Antony Blinken: America’s Top Diplomat has a Sharp Eye on the Middle East

US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken

Newly inaugurated U.S. President Joe Biden has chosen his long-time aid, Anthony Blinken to serve as America's new top diplomat in his cabinet. He must still be approved by a majority of US senators but after nearly two decades of working closely with Biden, he has been described as his "brain trust" on foreign policy.

Blinken has held senior foreign policy positions in two administrations over three decades, including Deputy Secretary of State in the Obama administration, the nation’s number two diplomat. In that capacity, the Harvard College and Columbia Law School graduate chaired the inter-agency Deputies Committee, the administration’s principal forum for formulating foreign policy. He helped to lead diplomacy in the fight against ISIS by building a coalition of dozens of countries that worked to counter ISIS in the region. He also helped lead the rebalance to Asia, and the global refugee crisis, while building bridges to the innovation community. Before that, during the first term of the Obama Administration, he was Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President.  Blinken served for six years on Capitol Hill from 2002 to 2008 as Democratic Staff Director for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was a member of President Clinton’s National Security Council staff from 1994 to 2001.

Prior to joining the Clinton Administration, Blinken practiced law in New York and Paris and

was a reporter for The New Republic magazine and has written widely about foreign policy. He is the author of Ally Versus Ally: America, Europe, and the Siberian Pipeline Crisis. More recently, worked as a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and a global affairs analyst for CNN.

Blinken has a long to-do list of foreign policy challenges that Biden wants to tackle, but some officials say he has the characteristics to be successful and there is little doubt that he will be on the same page as the president, having been at the his side for nearly two decades.

"He is a superb choice. He is an accomplished and experienced foreign policy expert," said Colin Powell, President George W. Bush's secretary of state who endorsed Biden in the 2020 campaign. "I know him well. He is a balanced diplomat with a superb reputation and will represent the United States with skill and professionalism."

Blinken has a sharp focus on the Middle East, which he says began 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.

In recent interviews he has acknowledged the mistakes and regrets of the Obama era. On the decision not to intervene in any significant way in Syria (a decision Blinken opposed), he told CBS News: “We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement … something I will take with me for the rest of my days.”

Regarding the JCPOA negotiated by President Barack Obama and abandoned by Trump, Blinken has defended the deal despite its weaknesses, which include failing to tackle Iran’s and malign activities across the region.

“In an ideal world, we would have negotiated every misbehaviour that Iran conducts both at home and around the world,” he wrote in The New York Times. “But we live in the real world, not an ideal world. The only issue that our partners were prepared to negotiate, including the Europeans, including China, Russia, not to mention Iran, was the nuclear programme.”

Speaking to the Aspen Institute earlier this year, Blinken said Biden would recommit to the JCPOA and use diplomacy to address the broader issues with Iran. "[Biden] would seek to build on the nuclear deal to make it longer and stronger if Iran returns to strict compliance," Blinken said. "And then we would be in a position to use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and lengthen it, but also we'd be in a much better position to effectively push back against Iran's destabilising activities."