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Gates memoir fuels debate on Biden's foreign policy record

Jan. 10, 2014 - 11:33AM   |  
A forthcoming memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is fueling a debate on Vice President Joe Biden's record on foreign policy and national security, areas that have long been viewed as Biden's strengths.
A forthcoming memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is fueling a debate on Vice President Joe Biden's record on foreign policy and national security, areas that have long been viewed as Biden's strengths. (Lintao Zhang / AFP)
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WASHINGTON — A forthcoming memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is fueling a debate on Vice President Joe Biden's record on foreign policy and national security, areas that have long been viewed as Biden's strengths.

The White House and Biden's supporters are defending the vice president against Gates' assertion that Biden, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."

Others, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of Biden's long-time friends, are saying Gates' comments have merit — criticism that could hurt Biden if he decides to run for president in 2016.

"He has been wrong on a lot of these issues, there's very little doubt about that, going back to Desert Storm," McCain said Tuesday on CNN. He also expressed "affection" and "respect" for Biden.

In "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," available Jan. 14 from Knopf, Gates says President Barack Obama doubted his own strategy in Afghanistan.

Gates had kind words for former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. But he also wrote that it was "surprising" and "dismaying" to hear her -- and to some extent, Obama — say that they were motivated by politics when they opposed then-President George W. Bush's troop "surge" in Iraq in 2007, when they were still in the Senate.

Gates, a Republican who served nearly five years as defense secretary under Presidents Bush and Obama, saved some of his harshest criticisms for Biden, according to book reviews in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. The book was not made available to the Gannett Washington Bureau.

Though he called Biden a "man of integrity," he accused him of "poisoning the well" by turning the White House against military leaders.

Gates blamed Biden and other aides for Obama's concern that Pentagon officers were giving him "the bum's rush" in seeking more troops in Afghanistan in 2009, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"Suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials -- including the president and vice president -- became a big problem for me," Gates wrote, according to the Washington Post.

Obama disagrees with Gates' assessment of Biden, who has played a key role in every national security and foreign policy debate of the administration, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.

"As a senator and as a vice president, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and he has been an excellent counselor and adviser to the president for the past five years," Carney said.

Biden's foreign policy expertise was among the reasons Obama chose him as vice president. Biden, who represented Delaware for 36 years in the Senate, is known for using his long-standing relationships with world leaders to help shape policy. International objectives such as concluding a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, ending the war in Iraq and promoting U.S. interests in Asia have comprised a large part of his portfolio.

Biden's supporters say many of his positions have been prescient. Biden helped lead efforts to stop the genocide in the Balkans during the 1990s. He pushed for Sunnis to be involved in the Iraqi government and accurately predicted their alienation would lead to the sectarian violence happening there now.

Though he voted in favor of authorizing the Iraq War, he opposed the 2007 troop surge there and fought to bring troops home.

Former Democratic Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, who served as Biden's Senate chief of staff, said Biden was correct when he argued for limiting troop strength in Afghanistan in 2009, the year Obama ordered his own troop there at the request of military leaders. Biden had called for an increase in the use of drones and special forces for surgical anti-terrorist strikes.

"I think Gates is just totally wrong," Kaufman said. "An analysis of event by event over the past 40 years would find that Biden has been right on the vast majority of cases."

Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal derided Biden's push for a counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan as "shortsighted," saying it would lead to a state of "chaos-istan." McChrystal's unvarnished comments about Biden and others to Rolling Stone magazine led to his resignation.

Biden also has taken notably controversial positions.

He freely admits he advised against the high-risk raid that led to the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, telling the president to take more steps to ensure bin Laden was at the compound where he was ultimately killed.

And Biden's proposal for a decentralized political settlement in Iraq when he was in the Senate was widely interpreted as a call for partitioning the country. The non-binding proposal promoting a federal system of strong regions under a limited central government overwhelmingly passed the Senate.

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said the federalism plan wasn't a bad idea, given the current situation in Iraq.

"You might ask yourself, 'If Iraq were a federal state, would it do better?'" he said.

Retired Army Col. Steven Bucci, a former special forces officer and top Pentagon official who served in Iraq, called Biden's proposal a "nice thought" but said it would be "darn near impossible' to execute, leading to difficult population exchanges across regional borders.

Bucci, now director of the Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Gates' comments about Biden are a "broad swipe" resulting from different leadership and personality styles. Gates is methodical, introverted and serious, while Biden is more instinctual and shoots from the hip — attributes that Bucci said aren't helpful when it comes to national security.

"Is anybody wrong about everything in a four decade period?" Bucci asked. "Probably not. Not even Joe. What you're seeing from Gates in that particular comment is a level of frustration with the vice president's tendency to talk off the top of his head."

Such characterizations wouldn't be helpful to Biden if he were to run for president in 2016, a prospect he hasn't ruled out. He's already a "heavy underdog," assuming Clinton runs, and Gates' assertions about Biden's judgment will turn up in debates and television ads, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"This is the kind of criticism that will have an impact in a general election," he said in an email. "Some independently minded voters might be swayed by such a harsh assessment of Biden."

Kaufman, however, said 2016 is a long way away.

"This will have no impact on anything he does in the future," Kaufman said. "This is one person's opinion in the book."

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