Biden’s moment

After a career in the Senate cultivating an expertise in international affairs, serving for years on the Foreign Relations Committee, and ultimately as chairman, Biden is now leading the charge for a “smaller footprint” in Afghanistan, otherwise known as a counterterrorism strategy. He argues that now that al Qaeda has reconstituted in Pakistan, the United States must concentrate our efforts and resources there, using surgical strikes against al Qaeda cells. Biden supports maintaining our current presence in Afghanistan but using the same targeted tactics against the Taliban instead of focusing our resources on the security of the Afghan population. In marketing his strategy, Biden uses a potent bumper-sticker factoid: that our government spends approximately $30 in Afghanistan for every $1 it spends in Pakistan.

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, are reportedly opposed to the Biden plan. But the corrupt reelection of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and subsequent runoff election, have bolstered opposition among liberals to more troops and moved Obama to consider shelving McChrystal’s plan for Biden’s or both. Just weeks after declaring in August that Afghanistan was “a war of necessity,” Obama went on to decide in mid-September that his own strategy was in need of a comprehensive re-evaluation.

In profiles about Biden, the recounting of his famous gaffes are paired with on-the-record quotes from top administration officials about how his candor has proven useful in internal debates. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told The New York Times that “when there’s group-think going on, the vice president tends to push the envelope in the other direction.” Obama himself told the reporter Biden often “can help stir the pot.” While Biden’s advice, like not doing healthcare reform this year under such fiscal constraint, is heard, it can also be ignored. Biden’s criticism of Obama’s Afghanistan policy, now on the table, was rejected last winter.

If Obama decides again that Biden is wrong about changing course in Afghanistan, the rebuff will become the most high-profile of war decisions in which Biden has wound up on the losing end. Biden voted against the first Gulf War in 1991, but supported the 2003 Iraq invasion. In 2006 he proposed partitioning Iraq by dividing Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, and he opposed the surge of 2007, which is considered to have successfully stabilized Iraq.

The Afghanistan decision is a defining moment for Biden, for his own personal reputation and for his future role in the White House. Placed in charge of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act by the president, Biden was quoted several months ago as saying, “If the stimulus fails, I’m dead.” But Biden didn’t spend his Senate career preparing to pump billions of dollars into the economy; he spent it becoming an expert in foreign policy.

Like former Vice President Dick Cheney, Biden was chosen because he was a seasoned veteran, but also someone who could serve the president uniquely, unfettered by ambitions for another presidential run. Biden will be 74 in 2016 and is not expected to seek the presidency.

With the vice presidency likely the twilight of his career, Biden wants to help craft the big decisions in the Obama administration — he isn’t ready to be sidelined.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.