Wed Dec 2nd, 2009 at 01:55:30 AM EST
The New York Times Magazine has a detailed and largely name-sourced article written by James Traub of how Joe Biden has changed the office of the U.S. Vice President since the departure of Dick Cheney. The piece, "After Cheney", primarily focuses upon Biden's foreign policy role in the Obama administration and his influence on the White House's Afghanistan debate. The article also touches upon how Biden is departing from the Cheney precedent.
Biden was reluctant accept Barack Obama's invite to be his running-mate and lose "his role as a Senate baron". According to Joe Podesta, who headed Obama's transition, Biden "didn't want to be the guy in charge of x portfolio". Like Cheney before him, Biden wanted to the final person to speak to the president before a decision was to be made. "On foreign policy," Traub writes, "Biden has largely realized his wish".
He attends the president's daily briefing every morning with James L. Jones, the national-security adviser; often Biden will stay behind for a few minutes to raise other issues. He has a weekly lunch with the president and no staff members. He sits in on most of the "principals' meetings" of top national-security officials, which occur about once a week; unlike Cheney, a silent presence at these sessions, Biden has plenty to say. Biden attends every important meeting on foreign policy the president holds.
Obama announced 30,000 more troops - afew
Still, Biden is no Cheney and according to the vice president's chief of staff. Biden seeks to "normalize" the office of the vice president while still benefiting from Cheney's power grab. "Biden can reduce the scope of the office to something like its historic dimensions and still be the second-most powerful vice president in history," Traub writes.
No vice president had ever sought, or gained, the autonomy, or the supremacy over other power centers, that President Bush granted to Cheney. "He was his own separate branch of government," as Ron Klain, Biden's chief of staff, puts it. "He took the office of the vice president out of the White House phone directory, and out of the White House budget."
In my view, Cheney saw himself as almost extra-Constitutional, the ultimate loophole. The concerns more than two years ago about whether or not Cheney was trying to establish the Office of the Vice President as a so-called "Fourth Branch" of the U.S. government, separate from the execute branch and somehow removed from of Congressional oversight seem to be legitimate. Just because we have a 'good guy' as vice president now does not close the Cheney loopholes.
Cheney's climb to power within the Bush White House was well-documented by Barton Gellman for the Washington Post in the "Angler: the Cheney Vice Presidency" series back in 2007. In the current article about Biden, Traub surmises:
The difference between Biden's role and Cheney's has at least as much to do with the culture of the two administrations as it does with the men themselves. Bush's discomfort with world affairs created a vacuum that Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others fought to fill. Moreover, Bush's tendency toward the snap judgment and the gut call undermined the formal policy process in favor of jockeying for position at key moments.
Unlike Bush, Obama has not been reluctant to travel on behalf of the United States. Since taking office, President Obama has worked to restore the country's international stature. Obama has met with more foreign heads of state and visited more countries in his first six months of his presidency than any of his predecessors. Traub writes that according to Biden, "foreign policy is like human relations, only people know less about each other." Obama seems determined to try to make America's foreign relations a little more human. But, then there is Afghanistan, a place where humanity has lost its way. Traub writes:
One of the chief reasons that Obama has sought Biden's advice on a range of pressing foreign-policy questions -- most notably, in recent months, on policy in Afghanistan -- is that Biden has a deep knowledge of, and an intuitive feel for, people and places still new to the president.
Obama has been criticized by Cheney and other American 'conservatives' for taking his time to determine what is the next action for the U.S to take. Before breaking before Thanksgiving, the president briefly spoke about the "comprehensive and extremely useful" review of Afghanistan policy his administration had undertaken in the past months. Biden's unwillingness to just go along with the Pentagon's plan likely served as the catalyst for the review. Here's what happened:
From the outset of his tenure as vice president, Biden had come to view himself as the one who asked the unpleasant and searching question -- who "upset the apple cart," as he put it. In the debate over Afghanistan, he initially faced a near-consensus in favor of the view advanced by the generals. McChrystal offered three options, which boiled down to way more troops than he could get (80,000), enough troops (40,000), and failure (10,000 trainers but no new combat troops). Obama encouraged Biden to push the advocates to defend their arguments and justify their assumptions. Biden proceeded to do just that, especially with the brass; he proposed an alternative plan that focused less on defeating the Taliban and more on eliminating Al Qaeda. Obama reacted to this very different view by asking James Jones to present four options with different strategies, and troop levels appropriate to those strategies. When I asked Rahm Emanuel about Biden's role in the discussions, he said: "People were thinking about certain things, but hadn't expressed them. The vice president was expressing them."
As long as Obama's decision is unknown, Biden is not willing to say on the record what advice he gave the president. However, Traub writes that Biden and his advisors think U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's plan will not work because the U.S. lacks a solid partner in Afghanistan. Not only that, but "they are deeply skeptical... that the U.S. can afford to spend something like $250 billion on Afghanistan at a time when deficits are already running very high."
When Obama announces what his goals for the Afghanistan region are next week, he will likely make a distinction between fighting al Qaeda and fighting the Taliban. Biden, according to Traub, "does not appear to believe that it would be a calamity if the Taliban increased its presence in the Afghan countryside". Rather, the vice president believes the U.S. should be primarily focused on Pakistan's security.
If Al Qaeda can be bottled up on the border with Pakistan through counterterrorism measures involving troops as well as drone attacks, and with the help of an expanded Afghan army, then it is unnecessary to build a secure Afghanistan that can defeat the Taliban. And then you could focus instead on the greater danger -- Pakistan. "I'm going to ask you a question," Biden said. "If I said to you right now, We can send $30 billion a year to Pakistan, or $30 billion to Afghanistan, which would you pick? Every goddamn person says, `Pakistan.' So I say, `O.K., guys, we should be talking about a PakAf policy, not an AfPak policy.' "
McChrystal, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, and "most Republican senators" believe al Qaeda will return to Afghanistan when the Taliban has regained control. The president is likely to order close to the 40,000 troops McChrystal has requested be deployed to Afghanistan despite Biden's valid concerns.
Biden may "once again lose the debate on troop strength, but he may succeed on narrowing U.S. objectives in Afghanistan. The real test of his success, according to Traub, will be whether the new policy tilts toward Pakistan."
While Biden often is "the last voice in the room", Obama reportedly has made his decision on Afghanistan and will announce it on Tuesday, 1 December. Biden, I predict, will remain skeptical. According to Traub, the vice president is "allergic to magical, wish-fulfillment thinking."
"Guys," he'll say -- this is how he describes addressing the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- "what if it doesn't work?"