case of learning where all of the levers are, which will be easier in the case of the Biden team. It's a case of going from being able to talk about the big issues that face the country to the awful realization that you actually have to do something about them and make good things happen.

GREENE: What do you mean by trying to figure out where the levers of power are? I mean, could the levers have changed in these four years, while some of these people have been out?

BLAIR: Well, it's the combination of diplomacy, use of the armed forces, use of intelligence tools in order to advance American interests in a particular issue or region. And those things do subtly change over four years. And you find that the old mixture of those levers of power that we - the United States deploys is not effective in its original form, and you have to alter them.

GREENE: I just think about, you know, some of the relationships with European countries, for example, countries that - you know, where leaders have been very frustrated with some of the language and rhetoric coming from the Trump administration. If you're in a new foreign policy team coming in, I mean, what are you doing to kind of build those ties back to form alliances that you want to bring back?

BLAIR: Well, one of the things you have to avoid - and we noticed this in the Obama administration, such a popular president coming in to such acclaim - was that you're not going to change, with bedside manner and with a personal relationship, fundamental differences of national interests. There's a tendency to think, oh, we're new. The American people just elected us. We're great. When I talk to - fill in the blank; name the foreign leader - that person will be just as convinced as the American people were of the need to do it my way.

And, in fact, real national interests underlie some of these differences, and you have to be smarter about what it really is you're dealing with with another country that you have to work with or have to oppose them just thinking that the charm of your personality and the fact that you're new will make the real difference.

GREENE: Is the challenge harder for Biden's team because of this delay we've seen - President Trump's refusal to concede, the delays getting the Biden team classified briefings? I mean, can a few weeks make a big difference, or has that been a bit exaggerated?

BLAIR: That's been way exaggerated in my opinion. If people listen to your radio station, read the paper and all, they can keep up on the general trend of what's going on and the various important foreign policy issues for the country. The intelligence briefings really just fill in detail in 99.9% of the cases. There are a few very secret programs we have that have stayed out of the paper that are in place, and they need to learn about those. But those take a long time to set up. They will be there. And so a couple of weeks doesn't really make any difference.

GREENE: I want to ask you an important question. I mean, the world is different now than it was four years ago. I don't have to tell you that. Is there an argument that maybe some new, fresh faces and new ideas might be important as opposed to going with largely old hands?

BLAIR: Yeah, it's a trade-off, isn't it, David? I mean what (ph) - the ideal thing is to have new, fresh and exciting ideas from very experienced people who can make them happen. The idea that you bring in somebody who has no idea how it - how the sausage is actually made in Washington but has been sitting out there in - you name the place - thinking fresh thoughts, it's just a recipe for disaster. And we've seen that time after time.

What you want is somebody who has been using their time out of office to reflect on what happened, to come up with new approaches that they would have liked to have had had they had more time or known more about it and then to put those in place when they come back in. And that's what I'm hoping this administration will have. So I think - I think lack of experience is overrated as a qualification for...

GREENE: (Laughter).

BLAIR: ...For Washington effectiveness.

GREENE: I was struck by something Thomas Wright wrote in The Atlantic - that Biden's presidency may be the establishment's last best chance to demonstrate that liberal internationalism is a superior strategy to populist nationalism. Is that what's at stake here?

BLAIR: It is in part. But - yeah. Yeah, I think that's true. The support that's been lost for the traditional America-leading, internationalist, the-rest-of-the-world-looking-to-us diplomacy - the missing element was the effect on the domestic economy and the personal fortunes of many Americans. And we - the administration has to show that what's good for the country is good for America. And I think that can be done, but we have to take more account of the ill effects of some of the international stance we take, especially in the economic area. I don't think there any downside in the national security area. And we need to get back to working with our allies, which was - is one of our huge advantages over the countries that wish us ill.

GREENE: Dennis Blair served under President Obama as director of national intelligence. Admiral, thank you so much.

BLAIR: OK. So long, David. Happy Thanksgiving.

GREENE: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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