Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's
choice of Joseph Biden as his running mate has drawn sharp
criticism from many Democrats as a result of the Delaware senator's support
for the US invasion of Iraq, his flagrantly false claims about the alleged
Iraqi threat, and the abuse of his position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee to suppress antiwar testimony before Congress prior to the invasion.
A look at the senator's 35-year record on Capitol Hill indicates that Iraq
was not an isolated case and that Biden has frequently allied with more hawkish
Democrats and Republicans. This is of particular significance, since Obama and
other leading Democrats have acknowledged that the choice of Biden was largely
because of his foreign policy leadership, thereby raising concerns that, as
president, Obama may end up appointing people to important foreign affairs and
security matters of a similar ideological orientation.
At the same time, Biden has not consistently allied with neoconservative intellectuals
or the unreconstructed militarists who have so heavily influenced the foreign
policies of the Bush administration and the foreign policy positions of Republican
presidential nominee John McCain. Indeed, Biden has often taken some rather
nuanced positions and, rather than being a right-wing ideologue, is generally
recognized by his colleagues as being knowledgeable and thoughtful in addressing
complex foreign policy issues, even if often taking more hard-line positions
than the increasingly progressive base of his party.
For example, he has called for diplomatic engagement with the Iranian government
and unlike Clinton and some other Democratic senators voted
against the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which was widely interpreted as potentially
paving the way for war with Iran. Biden has challenged the Republicans' unconstitutional
insistence that the executive has the power to wage war without consent of Congress,
even going so far as to threaten impeachment proceedings against President George
W. Bush if he attacked Iran without congressional authorization. He has also
raised strong objections to some of the Bush administration's efforts
to develop new nuclear weapons systems and abrogate existing arms-control treaties.
He helped lead the fight against Bush's nomination of the far-right John Bolton
to be US ambassador to the United Nations.
During the 1980s, Biden opposed aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and vigorously
challenged Reagan administration officials during the Iran-Contra hearings (in
contrast to the tepid leadership of the special committee chairman, Democratic
Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.) He was also a cosponsor of a 1997 resolution
that would have effectively banned the US production and deployment of landmines,
an initiative taken despite objections from the Clinton administration.
Yet Biden's progressive foreign policy positions have often been the exception
rather than the norm. In fact, his positions have sometimes been so inconsistent
as to defy clear explanation. For example, Biden is one of the very few members
of Congress who voted against authorizing the 1991 Gulf War
which the UN Security Council legitimized as an act of collective security against
the illegal Iraqi conquest of Kuwait but then voted in favor
of authorizing the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which the UN Security Council didn't
approve, and was an illegitimate war of aggression.
Belligerent Foreign Policy
Biden has aggressively pushed for NATO expansion
eastward. He supports NATO membership for the former Soviet republic of Georgia,
despite that government's attacks on South Ossetia and the risks that such a
formal military alliance could drag US forces into a war in the volatile Caucasus
region. Biden correctly criticized Russia for its military incursion deep into
Georgian territory and its disproportionate use of force. But in rhetoric
reminiscent of the darkest days of the Cold War, he incorrectly assigned all
the blame for the recent fighting on the Russians, failing even to mention the
Georgian assault on the South Ossetian capital that provoked it. While condemning
Moscow for its efforts "to subvert the territorial integrity" of Georgia,
Biden seems to have forgotten that he was a key cosponsor (along with Senators
McCain and Lieberman) of a Senate resolution introduced last year that called
for active US support for the independence of the autonomous Serbian region
Biden was perhaps the Senate's most outspoken supporter of the 1999 US war
on Yugoslavia. He teamed up with McCain as one of the two principal sponsors
of the resolution authorizing the 11-week bombing campaign of Serbia and Montenegro,
which short-circuited efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe and pro-democracy Serbian groups to resolve the crisis nonviolently.
Biden's efforts to use Serbian oppression of Kosovar Albanians as an excuse
for advancing post-Cold War US hegemony in Eastern Europe became apparent
in his insistence
that "if we do not achieve our goals in Kosovo, NATO is finished as an
In addition to stacking his Senate committee's hearings prior to the Iraq war
vote with fabricators of WMD claims and supporters of a US invasion, Biden
has often failed to use his platform to ask tough questions during confirmation
hearings for many of the Bush administration's more controversial nominees.
For example, during John Negroponte's three confirmation hearings Biden avoided
any questions regarding the controversial official's alleged support for right-wing
death squads while ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s.
As ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee during the 1990s, Biden
teamed up with the right-wing Republican chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) to try
to squash efforts by Russell Feingold (D-WI) and other liberals to end US
military training of Indonesian counterinsurgency forces repressing occupied
East Timor. Biden was among a minority of Democrats to support increasing military
aid in the name of anti-narcotics efforts but in reality for counter-insurgency
operations to Colombia's repressive government. He even voted
against an amendment that would have transferred some of the money to support
effective but underfunded drug treatment programs in the United States.
Biden also was among a minority of Senate Democrats to vote against a resolution
that would have required the administration to certify, prior to selling or
otherwise providing cluster bombs to a foreign government, that they would not
be used in civilian areas. Such opposition to this important and widely supported
humanitarian effort likely indicates that Biden would use his position as vice
president to stifle efforts by other administration officials who might press
for greater sensitivity in US foreign policy toward human rights concerns.
Despite embracing much of the Bush administration's alarmist rhetoric about
Iran's nuclear program, Biden's actual concerns regarding nonproliferation are
rather suspect. For example, he voted against a number of proposed amendments
that would have strengthened provisions of the nuclear cooperation agreement
with India designed to insure that US assistance would not help India's nuclear
While opposing some Reagan-era weapons programs, such as the Pershing II missile,
Biden supported full funding of the Trident D-5 Submarine Missile Program a
full decade after the end of the Cold War for which it was designed. He has
also voted against a series of amendments that would have redirected wasteful
military spending to support domestic education programs and limited war profiteering
by military contractors with links to the current administration. Biden has
also been a strong advocate of increasing military spending even beyond the
Bush administration's bloated levels.
Far Right Agenda on Israel/Palestine
In addition to Iraq, (on which he was among the
minority of congressional Democrats who voted to authorize the illegal invasion
of that oil-rich country and supports continued unconditional war funding) the
foreign policy issue with which Biden has most closely aligned himself with
right-wing Republicans is Israel. Long opposed to Palestine's right to exist
as an independent country, he came around to supporting the idea of creating
some kind of Palestinian state alongside Israel only after the Bush administration
and the Israeli government went on record accepting the idea. Similarly, Biden
has long insisted that it isn't the Israeli occupiers, but the Palestinians
under occupation, who constitute the "one... side that can impact on ending
Biden has defended extra-judicial killings by Israeli forces in the occupied
territories, Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank, Israel's annexation
of greater East Jerusalem and other Arab territories seized by military force,
and collective punishment against Palestinian civilians in retaliation for crimes
committed by the radical Hamas movement.
When Bush goaded Israel into attacking Lebanon during the summer of 2006
blocking international efforts to impose a cease-fire even as civilian casualties
mounted into the hundreds Biden argued
that the Bush administration didn't back Israel quickly or vehemently enough.
As the outcry from human rights groups and UN agencies mounted over the widespread
devastation inflicted on Lebanon's civilian infrastructure, Biden declared "we're
left with no option here, in my view, but to support Israel in what is a totally
legitimate self-defense effort."
Following the war, Biden blocked investigations into Israeli violations of
the US Arms Export Control Act despite a report provided to his Senate committee
from the State Department indicating that there was considerable evidence of
widespread use of US-supplied cluster bombs against civilian targets. His
refusal to allow for such congressional oversight does not give much hope that,
once in the executive branch himself, he would support an Obama administration
upholding its legal obligations either.
Obama had previously criticized the Clinton administration for its one-sided
approach to the peace process and, more recently, has pledged to make facilitating
an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement a priority as president. Nevertheless,
Biden insists that the United States should not take any role in the peace process
that isn't coordinated with the Israeli government. Indeed, Biden explicitly
that that there should be "no daylight between us and Israel" and
that "the idea of being an 'honest broker'... like some of my Democratic
colleagues call for, is not the answer."
Unfortunately, there's little to suggest that any mediating party has
ever successfully facilitated a peace settlement between two hostile nations
without being an honest broker. Indeed, Biden strongly objected to findings
by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James
Baker and widely supported by the majority of the foreign policy establishment.
The Group's report emphasized the importance of the United States pressing for
an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement in order to restore its credibility
in the greater Middle East.
Democrats Unify Around Biden
Even the party's left wing largely refused to
support proposals challenging the Biden nomination from the floor of the Democratic
National Convention in Denver. Prominent Democratic antiwar stalwarts such as
Rep. Lynne Woolsey (D-CA) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) in the name of
"party unity" rejected calls by some delegates for a roll-call
vote in which Biden would be pitted against an antiwar challenger for the vice-presidential
The residual grumblings from antiwar Democrats, and threats to defect to the
campaigns of Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney or independent Ralph Nader
in response to the Biden nomination largely evaporated, however, when Republican
nominee John McCain announced his choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his
running mate. Despite Biden's history of notoriously poor judgment on some foreign
policy issues, the veteran senator's knowledge and experience began to look
increasingly important compared with his strikingly inexperienced, unknowledgeable,
and extremely right-wing Republican counterpart.
For example, in one of the few public
statements Palin had made on the Iraq war, she insisted that the invasion
was part of "God's plan" and that prosecuting the war is "a task
that is from God." In contrast, the Roman Catholic church (of which Biden
is a member) and virtually every mainline Protestant denomination came out in
opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. Only the right-wing fundamentalist
denominations went on record supporting it. While Biden's support for the 2002
Iraq war resolution did put him on the side of right-wing Christian fundamentalists
on the critical question of what constitutes a just war, he has never claimed
the invasion of that oil-rich country was part of God's plan.
Similarly, while Biden's hard-line views regarding Israel also put him at odds
with the moderate positions taken by the Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant
denominations, Palin goes so far as to embrace the dispensationalist wing of
Christian Zionism. As such, she believes that a militarily dominant Israel is
a necessary requisite for the second coming of Christ and the Israeli government
should therefore not be pressed to withdraw from any occupied Arab lands.
The Task at Hand
Obama's choice of Biden the quintessential
figure of the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment on Capitol Hill
raises serious questions as to whether the Illinois senator really represents
"change we can believe in." At the same time, Biden has demonstrated
a greater-than-average willingness to shift to more moderate positions if the
prevailing pressure is from the left. His growing skepticism over Bush policy
in Iraq, his calls for the withdrawal of most American combat forces, his outspoken
opposition to the surge when it was put forward last year, and his tough questioning
of General David Petraeus in hearings before his committee has undoubtedly been
a reflection of the growing antiwar sentiment within the Democratic Party.
When Biden first ran for the Senate in 1972, he was willing to represent the
prevailing mood at the time in strongly denouncing the Vietnam War, calling
for an immediate withdrawal of US forces, and voting against aiding the dictatorial
South Vietnamese government of Nguyen Van Thieu. The following decade, his initial
support for US backing of the repressive junta in El Salvador was reversed
in the face of growing opposition to US intervention in Central America. While
not among the first to endorse the proposed freeze on the research, testing,
development and deployment of new nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons systems,
he did throw his weight behind the initiative as the nuclear freeze campaign
grew in popular support.
As a result, continued advocacy by peace and human rights activists for a more
enlightened foreign policy can likely minimize the damage that Biden might otherwise
have on an Obama administration's foreign policy.
In addition, Obama may have selected the hawkish Biden as his running mate
primarily as a political maneuver to enhance his chances of winning the November
election rather than as an indication of the kind of people he would appoint
for key foreign policy positions or the kinds of policies he would pursue. Indeed,
despite the more recent inclusion of some of the more hawkish former Clinton
advisors into his foreign policy team, Obama's core advisors on international
affairs have generally hailed from the younger, more liberal, and more innovative
wing of the Democratic Party.
Like Dick Cheney, Biden pushed for an invasion of a country on the far side
of the world that was no threat to us, misled the public regarding nonexistent
"weapons of mass destruction," and sought to silence critics of the
war. However, even assuming the worst regarding Biden's hawkish worldview, he
would not be able to use his office in the same manner. Though bringing into
an Obama administration a certain gravitas on foreign affairs as a result of
his knowledge and experience, the fact remains that Biden unlike the
current vice-president would be serving a president who is quite intelligent
and who is quite capable of making his own decisions on the critical foreign
policy issues facing the United States.
Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy