Say It Ain’t So, Joe
Ten things Joe Biden really should apologize for.
In an unusual moment in American politics, the White House put the word out this week that Vice President Joe Biden had apologized to his boss for comments he made in support of same-sex marriage on NBC’s Meet the Press. The ensuing media fracas led President Barack Obama to follow suit a few days later, putting a hot-button social issue squarely on the national agenda in an election year that was supposed to be all about jobs and the economy.
To supporters of same-sex marriage, Biden’s mea culpa was puzzling. If his remarks were made out of genuine conviction, why apologize for them? And to the vice president’s critics, it was yet another instance of the man who once introduced his running mate as “Barack America” and called him “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” letting his mouth get him into trouble.
Nobody bats 1.000. In that respect, another common critique of the vice president — that he’s a “counter indicator,” a sort of George Costanza for geopolitics — is unfair. In a career as long as Biden’s, there are bound to be a few howlers. (But as Richard Ben Cramer wrote in his 1988 campaign-trail opus, What It Takes, “Joe often didn’t know what he thought until he had to say it.”) Here are 10 blunders, gaffes, and just plain bad advice the veep might want to apologize for:
1. Voting for the wrong Iraq war.
Over the last few decades, a Biden vote has generally been a pretty good counter-indicator of whether it’s a good idea to send U.S. troops to Iraq. In 1991, as a Delaware senator, he voted against granting President George H.W. Bush authority to go to war. At the time, Biden said he was opposed to going to war alongside an international coalition “that has allowed us to take on 95 percent of the sacrifice across the board.” As it turned out, the war was a major military and strategic victory for the United States, liberating Kuwait and crippling Iraq as a military power with minimal American casualties.
In 2002, the Senate again debated authorizing the president to use military force in Iraq. This time, Biden voted with the 77-23 majority in favor of the motion, though he did worry that “supporting this resolution will get us into real trouble.” Referring to his colleague Joseph Lieberman’s support for the resolution, Biden said, “If we are two years down the road still fooling around with Iraq, then my friends from Connecticut and other places have been so dead wrong about what we are supposed to do that it would be amazing.”
The United States would be fooling around with Iraq for another decade.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
2. Advising against the Abbottabad raid.
During a Democratic congressional retreat in 2012, Biden confessed that he had been the only one of Obama’s top advisors to explicitly advise against the May 1 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan — or at least the only one willing to admit it. According to Biden, during a final meeting with his senior national security team, the president went around the table asking for final opinions on whether to proceed with the raid. “Every single person in that room hedged their bet except Leon Panetta. Leon said go. Everyone else said, 49, 51,” Biden said. The vice president was not so equivocal: “He got to me. He said, ‘Joe, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘You know, I didn’t know we had so many economists around the table.’ I said, ‘We owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there.'”
It’s not clear what those two things were, but as it turns out, Obama made the right call in listening to Panetta — then CIA director, now secretary of defense — rather than his vice president. The raid not only concluded an 11-year quest to find the world’s most wanted man, it fulfilled a campaign promise and gave the president a centerpiece for his reelection campaign.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
3. Calling for the partition of Iraq.
On May 1, 2006, Biden co-authored a New York Times op-ed with Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations calling for the division of Iraq into three ethnically homogenous, semi-autonomous parts: Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd. This plan, they argued, would give each group “room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.” With the war in Iraq at its low point, the plan proved popular on Capitol Hill. A non-binding resolution supporting it passed overwhelmingly in 2007 with 75 votes, including that of future Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Senator Obama was conspicuously absent that day.)
Unfortunately, Biden seems never to have consulted with Iraqis about the idea. The government in Baghdad immediately denounced it as “an incorrect reading” of Iraqi history and it was widely panned as colonialist meddling in a region that had seen more than enough of that, and a dangerous idea that could lead to yet more ethnic cleansing. In 2008, when Biden was announced as Obama’s running mate, leaders of all three Iraqi ethnic groups criticized the partition plan, and lingering suspicions made his job more difficult as the president’s point man on the conflict.
John Moore/Getty Images
4. Advising panic on swine flu.
In April 2009, at the height of global concerns about the outbreak of the H1N1 virus — better known as “swine flu” — and as the Obama administration sought to calm a nervous public, Biden advised in a Today Show appearance that Americans avoid travel altogether.
Asked what advice he’d give to family members contemplating a trip to Mexico, where the outbreak began, he responded, “I would tell members of my family — and I have — I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now.” The problem, he added helpfully, is that “when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft.” He then suggested that Americans avoid the subway if possible.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano clarified afterwards that what Biden meant to tell Americans was that “if they’re feeling sick they should stay off of public transit or confined spaces because that, indeed, is the advice that we have been giving.”
Joern Pollex/Getty Images
5. Saying the Taliban’s not the enemy.
This one’s a bit trickier, since Biden arguably had it right. The veep was speaking with Les Gelb, now a Newsweek-Daily Beast writer, about the war in Afghanistan and the administration’s attempts to broker a settlement to the decades-long conflict.
“Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy,” he began. The key words in the sentence, which many critics ignored, were “per se” — meaning that the United States was in Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda, not necessarily the group that was harboring it on 9/11 and continues to kill American troops. (In the words of White House spokesman Jay Carney, “It’s only regrettable when taken out of context.”)
But then, in true Biden fashion, he went a bit too far, adding, “There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests.” That was hard to square with the speech Obama gave in March 2009 outlining his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in which he used the word “enemy” or “enemies” six times, and made little distinction between al Qaeda and the Taliban. As he put it:
“For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people — especially women and girls. The return in force of al Qaeda terrorists who would accompany the core Taliban leadership would cast Afghanistan under the shadow of perpetual violence.
“As president, my greatest responsibility is to protect the American people. We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future. We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and allies, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists.”
6. Turning his attack on Romney into a punchline.
In late April, in a speech billed as a major foreign-policy address, Biden lit into Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney as a neophyte who sees the world “through a Cold War prism” and distorts the president’s positions on issues from Afghanistan to Iran to Russia.
But Biden’s remarks were immediately overshadowed by what appeared to be an ad-libbed departure from the script. Citing Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” he argued that Obama was all about protecting U.S. national security through deeds, not words. Then came the double entendre that launched a thousand headlines and Twitter jokes. “I promise you, the president has a big stick,” Biden insisted, to awkward laughter. “I promise you.”
7. Offing the Irish prime minister’s mother.
In March 2010, in St. Patrick’s Day remarks welcoming Irish Prime Minster Brian Cowen to Washington, Biden inadvertently killed the Taoiseach’s dearly not-departed mother. After rattling off a few jokes and Irish sayings, he mentioned that Mrs. Cowen had lived in Long Island, adding, “God rest her soul.” He quickly rectified his mistake, though, turning to Cowen to say, “Wait, your mom’s still alive! It was your dad who passed. God bless her soul!”
PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images
8. “Gird your loins.”
In October 2008, just before Americans would head to the polls to choose George W. Bush’s successor, Biden warned at a fundraising event that, if elected, his running mate would quickly find his inexperience tested. “Mark my words, it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy,” he said. “We’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.”
Warning the attendees to “gird your loins,” he went on: “I promise you it will occur. As a student of history and having served with seven presidents, I guarantee you it’s going happen. I can give you at least four or five scenarios from where it might originate.”
He soon realized that his remarks were being recorded, joking, “I probably shouldn’t have said all this because it dawned on me that the press is here.” But not soon enough.
Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images
9. Mocking Indian-Americans.
In July 2006, Biden, then a senator contemplating a White House bid, spoke a little loosely in an interview on C-Span. “In Delaware, the largest growth in population is Indian-Americans moving from India,” he said. “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.”
“I’m not joking,” he added for emphasis.
His spokeswoman explained: “The point Senator Biden was making is that there has been a vibrant Indian-American community in Delaware for decades. It has primarily been made up of engineers, scientists and physicians, but more recently, middle-class families are moving into Delaware and purchasing family-run small businesses.”
Apparently Biden didn’t learn his lesson. In January, the veep briefly adopted what appeared to be an Indian accent in comments about overseas call centers, prompting another round of criticism.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images
10. Wanting to send money to Iran after 9/11.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Biden became one of the Democrats’ most prominent voices on foreign policy, regularly reminding voters of his expertise and prescience on terrorism and other transnational threats. But liberals worried about their new leader’s reputation for gaffes, concerns painfully reinforced by an October 2001 article in the New Republic that detailed Biden’s unfortunate predilection for thinking out loud:
At the Tuesday-morning meeting with committee staffers, Biden launches into a stream-of-consciousness monologue about what his committee should be doing, before he finally admits the obvious: ‘I’m groping here.’ Then he hits on an idea: America needs to show the Arab world that we’re not bent on its destruction. ‘Seems to me this would be a good time to send, no strings attached, a check for $200 million to Iran,’ Biden declares. He surveys the table with raised eyebrows, a How do ya like that? look on his face.
The staffers sit in silence. Finally somebody ventures a response: ‘I think they’d send it back.’ Then another aide speaks up delicately: ‘The thing I would worry about is that it would almost look like a publicity stunt.’ Still another reminds Biden that an Iranian delegation is in Moscow that very day to discuss a $300 million arms deal with Vladimir Putin that the United States has strongly condemned.”
The article ends with a killer line: “But Joe Biden is barely listening anymore. He’s already moved on to something else.”
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Blake Hounshell is a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.
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