Biden Dances the Tough Dances

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joe biden twn clemons washington note.jpgTomorrow morning, 8:00 am, Vice President Joe Biden will be meeting with his successor as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry.
Their meeting is closed to press – but I imagine that besides their low carb meals, they’ll work through their angles on how to get the important START Treaty ratified and then may discuss America’s slogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. If they get to Iran, which I hope they do, that will lead to the Israel-Palestine standoff and how weak America’s hand there is right now.


On the down side regrettably, what they won’t discuss at this breakfast is Cuba – although it is there that the US can score the quickest, most solid gains at lowest costs, showing that it is able to dump anachronistic foreign policy and modernize. Cuba has always interested me as it has political echo effects far beyond Cuba itself.
tl_veep_debate1.jpgWith occasional blind spots aside, Biden’s policy breadth is impressive compared to virtually anyone else on the Obama team. Only Bob Gates comes close to Biden’s versatility – and even there, Biden wins hands down.
Joe “Bite Me” Biden, as some in General Stanley McChrystal’s Afghanistan command team referred to him, has emerged as a consequential player in many of Obama’s toughest portfolios — not because Biden has stuck his nose in the game but because Obama wants Biden’s decades-forged, informed takes on America’s strategic choices given the constraints that face US power today. The military’s disrespect of Biden is actually evidence of the fact that he is pushing them in ways that few others are; it’s a sign of Biden’s power.
Joe Biden’s job is to fill the holes in the Presidential team’s capabilities. Later in the day, he’s meeting with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. Kosovo, arguably, is a ‘relative’ success story that used to be a serious global, hemorrhaging ulcer.
There aren’t a lot of Presidents and Vice Presidents in US history who have a granular knowledge of the power players inside Kosovo, in Georgia, in Iraq (even today), Russia, Afghanistan, or any one of scores of other countries most Americans have hardly heard of. Biden really knows these terrains, personally and in detail, and this brings tremendous capacity to Obama’s decisionmaking process and to the principals meetings.
I have watched Biden build behind the scenes the relationships that have mattered in keeping Iraq from blowing up again – not only getting a good fix on the nuances and power aspirations of political contenders in many fragmented factions of Iraq’s parties and political system but also working out the kinks in relations between the rival US diplomatic and defense chiefs working in Iraq. And Biden has also built what is probably the single best working relationship between the US government and a UN operation in his regular communications with UN Special Representative to Iraq Ad Melkert.
Remember Melkert? He was on the World Bank ethics committee that ultimately brought down Paul Wolfowitz as well as a one-time likely Dutch Prime Minister until Dutch politics went through massive upheaval a decade ago. Melkert now has the largest growing budget in the United Nations as he and his team have to fill the void in governance and political engagement that is being left in the wake of America’s drawdown in Iraq.
Biden puts Melkert on his dance card frequently – usually by secure video conferencing and calls. It’s pretty interesting that this high stakes portfolio sits with the Biden team rather than at State or DoD – and yet we hear virtually no chest-beating or self-aggrandizement from Biden about his Iraq attentions.
This morning, Biden breakfasted with British Prime Minister David Cameron and UK Ambassador to the US Nigel Sheinwald. The ‘special relationship’ has now been called by some in the White House the ‘truly special’ relationship.
Over the last week alone, Biden has had reported small meetings with former Senator Chuck Hagel (who co-chairs the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and is one of Biden’s closest friends), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Teamsters General President James Hoffa, and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass (who is now strongly advocating that the US get out of Afghanistan).
Biden has participated in numerous other group sessions with labor leaders and interest groups advocating for jobs and infrastructure policies that they feel are being under-invested in by the Obama administration. He has convened meetings of his Middle Class task force.
Biden’s dance card is full – but it’s packed with stuff that is vital to the administration even if most of the Cabinet knows zilch about Kosovo, or labor groups, or infrastructure, or wants to hear the tough realities about America’s slipping position in Afghanistan, its sprawling and ineffective intelligence industrial complex, or wants to put in the time beyond ego strokes in the press in patiently nudging and working the political personalities in Iraq so that that fragile political order doesn’t erupt in civil war.
Joe Biden is doing these things – and in my book – all jokes aside about his gaffes and loquaciousness is the person on Obama’s team who has surpassed expectations far more than any other Cabinet Member.
— Steve Clemons

Comments

31 comments on “Biden Dances the Tough Dances

  1. bob_fitch says:

    Overall this is a valuable post on one of my long-time favorite foreign policy establishmentarians, Joe Biden. I agree with the general gist that Biden serves as a gap-filling utility player, with a portfolio comprising a broad array of important subjects. As you indicate, I don’t think anyone can deny Biden’s innate skills of relationship building, a central feature of the personalized diplomacy for which he’s been known during his 36 year Senate career.
    Particularly insightful is his little-reported (at least I have not read about it) but very important relationship with Melkert. As you wrote, Biden has displayed adeptness and delicacy in helping manage the Iraq War drawdown and ongoing parliamentary uncertainty. I admit to being concerned when he took over the administration’s Iraq portfolio since he came down on the wrong side of many key Iraq decisionpoints, from opposing the first Gulf War to supporting the 2003 invasion to advancing a premature withdrawal to discounting the (admittedly risky) prospects of a doubled down counterinsurgency, to his innovative but largely unworkable Gelb federalism plan.
    Along with some of the other commenters, I dispute the notion that “the military’s disrespect of Biden is actually evidence of the fact that he is pushing them in ways that few others are; it’s a sign of Biden’s power.” First, the premise is mistaken. I think it’s wrong to extrapolate the McChrystal team’s stupid and pithy comments to representing broad discontent within the military. Civil-military relations have been strained in the Obama administration, as they were under Bush, but I question the breadth and depth of contempt in which Biden may be especially held. From other reports, he seems to have solid relationships with Mullen, Petraeus, and makes regular trips to the field.
    Furthermore, is it really a sign of Biden’s power when he is widely considered (his recent comment notwithstanding) to have lost the debate in the endless policy review from the fall? It would seems as though most of their animosity arises from genuine policy disagreements with Biden. For better or worse, the COIN revolution has swept the top players of the military and defense establishment; it’s only natural that the figures ardently defend their doctrine while maintaining skepticism of a more kinetic, smaller footprint approach advocated by Biden. Because the other top administration officials (Clinton, Gates, and Mullen) championed McChrystal’s plan and the Afghan surge is perhaps the biggest foreign policy decision in the young administration, it’s hard to accept the implication that Biden’s “power” is any stronger than say Gates’ or Clinton’s.
    Don’t get me wrong, I am very pleased with Obama’s enlisting of Biden as devil’s advocate on key issues. The Bush Administration’s national security apparatus far too often, and for far too long, neglected to reconsider assumptions, failed to assess and tweak tactics and strategy, and consistently ignored facts/reports they found incongruous with their preconceived notions. The rigorous analysis encouraged by Obama is refreshing.
    In a related note, it’s one thing to be assigned, attend, or even lead the many meetings you mention, and quite another to be an expert on subjects ranging from handling Kosovo to defending the stimulus to managing labor union demands. But perhaps his role as a generalist and facilitator of these issues will be where Biden shines. Indeed, only time will tell if Biden is truly effective in these diverse roles, is just checking boxes for the administration, or more likely somewhere in between. I will also point out that he has played a less significant role in shaping other key Obama domestic accomplishments such as health care and financial regulatory reform.
    Thanks, Steve, I appreciate your characteristically thought-provoking work.

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  2. AmericanPatriot says:

    Thank you Mr. Clemons for an outstanding piece about Vice President Biden. This really opened my eyes to his excellence and abilities. I had no idea what he was really doing and was more on the skeptical side of him. Now I must admit that I am deeply impressed. We owe you a debt of gratitude for your very excellent work.

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  3. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Remember leper colonies? Well, if many people had a laugh as obnoxiously irritating as Pelosi’s, we’d need to revisit establishing such colonies. Thank God its not contagious.

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  4. Dan Kervick says:

    “Great, Pelosi is an idiot savant who makes both of them look like geniuses.”
    At least she would restore some manliness to the White House. No more molly-coddling Republican loons.

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  5. nadine says:

    “OK, I’m convinced. Let’s impeach them both and put Pelosi in charge.”
    Great, Pelosi is an idiot savant who makes both of them look like geniuses. Ask her anything but the mechanics of power on the Hill, and there is literally no telling what goofy thing she will say. The stimulative power of keeping people on permanent unemployment checks was only the latest.

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  6. Dan Kervick says:

    “I might be with you on this, but my impression of Biden is that you get good judgment out of him about one day in three.”
    OK, I’m convinced. Let’s impeach them both and put Pelosi in charge.

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  7. Don Bacon says:

    Carroll, I’m reminded of the advice given to prospective yacht purchasers — if you have to ask how much, you can’t afford it.

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  8. Carroll says:

    Thanks for mentioning that Biden is meeting with Kerry tomorrow am. I am calling immediately to ask if Kerry will ask Joe how much?
    Since Reid never replied to my inquiry about how much it would take for Americans to buy the US congress back from Israel and it’s lobby.
    All I really need is a quote…how much to outbid Israel and their lobby, how much to outbid WS, how much to outbid the banks (Joe should know about that) and so on…an a la carte price list would really help so I can get to work raising the buy America back money in order of the most pressing influence areas.

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  9. DCPundit says:

    Steve, a superb, finely written piece on a great man.
    Thanks for this profile of Vice President Biden.

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  10. Don Bacon says:

    There is, of course, that side of the Zionist senator from delawarebanks.com, and Steve did mention in passing Biden’s gaffes. But still the nation’s rotten work has to be done and Biden is (Steve tells us) out there making it happen, for better or worse. There’s work to be done, on START, and Iraq, and god knows on Afghanistan, and while Biden can’t pick the work it still has to be done by somebody, and who else is there. Hillary?
    Clemons has seen Biden “behind the scenes.” I haven’t, so I read Steve, and while I might disagree with his opinions, I trust him with facts. On the military/Biden thing, he hit it. On Iran, we differ.
    On the behind-the-scenes stuff there’s no better, and I don’t say that just because he has me on a retainer. 😉

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  11. Steve Clemons says:

    Nadine — I do admire Joe Biden, though i don’t agree with him on a number of things. I admired his willingness for instance to offer the Biden-Gelb plan on Iraq when all most could do is offer criticisms — rather than putting their own proposals out into public view. I have offered criticisms of Joe Biden on other occasions — but overall, he’s a fantastic contributor of depth to the Obama team. Thanks for your views — as always, steve

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  12. DavidT says:

    Steve,
    Its hard to argue that Biden hasn’t beaten expectations (though he’s not a cabinet member, technically speaking 🙂 ). So has Sarah Palin as a political force as well as Secretary Gates (though expectations were a bit higher here). Yet I’m unclear here other than continuing to be the vice president’s biggest cheerleader what your point is. Wow, he has lunch with lots of important people. Wow, he’s being ridiculed by the general in charge of our Afghanistan effort so he must be important and/or doing something right (does that mean that if the State Dept folks are ridiculing Karzai that he must be doing something right?). That he has a wider portfolio than Gates means exactly what? Doesn’t that not reinforce the Biden narrative that he’s not terrifically deep? And what makes having a vice president knowing so many relatively obscure foreign players matter unless you are preoccupied with these relatively obscure places. I would happily trade his being able to at least have enough clout to keep the Senate seat he held for so long and had his former staffer keep warm for his son to inherit only to see his son forego his father’s act of nepotism (and sorry for Beau’s medical problems). You argue that Obama is weak (in spite of a more productive legislative session than in ten Jeff Bingaman careers), thus if so, is Biden his teddy bear? Sorry I just don’t follow. Even you have already speculated on his potential replacement on the 2012 ticket so do you mean this as the opening words of his swan song? Joe is immensely likable and probably fun as a drinking buddy. But in comparison to his predecessors — how far must we go back — to find one less important — to Quayle and before that to Agnew perhaps? Sorry if I sound flip but am I wrong?

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  13. nadine says:

    No, Steve goes to the parties. Then he writes the flattering press releases. I would advise him to sprinkle in a few less admiring comments, just to give an air of verisimilitude.
    We hoi polloi out here are having trouble reconciling this image of Obama’s “eminence grise” with our memories of the gaffe-prone, bloviating Senatorial and Vice-Presidential gasbag.

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  14. Don Bacon says:

    Right, Steve just sits in his cubicle and reads press releases and never goes to parties or presides at seminars or anything. A real wallflower, that one.

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  15. nadine says:

    On Biden, Steve Clemons is supplying the press releases, not the scuttlebutt.

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  16. Don Bacon says:

    nadine: “you gave no evidence for the source of the “push”.
    The evidence was in the diary, haven’t you noticed?”
    Clemons: “I have watched Biden build behind the scenes the relationships that have mattered in keeping Iraq from blowing up again – not only getting a good fix on the nuances and power aspirations of political contenders in many fragmented factions of Iraq’s parties and political system but also working out the kinks in relations between the rival US diplomatic and defense chiefs working in Iraq.”. . .and Afghanistan too, I assume, given the “bite me.”
    And “push” was Steve’s word, not mine. he’s closer to it that we are, which is why we enjoy reading him. No?

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  17. nadine says:

    “Intelligence and character are two different personal attributes, and of the two I’ll take character.”
    Um, okay, but what does this have to do with my question?

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  18. Don Bacon says:

    Intelligence and character are two different personal attributes, and of the two I’ll take character. Most people would. That means standing for something, and standing by the people who have earned your respect not with their intelligence, although that’s always a plus, but with their character, their doing the right thing and being faithful. Obama has intelligence.

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  19. nadine says:

    Don Bacon, but you gave no evidence for the source of the “push”. Being under the orders of a Carteresque fool who asks “can’t you just shoot at their legs?” is a reason to gripe too.

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  20. nadine says:

    “OK, I’m convinced. Let’s impeach Obama and give Biden a whirl.” (Dan Kervick)
    I might be with you on this, but my impression of Biden is that you get good judgment out of him about one day in three. God help you on the other two days. Remember when Biden wanted to divide Iraq into three countries? That’s the same Iraq which he now touts as a success for the Obama administration — a success which could only happen because nobody listened to Biden or Obama in 2005 – 2008.

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  21. Don Bacon says:

    nadine,
    What’s perceptive about it [the military’s disrespect of Biden] is that Steve Clemons, former movie actor, having never been in the military, recognized that soldiers (more than most) tend to gripe when they are pushed. It’s part of the military culture. Piss and moan, we called it. It’s kind of a reverse morale indicator, and Steve got it. (But McChrystal’s boys went too far, obviously.)

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  22. nadine says:

    Steve, President Obama certainly convinced a lot of smart people that he was brilliant, I’ll give him that, though personally I never saw what was supposed to be so brilliant. I listened to him carefully in the campaign and heard nothing but glib liberal boilerplate and gauzy motivational rhetoric.
    I do not retract the word “delusional”; I used it advisedly.
    For example, let’s take the Mideast peace process.
    President Obama not only campaigned on being able to waltz into the Mideast peace process and bring about a swift solution (he promised it!), he acted on his promises — to bring on a “new tone” by flattering the Muslim world with his Cairo speech, asking for help from Egypt and Saudi Arabia (they said NO WAY), picking a fight with Israel (he chose most unwisely) and getting less than no help from the Palestinians, who in their euphoria assumed that Obama would do all their negotiating for them, so quick, demand more! give nothing!
    Bearing in mind that Senator Obama had ZERO fp expertise except for a very short stint on the Foreign Relations committee, what in heavens name gave him the self-confidence to believe that he could waltz in and solve an intractable conflict of sixty years standing?
    The upshot of his neophyte over-confidence is what we might expect: instead of bringing negotiations to a successful conclusion, there are no negotiations. He prevented them from even getting started. Now all sides mistrust Obama and are disappointed.
    One could do the same review on Obama’s engagement with Ahemdinejad. Or his “reset” with Russia.
    No, I think the word “delusional” is entirely justified by events.

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  23. Dan Kervick says:

    OK, I’m convinced. Let’s impeach Obama and give Biden a whirl.

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  24. WigWag says:

    Steve, your friend and colleague, Charles Kupchan has written extensively about Kosovo. He favored the EU-American approach and urged that Kosovo be recognized; he also opposed partitioning Kosovo by appending its two northern provinces to Serbia. I disagree with both of his points, but he is far more knowledgable about all of this than I am.
    Perhaps someday, he might do a guest post for you at the Washington Note on this interesting and under-reported subject.

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  25. Steve Clemons says:

    wig — your point on Kosovo is well-taken, and I actually went back and inserted ‘relative’ in front of success, which is what I meant. Thanks for noting this as Kosovo is very messy to say the least.
    nadine — you are so smart and informed that I don’t understand why you go further than your argument needs and engage in demeaning, disrespectful characterizations. President Obama is a brilliant guy — whether you want to acknowledge or not — given the way he has made his way to the highest office in the land. You may not like his policy course — but to call him ‘delusional’ is sloppy and not characteristic of your smarter, contrarian posts. Just a friendly observation.
    all best, steve

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  26. nadine says:

    “The military’s disrespect of Biden is actually evidence of the fact that he is pushing them in ways that few others are; it’s a sign of Biden’s power.”
    What’s perceptive about it, Don? Why not take it at face value, that the military think they are under the orders of fools who know nothing but think they know everything? In Biden’s case, because he sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee forever. In Obama’s case, because he’s not right in the head. I’m serious. I think Obama is delusional. What we are seeing in his unbroken string of fp failures (engagement with Iran, solving Mideast peace, reset with Russia, Copenhagen x 2, tranzi cooperation) are hubris & incompetence meeting up with reality.

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  27. Steve Clemons says:

    Wig – very good post on Kosovo, most of which I agree with. But I
    look at these issues — as you indicate as well — through the lens
    of relativity. Kosovo could be far, far worse than it is now. I’m not
    into Messiahs of any sort. Biden is not a Messiah; he is effective.
    Nice note Don — agreed, mostly.

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  28. Don Bacon says:

    Biden fills a vacuum, is the point.
    Steve says “With occasional blind spots aside” and “all jokes aside about his gaffes” we have to admit — don’t we? — that Biden stands head and shoulders above the other midgets in this administration, from the top down. In foreign affairs, there is nobody else in the administration or in the Congress either, Clinton being a minus and Kerry being a big zero. He’s the only adult in the house.
    Clemons: “The military’s disrespect of Biden is actually evidence of the fact that he is pushing them in ways that few others are; it’s a sign of Biden’s power.” That’s perceptive. That’s very perceptive. If the military isn’t griping then they aren’t being pushed. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Biden’s all we’ve got.

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  29. WigWag says:

    “Later in the day, he’s meeting with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. Kosovo, arguably, is a success story that used to be a serious global, hemorrhaging ulcer.” (Steve Clemons)
    If Kosovo is Steve’s idea of a success story, I would hate to see what he thinks failure is. Clearly, at the moment, Kosovo may not be a festering sore, but anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the Balkans would hesitate to conclude that any problems in that part of the world have been solved, especially the problem of Kosovo.
    The problems of Kosovo are almost too numerous to enumerate. Let’s start with just a few:
    1) Kosovo is still clearly a serious point of contention between both the United States and Western Europe on one side and Russia on the other. Russia has certainly not resigned itself to the prospect of Kosovar independence from the land of their co-religionists and fellow Slavs, Serbia.
    2) Kosovo is recognized by only 36 percent of UN member states. In fact, only 69 out of 192 nations in the world have recognized Kosovo’s independence. Among the nations that refuse to recognize Kosovo are: Brazil, China, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Russia.
    3) Serbia has refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence and exercises de facto control over Kosovo’s two Northern provinces which are occupied primarily by ethnic Serbs. If UN and Nato troops left these Northern provinces, they would immediately secede.
    4) Kosovo is desperately poor. It has a per capita GDP of $2,965 and the two greatest components of its economy are foreign aid, primarily from Western Europe and remittances from Kosovars living abroad. Kosovo has no industrial base, few trade opportunities and few if any natural resources. The only thing it does have is numerous Orthodox holy sites spread throughout the

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  30. Steve Clemons says:

    Greetings from Beijing POA. My post about Joe Biden reflects on his often unheralded work behind the scenes in foreign policy. He’s been critical in the nuclear materials summitry, with Russia — has been the skunk at the picnic on Afghanistan, and has been the guy managing the Iraq portfolio. I have great respect for what he is doing.
    I’m not concerned with the FEC fine. They charged it and he’s paying the fine. I don’t see a bigger deal here — just don’t. Not my bag. Senator Bingaman for whom I worked also had an FEC violation from a Senate campaign — paid the fine — and went on. He’s one of the greatest thinkers, non-media types in the Senate with great personal integrity. I put the Biden fine in that mix. I understand if you see it differently.
    All best, steve

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  31. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Whats up Steve???? Did Joe need a pat on the back after being revealed as just another scumbag politico that can’t play by the rules???
    Thats a pretty heavy fine they levied against him. And if he was HONEST about revealing his assets and worth during the campaign, such a hefty chunk of change would be sorely missed out of his coffers. My bet? It won’t hurt him in the least.
    BTW, Steve, did you ever do a google on who our Secretary of State is? Her name is Hillary Clinton. You might wanna check her out, I understand she has something to do with our “Foreign Policy”.
    Oh, hey, now that Netanyahu has revealed that he thinks we Americans and our leaders are a bunch of ignorant rubes and patsies, is Joe still a “Zionist”?

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