WASHINGTON — Shortly after he became president, Barack Obama tasked his vice president with overseeing Iraq policy as the United States began the delicate job of winding down its involvement in the troubled nation.
This week, as Obama contemplated how the U.S. would respond to militants seizing wide swaths of Iraq, Vice President Joe Biden was in the midst of a four-day trip to Central and South America.
Once the public face of the U.S. involvement in Iraq, Biden is no longer the administration’s most visible person on Iraq policy, prompting some confusion about who is leading the U.S. efforts there.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank that reflects both liberal and centrist policies, praised the work Biden did in Obama’s first term, but said the administration now should be more clear about what his _ and others’ _ roles are. “I think the bottom line is we want a clearer sense of who’s in charge,” he said.
Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank, was more blunt: “People suspect no one’s in charge,” she said. “That’s a huge problem.”
Biden has remained involved, attending a national security meeting at the White House Monday and then again Thursday, though remotely. He phoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan twice in recent days to discuss the dangers posed to regional and international security, the need to unite Iraqis and the U.S. support for Turkey’s efforts to bring back its citizens being held by Islamic militants, according to the White House. A Turkish newspaper reported that Biden called Erdogan after the Turkish prime minister tried unsuccessfully to reach Obama.
On Wednesday, Biden called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, Iraqi Council of Representatives Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Masoud Barzani. He discussed the security situation, the U.S. assistance being provided to Iraqi security forces and additional measures that could be taken, according to the White House. In each call, Biden stressed the importance of national unity, coordination on security issues and a need to form a new government under the constitution. He also emphasized the need for all Iraqi leaders to govern in an inclusive way, promote unity among Iraq’s population and address concerns of the nation’s diverse communities.
During the crisis in Ukraine, Biden made at least 24 calls to foreign leaders from nations across the globe, including Romania, Poland, Latvia and Bulgaria. He traveled to Ukraine in April for meetings and again in June for the inauguration of President Petro Poroshenko.
Biden was in Colombia on a previously scheduled trip Thursday when Obama told reporters that he would send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq in response to the country’s requests for assistance. The president dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East and Europe this weekend to talk to foreign leaders about the problems in Iraq.
On his own trip, Biden has spoken about significant issues including the influx of children crossing the southern U.S. border and the United States’ vast spying program. He also attended a World Cup soccer game in Brazil. On Tuesday, while still in Brazil, he briefly addressed the situation in Iraq.
“The United States government has been working to support the Iraqi government and all of Iraq’s communities in their common fight against this vicious threat of terror,” he said. “We’re consulting closely with a full range of Iraq’s leaders on an inclusive political path forward, even as we provide assistance to Iraq’s security forces.”
Back in Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Biden has continued to be engaged on Iraq, but he declined to answer specific questions about his role.
“Vice President Biden has continued to be one of the principal interlocutors of the administration with Iraqi leaders,” Carney told reporters. “He has a long history in Iraq with all of the political groups there and with the leaders there. And that hasn’t changed.”
Obama, like his two immediate predecessors, has given hefty assignments to his vice president. Biden oversaw the implementation of the $787 billion economic stimulus package and recommended ways to decrease access to guns and improve access to mental health services.
In the summer of 2009, Obama asked Biden to take on the role overseeing the U.S. departure from Iraq and bringing various factions together.
Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corp. and a former senior adviser at U.S. Central Command, said assigning Biden to Iraq was Obama’s way to keep the issue at a high level while not taking full control of it himself.
She said that Obama, who ran for president on a pledge that he would end the war in Iraq, wanted to distance himself from his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, who spent an enormous amount of time on Iraq.
“It was a very dramatic change, reflecting the administration’s desire to wind down the war,” she said.
A longtime Democratic senator from Delaware, Biden had experience in Iraq and had served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He once suggesting dividing Iraq into three _ between the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities _ but the proposal never got off the ground.
As vice president, Biden has traveled to Iraq seven times, including in 2010 to mark the formal conclusion of the U.S. combat mission there and a shift to what the military called an “advise and assist” role.
O’Hanlon praised Biden’s contributions in those first two-and-half years, saying he helped make crucial decisions and nurture relationships. He said it’s unusual to be assigned a task forever; more often, it’s for a specific period of time as needed.
Charles Dunlap, a former Air Force major general who is now a professor specializing in warfare policy and strategy at the Duke University School of Law, said “point persons” can work for transitory crises, but for ongoing issues, such as the relationship with a country or particular conflict, the contact should be secretaries of state or defense, the U.S. ambassador or the commanding general.
But, he said, for any issue of strategic importance, the “point person” at the end of the day has to be the president.
Robinson agrees, saying the deteriorating situation in Iraq threatens U.S. national security, forcing Obama to engage.
“The president has to focus and rightly so,” she said.