In advance of tonight’s vice presidential debate, James Traub has a column up at Foreign Policy on Joe Biden. Titled “The Biden Doctrine,” the piece examines the vice president’s role in the Obama administration’s decision-making process on foreign policy. He contends that among the president’s senior advisers, Biden is “first among equals” and that “on foreign policy, Biden is the most powerful U.S. vice president in history save for his immediate predecessor, Dick Cheney.”
Yet despite this “exceptional role,” as Traub delves into the substance of Obama’s foreign policy it becomes clear that on a number of significant issues, Biden has been overruled or ignored. The most obvious example was during the administration’s 2009 Afghan strategy review, where Biden was a strong critic of the counterinsurgency strategy proposed by Petraeus, McChrystal and the Pentagon. Biden argued for a more modest, counterterrorism-focused effort. But the president generally went along with the generals’ recommendations, approving a “surge” of thirty thousand troops with a limited counterinsurgency mission.
Likewise, Biden opposed America’s intervention in Libya. As a senior White House official explained Biden’s reasoning to Traub, the intervention “didn’t go to core interests. It wasn’t something he thought was necessary to do.”
What’s most interesting here is that if you take Biden’s thinking to its logical end, you start to get the outlines of a forceful and coherent critique of the administration’s foreign policy. As Traub writes on the Afghanistan surge:
Even many of Obama's supporters in the foreign-policy community regard it as his worst decision. In exchange for a vast investment of blood and treasure, the United States has made military gains that may prove transitory, has trained troops still unable to act on their own, and has watched helplessly as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has protected corrupt and brutal figures.
In short, this is a realist message: the United States should recognize its limited ability to reshape societies on the other side of the world. Washington should refrain from intervening unless there are core national interests at stake and it possesses the ability to achieve its objectives at some sort of acceptable cost. Among other things, such a policy would support a faster drawdown in Afghanistan and deep skepticism about any future Libyas. With public support for the Afghan war plummeting, one can imagine this message gaining some traction (to the extent that anyone will vote based on foreign policy in this election cycle).
However, this is not at all the critique that the Republican Party is interested in advancing now. Instead, Mitt Romney and his allies have preferred to attack Obama from the other extreme, accusing him of being an appeaser, not believing in American exceptionalism, apologizing for America and so on. They have preferred to blast Obama in general terms on issues such as Iran, while often remaining vague about what exactly they would do differently in practice.
And so, when Paul Ryan takes the stage tonight, it is a safe bet that his attacks on Obama’s foreign-policy record will be largely grounded in the neocon philosophy. Where he differs with Obama, he will call for more defense spending, talk about the need for a more vocal defense of American values abroad and possibly exhibit greater willingness to resort to the use of force. Given where U.S. public opinion stands, this is unlikely to gain much resonance. Ironically, Biden, who has been the more effective critic of Obama’s foreign policy on a number of key issues, will be the one defending the president on those issues tonight.