After a campaign in which he said that Vice President Cheney, was “probably the most dangerous vice president we’ve had in American history,” because of his oversized role in policymaking, Vice President Joe Biden now oversees implementation of the stimulus package, is the administration’s point person on Iraq, and has been dispatched repeatedly as a special envoy to Europe to quiet concerns that the U.S. is disengaging from our traditional allies in an effort to accommodate Moscow.
In February, Biden represented the administration at the annual Munich Security Conference, delivering a warning to Russia that the administration’s “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations would not allow Moscow to establish a sphere of influence in its neighborhood and that “sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.”
Biden was dispatched to Georgia and Ukraine in July after President Obama’s visit to Moscow in June raised concerns that the U.S. was in fact recognizing that sphere of influence in an effort to achieve progress on nuclear disarmament. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal at the end of the trip, Biden spoke disparagingly about Russia’s economic situation, saying, “They’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable,” a sentiment that was not well-received in Moscow, and was seemingly inconsistent with the rest of the administration’s Russia policy. Despite Biden’s tough talk, Russia continues to meddle in Ukraine in advance of its presidential election early next year and the Georgians aren’t seeing the military training and assistance that Biden promised materialize.
Now Biden is headed to the region once again, this time to Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic. Biden’s trip comes in the wake of a disastrous administration capitulation to Moscow on missile defense. Setting aside the technical debate about the merits of the Obama administration’s approach versus that of the Bush administration, even Obama officials admit the rollout, with its middle-of-the-night phone calls, and lack of prior consultation, was flawed.
To clean up the mess, the administration has decided to dispatch the supposed administration hardliner on Russia, none other than Joe Biden. Except the administration is trying to argue that the trip is about much more than missile defense. The vice president’s national-security adviser, Tony Blinken, told reporters yesterday that “the trip is not focused on missile defense per se,” but on energy security, climate change, and “transitioning from a local agenda to a global one.”
It is not as if missile defense is the only issue of importance to our allies in the region. In July, a group of Central European leaders, including Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, wrote to President Obama, expressing concern about growing U.S. disinterest in the region and suggesting an agenda for cooperation that included a renaissance of NATO, increased access to the United States for the region’s citizens, and enhanced cooperation on Russia. In the wake of last month’s missile-defense decision, it is even more important that the administration find ways to increase defense cooperation with Poland and the Czech Republic and their neighbors to forestall the notion that we are ceding the region to a revanchist Russia.
If the administration was serious about advancing U.S. relations with countries in the region, they would have sent Secretary Gates or Secretary Clinton with substantive proposals for the way forward. Instead, they are sending Joe Biden who will likely, true to form, provoke the Russians in an effort to mollify the Czechs and Poles, who will be left with little more than sound bites and platitudes. Unfortunately, a few off the cuff Biden remarks will not repair the damage that has been inflicted on the relationship.
The one good thing to come out of the trip may be that with Biden away from Washington, perhaps he will be less able to influence the debate about strategy in Afghanistan.
— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.