Reputed to be an undisciplined, loose cannon who cannot stay on message, Vice President Joe Biden always seemed a strange choice for an Obama team that prides itself on its organization and focus. Biden last week appeared to vindicate his critics with a series of provocative statements about Russia that could worsen relations with Moscow, even as the administration was attempting to "reset" them.
But there could be a method to Biden's supposed madness—one that advances Biden's own harder line on foreign policy while serving a useful purpose for the administration. It also, unfortunately, does not bode well for an American foreign policy that itself remains badly in need of a "reset."
When Obama picked Biden as his running mate, it was widely noted that Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, provided foreign policy experience that Obama lacked. It was also said that Biden's record of support for military interventions, including the current Iraq war, helped to balance Obama's perceived dovishness. But both those points were off base. Obama himself was always quite hawkish, having favored most recent U.S. interventions overseas, though not the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And he was, in fact, well-versed in foreign policy issues. So rather than an effort to fill some gap in his administration, Obama's selection of Biden actually was a signal of Obama's own views.
Biden mostly kept a low profile during the first six months of the administration, but in the last month he has been taking on a more prominent role. During the June protests in Iran, Biden, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reportedly pressed for more action from Obama, and it is likely due to their pressure that the administration has been moving towards stricter sanctions on Iran. And addressing the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, Biden earlier this month emphasized Israeli sovereignty and its right to self-defense, which contrasted with the public expressions of concern by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, about the consequences of such a strike.
Against this backdrop, Biden's remarks during his visit to Ukraine and Georgia last week were totally in character. In Kiev and Tbilisi, Biden offered full-throated support to Ukrainian and Georgian NATO aspirations, which are absolutely unacceptable to Russia. More provocatively, Biden told The Wall Street Journal that Russian is now so weak that it would have no choice but to yield on a number of security issues.
Many commentators have seized on Biden's statements as evidence of a policy schism in the administration, suggesting the remarks are at odds with the official narrative of engagement and accommodation. Yet it's notable that the White House has not repudiated or corrected any of Biden's remarks. Even if Biden's comments do not reflect Obama's personal views, Obama apparently doesn't mind if the public and other nations believe that they do. What we can take away from this is that engagement with Iran and the "reset" with Russia are at best new means to the same old ends—which could leave the door open to some negotiations, but also could amount to a superficial change of tone with no real policy implications at all.
This may temporarily satisfy hawkish critics at home, but it represents a serious failure to recognize and correct the flaws in the last administration's conduct of foreign policy—chief among them the lack of reciprocity and refusal to make any concessions. The Bush administration conveyed an image of America as arrogant, stubborn, and violent; if Obama and Biden are not careful, they will create an equally unattractive image of an America that is both aggressive and duplicitous.
Obama has an unusually deep reserve of international goodwill. He must not fritter it away with one-sided diplomacy that offers other nations no reason to bargain with or trust the United States. In short, he needs to tell Biden to watch his words.
Correction: An earlier version of this column said that Joe Biden had supported both Iraq wars. He opposed the Gulf War in 1991, but supported the later war in Iraq.