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Joe Biden Didn’t Lose Iraq
The veep may have poor timing, but when it comes to Iraq, he's the only one in the Obama administration trying to save it.
The sudden trip of Vice President Joe Biden to Iraq this weekend — his first to Baghdad since U.S. troops left in late 2011 — was rudely upstaged by the storming of the Green Zone by angry protesters on Sunday, just after the veep had decamped to Erbil. But while the optics looked ugly, the trip — and focus on righting the ship in Iraq — has long been central to Biden. Since the first days of the Obama White House, Biden has been the president’s point man for what may be the administration’s toughest portfolio. President Barack Obama ran on a ”get out of Iraq” ticket in 2007, although he tried after a fashion three years later to keep some forces on, and now has ordered 5,000 back to support operations against the Islamic State.
In all of this, Biden’s role has been central. This should not surprise, given his energy, his family relationship to Iraq (where his son served), his vote for the invasion in 2002, and his close focus on events there as Senate Foreign Relations chair. But this long history is not without controversy. For example, in 2006, he authored with Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, a plan, dead-on-arrival in Baghdad, for a soft petition of the country into Sunni Arab, Kurdish, and Shiite Arab cantons. That year, he also leaned toward a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces — before the surge reduced violence and, of course, before he was tapped as Obama’s No. 2.
It is unusual for vice presidents to play a diplomatic role as direct as Biden’s with Iraq; the only other recent example was Vice President Al Gore’s partnership with then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to “westernize” the Russian economy and governance. When I was ambassador to Iraq in 2010-2012, it often felt as if the vice president was the Iraqi desk officer (a relationship with both pluses and minuses).
Biden certainly approached the job with gusto. In a burst of hyperbole in 2010, he claimed that Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” He loved being with troops. During a visit to Baghdad that year to inaugurate the U.S. military’s eyewash transition from a combat force to an “advise and assist force,” insurgents sent their good wishes by shelling the U.S. Embassy. As rockets fell close to his quarters, it was clear that Biden, if not his Secret Service detail, was calm under fire.
His contacts with Iraqi leaders at times were almost as frequent as President George W. Bush’s weekly exchanges. Bush preferred videoconferences, Biden one-on-one telephone calls. While he would always consult in advance with the military commander and I, these calls were often unscripted, and his flashes of Irish anger at then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s obstreperous behavior will be long remembered by those of us listening in. During my 20-month tenure in Iraq, Obama called Maliki just three times and met with him only once. Biden has been to Iraq 24 times. In Obama’s first term, Biden was at the center of all the Iraq decisions: debating numbers of U.S. troops, advancing democracy with the 2010 national elections and the laborious effort thereafter to form a government, and considering a possible residual troop presence. Similar to his cautious position on a troop surge in Afghanistan, Biden was not for a large residual presence, but he was more enthused about the need to keep troops on than the president and other White House aides.
Biden has been generally close to Obama’s “close down Middle East engagements” position, but with some tweaks. He’s more of a “playbook” guy, to use the president’s unflattering term for those who accept traditional American foreign-policy practices. Biden certainly wanted the United States to succeed in Iraq; while his relationship with Maliki was often rocky, he developed very warm relations with the Kurds, including former President Jalal Talabani and Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani.
Biden is seen by many as a strong advocate for Maliki, and thus partially to blame for the autocratic leader’s ill rule in his later years, which desiccated the army and alienated the Sunni Arabs, opening the door to the Islamic State. Whatever Biden’s real views about Maliki, he allowed me as ambassador to string out government formation for months in late 2010 as we looked for any conceivable alternative to Maliki. In the end, all our efforts failed, but not because the VP cooked the books or was suckered by “love” for Maliki.
Biden also supported a continued U.S. military presence, although he appeared to prefer low numbers. But when White House officials got cold feet about the effort to extend troops and levied unattainable demands on the Iraqi leadership, Biden weighed in for not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. But, once a decision was made, he would loyally stand by it and support people in the field — unlike some in the Obama White House.
In June 2014, Iraq was unraveling and the Islamic State was sweeping through the north and down to Baghdad. Biden recognized that Maliki had to go and opened the door to Haider al-Abadi’s candidacy. Had he not done so, Iraq could have collapsed. Since then, Biden has upped the frequency of his calls with Iraqi leaders, especially Prime Minister Abadi — about whom the vice president once quipped that he spends more time on the phone with than his wife.
But the biggest mystery of this administration when it comes to Iraq — and thus Biden’s role — is what happened to high-level Washington attention to support the residual but large American presence after troops left in 2012-2014. U.S. programs to assist the Iraqis in intelligence collection, counterterrorism, and military train-and-equip, all approved at the top, languished on the vine — in part because of Maliki’s disinterest, but also in part because of Washington’s. Where was Biden then? Disinterested? Could he not bend Obama’s ear to the dangers in the offing? We may have to wait a few years for the inevitable deluge of Obama-insider biographies to start pouring out.
Had Syria not gone ballistic, had the Islamic State we know today not rejuvenated itself there from its al Qaeda in Iraq remnants, this all would be a minor footnote. But we’ve all witnessed the horrible consequences: The Islamic State in 2014 was able to exploit Maliki’s profound mismanagement and Iraq’s military weakness to occupy much of the country. And it still holds the majority of terrain it seized.
Senior administration officials, including the State Department’s Brett McGurk, who is close to Biden, had sounded the alarm against the Islamic State publicly in congressional testimony as early as November 2013, but the White House did not act until disaster was patently obvious with the fall of Mosul. The question in all of this was: What was the vice president up to? Even after the Islamic State seized Fallujah in January 2014, neither Biden nor anyone else was able to persuade the president to provide significantly more assistance to the embattled Iraqis. It took further disasters in June, including the fall of Mosul, to finally get the president’s attention.
Blame Biden if you must, or criticize his unfortunate timing, but we’d be far worse off without him. Given Obama’s inherent antipathy toward Iraq, and the chronic disorganization of administration policy elsewhere, the White House has been lucky to have Biden as the adult in the room. But as any parent knows, it’s a tough lot cleaning up after the kids.
Photo credit: IRAQI PRIME MINISTER OFFICE/EPA