Biden steers to the center on foreign policy

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 19, 2008 

WASHINGTON — In his nearly 36-year Senate career, Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden has cast hundreds of votes on foreign policy issues. He's been in the chamber long enough to have voted in favor of the 1978 treaties relinquishing U.S. control over the Panama Canal.

However, no action by Biden has drawn as much scrutiny in the 2008 presidential campaign as his October 2002 vote authorizing President Bush to use military force against Iraq.

The political left has pilloried Biden, Barack Obama's running mate, for supporting the 2003 invasion. Conservatives have castigated him for later turning against a war that he'd voted to authorize.

Biden now says he regrets his vote. He says he'd hoped to strengthen Bush's hand in seeking a peaceful outcome to the dispute over Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction, not to give the White House approval for an open-ended war.

A review of the senator's extensive foreign-policy record and interviews with longtime advisers suggest that Biden's role before the Iraq war was consistent with his long-held approach of seeking a middle ground in foreign policy, rarely taking on the president.

Should Obama be elected president, a Vice President Biden appears likely to play an outsized role in the new administration's foreign policy by virtue of his experience and extensive network of foreign contacts, built up over years of travel to overseas hot spots, and Obama's newcomer status on the international stage.

Before joining the ticket, Biden told Obama "he does not intend to be shadow secretary of state, nor just the 'funerals' guy," said Tony Blinken, Biden's top foreign-policy aide. He referred to presidents' tradition of sending their No. 2's to foreign leaders' funerals.

Rather, Biden would be the "most senior and final eyes and ears for Obama on any major decision," not limited to foreign policy, Blinken said.

Biden, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 1975, has often seemed to be ahead of the curve on issues from aid to former Soviet states in the early 1990s to U.S. involvement in the Balkans.

Ideas from his seemingly endless cache haven't always looked good in retrospect, however. As Iraq descended into chaos in mid-2006, he co-authored a plan to divide the country into three semi-autonomous regions with a limited central government. Leading Iraqi politicians condemned the plan, and it generated little enthusiasm among his fellow Democrats

First elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden quickly made a name for himself supporting U.S.-Soviet arms control efforts and opposing American arms sales to Israel's Arab neighbors. His early positions were aligned with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party; he opposed President Reagan's aid to the right-wing regime in El Salvador and to anti-Marxist rebels in Angola.

As he rose in seniority, however, Biden migrated to the center of the foreign policy spectrum. A man who relishes policymaking, he joined hands with a succession of Republican committee chairmen, including the late conservative Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and secretaries of state of every stripe.

Those close to him describe him as a "liberal interventionist" who favors the use of U.S. power to enforce the rule of law and halt flagrant human-rights abuses.

Biden "is an interventionist, but that does not necessarily mean military intervention," said former U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith, a former top staff aide on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Biden, as he's fond of reminding audiences, was an early advocate of NATO airstrikes to halt the ethnic killings in Bosnia in the mid-1990s. During the 1999 Kosovo crisis, he teamed up with Sen. John McCain to sponsor a resolution authorizing then-President Clinton to use American ground troops, if necessary, to halt Serb assaults on ethnic Albanians.

Today, Biden advocates sending U.S. troops to Sudan's Darfur region as part of an effort to halt the killings there.

However, it's his actions before and after the Iraq invasion that could prove most instructive as to the courses of action he'd recommend as vice president.

In 1991, Biden voted against giving President George H.W. Bush the authority to use force to oust Saddam's army from Kuwait, but in 2002 he was neither a leading advocate for war nor among the few antiwar voices in Congress.

There's no record that Biden ever opposed an Iraq invasion. "I think Saddam either has to be separated from his weapons or taken out of power," he told a television interviewer on Aug. 4, 2002.

Five days earlier, he and Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had convened the first extended hearings on a potential invasion of Iraq.

Biden and his aides say the hearings sparked a debate about invading Iraq that previously had smoldered at low levels. During two all-day hearings and five panels of witnesses, Biden asked pointed questions about the state of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and repeatedly warned that invading Iraq could be a costly, years-long endeavor, transcripts of the hearings show.

Critics, both at the time and later, accused Biden of failing to include Bush administration critics, such as former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, in those first hearings.

"I don't think there were any serious criticisms that these hearings were lacking in shining a light" on the issue, countered Norm Kurz, Biden's communications director at the time. "You can't do everything at once. We did a lot in those hearings."

Biden was among a minority of senators who said they read the classified version of the Bush administration's National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction before voting on whether to authorize the president to go to war. However, some military, intelligence and Foreign Service officials who were working on Iraq at the time say that despite his seniority, expertise and security clearance, Biden made no effort to independently investigate the administration's claims about Iraq's weapons programs and ties to al Qaida, both of which were the subjects of fierce debates within the bureaucracy.

As a war vote in Congress approached, Biden teamed with Lugar to propose an alternative resolution that would have given Bush the power to use force to eliminate Saddam's supposed WMD, but only after he'd secured a new U.N. Security Council resolution.

The effort died when Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate accepted the White House's proposal for much broader authority.

Biden has since said he regrets his vote in favor of the war, accusing Bush of misusing the authority Congress gave him and mismanaging the war.

Biden opposed Bush's 2007 increase of U.S. troops in Iraq, saying that "Sending additional troops to Baghdad will place more Americans in harm's way, with little prospect for success." Proponents credit the troop buildup with vastly improving Iraq's security conditions, although whether the change is permanent remains to be seen.

Biden already had signed on to a different plan: separating Iraq's warring Sunni Muslim Arabs, Shiite Muslim Arabs and ethnic Kurds into three semi-autonomous regions.

Republican nominee McCain ridiculed the plan during Wednesday's final presidential debate with Obama, saying that Biden "had this cockamamie idea about dividing Iraq into three countries."

Biden's plan, however, didn't envision partitioning Iraq, as McCain charged. It called for a limited central government that would control foreign policy, defense and oil production; a major diplomatic offensive; and a withdrawal of most American troops by 2008.

Another force behind the plan was Galbraith, Biden's former aide, who was close to Iraq's minority, long-beleaguered Kurds. Both men's thinking was colored by their experience in the Balkans, where a territorial division paved the way for an end to the war in Bosnia.

"His views, as were mine, were very much colored by the experience in Bosnia," Galbraith said.

Biden's aides contend that today's Iraq very much resembles what he had in mind, as Kurds and Sunnis consolidate autonomous regions in the majority Shiite country.

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