How A Deeply Controversial White House Adviser Is Running The Agenda On Gaza

Four males in Washington form America’s coverage within the Middle East. Three are apparent: President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and nationwide safety adviser Jake Sullivan. The fourth is much less well-known, regardless of his large sway over the opposite three ― and regardless of his dedication to maintain championing insurance policies that many see as fueling bloodshed in Gaza and past.

His title is Brett McGurk. He’s the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and he’s probably the most highly effective individuals in U.S. nationwide safety.

McGurk crafts the choices that Biden considers on points from negotiations with Israel to weapon gross sales for Saudi Arabia. He controls whether or not international affairs specialists inside the authorities ― together with extra skilled employees on the Pentagon and the State Department ― can have any affect, and he decides which exterior voices have entry to White House decision-making conversations. His knack for rising his affect is the envy of different Beltway operators. And he has a transparent imaginative and prescient of how he thinks American pursuits ought to be superior, relating to human rights issues as secondary at finest, in line with present and former colleagues and shut observers.

“It’s tremendous power that is completely opaque and non-transparent and non-accountable,” a former U.S. official informed HuffPost.

Comparing McGurk’s extraordinarily centralized strategy within the Biden period to the extra consultative approach through which previous administrations made choices, a consultant of a civil society group stated McGurk is “able to drive things with [Sullivan] and the president in a process that is not a process.”

It’s a surprising diploma of authority for a 50-year-old operative with a deeply controversial profession. One present U.S. official stated McGurk’s dominance has rendered the highest Middle East official on the State Department ― a former ambassador who, not like McGurk, was confirmed to her put up by the Senate ― merely “a fig leaf.”

“The State Department essentially has no juice on [Israel-Palestine] because Brett is at the center of it,” the official stated.

Meanwhile, McGurk’s main focus, a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, has come to dominate American diplomacy within the area. “He consistently pushed for engagement with the Saudis and sought to put that relationship at the forefront of what we’re trying to do in the Middle East,” the U.S. official stated.

A State Department spokesperson declined to remark for this story. The company has skilled inner uproar in latest weeks. On Thursday, a State Department official informed HuffPost that employees have submitted a minimum of six formal letters of dissent relating to Biden’s Gaza coverage to Blinken via a protected channel.

Amid the disaster that erupted Oct. 7, when the Gaza-based Palestinian militant group Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis and Israel responded by launching an ongoing offensive that has now killed greater than 14,000 Palestinians, McGurk has maintained his significance. He’s deeply concerned within the negotiations between Israel, Hamas and regional governments which have let greater than 100 Israeli hostages come residence and boosted the quantity of humanitarian support flowing into Gaza. His crew is tightly managing what U.S. officers say concerning the battle, and he’s in common contact with international officers who say America’s largely unrestrained assist for Israel is spurring large resentment worldwide.

Now there’s rising concern that regardless of the shock of the Hamas assault and the sweeping Israeli response, McGurk will stand by priorities and techniques that many officers and analysts see as deeply unhelpful.

“Brett’s theory of the region is that it’s a source of instability but also resources,” the previous official stated. “It’s a very old-school, colonialist mentality: People need strong rulers to control them, and we need to extract to our benefit what we need while minimizing the cost to ourselves and others we see as like us, in this case Israelis.”

“This approach always fails,” the official continued, saying it’s “short-sighted” and forces the U.S. to reinvest within the Middle East each few years.

“Here’s a clear example before you: they wanted to bypass the Palestinians” in Saudi-Israel normalization, the previous official stated.

Saudi Arabia, the rich religious hub of the Muslim world, has lengthy stated it’s going to solely set up ties with Israel if a Palestinian state is established. Many Palestinians and their supporters imagine that if Israel cuts a take care of the Saudis with out main concessions to Palestinians, that can take away a key incentive for Israeli leaders to achieve a good settlement with Palestine.

“Some Palestinians basically lashed out, and the U.S. right now at a minimum has to pay $14 billion for it” ― a reference to the help bundle Congress is predicted to quickly cross, including to Israel’s present $3 billion in annual army help from the U.S. ― “and incur great reputational harm,” the previous official stated. “And it may just cost the president the election.”

A White House official informed HuffPost that McGurk and the Biden administration prioritize Palestinian rights, together with throughout talks about Saudi-Israel normalization. At these talks, the official stated, “Palestinians have been at the center.”

But skeptics concern McGurk’s concentrate on so-called Saudi-Israel “normalization” will imply centering America’s Middle East technique on a Saudi-Israel deal that lacks a settlement that satisfies Palestinians, sowing the seeds of future discord ― and that the deal would disregard U.S. values by, for example, together with large arms gross sales and safety commitments regardless of documented Saudi and Israeli misuse of American army help.

Critics additionally fear McGurk will preserve concentrating policymaking amongst a handful of handpicked shut aides, sidelining different views on international affairs from officers exterior that circle.

White House Middle East official Brett McGurk (left) is working closely with White House energy adviser Amos Hochstein (center) on a deal to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, by liaising with officials like Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud (right).
White House Middle East official Brett McGurk (left) is working carefully with White House vitality adviser Amos Hochstein (heart) on a deal to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, by liaising with officers like Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud (proper).
AMER HILABI by way of Getty Images

“He thinks with a mindset that is very much Bush administration. It is a mindset that has not changed over the course of the past 25 years,” the present U.S. official stated. McGurk first gained prominence within the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

HuffPost mentioned McGurk with 23 present and former U.S. officers and people who find themselves in common contact with the Biden administration on Middle East coverage. Most of them would solely communicate anonymously for concern of retaliation. McGurk declined to talk on the file.

Many sources expressed respect for varied parts of McGurk’s background and work. The White House official stated he works “closely and collaboratively” with colleagues throughout authorities.

Yet most additionally described deep concern about McGurk’s energy and what it’d imply for the way forward for U.S. Middle East technique.

Jasmine El-Gamal, who served on the Defense Department for practically 9 years earlier than leaving in 2017, pointed to feedback by McGurk that linked support for Gaza with Hamas releasing hostages.

“I don’t know what happened to Brett that makes him so unkind when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. I don’t know what he thinks of us as Muslims, as Arabs,” she stated.

“I used to look up to Brett as a person,” added El-Gamal, who recalled a supportive message McGurk despatched her in 2021 after she publicly mentioned fighting post-traumatic stress dysfunction.

The White House maintains that McGurk’s feedback on support have been misrepresented. “The United States does not support conditions on the delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza,” spokesperson Adrienne Watson informed Politico. “Insinuating that McGurk implied this… falsely characterizes what he said.”

Still, El-Gamal described seeing “a complete lack of empathy and emotion.”

“I hope he comes back to listen to us,” El-Gamal stated. “But to be honest, I think the damage has been done and it’s too late.”

Ignoring Jerusalem For Riyadh

McGurk’s highly effective put up beneath Biden is the fruits of an extended journey. President Barack Obama appointed him to the State Department regardless of his ties to President George W. Bush, and he rapidly developed shut relationships throughout the administration ― together with with Biden, who like McGurk made the broadly criticized selection to encourage the U.S. to again Nouri al-Maliki to steer Iraq, setting in movement the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Obama tried to nominate McGurk as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, however a scandal led him to withdraw from consideration. Eventually, Obama tapped McGurk to assist coordinate the worldwide battle in opposition to ISIS, a job he held till 2018.

“To serve at the level he has served at, in as many administrations of as many different stripes as he has, it’s astonishing,” a former Obama administration official informed HuffPost. “What I think is even more remarkable is that he was one of the vanishingly few Obama senior appointees to be retained by [President Donald] Trump.”

McGurk’s followers see his longevity as proof of his abilities, helpful relationships and reliability. In 2022, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis informed HuffPost he personally pushed the Trump administration to maintain McGurk. “He studies the issues rigorously,” Mattis stated on the time. “He has a strategic framework.”

Other observers say the sample displays a failure by the U.S. international coverage institution to be taught from its errors.

“He’s an unstoppable force of failing up to me. He’s always my example of why it’s great to be a white guy,” a present U.S. official informed HuffPost. A former official stated there’s a joke in some nationwide safety circles: “If a nuclear bomb was dropped on D.C., two forms of life would survive: cockroaches and Brett McGurk.”

At Biden’s National Security Council, McGurk selected to concentrate on points associated to Saudi Arabia ― a placing selection given the disconnect between America’s historic closeness with the Saudis, which expanded beneath Trump, and Biden’s campaign-trail pledge to punish Saudi repression. That choice additionally decided Biden’s broader Middle East coverage, since different senior personnel like Blinken and Sullivan targeted on separate areas like Europe and China.

Under some stress, the Saudis launched a number of jailed human rights activists and started winding down their vicious army marketing campaign in Yemen. Still, the Biden administration embraced Riyadh much more than many lawmakers and outdoors analysts anticipated ― and with much less to indicate for it. By 2022, McGurk satisfied Biden to go to the dominion, with the administration claiming this may assist handle oil costs after the shock to the worldwide vitality market attributable to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that yr.

Three months after Biden’s journey, the Saudis reduce oil manufacturing, pushing up fuel costs simply earlier than the midterm elections and enraging anxious Democrats.

Yet it additionally began to change into clear that McGurk and his crew sought a unique aim: Saudi-Israel “normalization,” a marquee second in relations between two mighty if problematic U.S. companions and a step that will outshine Trump-era offers between Israel and smaller Gulf Arab international locations often called the Abraham Accords. The settlement would imply main advantages for the Palestinians and would embrace their enter, U.S. officers repeatedly stated. But it was broadly understood that the Biden administration had little curiosity in massive steps towards Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“The challenge we’ve had over the course of this administration is that we have been very, very, very deliberate ― and that is a charitable term ― when it comes to [Israel-Palestine]. There were some who really wanted to sweep this issue under the rug,” a present U.S. official informed HuffPost. “It had not been at the forefront of any discussions, and the steps that we could have taken on the Palestinian issue were stymied, whether it was opening a U.S. consulate [for the Palestinians in Jerusalem] or was reversing the [Trump-era] declaration that settlements are not illegal. There was never any appetite for that.”

Biden’s strategy was taking part in with hearth.

“It made it very, very difficult to keep that horizon of hope alive for the Palestinians,” the U.S. official stated. “It’s hard to put that at the feet of any one person, but I don’t think Brett was a helpful influence.”

A European diplomat stated his authorities got here to count on the worst because the U.S. relied on “Abraham Accords logic” that supplied solely lip service to Palestinian statehood.

“We knew that sooner or later there would be a new burst of violence: It was a given,” the European diplomat stated. “The question was when; the surprise was that it was such a tragedy.”

McGurk (top left) is one of a handful of staff invited to meetings with the president and Cabinet secretaries like this one on Oct. 10.
McGurk (high left) is considered one of a handful of employees invited to conferences with the president and Cabinet secretaries like this one on Oct. 10.
The White House

Biden’s crew stated they have been bettering Palestinian prospects as a lot as attainable given Israeli sensitivities, via steps like restoring funding to the United Nations company for Palestinian refugees and serving to arrange a journey by the primary Saudi delegation to the occupied West Bank since 1967.

Yet the American measures had little resonance, in line with Munther Isaac, a priest who lives in Bethlehem within the occupied West Bank and who has repeatedly met with U.S. officers to debate the Palestinian Christian neighborhood.

“They decorated our prison, basically. They gave us better mattresses in our prison. They upgraded our menu. But we’re still imprisoned,” Isaac argued. “It’s a naive idea to think that you can… corner us into accepting any settlement, and I think all of this blew up in the face of the architects of this plan.”

Yet there are rising indications that when preventing does abate in Gaza, McGurk’s bid for a Saudi-Israel deal will return to the highest of Biden’s agenda.

Speaking final month, McGurk stated that earlier than Oct. 7, the U.S. was “in intensive discussions” over a Saudi-Israel settlement that would come with materials progress for Palestine.

“This was not an end run around that issue, quite the opposite,” he stated. “What was true before 7 October is even truer now. That central issue must be addressed, and as Hamas is degraded, we are determined to help address it.”

Biden used a Washington Post op-ed the identical day to declare the U.S. wouldn’t permit Hamas to “collapse broader regional stability and integration.”

Daniel Mouton, who labored for McGurk from 2021 till this summer season, known as the mixture a “window into the administration’s thinking.” In a Nov. 21 weblog put up for the Atlantic Council assume tank, Mouton additionally cited the Saudi protection minister’s October go to to Washington as proof that officers are nonetheless quietly advancing elements of the Israel-Saudi deal, like absolutely restoring American arms gross sales to Saudi Arabia.

The European diplomat stated he can be extraordinarily alarmed if the Biden administration doesn’t perceive that the Gaza disaster “should serve as a wake-up call.”

“If the plan is just to bring the situation back under control like it was the day before the crisis, I think it will be a disaster,” the diplomat stated. “You will not resolve the situation just with trade and normalization and business.”

Biden administration officers argue that McGurk’s work on Saudi Arabia has had main advantages past its attainable results on Israel-Palestine ― for example, in sustaining a shaky truce in Yemen that has lasted since April 2022.

“It’s one of the biggest diplomatic achievements that flies under the radar,” a White House official stated.

If Washington is just too assured, it may spur alarming actions, nevertheless. A U.S. official informed HuffPost that McGurk is internally seen as chargeable for a 2022 push to finish Biden’s ban on American weaponry to Saudi Arabia, which rights teams say the Saudis used to repeatedly violate worldwide humanitarian legislation in Yemen. McGurk has been difficult the ban in latest weeks too, the U.S. official stated, at the same time as fears of a regional struggle have grown.

One supply of tension: the sense that hubris is clouding decision-making.

“Brett has a huge influence. And it’s rather incredible given that his only experience [being stationed] in the region is Iraq. Some say he is the Jared Kushner of this administration: entitled, not terribly knowledgeable, and doing the bidding of Yousef Al Otaiba,” stated a former U.S. official ― referring, respectively, to Trump’s son-in-law and the smooth-talking ambassador of the United Arab Emirates in Washington.

Brett’s World

Beyond McGurk’s dealing with of particular international locations, his broader worldview worries some observers, who say he treats human rights concerns as window dressing fairly than a significant issue for worldwide stability and U.S. affect overseas.

A former U.S. official highlighted McGurk’s Oct. 13 social media put up of a video from the Israeli authorities, which performed audio of a Biden speech over footage of the Sept. 11 assaults, useless our bodies, Palestinian militants and American weaponry. The former official speculated that it resonated with McGurk due to his earlier concentrate on the Islamic State.

“The War on Terror framing and the description that this is a fight between good and evil… inflames anti-Muslim, anti-Arab bigotry,” the previous official stated. “It also draws false analogies, because what is happening is not ISIS.”

“It is rooted in a real political conflict with legitimate grounds for Palestinian grievances,” the official stated. “Categorizing it as some insane, hate-filled, ISIS-esque situation is a form of misinformation that doesn’t get us closer to an answer ― and in fact produces wrong-headed policies.”

Visiting Israel after the Hamas assault ― with McGurk ― Biden stated in Tel Aviv: “After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”

McGurk (right) is well-connected on Capitol Hill, where he regularly briefs key players like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
McGurk (proper) is well-connected on Capitol Hill, the place he repeatedly briefs key gamers like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
by way of Associated Press

A former Obama administration official described McGurk as putting “less emphasis on the human rights side of things, except where it serves as useful leverage for his preferred strategic outcomes.”

That can have critical ramifications throughout the U.S. strategy to the Middle East, given his heft.

One U.S. official stated that in inner conversations, McGurk ceaselessly discourages colleagues from elevating rights issues with different governments, typically saying it’s going to make them extra probably to attract away from the U.S. and towards China. In May, when the White House scheduled a gathering for McGurk to listen to from activists to debate Middle East coverage, his crew intervened to revoke the invites of a pair of distinguished advocates, two individuals accustomed to the assembly informed HuffPost.

“He doesn’t engage with NGOs a lot … He dismisses many of us as overly critical and not useful or valuable to what he wants to accomplish,” the consultant of the civil society group informed HuffPost. But “if he were listening to rights organizations… he would understand that that is a missing piece to the puzzle.”

The European diplomat recalled that previously, he was struck by McGurk’s view of Western makes an attempt to unseat Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, a serial rights abuser. “For him, it was less a priority,” the diplomat stated. “The priority was more to increase security.”

Another present U.S. official stated McGurk’s crew consists of too few voices from communities with hyperlinks to the Middle East, undercutting Biden’s guarantees to profit from rising variety in nationwide safety positions and to rethink America’s dealing with of the Middle East in latest a long time.

Still, some accustomed to McGurk dispute the concept he’s immune to different views.

“We did not always have exactly the same priorities, but I think it was always possible to discuss,” the European diplomat stated, describing McGurk as “really cool” and hardworking.

An administration official who has labored with McGurk for greater than a decade characterised him as “willing to look to anybody for advice.” She stated McGurk sought out her insights when she was a junior officer.

“More than almost anyone I’ve worked with in my entire career, he’s truly valued that I bring… a perspective that is in some ways unique,” stated the official, who identifies as Muslim American.

For all his affect, McGurk is finally not the chief decision-maker over Middle East insurance policies which are drawing public disdain and risking U.S. pursuits.

“He is giving the president what he wants,” the previous Obama administration official stated. “Biden owns these decisions.”

Yet that makes some observers much more adamant that McGurk deserves stronger scrutiny, together with from the president.

Given the possibility, one other former official stated they might warn Biden to watch out in counting on McGurk.

“Time and again, it’s hurt us more than it’s helped us,” the previous official stated.

Support HuffPost