What Would Biden’s Middle East Policy Look Like?

Joe Biden is an erratic pragmatist.

Also in Slate: David Greenberg argued that Joe Biden’s plagiarism shouldn’t be forgotten. Jack Shafer called Biden “the unusually creepy kind” of plagiarist.

Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden

The Democratic presidential debate of April 27, 2007, when Sen. Joe Biden was still a declared candidate, included a heated discussion of foreign affairs. Biden pointed to the two most dovish members of the group, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel, and gave them a lecture on the facts of life: “Stop all this happy talk here about [how] the use of force doesn’t make sense,” he said. “The use of force in Afghanistan is justified and necessary; in Darfur, justified and necessary; in the Balkans, justified and necessary. You guys can have your happy talk, there’s real life.”

Just two days earlier, speaking at a National Jewish Democratic Council forum, Biden had made a strong statement about Darfur. If there’s no international willingness to use force in Sudan to stop the genocide, he said, “I’m sending American troops alone.” Biden has a proven track record on such matters: He was one of the most vocal proponents of military action in the Balkans during the 1990s. After that war had been won, Biden called President Bill Clinton to congratulate him. According to David Halberstam’s War in a Time of Peace, the president jokingly complained, “Joe, you’ve been pretty rough on me.” Then he added, “Remember I came in as a governor and I didn’t have any experience in foreign policy?”

Biden has plenty of experience in foreign policy—that’s the main reason he was chosen to be the running mate for yet another Democratic nominee who has nothing of the sort on his résumé. But sorting through the many statements, speeches, and votes that Biden has made over the years—especially on matters related to the Middle East—leaves a slightly confusing impression: Biden is indeed an expert—but a very erratic one. His knowledge notwithstanding, it’s hard to identify a coherent agenda, much less an ideology, driving Biden’s many positions.

Is he a dove? seems to think so: “Biden’s Middle East policy aligns closest to that of Jimmy Carter.” Is he a hawk? The New Yorker called him the leader of “the most hawkish members in the Democratic Party.” But the Los Angeles Times dubbed him “a liberal internationalist who generally hews close to his party’s center.” Is he a realist? Not on Darfur. Is he a liberal? Not on Iraq. Is he a neocon? Of course not, although at times he comes surprisingly close. As, for example, when he said, “I for one applaud President Bush’s vision” of the need to democratize the Middle East.

Biden, you see, is a man of many tastes and positions. So, pinning down his approach to foreign affairs, presumably his future portfolio in an Obama administration—the Cheney comparison is inescapable—can be tricky. Especially for Middle East leaders, who probably spent this weekend trying to figure out today how his selection might influence U.S. policy in the years to come.

Iraqis can’t be happy. Biden has a questionable history with all things Iraqi: He voted against the first Gulf War, though he later regretted it, and in favor of the second Gulf War. (He didn’t regret that; in 2005 he said that “the decision to go to war was the right one,” but the candidate he’s supposed to help made his name by opposing that same war.) He has suggested a partition of the country (he has been quiet about this position in recent months), and he opposed the surge, declaring, “The surge isn’t going to work either tactically or strategically.” Despite all that, Biden still maintains his ability to talk persuasively and his credibility as an expert.

Or take Iran, arguably emerging as the most daunting issue for the next administration. Like Obama, Biden supports negotiations with Tehran. Beyond that, he’s all over the place. According to Biden, we have a decade before Iran has lethal nuclear capability. Biden has come out against any hint of possible war (“War with Iran is not just a bad option. It would be a disaster”), but he has also said that “options” should not be taken off the table—that is, he isn’t willing to swear off the use of force as a last resort to prevent the nuclearization of Iran. He said that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable” but also that “[i]f [sanctions] fail, then what we’re going to have to do is begin to come up with a serious containment policy, here”—meaning the unacceptable will become undesirable and punishable, but acceptable.

Biden’s tendency to be a man of nuanced and pragmatic positions does not necessarily make him the darling of Middle East leaders. The Arabs are already complaining that Biden is too pro-Israel. (“You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist,” he proclaimed not long ago.) But Israelis are worried, too, because of Iran—and because they fear his inconsistent ways will lead him in unpredictable directions.

The interesting thing about his prescription for the Middle East is that, in theory, it’s not that different from President George W. Bush’s. He once said, “I believe President Bush’s strong rhetorical support for democracy has made a difference by creating space for and emboldening modernizers and moderates.” Biden would cautiously continue that policy—when circumstances allow. In other words, never. That’s the essential difference between Biden and Bush: the measure of practicality they apply to the reforms they both want to see.

Biden would not push for regime change in Iran for practical reasons. He would encourage Israel to engage Syria in the hope that “we can weaken the Iranian-Syrian marriage of convenience.” When that doesn’t happen (and it won’t), Biden would reconsider and take a new position. One can hardly envision him pushing for reforms in countries like Egypt (too risky) or making Lebanon a priority (not important enough and far too complicated). Supporters will see his approach as the pragmatic way to achieve liberal goals. Critics will say it’s a recipe for doing nothing.

But Biden would not be a do-nothing policymaker. His position on Darfur—the most daring of all the candidates’, Democrat or Republican—demonstrates that his patience with rogue regimes is limited. He is ready to take action. Morally, calling Darfur the exception is an easy case to make. Strategically, not so much. Can Biden support unilateral American intervention in places in which the United States has no direct strategic interest while rejecting such actions in places where the interest is clear? Apparently, he can. And the reasoning is sound: Biden’s toughness on Darfur has something to do with the fact that Sudan is weak enough for Washington to force it to cooperate. His mellow approach to Iran derives from the fact that Iran is, well, strong.

Is that wrong? Not at all. There’s a case to be made for the pragmatic expert who judges conditions on the ground without being held hostage to a preordained framework. However, the outcome would be a policy dictated by events and controlled by regional leaders rather than by American desires.

That has its upside—but it is far from perfect. Biden’s caution would not necessarily make his decisions safer for the region or for America. Case in point: He was wrong on Iraq. He is also wrong on Syria, and he has not offered a viable solution for stopping Iran.

But here’s a comforting thought for the stormy Middle East: If Biden was the person making foreign policy, his mistakes would not be the mistakes of an inexperienced policymaker, like Clinton. Nor would they be the mistakes of a hard-nosed ideologue, like Bush. They would not be mistakes of ignorance or arrogance, nor of the zealot or the dumb observer.

Biden’s mistakes would have the unique distinction of being erratically practical.