Biden Takes Ryan Around the World

When it comes to foreign policy, the GOP’s veep candidate is often speechless.

Vice President Joe Biden

Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP/GettyImages.

It wasn’t as lopsided as Gov. Romney’s win over President Obama last week, but Joe Biden mopped the floor with Paul Ryan in their debate Thursday night, on foreign as well as domestic policy, though on one big issue—the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan—the vice president had his facts wrong.

The first issue on the table was Libya. Rep. Ryan correctly chided the Obama administration for taking a week to admit that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was a terrorist assault, not a protest that got out of hand, and for not protecting the facility with more Marines.

Biden replied that Obama’s statements reflected the intelligence community’s analysis and that when the analysis changed, so did his statements. He said that Thomas Pickering, a veteran ambassador, was conducting an investigation. He also noted that Congress, with Ryan’s vote, had reduced the budget for embassy security by $300 million—and recalled that Romney came out, right after the attack, and gave a press conference before knowing any of the facts: hardly presidential behavior.

That exchange was probably a draw. The truth is that both sides have something to be seriously embarrassed about.

The next issue: Iran, and here Ryan was as weak as Romney was in his foreign-policy speech earlier this week. Ryan charged that Iran is closer to getting nuclear weapons than it was when Obama took office, that the ayatollahs aren’t taking Obama’s threats seriously, and that the sanctions—which, he admitted, are crippling Iran’s economy—are as strong as they are only because of congressional insistence.

Biden laughed at that statement, and rightly so. Congress has had very little to do with sanctions; Obama has managed to rally the entire Western world to join in the sanctions and, at least to some degree, the Eastern world (Russia, anyway) as well. As for the line, which Ryan repeated, that Obama went on a morning talk show rather than meet with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Biden said that he sat in on a phone conversation between Obama and Netanyahu that went on for longer than an hour, during which they agreed on the main points. Netanyahu, for instance, supports the sanctions.

Martha Raddatz, the moderator and longtime war correspondent, asked Ryan what he and Romney would do to make the ayatollahs take their threat more seriously? Ryan had no answer.

Several points, possibly game, to Biden.

On the defense budget, Ryan denied that Romney wanted to increase military spending by $2 trillion over the next 10 years. Rather, he merely wanted not to reduce the budget by $478 billion, as Obama was planning to do—to say nothing of the $500 billion extra that would be cut automatically if Congress fails to strike a debt deal.

Biden noted that the Joint Chiefs have no problem with the $478 billion cut—that they favor a “smaller, leaner” army with more special forces—and that Ryan himself voted for the sequestration pact that might trigger across-the-board cuts in the federal budget.

The assessment is a little tricky, since the Chiefs—though they did build a fairly sensible strategy about Obama’s cuts—would always find something to do with more money; they are generals, after all. But Ryan didn’t explain where he’d get the money for $2 trillion in extra spending (which indeed his budget plan does advocate), or how he’d spend it. So point to Biden.

On Afghanistan, things get a little sneaky on both sides. Ryan first denounced Obama’s timetable to withdraw all troops by 2014, saying the move could reverse our gains and leave Kabul vulnerable to a Taliban takeover. But then he said that he and Romney support the 2014 date—as do all the NATO allies and Afghan President Hamid Karzai—as long as the commanders say it’s sensible.

Biden said we’re definitely leaving in 2014; that’s the NATO policy. We came to beat back al-Qaida, get rid of bin Laden, and train the Afghan army to take over the fight. That’s what we’ve done. He also said that when Obama announced his troop-surge in December 2009 he said “the surge would be out” by the summer of 2011.

That’s not quite true. Obama said that he would begin to withdraw troops by that summer. How many would depend on the situation on the ground. When the time came, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander at the time, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended pulling out only a few thousand troops until the fighting season was over. Obama overruled their recommendation. On this point, Ryan was right.

But then Ryan got his facts wrong. He said that the U.S. military in Afghanistan is performing the same mission—counterinsurgency —but with fewer troops. In fact, they are not still doing counterinsurgency (COIN) to nearly the same degree, not in the same sense as its advocates defined it (nation-building, reform of governance, and so forth). In fact, Obama decided to withdraw all 30,000 of the surge troops—leaving the original 68,000 until 2014—because he realized that the COIN strategy wasn’t working and never would work, in part because the Afghan government was too corrupt to make it work. He scaled back the mission to fighting the Taliban and training the Afghan army; for that mission, the surge troops weren’t necessary.

On substance then, a draw, though on a political scale, Biden may have scored points. He kept emphasizing that we will pull out, adding, “It doesn’t ‘depend’ for us.” Since almost nobody, not even many Republican lawmakers, want to stay in Afghanistan much longer, this is a winning position in public opinion.

When the debate returned to foreign policy, the first issue to come up was Syria. Biden once again ridiculed Romney-Ryan’s “loose talk” about doing more without saying what it is they would do. Do you want to send American troops to Syria, he asked?

Ryan said of course not. The problem, he said, is that Obama attempted a diplomatic solution for too long, hoping the United Nations would impose a settlement, even though Russia would have a veto. Romney would have worked with allies earlier—though to do what, Ryan never said. (In his foreign policy speech this week, Romney too never said he would send heavy arms to the Syrian opposition; only that somebody should.)

Overall, then: Biden finessed a few points, but he spoke with a command of the issues and with a contempt for Romney-Ryan’s “bluster” and “malarkey.” (It will be interesting to see the net effect of this obviously deliberate stance. It will no doubt gin up the Democratic base, but were the independents delighted, turned off, or indifferent?)

Ryan meanwhile recited the party lines, railing against Obama’s “weakness,” lack of “credibility,” and tendency to “apologize for our values.” But he was asked to put meat on these claims, to provide examples of where the charges were true or how Romney would make things better—and he had no answer.