Middle East/North Africa

Was Biden always wrong?

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Vice President Biden’s track record on foreign policy is under attack, which could hamper his potential 2016 bid for the White House.

President Obama selected Biden as his running mate in 2008 largely because the Delaware politician had what he lacked: foreign policy experience.

{mosads}But in his new memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote that Biden has been wrong about “nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

The startling charge has started a debate in Washington about the record of one of the nation’s elder statesmen, who used to head the Foreign Relations Committee. Here’s a look at some of Biden’s positions on notable issues and the criticism they’ve attracted:



The crux of Gates’s criticism is aimed at Biden’s alleged distrust of the military, which Gates says contributed to Obama losing faith in victory in Afghanistan and calling for an end to the U.S. combat mission in 2014.

“I thought Biden was subjecting Obama to Chinese water torture, every day saying, ‘The military can’t be trusted,’” Gates asserts in his book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.

Biden opposed the military’s call for a boots-on-the-ground counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, known as COIN, that Gates and others credit for turning around the war in Iraq. In the end, Obama broke with Biden and agreed to a 33,000-troop surge, but only for two years, until September 2012.

A recent classified report from 16 intelligence agencies says the advances from the surge will be rolled back by 2017, with the Taliban quickly gaining ground when U.S. and NATO forces leave.


Osama bin Laden

Biden’s support for counterterrorism operations did not extend to what was arguably the biggest national security success of Obama’s first term: the death of Osama bin Laden. Biden and Gates both considered the raid on Pakistani soil too risky — Gates favored aerial bombing — but the former secretary of Defense in his memoir credits Obama for taking “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”

Biden has talked openly about his opposition to the raid, saying in a 2012 speech that he wasn’t sure bin Laden was in the Pakistani compound.



Biden’s wariness of military options can be traced to the Iraq War, which the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to authorize in 2002. That vote hurt his 2008 bid for the presidency.

The subsequent insurgency soured Biden on the war, and he rejected the military’s call for a troop surge in 2007, saying then-U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, was “dead, flat wrong” in thinking it could work.

By 2008, Biden was warning against the “increasing dominance of the military in our foreign policy.” Violence in Iraq fell after the surge.

Biden was also the point man in negotiating a deal to keep U.S. troops in the country beyond 2011. The Iraqis balked, leading Republicans to pin the blame on the vice president as Islamist extremists gain ground in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

“I think this administration made decisions on Iraq — in particular the inability to negotiate and arrive at a long-term American presence there — that has created the space for some of this to occur,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told The Hill. “To the extent that he was responsible for coming up with that strategy, he certainly is to blame for that.”

Biden also floated a plan in 2006 to decentralize Iraq into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones similar to the division of Bosnia that ended the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The proposal was rejected by Iraqis across the political spectrum at the time as a recipe for sectarian tension.



Instead of COIN, Biden has thrown his support behind a strategy dubbed “counterterrorism-plus” that mixes drone strikes and raids by special operations forces. The result has been a surge in drone strikes in the past few years in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen that have killed a number of innocent civilians and fueled resentment against the United States.

Gates has called himself a “big advocate of drones,” but has called for more oversight of their use since leaving office and warned that they have lured Congress and the White House into a false sense that war is “bloodless, painless and odorless.”



Biden opposed greater U.S. involvement in Syria during the president’s first term, opposing the calls from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and CIA Director David Petraeus to arm some of the rebels battling President Bashar Assad. Republicans say extremists have filled the vacuum.

The administration “has sat by and refused to take any meaningful action, while the conflict has … fueled the resurgence of al Qaeda and devolved into a regional conflict that now threatens our national security interests and the stability of Syria’s neighbors, especially Iraq,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement over the weekend.

Biden adopted a more hawkish stance last year after allegations that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against rebels and civilians. He backed retaliatory military strikes against Assad and then welcomed the U.S.-Russian deal to have Assad turn over his chemical weapons. Both positions have come under criticism from hawkish lawmakers, who argue that neither strategy would change the balance of power on the ground.



Biden was one of the first lawmakers to call for arming Bosnian Muslims battling Serbian forces in Bosnia and co-sponsored a bill in 1999 authorizing the president to use “all necessary force” in the Kosovo conflict. Biden has called his press for a forceful response against Slobodan Milosevic his “proudest moment in public life,” and the White House led with it when defending him against Gates’s charge.

“The president disagrees with Secretary Gates’ assessment — from his leadership on the Balkans in the Senate, to his efforts to end the war in Iraq, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and has helped advance America’s leadership in the world,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. “President Obama relies on his good counsel every day.”

Tags Balkans Barack Obama drones Iraq Joe Biden Osama bin Laden Syria

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