Democrats in the House of Representatives are discussing asking President Joe Biden for the resignation of Brett McGurk, his deeply controversial Middle East adviser, according to a Democratic lawmaker and a senior congressional aide.
Led by progressives who see McGurk as driving a counterproductive Middle East policy with an unacceptable human rights toll, the effort would take the form of a letter to Biden from a group of House Democrats, they said.
A draft has already been written and supporters of the bid expect to secure between 10 and 15 signatories, the lawmaker told HuffPost. The plan is to circulate the letter widely next week and raise the proposal at the next meeting of the powerful Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has more than 100 members.
Frustration “has reached a boiling point” among Democrats who see McGurk as responsible for harmful policies that undermine Biden’s support, the lawmaker said. Sources for this story requested anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations. Spokespeople for McGurk declined to comment.
The White House adviser has faced significant criticism since he became White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa when Biden entered office in 2021.
Skeptics say that he wrongly focused Biden’s Middle East policy on deepening U.S. ties to Saudi Arabia — a risky proposition given its record of rights abuses that implicate the U.S., and its resistance to Washington’s requests on matters from drawing closer to Russia and China to preventing spikes in oil prices.
In announcing McGurk’s appointment, Biden cast him as one of a group of “crisis-tested, deeply experienced public servants [who] will work tirelessly to protect the American people and restore America’s leadership in the world.” Current and former U.S. officials told HuffPost that McGurk wields major influence over the president and has sidelined expertise from other national security personnel at agencies like the State Department and Pentagon.
McGurk’s focus on Saudi matters made him determined to craft a U.S.-brokered deal for the kingdom to establish relations with Israel for the first time since its founding in 1948. Many U.S. officials and regional experts say that the U.S. push for a Saudi-Israel agreement inspired resentment among Palestinians who wanted the Saudis — major players in the Muslim-majority world — to resist such a bargain without the creation of a Palestinian state. Biden has publicly said that the Oct. 7 attack inside Israel by the Palestinian militant group Hamas was intended to stymie Saudi-Israel talks.
But despite the October massacre of approximately 1,200 people in Israel and the killing of more than 24,000 Palestinians in Israel’s U.S.-backed offensive against Hamas since then, McGurk has doubled down on the idea of a Saudi-Israel bargain as the way to establish peace in the Middle East, HuffPost has reported. In recent weeks, he has pushed fellow U.S. officials to tie the future of the Palestinian enclave of Gaza to the prospective Saudi-Israel deal, circulating a plan suggesting that Washington can secure reconstruction money from the Saudis, Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, and a Palestinian blessing for the deal as part of an urgent road map for rebuilding Gaza, HuffPost revealed last week.
U.S. officials told HuffPost that the plan was unlikely to succeed — one called it “delusionally optimistic” — and, even if implemented in some form, would likely overlook Palestinian discontent, sowing seeds of future violence. The White House National Security Council initially declined to comment, and then called the story “not true.” On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly denied that the plan could be adopted, saying that Israel would not accept the establishment of a Palestinian state or even the limited Palestinian autonomy in Gaza that McGurk’s proposal envisioned.
Brett McGurk speaks during a security conference in Manama, Bahrain, on Nov. 18, 2023.
Concerns about McGurk’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Gaza crisis are only the latest aspect of his record to disturb some observers. He is one of a tiny group of noncareer national security professionals tasked with Middle East policy under four presidents of different parties. His work on the region began in Iraq under President George W. Bush, and he then remained mostly focused on Iraq and Syria under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Interviewed for a 2022 HuffPost profile, one former U.S. official said that colleagues inside the government viewed McGurk as “the most talented bureaucrat they’ve ever seen, with the worst foreign policy judgment they’ve ever seen.”
Under Biden, he drew particular ire from Democrats who did not support his campaign to encourage the president to travel to Saudi Arabia and meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That strategy became even more toxic a few months later when the Saudis raised oil prices ahead of the midterm elections, potentially harming Biden and his party.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a prominent progressive, at the time called for McGurk to testify before Congress over the “disastrous visit.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) demanded a “wholesale reevaluation” of U.S.-Saudi ties, saying, “I just don’t know what the point of the current alliance is, if we have to work so hard to get the Saudis to do the right thing.”
Murphy and 19 other senators have publicly warned Biden’s team to tread carefully in making U.S. promises to Saudi Arabia as part of its quest for a U.S.-Saudi-Israel agreement. McGurk has consistently been a pro-Saudi voice inside the administration, recently by pushing for Biden to lift his ban on exporting offensive weaponry to the country, HuffPost revealed in December.
Khanna this week wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that McGurk “was involved with failed policy in Iraq, disastrous policy on Yemen, and the initiative for normalization of Israel & Gulf States with an indifference to the aspirations of the Palestinian people.”
As evidence of his expertise and success in guiding Biden’s Middle East approach, McGurk’s allies often cite his work on developing a truce between the Saudis and an Iran-backed militia in Yemen called the Houthis that paused a devastating U.S.-backed, Saudi-led military operation in the country.
Yet in recent months, Biden’s choices on Gaza have spurred the Houthis to begin attacking commercial shipping in the vital Red Sea, prompting the U.S. and its partners to start bombing Yemen in a campaign that is alarming to top Saudis and risks igniting broader conflict. Two congressional aides say it’s unclear in Washington foreign policy circles whether McGurk and the administration have a plan beyond launching strikes on Houthi targets, as they have done repeatedly since last week after HuffPost first reported their decision to begin doing so.
Asked Thursday if his response was effective, Biden said: “When you say ‘working,’ are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.”