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Joe Biden has foreign policy ideals that can work in this chaotic world

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The vast foreign policy record of Joe Biden has received remarkably little scrutiny in this campaign. The concerns over the coronavirus crisis, and with Donald Trump, can help explain why. But in a dangerous world, this inattention is inexcusable. Bob Woodward noted in his new book of how close to the brink the president brought us to war, and even nuclear war, with North Korea. This should remind everyone of the stakes.

To the extent Biden has been scrutinized over foreign policy, it has been largely on unfavorable terms. Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under George Bush and Barack Obama, claimed that Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” a comment which Senator Tom Cotton was happy to repeat during the Republican National Convention.

This broad and somewhat nasty statement was evidently based on three apparent mistakes of Biden. These are his vote against Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991, his vote in favor of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein a dozen years later, and his purported internal opposition to the Navy Seal raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. But these three episodes alone do not paint the entire career of Biden.

Start by rounding out the picture with Iraq. While Biden voted against the 1991 war authorization, he had solid company like Sam Nunn, John Glenn, and Lloyd Bentsen, with Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also reportedly in internal opposition within the administration. With more than six dozen members of the Senate, Biden voted for the war Bush launched in 2003. However, as chairman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden held a series of hearings during the summer of 2002 in which he presciently warned the administration, “It would be a tragedy if we removed a tyrant in Iraq, only to leave chaos in its wake.”

By 2006, Hussein was gone, but Iraq was in flames. In the Senate, Biden proposed a confederal model in Iraq as a backup plan. Not just the Kurds in the north, but the Sunnis out west and the Shias in the center and east, would each be handed their own governed areas. Fortunately, because of the final success of the surge, this was not necessary, and Biden stopped pushing it. However, in proposing such an idea, rather than advocating a reckless withdrawal as many others favored at the time, Biden played the role of loyal and responsible opposition for our democracy.

In 2011, the administration was wrong to pull all the way out of Iraq. When the Islamic State later exploited the sectarianism that Prime Minister Nura Maliki stoked, the administration with Vice President Biden rightly forced Maliki out of power in 2014 as a condition for American support for what had become a campaign with success against the caliphate.

For the raid on Bin Laden, Gates himself was wary at first. Policymakers of his generation were reflexively uneasy about such complex military raids. They remembered, among other things, Operation Desert One, the failed mission in 1980 to rescue American diplomats taken hostage in Iran. The cautious position of Biden might have been wrong, given the success of the Navy Seal raid on Bin Laden, but it was not unreasonable.

On Afghanistan, Biden had backed the initial invasion to overthrow the Taliban in 2001. He was a prominent skeptic of the following surge that started there in the early years under Obama. History has at least partly vindicated him. However, again displaying caution, and support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Biden never wanted to pull the plug altogether, and he still does not, given the unstable situation.

Then there is the issue of Russia and Europe since the Cold War ended. In this matter, Biden has argued consistently for the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and more recently, a prudent buttressing of its military capabilities in eastern Europe. On the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, I believe Biden was largely mistaken, given the predictable effects on relations with Russia, but this notion sets me, not him, outside of the mainstream of foreign policy opinion.

Finally, Biden supported the North American Free Trade Agreement and promoted the Trans Pacific Partnership. The latter, which Hillary Clinton and Trump both opposed in 2016, sought to raise standards in trade on issues like labor rights, intellectual property, and environmental policy. Ironically, despite his opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership, these principles were adopted by Trump in the United States Mexico Canada Agreement. Further, Biden wisely supports the latter as well.

What emerges from this partial review for the vast foreign policy record of Biden over the years is neither perfection nor consistent failure. The grade from Gates does not hold up. Biden has shown us consistent principles of military caution, multilateralism, support for democracy, and international engagement. Those sound mantras do not by themselves ensure the best decisions in difficult situations. But arguably, for this chaotic world which we find ourselves in today, they are not a bad place to start.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior policy fellow with the Brookings Institution.

Tags Democracy Government Joe Biden Military Policy Security Terrorism War

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