We are told, in a variety of journalistic passive constructions, that Vice President Joseph Biden “is expected to have an advantage on foreign policy” in the imminent debate with Representative Paul Ryan, who in his career thus far has been more of a home-front guy. Indeed, among the surfeit of reasons that candidate Obama chose then-senator Biden as his running mate (all of which, I’m sure, sounded good at the time) was that Biden’s thousand years hanging around the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were supposed to offset Obama’s own thin portfolio on politics among nations. (A dear friend and Obama supporter, cataloguing the president’s FoPo credentials for my benefit recently, led with young Barack’s 1983 bachelor’s degree in political science, with a concentration in international relations.)
No doubt, it would be a mistake for Ryan to underestimate Biden, both on foreign policy and at large. For all his verbal infelicities, the vice president has a reserve of gravitas that he seems to be able to tap at key moments, and nobody sticks in Washington for nearly half a century without mastering the art of sounding as if he knows what he’s talking about. The trouble is, on key foreign-policy issues over the years, the vice president doesn’t. That is, even if he scores some sort of debate “win” on a foreign-policy question — say, by breaking out a consonant soup of foreign-leader names and treaty acronyms — it won’t change the fact that Biden just might be, in Charles Krauthammer’s memorable formulation, “the Herbert Hoover of American foreign policy,” holding the record for being wrong on the most issues.
Which ones? Well, in the interest of space, let’s stick to the top five:
One: The Nuke Freeze
For 30 years, Biden’s has been a voice for the unsplitting of the atom. In the early 1980s, he was a steady foe of the renewed fervor with which President Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl prosecuted the Cold War, and he became a supporter of the “nuclear freeze,” a movement-slash-footnote that sought to stop the production and deployment of nuclear weapons at precisely the moment when Reagan’s arsenal modernization was bankrupting the Soviet behemoth. A number of freeze resolutions died in the Senate despite support from Biden and other prominent Democrats such as Ted Kennedy. Meanwhile, the arms race helped catalyze the internal changes in Moscow that would produce the Gorbachev regime and, ironically, a strong American position for “trust, but verify”–style arms negotiations.
Nor has Biden quit. He continues to share his boss’s cosmically improbable goal of putting the nuclear cat back in the bag.
Two: Against SDI
Just around the time Biden was trying to dismantle our offensive deterrent, he was fighting Reagan on our defensive deterrent, freelancing meetings with Soviet officials and fighting for an interpretation of U.S. treaty obligations that would block any efforts at anti-ballistic-missile defenses. The thinking behind the Strategic Defense Initiative — much derided as “Star Wars” — would evolve and eventually result in plans for the theater-defense systems that would protect America and its allies not from a full-scale Soviet strike (which was never going to be feasible anyway), but from the various rogue states and burgeoning nuclear powers of questionable rationality that bedevil the world today. This protection is a good thing, of course, and not the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction that so many worried about in the 1980s. But even without knowing that, people in the 1980s could have realized that SDI was mostly an exercise in “basic scientific research” (which I thought Democrats liked) and not a concrete, realizable weapons program designed to give the U.S. first-strike capability.
Three: Moving Backward on Free Trade
In the 1990s, Biden was fairly good on free-trade issues, voting to give the president “fast-track” authority on Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), to regularize trade relations with China, and to expand trade in the Third World. He even voted for NAFTA. But about the time the globalized world reached a near-consensus on the net benefits of free trade, something — something — happened around January of 2001 that changed Biden’s mind, and over the next two presidential terms, he reversed his support for presidential “fast track” authority and voted against FTAs with Oman, Singapore, Chile, and the whole of Central America.
Four: Opposing the First Gulf War
Operation Desert Storm was a model of “liberal intervention.” It was necessitated by a human-rights crisis created by a brutal aggressor; it had clearly demarcated scope and objectives; it was built on a massive international coalition, signed off on by the U.N., and prosecuted in such a way as would limit American casualties. That didn’t stop Senator Joe Biden from voting against an authorization for the use of force, complaining that the U.S. was being asked to bear too much of the burden inside the coalition.
Five: Holding Every Possible Position on the Second Iraq War
This one’s a comparatively fresh and open wound for the vice president, but let’s review: Senator Biden considered the Hussein regime in Iraq a critical threat to national security and helped raise the alarm about Hussein’s WMD in the run-up to the war. He then voted for the authorization of the use of force. When things went sideways during the occupation, Biden then called his initial support a mistake. He later advocated cutting Iraq into three ethno-religious autonomous zones, a plan that leaders from the three ethno-religious groups in question opposed. Then he voted against the surge that averted a strategic defeat in 2006. When he became vice president, he took a lead role in negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would keep a significant American military presence in Iraq beyond 2011, at one point telling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others in a conference call that he’d “bet you my vice presidency [that Iraqi prime minister] Maliki will extend the SOFA.” Maliki did no such thing, and Biden, like Obama, now seems content to pretend that this was the administration’s plan all along. No word on whether Clinton intends to collect the vice presidency.
Bin Laden Bonus
And those are just the greatest hits. If one loosened the standards to include not only substantive policy mistakes but also gaffes, this could become a ten-part series: from the embarrassing (wrongly consoling the Irish prime minister for the death of a mother who was very much alive) to the head-scratching (the bizarre claim in his 2008 debate with Sarah Palin that the U.S. and France had eliminated Hezbollah from Lebanon). But the best has to be the vice president’s admission that he counseled the president against launching the strike on Osama bin Laden that constitutes the administration’s most unambiguous foreign-policy accomplishment. In fact, by the end, Biden was alone among Obama’s senior advisers in opposing the strike. If nothing else, this should neutralize Biden’s best foreign-policy weapon. If he tries to repeat his convention quip about GM being alive and bin Laden being dead, Ryan should simply reply: “No thanks to you.”
You could say the same on nearly every question of import that has crossed Biden’s desk during his foreign-policy career. So tremble, Team Ryan, at the “advantage” conferred on Joe by his 40 years of experience on the wrong side of history.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.