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. His remarks, which would follow several days of campaigning in which he seemed uncertain of how much to highlight his foreign policy resume, would be among his most high-profile efforts to articulate his vision for world affairs and would come less than a month before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses begin 2020 voting.
But the moment presents challenges for a two-term vice president who was elected to six terms in the Senate. While his resume is longer than any of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, it comes with complications.
Progressives hoping to make American foreign policy less militaristic point to Biden’s 2002 vote to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq, suggesting it muddies his recent warning that Trump could push the U.S. into another of the “forever wars.” Alternately, Trump and Republicans cast Biden as indecisive or weak, seizing on his opposition to the 1991 U.S. military mission that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and his reluctance about the raid that killed Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in 2011, when Biden was vice president.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator who voted against the Bush administration’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 sometimes been inconsistent about driving home his pitch to voters, seemingly confident that searing criticism of Trump and implicit contrasts with his 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 came last month with a video, 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.” Trying to demonstrate his expertise, 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 deal “was working, serving America’s interests and the region’s interests,” Biden said. Now, with Iraqis and Iranians galvanized against the U.S., Biden continued, “I don’t see any evidence so far that Mr. Trump has any plan for how to handle what comes next.”
Biden told a quiet audience that Americans need “a president who provides a steady leadership on Day One,” but during a 20-minute soliloquy, Biden never reminded the assembly of his role in the Iran deal or President Barack 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, and made clear he values small-scale operations of special forces, while being more skeptical of larger, extended missions of ground forces.
As vice president, Biden was at Obama’s side for every major national security decision during their eight years in office. Obama tapped him as the point man on a range of issues, including 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, shuttling to the Middle East for meetings with leaders numerous times.
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 was among advisers telling to Obama to wait for a clearer identification of bin Laden at the Pakistan compound where he was killed to later saying he privately told Obama to go ahead. Biden aides maintain that he was never against pursuing bin Laden, as some Republicans attest.
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 the Bush administration’s 2002 request to use force in Iraq. Biden aides, though, insist he didn’t necessarily change his philosophy. His 2002 vote, they said, was based on Bush arguing that he needed the war power only as leverage for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to accept international weapons inspectors.
Biden aides say voters are more interested in candidates’ overall profiles than in litigating old debates. They point to the 2004 Democratic primary.
Progressive Howard Dean held momentum for much of 2003. Weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the U.S. captured Saddam, with Dean declaring that the military victory “has not made America safer,” after having spent months blistering Kerry for backing the Iraq resolution just as Biden did. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who praised Saddam's capture, went on to win Iowa and steamrolled to the nomination.