High Stakes: Gambling on Biden’s Foreign Policy

Recently, there’s been rather heated debate – a sort of progressive civil war – over what’s being called "lesser evil” voting. To Biden, or not to Biden; that seems the existential question. However, most discussion centers on whether Joe Biden would be a meaningfully better than Donald Trump on domestic policy: healthcare, taxes, immigration, and – of course – the coronavirus response. Fair questions, all; but on one subject – over which presidents have near limitless power – Biden’s extensive record provides clear answers. For when it comes to foreign – especially military – policy, the man has hardly ever been right. On war, Biden’s is a blood-soaked litany indeed.

Biden’s foreign policy has been one big series of gambles. In the past, he’s even framed it as such. Undoubtedly, few remember the time way back in Barack Obama’s first term, when Biden – assigned as the administration’s point-man on all things Iraq – predicted with absolute certainty that the Baghdad government would accede to the enduring presence of small numbers of American troops after the December 31, 2011 "end of combat operations." In fact, the ever-folksy Biden told the New York Times he would bet his vice presidency that Iraq would extend this Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA). It didn’t. Nevertheless, Joe reneged on the wager and kept the number two spot in the land. Biden, like just about every establishment policymaker in both major parties, underestimated the independence and growing hostility of the Shia strongman Nouri al-Maliki, whom the vice president himself helped install after the prime minister had lost an election.

Yet Biden’s Iraq War record goes far deeper. Sure, he voted for Bush’s initial invasion. Only that’s not the half of it. From his senior perch as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the future vice president quite literally sold the war to his more doubtful colleagues – twisting arms, making calls, and applying the classic Biden-charm – and to the American people writ large. Then, months after it was crystal clear that the invasion had been built on lies (no WMDs, no Saddam-Al Qaeda connection, etc.) – and by which point chaos and local resistance already reigned – Biden continued to defend the war and the "popular" president who orchestrated it. Biden didn’t just vote for aggression and mayhem in Iraq; he championed it.

Beyond Baghdad, Biden’s national security positions have also been abysmal. What’s more, based on his own published campaign vision, other than the discrete Iraq War vote itself, the presumptive Democratic nominee is unwilling to apologize for, or meaningfully alter, his past formulas for failure. It’s what Biden’s "vision" doesn’t mention that’s most troubling: Obama-destroyed Libya, his old boss’s floundering quagmire in Syria, any meaningful challenge to Israeli apartheid, or commitment to a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Mideast disaster areas. Better yet, the word "drone" doesn’t appear once – so one assumes the terror bombing won’t abate under Biden. In the final analysis, Joe offers little more than the status quo from West Africa to Central Asia – an intolerable situation he himself crafted over decades as the Democrats’ leading foreign policy guru.

When it comes to war and peace, nominating Biden is like assigning the criminal with solving the crime. Indeed, so consistently wrong has he been on these issues, that one wonders whether he’s a secret (if nefarious) genius. As I’ve sardonically theorized, being policy-wrong every time – like scoring zero on a multiple-choice test – almost requires knowing all the right answers and choosing to fail. Yet it seems unlikely that this sort of cynical savvy applies to ole Joe.

Is he better alternative than Trump on foreign affairs? Yes and no. Despite his populist "bring home the troops" campaign rhetoric – and occasional reprises in office – The Donald has hardly followed through. Often he’s escalated bombings and boots-on-the-ground in the Greater Middle East. And admittedly, Biden seems more likely – but hardly certain – to reinstate the Iran nuclear deal and modestly tone down the march-to-war rhetoric. Then again, so far – though the colluding duo of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu try to gin up real combat – Trump has shown eleventh-hour restraint and eschewed full-blown war with Tehran. Not to say that The Donald, who has aggressively upped-the-ante on unwarranted conflict with Iran merits apologia. However, so far at least – an inconvenient admission for some – Trump is the first president since Jimmy Carter who hasn’t attempted an overt violent foreign regime change. True, this is a low bar indeed.

Make no mistake, Donald Trump is temperamentally, intellectually, and morally unfit to serve as commander-in-chief. His ignorant and bellicose position on nuclear weapons makes him a potentially existential threat to life well beyond America’s borders. Still, even Trump’s more vociferous opponents should know what they’re getting when they gamble on Biden: nothing more than a polite emperor to replace the rather coarse and clothes-less current occupant of the throne.

Even if he’s preferable on some individual foreign policy issues, Biden has never questioned the imperium itself. That he won’t change his spots and suddenly do so, is undergirded by the fact – as Chris Hedges recently pointed out – that "the ruling elites would prefer Biden" over the "vulgar embarrassment" of Donald Trump. Thus, selecting an emperor – given a presidency long unfettered by constitutional checks and balances – amounts to a matter of taste; of style over substance.

The "masters of the universe" that Hedges describes aren’t remotely troubled by reliable, known-quantity-Joe’s sordid foreign policy past. Neither, apparently, are Washington insiders, mainstream media pundits, or – if we’re being honest – most common citizens. There’s certainly been no penalty for Biden – or anyone else – being repeatedly dead wrong on the most decisive decisions a leader can make. American politics positively reinforces failure.

In even a marginally healthy republic, Biden’s championing of the Iraq War alone – and decades worth of pathological lying about that record – ought to have disqualified him. That it hasn’t exposes – like the COVID crisis – the structural and societal rot undergirding this country. Among the senior ranks of politicians, soldiers, and corporate oligarchs, obvious and undeniable failure carries few consequences. Blame and punishment is reserved for the lowest level of practitioners whilst power and profits continue to accrue to existing national security elites.

In contemporary America, there’s zero accountability for top policymakers – even those a heartbeat away from the presidency – who repeatedly gamble soldiers (and foreigners) lives in far-flung adventures and regularly lose big. Neoconservative and neoliberal militarist leaders who drummed up disasters like the 2003 Iraq invasion should’ve been forever discredited. Instead, they’ve been laundered like dirty money, rehabilitated, and born-again as expert analysts on CNN or MSNBC. These, of course, being the very networks that – in the case of the Bush-era figures, at least – once lambasted them. As for the real heavy-hitters – Iraq cheerleading Biden and Libya regime change architect Hillary Clinton – the Democratic Party "opposition" runs them for president.

The narrowness of permitted debate on US war policy – and of the electoral options the two-party duopoly provides – is obscene. It’s also proof positive that real challenges to American militarism must come from outside the system. At stake this November is more than what some sardonically call "choosing between two rapists.” What’s really on the ballot is the minor matter of emperor selection. And the choices ain’t great. Throughout his nearly 50 years of senior-level public service, Biden consistently made high-stakes war wagers – playing on credit with blood and treasure. So far his losses amount to $6.4 trillion in taxpayer cash, more than 7,000 dead troopers, 21 million refugees, and 335,000 civilian lives.

With that sort of track record at the life-and-death tables, Biden should really seek a meeting. Instead, he’s become the last great white hope of polite liberals everywhere. And make no mistake, this doesn’t end well. So be careful gambling on Biden. Like Joe betting his vice presidency on Iraqi elections, it might be a sure loser.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen