By Jason Horowitz
[Ed. note: This article was originally published on February 5, 2007.]
Senator Joseph Biden doesn’t think highly of the Iraq policies of some of the other Democrats who are running for President.
To hear him tell it, Hillary Clinton’s position is calibrated, confusing and “a very bad idea.” John Edwards doesn’t know what he’s talking about and is pushing a recipe for Armageddon in the Middle East. Barack Obama is offering charming but insubstantial fluff. And all of them are playing politics.
“Let me put it this way,” Mr. Biden said. “You didn’t hear any one of them get in this debate at all until they announced for President.”
Mr. Biden, who ran an ill-fated campaign for President in 1988, is a man who believes his time has finally come, announcing this week that he was filing papers to make his 2008 Presidential bid official. Although he admits to a tendency to “bloviate,” he thinks that an aggressive advocate with rough edges might be just what the party needs right now.
“Democrats nominated the perfect blow-dried candidates in 2000 and 2004,” he said, “and they couldn’t connect.”
Though Mr. Biden, 64, has never achieved his national ambitions, he has in recent years emerged as one of the party’s go-to experts on foreign policy. In the past week, he has spearheaded the Democratic pushback against the President’s plan to increase troop levels in Iraq, opposing the move with a non-binding resolution that his party has rallied around. On a recent weekday afternoon, he was discussing his rivals over a bowl of tomato soup in the corner of a diner in Delaware, about a 15-minute drive from his Senate office. He wore a red cardigan and blue shirt, periodically raising his raspy voice over the sound of loudspeakers summoning customers to pick up their sandwiches. He had showed up carrying a Mead notebook filled with handwritten talking points, but once he’d gotten started, he closed the book and pushed it aside.
The subject he prefers to talk about these days—particularly when contrasting himself with his prospective Presidential rivals—is Iraq. Addressing Mrs. Clinton’s latest proposal to cap American troops and to threaten Iraqi leaders with cuts in funding, Mr. Biden lowered his voice and leaned in close over the table.
“From the part of Hillary’s proposal, the part that really baffles me is, ‘We’re going to teach the Iraqis a lesson.’ We’re not going to equip them? O.K. Cap our troops and withdraw support from the Iraqis? That’s a real good idea.” The result of Mrs. Clinton’s position on Iraq, Mr. Biden says, would be “nothing but disaster.”
Most early polls show Mrs. Clinton as the party’s clear front-runner. Mr. Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is firmly in the thick of a pack of third-tier candidates. Still, he thinks that at such a precarious point in the nation’s history, voters are seeking someone with his level of experience to take the helm.
“Are they going to turn to Hillary Clinton?” Biden asked, lowering his voice to a hush to explain why Mrs. Clinton won’t win the election. “Everyone in the world knows her,” he said. “Her husband has used every single legitimate tool in his behalf to lock people in, shut people down. Legitimate. And she can’t break out of 30 percent for a choice for Democrats? Where do you want to be? Do you want to be in a place where 100 percent of the Democrats know you? They’ve looked at you for the last three years. And four out of 10 is the max you can get?”
Mr. Biden is equally skeptical—albeit in a slightly more backhanded way—about Mr. Obama. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
But—and the “but” was clearly inevitable—he doubts whether American voters are going to elect “a one-term, a guy who has served for four years in the Senate,” and added: “I don’t recall hearing a word from Barack about a plan or a tactic.” (After the interview with Mr. Biden and shortly before press time, Mr. Obama proposed legislation that would require all American combat brigades to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of March 2008.)
Mr. Biden seemed to reserve a special scorn for Mr. Edwards, who suffered from a perceived lack of depth in foreign policy in the Presidential election of 2004. “I don’t think John Edwards knows what the heck he is talking about,” Mr. Biden said, when asked about Mr. Edwards’ advocacy of the immediate withdrawal of about 40,000 American troops from Iraq. “John Edwards wants you and all the Democrats to think, ‘I want us out of there,’ but when you come back and you say, ‘O.K., John’”—here, the word “John” became an accusatory, mocking refrain—“‘what about the chaos that will ensue? Do we have any interest, John, left in the region?’ Well, John will have to answer yes or no. If he says yes, what are they? What are those interests, John? How do you protect those interests, John, if you are completely withdrawn? Are you withdrawn from the region, John? Are you withdrawn from Iraq, John? In what period? So all this stuff is like so much Fluffernutter out there. So for me, what I think you have to do is have a strategic notion. And they may have it—they are just smart enough not to enunciate it.”
The targets of Mr. Biden’s criticism, whether out of shock, indifference or a calculation that it would be unwise in this case to meet fire with fire, declined to respond in kind. Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton wrote in an e-mail: “Senator Obama opposed the Iraq War from Day 1 and has articulated clear principles in how to address the tragic mistakes President Bush has made there.” And as for rest—including Mr. Biden’s use of the words “articulate” and “nice-looking” to describe the Senator from Illinois—the spokesman said, “Senator Biden’s words speak for themselves.”
The press offices for Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards declined to say anything at all.
By contrast with what Mr. Biden describes alternately as his opponents’ caution and their detachment from reality, the Senator from Delaware has for months been pushing a comprehensive plan to split Iraq into autonomous Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish ethnic regions that is controversial, to say the least. Under the plan, local policing and laws will be the responsibility of regional authorities. Most of the American troops would be withdrawn, with small numbers remaining to help with anti-terrorism operations. The ensuing chaos from ethnic migrations within Iraq would be contained with the help of political pressure created by a conference of Iraq’s neighbors.
But the idea of an American endorsement of Iraqi federation along those lines has drawn criticism from just about every ideological corner of the foreign-policy establishment. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, another potential 2008 candidate who played a major role in negotiating the peace talks that ended the war in Bosnia, said in a recent interview that the Biden plan would have people in mixed cities like Baghdad “fleeing for their lives.” Richard Perle, one of the chief architects of the war in Iraq, who resigned from his advisory position at the Pentagon in 2003 after a conflict-of-interest scandal, called the idea “harebrained.” And perhaps most notably, the original author of the partition plan, former Council on Foreign Relations president Leslie Gelb, has suggested that spiraling chaos on the ground in Iraq may have already rendered it unworkable.
Mr. Biden counters their criticism by insisting that Iraq has already fractured along ethnic lines, and that the only pragmatic approach at this point is to police the process in a way that could prevent a wider civil war and, eventually, lead to a sort of stability.
“You have to give them breathing room,” he said.
The Iraq he envisions has three ethnically homogenous enclaves, with a central government responsible for securing the country’s international borders and distributing oil revenues. He’d put the Shiite majority in the south, limiting their geographic control but keeping them from being drawn into a wider Sunni-Shiite conflict. He’d move the Sunni majority into the oil-poor Anbar province in the West, but they would be guaranteed a cut of oil revenues worth billions of dollars. Mr. Biden’s hope is that the oil money and relative calm would drain the loyal Baathist insurgency of support while simultaneously making the province less amenable to Al Qaeda provocateurs.
“The argument that you make with Sunni tribal leaders is, ‘You are not going to get back to the point where you run the show,’” said Mr. Biden. They will have to be made to understand that “you get a much bigger piece of the pie by giving up a little of the pie.” He’d keep the Kurds up in the north, where they already enjoy a measure of de facto autonomy, but would seek guarantees that they would not take it upon themselves to purge Sunni residents from the mixed city of Kirkuk, or to lay exclusive claim to the enormous oil resources in that region, or to secede from Iraq by forming an independent Kurdistan.
Mr. Biden said he has made the argument to Kurdish leaders over the course of his seven trips to Iraq as follows: “You will be eaten alive by the Turks and the Iranians, they will attack you, there will be an all-out war.” The clear implication is that the United States, not for the first time, would be unable to protect them. “I don’t see how we could,” he said.
Mr. Biden disagrees with foreign leaders like Britain’s Tony Blair and Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf, who say that the key to fixing Iraq’s problems is solving the dispute between Israel and Palestinians.
“They are wrong, because I think it is a veiled way to do what the Europeans and the Arabists have always wanted to do, which is back Israel into a corner,” he said. “They still blame Israel.”
Mr. Biden says that support for his Iraq plan is growing. The influential New York Senator Chuck Schumer has declared at various times that he supports the plan—albeit in an uncharacteristically quiet manner—as has Michael O’Hanlon, a prominent Iraq policy expert at the Brookings Institution. But their support, for Mr. Biden, is almost an afterthought. If one thing is clear about him, it is that he doesn’t mind being alone.
“They may be politically right, and I may be politically wrong,” he said. “But I believe I am substantively right, and their substantive approaches are not very deep and will not get us where I want to go.”