Joe Biden hasn’t decided whether to run for president, but he tells almost everyone who asks that he’s giving it serious thought.
Can a 72-year-old vice president who’s been a punch line for comedians really win the Democratic nomination against a juggernaut like Hillary Rodham Clinton?
It’s possible — if he resolves to give Democrats something many of them don’t want: a full-blown debate over their party’s foreign policy.
Biden and Clinton aren’t far apart when it comes to domestic issues, but that’s decidedly not true when it comes to international affairs.
Clinton was on the hawkish side of Obama’s team. She supported a big surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan in 2009; Obama opted for a smaller surge, with a time limit. In 2011, she called for U.S. military intervention in Libya; Obama went along. In 2012, she urged him to send military aid to Syrian rebels; Obama resisted (after Clinton left office, he changed his mind).
Biden was on the opposite end of all three debates. He didn’t think adding U.S. military force in Afghanistan would solve the country’s problems. He didn’t think Libya was central enough to U.S. interests to justify airstrikes. And he was skeptical about the idea of arming Syrian rebels.
The two even disagreed over whether the president should launch the secret 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Clinton “concluded that this was a rare opportunity and believed we should seize it,” then-CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote in his memoir. “Biden argued that we still did not have enough confidence that Bin Laden was in the compound (where the CIA believed he was living), and he came out firmly in favor of waiting for more information.”
There’s a clear pattern here. Each time, Clinton argued in favor of U.S. intervention. Each time, Biden was a skeptic, warning Obama that the risks outweighed the potential gains.
That doesn’t mean Clinton’s a reflexive interventionist ready to invade other countries on a whim; she’s not.
Nor does it mean that Biden would never approve the use of force; in 2002, he endorsed George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq (as did Clinton).
But it does reflect an underlying difference between the two, one that also shows up, more subtly, in their rhetoric.
One of Clinton’s consistent themes as secretary of state was the idea of the United States as “the indispensable nation,” a slogan popularized by her husband, Bill Clinton, in his 1996 campaign.
“The United States can, must and will lead in this new century,” she said in a 2010 speech. Other countries “look to America not just to engage but to lead.”
There was a critique of Obama hidden in that sentence. “Engagement” had been the watchword of Obama’s foreign policy; his secretary of state was saying, in effect, that engagement is nice — but not nearly enough.
Since leaving office, Clinton has sharpened her critique of Obama’s reluctance to deploy force.
Last year, for instance, she told the Atlantic that she believed Obama’s failure to arm the Syrian rebels had contributed to the rise of Islamic State. “‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not a guiding principle,” she said, citing a phrase Obama had used.
Unlike Clinton, Biden almost never utters the words “indispensable nation.” When I asked his aides for a guide to his global thinking, they pointed me to a 2009 speech in which he placed himself squarely on the side of Obama’s belief in multilateral engagement as the core of U.S. foreign policy.
“We’ll engage. We’ll listen. We’ll consult,” he said. “America needs the world, just as I believe the world needs America.”
“There’s a generational story among Democrats here,” argues James Mann, author of The Obamians, an insightful book on Obama’s foreign policy team.
“Biden came to the Senate in the 1970s as part of the opposition to the Vietnam War. His main theme over the years has been skepticism over whether force will be effective.
“Clinton grew up as an anti-war liberal, but in terms of foreign policy, she’s of a different generation. In the 1990s, the Bill Clinton years, America was at the height of its power. The lesson Democrats learned then, in places like Bosnia and Kosovo, was that military power works.”
To some degree, Democrats already have a choice on foreign policy: Bernie Sanders is, if anything, even less enthusiastic about military intervention than Biden. (Sanders voted against the Iraq war in 2002.) But foreign policy hasn’t been the centerpiece of Sanders’ pitch. Biden would do well to campaign on the issue, in part because Democratic primary voters are more likely to agree with his skepticism than Clinton’s “indispensable nation” approach.
Military intervention has divided Democrats, often bitterly, in almost every election since the Vietnam War half a century ago. So far, in this campaign, it hasn’t, but if Biden runs, that’s likely to change.