Monday, August 25, 2008

Biden, Obama and foreign policy

I'm happy with Biden as Obama's Vice Presidential candidate. There's no question in my mind that they will make a much better administration than John McCain and Joe Lieberman (or whoever he picks for VP). But since a McCain administration is all-but-certain to be worse in that regard than Dick Cheney and George Bush, that doesn't necessarily say that much.

Getting the US out of the Iraq War is the most pressing foreign policy issue right now. And Obama is on the right track in demanding a fixed timetable for combat troop withdrawals. The number of mercenaries, military advisers ("trainers") and Embassy protection forces also needs to be minimized. But he's on the right track. If he gets that withdrawal underway immediately, he will open up additional possibilities for a more realistic, pragmatic foreign policy.

Obama's proposal to escalate US troops presence in Afghanistan is a prescription for expanding disaster there. But since both he and McCain are talking about some kind of escalation there, it's unlikely to be a decisive issue in the campaign. The Iraq War is.

Joe Biden's foreign policy positions aren't entirely a smooth fit for Obama's. On Afghanistan, they seem to match up. But on Iraq, it's going to be interesting to see how they handle Biden's long-standing proposal for what amounts to partitioning Iraq into three entities: Arab Shi'a, Arab Sunni and Kurdistan. Biden recognizes that the US needs to get out of there. And a rapid withdrawal of US troops will probably make the partition plan a dead letter. But if they were to incorporate that as part of the withdrawal plan, it would likely make the withdrawal much more difficult and greatly increase the already-large risk of a wider regional war.

On Iran, McCain and Lieberman want to start a new war. Or it's probably more accurate to say they want to consolidate it into a wider war reaching from Iraq's border with Syria to Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, and maybe even into Pakistan. Biden has actually been more restrained in his rhetoric about war with Iran than Obama. Biden's position is a very welcome addition to the Democratic ticket on that issue.

It seems that both Obama and Biden have been cautious on the Georgia-Russia war, limiting themselves to reaffirming the official US position that Georgia should be incorporated into NATO . Whereas McCain and his chief foreign policy adviser, Georgia lobbyist Randy Scheunemann, have gone considerably beyond the official position and reacted to the Georgia-Russia conflict in hot-headed fashion. McCain's conduct as a candidate, including his frequent contacts with the reckless Georgian President who initiated the conflict, seem to indicate that McCain thinks it's the Republican Party that runs US foreign policy, not the US Government. Obama and Biden are both enough in touch with reality to know that NATO cannot as a practical matter incorporate Georgian into a mutual defense treaty with the country having settled borders that can be defined precisely. McCain seems to be living in a militarist/neocon fantasy world where that's not a problem.

A couple of recent article illustrate some of the problems that Biden's foreign policy perspective may bring: Laura Rozen, Biden's Worldview: An Interview with a Former Biden Foreign Policy Staffer Mother Jones Online 08/25/08; and by Bob Dreyfuss, On Iraq, Biden Is Worse than McCain The Nation Online 08/23/08.

Dreyfuss is more alarmed than I am at the possible influence of Biden's partition plan for Iraq. And his criticism is overstated. But Dreyfuss' concerns about the partition plan are well-founded.

Rozen interviews a former Biden staffer who, for some reason, she agreed to quote anonymously, though it's not at all clear to me why such an interview needed to be anonymous. But Anonymous Former Staffer does offer a framework that Biden and Obama can use to unite on a withdrawal plan without partition, though neither of them is likely to word it this way:

The Iraq partition idea fell by the wayside over a year ago as events on the ground in Iraq overtook it. Biden deserves praise for introducing a fresh idea into the Iraq debate, one that went beyond “stay the course” vs. “withdraw the troops.” And, to be fair, it was never about partition. Biden took his experience from the Balkans conflict in the 1990’s, where an imperfect compromise was hammered out to create two semi-autonomous regions inside Bosnia Herzegovina, one for the Muslims and one for the Serbs, yet maintaining Bosnia as a single state. So Biden wanted to do the same in Iraq, where you would have a central government in Baghdad responsible for the national army and foreign policy, but almost all other powers devolved to three autonomous regions in Iraq. There was much to criticize in the plan, most notably the fact that Iraqis wanted nothing of it, but the Biden plan has been incorrectly characterized as advocating the split of Iraq into three separate states – that was not what Biden was calling for. [my emphasis]
Actually, the Kurdish parties are sympathetic to the notion and may yet go to all-out civil war for Kurdish independence. But that's a reasonably dignified explanation for ditching a bad idea.

This comment from Anonymous Former Staffer doesn't surprise me. But it doesn't send a thrill running up my leg, either:

As [a "liberal interventionist"], in an Obama Administration, Biden – and the legion of current and former foreign policy staffers he will bring into the Administration – will provide a healthy counterpoint to those advisors closest to Obama. A number of Democrats are concerned by the fact that his two leading senior foreign policy advisors are Tony Lake and Susan Rice. Lake was a disaster as NSC Advisor and Rice had mixed reviews as the leading Africa policy maker in the Clinton Administration, especially in her role leading the U.S. response to Rwanda. Both individuals don’t seem as comfortable with the use of military force as people in the Biden orbit, which include Richard Holbrooke, Jamie Rubin, and Tony Blinken. ...

Biden unequivocally believes America is a force for good in the world. In this respect, his view dovetails with those liberal interventionists like Paul Berman and George Packer. He carries this belief to the core of his heart. I think Obama also shares this view, but it is less derived from passion and gut and more of an intellectual belief. Obama brings a uniquely multi-cultural perspective, and he has lived in places where America is not seen as the good guys. We’ll see how this plays out in an Obama Administration.
Clinton-style liberal interventionism certainly wasn't as destructive as the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. But the Iraq War showed that the "liberal interventionist" framework can be dangerous and destructive as well. Biden, Paul Berman and George Packer all talked themselves into supporting the Iraq War initially.

Speaking of which, to conclude, I still hope will decide to use the explanation for his October 2002 vote for the war resolution that he and others should have been using all along: that Cheney and Bush violated that resolution when they went to war in March, 2003 in the way that they did. It was still bad judgment to vote for the 2002 resolution. But it's still important to recognize that this administration violated it.

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"It is the logic of our times
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Defend the bad against the worse."

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