How Did Joe Biden Become Blusterer-in-Chief?

August 30, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: Joe BidenNATOTurkeyThe AtlanticForeign Policy

How Did Joe Biden Become Blusterer-in-Chief?

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?

If Biden seems out of control in terms of his public pronouncements, his current state of mind is revealed by a remarkable interview he gave to the Atlantic’s Steve Clemons. It’s difficult to recall another sitting vice president who pounded his chest and danced around in verbal shadowboxing to the extent displayed by the vice president in that interview. An example:

“I can pick up the phone, call and go see Erdogan, as erratic as he may be, and say, ‘Look, this is in your interest. Let me tell you why.’ As Bibi [Netanyahu] said, they would not have normalized relations but for the fact that I convinced the Turks this was in their interest . . . I mediated.

“Or, you know, [Korean President] Park [Geun-hye] and [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe. I go to see Abe and he says to me, ‘Will you help me with Park?’ And I call her and say, ‘Will you do this?’ And I don’t negotiate the agreement, but the end result was, because I had a personal relationship with both of them and trusted me, I could be an interlocutor, that was more like a divorce counselor, putting a marriage back together.

“But I can go down the list. I spent over an hour this morning with [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-] Abadi, and he’s calling me to ask me not only for help but advice. [After] the horrific bombings in Baghdad, I called him, and he said, ‘Can you help?’ And I said, ‘This is what you could do, and this is how you should do it.’ He asked me advice today and mentioned, ‘Well, so-and-so doesn’t like my deal.’ ‘Well, you should tell so-and-so’—meaning someone in Iraq, an opponent—‘why don’t you tell them this?’ He said, ‘You think that’ll work?’ I said, ‘Look, you know your politics better than I do, but I think it will work.’ And he goes, ‘OK, so how would you do it?’ So [it’s] as if I’m advising the minority leader on how to get something passed. But because of the relationship, not because I’m so smart—I’m pretty good at this stuff but that’s not it—they go, ‘Well, the guy’s not playing a game with me.’”

Assume all this is absolutely true, along with the rest of the remarkable braggadocio contained in the interview. Assume that Biden has leveraged his position and his global contacts to such an extent that he is able to mold and shape events at the highest levels of government and diplomacy throughout the world. Even then, these are not the words of a serious vice president. Serious vice presidents don’t place themselves at the center of the administrations they serve. But Biden even brags about not bragging. In recounting how Obama gave him the Iraq portfolio at the start of his administration, Biden explains his success in the role by saying, “The key is that they [his administration colleagues] realized that I wasn’t trying to get attention. I wasn’t going to be the guy claiming credit.” That was just before he said: “It makes sense to give me the problems that require husbandry every day. So I get Ukraine, I get Iraq, I get the relationship between Korea and Japan, I get Central America, I get Colombia.”

Biden’s Atlantic interview reveals the disposition of the man at the twilight of his career. Always susceptible to verbal intemperance and puffed up self-regard, he now displays those traits with greater abandon than ever. He has had a long and distinguished career, and he has earned the affection that he gets from his countrymen. But at the height of his fame, he somehow managed to slip into self-caricature.

Robert W. Merry is a contributing editor at the National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy.