Who’s advising Clinton and Trump on foreign policy?

March 18, 2016
Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Tamara Cofman Wittes, delivers a speech during a panel discussion as part of the US-Islamic World Forum on June 1, 2015 in Doha.

Washington - As US presidential primary results continue to point to the likelihood — al­though not yet a certain­ty — of a Clinton-Trump showdown in November, it is not too early to start thinking about the people each candidate would call on to fill top foreign policy positions in his or her administration.

I’ll start with Donald Trump be­cause it’s easier: So far, the New York real estate developer has not provided the name of a single for­eign policy or defence adviser to his campaign. In early February, Trump said he had a “great team” of foreign policy advisers and promised to re­lease their names in two weeks. Six weeks later, he still has not done so.

On most issues, Trump considers himself to be his own best adviser. This is clearly the way he has run his campaign, without relying on the legions of consultants who staff most presidential campaigns.

But if your campaign is based on stoking the fear and anger of voters with a nativist message virtually devoid of serious policy proposals, who needs experts and advisers? Trump is right: He’s the campaign expert, and the fact that he is the Republican front runner would seem to validate this.

But understanding the complexi­ties of the world and America’s role in it is vastly different from running a populist campaign. Let’s hope that Trump does not believe he can “wing it” on foreign affairs and that he soon provides us with at least a few names of serious advisers.

The situation with Democrat front runner Hillary Clinton is the polar opposite: Her campaign has released the names of dozens of foreign policy experts and advisers. This should come as no surprise given that Clinton served as Sec­retary of State and as a US senator, and lived in the White House for eight years as first lady. Moreover, she is a very policy-focused politi­cian.

Heading Clinton’s foreign policy team is Jake Sullivan, who served as her deputy chief of staff when she was secretary of state. Sullivan, who is 39, also served as national security adviser to Vice-President Joe Biden and was a special adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry dur­ing the Iran nuclear negotiations. Sullivan was one of the US officials who secretly met Iranian diplomats in Oman prior to the official launch of the talks.

Sullivan could end up as head of the National Security Council in a Clinton White House.

Working under Sullivan in the Clinton campaign is a team of ad­visers organised by issue or world region. The Middle East team is headed by Tamara Wittes and Derek Chollet. Wittes is director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a cen­trist think tank. It has been heavily funded by Israeli-American televi­sion producer Haim Saban and has a branch office in Doha supported in large part by the Qatari govern­ment. Wittes served as deputy as­sistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs during President Barack Obama’s first administra­tion, focusing on democracy and human rights issues and reportedly played a role in coordinating the US response to the “Arab spring”.

In a recent blog post, Wittes wrote: “The underlying drivers of change in the Middle East are the demographic drivers, the economic drivers, the technological drivers… Although there’s a lot of disorder and a lot of violence, and that leads people on the ground to prioritise security, that doesn’t mean that [people] are going to be satisfied… So the question becomes: how are governments going to learn to ac­commodate [change] and turn it into a strength? I think that the United States does have a really im­portant role to play there. ”

Chollet served as assistant sec­retary of defence for international security affairs from 2012 until 2015, where he focused on the Mid­dle East. He has just completed a book, to be published in June, en­titled The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World. Chollet argues that Obama has dramatically changed US foreign policy for the better and has positioned the Unit­ed States to be the world leader for decades to come.

Given Clinton’s prominence and long exposure to policy circles, she has easy access to virtually any sen­ior foreign policy expert and former office holder, such as her friend Madeleine Albright, who was secre­tary of state under Bill Clinton.

One person whose name does not appear on Clinton’s foreign policy team is her campaign co-chairwoman, Huma Abedin. By all accounts, Abedin is one of Clinton’s most trusted advisers on a range of issues, including the Middle East. Abedin is an American-born Mus­lim who spent much of her child­hood in Saudi Arabia — she speaks Arabic fluently — where her Indian-born father was a professor. She is married to New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, one of the most pro-Israel members of Congress. It is virtually certain that Abedin would play a prominent role in a Clinton White House.