When Barack Obama picked Joe Biden as his running mate, he drew sharp criticism from his anti-war base because of Biden's support for the U.S. 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. (See my article Biden, Iraq, and Obama's Betrayal.)
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 was considered particularly significant since Obama and other leading Democrats have acknowledged that the choice of Biden was largely because of his foreign policy leadership.
Thus far, however, it appears that Biden has largely played the role of a loyal vice-president, which is actually consistent with his history of not making waves against the prevailing viewpoint.
Though generally seen as being on the hawkish wing of the Democratic party, Biden never consistently allied with neoconservative intellectuals or the unreconstructed militarists who so heavily influenced the foreign policies of the Bush administration. Indeed, Biden often took some rather nuanced positions and, rather than being a right-wing ideologue, was 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 called for diplomatic engagement with the Iranian government and -- unlike Hillary 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 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 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 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.
On most foreign policy issues, Biden allied with congressional centrists and conservatives. For example, despite all the recent media attention given to Biden's working-class roots and his support for labor, and despite his more recent opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), Biden largely embraced corporate-backed neoliberal globalization, particularly during the 1990s. Biden voted to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), which have both proven so devastating for American workers and have so greatly contributed to increased inequality and environmental damage worldwide.
Despite Biden's support for the principle of "free trade," even with some governments that suppress labor rights, Biden supported tough economic sanctions against Cuba. He even opposed Obama's restrained proposals for loosening restrictions on the right of Americans to travel to that socialist country and the right of Cuban-Americans to provide remittances for family members still living there.
Biden aggressively pushed for NATO expansion eastward. He supported 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 U.S. 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 last year's war 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 seemed to have forgotten that he was a key cosponsor (along with Senators McCain and Lieberman) of a Senate resolution introduced in 2007 that called for active U.S. support for the independence of the autonomous Serbian region of Kosovo.
Biden was perhaps the Senate's most outspoken supporter of the 1999 U.S. 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 U.S. hegemony in Eastern Europe became apparent in his insistence that "if we do not achieve our goals in Kosovo, NATO is finished as an alliance."
In addition to stacking his Senate committee's hearings prior to the Iraq war vote with fabricators of WMD claims and supporters of a U.S. invasion, Biden 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 U.S. 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.
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 U.S. assistance would not help India's nuclear weapons program.
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 supported continued unconditional war funding even after most Democrats had switched to an anti-war position), 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 [the conflict.]"
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 U.S. 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 U.S.-supplied cluster bombs against civilian targets. His refusal to allow for such congressional oversight does not give much hope that, now that he is in the executive branch himself, he is being much of an advocate for the Obama administration upholding its legal obligations either.
Obama has pledged to make facilitating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement a priority as president, but -- as a senator -- Biden argued that the United States should not take any role in the peace process that isn't coordinated with the Israeli government. Indeed, Biden explicitly insists 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 nomination
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 U.S. 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.
Biden as Vice-President
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 U.S. forces, and voting against aiding the dictatorial South Vietnamese government of Nguyen Van Thieu. The following decade, his initial support for U.S. backing of the repressive junta in El Salvador was reversed in the face of growing opposition to U.S. 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 the 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 having him play a leading role on his foreign policy team.
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 clearly is not using his office in the same manner. Though he has brought into the Obama administration a certain gravitas on foreign affairs as a result of his knowledge and experience, the fact remains that Biden -- unlike his predecessor -- is 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.