Joe Biden's the Man on Guantanamo, Iraq and the "War on Terror"

Reassuringly, for those who care about the Bush administration's assault on fundamental human rights, Biden has been unstinting in his opposition to the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
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In the end, then, it came down to this: Barack Obama needed a vice-presidential candidate with well-established Washington credentials, foreign policy experience and an ability to connect with blue-collar workers.

And while Joe Biden -- a 65-year old working class Irish Catholic, the Senator for Delaware since 1972, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- has a far from unblemished foreign policy record (most notoriously in his support for the invasion of Iraq, but also, arguably, in his strenuous support for armed intervention in Kosovo, which, like that of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, paved the way for justifying war on a basis other then that of self-defense), he has since recanted his position on the Iraq war, and has, for many years, also been unafraid to tackle other excesses of the Bush administration's post-9/11 policies; in particular, through his persistent calls for the closure of the "War on Terror" prison at Guantánamo Bay.

Although he initially supported the invasion of Iraq (after trying, and failing, to persuade President Bush to first exhaust all diplomatic efforts), Sen. Biden has since become on of the war's toughest critics in the Senate. He warned of the costs of a long occupation before the war even began, and in 2006 he proposed, with Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, a five-point plan for the future of Iraq, which called for a federalized system of three regional governments (Kurd, Sunni and Shiite) plus a centralized government for the management of "truly common interests" like oil and border defense.

Sen. Biden also has a more personal connection to Iraq. His son Beau, the attorney general of Delaware, is a captain in the Army National Guard, and is set to be deployed to Iraq in the fall, even though, as Sen. Biden explained last year, "I don't want him going. But I tell you what, I don't want my grandsons or granddaughters going back in 15 years. So how we leave makes a big difference."

Sen. Biden has also repeatedly cast doubt on the very notion of a "War on Terror," declaring, in a speech in April 2008, in which he lambasted the Bush administration for making "fear the main driver of our foreign policy," "Terrorism is a means, not an end, and very different groups and countries are using it toward very different goals. If we can't even identify the enemy or describe the war we're fighting, it's difficult to see how we will win."

Reassuringly, for those who care about the Bush administration's assault on fundamental human rights, holding prisoners neither as Prisoners of War protected by the Geneva Conventions nor as criminal suspects to be tried in US courts, Sen. Biden has been unstinting in his opposition to the prison at Guantánamo Bay. In June 2005, he called for Guantánamo to be closed, telling ABC News that it had "become the greatest propaganda tool that exists for recruiting of terrorists around the world."

Sen. Biden also voted against the much-criticized Military Commissions Act of 2006, which reintroduced military trials at Guantánamo after they were declared illegal by the US Supreme Court, and in May 2007 he co-sponsored the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility Closure Act, which not only called for the closure of Guantánamo, but also proposed moving prisoners against whom a case could be built to the maximum security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and releasing all those who had not been charged. In July 2007, he followed this with proposals for a National Security with Justice Act, which sought to "prohibit extraterritorial detention and rendition, except under limited circumstances, to modify the definition of 'unlawful enemy combatant' for purposes of military commissions, [and] to extend statutory habeas corpus to detainees."

During his Presidential campaign (which ended in January), Sen. Biden repeatedly stressed his belief in the strength of the laws that existed prior to the 9/11 attacks. When asked, "Do you agree or disagree with the statement made by former Attorney General Gonzales in January 2007 that nothing in the Constitution confers an affirmative right to habeas corpus, separate from any statutory habeas rights Congress might grant or take away?" he replied, "I disagree categorically with Mr. Gonzales. The Constitution guarantees the right of habeas corpus unless in the case of rebellion or invasion it is suspended. My National Security with Justice Act reinforces this Constitutional right by extending by statute meaningful habeas review for all Guantánamo detainees."

For Barack Obama, who has pledged to restore America's standing both at home and abroad by "reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law," the addition of Sen. Biden should ensure not only that finding a solution to the debacle of Iraq will be a priority, but also that the generally less popular issue of holding foreign prisoners without charge or trial in Guantánamo and other locations will be dealt with. To quote Sen. Biden more fully from his speech in April, "[The Bush administration] has destroyed faith in America's judgment. And it has devalued America's moral leadership in the world. Instead, this administration has focused to the point of obsession on the so-called "war on terrorism" and produced a one-size-fits-all doctrine of military preemption and regime change ill suited to the challenges we face. It has made fear the main driver of our foreign policy. It has turned a deadly serious but manageable threat -- a small number of radical groups that hate America -- into a ten-foot tall existential monster that dictates nearly every move we make. Even if you look at the world through this administration's distorted lens, you see a failed policy."

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press/the University of Michigan Press).

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