New US President Joe Biden's cabinet is swiftly taking shape as Congress swiftly approves his nominees — but what can we expect from the new appointments?
After four years of near-hysterical opposition to Donald Trump's presidency and the most divisive presidential election in living memory, the Biden administration has already proven reluctant to make major policy changes beyond a few headline-grabbing concessions to immigrants, transsexuals and environmentalists.
So what does the new government in Washington DC have in store for the US and the world?
State — Antony Blinken
Biden's foreign policy chief Antony Blinken is a former Obama-era official whose formal appointment this week is a bad omen for peace in the Muslim world.
In a speech to State Department staff following his swearing-in ceremony, Blinken pledged to "seek out dissenting views and listen to the experts" — advice he would have done well to heed himself when he served as deputy National Security advisor and deputy secretary of state under president Barack Obama.
He became a public cheerleader for the US-led bombing campaign on Libya in 2011, which led to the current anarchy and civil war in the North African country. He is also credited as a "key player" in fomenting the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, which was ultimately derailed by military intervention from Russia and Lebanon's Hezbollah with support from Iran and Iraq.
Blinken also seems determined to derail the recent détente between Arab states and Israel. Days before the November 3 election, he announced Biden's opposition to Trump's sale of Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth strike fighters to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which he described as a "quid pro quo" for the Gulf Arab monarchy's recognition of the state of Israel.
Days after the UAE announced it would establish an embassy in Tel Aviv last week the new Biden administration cancelled the jet sale. Military aviation experts could have told Blinken that Russia has already offered its far-cheaper and higher-performance Sukhoi Su-57 jet to the UAE.
One ray of hope is Wednesday's announcement that Washington had agreed with Moscow to extend the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty for another five years.
Defence — General Lloyd Austin
Lloyd Austin's appointment as the first black Secretary of Defence required a congressional vote waive a rule against recently-retired military officers serving in the cabinet. The retired four-star army general resigned his commission in 2016.
He assured his Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week he would uphold "the subordination of military power to the civil" — as some 25,000 National Guard troops patrolled the capital — but he warned of "extremist" enemies within as well as without.
"The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies," Austin said. "But we can't do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks."
Austin took over as commander of the US occupation forces in Iraq in September 2010, staying in that post for 15 months while overseeing the transition from the Operation Iraqi Freedom war-fighting mission to one focused on training the country's new US-founded army.
The general was then promoted to head of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), commanding forces from Egypt to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. His tenure saw the emergence of Daesh* in Iraq and Syria, which Austin initially dismissed as a "flash in the pan".
Obama's policy of refusing to take military action against Daesh until Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to resign saw the terrorist army take over much of the country' north and vast swathes of neighbouring Syria, perpetrating beheadings and massacres of civilians and the destruction of cultural artefacts. Austin also oversaw the farcical US programme to train insurgents to fight Daesh in Syria, admitting to Congress that the programme had only produced four or five combatants out of a target of 5,000.
With US troops still occupying the eastern oil fields of Syria despite Trump's efforts to overcome State and Defence Department resistance to pulling out, Austin and Blinken's appointments indicate a new entrenchment of hostile military policy towards Damascus.
Homeland Security — Alejandro Mayorkas
By contrast to Blinken's and Austin's fast-track approvals by Congress, Bidens's choice of homeland security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is facing resistance from some Republican senators — reportedly as part of the battle over a White House executive orders on immigration.
Texas Senator John Cornyn said “there are a number of problems” with Mayorkas. Texas won a court ruling this week against the Biden administration's freeze on deportations of illegal immigrants, and more fights are brewing over his order to halt construction on Trump's Mexican border wall — which still has federal funding earmarked for it.
Former homeland security chiefs Janet Napolitano and Michael Chertoff opined on Wednesday that Mayorkas's nomination was a hostage of that political fight, while Democrat Senator Dick Durbin called Republican objections "totally political".
And last week a member Biden's transition team warned thousands of marchers on the latest Central American migrant caravan to turn back. “The situation at the border isn’t going to be transformed overnight", they said. "Now is not the time to make the journey.”
Mayorkas' family background as the son of emigres from communist Cuba may also not be a good omen for improved relations with Havana or other left-wing Latin American governments.
Treasury — Janet Yellen
Since the US Treasury Department does not actually set the public spending budget and finance policy, its main political business has become imposing financial and trade sanctions on other countries and their individual leaders.
New Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has already stated that she will tighten the screws on Russia for threatening US "national security" thousands of miles away in the Crimea and the breakaway Ukrainian Donbass republics.
"I commit to rigorously enforcing sanctions targeting Russian actors for territorial aggression in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea and other threats to US national security," she said last week ahead of her swearing-in.
As Federal Reserve chairwoman during the Obama administration, she was one of the US official voices issuing dire warnings to British citizens against voting to leave the European Union, claiming it "could have significant economic repercussions."
National Intelligence — Avril Haines
Biden's appointment of Avril Haines, a lawyer like himself and running-mate Kamala Harris, as the first female Director of National Intelligence is not a good omen for human rights. As deputy director the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama, she worked with director John Brennan on the policy of "targeted killings" in drone strikes around the world, sometimes phoning the spy chief late at night to decide whether an individual could be "lawfully incinerated".
The American Civil Liberties Union was highly critical of that policy, and cast doubt on the Obama administration's 2015 claim that it had only killed between 64 and 116 "non-combatants" — its euphemism for innocent civilians — since he took office in 2009. The ACLU quoted figures from journalists and human rights groups of between 200 and 1,000 civilian killings.
Haines also overruled the CIA's inspector-general to drop charges against agents who snooped on Senate staffers working on the congressional report into the spy agency's use of torture. She later backed Trump's 2018 appointment of current CIA Director Gina Haspel, who had herself been accused of involvement in torture.
“This is a pretty ominous signal about what is to come” a Senate staffer told the Daily Beast. “To have the deputy CIA director touted for her record in advancing human rights and respect for the rule of law I don’t think can be adequately squared with not only her record but her deliberate choices of advocacy.”
*Daesh (ISIS, Islamic State) is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia and many other countries.