The Grown-Up in the Race

Appreciation for Joe Biden


Senator A
"The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year-now."

Senator B
"It is long past time that the president ended American combat involvement in Iraq's multi-sided, sectarian civil war…. It is time to begin ending this war. Not next year, not next month, but today."

Senator A
"While we change the dynamic within Iraq, we must surge our diplomacy in the region."

Senator B
"As we redeploy our troops, we will replace our military force in Iraq with an intensive diplomatic initiative in the region."

Senator A

"The final part of my plan is a major international initiative to address Iraq's humanitarian crisis."

Senator B
"As we are leaving Iraq-and after we have left-we need to engage the world in a global humanitarian effort to confront the human costs created by this war."

Senator A
"We must get out strategically and carefully, removing troops from secure areas first, and keeping troops in more volatile areas until later."

Senator B
"Withdrawing troops is dangerous and difficult….We should redeploy our troops steadily and consistently, not in fits and starts.


Here's a fun puzzler for the whole family. The box on this page contains quotations from two leading Democratic presidential contenders' plans for Iraq. One column excerpts a July speech in Iowa by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York; the other, a September speech, also in Iowa, by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. See if you can tell which senator is which. (Answers at the end of this column.)

Then there is Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del). To paraphrase Sesame Street, one of these candidates is not like the others.

By now, even cynics can't help noticing something different about Biden. Different from his previous presidential run, in 1987, and different from the other candidates today. The glibly garrulous wonder boy of two decades ago can still talk a blue streak; but age (he is 64), his institutional position as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the prospect of a devastating U.S. setback in Iraq have made him the leading contender for the most beloved (among columnists) and dreaded (by candidates) designation in American politics: that of the grown-up in the race.

While other Democrats talk Iraq, health care, and change, Biden talks Iraq, Iraq, and Iraq. At a press conference this month on the steps of Iowa's Capitol in Des Moines, he seized the occasion of an endorsement by the state's House majority leader to proclaim, "I know how to make America safer!"

He continued, "Immediately begin to draw down American combat troops…. Immediately give the troops all the protection they need while we're drawing them down." So far, just like Clintama. But then he veered sharply off Hillarack. "Make sure you recognize a fundamental flaw in the strategy," he said, "and that is, there will not be a central government in Iraq, out of Baghdad, capable of governing that country in anyone's lifetime standing out in front of this Capitol. You must change the policy to put in place a federal, decentralized Iraq, giving the warring factions breathing room to establish their own security [and] control over the fabric of their daily lives."

For a year and a half, Biden (along with Leslie H. Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations) has advocated devolving power to autonomous regions in Iraq. The presidential campaign has brought the plan into sharper focus -- and, as Biden argues, into sharper contrast with what he plausibly regards as the wishful thinking prevalent in both parties.

The Bush administration has spent most of the past four-plus years trying to stand up a national government in Baghdad: first a unity government, then a Shiite-led government. Biden says, as he told NBC's Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" this month, "There is no possibility, no possibility, of a central government governing Iraq in any near term." Which means President Bush's strategy is "pushing on a rope."

More recently, the administration has segued toward tactical alliances with Sunni tribes and fighters, giving them de facto local police power, plus military training and money, in exchange for opposition to Al Qaeda and a de facto truce with the Shiite central government. This de facto devolution has produced security gains in Anbar and Diyala provinces. Biden, like most analysts, welcomes it as a reality-based adjustment.

Bush, however, still sees the local alliances as bridges to a national rapprochement. "Local politics will drive national politics," he said at a press conference last week. "As more reconciliation takes place at the local level, you'll see a more responsive central government." For Bush, the alliances are a military tactic, useful steps along a road that leads back to Baghdad.

Biden is saying that the alliances need to be not just tactical but part of a whole new political strategy, which would give up on Baghdad and enshrine decentralization as an end, not just a means. Only if Sunnis see autonomy and responsibility for their own security as the endgame, goes the thinking, will they feel safe enough to lay down arms.

A stable federalism is "not going to happen organically," said a Biden aide. As in the Balkans a decade ago, the United States, in Biden's view, must embrace regionalism, get allies and neighboring countries on board, and lock Iraqis in a room -- figuratively -- until they agree on a devolutionary framework.

The result, Biden stresses, should be federalism, not partition. Iraq would remain one country, and the central government would distribute oil revenue and patrol the borders. Such an arrangement is already provided for in the Iraqi constitution, he says.

The plan offers, he acknowledged in Senate remarks this month, just "the possibility, not the guarantee, of stability." But it is better than Bush's wishful thinking, which, he recently told a Nebraska audience, will leave the country "right back where we started" once the military surge subsides next year.

It is also better, he argues, than a brand of wishful thinking offered by his Democratic competitors. This holds that Iraqis will get their act together once U.S. forces withdraw, or that if Iraqis don't get their act together it won't matter much, or both.

Dangerous illusions, says Biden. In Iowa, he has run a television spot alluding to the parents of killed U.S. troops and intoning, "We must end this war in a way that doesn't require us to send their grandchildren back." Elaborating at a Democratic debate last month, he sounded like, dare one say it, Bush: "If we leave Iraq and we leave it in chaos, there will be regional war. The regional war will engulf us for a generation."

This is not something many Democratic activists and primary voters want to hear. "What they want is red meat, and he's giving them a sober reality check," says Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. "Biden is hands down the most candid candidate when it comes to Iraq. There's all this glib promising to end the war immediately and bring the troops home. There's an air of unreality about it. Biden, to his credit, has refused to indulge in these kinds of fantasies."

Even an inexpert Washington columnist can come up with a dozen reasons the Biden plan might fail. What if Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds can't agree on a regional framework, or on a revenue-sharing deal? What about Baghdad and other mixed areas? What if the autonomous regions go to war? What if the Shiite or Sunni region degenerates into intrasectarian chaos? What if Iran colonizes the Shiite region?

A conversation with Biden's aide yielded answers that were plausible but iffy. The more relevant answer, however, is the one Biden gave in a speech at the Brookings Institution in February: "To those who disagree with my plan, I have one simple question: What is your alternative?"

Morris Udall, John Anderson, Bruce Babbitt, Paul Tsongas, Richard Lugar: All won editorial writers' praise for their seriousness, and all lost their presidential bids. Maybe Biden will be the exception. Maybe, on the other hand, this column's headline is the kiss of death.

Sometimes, though, grown-ups earn history's respect for surfacing important problems or innovative solutions; and sometimes they shape the agenda of whoever wins the White House. If Bush proves unwilling or unable to rethink his Iraq strategy, and if he manages to hold Iraq together with a large U.S. deployment until the end of his term, then his successor will have some hard choices to make. Biden's plan crossed party lines Wednesday to win the Senate's nonbinding support; no one should be surprised if it ends up providing the next administration's road map.

In any case, "Get out and jawbone" and "Stay in and pray," the leading partisan positions, are not very convincing solutions to the Iraq conundrum. Biden's candidacy will earn its keep if it does nothing more than elicit better ones.


• "Senator A" is Obama; "Senator B" is Clinton.

© Copyright 2007 National Journal

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.