Barack Obama’s pick for his running mate Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has a more than three decade track record in the Senate on foreign policy and national security issues. I asked a former Senate Foreign Relations committee staff member of his about Biden’s worldview and foreign policy sensibilities. “Liberal interventionist,” says the former Biden staffer, who asked to speak on background, comfortable with the use of American miliary power, in some contrast perhaps to Obama’s inner circle of foreign policy advisors. Here’s more of the former staffer’s response.
Joe Biden firmly fits into the liberal interventionist school of thought that dominated the Democratic Party during the latter half of the 1990s through 2003. At his core, he is a man comfortable with the use of American military power, as demonstrated by the key role he played in encouraging the Clinton Administration to launch air strikes in the former Yugoslavia, setting the stage for the successful Dayton peace talks and the NATO peacekeeping mission. Biden came of age politically in the 1970’s, when he saw first hand what the “Vietnam syndrome” did to the Democratic Party for more than a generation. By no means is Biden a “Scoop Jackson” Democrat, as Joe Lieberman has become. He recognizes that military power is but only one tool in our nation’s arsenal, and that soft power plays an equally critical role. However, he is not afraid to advocate for military power where appropriate, as he did correctly in the Balkans, to his regret in Iraq in 2002, and today when it comes to Darfur (the judgment remains out on that score).
Obama’s worldview, by contrast, appears to be a work still in progress. In his speeches and writings, Obama has made clear that he is not afraid to exercise the ultimate powers of the Commander in Chief. Indeed, he drew criticism from all sides in the summer of 2007 when he advocated the unilateral use of American military force to go after Al Qaeda in Pakistan if Islamabad would not do the job itself. Yet the fact remains that Obama came of age politically this decade, when we all witnessed the disastrous results of a hasty and ill-thought U.S. military intervention. One cannot deny that this experience will have influenced Obama’s thinking when he faces the decision on a future U.S. military intervention.
As such, in an Obama Administration, Biden – and the legion of current and former foreign policy staffers he will bring into the Administration – will provide a healthy counterpoint to those advisors closest to Obama. A number of Democrats are concerned by the fact that his two leading senior foreign policy advisors are Tony Lake and Susan Rice. Lake was a disaster as NSC Advisor and Rice had mixed reviews as the leading Africa policy maker in the Clinton Administration, especially in her role leading the U.S. response to Rwanda. Both individuals don’t seem as comfortable with the use of military force as people in the Biden orbit, which include Richard Holbrooke, Jamie Rubin, and Tony Blinken.
I think this tension will be productive and healthy. But it will be interesting to see whether, after eight years of an Administration split into warring camps, e.g. the Cheney camp vs. the Powell/Rice camp, we see another replay of internal tension regarding foreign policy in the next Administration, only this time it may well be Lake/Rice vs. Biden/Holbrooke, perhaps.
One more note: Biden unequivocally believes America is a force for good in the world. In this respect, his view dovetails with those liberal interventionists like Paul Berman and George Packer. He carries this belief to the core of his heart. I think Obama also shares this view, but it is less derived from passion and gut and more of an intellectual belief. Obama brings a uniquely multi-cultural perspective, and he has lived in places where America is not seen as the good guys. We’ll see how this plays out in an Obama Administration.