Election 2020

How Biden’s Greatest Strength Could Prove a Weakness

No one can touch him on foreign-policy experience, especially Trump. But his long voting record will also be a vulnerability, starting with Iraq.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 15, 2016.
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 15, 2016. DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

In 1998, the U.S. Senate was facing its first vote on NATO expansion since the Cold War. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware was the point man for the Democrats but the Republicans needed a floor manager of their own, someone who could rally the party faithful in support of a historic treaty that would bring Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic into the Western alliance. Jesse Helms, the hard-right but aging Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was infirm  and not up to the task. The Senate Republican leadership discussed anointing John McCain or some other respected statesman in their own party.

Instead the Republicans asked Biden to manage the bill for them. Biden, a Democrat.

“It was incredible,” said Michael Haltzel, who was a senior Senate aide to Biden at the time. “When I tell that story today, people look at me as if they misheard. The Republicans knew he had the most expertise. More than that, they trusted him. That’s the sort of thing that nobody else running among the other 18 or 19 Democrats can come close to matching in terms of foreign-policy expertise.”

With Biden announcing Thursday that, at age 76, he is tossing his hat into yet another presidential race, the former vice president will probably be seen as the candidate to beat in the Democratic field (two new polls show him out front). It’s not just that Biden has lapped most of his fellow Dems—not to mention Donald Trump—many times over when it comes to his experience on both foreign policy and domestic issues. (This is a man, after all, whose first major vote as a U.S. senator came during the Vietnam War.) Or that Biden’s career in national politics has lasted so long it bridges an entirely different era of foreign policy, one so quaint that American parents describing that time to their children—a time when bipartisanship hadn’t yet become an archaism—might be met with looks of disbelief.

No, it’s that if he wins the nomination, Biden and Trump will probably be talking past each other about two entirely different Americas—two epochs in fact, one in which the United States was still confident, triumphant, and world-spanning and one in which the country is looking to hide behind its two oceans and flee back to the 19th century. It will be, at best, a fitful, staticky discourse between two alternative universes. Or, as Biden put it in his video announcement Thursday, 2020 will be a fight for “the soul of this nation” and “our standing in the world.”

Biden and Trump will probably be talking past each other about two entirely different Americas. 

Biden will have a lot going for him if he beats second-running Bernie Sanders and the rest of the Democratic field and faces Trump in 2020. He will be able to argue, with cause, that the current president of the United States is economically and geopolitically illiterate. He will argue that Trump doesn’t seem to understand that when he imposes tariffs on China, it’s not the Chinese who pay up—as the president seems to think—but Americans. Biden will argue that Trump doesn’t understand, when he demonizes NATO and other long-established alliances, that it costs the United States less to deploy its troops abroad (because the home countries subsidize them) than if America kept them at home. He will argue that NATO has been and continues to be the most successful alliance in recorded history—pushing the frontier of stability eastward in Europe and forming a bulwark against international anomie like “the gray zone of insecurity in the 1930s between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany” that led to World War II, as Haltzel, who today teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, described it. And Biden, who was one of the leaders in the Obama administration in arguing for tough sanctions against Vladimir Putin, will be able to target Trump’s many vulnerabilities over his administration’s murky relationship to Russia.

Trump, however, will have one advantage: He’ll be able to say—occasionally even with cause—that Biden was part of the problem that led to this new American isolationism, and his long and sometimes errant voting record proves it. Trump will point out that Biden voted for a disastrous war in Iraq, and he’ll try to argue that Biden recklessly provoked Russia. Trump will also no doubt delight in quoting Biden critics, such as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who wrote in a 2014 memoir that while the former veep was “impossible not to like,” he “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

Biden will retort, with ample reason, that even on controversial decisions he was cautious, smart, and prudent every step of the way. Perhaps sometimes too prudent: As Hillary Clinton noted in her own memoir Hard Choices, Biden was one of the few “skeptical” holdouts about launching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. But in the end, if Biden wins the Democratic nomination, it may come down to a battle between Mr. Nuance, the ever-studious Biden, cautious caretaker of U.S. alliances, and Mr. Damn-the-Nuances, the trash-talking Trump, unapologetic shredder of those alliances.

Just as he did with Clinton in 2016—and with most of his Republican rivals in the primaries—Trump will probably start by attacking Biden for his vote authorizing the Iraq War in 2002. “Biden is the first one to say he hasn’t gotten everything right,” Antony Blinken, Biden’s former national security advisor (and current campaign advisor), told Foreign Policy. “He deeply regrets that the vote he cast for tough diplomacy and to let the weapons inspectors finish their jobs was misused for an unnecessary war.”

What is largely forgotten is that Biden—again working in smooth bipartisan fashion with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana—pushed hard for a resolution in the run-up to the war that would have required the George W. Bush administration to delay the use of force until the United Nations approved a new resolution to disarm Saddam Hussein peacefully or to certify that the Iraq threat was “so grave that the use of force is necessary.” Biden was undercut in that effort by his own fellow Democrat, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who complied with administration hawks by backing a resolution that would allow Bush to invade by simply declaring to Congress that further diplomacy was useless.

Biden is also vulnerable on his later plans for Iraq. In 2006, Biden co-wrote a New York Times op-ed with former U.S. official and Times columnist Leslie Gelb calling for a soft partition that would grant Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds autonomy in their regions. Biden was criticized for undermining the U.S. effort to consolidate the country, but those who defend him—including some in the U.S. military who were working on Iraq—say he was simply responding to the realities of the vicious insurgency and political chaos wrenching Iraq apart at that time. “He was there constantly. We kept going back,” Blinken said. “Once troops were in there, he felt it was important to support them. But also to figure out how to make the best of this lousy situation, starting with a more durable political accommodation. The Biden-Gelb plan was misunderstood as being for partitioning Iraq. In fact, it was exactly the opposite: The whole idea was how to keep this country together by devolving power.”

It may come down to a battle between Mr. Nuance, the ever-studious Biden, cautious caretaker of U.S. alliances, and Mr. Damn-the-Nuances, the trash-talking Trump, unapologetic shredder of those alliances.

That’s fundamentally Biden’s view—assert U.S. power but only after every alternative has been carefully studied, and if you’ve got to use force, then do it with a minimal troop deployment and get out. Biden isn’t always a dove; he was an early and vocal advocate for the humanitarian interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the ’90s. But in Afghanistan he urged President Barack Obama to rebuff the Defense Department and not to add too many U.S. troops. “He starts with a strong strain of idealism, but it’s profoundly tempered by reality and by experience. And that leads him to try to find practical and non-ideological solutions,” Blinken said. “In the case of Afghanistan, it was really an attempt to focus on why we were there in the first place, and for better or worse it wasn’t to remake the country in some better way. It was to deal with the threat posed by al Qaeda with a much narrower counterterrorism campaign. He was convinced early on that it was beyond our capacity to remake the country in a sustainable way.”

In that respect, Biden may have a hard time criticizing Trump, who sees Afghanistan in much the same light and has authorized peace talks with the Taliban (which Biden once recommended), seeking to halve the already small U.S. presence there. As vice president, Biden had repeated arguments with the Pentagon in the Situation Room, questioning officials as Trump reportedly has. “Basically every year the military would say to us, ‘We just need one more year.’ And Biden would say, ‘We’ll be right back here in a year, and you’re going to be saying the same thing,’” Blinken said.

Nor was Biden insensitive to the problems of NATO expansion back in the 1990s. He understood that extending NATO into the former Warsaw Pact nations might be seen as a provocation by Moscow. Indeed, he flew to Moscow to check with the Russians. “We went over all the complaints and hang-ups the Russians had,” Haltzel said. “At the end of the day, while they were not happy, compared to post-2007 rewriting of history that Putin has been engaged in, their complaints were minor.” Among those aligned with Biden on the Republican side was Stephen Biegun, then a Senate aide and today Trump’s envoy to North Korea

Biden has also had far more executive experience than anyone else in the field except for Trump. During the eight years of the Obama administration, Biden proved himself one of the most influential vice presidents in U.S. history, often by being the “last guy in the room” with the president before a major decision, as Biden said in a 2012 campaign speech. In a 2010 interview aboard Air Force Two, he told me that Obama would “turn over big chunks” of policy to him to handle, including on Iraq and the beleaguered middle class, as well as overseeing passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Other administration officials corroborated this account. At an early meeting, according to a senior administration official at the time, “all of sudden Obama stopped. He said, ‘Joe will do Iraq. Joe knows more about Iraq than anyone.’”

Biden mentored Obama even before the latter became president. At a critical hearing with Gen. David Petraeus in the spring of 2008, Biden counseled then-Sen. Obama to lower expectations for withdrawal from Iraq. Obama later earned plaudits in the press by telling Petraeus: “When you have finite resources, you’ve got to define your goals tightly and modestly. … I’m not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way. I’m trying to get to an endpoint.” Biden said in an interview that it was he who suggested that exact language to Obama. “He asked for my advice,” Biden told me.

Biden has his critics in the national security community, and few have been more fierce than Gates, who says that, as a brand-new 32-year-old senator in 1975, Biden was among the timorous Democrats who cost the United States any chance of holding off the North Vietnamese when he voted against aid to Saigon. Gates also criticized Biden for voting against the first Gulf War and opposing much of President Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup in the 1980s—which is often cited as the policy that helped win the Cold War.

But Biden’s many admirers would say he has learned from every mistake over many years—and in a way that Trump apparently never does, according to his critics. In an interview with me in late 2006, Biden sketched out what later became Obama’s own position on Iran, saying that Bush should open up direct diplomacy with Tehran “because he has no alternative. The terms [of the talks] should be wide open. This administration spends too much time arguing over the shape of the table. They don’t get anything done.” He also insisted, more than a decade and a half ago, that Bush open up bilateral talks with North Korea—which Trump has now done.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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