Why He Matters
Blinken’s boss Joseph Biden described his right-hand man on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations as “one of the smartest guys I’ve ever worked with.”(1)
Blinken has been Biden’s top staffer on the key committee since 2002, helping to craft policy on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Pakistan and the nuclear program in Iran, among other issues. He also served on the National Security Council during Bill Clinton’s presidency and was a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a left-leaning foreign policy think tank.
Those experiences will serve him well in his new position as national security adviser to the vice president, a post Blinken accepted in December 2008. His selection has won acclaim from the liberal netroots: blogger Spencer Ackerman called him a “first-rate mind” and an energetic progressive.(2)
Blinken is the author of the 1987 book Ally Verses Ally: America, Europe and the Siberian Pipeline Crisis.
Path to Power
Blinken was born in New York City to a political family. His father was a diplomat to Hungary, and his stepfather Samuel Pisar is the youngest known survivor of the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz. Pisar moved his family to Paris when Blinken was nine years old.(3)
Blinken earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard University in 1984 and his J.D. from Columbia Law School. After graduating in 1988, he spent two years with the Dukakis for president campaign before joining law firms in New York and Paris. During that time, he also reported for the New Republic, the New York Times and Foreign Affairs magazine.
In 1993, Blinken was named as special assistant secretary of state for European affairs by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He entered President Clinton's White House in 1994 as a member of the National Security Council staff. Blinken directed the NSC’s Strategic Planning office and wrote speeches until 1999, when he was promoted to senior director for European affairs.
After Clinton left office, Blinken worked as a senior fellow at CSIS. In 2002, he was appointed staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In that position, he developed legislation that addressed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Darfur genocide, relations with Pakistan as well as nuclear disarmament.
As soon as Biden announced his intentions to run in 2007, he joined Biden’s presidential campaign as a foreign policy adviser. As a new addition to Biden’s experienced team (many aides participated in Biden’s 1988 presidential run, and some had even played a role in his 1972 Senate election), Blinken was initially treated as an outsider.(4)
But he quickly proved to be a capable campaigner and surrogate. In one memorable exchange, Blinken sparred with a surrogate of then-Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson, who said Biden would be an excellent secretary of state. “Secretary of State Bill Richardson might sound good to President Biden,” Blinken replied.(5)
Blinken stuck with Biden until he dropped out of the 2008 race after the Iowa primaries. He began advising Barack Obama. He was invited on his trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Europe in July 2008. Blinken told Biden he was impressed with Obama’s understanding of the region.(6) He was also asked by Susan E. Rice to help craft the Democratic Party's foreign policy platform.(7)
Blinken continued to work on the Obama-Biden campaign. When the pair won the presidency, he was a member of the Obama-Biden transition team, where he evaluated the structure of the executive office of the president.(8)
He was named national security adviser to Biden in December 2008 and will work closely with Gen. James L. Jones, Obama’s pick for national security adviser. He and Biden have pledged to play an active role in shaping decisions, particularly regarding international relations. However, Blinken has said that the vice president will not rule from the shadows, instead making cleat his positions and roles in decisions.
In his spare time, Blinken rocks out with his amateur band.
From Iraq and Afghanistan to Kosovo, Blinken has helped Biden respond to some of the most pressing issues of the day. The pair share a belief in liberal interventionism, and Blinken is not afraid to use force when necessary. However, he believes that military engagement should be a last resort. He told the Chicago Tribune “we maximize our power by acting in concert with others and using the totality of our strength, including non-military tools.”(9)
The willingness to use force is a key difference between Blinken and many of Obama’s staffers, a staffer told Politico.(10)
Blinken’s management style has been widely praised by his employees. Staffers say he is good at trusting his team to do their jobs while also ensuring a quality finished product. He describes his job as finding “the smartest people I can and letting them loose.”(11)
Blinken was central in shaping Biden’s vision of a post-war Iraq divided into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish states, a plan that was supported by three-quarters of the Senate in a largely symbolic vote. The “federalism strategy” seemed like the only viable alternative in Iraq, Blinken told Gannett News Service. "Putting all their chips in a strong central government is not going to happen, but what could happen is a policy that tries to build up Iraq locally and regionally,” he said.(12)
The proposal was widely panned in the press. The Economist called the plan "harebrained."(13)
Blinken also supports a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and a redeployment of force to Afghanistan.
In a 2002 paper for the Washington Quarterly, Blinken wrote “many currents of anti-Americanism develop not because the United States is misguided, but because it is misunderstood.” He has called for a sustained effort to cultivate a positive image of America abroad through several means, including a more robust public diplomacy, a stronger relationship with opinion-makers abroad, a clearer assessment of international public opinion, and a sustained goodwill campaign.(14)
Blinken has a cadre of friends in high places, thanks in part to his work with the Clinton administration. He has worked with diplomat Richard D. Holbrooke and White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig.(15)
He is also old friends with U.N. ambassador nominee Susan E. Rice, who ran Obama’s foreign policy shop during the 2008 presidential campaign.
His wife is Evan Ryan, Biden's assistant for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Liaison.
Remarks by Sen. Joe Biden (D-De.), Location: Century Village Adult Condominium Community, Deerfield Beach, Floriday,” Federal News Service, Sept. 2, 2008
Ackerman, Spencer, “Donilon, Blinken Join The White House Foreign Policy Staff,” Washington Independent, Dec. 23, 2008
“Remarks by Sen. Joe Biden (D-De.)," Location: Century Village Adult Condominium Community, Deerfield Beach, Floriday,” Federal News Service, Sept. 2, 2008
Murray, Shailagh, “Familiar Faces at Biden’s Side,” Washington Post, July 21, 2007
Falcone, Michael, “Candidate ‘Surrogates’ Talk Foreign Policy,” New York Times, July 25, 2008
Murray, Shailagh, “Biden, Obama a Comfortable Fit on the Campaign Trail," Washington Post, Sept. 1, 2008
Thrush, Glenn and Zenilman, Avi, “Biden and Obama come together on Iraq," Politico, Aug. 25, 2008
Fang, Bay, “How Biden might guide Obama,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 23, 2008
Thrush, Glenn and Zenilman, Avi, “Biden and Obama come together on Iraq,” Politico, Aug. 25, 2008
Cannon, Carl. M, and Hegland, Corine, “Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” National Journal, June 23, 2007
Yaukey, John, “Bush, Dems wrestle for control of war debate on eve of major report,” Gannett News Service, Sept. 13, 2007
"Joebama," The Economist, Aug., 28, 2008
Blinken, Antony, “Winning the War of Ideas,” Washington Quarterly, Spring 2002
“China’s Role in the World,” Charlie Rose Show, Aug. 8, 2008