Biden's Foreign Policy 'Experience'

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's choice of Joseph Biden as his running mate has drawn sharp criticism
from many Democrats as a result of the Delaware senator'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.

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 is of particular significance, since
Obama and other leading Democrats have acknowledged that the choice of
Biden was largely because of his foreign policy leadership, thereby
raising concerns that, as president, Obama may end up appointing people
to important foreign affairs and security matters of a similar
ideological orientation.

At the same
time, Biden has not consistently allied with neoconservative
intellectuals or the unreconstructed militarists who have so heavily
influenced the foreign policies of the Bush administration and the
foreign policy positions of Republican presidential nominee John
McCain. Indeed, Biden has often taken some rather nuanced positions
and, rather than being a right-wing ideologue, is 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
has called for diplomatic engagement with the Iranian government and -
unlike 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 has 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 has 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 is one of
the very few members of Congress who 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.

Center-Right Agenda

On most foreign
policy issues, Biden has 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 has 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 supports tough economic sanctions
against Cuba. He has 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 has
aggressively pushed for NATO expansion eastward. He supports 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 the recent fighting 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 seems to have forgotten that
he was a key cosponsor (along with Senators McCain and Lieberman) of a
Senate resolution introduced last year that called for active U.S.
support for the independence of the autonomous Serbian region of

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
has 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. Such opposition to this important
and widely supported humanitarian effort likely indicates that Biden
would use his position as vice president to stifle efforts by other
administration officials who might press for greater sensitivity in
U.S. foreign policy toward human rights concerns.

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 supports continued unconditional war funding) 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

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, once in the executive branch
himself, he would support an Obama administration upholding its legal
obligations either.

Obama had
previously criticized the Clinton administration for its one-sided
approach to the peace process and, more recently, has pledged to make
facilitating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement a priority as
president. Nevertheless, Biden insists 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."

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.

The Task at Hand

Obama's choice
of Biden - the quintessential figure of the Democratic Party foreign
policy establishment on Capitol Hill - raises serious questions as to
whether the Illinois senator really represents "change we can believe
in." At the same time, 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 an 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 as an indication of the kind of people he would
appoint for key foreign policy positions or the kinds of policies he
would pursue. Indeed, despite the more recent inclusion of some of the
more hawkish former Clinton advisors into his foreign policy team,
Obama's core advisors on international affairs have generally hailed
from the younger, more liberal, and more innovative wing of the
Democratic Party.

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 would not be able to use his office in the same
manner. Though bringing into an Obama administration a certain gravitas
on foreign affairs as a result of his knowledge and experience, the
fact remains that Biden - unlike the current vice-president - would be
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.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 Foreign Policy In Focus