On foreign policy, he’s willing to go his own way

Times Staff Writers

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. joins the Democratic ticket as an acknowledged foreign policy sage whose 36-year record has won him bipartisan praise as a liberal internationalist who generally hews close to his party’s center. But he has sometimes found himself at odds with members of his own party as well as with Republicans.

Biden has frequently favored humanitarian interventions abroad and was an early and influential advocate for U.S. military action in the Balkans in the 1990s. He also advocates U.S. action to stem the continuing bloodshed in Darfur.

Some liberal Democrats remain distressed by his 2002 vote for the Iraq war, which Barack Obama opposed. Other critics say Biden was misguided or even naive in his most recent proposal to resolve sectarian conflict by giving broad autonomy to Iraq’s three major population groups, the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. And he opposed last year’s troop “surge,” which by most accounts has contributed significantly to the reduction in violence in Iraq.


What appears to bind Biden and Obama in the realm of foreign affairs, however, is a shared belief in strong cooperation with America’s traditional allies and in the use of force only as a last resort. The Democratic standard-bearers reject the belief of President Bush and some other conservatives that the United States should not hesitate to act unilaterally if other nations demur.

John Isaacs, executive director of Council for a Livable World, which advocates arms control, said the Delaware Democrat “is someone who won’t give the neocons the time of the day.”

In addition, Biden, who claims close relationships with many foreign leaders, has demonstrated a readiness to cooperate with Senate Republicans in search of compromise -- a trait that meshes with Obama’s pledge to reduce the level of partisan conflict and stalemate in Washington.

Now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the famously talkative Biden has cooperated with influential Republican conservatives, such as the late Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, as well as moderates, such as Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the committee.

He has called his new adversary, presumed Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a “personal and close friend.”

Biden considers his most important foreign policy accomplishment to be his leadership on the Balkans in the mid-1990s. He pushed a reluctant Clinton administration first to arm Serbian Muslims and then to use U.S. air power to suppress conflict in Serbia and Kosovo.


In his book, “Promises to Keep,” Biden calls this one of his two “proudest moments in public life,” along with the Violence Against Women Act that he championed.

In 1998, he worked with McCain on a resolution to push the Clinton administration to use all available force to confront Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, a move designed to force the president to use ground troops if necessary against Serb forces in the former Yugoslavia, which was beset by fighting and ethnic cleansing.

When the current Bush administration began pushing for war with Iraq, Biden was less enthusiastic. He had voted against authorization for the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Now he joined Lugar in drafting legislation that would have authorized the president to take action to eliminate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but not to remove Saddam Hussein.

And the two senators wanted to require United Nations authorization before any military action could be taken.

Biden was undercut, however, by House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt, who got behind a more sweeping war authorization. Biden nonetheless voted for the war authorization.

Biden became a war critic not long after the invasion. But he was never among those Democratic senators -- such as Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts -- who pushed most forcefully to mandate a U.S. withdrawal.


Instead, Biden teamed with journalist and former U.S. official Leslie H. Gelb on a plan encouraging broad autonomy for the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Gelb had initially developed the so-called federalism idea and, he said, convinced Biden to get on board when the two were sitting next to one another while stuck on the tarmac for 3 1/2 hours on a New York-to-Washington flight.

“There isn’t much of an ideology with Joe,” said Gelb, who has become a big fan of Biden’s. “He’s very pragmatic. He studies a problem and tries to figure out what the interests are and where the solutions will be.”

The federalism plan was one of the few comprehensive alternatives to what the Bush administration was doing in Iraq and also one of the few legislative efforts to win any Republican support. Conservative Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas were early supporters.

But the idea was seen by many as unrealistic, and it never won many friends in the Arab world, where officials saw it as an American attempt to partition the country, something Biden insisted he did not intend.

Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and leading champion of the troop surge, said the federalism plan assumed that the process of ethnic cleansing was over in Iraq. In fact, he noted, Baghdad and Diyala province remain to this day very mixed areas of the country. “I think it was built on a fundamental misreading of the situation on the ground,” Kagan said.

When Biden’s federalism plan came up for a vote last September, it attracted little notice, even though it got 75 votes, more than any other piece of legislation that challenged the president’s Iraq policy.


After Democrats took the majority last year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada turned to Biden to help confront the president’s proposed troop surge.

Biden was among a group of senior Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan, who reached out to Republicans to craft a nonbinding resolution opposing the surge. He and Levin and Republican Sens. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska huddled for days trying to come up with legislation. “We were searching for what their common ground would be,” Snowe recalled.

Democrats at the time hoped that if enough Republican senators backed the resolution, they could stop the president, even though the legislation was nonbinding. In the end, however, Biden could get only one Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to back the measure. It later collapsed on the Senate floor.

Reid subsequently asked Biden to take a lower profile on the Iraq issue as he was running for president. Biden continued to push behind the scenes for legislation to de-authorize the war, a move he and others, such as Levin, argued would force the president to begin winding down U.S. involvement without setting a timetable.

But antiwar Democrats like Feingold and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut demanded more aggressive action. Reid decided to back them, and by spring of last year, Biden’s more graduated approach had been abandoned. Though Biden continued to hold hearings on Iraq in the Foreign Relations Committee, he would not again be a central player in the legislative fight over the war.





Where he stands

On the other foreign policy issues that have recently preoccupied Washington, Biden has been for more diplomatic “engagement”:

North Korea: He has supported the administration’s effort to work with four other nations and North Korea to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program but has urged the White House to supplement the effort with more direct U.S.-North Korean diplomacy.

Iran: He has supported the international effort to pressure Iran to end its nuclear program. But he has not argued as forcefully as some others for a toughening of sanctions against Tehran, and he has said that a war would be disastrous.

India: Biden was a principal advocate of the 2006 U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation pact that was designed to give India help in nuclear development and, advocates hope, seal a long-term strategic relationship with the rising democracy. But that position puts him in conflict with some activists on the left and the right, who fear that the deal, by rewarding a country that struck out on its own to develop a bomb, will weaken international efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.

Sudan: He has advocated the use of NATO ground forces to halt the killing in Darfur. The position makes him unusual among Washington establishment figures, most of whom are reluctant to call for the use of U.S. ground forces in sub-Saharan Africa.

Russia: Biden returned from a trip to Georgia this month denouncing the Russians for their military advance into the former Soviet republic. But though he used tough language and said the U.S. needed to respond, he didn’t spell out what action should be taken.



Source: Times research