President Joe Biden is about to make his biggest statement yet about America’s role in the Middle East — one that will disappoint many of his supporters and affirm that while presidents come and go, Washington’s often self-defeating approach to the region persists.
Ahead of Biden’s first presidential trip to the region this summer, his aides are finalizing a set of documents that one U.S. official who viewed the package summed up as “a recitation of every establishment view.”
Perhaps no one better reflects the national security establishment than the architect of Biden’s approach: Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.
As one of the few Washington operators who can boast of serving four successive presidents — both Republicans and Democrats — the 49-year-old McGurk is now more powerful than ever. And his personality, views and relationships are guiding American policy in a region where the U.S. has often made deadly, destabilizing mistakes, particularly over the almost 20 years during which McGurk has climbed up the ranks of government.
McGurk’s emphasis is on stability: He believes the U.S. should shore up local regimes, warts and all, as partners against threats like militancy, Iran’s nuclear capabilities and disruptions to global trade.
That view has largely guided America’s approach for decades. But today, many experienced analysts — including Biden’s own advisers — are questioning that tired strategy. They say it can convince Middle Eastern dictators they have unconditional support from Washington, and can blind the U.S. to the costs and the shakiness of authoritarian rule.
To McGurk’s supporters, he is a consummate diplomat who can address urgent priorities like getting the Saudis to drive down the price of oil, easing global inflation, and ensure long-term American relevance as Russia and China court U.S. partners. They argue that Biden’s pledge to champion democratic principles in foreign policy never meant he would risk ruptures with influential American friends. Helping win support for McGurk’s position, particularly in Washington, prominent commentators are increasingly promoting a U.S.-Saudi rapprochement.
HuffPost spoke with McGurk and 20 other people, primarily current and former U.S. officials, to understand McGurk’s central role in the Biden administration’s ambitious MidEast plans.
After Biden’s initial speeches and steps emphasizing human rights, regional governments showed some signs of reining in repression. Since then, with McGurk leading his policy, the president has largely maintained support for Egypt as it escalates crackdowns on dissidents and done little about Israeli excesses or the collapse of democracy in Tunisia, which was once seen as a model for the region.
Now, the president is moving to embrace regional leaders — including authoritarians he has shunned like Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman — and kill what’s left of the impression that they should move away from autocracy if they want to sustain warm ties with the U.S. His upcoming trip is expected to confirm his commitment to the Middle East’s dubious status quo.
McGurk presents himself as a loyal, experienced guide for a cautious president who shares his belief that the U.S. can’t push for “transformation” abroad; one of his fans, a source close to a regional government, called him a “whisperer” who is deeply trusted by the area’s power players. Some of McGurk’s opponents see him as a singular villain; one expert on the region told HuffPost they view him as “the Middle Eastern dictator inside Biden’s White House.”
Most sources, even when speaking positively of McGurk, requested anonymity for fear of angering him.
But the description that best summarized observations from across the spectrum came from a former official, who heard it in discussing McGurk with a colleague years ago: He was, the colleague said, “the most talented bureaucrat they’ve ever seen, with the worst foreign policy judgment they’ve ever seen.”
McGurk exercises remarkable power, observers of his role say, shaping the choices presented to Biden, conducting sensitive negotiations with foreign counterparts and largely controlling the flow of information among policymakers working on the Middle East.
Some of his influence is the result of circumstance. Biden tasked more senior officials like national security adviser Jake Sullivan and the State Department’s Tony Blinken and Wendy Sherman with China policy and restoring ties with Europe. For most of 2022, they have shifted their focus to the Ukraine war. Meanwhile, the Senate took more than a year to confirm Biden’s choice for the top MidEast role at the State Department, Barbara Leaf, leaving her as McGurk’s deputy before she could take over.
The result: for nearly all of Biden’s tenure, McGurk has faced little competition. “The State Department doesn’t have the high-level juice, so … the White House has an outsize voice,” a former career diplomat said.
But McGurk has also benefited from his familiarity with the levers of bureaucratic power — which he has operated on and off since he joined the Bush administration’s Iraq team in 2004 — and his force of personality.
In the administration’s internal policy discussions, McGurk discourages others from rethinking the U.S. position in the Middle East, a fellow U.S. official told HuffPost. “He’s the person who slow-rolls any kind of change,” the official said. “He’s wedded to the old ideologies … that’s the approach that he attacks everything from.”
McGurk knows how to shape debates to his advantage, according to another former official. “What he’s really good at is positioning his views as the only viable views, and he will downplay the other perspective in very skillful ways,” they said.
From his White House perch, McGurk is a confident and sometimes overwhelming voice in the broader Washington conversation about MidEast policy, people who regularly deal with him say.
“He torched the fucking house and then showed up with a firehose.”
– a former U.S. official
In McGurk’s briefings to Congress on the Iran nuclear negotiations, a senior Hill aide told HuffPost they felt locked in “a fight for information” with him. Intelligence community officials have quietly conveyed to congressional staff that they disagree with McGurk’s narrative on the issue, a second aide said.
Those complaints echo an observation from two former officials who served with McGurk under different presidents. Both told HuffPost they felt he tightly controlled important parts of U.S. policy by himself, using private deal-making and conversations to turn the standard procedure of consultation with specialists across government into what one past colleague called “a mere formality.”
Under Biden, there’s a similar pattern, according to a person familiar with internal discussions. “A lot of policy debates have not been through the typical channels and that seems to be strategic: They’re not wanting to hear pushback from voices inside the administration who would raise objections on solid grounds,” the person said.
When McGurk does face resistance, the longtime diplomat can reveal a more aggressive side.
“He has a very particular demeanor and a way of bullying even very senior interlocutors to get what he wants,” a U.S. official said. That seems like a long-standing habit, the second aide told HuffPost, saying they heard from State Department officials who worked with McGurk in Iraq that he had a “brusque style.”
In interactions with congressional staffers this spring, for instance, McGurk’s team privately pushed back on a letter from 30 Democratic lawmakers urging “a serious reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship,” according to a source familiar with the incident.
HuffPost presented all these criticisms to McGurk, who forcefully rebutted them in a phone call but declined to let his responses be used on the record. His team later shared a quote from National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson: “These complaints are inaccurate. Brett is an incredibly thoughtful and generous colleague and the work he spearheads has made America a much safer place. We are fortunate to have a strategist and leader of his caliber to manage our efforts in the Middle East.”
Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who served with McGurk under presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, also backed him up. “He’s persuasive, not brash at all,” Mattis told HuffPost. “He is honest, so he doesn’t ignore things or put lipstick on a pig, but at the same time there’s a respect in him for other people’s view.”
Mattis recalled McGurk leading discussions at summits for the U.S.-led international coalition against the self-styled Islamic State. “He was a very, very keen listener to others … he would question them so he verified what they were talking about and then he would craft how we would work together,” the former secretary said. “When you look at the nations that were involved there, that was no easy political task.”
And McGurk has shown he can diplomatically handle even deeply adversarial counterparts. He led secret negotiations with Iran that led to the 2016 release of four detained Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.
Two current U.S. officials who were otherwise critical of McGurk noted to HuffPost that he has a reputation as a good boss — a factor they said helps him score plum posts as his former subordinates gain their own influence.
“He is honest, so he doesn’t ignore things or put lipstick on a pig.”
– Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
Still, there’s a widespread perception that in ensuring he gets his way, McGurk can cross the line.
During the Obama administration, McGurk and a peer at the State Department had a serious policy disagreement. Then he escalated. According to two former officials, McGurk sent an email attacking her to a group of staffers working on the policy — looping in a broad range of senior officials.
“It was so bad, so profoundly dismissive and disrespectful,” said one of the officials who viewed the message.
Today, McGurk works with both the official he insulted — who never received an apology — and many of the powerful officials who saw the demeaning message.
Middle East, McGurk-Style
McGurk presents himself as humbled by U.S. overreach in the Middle East. Biden will not pursue “maximalist” American goals like past presidents he served, McGurk told The National last year.
In practice, Biden is behaving much like Obama and Trump: providing largely unchecked support to local autocrats and often letting their concerns drive decisions. McGurk’s bet is that a soft approach will create a foundation for a sustainable, ultimately beneficial U.S. regional policy. But skeptics note that by avoiding tough conversations with MidEast partners in the past, particularly about their domestic repression, the U.S. has ultimately faced crisis after crisis.
Consider U.S.-Saudi relations.
After Biden’s initial critiques of the kingdom, his administration has spent months courting de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, shipping him fresh weapons and repeatedly sending McGurk and other top officials to Riyadh. The prince, known as MBS, refused to speak with Biden this spring when he sought help with the oil market, according to Wall Street Journal reporting, and his allies say the trouble is Biden — not the prince’s erratic record, including his role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. (Notably, recent White House readouts of interactions with top Saudi officials did not even mention the murdered journalist.)
Now, the Biden administration is planning a summer meeting between the president and MBS, two sources familiar with the discussions told HuffPost. (CNN first reported the discussions.) And it’s pursuing other steps that might impress Riyadh, like negotiating with Egypt and Israel to resolve a dispute over Red Sea islands, per Axios.
Some experts say Biden could have made the relationship more balanced by capitalizing on Saudi anxieties about how tough he might get.
“Biden promised accountability. Then there was no accountability and the excuse was, ‘It’s so they’ll help us when we need them,’” said one observer of the relationship. “Then comes a moment of need, where the Saudis didn’t help when the U.S. asked for more oil. How do you rectify your failure? A failed appeasement policy will not be fixed with more appeasement.”
Policymakers wary of McGurk’s drive for a reconciliation worry that other core concerns will be overlooked.
“McGurk is the person Middle East autocrats turn to when they want a pliant ear.”
– U.S. official
“Our approach to the Middle East has not been undergirded by a broader strategic perspective ― particularly with Brett, it’s been exceptionally transactional. Everything’s been a quid pro quo,” said a Hill aide who feels the administration must address broader concerns in Riyadh over Iran, cross-border attacks from Yemen and Biden’s desire to redirect resources to the Pacific. Biden’s team has helped craft a ceasefire in Yemen, where Saudi-backed forces and pro-Iran fighters have produced the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, but it’s not yet clear whether the truce will persist beyond June.
And MBS himself seems to be preparing for the day after Biden, financially propping up people close to Trump like his son-in-law Jared Kushner and former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
On other files, some Middle East hands see McGurk’s wooing of the area’s regimes as distressingly costly.
“McGurk is the person Middle East autocrats turn to when they want a pliant ear,” a U.S. official said.
In dealing with the ongoing crackdown in Egypt, for instance, Biden gave in to pressure from Congress by reassigning $130 million in aid — but first approved a $2.5 billion arms sale to the country. “The strong message that could have been sent … has been undermined,” 19 civil society groups said in a joint response.
Earlier this year, McGurk was the loudest voice inside the administration for a step sought by the United Arab Emirates: sanctions on Yemen’s Houthi militants. Aid groups warned that that policy could starve millions.
To MidEast regimes, “the perception that he is a friend undermines any excellent work Brett is trying to do” because they feel they won’t have to make serious concessions, the observer of regional policy said. In their circles, many these days joke that McGurk “might as well buy a house in Riyadh.”
Earlier this week, McGurk made a secret trip to the kingdom, Axios revealed.
A Road Map To Surviving Washington
McGurk is a Beltway survivor.
In 2010, he led the charge for the U.S. to support the autocratic Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s leader, winning then-Vice President Biden to his side for a decision that eventually fomented the rise of the Islamic State. In 2012, he faced a ginned-up scandal that denied him the rank of ambassador, but he secured another powerful position within a year. And in 2015 and 2016, he directed a U.S. policy in the Syrian civil war that arguably emboldened Russia’s Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine and that could in the coming weeks produce the third brutal Turkish assault on Syria’s Kurds — situations that McGurk will now have to tackle in his current job.
“Here’s the brilliance of Brett: The problem he helped create, he comes up again and again as the person to fix it,” said one former official. “He torched the fucking house and then showed up with a firehose.”
Nearly all 20 McGurk observers HuffPost interviewed said they view him as intelligent, hardworking and truly committed to public service. “He could be out making money,” another former official said, but he instead chose to continue taking on difficult portfolios.
But to many of them, his longevity — given his “mixed bag” of a record and the U.S.’s continued struggle to develop a principled, sustainable approach to the region — is a sign that something is badly wrong with Washington’s national security establishment.
To some of the most powerful people in the field, McGurk’s background and skills make hiring him a no-brainer.
Mattis, the former defense secretary, told HuffPost that after Trump appointed him, he called his counterpart Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with one request: that McGurk stay in the job he held under Obama, as the official managing the international coalition fighting ISIS. “Immediately, Mr. Tillerson agreed with that and we were off to the races,” Mattis said.
“He studies the issues rigorously,” Mattis continued. “He has a strategic framework. A lot of people have strategy on their nameplates but they wouldn’t know a strategy if they tripped over it.”
Two years later, both Mattis and McGurk left the Trump administration one day after another. McGurk made national headlines after he sent colleagues an email telling them he was quitting the team months before he was expected to. He cited his “integrity” and his resistance to Trump’s demand that the U.S. withdraw from Syria, abandoning partners in the Islamic State fight. He quickly became a regular contributor to the Washington Post and NBC News, while also holding positions at Stanford University and the Carnegie Endowment think tank.
Two sources familiar with Trump administration dynamics told HuffPost that McGurk was being pushed out and could have faced firing anyway — so he stage-managed his departure to present it in the best light.
Mattis denied that claim. Biden announced that McGurk would be on his team a week before his inauguration.
To McGurk’s supporters, it seems to make perfect sense that he now has a broader portfolio and more power than ever. To others who know the region and the U.S. policy-making apparatus, that certainty is galling.
One former official said his continued rise suggests that Washington might simply be incapable of crafting a humane, well-built policy.
Derisively referring to McGurk as “the present-day Lawrence of Arabia,” the official concluded: “He’s a very smooth-talking white guy who has now these credentials, and it almost feels like it doesn’t matter who comes into office — they’re going to have Brett run the Middle East for them.”