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US Vice-President Joe Biden has played a central role in White House decisions on policy in Afghanistan, Russia, China, Israel and the Arab world.
By James Traub
Every morning that President Barack Obama chooses to receive the daily intelligence briefing in person, Vice President Joe Biden sits by his side in a matching armchair in the Oval Office. Biden attends — and often speaks volubly at — the “principals meetings” of the president and his top national security officials, as well as at the president’s weekly meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. Often he stays afterward for a few minutes of private talk, or the president walks over to Biden’s office 30 paces down the hall. He and the president have lunch, by themselves, every week. In a White House where foreign policy is made, to an extraordinary extent, by the president and a few close advisers, Biden is first among equals. It is safe to say that on foreign policy, Biden is the most powerful US vice president in history save for his immediate predecessor, Dick Cheney.
Biden has played a central role in White House decisions on policy in Afghanistan, Russia, China, Israel and the Arab world, and his worldly pragmatism has helped shape a White House posture less starry-eyed, and perhaps also less hopeful, than many had expected at the outset of Obama’s tenure.
Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Obama asked him to be his running mate in 2008, and he confided to friends that he feared his second-banana role would reduce rather than increase his influence over foreign policy. But in January 2009, Obama asked Biden to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan to help him figure out what needed to be done there. Once Obama took office, he dispatched Biden to the Balkans, to Lebanon, and to Georgia and Ukraine to put out fires and issue strategic reassurances — though Biden started a small fire of his own when he returned from this last trip to say that Russia had a “withering economy.” Obama asked him to deliver a strategic address in Munich, where Biden coined the term “reset” to describe the administration’s plan to restore relations with Russia as part of new paradigm of “engagement.” Biden quickly became a chief strategist, devil’s advocate, and implementer of White House foreign policy.
Biden’s exceptional role owes both to Obama’s regard for his judgment and experience, and to Biden’s own bottomless connections to other leading figures. He has known the national security adviser, Tom Donilon, for a quarter-century; Donilon’s brother serves as Biden’s domestic-policy adviser, while his wife works for Biden’s wife, Jill. Biden’s staff, including Antony Blinken, his national security adviser, is highly regarded in Washington, and former aides are salted throughout the National Security Council (NSC) and the executive branch agencies. When I was writing a profile of Biden for The New York Times Magazine in 2009, a White House official told me that on Obama’s first day in office, James Jones, then the national security adviser, said to his staff, “You work for the president and the vice president.” The vice president’s staff was so deeply integrated into the top levels of the policy-planning process, this official added, that, “When you can’t get to the president, you can get to them and know what the White House is really thinking.”
This cosy relationship also illustrates the difference between Biden and his predecessor. Cheney was a supremely cryptic figure who rarely spoke at meetings and who exercised his influence, to the eternal frustration of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, in private meetings with President George W Bush, thus effectively disabling the White House’s national security apparatus. Like Cheney, Biden wanted to be the last man in the room, and he is. But no one has to wonder what he thinks. The combination of intellectual vanity and sheer lack of impulse control renders Biden almost physically incapable of not saying what’s on his mind (though he has gotten noticeably better at biting his tongue in the face of leading questions from Sunday morning talk show hosts). He is also an exuberant cheerleader, teammate, and coach who wants everyone to hold hands in the huddle. The Obama foreign-policy team has remained broadly collegial (far more than on the domestic side) despite immense pressures, and Biden has played a role in damping down conflict among the (somewhat overhyped) “team of rivals.”
Biden hadn’t wanted a specific portfolio of his own, but the president gave him one. At an NSC meeting in June, 2009, he turned to Biden and said, “Joe, you do Iraq.” (Biden had been deeply involved in Iraq as a senator, and had once proposed a partition plan for the country from which he later backed away.) Biden has made seven trips to Iraq since Obama’s directive. It is a job tailor-made for a career politician who loves plotting strategy, brokering compromise, talking about the wife and kids, squeezing a shoulder, an arm, a knee, or any other body part that hoves into view. Biden still spends a quarter or so of his time trying to prod Iraq’s endlessly bickering Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders into working with each other rather than trying to kill each other. Exactly how successful he’s been is a matter of dispute. A recent report by Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies concludes that as tensions rise among competing ethnic blocs, “a political crisis seems likely if not inevitable.” Cordesman also notes that the withdrawal of US troops in 2011 has both sharply reduced American influence and increased sometimes lethal political jockeying. On the other hand, as Blinken points out, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his chief rivals are still competing through politics, not gunfire.
Beyond Iraq, Biden has assigned himself a distinctive role, one that could not be more different from Cheney’s. “The president shouldn’t be the one to turn over the apple cart,” Biden told me in the course of one of our long and numerous conversations in 2009, “but I think it’s much in his interest that the apple cart be turned over.” Biden has specialised in disrupting groupthink and in forcing Obama’s most senior advisers to examine the consequences of their proposed choices. The most famous example, of course, was the agonisingly protracted 2009 debate over strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of the reasons it took so long is that Biden kept questioning the argument advanced by David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, then the military overseers of the Afghan war, for a major counterinsurgency campaign with 40,000 additional soldiers and a large-scale civilian component.
The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward has since reported, in “Obama’s War,” that from the outset of the debate in March, Biden argued for a much more modest counterterrorism effort focused on degrading al Qaida in Pakistan rather than defeating the Taliban in Pakistan. Woodward quotes the late envoy Richard Holbrooke comparing Biden’s role to that of George Ball, Lyndon Johnson’s under secretary of state, who persistently questioned the logic of escalation in Vietnam. I was talking to Biden throughout this period, and at one point he said to me, “You’re going to be angry with me, because I’m not going to talk much about Afghanistan because I want the president to hear what I have to say.” He then spent 13 minutes talking, off the record, about Afghanistan, and returned to the subject at much greater length later on.
Biden’s office declined my request to put some of those remarks on the record, so I will just say that what Biden told me confirmed Woodward’s account of his views: that counterinsurgency wouldn’t work owing to the corruption and incompetence of Afghanistan’s government; that the strategy wasn’t necessary because al Qaida was unlikely to return to Afghanistan even in the case of a Taliban victory; and that the real focus of the effort should be Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. The president encouraged Biden to challenge Petraeus and McChrystal; but in the end Obama was unwilling to reject their plan, though it seems clear that he shared many of Biden’s doubts. Obama authorised a civil-military strategy with 30,000 additional troops. The White House continues to present its Afghanistan strategy as a success, though even many of Obama’s supporters in the foreign-policy community regard it as his worst decision. In exchange for a vast investment of blood and treasure, the United States has made military gains that may prove transitory, has trained troops still unable to act on their own, and has watched helplessly as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has protected corrupt and brutal figures. The United States has crippled al Qaida — but through the counterterrorism tactics Biden had proposed. Obama must wonder if he would have been better off listening to his vice president, as LBJ must have felt about George Ball.
Biden’s role in the AfPak debate suggests that he is not merely a contrarian but a classic foreign-policy realist. Biden first came to Washington in 1970, amid the carnage of Vietnam, as a member of the Democrats’ anti-war faction. But he was a centrist and a straight arrow, not a radical. “I wasn’t against the war for moral reasons,” he told me. “I just thought it was a stupid policy.” He invited George Kennan, the grand old man of foreign-policy realism, to come speak to him, and Kennan talked about the absurdity of the “domino theory” and of the monolithic idea of communism. Biden spent the next several decades getting to know the world’s leaders as member and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, an experience that tends to produce an appreciation for the status quo. Biden was one of the Democratic senators who voted for the resolution authorising George W Bush to go to war in Iraq, but he insists that he never shared Bush’s vision of a transformed Middle East and, less plausibly, that he believed Bush wouldn’t rush into war. He told me that he loved “The Freedom Agenda,” my book on democracy promotion — Biden doesn’t merely “like” anything, he loves things — because it warned against the naïve faith in America’s capacity to install democracy in autocratic places. Biden is a rarity: a cockeyed optimist who nevertheless has a streetwise instinct for the harsh reality lurking under grandiose plans.
Like virtually all practicing politicians, Biden disdains ideological labels, but he has in fact given quite a lot of thought to where he stands in the spectrum of American foreign policy. When I asked him about the role human rights should play in US foreign policy, Biden said, “The difference between where I think we should be and where we have been in the past going all the way back to [George] McGovern and when I first came here is you either decry the behaviour and cut off relations, or ignore the behaviour and enhance your relations. My gut is, you deal with it in realistic terms.”