Rudy deLeon ’74 on the Biden Presidency

With a change of presidential administrations just weeks away, we asked Rudy deLeon ’74, about his interactions with President-elect Joe Biden, the foreign policy landscape Biden will face, and the machinations of a presidential transition. deLeon served in government for some 25 years. He was an aide to Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), staff member and director of the House Armed Services Committee, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and, from 2000 to 2001, deputy secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. deLeon was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You must have often come into contact with President-elect Biden during your long career in government service. How would you describe him?

He is a very personable individual. I remember being on an aircraft carrier with him, and if he had the chance, he would’ve shaken hands with each of the 4,500 people on that ship. When Biden was vice-president, I also would see him at the Washington Nationals baseball games. There is a special section right behind home plate where the wounded from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center would attend a game. I’d see him arrive at first pitch and see him still talking to the people in that section until the sixth inning. So, he is a friendly guy who likes to engage individually with people.

How do those qualities shape how a president conducts policy?

Some are very wonky. President Barack Obama was very much the wonk. I think we’d say President John F. Kennedy was a wonk. Ronald Reagan would love to have the one-page paper that would have his talking points, and he would find a way to come up with an interesting story. Whereas President Donald Trump will leave office, and we can say with certainty that he has never read a talking paper and has rarely used his topic points in the conduct of the country’s business. They used to say that Reagan, as a former actor, understood that the speech was the equivalent to a script. If you’re an actor, having a good script is very important. President Trump is a reality television star, which means extemporaneous, spontaneous and not necessarily logical. So, it’s personal politics that President Biden will start with.

Biden is often as a proverbial “common man,” with the qualities you just outlined. Yet, his background in foreign policy is quite extensive, as senator and vice president. But so, too, in terms of domestic policy as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and, again, as vice president. Will that experience help him, or is the Congress his primary limitation?

You’re right: Joe Biden chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is a critical perch in terms of overseeing and being engaged. You’re out there in the world and meeting a lot of the critical leaders. For example, Vice President Biden hosted China’s then-Vice President Xi Jinping at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Unlike Joe Biden at the Nationals’ park, where he would say hello to everyone, one of the stipulations of the Xi’s visit was that it would be OK to meet Kobe Bryant but nobody else. Biden has been around the block and he’s met the kings of the Middle East, and he’s met the hard-liners of China, but our domestic politics have really changed a lot. It’s not that the people have changed, but rather the way that we conduct our politics that has dramatically changed. We are now much less likely to compromise, but we know what we’re against. I’m not so sure we know what we really want to see happen next, but we know what we’re against. And we’re in a period where that dominates politics, and it particularly dominates the factions in the Congress.

In terms of U.S. security, what three issues should be at the top of President-elect Biden’s priority list?

No. 1 is the competition with China. It’s not a single competition, It’s a competition of systems. So, there is a military piece, a diplomatic piece as China tries to gain more influence in the Middle East and Africa, an educational piece in terms of the number of students that China is pushing out of universities, and the competition of political ideology. In a democracy, you have to form consensus with the public to move forward, and in an authoritarian government, like the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, you don’t have to look at the public opinion poll to decide how to move. Second is dealing with the nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea. The third one is ending the wars that have now gone on for 30 years in the Middle East. Under America’s nose — while we were bogged down with the war on terror — the political alliances of the region have been dramatically changing.

About China and Taiwan, some observers say Trump’s policy toward Taiwan was a tactic, a lever, in relations with China and did not represent a genuine commitment to Taiwan. Does that analysis hold up in your eyes?

To do justice to Taiwan and Beijing would probably require two hours of conversation. But to boil it down, in ways that President Bill Clinton shook up the Chinese leadership when he moved the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 in the face of Beijing aggression, Donald Trump used Taiwan mostly to poke Beijing in the eye. Does that mean he would’ve stood up for Taiwan as being a truly functioning democracy? Maybe yes, maybe no. For all of the back and forth on the tariff disputes with China that really did hurt American farmers, the administration allowed most of the Chinese exports to continue to come in. He was more interested in speaking loudly than he was in accomplishing anything. 

President-elect Biden announced he’ll nominate Antony Blinken as his secretary of state. Will Blinken spend his first week focusing immediately on implementing policy, launching an across the board review of existing policy, or organizing the team he needs for the long haul?

Well, he’s going to have to do all three simultaneously. That’s the problem of the truncated transition [from the Trump administration to the Biden administration] that has been slow to start. Tony Blinken has been around the block, he comes from a lineage of parental diplomats, he’s been a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he’s had very senior jobs at the National Security Council. The way you master a transition into the State Department, or the Pentagon, is you quickly divide up the key things. Personnel is one of those things, because so many of the career diplomats were pushed out of the State Department during the Trump era. Second, you’re going to have to help the White House and the National Security Council put together their foreign relations strategy. Joe Biden has been going to the Munich Security Conference, which annually occurs in February. So, that will be one of his key stops: What will be his message to NATO, as well as to the Pacific allies. Third, he’ll need to try to get the train back on the track. Trump has succeeded in canceling the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Russians could’ve helped if they hadn’t cheated. He’ll have to decide on whether to extend the New START arms control treaty on strategic nuclear weapons and the even simpler Open Skies Treaty, which allowed each side to surveil the other’s nuclear inventory with reconnaissance flights — to count the beans, so to speak. The Trump administration has taken all three of those tools off the table. So, the Pentagon, State Department, DoD are going to have a very busy 2021 in front of them, because, to be honest, it takes a full year for these departments to settle down.

Surely, a new administration can’t simply just reinstate agreements such as the Paris Accord or the Iran nuclear agreement, correct?

You can probably rejoin the Paris Accord, but I think the prevailing view is that China needs to match its words with its prevailing policies. I don’t think you can jump back into the Iran agreement, because the agreement covered nuclear processing, and with Iran you include delivery systems. And you have to deal with Iran and its expeditionary nature in the Middle East — the war in Yemen is all being managed by Iranian proxies. So, Iran will be more complicated. Then, where does diplomacy with North Korea pick up? Do you talk to Kim Jong Un or not? And what role would China play in those negotiations? 

You were deputy secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, and your successor in the George W. Bush administration was Paul Wolfowitz. What was the transition like for you, particularly since you were handing off your assignment to someone whose views were quite different from your own?

On Day 1 — Inauguration Day — very few people are confirmed by the Senate. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was confirmed. But there were probably 10 of us who were appointees President Clinton who were asked by Secretary Rumsfeld to stay on until successors were confirmed. While the new administration was working out the president’s policy and beginning the staffing process, many of the day-to-day things would stay in my office until Paul Wolfowitz was confirmed about eight weeks later. President Trump has fired all of the senior people in the Pentagon. Secretary Mark Esper was fired because he disagreed with the way the incident in Lafayette Square took place, Richard Spencer, the secretary of the Navy, was fired because he disagreed with pardoning a sailor who had been found guilty of an egregious crime. By the time Paul Wolfowitz was confirmed, I was ready to make my exit. We didn’t overlap that much, but we certainly did have differences of perspective in terms of the use of military force, the Middle East and things like that. He became much more of a public figure than I was in the job.

During those eight weeks before confirmation, could the new deputy secretary of defense come into the office in order to get caught up?

You’re prohibited from taking any action that would assume the confirmation of the Senate. You’re able to get some briefings, but you’re not able to sit in on any meetings or participate in any deliberations.

A question about interviews — even this one, perhaps. Though you’re not an official of the government now, is it difficult to be interviewed about defense matters without revealing sensitive information?

You never knowingly or unknowingly divulge classified information. For several years I was one of the officials who would read the president’s daily briefing, and people want to know what’s in there. What I say is what’s in there is basically what’s going to be in the New York Times in about a week. That’s what it’s really telling you, although in one of my last sessions in the Pentagon during the transition from President Clinton to President George W. Bush, I was to take a very senior person into a room, before which I said, “We’re going to go into this room and we’re going to show you imagery, and you’re going to have to decide whether this is sufficient identification of Osama bin Laden such that you would feel it appropriate to take actions upon.” In terms of divulging sensitive classified information, if you’re on the inside you know how to talk and you learn how to talk around a lot of those things.