Terms of Engagement

The Biden Doctrine

How the vice president is shaping President Obama's foreign policy.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Every morning that President Barack Obama chooses to receive the daily intelligence briefing in person, Vice President Joe Biden sits by his side in a matching armchair in the Oval Office. Biden attends — and often speaks volubly at — the "principals meetings" of the president and his top national security officials, as well as at the president’s weekly meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Often he stays afterward for a few minutes of private talk, or the president walks over to Biden’s office 30 paces down the hall. He and the president have lunch, by themselves, every week. In a White House where foreign policy is made, to an extraordinary extent, by the president and a few close advisors, Biden is first among equals. It is safe to say that on foreign policy, Biden is the most powerful U.S. vice president in history save for his immediate predecessor, Dick Cheney.

The Obama campaign is counting on Biden to seize back the momentum in Thursday, Oct. 11’s debate with his Republican counterpart, Paul Ryan — momentum that the president himself lost with his strangely diffident debate performance last week. Much of the debate, of course, will focus on the economy and domestic policy, the subjects that preoccupy the American people. Biden has played an important role on these issues as well, and after four decades of talking about them in the Senate and on the Sunday morning talk shows, he should be able to hold his own even against the prodigiously wonkish Republican nominee. But Ryan and GOP nominee Mitt Romney have recently tried to build a case that Obama has proved to be an irresolute global leader, and no one is better equipped than Biden — at least if he can somehow limit himself to two-minute answers — to defend the administration’s policies abroad.

Biden has played a central role in White House decisions on policy in Afghanistan, Russia, China, Israel, and the Arab world, and his worldly pragmatism has helped shape a White House posture less starry-eyed, and perhaps also less hopeful, than many had expected at the outset of Obama’s tenure.

Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Obama asked him to be his running mate in 2008, and he confided to friends that he feared his second-banana role would reduce rather than increase his influence over foreign policy. But in January 2009, Obama asked Biden to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan to help him figure out what needed to be done there. Once Obama took office, he dispatched Biden to the Balkans, to Lebanon, and to Georgia and Ukraine to put out fires and issue strategic reassurances — though Biden started a small fire of his own when he returned from this last trip to say that Russia had a "withering economy." The president asked him to deliver a key strategic address in Munich, where Biden coined the term "reset" to describe the administration’s plan to restore relations with Russia as part of the new paradigm of "engagement." Biden quickly became a chief strategist, devil’s advocate, and implementer of White House foreign policy.

Biden’s exceptional role owes both to Obama’s regard for his judgment and experience, and to Biden’s own bottomless connections to other leading figures. He has known the national security advisor, Tom Donilon, for a quarter-century; Donilon’s brother serves as Biden’s domestic-policy advisor, while his wife works for Biden’s wife, Jill. Biden’s staff, including Antony Blinken, his national security advisor, is highly regarded in Washington, and former aides are salted throughout the National Security Council (NSC) and the executive branch agencies. When I was writing a profile of Biden for the New York Times Magazine in 2009, a White House official told me that on Obama’s first day in office, James Jones, then the national security advisor, said to his staff, "You work for the president and the vice president." The vice president’s staff was so deeply integrated into the top levels of the policy-planning process, this official added, that, "When you can’t get to the president, you can get to them and know what the White House is really thinking."

This cozy relationship also illustrates the difference between Biden and his predecessor. Cheney was a supremely cryptic figure who rarely spoke at meetings and who exercised his influence, to the eternal frustration of national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, in private meetings with President George W. Bush, thus effectively disabling the White House’s national security apparatus. Like Cheney, Biden wanted to be the last man in the room, and he is. But no one has to wonder what he thinks. The combination of intellectual vanity and sheer lack of impulse control renders Biden almost physically incapable of not saying what’s on his mind (though he has gotten noticeably better at biting his tongue in the face of leading questions from Sunday morning talk show hosts). He is also an exuberant cheerleader, teammate, and coach who wants everyone to hold hands in the huddle. The Obama foreign-policy team has remained broadly collegial (far more than on the domestic side) despite immense pressures, and Biden has played a role in damping down conflict among the (somewhat overhyped) "team of rivals."

Biden hadn’t wanted a specific portfolio of his own, but the president gave him one. At an NSC meeting in June, 2009, he turned to Biden and said, "Joe, you do Iraq." (Biden had been deeply involved in Iraq as a senator, and had once proposed a partition plan for the country from which he later backed away.) Biden has made seven trips to Iraq since Obama’s directive. It is a job tailor-made for a career politician who loves plotting strategy, brokering compromise, talking about the wife and kids, squeezing a shoulder, an arm, a knee, or any other body part that hoves into view. Biden still spends a quarter or so of his time trying to prod Iraq’s endlessly bickering Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders into working with each other rather than trying to kill each other. Exactly how successful he’s been is a matter of dispute. A recent report by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes that as tensions rise among competing ethnic blocs, "a political crisis seems likely if not inevitable." Cordesman also notes that the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 has both sharply reduced American influence and increased sometimes lethal political jockeying. On the other hand, as Blinken points out, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his chief rivals are still competing through politics, not gunfire.

Beyond Iraq, Biden has assigned himself a distinctive role, one that could not be more different from Cheney’s. "The president shouldn’t be the one to turn over the apple cart," Biden told me in the course of one of our long and numerous conversations in 2009, "but I think it’s much in his interest that the apple cart be turned over." Biden has specialized in disrupting groupthink and in forcing Obama’s most senior advisors to examine the consequences of their proposed choices. The most famous example, of course, was the agonizingly protracted 2009 debate over strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of the reasons it took so long is that Biden kept questioning the argument advanced by David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, then the military overseers of the Afghan war, for a major counterinsurgency campaign with 40,000 additional soldiers and a large-scale civilian component.

The Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward has since reported, in Obama’s War, that from the outset of the debate in March, Biden argued for a much more modest counterterrorism effort focused on degrading al Qaeda in Pakistan rather than defeating the Taliban in Pakistan. Woodward quotes the late envoy Richard Holbrooke comparing Biden’s role to that of George Ball, Lyndon Johnson’s under secretary of state, who persistently questioned the logic of escalation in Vietnam. I was talking to Biden throughout this period, and at one point he said to me, "You’re going to be angry with me, because I’m not going to talk much about Afghanistan because I want the president to hear what I have to say." He then spent 13 minutes talking, off the record, about Afghanistan, and returned to the subject at much greater length later on.

Biden’s office declined my request to put some of those remarks on the record, so I will just say that what Biden told me confirmed Woodward’s account of his views: that counterinsurgency wouldn’t work owing to the corruption and incompetence of Afghanistan’s government; that the strategy wasn’t necessary because al Qaeda was unlikely to return to Afghanistan even in the case of a Taliban victory; and that the real focus of the effort should be Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. The president encouraged Biden to challenge Petraeus and McChrystal; but in the end Obama was unwilling to reject their plan, though it seems clear that he shared many of Biden’s doubts. Obama authorized a civil-military strategy with 30,000 additional troops. The White House continues to present its Afghanistan strategy as a success, though even many of Obama’s supporters in the foreign-policy community regard it as his worst decision. In exchange for a vast investment of blood and treasure, the United States has made military gains that may prove transitory, has trained troops still unable to act on their own, and has watched helplessly as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has protected corrupt and brutal figures. The United States has crippled al Qaeda — but through the counterterrorism tactics Biden had proposed. Obama must wonder if he would have been better off listening to his vice president, as LBJ must have felt about George Ball.

Biden’s role in the AfPak debate suggests that he is not merely a contrarian but a classic foreign-policy realist. Biden first came to Washington in 1970, amid the carnage of Vietnam, as a member of the Democrats’ anti-war faction. But he was a centrist and a straight arrow, not a radical. "I wasn’t against the war for moral reasons," he told me. "I just thought it was a stupid policy." He invited George Kennan, the grand old man of foreign-policy realism, to come speak to him, and Kennan talked about the absurdity of the "domino theory" and of the monolithic idea of communism. Biden spent the next several decades getting to know the world’s leaders as member and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, an experience that tends to produce an appreciation for the status quo. Biden was one of the Democratic senators who voted for the resolution authorizing George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq, but he insists that he never shared Bush’s vision of a transformed Middle East and, less plausibly, that he believed Bush wouldn’t rush into war. He told me that he loved The Freedom Agenda, my book on democracy promotion — Biden doesn’t merely "like" anything, he loves things — because it warned against the naïve faith in America’s capacity to install democracy in autocratic places. Biden is a rarity: a cockeyed optimist who nevertheless has a streetwise instinct for the harsh reality lurking under grandiose plans.

Like virtually all practicing politicians, Biden disdains ideological labels, but he has in fact given quite a lot of thought to where he stands in the spectrum of American foreign policy. When I asked him about the role human rights should play in U.S. foreign policy, Biden said, "The difference between where I think we should be and where we have been in the past going all the way back to [George] McGovern and when I first came here is you either decry the behavior and cut off relations, or ignore the behavior and enhance your relations. My gut is, you deal with it in realistic terms." What that means, Biden explained, is that you criticize abuses while acknowledging that you can’t do much to change them, and continue to pursue a relationship based on national interests.

Biden used the example of the Obama "reset" with Russia. He rejected, he said, the "balance-of-power" approach, which he described as, "you take what you want and you give us what we want." Turning a blind eye to atrocities in Chechnya or aggression against Georgia, granting Russia’s definition of its sphere of influence, would constitute, to Biden’s mind, amoral realism. At the same time, Biden said, preaching to Russia about democracy or admonishing it about autocratic tendencies, as the Bush administration was wont to do, comes dangerously close to hubris. "I think," Biden told me — and he slowed down in order to choose his words with care — "that our administration has a more realistic view of what we are capable of determining or dictating in terms of the behavior, the internal functioning, of other states." Biden argued, with some justification, that the Obama administration had been able to put relations with Russia on a better footing, ultimately leading to the New START agreement and cooperation on sanctions against Iran, without sacrificing its concern with human rights.

Realism, for Biden, is a precipitate of experience, both in the world’s capitals and in Delaware hiring halls and coffee shops. I once heard him say, "Foreign policy is just like human relations, only people know less about each other." His boss, of course, tends to dwell in loftier realms than the earthbound Biden. Obama has a soaring sense of what politics can accomplish, and oratorical gifts to match. But he appears to find Biden’s advice congenial because he has a deeply cautionary sense of the means available to achieve those great ends. His foreign-policy heroes — men like Brent Scowcroft and James Baker — are, in effect, Kennan’s sons. And recent experience has reinforced intellectual conviction. As I argued in my column last week, tough sledding in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Israel/Palestine has taken the rosy glow off Obama’s hopes that he could serve as a transformative agent in the world. The Obama of 2012 is a more tempered and wary figure than the Obama of 2009.

Over the last few years, and especially amid the Arab Spring, events have forced the Obama White House to choose between its prudential instincts and its great ambitions. In almost every case Biden has sided with the skeptics. In January 2011, massive crowds took to Tahrir Square demanding that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s hated autocrat, step down. Biden viewed Mubarak as a staunch ally, and opposed those in the administration who wanted Obama to publicly demand that he leave office. He called Mubarak, whom he had known for decades, as well as intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, and implored them to establish a plan for transition. Only when Mubarak proved intransigent did Biden change his view.

Biden also opposed the intervention in Libya (as did Tom Donilon and Robert Gates, then the defense secretary). "It didn’t go to core interests," a senior White House official says in explaining Biden’s views. "It wasn’t something he thought was necessary to do." Biden told me that he had supported a humanitarian intervention in the Balkans in the mid-1990s because chaos and violence in Europe threatened American national security, and because we had "the wherewithal to intervene and determine an outcome." In Libya, too, we had the wherewithal, but not the national interests; by Biden’s calculus, that meant that we should stay out. Biden’s innate skepticism also led him to advise Obama against conducting the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound until he had a higher degree of certainty that the al Qaeda leader was, in fact, there. Soon afterwards, Biden was telling audiences that you could "go back 500 years" without finding "a more audacious plan" — precisely because the chance of success had been so low. It was classic Biden: He went from caution to hyperbole in a matter of hours.

Biden has often been on the losing side of major White House debates; that may be the inevitable consequence of playing the role of spoiler. But if you step back, overall Obama administration policy looks very much like Biden’s tempered realism, Kennanite but not Kissingerian. Obama has refused to intervene in Syria despite the toll of more than 30,000 dead in its ever-bloodier civil war, and only gently criticized autocratic allies like Bahrain, whose monarchy has undertaken a major crackdown since protests began in the early days of the Arab Spring. The White House has largely stopped pushing on the closed door of Middle East peace. Despite provocations from President Vladimir Putin, it has continued to pursue the reset with Russia — albeit with much less success than it enjoyed in the first two years of the Obama administration. The result is that while Obama has greatly disappointed human rights advocates and many of his own idealistic supporters, he has left a very small target for his Republican challengers when it comes to his foreign policy. Ryan has preposterously compared Obama’s response to the wave of 9/11 attacks this year on American embassies to President Jimmy Carter’s response to the 1979 kidnapping of American diplomats in Iran. One can easily imagine Biden’s response if Ryan tries out this analogy in the debate: "Look, man, I was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1979; you were in third grade."

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.