How Did Joe Biden Become Blusterer-in-Chief?

President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, conducts a conference call. Flickr/The White House

He acts like America’s favorite uncle, but he carries grave responsibilities.

Joe Biden has lost his rudder. Since his arrival in Washington nearly forty-five years ago, barely old enough to claim the Senate seat he had just won in Delaware, he has maintained a reputation for being at times out of control, for running off at the mouth in embarrassing and outlandish ways. This part of his persona has contributed to many Americans’ view of him as a lovable old uncle who always means well but can’t quite help himself when it comes to keeping within the bounds of propriety.

But he isn’t our uncle. He’s vice president of the United States, enjoying by all appearances a broad diplomatic portfolio, a mandate to speak for his president and country on major global challenges of our time. That carries with it a responsibility for careful wording and a degree of discretion.

He clearly tossed that responsibility aside last week when he traveled to Riga, Latvia, to tell leaders of the three Baltic nations that they needn’t pay any attention to the campaign rhetoric of the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Biden dismissed Trump’s suggestion that NATO nations should meet their alliance responsibilities if they want military protection under NATO’s Article 5. It was, said the vice president, “nothing that should be taken seriously.” Standing on foreign soil, he ridiculed the opposition candidate by saying, “I don’t think he even understands what Article 5 is.”

It’s true, of course, that American political rhetoric has become increasingly shabby in recent years, with a particularly deep descent into ugly politics in this campaign year, some of it displayed by Trump himself. But even in that context, it’s worth noting that just a few years ago it was considered totally inappropriate for an American political leader to attack a political opponent, much less ridicule him, on foreign soil.

Trump is ahead of his time, and certainly ahead of Biden and his boss, Barack Obama, in recognizing that NATO has become in many ways an obsolete alliance. It was formed when the Soviet Union threatened western Europe with 1.3 million Soviet and client-state troops positioned for an invasion of the heartland of Western civilization. This called for strong Western solidarity, with a commitment of action of the kind codified in NATO’s Article 5. Now those menacing Soviet troops are gone, along with the Soviet Union itself. Russia no longer controls the territories from which an attack could be staged, and it is NATO now that has become a provocative, destabilizing force by pushing with ever greater belligerency right up to the Russian border.

This merits a debate in America, and Trump is fostering such a debate. The Trump case was adroitly presented in these spaces by Cato’s Ted Galen Carpenter, and thus I shall forgo plowing the same ground here. Suffice it to say that America’s commitment, through NATO, to protect the tiny Baltic States from invasion can’t be compared even remotely to the foreign-policy imperatives that drove the West toward its NATO unity in 1949 (nearly seventy years ago, in an entirely different world). On the contrary, it’s difficult to discern the national interest that is served by mounting commitments to go to war over tiny nations with no appreciable significance to American security.

On the same foreign trip, Biden went to Turkey to be treated with humiliating coolness by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose government has hinted at U.S. complicity in July’s failed military coup attempt and wants the extradition of a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania. These could be expected to unsettle U.S.-Turkish relations, but those relations already were unsettled by Turkey’s blasé attitude toward one of the foremost threats facing America and the West—the Islamic State, or ISIS, with its territorial hold on significant parts of Iraq and Syria. Turkey didn’t seem to care much about this particular threat and focused more on preventing territorial gains by Syrian Kurds near the Syrian-Turkish border.

Those are the same Kurds who, operating with American support and encouragement, have been the most effective force against ISIS in northern Syria, pushing it back and capturing numerous Islamic State strongholds. The Kurds even moved some twenty miles west of the Euphrates River, positioning them to control much of the Syrian-Turkish border.

When Erdoğan squealed in pain at this turn of events, the Obama administration promptly sided with Turkey and ordered its Kurdish ally to get back across the Euphrates. No doubt, the president was influenced by fears that recent events had pushed Turkey into the arms of Russia and Iran.

Leaving aside the merits of the administration’s stunning diplomatic dance, how should the United States have handled its decision to demand a Kurdish retreat? Answer: with diplomatic sensitivity, designed to avoid humiliating the Kurds. The best tack would have been a quiet approach, telling them without public fanfare what the United States wanted. Why alienate unnecessarily a loyal U.S. ally?

And how did Biden handle it during his stay in Turkey? With bombast and defiance. “We have made it absolutely clear,” he said publicly, that Kurdish forces “must move back across the river. They cannot, will not, and under no circumstances get American support if they do not keep that commitment, period.”

The Kurds did as they were told, but at what price in America’s fight against ISIS?