Four men in Washington shape America’s policy in the Middle East. Three are obvious: President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan. The fourth is less well-known, despite his huge sway over the other three ― and despite his determination to keep championing policies that many see as fueling bloodshed in Gaza and beyond.
His name is Brett McGurk. He’s the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and he’s one of the most powerful people in U.S. national security.
McGurk crafts the options that Biden considers on issues from negotiations with Israel to weapon sales for Saudi Arabia. He controls whether global affairs experts within the government ― including more experienced staff at the Pentagon and the State Department ― can have any impact, and he decides which outside voices have access to White House decision-making conversations. His knack for increasing his influence is the envy of other Beltway operators. And he has a clear vision of how he thinks American interests should be advanced, regarding human rights concerns as secondary at best, according to current and former colleagues and close observers.
“It’s tremendous power that is completely opaque and non-transparent and non-accountable,” a former U.S. official told HuffPost.
Comparing McGurk’s extremely centralized approach in the Biden era to the more consultative way in which past administrations made decisions, a representative of a civil society group said McGurk is “able to drive things with [Sullivan] and the president in a process that is not a process.”
It’s a stunning degree of authority for a 50-year-old operative with a deeply controversial career. One current U.S. official said McGurk’s dominance has rendered the top Middle East official at the State Department ― a former ambassador who, unlike McGurk, was confirmed to her post 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 said.
Meanwhile, McGurk’s primary focus, a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, has come to dominate American diplomacy in the region. “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 said.
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment for this story. The agency has experienced internal uproar in recent weeks. On Thursday, a State Department official told HuffPost that staff have submitted at least six formal letters of dissent regarding Biden’s Gaza policy to Blinken through a protected channel.
Amid the crisis 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 more than 14,000 Palestinians, McGurk has maintained his importance. He’s deeply involved in the negotiations between Israel, Hamas and regional governments that have let more than 100 Israeli hostages come home and boosted the amount of humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza. His team is tightly managing what U.S. officials say about the conflict, and he is in regular contact with foreign officials who say America’s largely unrestrained support for Israel is spurring huge resentment worldwide.
Now there’s growing concern that despite the shock of the Hamas attack and the sweeping Israeli response, McGurk will stand by priorities and tactics that many officials and analysts see as deeply unhelpful.
“Brett’s theory of the region is that it’s a source of instability but also resources,” the former official said. “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 in the Middle East every few years.
“Here’s a clear example before you: they wanted to bypass the Palestinians” in Saudi-Israel normalization, the former official said.
Saudi Arabia, the wealthy spiritual hub of the Muslim world, has long said it will only establish ties with Israel if a Palestinian state is established. Many Palestinians and their supporters believe that if Israel cuts a deal with the Saudis without major concessions to Palestinians, that will take away a key incentive for Israeli leaders to reach a fair 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 aid package Congress is expected to soon pass, adding to Israel’s existing $3 billion in annual military assistance from the U.S. ― “and incur great reputational harm,” the former official said. “And it may just cost the president the election.”
A White House official told HuffPost that McGurk and the Biden administration prioritize Palestinian rights, including during talks about Saudi-Israel normalization. At those talks, the official said, “Palestinians have been at the center.”
But skeptics fear McGurk’s focus on so-called Saudi-Israel “normalization” will mean centering America’s Middle East strategy 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 instance, including huge arms sales and security commitments despite documented Saudi and Israeli misuse of American military assistance.
Critics also worry McGurk will keep concentrating policymaking among a handful of handpicked close aides, sidelining alternative views on global affairs from officials outside that circle.
“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 current U.S. official said. McGurk first gained prominence in the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
HuffPost discussed McGurk with 23 current and former U.S. officials and people who are in regular contact with the Biden administration on Middle East policy. Most of them would only speak anonymously for fear of retaliation. McGurk declined to speak on the record.
Many sources expressed respect for various elements of McGurk’s background and work. The White House official said he works “closely and collaboratively” with colleagues across government.
Yet most also described deep concern about McGurk’s power and what it might mean for the future of U.S. Middle East strategy.
Jasmine El-Gamal, who served at the Defense Department for nearly nine years before leaving in 2017, pointed to comments by McGurk that linked aid 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 said.
“I used to look up to Brett as a person,” added El-Gamal, who recalled a supportive message McGurk sent her in 2021 after she publicly discussed struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The White House maintains that McGurk’s comments on aid were misrepresented. “The United States does not support conditions on the delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza,” spokesperson Adrienne Watson told 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 said. “But to be honest, I think the damage has been done and it’s too late.”
Ignoring Jerusalem For Riyadh
McGurk’s powerful post under Biden is the culmination of a long journey. President Barack Obama appointed him to the State Department despite his ties to President George W. Bush, and he quickly developed close relationships across the administration ― including with Biden, who like McGurk made the widely criticized choice to encourage the U.S. to back Nouri al-Maliki to lead Iraq, setting in motion the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Obama tried to appoint McGurk as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, but a scandal led him to withdraw from consideration. Eventually, Obama tapped McGurk to help coordinate the global fight against ISIS, a job he held until 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 told 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 fans see his longevity as proof of his skills, useful relationships and reliability. In 2022, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told HuffPost he personally pushed the Trump administration to keep McGurk. “He studies the issues rigorously,” Mattis said at the time. “He has a strategic framework.”
Other observers say the pattern reflects a failure by the U.S. foreign policy establishment to learn from its mistakes.
“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 current U.S. official told HuffPost. A former official said there’s a joke in some national security 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 chose to focus on issues related to Saudi Arabia ― a striking choice given the disconnect between America’s historic closeness with the Saudis, which expanded under Trump, and Biden’s campaign-trail pledge to punish Saudi repression. That decision also determined Biden’s broader Middle East policy, since other senior personnel like Blinken and Sullivan focused on separate regions like Europe and China.
Under some pressure, the Saudis released several jailed human rights activists and began winding down their vicious military campaign in Yemen. Still, the Biden administration embraced Riyadh far more than many lawmakers and outside analysts expected ― and with less to show for it. By 2022, McGurk convinced Biden to visit the kingdom, with the administration claiming this would help manage oil prices after the shock to the global energy market caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that year.
Three months after Biden’s trip, the Saudis cut oil production, pushing up gas prices just before the midterm elections and enraging anxious Democrats.
Yet it also started to become clear that McGurk and his team sought a different goal: Saudi-Israel “normalization,” a marquee moment in relations between two mighty if problematic U.S. partners and a step that would outshine Trump-era deals between Israel and smaller Gulf Arab countries known as the Abraham Accords. The agreement would mean major benefits for the Palestinians and would include their input, U.S. officials repeatedly said. But it was widely understood that the Biden administration had little interest in big steps toward 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 current U.S. official told 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 approach was playing with fire.
“It made it very, very difficult to keep that horizon of hope alive for the Palestinians,” the U.S. official said. “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 said his government came to expect the worst as the U.S. relied on “Abraham Accords logic” that offered only 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 said. “The question was when; the surprise was that it was such a tragedy.”
Biden’s team said they were improving Palestinian prospects as much as possible given Israeli sensitivities, through steps like restoring funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees and helping organize a trip by the first Saudi delegation to the occupied West Bank since 1967.
Yet the American measures had little resonance, according to Munther Isaac, a priest who lives in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank and who has repeatedly met with U.S. officials to discuss the Palestinian Christian community.
“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 growing indications that once fighting does abate in Gaza, McGurk’s bid for a Saudi-Israel deal will return to the top of Biden’s agenda.
Speaking last month, McGurk said that before Oct. 7, the U.S. was “in intensive discussions” over a Saudi-Israel agreement that would include material progress for Palestine.
“This was not an end run around that issue, quite the opposite,” he said. “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 same day to declare the U.S. would not allow Hamas to “collapse broader regional stability and integration.”
Daniel Mouton, who worked for McGurk from 2021 until this summer, called the combination a “window into the administration’s thinking.” In a Nov. 21 blog post for the Atlantic Council think tank, Mouton also cited the Saudi defense minister’s October visit to Washington as evidence that officials are still quietly advancing aspects of the Israel-Saudi deal, like fully restoring American arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The European diplomat said he would be extremely alarmed if the Biden administration doesn’t understand that the Gaza crisis “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 said. “You will not resolve the situation just with trade and normalization and business.”
Biden administration officials argue that McGurk’s work on Saudi Arabia has had major benefits beyond its possible effects on Israel-Palestine ― for instance, 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 said.
If Washington is too confident, it could spur alarming actions, however. A U.S. official told HuffPost that McGurk is internally seen as responsible for a 2022 push to end Biden’s ban on American weaponry to Saudi Arabia, which rights groups say the Saudis used to repeatedly violate international humanitarian law in Yemen. McGurk has been challenging the ban in recent weeks too, the U.S. official said, even as fears of a regional war have grown.
One source of anxiety: 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,” said 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.
Beyond McGurk’s handling of specific countries, his broader worldview worries some observers, who say he treats human rights considerations as window dressing rather than a vital factor for international stability and U.S. influence abroad.
A former U.S. official highlighted McGurk’s Oct. 13 social media post of a video from the Israeli government, which played audio of a Biden speech over footage of the Sept. 11 attacks, dead bodies, Palestinian militants and American weaponry. The former official speculated that it resonated with McGurk because of his previous focus 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 former official said. “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 said. “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 attack ― with McGurk ― Biden said 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.”
A former Obama administration official described McGurk as placing “less emphasis on the human rights side of things, except where it serves as useful leverage for his preferred strategic outcomes.”
That can have serious ramifications across the U.S. approach to the Middle East, given his heft.
One U.S. official said that in internal conversations, McGurk frequently discourages colleagues from raising rights concerns with other governments, often saying it will make them more likely to draw away from the U.S. and toward China. In May, when the White House scheduled a meeting for McGurk to hear from activists to discuss Middle East policy, his team intervened to revoke the invitations of a pair of prominent advocates, two people familiar with the meeting told 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 representative of the civil society group told 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 in the past, he was struck by McGurk’s view of Western attempts to unseat Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, a serial rights abuser. “For him, it was less a priority,” the diplomat said. “The priority was more to increase security.”
Another current U.S. official said McGurk’s team includes too few voices from communities with links to the Middle East, undercutting Biden’s promises to benefit from increasing diversity in national security positions and to rethink America’s handling of the Middle East in recent decades.
Still, some familiar with McGurk dispute the idea that he is resistant to alternative perspectives.
“We did not always have exactly the same priorities, but I think it was always possible to discuss,” the European diplomat said, describing McGurk as “really cool” and hardworking.
An administration official who has worked with McGurk for more than a decade characterized him as “willing to look to anybody for advice.” She said 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,” said the official, who identifies as Muslim American.
For all his influence, McGurk is ultimately not the chief decision-maker over Middle East policies that are drawing public disdain and risking U.S. interests.
“He is giving the president what he wants,” the former Obama administration official said. “Biden owns these decisions.”
Yet that makes some observers even more adamant that McGurk deserves stronger scrutiny, including from the president.
Given the chance, another former official said they would warn Biden to be careful in relying on McGurk.
“Time and again, it’s hurt us more than it’s helped us,” the former official said.