Transition 2020: Biden's defense landing team under fire for lack of progressives

NPP Pressroom

Bryan Bender

President-elect Joe Biden's transition is getting pressure from liberal lawmakers, progressive think tanks and anti-war groups to bring on a more diverse and broad-minded set of Pentagon advisers who are not reliant on defense industry donations.

The announcement this week of a 23-person "agency review team" for the Defense Department raised a number of eyebrows over what one critic called a "lack of diversity of thought" and nearly unanimous links to top military contractors.

"This looks like the Democratic version of the military-industrial complex," said Robert Weissman, president of consumer advocate group Public Citizen, adding that a number of like-minded groups have formally appealed to the Biden team to recruit a more diversified group of national security thinkers.

"It does not suggest real rethinking and reassessment of what national security is or the appropriate levels of investment," he said.

The Pentagon transition team is headed by Kathleen Hicks, who served as a senior Pentagon policy official in the Obama administration and is now director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And the team is populated by a who's who of other Democratic national security practitioners, including many with ties to Michèle Flournoy, the odds-on favorite to be Biden's secretary of defense.

"It's a missed opportunity to bring some more progressive voices in," said Lindsay Koshgarian, program director of the National Priorities Project, a federal budget watchdog that focuses on military spending. "The same people who have always made these decisions and always made the policies are the same people who continue to make them."

A few of the team members are, however, considered less conventional thinkers, a sign that Biden's top advisers are aware that different approaches are needed.

Lora Lumpe, CEO of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which espouses a less interventionist foreign policy, said she was pleased to see the Pentagon transition team includes Sharon Burke, a former Pentagon official who now directs the Resource Security Group at New America, where she focuses heavily on climate change as a threat to national security.

"[Burke has] been in the Pentagon long enough but and she sees things in more traditional terms," Lumpe said, "but she's not just hysterical about China."

Lumpe also lauded the choice of Melissa Dalton, another former Pentagon official in the Obama administration who is now at CSIS, where she has advocated for a greater role for the State Department. "What that means of course is that there just ends up being self-reinforcing policy."

"She's certainly not somebody who I think wants to fundamentally challenge the role of the military and our foreign policy, but she sees a need for a much greater diplomatic plank and non-militarized strength," Lumpe said of Dalton.

But like most of the others on the team, they come from think tanks or consulting firms heavily financed by leading defense companies, including CSIS, New America and the Center for a New American Security.

Those think tanks, which are largely considered center-left, are among the top 10 recipients of defense industry donations, according to a study published last month by the Center for International Policy.

CNAS in particular stands out. Nearly half of the think tank's funding came from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, the study found, with Northrop Grumman and Boeing being the largest donors.

It also looms especially large because it was co-founded by Flournoy.

Another think tank that is heavily represented on the Pentagon transition team is the government-funded Rand Corporation, which was the biggest recipient of defense industry dollars, according to the recent study.

The team also includes a pair of retired generals and admirals but doesn't identify them as such. Michelle Howard, a retired four-star Navy admiral, is listed as a scholar at George Washington University. Nor is her position on the board of IBM included.

The concerns about defense industry influence come as progressive lawmakers are calling on Biden to take steps to shield Pentagon decision-making from private interests.

In a letter in Thursday, Reps. Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan urged Biden not to select a secretary of defense who has been employed by the defense industry. Trump's Pentagon chiefs — Jim Mattis, Pat Shanahan and Mark Esper — all came to the Pentagon from industry.

“American national security should not be defined by the bottom lines of Boeing, General Dynamics and Raytheon,” Pocan said in a statement. “Instead of draining the swamp, Donald Trump ensured that his Pentagon lined the pockets of America’s most profitable defense contractors. President-Elect Joe Biden has an opportunity to take profits out of policy and build back better. The American people deserve a Defense Secretary that puts the American people’s safety above corporate profits.”

Lee and Pocan led an unsuccessful effort in the House this year to redirect 10 percent of the Pentagon budget to domestic needs.

The Biden team's ties to Pentagon contractors, whether direct or indirect, are seen as severely limiting the options that will be considered when prioritizing the defense budget, especially when it comes to investments in new weapons.

"They're funding a lot of policy work and that's how you oftentimes end up with these very narrow debates and very stale or limited thinking," Lumpe said.

Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight, said she was pleased to see such a high level of female representation on the Pentagon transition team. But "you are still not seeing a lot of diversity in thought."

"The defense industry has completely permeated everything around defense policy," she added.

Koshgarian said her organization is "working with groups that are making an effort to push the Biden administration to build a little bit of a wall in between their policymakers the defense industry, which has had way too much influence dictating what our policy looks like and what military budgets look like."

She also chided the Biden team for not establishing a working group with advisers of progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, the runner-up in the Democratic primaries, on national security and foreign policy, like in other areas.

"There wasn't one on foreign policy," she said. "And so that means that some of those relationships, ways to bring some people in, probably weren't as concrete as they could've been."

Progressives still hope to have an impact in on the confirmation process for top Pentagon nominees and are pressing for more disclosure from appointees about which arms makers they have taken money from.

"We want to see if the confirmation process is going to work as it should, to learn more about these people who have been strategic consultants," Smithberger said. "Who were you working for? What were you doing? Should there be recusals put in place?"

Koshgarian also said she remains hopeful that a broader set of viewpoints will be sought out. "I'm optimistic that they will make more room for those voices as time goes on," she said.

Others said they believe the changing nature of national security threats demand it.

"Most of the biggest challenges we face — from Covid to climate change to racial and economic inequality — are not military in nature, suggesting that a substantial shift from high levels of Pentagon spending to other security priorities writ large is in order," said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the left-leaning Center for International Policy.

"I'm not sure if there are many members of the landing team that fully share those views," he said. "There are a number of skilled, experienced hands in the group, but they are almost exclusively drawn from individuals with current or former ties to mainstream think tanks, the Pentagon, and defense contractors."

"It would have been refreshing to see some representatives of progressive groups and the arms control community in the mix," he added.

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