Even as he was leaving office, Vice President Joe Biden and his cohorts carved out their own fiefdom within the empire of liberal philanthropy and academia. They await the time when they will be able to use the trappings of public office to spread largesse and grease palms once again. As the presumptive nominee struggles to maintain a presentable and coherent front in public, the phalanx of aides and stooges around him provide an example of how lifelong politicians build personal machines using donor money, some of it from offshore strategic rivals like China.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like it did. In February 2017, the circle of appointed advisers and consultants that had shepherded the Obama Administration foreign policy through eight years of intervention and ISIS in the Middle East, messy ruptures in Eastern Europe between Russia and Ukraine, and an almost comatose approach to Latin America had to take their talents to the open market because the previous November’s election had gone the wrong way.
Some of them, like former intelligence chiefs James Clapper and John Brennan as well as former Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, joined cable news networks as contributors or “analysts.” Rhodes has also collaborated with a group of other Obama alums led by Tommy Vietor and Jon Favreau who run Crooked Media and its best-known podcasts “Pod Save America” and “Keepin’ it 1600.”
But then there are the benchwarmers, who lack the name recognition or ambition to hack it on their own. For them, it was announced on February 1, 2017, a mere week and a half after Biden left office, that there would be the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement (PBC), a name that perhaps Derek Zoolander brainstormed for them. But rather than have the PBC on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, it was announced at the outset that its location would be in Washington, D.C. with only a satellite office back at Penn.
The PBC’s address is 101 Constitution Ave. N.W., putting it across the street from Capitol Hill and within the sixth most expensive real estate market in the United States, averaging $32 per square foot—more than Philadelphia. Biden himself would be called the “Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor,” whatever that means. In its announcement, the Penn Biden Center claimed that it “promises significant impact for both Penn’s teaching and research missions. As the Presidential Practice Professor, Biden will hold joint appointments in the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Arts and Sciences, with a secondary affiliation in the Wharton School.”
Biden does have a profile on Annenberg’s site as a member of the teaching faculty, but according to Philadelphia magazine in 2019 he never taught a single course despite earning $775,000 in salary over two years, almost twice the annual income of the average Penn professor.
The Toy Chest
So what exactly does the Penn Biden Center do? Looking into its staff, the PBC appears to be a cushy green room for old Obama Administration aides waiting for new gigs once Polident Joe gets back into office. It doesn’t have a class or event schedule, and only two events are listed on its Facebook page history, the last one being in Chicago in November 2017. Its Twitter account mostly retweets articles by and interviews with members of its staff on niche websites for international affairs specialists like World Politics Review and Balkan Insider. In effect, the University of Pennsylvania has loaned its branding to become an expensive PR firm for Joe Biden’s foreign policy. Luckily for Penn, it’s a win-win situation for them in terms of revenue.
In May the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group, filed a complaint against the PBC alleging that Penn had violated federal law by not disclosing the source of $22 million in anonymous donations from China (out of a total of almost $70 million from there). When this relationship was reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, a spokesperson for the American Council on Education complained that there is not enough guidance from the Department of Education about how to report the donations.
ACE, a lobbying group for colleges and universities that two months later lobbied Capitol Hill for a “floor” of $47 billion in coronavirus relief, apparently thinks that demanding disclosure of the giver’s identity for a donation of over $250,000 is a “gotcha.” And who are the people who actually run the PBC?
- Ariana Berengaut (Director Programs, Partnerships, and Strategic Planning)—former speechwriter for Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and, before that, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.
- Spencer Boyer (Senior Fellow)—former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and National Intelligence Officer for Europe.
- Michael Carpenter (Managing Director)—former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Balkans, White House foreign policy advisor to Biden, and Director for Russia on the National Security Council.
- Dan Erikson (Senior Fellow)—former special advisor to Biden and senior advisor for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department.
- Juan González (Senior Fellow)—former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, special advisor to Joe Biden, and National Security Council director for the Western Hemisphere.
- Colin Kahl (Strategic Consultant)—senior advisor to both Obama and Biden on foreign policy and national security affairs. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011, National Security Advisor to Biden.
- Jeffrey Prescott (Strategic Consultant)—special assistant to Obama and senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf States for the NSC.
- Caroline Tess (Senior Fellow)—special assistant to Obama and senior director for legislative affairs at the NSC.
There are also two visiting scholars, Mahlet Mesfin and Austin Doehler, but conspicuously there are no teaching fellows, although the majority of the people on the list are members of the Council on Foreign Relations. Boyer continues to teach at Georgetown, but has not published or taught anything for the PBC, meaning that it is anyone’s guess why he is a paid fellow there.
Not only does the PBC function as a lily pad for Obama-era foreign policy swamp creatures, many of them provide a startling window into how poor the former president’s defense and foreign policy was conducted while still increasing intervention overseas.
In 2016 Michael Carpenter, while still serving at the Defense Department, agreed with a report by the Rand Corporation that Russia could defeat NATO in less than three days. Carpenter is a staunch supporter of increasing U.S. confrontation with Russia. In 2017 he recommended deploying a combat brigade to Eastern Europe as a deterrent in his testimony before Congress’s joint Helsinki Commission hearing, a move that the Trump Administration has agreed with through steps such as deploying 500 soldiers to Lithuania in 2019. Carpenter consistently lobbied for the successful expansion of NATO to Montenegro, while warning of “Russian influence” on its election. With an active duty military numbering only 2,400, an air force consisting largely of converted civil aircraft along with a remnant of the old Yugoslav Navy, Montenegro’s membership in NATO is more a liability than an asset.
Daniel Erikson also happens to work for Blue Star Strategies, a strategic consulting company that worked with Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company for which Biden’s son Hunter served as a no-show board member earning at least $50,000 a month. Senate Homeland Security Committee members accused Blue Star of dragging its feet in producing documents to the committee regarding its dealings with Burisma. In June Ukraine’s anti-corruption prosecutor announced that Burisma’s founder had attempted to bribe an official probing the company in order to drop the investigation.
Potentially the most controversial PBC bullpen member is Colin Kahl, who in September 2012 defended the Obama Administration against critics from the Mitt Romney campaign about its performance during the Arab Spring in the wake of the Benghazi terror attack earlier that month. He claimed that Iran had failed to take advantage of the Arab Spring earlier that year in an op-ed for Foreign Policy. The irony of the statement is that a result of that wave of uprisings is the replacement of two autocratic but stable regimes in Yemen and Syria with bloody proxy conflicts where Iran is deeply involved.
There is apparently bad blood between Kahl and the pro-Israel community. In September 2012, Kahl was blamed by Democratic insiders for a flap at the party convention in which it was omitted that the party seeks to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In 2015, while serving as Biden’s advisor on the Iran Nuclear Deal, Kahl spoke to War on the Rocks—a national security insiders’ podcast—to defend the agreement. He brushed aside criticisms that it would lead to increased terror activity by Iran. He also dismissed criticism that the deal would encourage nuclear proliferation elsewhere.
Just six months later North Korea successfully tested its fourth nuclear weapon, thereby validating those fears. In 2018 an Israeli spy firm Black Cube was alleged to have tried to lure Kahl and fellow PBC fellow Catherine Tess into providing information on Iranian assets that could be seized as part of civil litigation. It has been reported by Al-Monitor that Kahl is handling the Iran brief on the Biden campaign after having condemned the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, and bemoaoning subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. In May 2019 he joined Rachel Maddow in order to hype fears of a U.S. invasion of Iran by President Trump, which of course later events proved was the opposite of the president’s goal. His inclusion in a future administration is sure to lead to friction with both Israel and the Sunni monarchies on the Persian Gulf if the new administration seeks to reimpose the Iran Nuclear Deal.
*To be clear, these individuals are winners since they have had such successful careers without accomplishing anything. We the public, who pay these civil servants are the losers.
Old Dog, Old Tricks
Biden is by no means an innovator in this respect. Five years ago Clinton Cash was published in anticipation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid for the presidency. The author of the book was Peter Schweizer, a distinguished author and speechwriter in the Bush White House who had been published by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other major American newspapers. In its pages Schweizer documented the development of the Clinton Foundation and other philanthropic ventures of the Clintons, in particular focusing on how donations had been pledged by foreign rulers and banks like Goldman Sachs for speaking engagements that seemed to augur to Secretary Clinton dealing favourably with them in her official capacity.
Even The Guardian acknowledged that it showed a clear conflict of interest both for her and former President Bill Clinton. Rather than acknowledge at the time that the ties to China, Saudi Arabia, and corporate plutocrats would tarnish her candidacy, the establishment media zeroed in on some nuanced errors that Schweizer made in describing Clinton’s powers regarding the Uranium One deal. Among those that sprung to Clinton’s defense long after the book was published was then-Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, who claimed that because such authority rested with interagency approval boards, it was improper to label it as a corrupt deal.
Much of the same pattern of behavior concerning the Biden family’s activities with Burisma in Ukraine and in China with Rosemont Seneca was covered by Schweizer in two other books, Secret Empires and Profiles in Corruption. But because he is now a senior editor at Breitbart, no longer writing at approved media outlets, Schweizer’s work is largely ignored.
For the Democrats, the decision by an admiring media to overlook yawning ethical issues in Clinton’s record would lead to a tainted party nomination process and ultimately a backlash at the ballot box in 2016 that elected Donald Trump. Rather than accept the truth that their party leadership has become woefully intertwined with multinational corporate cronies and foreign state actors, the Democrats went into the 2020 election hoping a youthful successor could carry the party into the voting booths with the same hopeful spirit of Obama-Biden. That wish would go unfulfilled as one after another Robert (Beto) O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Julián Castro and Cory Booker all went up in flames. The only viable candidates during the actual primary were the elderly progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and ultimately Obama wingman Joe Biden.
While they didn’t want Biden, the party’s insider class knew that they could cope with him as a controllable stopgap. Those who feel that Joe Biden would be a mild compromise to the right-wing Trump and socialist rival Sanders are deluding themselves. Even if Biden serves only as a caretaker, the incompetent interventionist hawks that he would put into power would solve nothing and spend the next four years padding their resumes, getting ready for their next whirl on the revolving door of academia, lobbying, and government office. It’s not that hard to imagine, since they’re all waiting for this turn right now, in that tony office just across the street from Congress.