Talkin’ Joe Biden, the Foreign Relations Committee years

Last night, I argued that Joe Biden’s performance on the Senate Judiciary Committee recommends him more highly for a spot on reality television than for the number two political job in the United States. Far from demonstrating any statesmanship during his decades on this Committee, Biden presided over the deterioration of the judicial confirmation process, which he transformed into a vehicle (in Scott’s words) for the “character assassination of his betters.”

But what about Biden’s other major assignment, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Here, Biden engaged some of the most momentous issues facing this nation, including issues of national security and war and peace. Moreover, he did so in a setting which, though far more partisan than it ought to be, is not plagued by the kind of straight party-line voting that (with Biden’s help) has become the norm in controversial matters on the Judiciary Committee. Thus, if Biden has an ounce of statesmanship in him, it will have manifested itself in this critical assignment.

Did it? I lack the expertise to perform a comprehensive analysis of Biden’s record on the Foreign Relations Committee. But if we focus on matters relating to Iraq – probably the most serious issue that has faced Biden over the years – we find of pattern of incoherence and error that belies any claim to statesmanship, or even sustained seriousness.

During Biden’s time, the Senate has twice authorized the president to go to war with Iraq. In 1991, the question was whether the U.S. should come to the rescue of Kuwait, which Iraq had successfully invaded. Biden voted against doing so. Fortunately, the Senate as a whole saw the matter differently, and the U.S. successfully drove Iraq out of Kuwait. With almost no loss of American lives, the U.S. preserved an ally and prevented Iraq from becoming the dominant power in the world’s most oil rich region. Biden, in short, got this one wrong.

In 2003, the question was should the U.S. invade Iraq. The case for abstaining from military action seemed somewhat stronger than in 1991. First, Iraq had not attacked a neighbor. Second, our mission necessarily would extend beyond defeating the Iraqi military; we would have to occupy Iraq for a time and become entangled in its potentially deadly internal politics. This time, however, Biden voted to go to war.

I don’t believe that Biden got this vote wrong, but Biden has said that his vote was a mistake. So he was either wrong in 2003 or wrong thereafter.

Only Biden knows why he voted for war in 2003. But given his dovish vote in 1991, I suspect that his hawkish vote twelve years later was informed by his presidential ambitions. If so, that vote should disqualify him from higher office (and indeed the one he presently holds). If, alternatively, Biden was exercising his best judgment throughout, that judgment was found wanting in 1991 and, in Biden’s view, in 2003 as well.

In late 2006, with the situation in Iraq descending from bad to worse, Biden formulated a comprehensive plan for effectuating a U.S. withdrawal while ending sectarian violence. The centerpiece of that plan was the partition of Iraq into three separate regions.

Biden developed this plan in conjunction with the respected Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. It was a serious plan, but a fundamentally flawed one. First, the creation of an autonomous Sunni region threatened to provide al Qaeda something akin to a state of its own. Biden might argue that the Sunni Awakening would have prevented this outcome. However, Biden’s plan called for the “phased redeployment” of U.S. troops in 2007, culminating in a complete withdrawal by 2008. In this context, it’s difficult to see the Sunnis casting their lot with the U.S. in a bid to expel al Qaeda, much less succeeding in such a bid.

Second, the creation of an autonomous Shiite region would have been a boon to Iranian efforts to dominate in the Sunni south. The presence of Sunnis and Kurds in a unified Iraqi government has militated against such domination. Finally, the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region might have led to a war between the Kurds and the Turks, and certainly would have injured U.S. relations with Turkey.

Still, it might have made sense to risk these consequences if no better alternative had been available. But President Bush had developed an alternative, the troop surge. Biden, though, rejected the surge out-of-hand. His position was that the administration had it backwards – he maintained that any proposal to send more U.S. troops to Iraq should only follow a political solution that ends sectarian violence and civil unrest.

But it was Biden, we now know, who had it backwards. Additional U.S. troops, and a new counter-insurgency strategy, were necessary to reduce sectarian violence and civil unrest to the point that competing factions had the breathing space, and the faith in one another, necessary to achieve political progress.

Biden compounded this mistake by declaring the troop surge a failure in April 2007. Biden certainly can be forgiven for believing in advance that the surge would not succeed, though this error hardly recommends him for higher office. But his premature insistence that the surge had failed is much more difficult to defend. Why would we want a vice president who could not recognize a successful policy as it was unfolding before his eyes? Or, alternatively, why would we want a vice president who, in furtherance of his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, willfully ignored evidence of substantial progress in Iraq?

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