Campaigns/Elections

The Grown-Up in the Race

Appreciation for Joe Biden

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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.

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  1. The column formatting on the top of that article is off.

  2. 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.

    ? “Senator A” is Obama; “Senator B” is Clinton

    Ouch!

  3. On these pages, I, and others, have proposed partitioning Iraq. At least Senator Biden realizes that same old, same old, isn’t working. A strong centralized,government in Iraq will, IMHO, lead to Saddam II, the sequel.

  4. Ahh reason magazine continues its slow march towards becoming “just another political rag”

  5. Mr. Grown Up is already back-pedaling from his plan, saying hey, if the Iraqis don’t want it, fine with me. All “strategies” for Iraq strike me as sheer speculation. The U.S. invasion and staggeringly bungled occupation have disrupted the country so much that statements about what will and will not work, what the various groups want, what they will accept, are all no more than wishful thinking. Biden has a plan, but he has no way of knowing whether his plan is a good one, and neither do we.

  6. Oh, my God! Ron Paul was mentioned on CNN! Quick, quick! Tell everybody! The tide is turning!

  7. Why is Jon Rauch still writing for Reason? I’m having a really hard time detecting any sort of libertarianism in his pieces.

  8. All “strategies” for Iraq strike me as sheer speculation.

    At least the partitioning plan has a semi-success story in the de facto Kurdistan. And we only had to enforce the no-fly-zone to allow that to develop.

    A strong centralized,government in Iraq will, IMHO, lead to Saddam II, the sequel.

    Except he will be a Shia and allied with Iran.

  9. Biden has a plan, but he has no way of knowing whether his plan is a good one

    I commend Mr. Vanneman on his spiffy avoidance of the superfluous “or not” following “whether”. And no, no one can predict the future, not even a politician.

  10. Yeah, you’re right, Edward. Paul should just throw in the towel now. Except what would he do with that $5M? I know, he could get 12.500 haircuts…if he used John Edward’s barber. HA!

  11. EEEDDDDWWWAARRRDDD(ild)OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

  12. DOOOOOONNNNNNDDDDDDEEEEEEDDDDDDDDIIIILLLLDDDDDOOOOOWWWWWAAARRRRRDDDDDDDD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Except he will be a Shia and allied with Iran.

    Concur.

  14. I genuinely like Biden in that he is a very charismatic, likeable guy. I even feel for him when he says something completely stupid which is then blown out of proportion by the media. But I think that he’s too infected with “Senatitis”; the condition where, after extended periods in the Senate, you can no longer take a strong stance on anything and couch all of your statements in either weasel words or immediate withdrawal of your previous statements.

  15. “Except he will be a Shia and allied with Iran.”

    Well considering the Shia havent actually attacked us since the 1970s that may not be all that bad.

  16. this is kind of what al vanamen said. I believe Biden believes he is sincere, experienced, etc., but does JOe Biden really know and understand Iraq? what gives him the authority to make this partition/semi federalism proposal, or make him believe it is what Iraq wants?

    what do Iraqis believe?

  17. Well considering the Shia havent actually attacked us since the 1970s that may not be all that bad.

    Unless, of course, you count the dead US soldiers in Iraq killed by Iranian munitions.

  18. Biden is a typical Senator, a gasbag in love with the sound of his voice. Reason might as well hire David Broder if it is going to print this sort of fatuousness.

  19. “Why is Jon Rauch still writing for Reason? I’m having a really hard time detecting any sort of libertarianism in his pieces.”

    Ditto, why did Reason’s editors allow praise for a Statist-Democrat in thier fine website?

    I thought reason was about analitical Libertarian thinking, not Democrat talking points that support allowing Islamofascists to control Iraq, by leaving and allowing Syrians, Iranians, Turks, and other extream religious Statists to control Iraq’s future.

    Isolationism failed numerous times. Iraq’s liberty and positions on women’s rights will be gone the minute that we pull out of Iraq. Iraqi’s are tired of being killed by Syrian, Iranian, Saudi, Jordanian, annd other Arab terorists that are attempting to spread thier evil in the region. Only a Statist would say that we are imposing freedom on people. Freedom can not be imposed, rather it must be accepted.

  20. The fact that US Presidential candidates are discussing the details of Iraq’s government is a pretty good indication of why we are seen as an unwelcome outside force in Iraq. Biden’s plan probably does make the most sense for Iraq, but it’s really not up to us. Iraq will never have a viable government as long as we make decisions for it.

  21. I’ve been thinking for the last few months that Biden is probably the most informed (or least clueless, if you insist on cynicism) of all the current presidential candidates, Democrat or Republican, when it comes to the war in Iraq. Good to see Jonathan bolster my thinking.

  22. This article certainly isn’t going to be “the kiss of death” for Biden. Clinton’s poll numbers are. There isn’t much in the way of reasoned public debate about the war on either side anymore if there ever was once th troops started moving. Needless to say, I doubt many voters read Reason to begin with.

  23. “To those who disagree with my plan, I have one simple question: What is your alternative?”

    My plan is the “Pottery Barn” plan: “You broke it, you pay for it.” (Sorry, Pottery Barn, I know this isn’t actually your policy…but it sounds good.)

    To wit:

    1) The U.S. should pay the salary, for the next three years, of every policeperson, judge, mayor, town council member, and military person in Iraq.

    2) In return for this, the Iraqi government must amend its Constitution to provide for equal distribution of 80% of the net revenues (revenues minus costs) from oil and natural gas, to each adult in Iraq.

    3) The Constitution must also be amended to allow secession, within 20 years, of any province in Iraq, provided that province has a 2/3rds vote in favor of secession, twice, 5 years apart.

  24. “In return for this, the Iraqi government must amend its Constitution to provide for equal distribution of 80% of the net revenues (revenues minus costs) from oil and natural gas, to each adult in Iraq.”

    This is Socialism

    “The Constitution must also be amended to allow secession, within 20 years, of any province in Iraq, provided that province has a 2/3rds vote in favor of secession, twice, 5 years apart.”

    What right do you have to tell Iraq’s government what to do with its Constitution?

    “The U.S. should pay the salary, for the next three years, of every policeperson, judge, mayor, town council member, and military person in Iraq.”

    That is Iraq’s job.

  25. “In return for this, the Iraqi government must amend its Constitution to provide for equal distribution of 80% of the net revenues (revenues minus costs) from oil and natural gas, to each adult in Iraq.”

    This is Socialism.

    I think you need to recheck your dictionary. It’s not even close to socialism.

    Right now, the government gets all the money, and decides how to spend it. As the Golden Rule states, “They who have the gold make the rules.”

    My plan takes the power and rule-making from the government and gives it to The People.

    What right do you have to tell Iraq’s government what to do with its Constitution?

    Once again, they who have the gold make the rules.

    There are four possibilities:

    1) Iraq will break up violently,
    2) Iraq will break up peacefully,
    3) Iraq will stay together, but violently, and
    4) Iraq will stay together peacefully.

    Right now, the odds are heavily in favor of #1, with #3 the second most likely. Talk to people in the former Yugoslavia. Then talk to people in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Ask them all which is better. My guess is that most will say #2, because they know #4 isn’t possible.

    “The U.S. should pay the salary, for the next three years, of every policeperson, judge, mayor, town council member, and military person in Iraq.”

    That is Iraq’s job.

    Yes…and isn’t that working out spectacularly?

    Look, we can either leave Iraq as a basket case, or we can stay for decades and maybe leave Iraq a decent country, or we can draw down significantly right now, while still doing something that has a chance of working.

    Are you proposing the “leave Iraq a basket case” option?

  26. I long for the good old days when it was a cool thing for top black athletes to take Muslim names. How times have changed!

    Suppose I am an Iraqi legislator, and I would like to propose in the Iraqi Parliament that the U.S. be divided into three separate countries. From CA to the Rockies will be a country called Libertarius; a libertarian state where anything goes; legal drugs, private schools, the works. The mid part of the country is the United States of Bush; no gays, fiscal conservatism exept for huge farm subsidies, and everyone can have an illegal Mexican on their ranch and keep ’em off the books. The Eastern part of the Country will be called Hillaryland; everything is free, paid for by the State.

    I plan to send an army of 200,000 Muslims equipped with the latest Russian military hardward to enforce my plan.

  27. Dear John Rauch:
    Ummm.

    1) John Biden didn’t even know whether the Sunnis or the Shiites were on Sadaam’s shit list, the last time he was asked about it.
    2) Iraqis overwhelmingly do NOT want to partition, loosely or otherwise. So… in addition to all the other stuff they disagree on, we should add another? Good lord.
    3) Not to be a libertarian jerk, but please name one smart thing Joe Biden has ever said (I mean, that attests an understanding of free market economics and / or basic practical, winning strategems).

    In the comments Mark Bahner has posted in a very simple way some possible scenarios for Iraq. He is absolutely one of the few. I applaud him. No one in the MSM or politics is having a discussion like that, which is really what it is all about.

    And if you ask the Iraqis, and the guys on the ground, they are now placing the highest percentage on number 4. All it took, after 4 long years, was to actually OCCUPY the place (instead of policing it during the day and going home to the green zone at night), which is what the surge really does.

  28. Libertarius rocks, man!

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