Joe Biden: the worrying rise of Barack Obama’s Mr Wrong
Vice-President Joe Biden has been on the wrong side of history on all the big questions, argues Toby Harnden
4:17PM BST 17 Oct 2009
Joe Biden's overseas expertise amounted to having spent a long time as chairman of the Senate foreign affairs committee Photo: EPA
Want to know how to deal with a momentous issue of war or grand strategy? You could do a lot worse than check out what Vice-President Joe Biden thinks – and plump for the opposite.
Mr Biden was chosen as Barack Obama's running mate last August because he was old, white and supposedly knew a lot about foreign policy. I say "supposedly" because really Mr Biden's overseas expertise amounted to having spent a long time as chairman of the Senate foreign affairs committee, knowing the names of lots of world leaders, and being able to josh around amiably with them during congressional junkets across the globe.
What Mr Obama overlooked was that Mr Biden, who served as a senator for tiny Delaware for 36 years, had never run anything in his life, or taken decisions rather than talking about things, at legendary length. Even in the United States Senate, that august body which each week produces enough hot air to transport 1,000 six-year-olds across America, Mr Biden – who sports hair plugs and a set of porcelain-enhanced gnashers that would blind a polar bear – is renowned for his wordiness.
His speech is littered with the word "literally" and he glories in meandering anecdotes about his family and Irish ancestry. When Obama aides tried to muzzle him during the campaign, Mr Biden agreed but would then muse on the stump: "I try to cut this stuff down, not dumb it down, just get down to the quick of the matter, the essence of the matter."
Making fun of Joe Biden is a bipartisan affair. A quip about Biden being a windbag is guaranteed to bring a Democrat and Republican together in Washington.
Mr Obama himself even dabbled in it in February when he responded to a question about yet another Biden gaffe by saying, "I don't know what Joe was referring to, not surprisingly", prompting stifled sniggers from White House staffers at the back of the room.
A miffed Mr Biden used his weekly lunch with the President to ask him not to "diss" him in public. Mr Obama agreed, scheduling a photo op of the pair eating hamburgers together to demonstrate they were still buddies. The real difficulty with Mr Biden, however, is his judgement.
On all the big questions, he has been – to put it politely – on the wrong side of history. In 1990, he voted against American forces expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. He voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and advocated splitting it into three states along ethnic lines. He opposed the Iraq troop surge of 2007 that pacified the country and rescued the US from the jaws of defeat.
Now, Mr Biden is pushing a policy of what he terms "counter-terrorism plus" – a scheme which involves a much smaller military presence in Afghanistan, with al-Qaeda elements being targeted at long range by military drones and smart missiles.
This runs entirely against the counter-insurgency doctrine convincingly outlined by Gen Stanley McChrystal, who wants an extra 40,000 troops to enable Nato forces to protect and influence the people while mentoring the Afghan army and police, and gathering intelligence on the ground.
The problem is that Mr Obama may now be listening to Mr Biden. Having supposedly already settled on an Afghan strategy in March, he is giving a very public impression of Hamlet as he wrings his hands and conducts endless White House debates – with details leaked to the press – about what to do. These Afghanistan policy seminars are principally designed to demonstrate that Mr Obama is not the hot-headed "decider" President George W Bush. But the dithering is projecting a dangerous uncertainty about the West's intentions to an Afghan people craving assurance that Nato is fully committed, and in for the long haul. More seriously, Mr Obama's inclination on troop levels seems to be to seek a middle way – a "splitting the baby" option that could be the worst of all possible worlds.
The Left, sensing that Mr Obama is wavering and beginning to rethink his campaign contention that Afghanistan was the "good war" as opposed to Mr Bush's evil Iraq adventure, is throwing its lot in with Mr Biden. There's a solidifying conventional wisdom in Washington that Mr Biden's star is in the ascendant. This week's Newsweek front cover sporting the vice-president's steely visage beside the headline "Why Joe is No Joke" is no doubt already framed in the Biden downstairs loo. If Mr Obama really believes that's true then we could all be in big trouble.
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