Joe Biden

Barack Obama's running mate is vastly experienced in getting foreign policy decisions wrong

It is universally agreed that, whatever his other shortcomings, Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s vice-presidential running mate, is steeped in foreign policy experience.

He has been a senator since Richard Nixon was president. He has been chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for four of the past seven years. He travels widely and fearlessly, having visited Iraq and Afghanistan on numerous occasions in the past five years. In August, he was one of the first US politicians on the scene in Georgia after the Russian incursion, urgently dispensing his famously prolix wisdom to anyone who would listen.

The Biden CV is useful for, indeed perhaps crucial to, Obama’s campaign for the presidency. The actual foreign policy experience of Obama, who has been in the Senate for 30 years less than his running mate, is essentially limited to a commendable am-ount of reading and one oddly premature victory lap of Europe and the Middle East this summer. So it seems only right that we should stipulate, as American lawyers like to say, to the depth and range of Biden’s experience.

But of what use is a man’s experience when it has involved being on the wrong side of almost all the important issues?

In the 1980s he was a fierce opponent of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy that sought to face down Russian Communism. In 1984, he supported the proposal, popular on the left, for a nuclear freeze that would have left the US dangerously overmatched by the Soviet Union in nuclear capability and miles behind in conventional weaponry.

Having distinguished himself with this consistent capacity for error during the Cold War, he got the post-Cold War era off to a cracking start by being wrong on the biggest issue then, opposing the first Gulf War in 1991.

This, remember, was not some wild-eyed act of gun-toting US unilateralism. It was painstakingly negotiated through the UN Security Council and supported by all America’s European allies and most Arab states (including Syria). But Biden, perhaps by dint of that already accumulating experience, knew better and warned against the dire consequences if the US and its allies moved to enforce international law and force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

Not long after, some sort of dim bulb seems to have lit up in Biden’s head and he changed tack. Perhaps realising that his über-dovishness was neither objectively defensible nor (even in his home state of Delaware) politically wise, he shifted.

And so for a brief, enlightened period, Biden walked on the right side of history. He backed US intervention in the Balkans and supported the war in Kosovo and actually urged President Bill Clinton to prosecute it more thoroughly. Bristling with such success, he decided to take on Saddam Hussein and backed the Iraq war in 2003. This, by the way, was no me-tooism, meekly following President George W. Bush’s lead. Biden was a gung-ho scourge of the Iraqi dictatorship. Saddam, he said, “was a long-term threat and a short-term threat to our national security” and that the US had “no choice but to eliminate that threat”.

This bold assertiveness didn’t last, though. As soon as things started to go badly, Biden reverted to type. In 2004, he touted and proudly paraded what became known as the Biden Plan, which got a lot of admiring attention in the US media. It was a proposal to split Iraq into three largely autonomous states – Kurdish, Shia and Sunni, within a loose federation – along Bosnia lines. Although he was repeatedly advised by US military officials on the ground and by Iraqis of all ethnic and religious stripes themselves that it was a non-starter, he insisted it was the answer.

So of course, when President Bush decided belatedly to change strategy in Iraq and launch the “surge”, Biden opposed it fiercely. Last year, he supported a Senate resolution that would have required the president to withdraw all US combat troops by March 2008. Having initially tried to dismember the country, now he wanted the US to abandon it. A year later, the surge has worked and Iraq, one country, is moving at last towards peace and stability.

Biden, notoriously loquacious, doesn’t talk much about the surge any more. He doesn’t talk about the Biden Plan. And he certainly doesn’t waste much time talking about the first Gulf War or the Cold War.

But he does like to talk a lot about how America and the world can benefit from his vast experience. In a TV interview in August with his running mate, Obama offered this, the most backhanded of compliments, to Biden: “One of the reasons that I love Joe [Biden] and one of the reasons I think he’s gonna be such an effective vice-president is he’s blunt when he’s right and he’s blunt when he’s wrong.”

You can put that down to experience, Senator.

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