Rising tensions between Washington and Tehran are testing whether Joe Biden can capitalize on his decades of foreign policy experience as he seeks to challenge a president he derides as “dangerous” and “erratic.”
Biden is expected to deliver lengthy remarks Tuesday in New York about President Donald Trump’s decision to approve an airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The event, which would follow several days of campaigning in which Biden inconsistently highlighted his foreign policy credentials, would be among his most high-profile efforts to articulate his vision for world affairs. It would come less than a month before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses begin Democrats’ 2020 voting.
But the moment presents challenges for a two-term vice president who was elected to six Senate terms. While his resume is longer than any Democratic presidential rival’s, it comes with complications.
Progressives hoping to make American foreign policy less militaristic point to Biden’s 2002 vote authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, suggesting that muddies his recent warning that Trump could push the U.S. into another endless war. Alternately, Trump and Republicans cast Biden as indecisive or weak, seizing on his opposition to the 1991 U.S. mission that drove Iraq out of Kuwait and his reluctance about the raid that killed Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in 2011, when Biden was President Barack Obama’s No. 2.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator who voted against President George W. Bush’s Iraq war powers request, calls it “baggage.” In a quote that Republicans recirculate frequently, former Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in his memoir that Biden, though a “man of integrity,” has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Biden himself has been inconsistent in his pitch to voters, seemingly confident that searing criticism of Trump and implicit contrasts with less-seasoned Democratic rivals are enough to earn another stint in the West Wing.
“I’ve met every single world leader” a U.S. president must know, Biden tells voters at some stops. “On a first-name basis,” he’ll add on occasion. On Chinese President Xi Jinping: “I spent more time with him face to face than any other world leader.” On Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who helped persuade Trump to withdraw U.S. special forces from Syria over widespread opposition in Washington and elsewhere: “I know who he is.”
The Biden campaign’s most viral moment was a video last month, titled “Laughed At,” showing world leaders mocking Trump at a Buckingham Palace reception held during a NATO summit in London. Biden says world leaders, including former British Prime Minister Theresa May, have called him to ask about Trump.
He told reporters last month that foreign policy isn’t in his Democratic opponents’ “wheelhouse,” even if they are “smart as hell” and “can learn.” Demonstrating his knowledge, Biden veered into explaining the chemistry and physics of “SS-18 silos,” referring to old Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. “It’s just what I’ve done my whole life,” he said.
He’s since touted endorsements from former Secretary of State John Kerry and members of Congress with experience in the military and intelligence community.
Yet Biden doesn’t always connect the dots with an explicit appeal to voters.
In Iowa last weekend, Biden called the Iran crisis “totally of Donald Trump’s making,” tracing Soleimani’s killing back to Trump withdrawing from a multilateral deal in which Iran had agreed to curtail its nuclear program. The pact “was working, serving America’s interests and the region’s interests,” Biden said, questioning whether Trump “has any plan for how to handle what comes next.”
Biden told an audience that Americans need “a president who provides a steady leadership on Day One,” but during a 20-minute soliloquy, Biden never discussed his role in the Iran deal or Obama’s foreign policy generally. Days before, prior to the Soleimani strike, Biden didn’t mention the embassy attack at all as he campaigned in Anamosa, Iowa.
The former vice president laments that lack of foreign policy emphasis in a Democratic primary contest that has revolved around the party’s internal ideological tussle over domestic issues including health care, a wealth tax and college tuition assistance. The international arena “isn’t discussed at all” on the debate stage, he told reporters last month, despite what he said is a deep concern among voters.
“Foreign policy, commander in chief is a big deal to people,” he said, less because of a single issue and more because of Trump generally. “They just know something’s not right. It’s uncomfortable.”
Biden in July offered perhaps his most sweeping foreign policy declaration to date, with a speech touting the U.S. as the preeminent world power but one that must lead international coalitions and focus on diplomacy. He pledged to end “forever wars” but did not rule out military force. He made clear he values small-scale operations of special forces while being more skeptical of larger, extended missions of ground forces.
His advisers believe that reflects most Americans. “They don’t want the United States to retreat from the world … but they also don’t want us overextended without any rational strategy or exit plan,” said Tony Blinken, Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, who has worked with him since he was Democratic leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
As vice president, Biden was at Obama’s side for every major national security decision during their eight years in office. Biden led the administration’s efforts to help Ukraine counter Russian aggression. He also took the lead on Iraq as the Democratic administration moved to bring the war it inherited there to an end.
But Biden wasn’t always in lockstep with Obama on major issues. He was among the advisers who argued against the attack on al-Qaida mastermind bin Laden. Biden’s explanation of those debates has changed over the years, varying from saying he recommended that Obama wait for clearer identification of bin Laden at the Pakistan compound where he was killed to later saying he privately told Obama to go ahead. Blinken said Biden was never against pursuing bin Laden, as some Republicans say. Recalling how Biden immediately relayed his final private conversation with Obama, Blinken said Biden told Obama to “trust your instincts.”
Biden also lost an initial debate during lengthy deliberations on Afghanistan shortly after Obama took office. Biden was opposed to the idea of sending surge forces, pushing instead for a focus on counterterrorism that would have required a smaller military footprint on the ground. Obama ultimately ordered 30,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan.
That could be viewed as a lesson learned after Biden initially voted to support Bush’s 2002 request to use force in Iraq. Blinken said, though, that didn’t necessarily mean Biden ever changed philosophy. His 2002 vote, Blinken said, was based on the president arguing he needed war power only as leverage for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to accept international weapons inspectors. That worked, Blinken said, then Bush decided to “go to war anyway.”
Ultimately, Biden and his team believe voters are more interested in candidates’ overall profiles than in litigating old debates. They point to the 2004 Democratic primary.
Howard Dean held momentum for much of 2003. Weeks before Iowa caucused, the U.S. captured Saddam. Dean declared that the military victory had “not made America safer,” after having spent months blistering Kerry for backing the same Iraq resolution Biden supported. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who praised Saddam’s capture, went on to win Iowa and steamrolled to the nomination.