Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Fantasy

The vice president has mischaracterized U.S. foreign policy under Obama.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama conduct a press conference in response to the Iran Nuclear Deal in Washington on July 14, 2015.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama conduct a press conference in response to the Iran Nuclear Deal in Washington on July 14, 2015. Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

In this unprecedented U.S. presidential election year, with the two major party candidates widely disliked and viewed as untrustworthy, Vice President Joe Biden enjoys a reputation for honesty and integrity. Indeed, prior to FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that his agency would not recommend that the Department of Justice bring charges against democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, some Democrats even hoped that Biden might replace Clinton as the party’s candidate. Although a Biden candidacy would have brought a breath of fresh air, many hold an unduly laudatory view of his judgment. A case in point is the vice president’s sunny optimism about the achievements of the Barack Obama administration’s foreign policy. He recently claimed: “We are stronger and more secure today than when President Barack Obama and I took office in January 2009.” These words appear in Biden’s essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

In view of today’s global realities, the assertion is astonishing in its depiction of administration policy and mischaracterization of where we now stand. The claim is all the more remarkable in light of Biden’s accurate characterization of America’s role in the world as indispensable. To appreciate the contrast, consider a brief inventory of what has gone wrong under the two terms of the Obama-Biden administration:

In the Middle East and North Africa, as elsewhere, administration policies frequently have been marked by inaction or retrenchment, often followed by re-engagement under dire conditions. In Iraq, which Obama and Biden described as stable when U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011, the departure reopened the way to brutal sectarian warfare, the rise of the Islamic State, intervention by Iran-backed militias, and eventually the reintroduction of 5,000 American troops. In Syria, U.S. inaction and Obama’s dramatic abandonment of his “red line” against President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons reverberated globally, damaging the credibility on which American diplomacy and deterrence are based, emboldening our foes, and disheartening friends and allies. And in Libya, “leading from behind” in the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi was followed by the disengagement — and four years later, the reengagement — of U.S. special forces in what has become a failed state.

Then there is Iran, where rather than having “removed … the specter of Iran gaining a nuclear weapon,” the 2015 nuclear agreement provides at most a 10 to 15 year hiatus, after which Teheran will emerge with an advanced nuclear infrastructure and the capacity to produce nuclear weapons at the moment of its own choosing. In Egypt, where abandonment of Hosni Mubarak’s already faltering rule was accompanied by wishful thinking about the Muslim Brotherhood, Obama and Biden have managed to alienate not only the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but much of the population too. In Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was once on good terms with Obama, the United States is now denounced for its alleged support of a coup attempt and relations have soured. Meanwhile, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states distrust Washington and what they see as Obama’s efforts to achieve rapprochement with their enemy, Iran.

U.S. foreign policy in Europe has suffered too. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea represented the first major land grab in Europe since World War II. His military intervention in eastern Ukraine was met with limited economic sanctions, but Obama rebuffed calls from the Kiev government for defensive weapons. Though the administration’s belated re-emphasis on NATO has led to modest reinforcements for the Baltic members of the alliance, the danger of intensified conflict with Russia, whose once decrepit armed forces have been modernized and rebuilt, remains very real.

Spillover from the war in Syria has sent large number of refugees into Europe. Their presence has galvanized the rise of radical populist parties, some receiving financial support from Russia. A stable, democratic, prosperous Europe has been a long-standing American national interest, but the difficulties Europe now faces have been worsened by Washington’s unwillingness to act early in the Syrian crisis when support for moderate rebels might well have forestalled the refugee crisis.

In Asia, China has rapidly developed and modernized its armed forces, developing air and naval “anti-access” capacities to counter U.S. forces in the region. Beijing has asserted far-flung claims in the South China Sea, created airbases on contested rocky outposts, defied Hague court rulings, and stoked anti-American sentiments at home.

Meanwhile, the U.S. defense budget remains stagnant and force capabilities have suffered. As Russia and China become increasingly confrontational, Iran develops longer range missile capabilities, the Islamic State and al Qaeda continue to metastasize, and tasks for the armed forces continue to mount. Finally, despite Biden’s assurances about American values, support for freedom and human rights has been cut.

Biden is right that the world needs U.S. leadership, but the administration has largely failed to provide it. The past seven-and-a-half years have seen increasing threats to America and to the international order which it did so much to construct. As a result, the president who takes office on January 20th next year will face a daunting task in restoring the capabilities and credibility on which America’s security, its values, and the safety of our friends and allies depend.

Editor’s Note: This post is a guest contribution to Shadow Government.

Robert J. Lieber is professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University and has been an advisor to presidential campaigns, to the State Department, and to the drafters of U.S. National Intelligence Estimates. His latest book is "Retreat and Its Consequences."