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Biden’s Engagement Flip-Flop

I had started writing my recent book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, before Barack Obama won the presidency and chose Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. No matter: The book isn’t a partisan polemic. Bungling diplomacy toward international rogues has been a bipartisan problem. Still, as senator, Biden spoke often about diplomacy and rogues and so he provided a rich, documentary record of his views on the topic.

As we near the 25th anniversary if the Tiananmen Square massacre, China is beginning its predictable, preliminary crackdown on dissidents and all who might want to mark that occasion. The events of June 4, 1989 were truly horrific. What is quite interesting, however, is how critical and outspoken Biden was about the George H.W. Bush administration renewing ties with China just a couple years later. Speaking on the Senate floor, Biden declared, “What President Bush and Secretary Baker have been seeking to engage is the world’s last major Communist regime; it is a regime marked by brutality at home and irresponsibility abroad; and it is a regime the United States should now cease to court and must no longer appease.” I find little to argue with Biden, at least his 1991 incarnation.

As I documented in my book, Biden also complained that diplomacy involving Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic left too many in the former Yugoslavia off the hook, and that he would have rather have seen a continuation if not a ratcheting up of more coercive pressure on them rather than turning to diplomacy when the Clinton administration did.

How strange it is then, or at least inconsistent, that Biden has been full-throated in his desire to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran. His national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, participated in the secret talks in Oman that opened that door. Even before the nuclear deal is finalized, Iran has already pocketed several billion dollars in sanctions relief and new economic investment. As the nuclear deal takes shape, it is becoming increasingly apparent that everything it commits Iran to is reversible, and readily so. In the meantime, it legitimizes and, indeed, rewards a regime whose human-rights record is as atrocious as China’s, and whose young students, women, and whose political and religious dissidents suffer the humiliation of Tiananmen Square on an almost daily basis. Indeed, none other than Amnesty International has noted the increase in public executions since the supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, took office.

That is not to say that there is not a reason for engagement here and now—although let us hope that Obama’s desire to have a foreign-policy breakthrough whatever its cost isn’t what is driving this. But, at the very least, Biden—if he is the statesman the thinks he is and if he aspires to the highest office—should provide an explanation as to his sharp about-face on issues of human rights, dictatorship, and diplomacy. Alas, the lack of consistency Biden displays is not unique. He is in good political company. It’s hard not to conclude that Biden personifies just how arbitrary American strategy about when and how to engage is.



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