by Kaylee McGhee | January 07, 2020
About five years ago, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates reached what was then considered a startling conclusion: Joe Biden, who was at that point the vice president, had been wrong about “nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
On Afghanistan, Iraq, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and more, Biden’s influence proved disastrous, Gates alleged in his tell-all, Duty. This was unsettling, in part because former President Barack Obama had selected Biden as his running mate partially because the longtime senator had what he lacked: foreign policy experience. To then hear from your defense secretary, who had stepped down from the Obama administration in 2011, that Biden’s role in the White House helped create a “category five shitstorm”? That surely struck a nerve.
Gates’s summation, however, has aged well. Biden’s foreign policy resume is full of errors that date back decades. In the 1980s, for instance, he opposed Ronald Reagan’s military buildup and Strategic Defense Initiative that helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it, the end of the Cold War. He has continued to blunder his way through international relations since Obama left office and President Trump stepped in.
On Trump’s recent decision to order the killing of Iranian terrorist in chief Qassem Soleimani, Biden concluded that Trump had allowed Iran to take the “driver’s seat” in the Middle East. This is not true. The situation in Iran is complex, and Soleimani’s death certainly exacerbated tensions between Iran and the United States, but the U.S. still has significantly more power and control over the circumstances than Iran.
Biden has also overstated his initial opposition to the Iraq War, a conflict he supported in 2002 when he voted to authorize President George W. Bush’s use of force against Iraq. On the campaign trail, Biden is saying he did so because Bush misrepresented his intentions to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Biden was then the chairman. But Biden’s words in 2003 need no explanation: “I voted to go into Iraq, and I’d vote to do it again.”
Biden’s vote of confidence in the Iraq War hurt his presidential bid in 2008, and as a result, he became much more cautious of military intervention. But Biden’s hesitance arguably hurt the situation in Iraq almost as much as the initial invasion. He failed to negotiate a long-term strategy with the Iraqis, and the lack of stability in the region allowed Islamic extremists to gain ground in both Iraq and Syria — a consequence the U.S. is still wrestling with.
Biden is hardly the only person to blame for the U.S.’s failed Iraq policy, nor should he be assigned complete responsibility. But his distrust of the military, which made up the crux of Gates’s complaint, affected much of Obama’s foreign policy. On the killing of bin Laden, thankfully, Obama ignored Biden’s advice to reconsider the raid.
Biden seemed to trust drones more than military personnel. He openly advocated for a strategy he dubbed “counterterrorism-plus”: a combination of drone strikes and raids by special operations forces. This essentially became Obama’s approach to fighting terrorism in the Middle East. Obama ordered hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and other countries, and we’ll never know exactly how many civilian lives they cost.
The Democratic presidential front-runner was also one of the first lawmakers to support the 1999 bombing of Serbia and call for the arming of Bosnian Muslims. My colleague Tiana Lowe has argued that the bombing violated international law because President Bill Clinton, joined by NATO, specifically targeted civilians and did so without the United Nations’ consent. The bombing also helped dissolve the pro-democracy movement within the region, pushing the Serbian people back into the arms of the country’s dictator.
Several other Democratic candidates have already pointed out Biden’s questionable foreign policy decisions, but he continues to make his diplomatic credentials a central part of his campaign pitch. The U.S. needs “respected, responsible, and dignified leadership” internationally, he said shortly after Soleimani’s death. And he’s right. But given his track record, Biden isn’t in a position to provide it.