Why does Biden always get it wrong?

Joe Biden’s record on major foreign policy defies the law of averages. It seems almost impossible to have been wrong time after time on the big questions.

Peter Wehner provides the following partial list of Biden’s misses:

In 1975, Biden opposed giving aid to the South Vietnamese government during its war against the North, ensuring the victory of a brutal regime and causing a mass exodus of refugees.

In 1991, Biden opposed the Gulf War, one of the most successful military campaigns in American history. Not only did he later regret his congressional vote, but in 1998, he criticized George H. W. Bush for not deposing Saddam Hussein, calling that decision a “fundamental mistake.”

In 2003, Biden supported the Iraq War—another congressional vote he later regretted.

In 2007, he opposed President George W. Bush’s new counterinsurgency strategy and surge in troops in Iraq, calling it a “tragic mistake.” In fact, the surge led to stunning progress, including dramatic drops in civilian deaths and sectarian violence.

In December 2011, President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden withdrew America’s much-scaled-down troop presence in Iraq; the former had declared Iraq to be “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant,” and the latter had predicted that Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” Their decision sent Iraq spiraling into sectarian violence and civil war, allowing Iran to expand its influence and opening the way for the rise of the jihadist group ISIS.

According to Obama’s memoir A Promised Land, Biden had advised the former president to take more time before launching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

How does Biden manage to be wrong so consistently? Wehner offers this theory:

Perhaps the place to begin is by recognizing that Biden has never been an impressive strategic thinker. When talking about his strengths, those close to Biden stress his people skills: his ability to read foreign leaders, to know when to push and when to yield, when to socialize and when to turn to business. But that’s very different from having a strategic vision and a sophisticated understanding of historical events and forces.

What the Biden foreign-policy record shows, I think, is a man who behaves as if he knows much more than he does, who has far too much confidence in his own judgment in the face of contrary advice from experts. (My hunch is he’s overcompensating for an intellectual inferiority complex, which has manifested itself in his history of plagiarism, lying about his academic achievements, and other embellishments.)

That’s my hunch, too.

I think another, related factor may be at work. A friend who used to lobby Biden in the Senate tells me that Biden has a very short attention span and little tolerance for hearing details or analysis. And this was at a time when Biden was young. When my friend tried to explain his positions to Biden, the Senator’s eyes would glaze over quickly and he would become dismissive.

It’s one thing to reject the views of experts. After all, they are often wrong. But to reject their views without really listening to them is a recipe for error. So is overconfidence in one’s judgment coupled with a short attention span.

Wehner thinks he has found a common thread in Biden’s errors — a willingness to betray. He writes:

Biden’s foreign-policy record has one other through line: the betrayal of people who have sided with the United States against its enemies and who, in the aftermath of American withdrawal, face a future of oppression, brutality, and death. And these betrayals of people in foreign lands seem to leave Biden unmoved. There is a troubling callousness to it all. . . .

According to my colleague George Packer’s biography of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Biden has argued that the United States does not have an obligation to Afghans who trusted the United States.

“We don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger got away with it,” Biden told Holbrooke. Biden also “reportedly pushed back on the argument that America had a moral obligation to women in Afghanistan,” according to The Washington Post.

The withdrawals that Biden insisted on in Iraq and Afghanistan were at stages in those wars when very few American troops were at risk, when U.S. troop levels in those countries were quite low. As Paul D. Miller wrote in The Dispatch, “The U.S. presence in Afghanistan the last few years was tiny—just 2,500 troops before the start of the final withdrawal. It was indefinitely sustainable. There is no significant antiwar movement to speak of, there is no domestic political pressure to withdraw, and no election will hinge on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan.”. . . .

But Biden decided to do in Afghanistan what he decided to do in Iraq: cut the cord because he was determined to cut the cord, because he thinks he knows better, not because circumstances on the ground dictated that it be done. The result is a human-rights catastrophe.

There’s no doubt that Biden gives human rights far less weight in evaluating foreign policy options than Wehner does. (I probably fall somewhere in between Wehner and Biden on this). However, I don’t see this divergence as a unifying theory of Biden’s errors. For example, it certainly doesn’t explain Biden’s reluctance to take out bin Laden or his support for the second Gulf War (which he considers a mistake) and probably doesn’t explain his opposition to the Iraq surge.

So to explain Biden’s decades-long awful record, we’re left with this unfortunate combination — his third-rate intellect; his inflated view of that intellect; his tendency to follow the conventional wisdom of his party, unaffected by nuance; and his lack of the attention span necessary to absorb anything other than superficial analysis.

Barack Obama probably wanted out of Afghanistan as much as Biden does. Donald Trump certainly did.

But Obama and Trump are intelligent men. They understood the complexity of the situation.

It’s no accident that both avoided the pitfalls inherent in withdrawal. It’s no accident that Biden not only failed to avoid those pitfalls, but created additional ones in his execution of the withdrawal.

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