September 29, 2008 | National Review Online

Biden’s Baggage

Tiny Delaware barely registers in the Electoral College, but Barack Obama selected Joseph R. Biden Jr., the state’s senior senator, as his running mate. There’s one explanation: foreign-policy heft. Biden has tons. Obama has none.

Biden, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is the doyen of transnational progressives, Rolodex bursting with this chargé d’affaires and that secretary-general, bookshelves buckling under back issues of Foreign Affairs. Even in scandal, he’s a man of the world: The plagiarism that derailed his 1988 presidential run found him lifting phrases from Neil Kinnock, a fixture of the British Left who steered Labour through serial drubbings. For Democrats and the Council on Foreign Relations crowd, that episode was more an overeager demonstration of good taste than a natural progression from Biden’s earlier misappropriation of a law-review article, which nearly got him expelled from law school. Democrats savor the thought of their Joe lecturing a jejune Alaskan hockey mom on the finer points of ententes cordiales when the candidates debate next month.

But if Iraq is the topic, a more interesting debate would pit Biden against . . . Biden. By comparison, John Kerry is a paragon of consistency: Biden was not merely for the Iraq War before he was against it; he was also against it before he was for it.

As President George H. W. Bush launched the 1991 Gulf War to drive Saddam Hussein’s marauding army out of Kuwait, Biden argued passionately against doing so — a position he later admitted was a mistake. He subsequently morphed from Iraq dove to Iraq hawk, a transformation that happened to coincide with the election of a Democratic administration. In 1993, when Bill Clinton ordered a cruise-missile attack on an empty Iraqi intelligence headquarters in response to Saddam’s assassination plot against Bush, Biden was a staunch supporter. By early 1998, the born-again hawk was imploring Clinton to take military action against Iraq. Worried about the dictator’s “ability to produce the most deadly weapons known to mankind,” Biden warned that, “left unchecked, Saddam Hussein would in short order be in a position to threaten and blackmail our regional allies, our troops, and, indeed, our nation.”

Though he now repeats the Left’s charge that the Bush administration willfully misconstrued intelligence coming out of Iraq, the Clinton-era Biden dismissed the very notion that there existed any reliable intelligence on Baghdad’s arsenal. “As long as Saddam’s at the helm,” he inveighed during a September 1998 hearing, “there is no reasonable prospect [that] . . . any . . . inspector is ever going to be able to guarantee that we have rooted out . . . the entirety of Saddam’s [WMD] program.” Along with John McCain, Biden agitated for the Iraq Liberation Act, which made seeking regime change in Baghdad the policy of the United States. And in December 1998, the Delaware Democrat strongly backed Operation Desert Fox, in which Clinton ordered four days of bombing attacks without congressional authorization or Security Council approval.

By late 2001, a Republican was in the White House and post-9/11 polls reflected public demand for robust action against terrorists and rogue states. Biden comfortably reprised his Iraq saber-rattling. Al-Qaeda’s atrocities convinced him that the assurance of superpower retaliation was no longer sufficient to discourage America’s enemies. It didn’t matter to him that Iraq was not an imminent threat; Biden saw the economic sanctions faltering, presumed Iraq’s weapons programs remained viable, and argued that U.N. resolutions should be strictly enforced. “If we wait for the danger from Saddam to become clear,” he reasoned, “it could be too late.”

By the summer of 2002, Biden was publicly stating that war with Iraq was a virtual certainty — tracking his 1998 assertion that “the only way we’re going to get rid of Saddam Hussein is we’re going to end up having to start it alone . . . . It’s going to require guys . . . in uniform to be back on foot in the desert taking Saddam down.” Countering critics of his October 2002 pro-war vote, he insisted, “I do not believe this is a rush to war. I believe it is a march to peace and security.
. . . [Saddam Hussein] possesses chemical and biological weapons and is seeking nuclear weapons.” Though Biden predicted a lengthy, difficult battle, he stressed the imperative of persevering: “We must be clear with the American people that we are committing to Iraq for the long haul; not just the day after, but the decade after.”

Biden hedged his bets, of course, co-sponsoring a failed resolution that would have called on the administration to exhaust all diplomatic options. Biden always favors exhausting all diplomatic options — chatter, after all, is inexhaustible, a proposition the loquacious senator often is at pains to prove. The resolution was a bid for wiggle room — take credit for success but second-guess if things get tough before that “decade after” rolls around. Still, as the March 2003 invasion neared, Biden was adamant: “The choice between war and peace is Saddam’s. The choice between relevance and irrelevance is the U.N. Security Council’s.”

For all Biden’s twaddle about doctrines and concepts, there is a simple technique for divining this foreign-policy solon’s bobs and weaves: Consult the polls and the calendar. His opposition to the Gulf War was an example of Democrats’ post-Vietnam squeamishness about military actions abroad. His 1998 hawkishness dovetailed with growing public anger after the U.S. embassies in East Africa were bombed by bin Laden, in whose activities the Clinton administration suggested Iraq was complicit. Post-9/11, Biden was a top adviser to Senator Kerry’s campaign. Convinced that Democrats could not win unless the public believed they took national security seriously, he pushed his reluctant candidate to talk tougher. Over time, Iraq became more difficult and the expected caches of WMD failed to materialize, but as long as the mission enjoyed public support, Biden maintained that Saddam had been both a long- and a short-term threat to the United States, as well as an “extreme danger to the world.” Even a year after the 2004 election — which, the senator told the The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the Democrats lost because voters decided Bush was strong and Kerry weak — Biden declared, “The decision to go to war was the right one.” The ensuing problems, he elaborated, stemmed from the conduct of the mission, not the mission itself.

But change, we now know, was in the air. Howard Dean, who had risen from the fever swamps to the cusp of wresting the nomination from Kerry, was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Biden was eyeing a presidential run of his own. Though he scoffed that “no goddam chairman’s ever made a difference in the history of the Democratic party,” Biden couldn’t help but appreciate the declaration of’s Eli Pariser: “It’s our party. We bought it, we own it, and we’re going to take it back.” He couldn’t help but notice the elevation of Barack Obama. By the fortuity of not being in the Senate in 2002, Obama had been spared the need to cover himself and his party with a vote for war. As an inconsequential state legislator from an ultra-Left Chicago district, Obama could afford to oppose the invasion of Iraq. And now that opposition was gaining him traction.

The result was a one-eighty that would have been comical if the stakes hadn’t been so high. The Foreign Relations chairman turned against the war with a vengeance, clinging to the bogus narrative that congressional Democrats had been gulled by the administration’s “manipulation of intelligence” — intelligence Biden had reviewed himself. Biden characterized that intelligence as worthless because of Saddam’s duplicity, and superfluous because “everyone in the world thought [Saddam] had [WMD]. The weapons inspectors said he had them.” After years of calling for a surge in U.S. forces to quell the post-invasion insurgency, Biden bitterly opposed the surge once Bush ordered it in late 2006 — when the Democrats’ presidential debates were on the horizon. At a January 2007 hearing, he thundered: “Why do we want to stop the surge? We don’t agree with the mission.” Of course “the mission,” defeating al-Qaeda and securing Iraq for “the long haul,” was the same one Biden had championed for years.

With this transformation, Biden has managed an unlikely feat: He has been just as wrong about Iraq this time around as he was in 1991. Though Biden maintained that the surge would fail (“Sending additional troops to Baghdad will place more Americans in harm’s way with little prospect for success”), even Obama today grudgingly concedes it has “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”

With similar gloom, Biden predicted the 2005 Iraqi elections were “going to be ugly,” marred by violence. Instead they went off smoothly. By late 2006, Biden concluded that Sunni-dominated Anbar province had “morphed into an indigenous jihadist movement” and that “no number of troops can solve the sectarian problem and we don’t have enough troops to definitively deal with the jihadist threat.” In reality, the jihadist movement was not indigenous and, bolstered by the surge’s modest increase in U.S. forces, Anbaris rejected al-Qaeda. Anbar is now one of the war’s greatest triumphs: The enemy has been vanquished and control of the province has just been turned over to the Iraqi government.

These developments underscore the folly of Biden’s ballyhooed 2006 proposal for a soft partition of Iraq into a loose federation of three ethno-sectarian enclaves. Now rendered irrelevant by events, the gambit — premised on an ill-conceived understanding of Iraq’s demographics and a disregard for its constitution — promised a chaotic descent into civil war, massive population displacements, and the possibility of luring Turkey and Saudi Arabia into a conflict that already includes Iran and Syria. Biden’s plan did succeed, however, in uniting Iraqis: Revulsion for the proposal cut across the ethno-sectarian divide.

And now, the dénouement. Well into 2005, Biden pronounced that timetables for a U.S. withdrawal would be a “gigantic mistake.” The imposition of arbitrary deadlines, Biden assured his fellow experts at the Brookings Institution, would “encourage our enemies to wait us out,” cause Iraq to “degenerate quickly in the sectarian violence,” and result in a debacle reminiscent of “Lebanon in 1985, and God knows where it goes from there.” But — surprise! — Biden then had another epiphany. He now sees the wisdom of withdrawal timelines, such as those urged by his running mate, whom he previously dismissed as too green for the heady arena of foreign affairs.

Iraq is a synecdoche for Biden’s career as a foreign-policy guru. He entered the Senate 35 years ago, when he was all of three years removed from Syracuse law school. In 1973 he took his place in the Watergate Congress, the most liberal and hostile to presidential power in the nation’s history. Democrats enacted the War Powers Resolution over a weakened Nixon’s veto, purporting to limit the commander-in-chief’s authority over the armed forces; they defunded the Vietnam War effort, ensuring U.S. defeat and the carnage that followed it; and they passed the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, transferring control of foreign intelligence from the president to the courts.

Biden evolved into an internationalist of the highest order. He is probably the Senate’s most ardent admirer of the United Nations, regardless of how ineptly and corruptly it performs. He has never met a multilateral treaty he didn’t like, no matter how much sovereignty it surrendered. He vigorously supports the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which directs states to “modify social and cultural patterns of conduct” and installs the government as paymaster to enforce equal compensation for jobs of comparable value. He urges ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which vests children with a right to receive and impart “information and ideas of all kinds” over any “media of the child’s choice” — without regard to age or parental consent. He wants the U.S. to accept the International Criminal Court, which purports to empower an independent prosecutor to bring war-crimes charges against nationals of any country — including ours — whether it has ratified the treaty or not. Like McCain, he has been a supporter of the Law of the Sea Treaty, a redistributionist scheme that creates its own mini-U.N. (the supervisory “Authority”) as well as a new international legal tribunal, the rulings of which would inevitably interfere with American naval operations and national security. As for the economy-wrecking Kyoto global-warming compact, Biden thinks the U.S. must “re-engage,” since “the very survival of the planet depends upon it.” McCain supports a less restrictive approach based on U.S. law rather than international conventions.

Furthermore, Biden has already attempted — so far unsuccessfully — to address his running mate’s shortage of legislative accomplishment by rushing Obama’s proposed “Global Poverty Act” through his committee. This monstrosity of a law would require the U.S. to commit 0.7 percent of its gross national product through 2015 to foreign aid. The 0.7 percent figure is rooted in an oft-repeated and usually ignored aspiration spelled out in a 1970 U.N. General Assembly resolution; the 2015 target was set by international bureaucrats at the U.N.’s “Millennium Summit” in 2000. The effect would be to skyrocket U.S. largesse from its current annual level of about $21 billion (the world’s most generous) to a whopping $85 billion. As described by U.N. adviser Jeffrey Sachs, the Millennium Project anticipates that the total transfer — $845 billion by 2015 — would have to be raised by “a global tax, preferably on carbon-emitting fossil fuels.”

Biden is first and foremost a combative partisan, but he modulates his left-wing orientation in accordance with public opinion, following the polls slavishly when exigencies like 9/11 arise.

When a Democrat is in the White House, Biden’s internationalist moralism proves remarkably flexible. During the Carter administration, Biden’s easy cynicism made an impression on the Soviets. When Biden traveled to Moscow in 1979 for discussions about the SALT II treaty, Vadim Zagladin, deputy head of the Central Committee’s International Department, noted in a memo (later obtained by the dissident Vladimir Bukovsky) that Biden and his companion, Sen. Richard Lugar, had not raised human-rights concerns — the duo said they didn’t wish “to spoil the atmosphere with problems which are bound to cause distrust in our relations.” “Unofficially,” Zagladin recounted, the senators “were not so much concerned with solving a problem of this or that particular citizen as with showing to the American public that they do care for ‘human rights.’ . . . In other words, the collocutors directly admitted that what is happening is a kind of a show, that they absolutely don’t care for the fate of most so-called dissidents.”

During the Clinton administration, suspected terrorists were periodically captured for extraordinary rendition, the FBI conducted warrantless searches for national-security purposes, and the president launched military incursions without congressional warrant or U.N. approval. Biden remained a steadfast supporter of U.S. intervention abroad. Like McCain, he not only called for arming the Bosnian Muslims but wanted U.S. ground forces to be deployed under NATO against the Serbs in Kosovo, an option opposed by most Republicans as unrelated to vital national interests and ultimately rejected by Clinton.

In contrast, Biden fights Republican administrations tooth and nail, broadly construing the ever-expanding web of statutes, regulations, court decisions, treaties, and customary international law in order to accuse his ideological adversaries of all manner of perfidy. He opposed President Reagan’s anti-Communist efforts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Angola while battling the Reagan defense buildup and the Strategic Defense Initiative. That is to say, after helping ensure defeat in Vietnam, Biden risked defeat in the Cold War before courting defeat in Iraq. In the Bush administration, Biden voted with his party to block reauthorization of key Patriot Act provisions until Democrats, with an eye on the midterm elections, relented in March 2006. He opposed surveillance reform (legal authorization for U.S. intelligence agencies to monitor foreign enemies outside the U.S.) because it granted immunity to the telecommunications companies that had helped our spies eavesdrop without warrants on suspected international terrorists after 9/11.

Biden also objected to the president’s 2002 withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. He claimed the administration could not validly invoke the clause permitting withdrawal due to “extraordinary events,” and that “no new enemy has fielded an ICBM missile, which is the only missile our national missile defense is intended to stop.” Leaving aside the extraordinary events of the 9/11 attacks, the fact that North Korea and Iran were already known to be pursuing intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the fact that ICBMs are not the only missiles our defense is designed to stop, it happens that the Soviet Union, the only other party to the bilateral ABM treaty, no longer exists.

Finally, were it not for the national spotlight on his Iraq farrago, Biden would be best known for his relentless appeasement of Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of jihadist terror. Along with top members of Clinton’s inner circle, Biden was in the vanguard of foreign-affairs “engagement” enthusiasts who got goo-goo eyes in 1997 when the Islamic Republic’s then-president, Mohammed Khatami, proposed a “dialogue between civilizations.” The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps had only recently assisted Hezbollah in bombing the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia, murdering 19 members of the U.S. Air Force. And Iran was busily pursuing its nuclear aspirations. Still, as American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin recounts, Biden stubbornly pushed for cultivating Iranian “reformers” and encouraging trade and dialogue to bring the mullahs around. The European Union followed just such advice, increasing trade threefold with Iran, which promptly diverted 70 percent of the haul to its military and nuclear programs. The mullahs responded to this sensitive diplomacy by installing as their president a hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is more clearly reflective of the “Death to America” philosophy.

As the Iranians laughed all the way to the bank and continued killing Americans in Iraq, Congress voted last year to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization, a move that imposes economic sanctions. Only 22 senators opposed that designation; Biden and Obama were prominent among them. That called to mind the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. As policymakers considered potential responses to the attacks, Biden had a brainstorm. “Seems to me,” he told Foreign Relations staffers, that “this would be a good time to send, no strings attached, a check for $200 million to Iran.”

Governor Palin must admit: She doesn’t have the foreign-policy background to come up with something like that.

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