Will Biden Haunt Hillary’s Presidential Campaign?
The vice president vowed to speak out if Hillary sways from Obama’s foreign policy. Here are the top five times the two disagreed on national security.
When Vice President Joe Biden swore off a run for the presidency on Wednesday in a short address in the White House Rose Garden, he also made a second promise: “While I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent.”
“I intend to speak out clearly and forcefully to influence as much as I can where we stand as a party and where we need to go as a nation,” he said.
He included in his remarks a direct threat to Democrats running for the White House that if they stray from the “Obama legacy,” they will be making a “tragic mistake.”
“Democrats should not only defend this record and protect this record. They should run on the record,” he added.
The statement sends a clear message to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton that if she breaks with her former boss, Biden won’t hesitate to call her out. In no area is that more likely to happen than foreign policy, where Clinton has already called for a more aggressive military response to the civil war in Syria, now in its fifth year, than Obama has been willing to implement.
Syria is far from the only issue where Clinton and Biden clashed during their time in the administration, with the two taking differing positions on everything from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya. Sometimes Clinton was on the winning side; other times Biden was. Over the years, two distinct visions for U.S. foreign policy emerged. Here are five times they disagreed on the most pressing geopolitical issues of their time — and where Clinton is still facing the repercussions of her decisions.
In his address on Wednesday, Biden made an almost unmistakable reference to the civil war in Syria when discussing the limits of American military power. The nearly five-year conflict between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces has resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 people and the displacement of millions. While the Obama administration has authorized train-and-equip missions for Syrian rebels and has waged an air campaign against Islamic State militants in the country, it has refused to oust Assad by military force as some hawks in Washington have called for.
“We have to accept the fact that we can’t solve all of the world’s problems,” Biden said in the Rose Garden. “The argument that we just have to do something when bad people do bad things isn’t good enough. It’s not a good enough reason for American intervention and to put our sons’ and daughters’ lives on the line, put them at risk.”
Clinton has consistently taken far more hawkish positions. Her latest break with the Obama administration surfaced earlier this month with her call for the creation of a no-fly zone in Syria as a means of reducing the bloodshed in the country and slowing down the exodus of refugees into Europe and elsewhere. The White House does not support the policy because, among other reasons, it could force the Defense Department to take out Syrian air-defense systems and potentially shoot down Syrian or Russian aircraft — moves that would mark a significant escalation of the U.S. role in the conflict.
In recent days, with Russian jets conducting regular bombing raids in the country, Republican presidential candidates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham have also called for a no-fly zone, pledging to shoot down Russian President Vladimir Putin’s planes if need be. “My first phone call would be to Vladimir, and I’d say, ‘Listen, we’re enforcing this no-fly zone,’” Christie told MSNBC last week. “‘And I mean we’re enforcing it against anyone, including you. So don’t try me. Don’t try me. Because I’ll do it.’”
Some experts on the left and right have pointed to flaws in such a proposal, noting that many civilian casualties are the result of ground attacks and that Russia’s involvement in the war complicates the feasibility of such a plan. “It makes for a nice tweet. It sounds good; it sounds like a policy idea. But when you get down into the details, you see why it’s not really going to work,” Luke Coffey, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told the New York Times.
Still, Clinton defended the policy during last week’s presidential debate, saying it should be considered “because I’m trying to figure out what leverage we have to get Russia to the table.”
“Diplomacy is not about getting to the perfect solution,” she added. “It’s about how you balance the risks.”
Biden has never spoken publicly on the specific issue of a no-fly zone, but he has disagreed with Clinton on other military decisions in Syria, in particular her support for arming the rebels in the summer of 2012. Biden opposed that measure, which was supported early on by then-CIA Director David Petraeus and other top Obama officials.
In October 2014, Biden elaborated on his skepticism about arming so-called “moderate” rebels during a question-and-answer session at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
“The fact of the matter is … there was no moderate middle,” Biden said. He also lashed out against America’s allies for failing to vet Syrian opposition elements with extremist sympathies, a remark he later apologized for.
“Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria,” Biden said. “They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war. What did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad — except that the people who were being supplied, [they] were al-Nusra [Front], and al Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world.”
Ultimately, the Obama administration did begin a train and equip program under the Pentagon, but it was suspended in October after an array of failures, including an inability to identify moderates and rebels surrendering their U.S. arms to Islamic extremists. A separate CIA-run program remains in place and is thought to be somewhat more successful, despite major setbacks.
Still, Clinton told CBS last month that she would restart the train and equip program as president. “I wouldn’t give up on train and equip, but I sure would push the Pentagon to take a hard look at why what has been done has been such a failure and what more we can do to support Kurdish fighters who are on the front line,” she said.
The mission to kill Osama bin Laden
Biden and Clinton have both offered conflicting accounts of the deliberations among Obama’s top advisors ahead of the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound — one of the most consequential moments of Obama’s presidency.
For years, Biden has been known for opposing the operation to take out bin Laden, a dangerous nighttime raid that required violating Pakistani airspace and sending special operations forces to eliminate the al Qaeda leader in his Abbottabad hideout. But on Tuesday, Biden said only two of Obama’s advisors — Gates and then-CIA Director Leon Panetta — gave firm answers about supporting or opposing the mission. That runs counter to Clinton’s account that she fully supported the mission at the time.
“Everybody went around the room, and there were only two people who were definitive and were absolute,” Biden told an audience at George Washington University. “Leon Panetta said, ‘Go.’ And Bob Gates, who has already publicly said this, said, ‘Don’t go.’”
Biden recalled warning Obama about the dangers of the raid during a meeting with top aides, but said he later told the president privately that he supported the mission. “I told him my opinion that I thought he should go but to follow his own instincts,” he said.
That account includes some important differences with Clinton’s, who recalled in her memoir that she urged Obama to green light the raid while Biden was the one who blinked.
“I respected [Biden’s] concerns about the risks of a raid,” she wrote in her book Hard Choices. “But I came to the conclusion that the intelligence was convincing and the risks were outweighed by the benefits of success.”
A separate account from Panetta’s memoir, Worthy Fights, offers a more nuanced characterization of the positions of Biden and Clinton.
“Clinton acknowledged that more time might give us better intelligence, a sentiment others advanced as well, but she concluded that this was a rare opportunity and believed we should seize it,” wrote Panetta. “Biden argued that we still did not have enough confidence that bin Laden was in the compound, and he came out firmly in favor of waiting for more information.”
It’s unclear why Biden chose this week to revisit the raid deliberations but it may be the first sign that he’s not willing to let Clinton rewrite history in a way he sees as unfavorable to his legacy. In a previous account of the raid he gave to fellow Democrats in January 2012, Biden said he advised against the raid, saying, “We have to do two more things to see if he’s there.”
Biden now accounts for that discrepancy by saying he didn’t want to undermine the president in front of his advisors if Obama was secretly leaning toward a more cautious approach.
“Imagine if I had said in front of everyone, don’t go or go, and his decision was a different decision,” Biden said Tuesday. “It undercuts that relationship. So I never, on a difficult issue, never say what I think finally until I go up to the Oval with him alone.”
Over the last 13 years, Biden and Clinton’s policies toward Iraq have diverged in many important ways, but they started out in the same place: Both voted in support of the Iraq War resolution in 2002, a decision they would both come to regret.
As massive casualties and sectarian infighting took its toll in the country following the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Biden and Clinton also opposed former President George W. Bush’s Iraq troop surge of 2007. But that’s when their views began to diverge. Biden became a vocal proponent of a loose federalism structure in Iraq that would provide considerable regional autonomy to three main groups in the country: Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. The proposal has come in and out of popularity in Washington policy circles depending on the level of sectarian violence in the country on any given day, but the rise of the Islamic State has effectively partitioned the country already, with the Kurds consolidating their hold over the north, the Shiite-run central government strengthening its control of Baghdad and the south, and Sunni leaders demanding greater autonomy for their strongholds in the center of the country.
While Clinton has never outlined a similar kind of manifesto for Iraq, she has charted her own path on important issues related to the country’s future. As secretary of state, Clinton was one of the leading advocates inside the administration for a residual U.S. presence in Iraq beyond 2011, while Biden supported the withdrawal of troops. “Hillary very much wanted to keep troops in the country,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq at the time, told the New Yorker.
Ultimately, the decision was made by the Iraqi government, which refused to conclude a status of forces agreement with the United States, though critics charge that the administration could have tried harder to get the Iraqis on board. The decision to withdraw has become a hot-button issue as GOP candidates have sought to blame Obama for “losing Iraq,” while liberals lay the blame on the Bush administration for invading in the first place.
Clinton and Biden were also at odds over Obama’s 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan. During a long debate in 2009, the former secretary of state was one of the hawks in the Situation Room. She, along with Gates and the now-retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, pushed Obama to send 40,000 troops to the country as part of an expansive counterinsurgency strategy.
Biden, on the other hand, served as a voice of caution on all things related to the war. He was against sending a large force to Afghanistan, believing a greater U.S. military presence was unlikely to solve the larger problems facing Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Instead, he urged the president to maintain a narrower mission focused on counterterrorism and training the Afghan security forces. He also argued that Pakistan was a more pressing concern because of al Qaeda’s heavy presence there.
A memo written by Biden to the president in 2009 shows just how fervent the vice president’s opposition was. “I do not see how anyone who took part in our discussions could emerge without profound questions about the viability of counterinsurgency,” Biden wrote. The disagreements fueled considerable tension between Biden and Gates, who have both accused each other publicly of being “wrong” on every major foreign-policy issue they confronted.
In the end, Obama sided with Clinton and opted to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in December 2009. He included a withdraw deadline of mid-2011. Since then, the Taliban’s hold over the country has become greater than at any point since 2001. The armed group recently conquered a major Afghan city for the first time, and the American-assisted effort to claim Kunduz led to a deadly botched strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital that killed 22 people. Obama personally apologized for the strike and — citing the rising violence in the country — set aside a campaign pledge to end America’s longest war and instead has pledged to keep at least 5,500 troops there indefinitely.
In 2011, Clinton and Biden clashed over the decision to help oust Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi — an increasingly contentious decision that Clinton struggled to defend in the first presidential debate.
Clinton had been a forceful advocate for the U.S. and European bombing campaign that helped tip the battlefield balance toward the rebels, leading to the eventual toppling of Qaddafi’s regime. Biden opposed getting involved militarily because he didn’t see it as a paramount national security priority.
Qaddafi’s downfall was initially viewed as a successful effort by the United States and its allies to oust an autocratic dictator waging war on his own people. However, the power vacuum created after Qaddafi’s death and the rise of various militias vying for power has left Libya in chaos and allowed for the Islamic State and other extremist groups to gain a toehold in the country. What was once a major Clinton selling point is now a political liability.
“Libya today — in spite of the expectations we had at the time of the revolution — it’s much, much worse,” said Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “Criminality is skyrocketing. Insecurity is pervasive. There are no jobs. It’s hard to get food and electricity. There’s fighting, there’s fear … I see very few bright spots.”
Despite the perilous state of the country, Clinton has had to own her role in crafting the policy, thanks to a series of internal emails from the time that have become public. In April 2012, top Clinton aide Jake Sullivan sent an email characterizing the intervention as a pivotal triumph for Clinton that would establish her legacy for strong leadership.
“HRC has been a critical voice on Libya in administration deliberations, at NATO, and in contact group meetings — as well as the public face of the U.S. effort in Libya,” Sullivan wrote. “She was instrumental in securing the authorization, building the coalition, and tightening the noose around Qadhafi and his regime.”
That description largely jives with the memoir of Robert Gates, then-defense secretary, who said the decision divided the administration, with Biden and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon opposing the intervention and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and top aides Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power supporting it.
“In the final phase of the internal debate, Hillary threw her considerable clout behind Rice, Rhodes and Power,” wrote Gates.
Biden, by contrast, never believed Libya was important enough to U.S. national security interests to justify the aggressive bombing campaign, though he has not spoken at length about his rationale to break with Clinton and the rest of the Obama war room.
During last week’s Democratic presidential debate, Clinton defended the decision, calling it an example of “smart power at its best.”
“We had our closest allies in Europe burning up the phone lines begging us to help them try to prevent what they saw as a mass genocide, in their words,” she added. “And we had the Arabs standing by our side saying, ‘We want you to help us deal with Qaddafi.’”
Correction, Oct. 21, 2015: Syria’s civil war is in its fifth year; an earlier version of this article mistakenly said it’s in its fourth year.
John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson
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