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Biden vs. Biden on Iraq

Vice president Joseph Biden is the administration’s point man on managing U.S. involvement in Iraqi political reconciliation; the same man whose idea it was to partition Iraq along ethnic lines only a few years ago. In fact, then Senator Biden got 75 Senators to pass a resolution in 2007 calling for Iraq to partitioned into ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Vice president Joseph Biden is the administration's point man on managing U.S. involvement in Iraqi political reconciliation; the same man whose idea it was to partition Iraq along ethnic lines only a few years ago.

In fact, then Senator Biden got 75 Senators to pass a resolution in 2007 calling for Iraq to partitioned into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd regions with considerable autonomy, even getting then Senator Hillary Clinton (but not Senator Barack Obama) to go along. Now he travels to and from Baghdad pressing Iraqi politicians to eschew ethnic differences and come together to compromise and meld their political efforts.

Vice president Joseph Biden is the administration’s point man on managing U.S. involvement in Iraqi political reconciliation; the same man whose idea it was to partition Iraq along ethnic lines only a few years ago.

In fact, then Senator Biden got 75 Senators to pass a resolution in 2007 calling for Iraq to partitioned into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd regions with considerable autonomy, even getting then Senator Hillary Clinton (but not Senator Barack Obama) to go along. Now he travels to and from Baghdad pressing Iraqi politicians to eschew ethnic differences and come together to compromise and meld their political efforts.

That irony didn’t go unnoticed by Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaida’ie, Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States, who remarked about the transformation of Biden’s thinking at an event hosted by the George Washington University Wednesday.

"He doesn’t talk about that [partition idea] anymore, when that is brought up he sort of waves it away," he said, adding that Biden’s "understanding of the situation has deepened and is remarkable. Now he really has got his finger on the pulse."

Biden’s latest interventions in Iraq are welcome and the vice president takes care to make sure he is not dictating to the Iraqis, he added.

So did Biden’s idea have any value at the time? According to Sumaida’ie, yes… but not the way Biden intended.

"This idea of three federal units… never flew. In fact, it created such a reaction in Iraq, it unified everybody. Everybody dropped their arms and said, ‘We are against this,’" he explained, "Once they made their point they started to fight again."

The Iraqi elections are Sunday. For the first time, voters can choose individual candidates rather than having to select only prearranged lists. This reduces the power of sectarian political leaders who compile the lists. Such reforms are the best ways to mend sectarian wounds, Sumaida’ie said. He rejected the conventional wisdom about Iraq’s population.

"This simplified understanding of Iraq is simply not accurate, that Iraq is made up of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds who are mutually exclusive and at each other’s throats all the time. That’s not how it is," he said, "We caught sectarianism as one might catch a cold, we are capable of recovering from it. We are not Northern Ireland."

So what exactly is Biden’s role in handling the Iraq issue? The New York Times puts it this way:

Ten months ago, Mr. Obama effectively handed Mr. Biden the administration’s Iraq portfolio, and the vice president has been to Iraq several times since then to cajole, prod and push Iraqi political leaders to compromise – often using the looming American troop pullout as a warning to the politicians that they will not have an American security blanket forever.

Mr. Biden has led monthly meetings in the White House Situation Room and recruited other agencies, like the Treasury and Agriculture Departments to help with Iraqi reconstruction.

But below Mr. Biden, the main Iraq working group consists of five relatively junior officials from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, one administration official said. Other officials counter that senior policymakers, including Antony Blinken, the vice president’s chief foreign policy adviser and Puneet Talwar, a senior director in the National Security Council, are both heavily involved in Iraq.

Still, with Mr. Biden also juggling other duties, some experts contend that the administration could use more senior-level officials whose primary focus is developing Iraq policy.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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