The war in Iraq has roiled presidential politics in each election since President George W. Bush launched the invasion of the country in 2003. It was central to the 2004 election, arguably the reason that Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination, and no small factor in Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, when he pitched himself as an alternative to elites in both parties ― particularly his rivals in the GOP ― who had backed the invasion.
As Joe Biden leads the Democratic field for 2020, the U.S.’s bloody history with Iraq is set to again become a defining issue in the race, and not simply because Trump has talked about an indefinite U.S. military presence there.
Biden wants to convince voters his resume on foreign policy is an asset. But they’ve got ground to think otherwise.
“He’s been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served with Biden in the Obama administration, wrote in his 2014 book.
Just this month, Biden’s primary opponents have zeroed in on his support for Bush’s invasion.
“You’ve got to ask yourself where Joe Biden is on the issues that are most important to you. Did he support the war in Iraq that forever destabilized the Middle East?” former Rep. Beto O’Rourke asked on MSNBC this week. Days earlier, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) had called for Biden to apologize. Almost 30 percent of Democrats are unhappy about Biden’s vote and more than 40 percent of party supporters younger than 30 say it makes them less likely to back him, a Politico/Morning Consult poll recently found.
And Biden’s campaign isn’t offering a counternarrative — either about what he has learned from the past or what wisdom he will bring to bear on the current challenge. With more than 5,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq and analysts warning that reconciliation and stability after the defeat of the Islamic State will require painstaking work, what does he want to do next?
Biden’s spokespeople did not respond to HuffPost’s multiple requests for comment for this story, and Biden’s former top advisers declined to speak.
The best guide, then, lies in Biden’s history.
On The Warpath
On Oct. 11, 2002, 21 Democrats in the Senate voted against a resolution permitting Bush to invade Iraq. Biden voted for it, along with 28 others.
Jim Manley, then the press secretary for leading war skeptic Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), never had the sense Biden might be a big player in congressional opposition to the invasion, he said.
“He screwed up and he trusted the administration,” Manley told HuffPost. “Unfortunately, a whole bunch of other people did, too.”
Biden wasn’t just any senator at the time. He had particular power to interrogate Bush’s case for war because he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which could host tough and high-profile hearings and call administration officials and independent experts to testify. In the summer of 2002, Biden claimed to be doing just that, opening two days of “national dialogue on Iraq” to explore the risks of both U.S. intervention and inaction.
But given that Bush was already loudly speaking of “preemptive action” and brooking no doubt about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, Biden’s effort stuck some peace activists as either willfully naive or deliberately obfuscatory.
“It is clear that Biden and most of the Congressional leadership have pre-ordained a conclusion that seeks to remove Saddam Hussein from power regardless of the facts, and are using these hearings to provide political cover for a massive military attack on Iraq,” Ritter argued in a statement.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that Biden was a skeptic of what the [Bush] administration was proposing, but he also wasn’t a full-throated proponent.”
And Biden deferred to Bush’s team early on over two crucial points.
Saying he was coordinating his effort with the White House, Biden blessed the president’s choice not to send representatives to testify because, he argued, Bush was still in the process of determining what to do. Officials later revealed the decision to invade had been made weeks earlier.
Biden also asserted the president was right to worry that Hussein might share weapons of mass destruction with terrorists.
Still, his oversight did satisfy some of Bush’s critics. In his 2012 book, former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), one of the Democrats to vote against the Iraq bill, said he was initially worried the hearings might only elevate hawks because of pro-war thinking by Biden and Democratic leadership. Yet “the Biden hearings on Iraq were among the most substantive and helpful sessions I attended as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” Feingold wrote. “As disappointed as I ultimately was with the decision to go to war, and with Joe Biden’s support for it, his skill in conducting the hearings, as well as the quality of the witnesses he called, made a big difference.”
In a later closed hearing not long before the vote, Biden pressured Bush’s CIA chief for evidence about Hussein’s apparent weapons capacity, journalists David Corn and Michael Isikoff revealed in a 2006 book. The then-senator also tried to use his influence in the chamber to push through bipartisan legislation that would require Bush to have United Nations approval or evidence of a major threat to the U.S. prior to any intervention.
But House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) thwarted Biden’s bill, and when it came time to authorize the war, Biden supported it.
Biden has since apologized for his vote ― kind of. “It was a mistake to assume the president would use the authority we gave him properly,” he said in 2005. And even as he voted, he said his goal was to keep the peace by helping then-Secretary of State Colin Powell rally international pressure on Hussein to reveal his stockpile. “I don’t think it’s fair to say that Biden was a skeptic of what the administration was proposing but he also wasn’t a full-throated proponent,” Manley said.
The fact remains that Biden helped enable the most roundly condemned and arguably most costly U.S. foreign policy decision in decades. It’s a choice that shattered millions of lives and made future bloodshed for people in the region and Americans far more likely. It’s a blunder that deserves a little more than the excuse of misplaced good faith.
Taking A Colonial Turn
Plagued by hostile armed factions, Iraq remained America’s most pressing foreign policy concern throughout the 2000s — and Biden wanted to be part of the conversation. On May 1, 2006, he argued in a New York Times op-ed that the solution to the bloodshed was to dramatically redistribute power and authority in the country away from the central government in Baghdad to geographic regions controlled by three of Iraq’s communities: two elements of the Arab population, those following the Shia and the Sunni branches of Islam, and the ethnically distinct Kurds.
Many foreign policy experts, along with Bush administration officials, derided it as an unworkable “partition” plan. Biden and fellow proponent Leslie Gelb, a prominent analyst, argued that it was a proposal for federalism based on the country’s own constitution.
There was just the small matter of the more than 25 million people who actually lived in the country. Seventy-eight percent of Iraqis said they disagreed with the idea of splitting up on the basis of religion and ethnicity, an International Republican Institute poll conducted the month after Biden publicized his idea found. Only 13 percent agreed, including a slim majority in the Kurd-heavy regions that had already been quasi-autonomous since the early 1990s.
In Iraqi eyes, Biden’s suggestion “reduces Iraq to that Orientalized caricature of three monolithic groups, and obviously after 2003 it was that kind of thinking that caused a lot of problems,” said Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore who wrote a 2011 book on sectarianism in Iraq. “At root, it’s saying Iraq is not a viable country and there’s no such thing as Iraqis. You’re coming in and saying that your country knows best, is viable and that Iraq is artificial … which is a very reductionist and monochrome and quite condescending view coming from countries that have no shortage of civil strife in their history.”
Many Iraqis were clear that the root of their problems wasn’t the identity of their neighbors ― it was mismanagement, particularly by post-invasion authorities responsible for policies like disproportionately weakening Sunnis, and violence by insurgents who, like Biden, saw the country in stark sectarian terms.
Robert Ford, a noted diplomat stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad at the time, said he heard anger over the proposal from top Shias and Sunnis, even as hard-liners claiming to speak for each group targeted the other.
“Biden in 2006 looked at a really difficult and complicated Iraqi situation and tried to apply an overly simplistic solution,” said Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute think tank and a lecturer at Yale University. “Iraqis understood it wouldn’t work and therefore gave it very little attention.”
Some 21% of respondents to the IRI survey said they personally knew someone who had been forced to leave their home because of their ethnic or religious identity. Biden’s suggestion would rip apart communities even further, displacing millions more people living in diverse areas and empowering advocates for prejudice and division.
That, in turn, would likely guarantee future tension between the three envisioned regions and alienate minority communities within them, leaving them anxious about majoritarian rule and determined to push their own aspirations in ways that could foment more instability. If other Iraqi groups could have their own spaces to rule, why couldn’t the country’s hundreds of thousands of Christians and Yazidis?
“You’re coming in and saying that your country knows best, is viable and that Iraq is artificial … which is a very reductionist and monochrome and quite condescending view.”
Biden’s vision also assumed a homogeneity within his three blocs that didn’t exist at the time and would have to be violently established if his plan were put in place. Bitter splits existed in both the Shia and Sunni communities, with segments ranging from the overtly militant to those jockeying over jobs in the new government that they could use to benefit their own networks. The chief Kurdish players had a history of tension and cutting deals with other communities and even other nations against their ethnic brethren. And scattered throughout were Iraqis for whom class or philosophical values were a bigger uniting force than their ethnic or religious affiliation ― a nuance Biden and Gelb pointedly ignored.
Gelb declined to comment for this story.
By 2007, Biden got the Senate to approve a resolution calling for decentralization and the creation of his three regions. Every part of Iraq’s political spectrum loudly protested. The Bush administration stayed on its own course.
Years later, after ISIS rose by thriving on sectarian distrust, supporters of Biden’s plan claimed he was right all along. Some in the media helped them sell that narrative amid global horror over the group and a search for comfortable answers from American mouths. The problem, of course, was the very kind of distrust between Iraq’s communities that Biden’s plan was likely to exacerbate.
Now that Iraqis have worked together ― Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and more ― to vanquish ISIS and have held elections that rebuked traditional politicians’ appeals to identity and instead rewarded those talking about issues affecting all communities, Biden’s plan looks even more like a shoddy relic and his judgment seems even more off.
Trusting The Devil You Know
As one of the most experienced foreign policy hands in Obama’s Cabinet, Biden had major power over Iraq in his role as vice president. He emphasized to other officials that on Iraq, he would always be the last person in the room advising the president, according to Newsweek. So when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s chief opponent pulled off a surprise election win in the spring of 2010, leaving Iraqi politicians sharply divided and Americans nervous about a threat to hard-won stability, Biden became involved ― and chose to help start a chain of events whose ultimate beneficiary was the Islamic State.
“Biden more than anyone bears ultimate responsibility for the American government’s decision to back the return of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister,” Ford, the retired diplomat, said. “That decision, more than any other thing the Americans did, helped create ISIS.”
Iraqis defied militants’ attempts to torpedo the polls and gave the biggest number of seats in the country’s Parliament to a diverse alliance of politicians who campaigned on transcending ethnic and religious identities, led by known secularist Ayad Allawi. But Maliki, who was deeply rooted in Shia political movements, was close behind and eager to stay in power by creating his own coalition government and locking Allawi out.
As Maliki worked his levers of influence and other forces invested in sectarianism warned that Allawi would, despite his own Shia background, marginalize Shias because he was working with Sunnis and had once been part of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated party, U.S. officials were split.
Obama badly wanted to make good on his campaign promise to get American troops out of Iraq. That meant his administration needed an Iraqi leader ready to talk about the terms of the soldiers’ departure and the U.S.’s future position ― and wasn’t in the mood to be kept waiting by uncertainty in Baghdad.
Ford and others like Gen. Raymond Odierno, the head of U.S. forces in the country, were already deeply skeptical of Maliki. They worried that he was only willing to rule in a divisive, exclusionary way that would breed violence between Iraq’s communities. He hadn’t made good on promises to integrate the Sahwa movement, an alliance of Sunni tribal forces that worked with the U.S. and its allies against Al Qaeda and other insurgents, into the official government structure, and had repeatedly targeted its leaders.
“I can’t tell you how many times the American military in 2009 and early 2010 asked me to go to Maliki’s chief of staff and ask him to release Sheikh X, Sheikh Y or Sheikh Z,” Ford said.
He recalled personally sharing his concerns with Biden over dinner in late 2009.
But after the elections, a powerful coterie of Americans was ready to embrace Maliki’s return, democracy be damned.
“Biden more than anyone bears ultimate responsibility for the American government’s decision to back the return of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister. ... That decision, more than any other thing the Americans did, helped create ISIS.”
American ambassador Chris Hill and some members of his team were sympathetic to the prime minister’s claim that Allawi just represented another sectarian faction, that of the Sunnis, New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid reported, and they were loath to be too involved in the process of government formation. The ambassador thought the country needed a strongman from the Shia community, he told his military counterpart, according to Emma Sky, an adviser to U.S. forces at the time and now a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute.
She disagreed and felt it was key to honor the voters’ choice, even if Allawi couldn’t ultimately court enough elite support to snag the top job, and to allow him to try without impediments and ideally reach a compromise with Maliki that would make all communities feel represented.
Biden reportedly wasn’t interested in that logic.
Sky wrote that Biden told Maliki in a mid-July call that he backed his continued premiership and told Allawi to support it, too, fueling anxiety within Iraq about American dominance and bullying. Then he arrived in the country in late August and made his thinking clear during meetings that she attended.
After Sky and others outlined their concerns, Biden seemed frustrated, in her telling.
“Look, I know these people,” Biden said, according to Sky’s recollection in her 2015 book. “My grandfather was Irish and hated the British. It’s like in the Balkans. They all grow up hating each other.”
Meeting with representatives of Allawi’s diverse coalition ― “the full tapestry of Iraqi society… clearly showing us the sort of Iraq they wanted to live in,” Sky writes ― Biden made the same point. “I know you people,” he told them.
The statements suggest that after years of criticism for his plan categorizing the country’s residents as irredeemably different from each other, and poll after poll showing sectarian politics weren’t the highest aspiration of many Iraqis, Biden was unmoved. He still wanted a simple answer, even if it echoed painful colonial-era tropes and Orientalism, and he wasn’t interested in complexities or the words coming out of Iraqis’ own mouths.
It was, on the surface, a different problem from that of the prior administration, which argued Iraq could be rapidly transformed into an American-style democracy. But it was rooted in a similar kind of arrogance and commitment to treating this country of millions as a kind of plaything, a blank canvas on which Western perceptions and prophecy would make all the difference.
It’s hard, of course, to know the full reasons for someone’s decisions. Ford believes expediency was Biden’s biggest motivation for encouraging Maliki’s continued rule: He wanted a government in place to accomplish Obama’s goal, and he listened to advisers saying that was the best way to deliver.
The then-vice president’s defenders say he did his best. “Whether we like it or not, you had a Lebanon-like system emerge from Iraq by the fall of 2004 ... where all the religious ethnic groups ran as blocs,” James Jeffrey, who started as U.S. ambassador in Baghdad the month of Biden’s visit, told Newsweek in 2015. Tony Blinken, a longtime Biden aide, told the magazine their team didn’t seek a sectarian government and felt let down after putting faith in Maliki ― echoing his boss’ explanation that his Iraq war vote was simply a problem of placing trust in the wrong people and boosting the sense that this is a defining, and unfortunate, habit for Biden.
Today, the painful consequences of Biden’s call — and the evidence that by constantly perceiving vicious, debilitating sectarian divides, he made them a reality — suggest that he might benefit from some reflection.
Maliki became increasingly autocratic during his second term ― “an absolute disaster for Iraq,” according to Haddad, the analyst. Between his persecution of Sunnis, a boon for ISIS as it recruited them en masse, and his reliance on fear-mongering among the Shia about Sunni violence, he left the country almost fatally fractured for the second time in less than two decades.
It was the opposite of Biden’s prediction ― the unity he said could never work ― that finally broke the militant group’s grip.
“You cannot expect the vice president of the United States to be an Iraq history expert. That’s not reasonable. The question is, do you figure out who on your team knows a lot about Iraqi history and make sure you get thoroughly briefed? I did not see Biden do that,” Ford said, adding that he felt the aides around Biden weren’t doing enough outreach to colleagues with Iraq expertise.
To him, it became clear that Biden primarily saw foreign policy through the lens of U.S. politics, comparing problems in, say, Ramadi, to those in Delaware in a way that didn’t help solve them.
“Look, I know these people. My grandfather was Irish and hated the British. It’s like in the Balkans. They all grow up hating each other.”
If Biden is in the White House come 2021, the collateral damage of another poor decision could be tremendous. Trump didn’t veer far from Obama’s final plan for Iraq, keeping thousands of American soldiers there to support reconstruction after ISIS. It’s unlikely he’ll care to craft a comprehensive policy for their departure before leaving office. Beyond trying to keep the situation within Iraq’s borders from blowing up once more, Biden will have to consider the country’s importance in the U.S.’s confused approach to Iran and its vital role in international oil markets.
Then comes the rest of the world. Leaning on experience comes naturally to Biden. Learning from it would be a good thing, too.