Jake Sullivan, adviser to Biden, long a figure of fascination

WASHINGTON – President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan married Margaret Goodlander, now attorney general Merrick B. Garl...


WASHINGTON – President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan married Margaret Goodlander, now attorney general Merrick B. Garland, in a 2015 wedding that appears to be set in a distant Democratic utopia. Mr. Biden was soon to retire as a People’s Vice President, Donald J. Trump was seen as a sideshow, and Hillary Clinton was the President on Hold.

Guests at the Yale campus this weekend included a former president (Bill Clinton), a former secretary of state (Mrs. Clinton), a future secretary of state (Antony J. Blinken) and a Supreme Court justice ( Stephen G. Breyer). The many former bosses there had identified the golden boy as an ideal national security adviser in the future Clinton White House – which, at 40, would have made him the youngest person to hold the post.

This prediction was found to be largely true, so flawed in its 2016 electoral assumption and premature in an interlude long enough for the White House to turn twice, China to reinforce, a pandemic to the rage and the difficulties of the trade to increase considerably.

So it was on August 26 that Mr. Sullivan, chairing an Afghanistan briefing in the White House situation room, saw General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of Army Central Command, become pale after receiving a sheet of paper.

The General – connected by video from Kabul, where the evacuation of civilians was underway – told the exhibit that four U.S. servicemen at the airport were killed in an apparent bombing raid, three were on the verge of death and dozens more were injured. There were hiccups around the table as Mr. Biden grimaced and stared straight ahead for a few long seconds.

“The worst that can happen has happened,” the president finally said, according to meeting attendees.

He went back to Mr Sullivan, who ran this daily confab and was seated to the immediate left of the president, in power thanks to his hour-long program. The death toll eventually rose to 13 US servicemen.

Washington has long been captivated by tales of fallen stars. This has made Mr. Sullivan a figure of fascination in recent months, something between sympathy and schadenfreude. Its daily mission to manage a sprawling national security apparatus through simultaneous crises and headaches – increasingly tensions with China, the healing of a break with France on a nuclear submarine deal, cyber attacks – made Mr Sullivan the face of a foreign policy team that has come under criticism from several sides, notably over Afghanistan.

“A mind-boggling disaster from start to finish,” Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney called the withdrawal in an interview, extending his criticism of the Biden administration’s foreign policy record in general. “And if I were president right now, I would seriously consider changing quite a few people around me.”

Mr. Romney did not choose Mr. Sullivan, although many did, including Brett Bruen, the director of global engagement at the Obama White House, who wrote a opinion piece in USA Today calling for his dismissal.

Supporters of Mr. Sullivan see two structural complications in his role. To begin with, he is in a position of enormous responsibility but of limited authority. Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to President George W. Bush, described the work in her memoir as “a scarcity of personnel.” Mr. Sullivan is also a product of Washington’s island foreign policy establishment, a cohort whose traditional support for tough American foreign policy interventions fell out of favor across the political spectrum in the aftermath of the Iraq wars. and in Afghanistan.

“Biden’s cabinet picks have gone to Ivy League schools, have strong resumes, attend all the right conferences, and will be the polite and orderly guardians of America’s decline,” said Senator Marco Rubio , Florida Republican, tweeted after Mr Biden named his team last November.

The question is whether Mr Sullivan, 45, hailed as a “single intellect” by Mr Biden and “a potential future president” by Ms Clinton, can recover from a messy year of foreign policy.

Mr. Sullivan told his colleagues he was determined not to see his mandate defined by bloodshed in Afghanistan. The crisis has eased somewhat since August, allowing it to focus on trade policy, energy prices and an international supply chain that has helped fuel the peak inflation.

Mr. Biden’s recent decision trip to europe, for which Mr. Sullivan was heavily involved in planning, has allowed the White House to accumulate solid achievements, including a global agreement to set minimum corporate tax rates and one climate agreement to reduce methane emissions. White House officials were relieved after the international outcry over the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Mr. Sullivan operated an average of two hours of sleep per night during the three week duration crisis in Afghanistan in August. He reflected on each long day during the nocturnal walks of the White House – his Secret Service detail followed him – and often continued his home meditations on a rower. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

“There was no point in sending Jake an email at 2 or 3 a.m. during those weeks when he wasn’t responding immediately,” said Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development.

She pointed out that Mr. Sullivan did not have the luxury of focusing on one powder keg at a time. “As for the rest of the world a searing crisis unfolded in Afghanistan,” Ms. Power said, “Jake was simultaneously responsible for directing U.S. policy on everything from cyber attacks and an earthquake in Haiti to terrorist threats. “

Mr. Sullivan’s most common defense against Afghanistan was that Mr. Biden was determined to get out, and quickly, and it is the role of the national security adviser to make the president’s wishes come true. By most accounts, Mr Sullivan supported the withdrawal and, according to several officials, asked many questions about its haste, especially the brutal closure in July of the Bagram air base.

The unruly and tragic withdrawal drew numerous reprimands, especially from allies who complained that they were not consulted. Mr Sullivan backed down sharply on this, insisting that the allies were kept informed at every step and suggesting they were unhappy with Mr Biden’s conclusion. “I think the real problem is that many allies did not agree with the outcome of the decision,” Sullivan told reporters in Brussels in June.

Ultimately, however, the situation in Afghanistan reflected the reality of a job that often involves more damage control than decision-making. “The national security adviser is a classic post of high responsibility with limited real power,” said John Gans, foreign policy historian and author of “White House Warriors,” of the history of the Security Council. national.

Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George HW Bush, would marvel at the variety of national security issues. Mr. Scowcroft, who deceased last year, served decades before national security advisers had to worry about things like climate change, ransomware attacks, or Twitter.

“I told Henry Kissinger,” Ms. Clinton said in an interview. “In a world of social media and billions of cellphones, he could never have snuck into China.”

Colleagues describe Mr. Sullivan as ambitious and intense, but not in the obnoxious manner of a Washington guy. “The greatest compliment I can give a person is that they are a good human being,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said in an interview. “I believe Jake is a good human being.”

A former skinny marathon runner, Mr. Sullivan wears sagging gray suits that (he insists) once suited him. Friends describe him as polite, curious and Midwestern temperament, with a strong allegiance to his native Minnesota.

“Dismiss the cynicism,” he said in a keynote speech at the University of Minnesota School of Public Affairs in 2013. “Reject the certainty. And don’t be a jerk. Be a good guy. .

Mr. Sullivan is known to indulge in eclectic pastimes, such as competitive brisk walking. He once played on a curling team in St. Paul.

He grew up in a middle class neighborhood of Minneapolis, one of five high performing siblings. Her mother was a teacher and librarian, and her father worked for the business side of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Mr. Sullivan studied at Yale, Oxford (on a Rhodes Scholarship) and Yale Law School, and was clerk for Judge Breyer. He became one of Mrs. Clinton’s closest advisers when she was Secretary of State, remained in the Obama administration as Mr. Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president, and joined Ms. Clinton as senior political adviser on her 2016 campaign for president.

Mr Sullivan told his colleagues he felt the burden of responsibility for the loss of Ms Clinton to Mr Trump, but he was not surprised by the outcome. He was alarmed that the mood in the country was dark and anxious, and voters seemed more receptive to Mr. Trump’s “America First” message than the Clinton campaign had appreciated.

“How do we resolve this fundamental and growing division in our society that touches on issues such as dignity, alienation and identity? Mr. Sullivan asked during a lecture to students at Yale Law School in 2017, while reported by the Washington Post. “How do you ask the question without becoming the disconnected and condescending elite we’re talking about?” “

In a strange turn of events, some critics of Mr. Biden’s foreign policy say he understands some features of the Trump administration. Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, written in Foreign Affairs that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was “unilateralism first with the United States in practice” and that Mr. Biden “did it in a Trumpian way, consulting others as little as possible and leaving the NATO allies scramble ”.

White House officials bristle comparisons with the Trump administration. They say that while previous presidents dragged the United States into long and disastrous conflicts (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), Mr. Biden pulled the country out of one, no matter how turbulent the process. It’s assertive foreign policy, they admit, but they say it comes with a softer touch and more humble words.

When the allies raised concerns, the administration’s response was not to “go jump in a lake,” Sullivan told reporters in Brussels last month. He said he was contrasting “how other previous US administrations might have reacted.”



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Newsrust - US Top News: Jake Sullivan, adviser to Biden, long a figure of fascination
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