Commentary Magazine


Topic: Joe Biden

Maliki and America’s Bad Bet

The news from Iraq continues to be grim. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has proclaimed a new caliphate, called simply the Islamic State. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now a self-proclaimed emir, has gotten so confident that he appeared at a mosque in Mosul to spread his message. His men are parading around in captured Iraqi army equipment such as Humvees and tanks amid reports that they have seized enough guns and ammunition to arm several divisions. Meanwhile political gridlock continues to prevail in Baghdad, where Nouri al-Maliki has made clear his determination to hold onto the prime minister’s office at all costs despite his catastrophic tenure in office.

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The news from Iraq continues to be grim. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has proclaimed a new caliphate, called simply the Islamic State. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now a self-proclaimed emir, has gotten so confident that he appeared at a mosque in Mosul to spread his message. His men are parading around in captured Iraqi army equipment such as Humvees and tanks amid reports that they have seized enough guns and ammunition to arm several divisions. Meanwhile political gridlock continues to prevail in Baghdad, where Nouri al-Maliki has made clear his determination to hold onto the prime minister’s office at all costs despite his catastrophic tenure in office.

How did we get here? There is no better answer than this lengthy essay in the Washington Post by Ali Khedery. He is not a household name by any stretch of the imagination, but he was an immensely influential behind-the-scenes player in Iraq from 2003 to 2009. A young and personable Iraqi-American who spoke fluent Arabic, Khedery served as aide to a succession of U.S. ambassadors and Central Command chiefs. He worked closely with all of Iraq’s political leaders as well as with America’s representatives in that country.

Indeed he was one of the first Americans to suggest in 2006 that Maliki would make a good leader for Iraq, but by 2010, witnessing Maliki’s dictatorial and sectarian tendencies, Khedery changed his mind. Following the Iraqi election of that year, in which Maliki’s slate finished in second place behind Ayad Allawi’s party, Khedery urged his American superiors to withdraw their support from Maliki in favor of Adel Abdul Mahdi, another Shiite leader who had served as finance minister. But his entreaties fell on deaf ears. As Khedery recounts, Vice President Biden, during a visit to Baghdad, “said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, ‘I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,’ referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.”

As Khedery recounts it, he was joined in his opposition to Maliki by Generals Jim Mattis and John Allen at Central Command and by Ambassador to Baghdad James Jeffrey. Even senior Shiite clerics in Iraq weighed in against Maliki. “But all the lobbying was for naught,” Khedery notes. “By November, the White House had settled on its disastrous Iraq strategy. The Iraqi constitutional process and election results would be ignored, and America would throw its full support behind Maliki.”

As Khedery notes, “catastrophe followed”: Maliki pursued a sectarian agenda leading to a Sunni backlash which has enabled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to take control of much of the Sunni Triangle from Fallujah to Mosul. Perhaps the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq might have restrained Maliki’s sectarian tendencies but of course, as we know, the Status of Forces Agreement was not renewed in spite of Biden’s unwarranted certainty that Maliki would endorse it.

Khedery doesn’t have much to say about those negotiations because he had already left government at that point, but he is right to highlight the Obama administration’s disastrous decision to back Maliki in 2010 as one of the American moves that set Iraq on the path to disaster (the others being the decision to let the Syrian civil war rage unabated and the decision not to push harder to keep U.S. forces in Iraq).

The implication of Khedery’s article is clear: We must today rectify the mistake of 2010 and push as hard as we can for Iraq’s parliament to select someone other than Maliki as prime minister. Too bad we have so much less leverage than we did in 2010 because today we have fewer than 1,000 troops in Iraq, as opposed to some 50,000 back then.

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Is Biden Vindicated on Iraq? Not Even Close

Here is a terrifying, but oddly explanatory, opening sentence from the Sunday edition of the New York Times on Iraq: “From the first summer of the Obama administration, Iraq has been considered Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s account.” While giving such an important strategic portfolio to the man who famously is on the wrong side of nearly every foreign-policy issue may not have been the best idea, the article at first sounds like it’ll at least be a demotion of some kind. After all, a self-declared caliphate is currently burning Iraq to the ground.

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Here is a terrifying, but oddly explanatory, opening sentence from the Sunday edition of the New York Times on Iraq: “From the first summer of the Obama administration, Iraq has been considered Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s account.” While giving such an important strategic portfolio to the man who famously is on the wrong side of nearly every foreign-policy issue may not have been the best idea, the article at first sounds like it’ll at least be a demotion of some kind. After all, a self-declared caliphate is currently burning Iraq to the ground.

But no. Believe it or not, that sentence serves as the introduction to the Times’s attempt to claim that the current mess in Iraq is Biden’s vindication–or at least the vindication of his proposal in 2006 to divide Iraq into three pieces. The country currently looks headed that way, goes the logic, and so perhaps Biden was right after all.

Wrong. Let’s first dispense with the faulty logic employed by the Times. Just because Biden suggested something that is now happening does not mean the United States should have facilitated that outcome. There are various reasons for this, one of which Christian Caryl reported a few days ago:

For the past 2,000 years, Iraq has been home to a distinct and vibrant culture of Eastern Christianity. Now that storied history appears to be coming to an end. Even if the ISIS forces are ultimately driven back, it’s hard to imagine that the Mosul Christians who have fled will see a future for themselves in an Iraq dominated by the current Shiite dictatorship of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which enjoys strong support from Iran.

It’s worth adding, perhaps, that Christians aren’t the only ones in this predicament. Iraq is also home to a number of other religious minorities endangered by the country’s polarization into two warring camps of Islam. The Yazidis follow a belief system that has a lot in common with the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism; about a half a million of them live in northern Iraq. The Mandaeans, numbering only 30,000 or so, are perhaps the world’s last remaining adherents of Gnosticism, one of the offshoots of early Christianity. By tradition many Mandaeans are goldsmiths — a trade that has made them prominent targets for abduction in the post-invasion anarchy of Iraq. Losing these unique cultures makes the world a poorer place.

Feeding Iraq’s sectarianism meant obliterating in some cases its ethnic minority communities. That’s what is happening now, and I don’t think Biden or his staff wishes they could take credit for it.

Now, there’s an important distinction Biden makes: he insists he didn’t want three separate countries–a true partition–but instead three semi-autonomous territories with a central government. Yet a look at Iraq today tells you all you need to know about how well the center could hold under such a federal system. What that division would do is accelerate the disintegration.

Once you devolve power from the center and encourage sectarian division, that division will only concretize leaving the federal center without enough enforcement power. A federal system can thrive in certain conditions–Biden himself is currently vice president of a federal republic–but one important condition is a commitment to a certain level of nationalism. Iraq’s borders never possessed the legitimacy such a state would need. The legitimacy, instead, was held by sectarian loyalties.

There’s also more than a bit of irony in the supposed “vindication” of Biden’s old idea. The tone of the story is that if only we had listened to Biden, things might have been different. But the story opens up by stating, explicitly, that we have been listening to Biden all along. Iraq has been his portfolio. The truth is that neither of Biden’s ideas about how to solve the Iraq puzzle were good ones, and the current situation there is demonstrating the failure of both–the failure of one leading to the failure of the other.

More than anything else, Iraq’s dissolution is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Obama/Biden team was elected on a platform of ending America’s involvement in the Iraq war as soon as the president could make the retreat happen. When that took place, which was before it was strategically sensible, the fragile calm achieved but still being secured when Obama came into office was lost. The administration’s overall policy has been disastrous, and that did not happen because no one took Joe Biden’s advice.

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Can Being Broke Help Joe Beat Hillary?

He couldn’t resist it. With his putative 2016 rival Hillary Clinton still dealing with the backlash from her bogus claim of being broke after leaving the White House, Vice President Joe Biden laid it on thick today at the White House summit on working families by boasting of his own lean finances.

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He couldn’t resist it. With his putative 2016 rival Hillary Clinton still dealing with the backlash from her bogus claim of being broke after leaving the White House, Vice President Joe Biden laid it on thick today at the White House summit on working families by boasting of his own lean finances.

Biden may well have been “the poorest man in Congress” during his 36 years in the Senate. But his claims that he didn’t “own a single stock or bond” and “no savings accounts” was not factually correct. He does have some savings and there are some investments in his wife’s name. Though his net worth of approximately $800,000 makes him a pauper compared to most Washington politicians, with annual income in the $400,000 range (including $2,200 a month from the Secret Service in rent payments for the use of a building at his Delaware home), no one need worry about him.

There’s little doubt that Biden hopes that highlighting his relatively modest means will remind Democrats that they have an alternative to Clinton as she slogs through a book tour that has brought her as many negative headlines as good ones. However, anyone who thinks that the so-called party of the people would be more inclined to nominate a middle class candidate over one of the now demonstrably wealthy Clintons knows nothing about American politics or Democrats.

Like the English, who have always been known to “love a lord” even as they resented the privileges of the ruling class, Americans generally like rich people. That may even be truer of the party that claims to represent the interests of working people and to be in perpetual war with Wall Street than it is of the Republicans who are generally billed as the party of business. On this point I agree with Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, who also pours cold water on the notion that Biden has any advantage with Democratic voters on the question of income.

While the GOP has had its share of wealthy standard-bearers (Mitt Romney, John McCain, the Bushes, and Theodore Roosevelt being the most prominent examples in the 20th and early 21st centuries), the Democrats have shown even more of a weakness for swells than the Republicans.

If we ignore Barack Obama, who entered the White House a relatively wealthy man due to the sales of his books and his wife’s income but came from a humble background, Bill Clinton was actually the last non-rich Democratic presidential candidate. Al Gore (who has grown far richer due to his exploitation of “green” economics and his sale of a cable channel without an audience to Al Jazeera) and John Kerry were both extremely wealthy. Going back further, you discover not only have the Democrats often nominated wealthy men, the richest tend to be the most popular, i.e. John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Looked at in that context, over the course of the last century, Democrats have always been suckers for the rich guy who claims to defend the interests of the little guy at the expense of his fellow millionaires.

Thus, if Joe Biden thinks he can counter Hillary’s compelling narrative as the first female president with one that touts his middle class background and relatively thin back account, he is probably wasting his time. Democrats get as much, if not more of their money these days from the wealthy, including those on Wall Street.

There are some rich people Democrats don’t like: Republicans. Obama’s campaign relentlessly harped on Romney’s wealth not because their voters aren’t attracted to the lifestyles of the rich and famous but because they were able to claim that the GOP candidate was essentially self-interested as well as out of touch with ordinary Americans. Romney’s inability to connect with most voters, a trait that had to do with his shortcomings as a politician rather than his money, made the charge stick. While income inequality is a meme liberals like to use against their opponents, they’ve never yet applied the same standard to their own candidates. Being a member of the “one percent” is no bar to Democrat applause so long as the member of that club is willing to attack other one-percenters.

It is true that Hillary is hopelessly out of touch with most Americans as her clueless line about being “dead broke” when she left the White House with an $8 million book advance in her pocket indicated. But don’t expect Democratic primary voters to hold it against her. Biden is so far behind Hillary it’s hard to imagine anything she could do or say to be denied the nomination (other, that is, than refusing to run). Indeed, if she were smart, she’d stop trying to pretend to be middle class and embrace her status as one of the nation’s elites with more gusto. Nobody cares if she has money but they don’t like a woman who has largely lived at the expense of the public pretending that she is just an ordinary person. It will work a lot better and save her from further embarrassment about hypocritically fretting over the travails of financing multiple homes even as she receives $200,000 speaking fees.

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What Kind of Iraq Did Obama Inherit?

A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

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A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

Defenders of Mr. Obama are now insisting that the president is fault-free when it comes to the SOFA failure. But this is an effort at revisionism. On the matter of the SOFA, this story by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins makes it clear that (a) the Maliki government (which is certainly problematic) wanted to maintain a U.S. presence in Iraq; (b) it would have made a significant difference in keeping Iraq pacified; and (c) the Obama administration was not serious about re-negotiating a SOFA agreement. In the words of Mr. Filkins:

President Obama, too, was ambivalent about retaining even a small force in Iraq. For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis—like how many troops they wanted to leave behind—because the Administration had not decided. “We got no guidance from the White House,” [James Jeffrey, the Amerian Ambassador to Iraq at the time] told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ” At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.

And then there’s this:

Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told me that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. “There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,” he said. “Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.” But U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. [emphasis added]

To sum up, then: post-surge, Iraq was making significant progress on virtually every front. The Obama administration said as much. The president was not engaged or eager to sign a new SOFA. A full withdrawal was the right decision. His own top advisers admitted as much. The president had long argued he wanted all American troops out of Iraq during his presidency, and he got his wish. He met his goal.

The problem is that in getting what he wanted, Mr. Obama may well have opened the gates of hell in the Middle East.

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Abolish the Vice Presidency

The drama surrounding Hillary Clinton’s prospective candidacy has made writing about the 2016 presidential election nearly unavoidable. But the possibility of a Clinton coronation has led to some expanded predictions: we’re now–in mid-2014–talking about running mates. This was primarily driven by the suggestion that Democrats were positioning San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for a spot on the 2016 ticket.

That led to speculation over who the Republicans would nominate for vice president, and since in this scenario they’d be running against two “historic” nominees, the question simply becomes one of race and gender identity politics. Not content with Castro, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein is now fretting over the Democrats’ veep bench for 2016, though Doug Mataconis has an excellent post offering Bernstein some perspective on the matter.

But there’s a way out of this madness, and this is a good opportunity do something that’s made sense for a very long time: abolish the vice presidency.

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The drama surrounding Hillary Clinton’s prospective candidacy has made writing about the 2016 presidential election nearly unavoidable. But the possibility of a Clinton coronation has led to some expanded predictions: we’re now–in mid-2014–talking about running mates. This was primarily driven by the suggestion that Democrats were positioning San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for a spot on the 2016 ticket.

That led to speculation over who the Republicans would nominate for vice president, and since in this scenario they’d be running against two “historic” nominees, the question simply becomes one of race and gender identity politics. Not content with Castro, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein is now fretting over the Democrats’ veep bench for 2016, though Doug Mataconis has an excellent post offering Bernstein some perspective on the matter.

But there’s a way out of this madness, and this is a good opportunity do something that’s made sense for a very long time: abolish the vice presidency.

It’s not a new idea, but it’s worth revisiting now that the parties are apparently choosing the next-in-line by playing the matching game. This certainly isn’t an upgrade over the last method, in which presidential nominees placed questionable geographic bets with their veep selections. That at least had the advantage of choosing a recognized and relatively popular–and thus, usually experienced–legislator or governor.

But we don’t need to agonize over how we choose the vice president. We can free ourselves by getting rid of the vice presidency altogether. First and foremost, the vice presidency has strayed–and actually, it did so almost from the very beginning–from the Founders’ idea of the position, which they weren’t exactly wild about to start with. As Arthur Schlesinger wrote in his 1974 Atlantic essay:

The vice presidency was put into the Constitution for one reason, and one reason alone. Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, a member of the committee that originated the idea, conceded at the Convention that “such an office as vice-president was not wanted. It was introduced only for the sake of a valuable mode of election which required two to be chosen at the same time.” This is an essential but neglected point. The theory of presidential elections embodied in the Constitution was that if electors had to vote for two men without designating which was to be President and which Vice President, and if one of these men had, as the Constitution required, to be from another state, then both men who topped the poll would be of the highest quality, and the republic would be safe in the hands of either. …

In 1800 the Republicans gave the same number of electoral votes to Jefferson, their presidential choice, as they gave to Aaron Burr, a man of undoubted talents who, however, was trusted by no one in the long course of American history, except his daughter Theodosia and Gore Vidal. Burr was nearly chosen President, though the voters never intended him for the presidency. The fear of comparable slipups in 1804 led to the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment requiring the electoral college to vote separately for President and Vice President.

The abolition of the “valuable mode of election” canceled the purpose of the Founding Fathers in having a Vice President at all.

Indeed it did. What’s frustrating about the evolution of the vice presidency is that it was not only predictable but predicted. All throughout American history politicians and commentators offered nothing toward the office but acid and pity. (Schlesinger’s own article begins: “We have a Vice President again, and Mr. Ford deserves all our sympathy.”)

The vice presidency gains a fair amount of legitimacy from the fact that, technically, he or she has been elected by national vote. But my goodness that “technically” should not get the office so far. The American people vote for the top of the ticket. The vice presidential nominee is, in the minds of the voters at least, an add-on. When current Vice President Joe Biden ran for the top job, the reaction of his own party’s voters was consistent, overwhelming rejection. He is something like a sixty-point underdog to win his own party’s nomination to succeed the president he now serves.

The electoral legitimacy of the vice president is not only dubious, therefore, but dangerous. What we have is a next-in-line who basically got there by appointment and is often far less prepared to take over than other members of the president’s Cabinet. There are exceptions, of course, but they are just that.

So who would replace the vice president in the line of automatic succession? Anyone else would possess less electoral legitimacy than the current vice president unless it was a leader of one of the houses of Congress, in which case upon presidential vacancy the high office could switch parties without an election, an outcome that should be avoided.

Perhaps someone–the secretary of state, say–could take over on a provisional basis while a national election could be organized. Ideally they would not be considered “president,” but that has its own drawbacks: could they sign bills or treaties? The following election would have to take place relatively soon, which means a brief nominating and general-election period. But that has advantages. After all, we have the opposite now, and we’re left filling time and space by talking, regrettably, about vice-presidential nominees.

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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.

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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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Finish the Sentence, Mr. Vice President

With Russian provocations raising the temperature in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration rightly felt it was time to brush back Moscow with a gesture that would reinforce the American determination not to acquiesce in further attacks on the former Soviet republic. But with Russian officials and their shock troops on the ground in Ukraine increasing pressure on Kiev to surrender and blaming any resistance to this aggression on the United States, it appears that Vice President Biden’s trip to the area and his stern warnings were in vain.

Biden was completely in the right when he declared, “no nation has the right to simply grab land from another” as well as when he denounced Russia’s “illegal occupation” of Crimea and said Moscow should curb the activities of its armed operatives inside Ukraine.

But the administration’s problem—and that of beleaguered Ukraine—is that it’s too late for Washington to talk its way out of this mess. After spending years working hard to appease the Russians and to give them effective vetoes over various U.S. foreign-policy initiatives such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, the idea that having Biden, of all people, go to Kiev and deliver a few characteristically bombastic statements will do anything to restrain Moscow is absurd. As Senator John McCain has noted, though Biden’s warnings are correct, they lacked an “or else” clause to make them effective. If Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that there is literally nothing that the U.S. will do stop him from seizing eastern Ukraine or any other former Soviet territory, what’s the point of having Biden say anything?

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With Russian provocations raising the temperature in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration rightly felt it was time to brush back Moscow with a gesture that would reinforce the American determination not to acquiesce in further attacks on the former Soviet republic. But with Russian officials and their shock troops on the ground in Ukraine increasing pressure on Kiev to surrender and blaming any resistance to this aggression on the United States, it appears that Vice President Biden’s trip to the area and his stern warnings were in vain.

Biden was completely in the right when he declared, “no nation has the right to simply grab land from another” as well as when he denounced Russia’s “illegal occupation” of Crimea and said Moscow should curb the activities of its armed operatives inside Ukraine.

But the administration’s problem—and that of beleaguered Ukraine—is that it’s too late for Washington to talk its way out of this mess. After spending years working hard to appease the Russians and to give them effective vetoes over various U.S. foreign-policy initiatives such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, the idea that having Biden, of all people, go to Kiev and deliver a few characteristically bombastic statements will do anything to restrain Moscow is absurd. As Senator John McCain has noted, though Biden’s warnings are correct, they lacked an “or else” clause to make them effective. If Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that there is literally nothing that the U.S. will do stop him from seizing eastern Ukraine or any other former Soviet territory, what’s the point of having Biden say anything?

If the substance of Biden’s remarks was to encourage the Ukrainians to defend their territory against Russian aggression, as they have every right to do, the most important question facing the West now is: what exactly is President Obama prepared to do to back them up if, as seems entirely possible, Putin responds by sending in troops to seize whatever parts of Ukraine he covets? The answer from the administration isn’t exactly a secret. Since the U.S. won’t supply Ukraine with weapons or make credible threats to enforce real sanctions on Russia—as opposed to the laughable sanctions on individual Putin cronies that have already been enacted—there is no reason for Moscow to view Biden’s visit as a deterrent to further aggression. Indeed, by making those empty statements, Biden may have actually helped Putin further justify his slanders about the dispute with Ukraine being largely the result of American interference.

American diplomacy on the subject has been equally risible as the agreement worked out by Secretary of State John Kerry with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has proven to be worth as much as the agreements he previously worked out with them on Syria and Iran.

No sane American would choose to ignite a shooting war with Russia over Ukraine. But the U.S. is obligated by treaty to defend those former outposts of the Russian empire that are now NATO members. Yet, like Biden’s bloviating, the decision to send a token number of U.S. troops to Poland for military exercises isn’t likely to impress Putin.

If this dilemma seems familiar, it should. Much like the position that the U.S. finds itself in with regard to Syria, President Obama has few options and none of them are good. Years of sending the wrong messages to Moscow can’t be undone with a few weak gestures at this late date. Just as the situation in Syria might have been improved by decisive U.S. action in the early stages of that civil war, making sure Putin understood that the U.S. would regard any repeat of Russian aggression against Georgia elsewhere as a game changer might have made a difference this year when a pro-Moscow puppet was toppled in Kiev. Instead, the farcical “Russia reset” championed by Hillary Clinton and continued by Kerry only made the current debacle more likely.

It bears repeating that the 2004-05 Orange Revolution in Ukraine provided Putin with the same opportunity to seize Ukrainian territory he had this year. But he was then uncertain about international reaction to projecting force beyond his borders. Now he has no such doubts. And it is almost certainly too late to create any reason for Putin to hesitate in time to save Ukraine, though clearly the U.S. can and should do what it can to aid Ukrainian self-defense.

The debate about what to do about the crisis in Ukraine is a frustrating one and, because of the lack of decent options for the U.S. at this point, it could be used to bolster support for neo-isolationist positions that would call for Americans to stop caring about the fate of countries that are marked for partition by their more powerful neighbors. But the moral of the story is not that the U.S. shouldn’t seek to restrain Russia. It’s that Obama’s years of weakness have made it impossible for us to defend our interests and our friends. As Biden’s empty rhetoric echoes across Eastern Europe this week, those allies who look to their alliance with the U.S. as a foundation of their defense may be forgiven for worrying about the value of American promises.

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Clinton’s Advantage over Biden: She Got Out in Time

The volume of coverage for the 2016 presidential election has put a premium on any analysis that makes an original (but plausible) point. A touch of contrarianism always helps as well, which makes Joel K. Goldstein’s guest column at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball website intriguing. Goldstein argues that the general assumption that the vice presidency is a poor launching pad for the presidency is based on faulty logic and bad numbers.

He references the current corollary, the belief that Joe Biden–already an underdog against Hillary Clinton–simply cannot win in 2016. Goldstein isn’t attempting to boost a Biden candidacy, but he seeks to correct the basis for skepticism toward American veeps. They have a better record, when we account for various important and mitigating variables, than we tend to think. He writes:

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The volume of coverage for the 2016 presidential election has put a premium on any analysis that makes an original (but plausible) point. A touch of contrarianism always helps as well, which makes Joel K. Goldstein’s guest column at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball website intriguing. Goldstein argues that the general assumption that the vice presidency is a poor launching pad for the presidency is based on faulty logic and bad numbers.

He references the current corollary, the belief that Joe Biden–already an underdog against Hillary Clinton–simply cannot win in 2016. Goldstein isn’t attempting to boost a Biden candidacy, but he seeks to correct the basis for skepticism toward American veeps. They have a better record, when we account for various important and mitigating variables, than we tend to think. He writes:

Those who dismiss the vice presidency as a good source of presidential candidates often note that only four of the 47 men who have held the nation’s second office were elected president upon the retirement of the chief executive with whom they served. Yet the 1/12 ratio is a highly misleading measure. Nine of the 47 vice presidents became president through the death or resignation of their predecessor. Accordingly, they could not have been elected directly from the vice presidency. Nor could most of the seven vice presidents who died in office or the two who resigned. (Yes, these numbers include George Clinton and John C. Calhoun, who theoretically could have been elected president before serving a second vice presidential term with a new president. But being passed over for James Madison and Andrew Jackson respectively is hardly a disgrace.) Of the remaining 29 vice presidents, 12 (including Biden) were effectively blocked because a president of their party with whom they served sought another term.

Of the 17 other sitting vice presidents, eight were chosen as a national presidential candidate and four were elected. So once the denominator is reduced by eliminating those sitting VPs who essentially could not have succeeded their predecessor by election, some 47% of America’s sitting vice presidents have been nominated for the presidency (8/17), and 24% of the eligible pool were elected (4/17). Of the nine others, some, like Dick Cheney, credibly disclaimed any presidential ambition.

Though the modern era would seem to be less hospitable to sitting vice presidents than some earlier eras, Goldstein writes that this isn’t so: “since 1953, each of the four sitting vice presidents who sought the presidency following the retirement of the incumbent (Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore) won the nomination and were either elected (Bush) or ran dead-even races for president against formidable opponents.”

Additionally, he writes, we tend to use arguments against the vice president that we don’t against others. We like to say, for example, that Americans are more likely to elect a governor as president. But we don’t talk about all the governors who don’t become president, or the odds that the successful governor-turned-president had to overcome.

I don’t intend to argue with Goldstein’s numbers. But I would say that one aspect of this that directly affects Biden’s chances has to do with the popularity and perceived success of the administration in which the veep serves. Look at the vice presidents Goldstein mentions. Nixon served Eisenhower, who left office (via Gallup) with a 59 percent approval rating. George H.W. Bush served Reagan, who left office with a 63 percent approval rating. Gore served Bill Clinton, who left office at 66 percent approval. Humphrey served Lyndon Johnson, who left with 49 percent approval.

We don’t know where Barack Obama will fall on that list. But he’s struggling now, and this is of particular concern for Biden because his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, has already left the administration and can thus, in classic Clinton form, ditch unpopular policies and pretend to have had strong strategic instincts from the beginning. Biden cannot.

For example, Biden announced the administration’s “reset” with Russia, which turned out to be an appalling fiasco. But Clinton, as the nation’s chief diplomat, took high-profile stewardship of the reset. The disastrous policy still follows Biden around, as he must survey the wreckage of his administration’s failures and try to contain the damage. Clinton mocked Mitt Romney’s contention about Russia’s geopolitical threat to America, but now, freed from the administration, she can simply pretend she isn’t totally and catastrophically naïve about Russia:

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has urged Canada to forge a unified front with its U.S. neighbour to counter what she portrayed as heightened aggression by Russia in the Arctic.

Speaking to a sold-out crowd in Montreal on Tuesday night, the former first lady and possible future presidential candidate used her podium to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions not just in Ukraine, but closer to Canada’s borders.

Putin is coming for you, Canada! This comes on the heels of Clinton’s comparison of Putin to Hitler. Such verbal gymnastics are not so easy for Biden, who is still serving in this administration and therefore can’t rewrite his own history the way Clinton can. Which makes him much more likely to go down with the ship, as Clinton and her life raft float off in the distance.

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Biden’s Disingenuous NATO Promises

Foreign-policy watchers on Twitter had some fun with the Associated Press when the newswire tweeted this morning: “BREAKING: Vice President Biden says US will respond to any aggression against NATO allies.” It wasn’t exactly “breaking” news that an attack on NATO would elicit a response from NATO. But I think Biden’s proclamation–“breaking” or not–is in fact worth discussing, for two reasons.

First, it should be a given that the U.S. will defend its NATO allies, but in the Obama era of resets and red lines, Washington has sought any excuse possible to avoid confrontation, even if it meant reneging on promises or obligations. Add to that the fact that the Obama administration has undercut America’s relationship with strategic allies–such as Poland, with which Obama has picked unnecessary diplomatic fights–and NATO countries probably do need to hear an explicit promise from the White House that this administration would fulfill its obligations.

But the other reason is that this promise–empty or not–is still a disingenuous sleight of hand. The recent crisis took place in Ukraine, which is not in NATO. This is not a coincidence. In recent years, Putin’s Russia has taken to invading and occupying foreign countries in Russia’s near-abroad under the pretext of “protecting” Russian or pro-Russian populations. These invasions are carried out against non-NATO countries. Had they been against NATO countries, Putin would have sparked wars involving stronger countries–such as the U.S.

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Foreign-policy watchers on Twitter had some fun with the Associated Press when the newswire tweeted this morning: “BREAKING: Vice President Biden says US will respond to any aggression against NATO allies.” It wasn’t exactly “breaking” news that an attack on NATO would elicit a response from NATO. But I think Biden’s proclamation–“breaking” or not–is in fact worth discussing, for two reasons.

First, it should be a given that the U.S. will defend its NATO allies, but in the Obama era of resets and red lines, Washington has sought any excuse possible to avoid confrontation, even if it meant reneging on promises or obligations. Add to that the fact that the Obama administration has undercut America’s relationship with strategic allies–such as Poland, with which Obama has picked unnecessary diplomatic fights–and NATO countries probably do need to hear an explicit promise from the White House that this administration would fulfill its obligations.

But the other reason is that this promise–empty or not–is still a disingenuous sleight of hand. The recent crisis took place in Ukraine, which is not in NATO. This is not a coincidence. In recent years, Putin’s Russia has taken to invading and occupying foreign countries in Russia’s near-abroad under the pretext of “protecting” Russian or pro-Russian populations. These invasions are carried out against non-NATO countries. Had they been against NATO countries, Putin would have sparked wars involving stronger countries–such as the U.S.

The previous instance was Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. In seeking to differentiate the Ukraine invasion from the Georgia invasion–which elicited outrage mostly from the right, as the American left’s anti-Bush hysteria got the better of them and extended to pro-Bush foreign leaders–even some knowledgeable observers have taken refuge in the notion that Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili was goaded “into firing the first shot.”

This is preposterous, and it’s worth reviewing why in order to understand how Putin’s Russia treats its non-NATO neighbors. A good summary of the preceding events is contained in Andrei Illarionov’s essay in a book on the 2008 war, in which Illarionov reviews the Russian preparation for eventual war.

Russia began supplying one breakaway region, South Ossetia, with military equipment–including tanks and ammunition–before Saakashvili became part of the Georgian government. In fact, almost as soon as Putin joined Yeltsin’s government Russia began taking hostile measures against Georgia, which only increased as Putin became president and consolidated power. With tensions rising in 2002, Russia bombed Georgian territory. Soon after that, Putin claimed the right to take military action against Georgia under the guise of anti-terror missions.

Russia then staffed up South Ossetia’s government with Russian defense officials and sent more military equipment. Russia’s defense minister then echoed Putin’s threats to attack Georgia. More military goods along with Russian advisors would follow. The next year, Russia distributed Russian passports to South Ossetians with the declaration that it had an obligation to defend its citizens. More shelling of Georgian territory took place as well as a well-publicized attack on Georgian peacekeepers. Later that year, Georgian power lines were successfully attacked. The following year, a bombing traced to Russia at a Georgian police headquarters killed three.

Russia increased its construction of military bases and its transfer of arms and ammunition to breakaway Georgian territory. The following years had more of the same, with 2007 bringing major shelling of Georgian civilian territory and sustained military attacks. In the days before the war broke out in 2008, South Ossetian forces had begun sustained attacks on Georgian targets and territory. Georgia responded to South Ossetia, and Russia invaded Georgia.

To those who weren’t paying attention, the Russian attack on Ukraine came as something of a surprise. But this is how Russia behaves toward non-NATO states. So Joe Biden’s assurances to NATO states that the U.S. will stand by them is not a show of strength in the face of Russian expansionism. It’s a show of weakness, because it’s an implicit, but unmistakable, declaration that nothing has changed. If you’re not in NATO, you’re on your own. And by the way, the Obama administration doesn’t want you in NATO, whoever you are.

It’s nice to promise protection to states like Poland, which we have a record of betraying and whose leaders probably don’t find it so inspiring when Obama’s fans compare him to FDR. But the question is what to do about non-NATO states. George W. Bush’s preference was to put states like Ukraine and Georgia on the road to NATO membership and fuller democratization. The weak states in the region should ask Biden what he and his boss think they should do since they’re specifically excluded from the White House’s guarantees.

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Romney’s Vindication Is Complete

In the summer of 2012, Politico broke the news that Mitt Romney was planning to travel abroad to make a series of speeches intended to earn some foreign-policy credibility in his effort to defeat Barack Obama. One item on the itinerary was expected to be “a public address in Poland, a steadfast American ally during the Bush years and a country that shares Romney’s wariness toward Russia.” It made perfect sense: Russia had been causing trouble in its near abroad and in the Middle East, and allies who had been ignored (or worse) by the Obama administration were justifiably nervous.

To Obama-era Democrats, however, obsessed with erasing the Cold War from memory, countries like Poland stopped existing the moment they became independent from Moscow. Obama, in one of his trademark leaden attempts at humor, even dipped into junior-high parlance and taunted Romney that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” (Perhaps he was all out of knock-knock jokes.) Hence all the nonsense about blaming NATO enlargement for Vladimir Putin’s actions, as if the countries themselves should have no say in their own affairs but still be subject to Russia’s veto.

The idea of blaming NATO has been discredited of course, thoroughly refuted by events: Obama froze NATO expansion long before Russia invaded Ukraine, for example. But the idea of even recognizing those countries’ existence is generally treated as preposterous by the left, and so Romney’s proposed itinerary was received in the media as though he were visiting another planet. Laura Rozen tweeted that “his reported itinerary only seems 25 [years] out of date”–a sign that she was a better presidential stenographer than humorist. She followed that up later that month by devoting an entire story to various Obama administration officials’ equally ignorant snarking about Romney’s trip.

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In the summer of 2012, Politico broke the news that Mitt Romney was planning to travel abroad to make a series of speeches intended to earn some foreign-policy credibility in his effort to defeat Barack Obama. One item on the itinerary was expected to be “a public address in Poland, a steadfast American ally during the Bush years and a country that shares Romney’s wariness toward Russia.” It made perfect sense: Russia had been causing trouble in its near abroad and in the Middle East, and allies who had been ignored (or worse) by the Obama administration were justifiably nervous.

To Obama-era Democrats, however, obsessed with erasing the Cold War from memory, countries like Poland stopped existing the moment they became independent from Moscow. Obama, in one of his trademark leaden attempts at humor, even dipped into junior-high parlance and taunted Romney that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” (Perhaps he was all out of knock-knock jokes.) Hence all the nonsense about blaming NATO enlargement for Vladimir Putin’s actions, as if the countries themselves should have no say in their own affairs but still be subject to Russia’s veto.

The idea of blaming NATO has been discredited of course, thoroughly refuted by events: Obama froze NATO expansion long before Russia invaded Ukraine, for example. But the idea of even recognizing those countries’ existence is generally treated as preposterous by the left, and so Romney’s proposed itinerary was received in the media as though he were visiting another planet. Laura Rozen tweeted that “his reported itinerary only seems 25 [years] out of date”–a sign that she was a better presidential stenographer than humorist. She followed that up later that month by devoting an entire story to various Obama administration officials’ equally ignorant snarking about Romney’s trip.

There were signs that the media had begun to figure out that they’d been had–that the Obama White House talking points they were parroting were making them look ridiculous. As Russia took center stage on world affairs in recent months, Romney began receiving respectful hearings on liberal cable news outlets and a refrain of “Romney was right” could be heard bouncing around among the left. Now Vice President Joe Biden is visiting Poland on his own reassurance tour and Romney has taken to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to describe the strategic and diplomatic failures that led to this point. This morning, the New York Times’s Mark Landler tweeted:

Sitting in Warsaw reading Mitt Romney on POTUS: I think we can all agree the 80′s got its foreign policy back.

Romney’s op-ed in the Journal is being discussed as a classic “I told you so,” but Romney’s far too polite to say it. It’s also not necessary. Nonetheless, he certainly does criticize Obama’s leadership, noting that each time a potential crisis turns into an actual crisis, the president throws up his hands and defensively demands just what he’s supposed to do about it. There’s a reason for that, Romney writes:

A large part of the answer is our leader’s terrible timing. In virtually every foreign-affairs crisis we have faced these past five years, there was a point when America had good choices and good options. There was a juncture when America had the potential to influence events. But we failed to act at the propitious point; that moment having passed, we were left without acceptable options. In foreign affairs as in life, there is, as Shakespeare had it, “a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

If anything, Romney is actually too charitable toward Obama when he writes:

When protests in Ukraine grew and violence ensued, it was surely evident to people in the intelligence community—and to the White House—that President Putin might try to take advantage of the situation to capture Crimea, or more. That was the time to talk with our global allies about punishments and sanctions, to secure their solidarity, and to communicate these to the Russian president. These steps, plus assurances that we would not exclude Russia from its base in Sevastopol or threaten its influence in Kiev, might have dissuaded him from invasion.

But in fact it’s not clear the administration knew anything of the sort. The intelligence community leaked that there would surely be no Russian invasion on the eve of the Russian invasion. Romney assumes that because he understands Putin and is therefore able to predict his behavior with some accuracy, the president does as well. The evidence suggests, however, that this isn’t the case. It remains to be seen if Obama finally gets it, now that Putin has made his point impossible to ignore.

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Of Course Joe Biden Will Run in 2016

Vice President Joe Biden isn’t just a bloviating cliché machine when on the stump. He inspires the same qualities in all who seek to write about him. Thus, it’s little surprise that “Joe Biden in Winter,” Glenn Thrush’s lengthy profile of the vice president published today in Politico Magazine, would resort to the usual tags of “happy warrior” and “motor mouth” when describing Biden. But the piece, which mixes agonizing detail with some keen insights about this career politician, does get one big thing right about him that most of those commenting on the likelihood of Biden running for president in 2016 generally don’t: there’s no way Biden is passing on his last chance to achieve a lifelong dream.

Thrush’s history of Biden’s ups and downs with President Obama and his inner circle is the kind of inside baseball account that resonates with a certain kind of political junkie. And policy types will be interested in the fact that he has more in common with his predecessor Dick Cheney in terms of influence than he does with Al Gore. But the only really important facts here are the ones that all point toward a Biden presidential bid in 2016. It’s not just that Biden is seen here quoting Dylan Thomas’s poem in which he writes “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Rather, it’s that every fiber of his still vibrant being has been aiming at a presidency throughout his career. While most of us simply assume, with very good reason, that he has absolutely no chance to beat Hillary Clinton if she decides to run, Biden looks at the situation from a completely different angle. He thinks he should be president. Indeed, he has always thought so and the idea that he would get as close to it as he is now without giving it a try is simply inconceivable if you know anything about him.

After all, there is one pertinent fact about the Biden-Clinton rivalry that virtually everyone seems to forget. Hillary Clinton was the inevitable Democratic nominee in 2008 just as she is in 2016. Leading up to that year, Biden was just a senator, not a heartbeat away from the presidency. And his only previous attempt to win the presidency wasn’t just a flop. His 1988 run was a devastating humiliation that collapsed after it was revealed that he had not only plagiarized his stump campaign speech from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock but also lied about his law school record and seemingly buried his national ambitions forever. But Biden was undeterred and tried again, assuming it was his last shot at the presidency. If he didn’t shy away from taking on Hillary then, why would he do so now as the sitting vice president?

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Vice President Joe Biden isn’t just a bloviating cliché machine when on the stump. He inspires the same qualities in all who seek to write about him. Thus, it’s little surprise that “Joe Biden in Winter,” Glenn Thrush’s lengthy profile of the vice president published today in Politico Magazine, would resort to the usual tags of “happy warrior” and “motor mouth” when describing Biden. But the piece, which mixes agonizing detail with some keen insights about this career politician, does get one big thing right about him that most of those commenting on the likelihood of Biden running for president in 2016 generally don’t: there’s no way Biden is passing on his last chance to achieve a lifelong dream.

Thrush’s history of Biden’s ups and downs with President Obama and his inner circle is the kind of inside baseball account that resonates with a certain kind of political junkie. And policy types will be interested in the fact that he has more in common with his predecessor Dick Cheney in terms of influence than he does with Al Gore. But the only really important facts here are the ones that all point toward a Biden presidential bid in 2016. It’s not just that Biden is seen here quoting Dylan Thomas’s poem in which he writes “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Rather, it’s that every fiber of his still vibrant being has been aiming at a presidency throughout his career. While most of us simply assume, with very good reason, that he has absolutely no chance to beat Hillary Clinton if she decides to run, Biden looks at the situation from a completely different angle. He thinks he should be president. Indeed, he has always thought so and the idea that he would get as close to it as he is now without giving it a try is simply inconceivable if you know anything about him.

After all, there is one pertinent fact about the Biden-Clinton rivalry that virtually everyone seems to forget. Hillary Clinton was the inevitable Democratic nominee in 2008 just as she is in 2016. Leading up to that year, Biden was just a senator, not a heartbeat away from the presidency. And his only previous attempt to win the presidency wasn’t just a flop. His 1988 run was a devastating humiliation that collapsed after it was revealed that he had not only plagiarized his stump campaign speech from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock but also lied about his law school record and seemingly buried his national ambitions forever. But Biden was undeterred and tried again, assuming it was his last shot at the presidency. If he didn’t shy away from taking on Hillary then, why would he do so now as the sitting vice president?

The point here isn’t just that the thumbnail profile of Biden as a “happy warrior” who can’t conceive of life outside of politics is true. It’s that Biden truly believes he should be president. Biden didn’t run in 2008 simply because he wanted the big desk in the Oval Office. He thought Americans deserved one last chance to do the right thing and make him president, as he thought they should have done in 1988. The fact that they didn’t was, in his estimation, their mistake, not his.

As Thrush correctly notes, Biden was thinking 2016 all through 2011 and 2012, despite the fact that president’s campaign staff refused to let him raise money in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, prime turf for a Democrat. Nor will he be put off by not having a PAC that will be able distribute campaign cash to Democrats who might help him in two years. Being cut out of the budget negotiations in Congress by a jealous Harry Reid hasn’t deflated Biden’s conception of himself as vital to the administration. The same applies to the criticism that has rained down on his head from observers of his often-unhelpful role in shaping U.S. foreign and defense policy during the last five years. Nothing that has happened or could happen will ever convince Joe Biden he shouldn’t be president.

To acknowledge this about him is not to exaggerate his chances of winning the big prize. Even if Clinton doesn’t run, Biden is a one-man gaffe machine and his well-earned gasbag reputation combined with his age (he’ll be 73 during the 2016 primaries) would render him vulnerable to potential Democratic challengers, all of whom will be able to depict themselves as newcomers by comparison. If Clinton does run, his chances of beating her are slim to none. But, as Thrush correctly concludes, that won’t stop him:

The things that make Biden so unfashionable—his affection for politics and the politicians who practice it, his boundless love of bullshitting, the rush he gets from cutting a deal—would, at the very least, offer a stark contrast to Clintonworld’s calculated opacity, palace intrigue and cult of personality.

Biden is the son of a car salesman and has practiced politics like one for over 40 years in public life. Even if he knows he won’t win, he won’t pass up the chance to sell himself to the American people one more time.

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How China Undercuts International Order in East Asia

Since Beijing established its controversial air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large part of the East China Sea last November, the Obama administration has done everything possible to avoid a political confrontation. While U.S. military jets are reported to have ignored the ADIZ and continued regular flights, Vice President Biden very conspicuously refused during his December visit to Beijing to demand that China roll back the zone. Moreover, the State Department advised U.S. civilian airliners to comply with Beijing’s demands. Washington’s actions are part of a larger trend of failing to uphold international order in East Asia.

This week, America’s top commander in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told reporters that the Chinese military has been “acting professionally” in the skies near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Unfortunately, news reports provided little clarity as to just what the Chinese are doing, professionally or otherwise, and where and how often U.S. jets are flying. This is a problem because the Obama administration has consistently refused to explain just why China’s particular ADIZ both conflicts with international law and is highly destabilizing.

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Since Beijing established its controversial air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large part of the East China Sea last November, the Obama administration has done everything possible to avoid a political confrontation. While U.S. military jets are reported to have ignored the ADIZ and continued regular flights, Vice President Biden very conspicuously refused during his December visit to Beijing to demand that China roll back the zone. Moreover, the State Department advised U.S. civilian airliners to comply with Beijing’s demands. Washington’s actions are part of a larger trend of failing to uphold international order in East Asia.

This week, America’s top commander in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told reporters that the Chinese military has been “acting professionally” in the skies near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Unfortunately, news reports provided little clarity as to just what the Chinese are doing, professionally or otherwise, and where and how often U.S. jets are flying. This is a problem because the Obama administration has consistently refused to explain just why China’s particular ADIZ both conflicts with international law and is highly destabilizing.

First, China’s ADIZ is ostensibly applied to both civilian and military flights for purposes of identification, filing of flight plans, and the like. All other ADIZ’s, such as those of the United States, apply only to civilian flights, and only in the case that there is a valid concern that they are acting in a threatening manner towards U.S. territorial airspace. As pointed out by James Kraska, formerly of the U.S. Naval War College, among others, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory, allows “freedom of overflight” on the high seas, including through exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

Beijing is thus trying to change the status quo by warping the commonly accepted definition of an ADIZ. The U.S. has never fully explained that only China is attempting to control the activities of both civilian and foreign military aircraft by expanding the scope of an air defense zone. This is a prime example of what analysts mean when they talk about international “norms” and the danger to them of revisionist states like China.

Second, China’s ADIZ conflicts with the 1947 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which states that interception of civilian aircraft over sovereign territory is permissible only if “reasonable grounds” exist to assume that such flight was not innocent, and that states “must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight.”

Yet in announcing its ADIZ, Beijing said that “emergency defensive measures” would be taken against any aircraft that did not comply with its demands for identification in the international airspace that happened to fall within the ADIZ, regardless of the innocence of the flight. Beijing is thus both conflating sovereign and international airspace and violating the spirit of international law by pre-justifying the use of force. A State Department full of lawyers might have enjoyed pounding this point home, but little if anything has been said about it.

In addition, Beijing is ignoring the fact that all airspace is already divided into “Flight Identification Regions” for the management of civilian flights and is agreed to through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Beijing’s demand that innocent civilian airliners provide information when traveling through its ADIZ violates air traffic practice established more than 50 years ago. Again, Washington has been silent on this point.

Third, Washington should have repeatedly pointed out that only China has established an ADIZ that overlaps with those of other countries. Indeed, a primary reason for China’s zone is to extend its ownership claims over the contested Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan. Thus, Beijing set up its ADIZ over Japan’s own zone, which was established decades ago. In addition, China overlapped territory claimed by South Korea. In response, Seoul also extended its ADIZ, so that the East China Sea now has three overlapping air defense zones.

The Obama administration has refused to provide the specifics about how destabilizing this is. Instead, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel merely lamented that what the U.S. was most concerned about was that China established its ADIZ in a precipitous manner without preconsultation. While U.S. military leaders have talked about the potential for accidental confrontation, the real dangers are much broader. In refusing to defend customary practice, international law, and common sense, the administration is playing its part in undermining all of them. It is a steep price to pay for not wanting to antagonize an already antagonistic competitor.

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Biden Still Wrong on Afghanistan

“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”  –Bob Gates on Joe Biden.

Biden is obviously determined to maintain his perfect batting average, to judge from this Wall Street Journal article, which reports: “Vice President Joe Biden has resumed a push to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops from Afghanistan at year’s end, arguing for a far-smaller presence than many military officers would like to see, said officials briefed on the discussions.”

Apparently Biden, who has previously argued for splitting up both Iraq and Afghanistan into multiple countries, would like to see no more than 2,000 to 3,000 troops left behind–which, as the Journal notes, quoting officials who know what they’re talking about, “would be so limited that a full pullout would make more military sense.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine how this handful of troops, presumably dedicated to terrorist hunting, could function if the country were collapsing around their ears.

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“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”  –Bob Gates on Joe Biden.

Biden is obviously determined to maintain his perfect batting average, to judge from this Wall Street Journal article, which reports: “Vice President Joe Biden has resumed a push to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops from Afghanistan at year’s end, arguing for a far-smaller presence than many military officers would like to see, said officials briefed on the discussions.”

Apparently Biden, who has previously argued for splitting up both Iraq and Afghanistan into multiple countries, would like to see no more than 2,000 to 3,000 troops left behind–which, as the Journal notes, quoting officials who know what they’re talking about, “would be so limited that a full pullout would make more military sense.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine how this handful of troops, presumably dedicated to terrorist hunting, could function if the country were collapsing around their ears.

Even the “zero option” is apparently back on the table, thanks in no small part to Hamid Karzai’s infuriating and self-defeating unwillingness to sign the very agreement he negotiated to maintain U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But if all goes well with Afghanistan’s election, Karzai won’t be president much longer. The U.S. would be crazy to hold hostage our long-term policy in Afghanistan and the region to his whims–or to Biden’s misguided policy prescriptions.

If the U.S. were to draw down to nothing, or almost nothing, in Afghanistan, the impact would be catastrophic, as described by International Crisis Group analyst Graeme Smith in this New York Times op-ed. He writes, ” an unraveling of the Afghan state can be avoided, but it will require the international community to stay involved.” Afghan forces still need, he notes, “more helicopters, as well as logistics, intelligence and medical support,” not to mention funding.

None of that will be forthcoming unless there is an American and NATO troop contingent robust enough to deliver it.

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Gates Book Timing Helped Obama

President Obama earned some civility points yesterday by refusing to fire back at Robert Gates after the former secretary of defense disparaged aspects of his leadership style as well as taking shots at Vice President Biden and Hillary Clinton in his new memoir. While Obama admitted he was “irked” by the timing of the publication of the book, he praised the former secretary as an “outstanding” cabinet member and friend. Though Democrats were blasting Gates for writing a book that was mined for negative quotes about their two leading presidential contenders in 2016, even a Republican like John McCain said that he should have waited until the administration he served was out of office before writing a memoir.

Gates’s critics may have a point about Washington etiquette, though few liberals protested when Scott McClellan, who had served as George W. Bush’s press secretary, penned a tell-all memoir that blasted his boss and his policies. The notion that there should be a waiting period before those who serve in government can write books seems to be more about good manners than ethics. But despite the nasty nature of some of the exchanges between Gates and administration defenders, the president was right to tread softly on the issue. Though some of the book doesn’t do much to make the president and his colleagues look good on some points, by waiting until Obama was safely reelected before coming clean about Obama’s war leadership, Gates did his former boss a huge favor and the voters a disservice.

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President Obama earned some civility points yesterday by refusing to fire back at Robert Gates after the former secretary of defense disparaged aspects of his leadership style as well as taking shots at Vice President Biden and Hillary Clinton in his new memoir. While Obama admitted he was “irked” by the timing of the publication of the book, he praised the former secretary as an “outstanding” cabinet member and friend. Though Democrats were blasting Gates for writing a book that was mined for negative quotes about their two leading presidential contenders in 2016, even a Republican like John McCain said that he should have waited until the administration he served was out of office before writing a memoir.

Gates’s critics may have a point about Washington etiquette, though few liberals protested when Scott McClellan, who had served as George W. Bush’s press secretary, penned a tell-all memoir that blasted his boss and his policies. The notion that there should be a waiting period before those who serve in government can write books seems to be more about good manners than ethics. But despite the nasty nature of some of the exchanges between Gates and administration defenders, the president was right to tread softly on the issue. Though some of the book doesn’t do much to make the president and his colleagues look good on some points, by waiting until Obama was safely reelected before coming clean about Obama’s war leadership, Gates did his former boss a huge favor and the voters a disservice.

Gates’s pious disclaimers about the book controversy being created by sensationalist journalists skimming quotes are patently insincere. Those quotes were highlighted by his publisher and distributed to the press precisely in order to create buzz about the book and increase sales. To that end, they have succeeded brilliantly. The Gates book became a huge political story and though it was quickly overshadowed by Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal, the former secretary’s publishers are crying all the way to the bank over all the free publicity they have received. Had Gates waited until Obama was safely out of office, there wouldn’t be much buzz about the book. Nor would his sales be as great.

But Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe has a far more salient point when he noted that if there is any criticism to be made about Gates, it is that he waited too long to tell the American people about the cynicism of the president toward the armed forces and the truth about both Obama and Hillary Clinton’s opposition to the Iraq troop surge. There appears to be much in the book that would have fueled an important discussion about the president’s conduct during his reelection campaign. Had Gates spoken up during 2012 about the nature of the administration’s decision-making process about the Afghanistan war and other behind-the-scenes details, it would have negatively affected the president’s chances for a second term. While it is doubtful that any book, no matter how much it dishes on Biden and Clinton, will affect the 2016 contest, his Cabinet colleagues will suffer far more than Obama as result of Gates’s indiscretions.

As such, President Obama is probably right to ease up on Gates (who has accurately noted that he was more critical of the president’s aides than of the commander in chief) whose decision to keep quiet this long did him as much good as anything he did while at the Pentagon.

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Bob Gates vs. the White House

After publishing the latest in its series of stories that seemed designed to help burnish Hillary Clinton’s reputation ahead of the 2016 election, the New York Times’s effort had become so transparent, and it had been called out so noticeably, that editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal felt compelled to deny it. He wrote, “let me be clear: We have not chosen Mrs. Clinton.”

Noted. But Vice President Joe Biden might be among those stifling a laugh at Rosenthal’s assertion. Today both the Washington Post and New York Times published revelations from former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s forthcoming memoir. The Post’s account, written by Bob Woodward, notes that Clinton apparently admitted to President Obama that her opposition to the “surge” was pure politics, since Obama was opposed to the surge and they were in competition at the time. Picking up from that, Woodward’s Post colleague Chris Cillizza speculates on how the excerpt could harm Clinton’s prospects:

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After publishing the latest in its series of stories that seemed designed to help burnish Hillary Clinton’s reputation ahead of the 2016 election, the New York Times’s effort had become so transparent, and it had been called out so noticeably, that editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal felt compelled to deny it. He wrote, “let me be clear: We have not chosen Mrs. Clinton.”

Noted. But Vice President Joe Biden might be among those stifling a laugh at Rosenthal’s assertion. Today both the Washington Post and New York Times published revelations from former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s forthcoming memoir. The Post’s account, written by Bob Woodward, notes that Clinton apparently admitted to President Obama that her opposition to the “surge” was pure politics, since Obama was opposed to the surge and they were in competition at the time. Picking up from that, Woodward’s Post colleague Chris Cillizza speculates on how the excerpt could harm Clinton’s prospects:

But, remember this is Hillary Clinton we are talking about.  And, the criticism that has always haunted her is that everything she does is infused with politics — that there is no core set of beliefs within her but rather just political calculation massed upon political calculation. Remember that she began slipping in the 2008 Democratic primary when her opponents seized on an overly political answer on giving drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants during a debate in  late 2o07.

Gates’s version of why Clinton opposed the surge fits perfectly into this existing good-politics-makes-good-policy narrative about the former secretary of state. And that’s what makes it dangerous for her —  and why you can be sure she (or her people) will (and must) dispute Gates’s recollection quickly and definitively.

Whether it hurts Clinton might depend largely on who runs against her in the Democratic primary. But he’s right that the reputation of both Clintons has always been not to say a single word that hasn’t been focus-grouped into the ground. If Clinton was hoping her time as secretary of state would temper that reputation, the Gates memoir is yet another example of how difficult it can be for a politician to shake an entrenched narrative, especially one, like this, that is accurate.

The Post story isn’t kind to Biden either. (It’s brutal toward the Obama White House in general, but Obama has no more presidential elections ahead of him.) Gates accuses Biden of “poisoning the well” against the military, and when Biden and Donilon tried to order Gates around, he apparently responded: “The last time I checked, neither of you are in the chain of command.” The Obama administration was notoriously insular and incurious about the world outside them. But quotes like this, coming from a former defense secretary, still sting:

It got so bad during internal debates over whether to intervene in Libya in 2011 that Gates says he felt compelled to deliver a “rant” because the White House staff was “talking about military options with the president without Defense being involved.”

Gates says his instructions to the Pentagon were: “Don’t give the White House staff and [national security staff] too much information on the military options. They don’t understand it, and ‘experts’ like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.”

The Times, however, goes easier on Clinton and tougher on Biden with its quotes, including this uppercut:

Mr. Gates calls Mr. Biden “a man of integrity,” but he questions the vice president’s judgment. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Mr. Gates writes.

I suppose it can be argued that the Post’s lack of interest in examining how these revelations might derail a Biden presidential candidacy is it’s own sort of pro-Clinton tilt. The implication is that only one of those candidates has prospects worth protecting (or derailing), and it isn’t Biden.

Unless the reporters who read advance copies of the book missed something juicier, nothing in Gates’s memoir seems likely to spoil anyone’s presidential aspirations, and I doubt Gates has any interest in doing so anyway. Picking out excerpts and anecdotes can easily skew the perception of the book, especially before the public has had a chance to read it. But the splash being made by these (mostly unsurprising) insider claims is a testament to the credibility Gates has earned over his distinguished career, and suggests the considerable authority his account of these last few years will carry.

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China’s Strategic Patience

Because China was not under any serious foreign military threat, its decision to declare an “air defense identification zone” over an area that includes islands claimed by both Japan and China was unnecessary. Because it was unnecessary, there are two obvious ways of looking at it. Either the gratuitous display of power was meant as a prelude to real aggression, or it was a bluff.

If the former, then the second act may have been averted when the U.S. flew B-52 bombers through the airspace, causing China to back down. If the latter, the bluff was called for all the world to see. In either of these scenarios, China looks like a paper tiger–a phrase used often in reference to China, but again repeated when it looked like China would do nothing too troublesome to defend the flag it planted. But both these analyses stem from judging events news cycle by news cycle–a typically Western habit exacerbated in the age of Twitter.

There is a third way of looking at it, though, and there is reason enough to think it aligns with how the Chinese government viewed the episode, which is still unfurling with Joe Biden’s visit to China today. This perspective is hinted at on the map of the air defense zone, of which the New York Times has an excellent version here. The Chinese air defense zone is predominantly in conflict with Japan’s airspace claims, but about a third of the zone looks to be encroaching on Taiwanese airspace, which, of course, is much closer to the Chinese mainland. It also overlaps with some airspace claimed by South Korea.

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Because China was not under any serious foreign military threat, its decision to declare an “air defense identification zone” over an area that includes islands claimed by both Japan and China was unnecessary. Because it was unnecessary, there are two obvious ways of looking at it. Either the gratuitous display of power was meant as a prelude to real aggression, or it was a bluff.

If the former, then the second act may have been averted when the U.S. flew B-52 bombers through the airspace, causing China to back down. If the latter, the bluff was called for all the world to see. In either of these scenarios, China looks like a paper tiger–a phrase used often in reference to China, but again repeated when it looked like China would do nothing too troublesome to defend the flag it planted. But both these analyses stem from judging events news cycle by news cycle–a typically Western habit exacerbated in the age of Twitter.

There is a third way of looking at it, though, and there is reason enough to think it aligns with how the Chinese government viewed the episode, which is still unfurling with Joe Biden’s visit to China today. This perspective is hinted at on the map of the air defense zone, of which the New York Times has an excellent version here. The Chinese air defense zone is predominantly in conflict with Japan’s airspace claims, but about a third of the zone looks to be encroaching on Taiwanese airspace, which, of course, is much closer to the Chinese mainland. It also overlaps with some airspace claimed by South Korea.

China did not win anything in the near term from the United States, it would appear. But that doesn’t mean China didn’t win anything at all in the near term, or that China didn’t win anything in the long run from the U.S. The opposite seems to be the case. First, from the Times, what the Chinese have won in the near term:

The vice president’s goal appears to be to neutralize the destabilizing impact of the air defense zone in the region by persuading the Chinese authorities to stop scrambling fighter jets or otherwise disrupt the busy air corridors between Japan and China.

China will likely interpret this as to some extent legitimizing China’s right to contest control of the airspace, just not to have that claim recognized as a fact in itself. It’s unclear what, if anything, the U.S. can do beyond this. It’s therefore likely that, far from miscalculating, the Chinese leadership assessed the situation accurately. It may not be a monumental victory, but it’s more than they started with.

And the Washington Post’s writeup of Biden’s visit hints at what China may have won in the long run:

Aides said the vice president’s goals would include getting the Chinese to agree not to establish other such zones without first discussing their intentions with potentially affected countries.

China has reason to view this as a win on two levels: first, that the U.S. will essentially stay out of such regional line-drawing; and second, that “discussing their intentions with potentially affected countries” before rearranging borders is a loophole big enough to fly a B-52 bomber through.

It also suggests the Obama administration knows China is playing the long game. As Harry Kazianis notes at the Diplomat, an air defense zone over the disputed islands with Japan is presumably the opening act:

Beijing could use such wording to openly declare such a new ADIZ in the South China Sea — an area with sovereignty disputes involving multiple claimants. In fact, Beijing has already gone so far to claim 80 percent of the area, effectively taking control of Scarborough Shoal last summer, which is well within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines and is pressing its claims now on Second Thomas Shoal. China has also deployed its new aircraft carrier to the region in what could be seen as a show of force (although, let’s be frank, the carrier won’t be operational for sometime, however, the point is still made).

Second, when America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave guidance that U.S. domestic carriers should inform Beijing of their flight plans, Washington not only gave de facto approval of the East China Sea ADIZ, but also suggested that future moves would not be met with strong resistance. Truth be told, the Obama Administration was in a tight bind on the decision — not giving the information to Beijing could have put such flights and American lives in danger, and no one wants to see an accident turn into a crisis that won’t be easy to untangle considering the stakes. Yet, any move that gives this ADIZ declaration on China’s part any legitimacy will certainly be used by Beijing as a sign of acceptance. If we got away with it once, why not try the same move again and again?

President Obama’s openness to granting countries such as Russia and Iran their own spheres of influence will surely invite such challenges, but the Chinese air defense zone declaration is not really about Obama. It’s more about what he represents to some leaders: a weary, inward looking, declining power that at some point will be unwilling to challenge a major act of Chinese aggression either in the South China Sea or Taiwan. That day is not today, but the Chinese leadership is almost certainly curious as to when that will change.

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China’s Problem: Freedom Is Infectious

Pity the leaders of China’s sclerotic Communist government. They thought they had learned the lessons of the breakup of the Soviet Union and managed to allow a degree of economic freedom without giving up a smidge of political power. Many, though not all, Chinese are allowed now to make money in a booming economy that has helped finance a debt-ridden West. But as much as China has made extraordinary economic progress in the last generation, its society still labors under the burden of tyranny that limits its advancement. As is the case with all forms of tyranny, the all-powerful government acts with impunity, encouraging corruption and rendering the rule of law an empty promise. Personal incomes have gone up but the absence of freedom still lingers, as does the Chinese gulag where those who dissent are still sent.

The Communists know all this and by scaling back some of the most onerous restrictions on freedom they hope to not only keep the Chinese people quiescent but to retain their absolute hold on power for yet another generation. That’s why they are considering lifting the infamous “one child” policy in some instances. But, as the New York Times reports today, as popular as the abolition of this despicable law would be, doing so even if only for parents who are both only children is not going to be easy. The problem is that once you start allowing some freedom, the people are bound to want more.

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Pity the leaders of China’s sclerotic Communist government. They thought they had learned the lessons of the breakup of the Soviet Union and managed to allow a degree of economic freedom without giving up a smidge of political power. Many, though not all, Chinese are allowed now to make money in a booming economy that has helped finance a debt-ridden West. But as much as China has made extraordinary economic progress in the last generation, its society still labors under the burden of tyranny that limits its advancement. As is the case with all forms of tyranny, the all-powerful government acts with impunity, encouraging corruption and rendering the rule of law an empty promise. Personal incomes have gone up but the absence of freedom still lingers, as does the Chinese gulag where those who dissent are still sent.

The Communists know all this and by scaling back some of the most onerous restrictions on freedom they hope to not only keep the Chinese people quiescent but to retain their absolute hold on power for yet another generation. That’s why they are considering lifting the infamous “one child” policy in some instances. But, as the New York Times reports today, as popular as the abolition of this despicable law would be, doing so even if only for parents who are both only children is not going to be easy. The problem is that once you start allowing some freedom, the people are bound to want more.

Any discussion of the one child policy must begin with the fact that it has never been some antiseptic commonsense attempt to cope with over-population. The notion that this law is all that stood between China and some “Soylent Green” style Malthusian nightmare is a myth that Beijing apologists have often successfully foisted onto the American imagination. All too many Americans, especially those liberals who have always been willing to give China’s tyrants the benefit of the doubt, have been prepared to accept the notion that one child made sense in China. Even Vice President Joe Biden publicly endorsed it when, in the course of trying to draw a bogus comparison between liberal U.S. economic policies and Chinese dictates, he said:

You have no safety net.  Your policy has been one which I fully understand — I’m not second-guessing — of one child per family.  The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people.  Not sustainable.

Aside from Biden’s characteristically fractured grammar, what he left out of that equation was the reality of mass forced abortions, forced sterilizations and a skewed sex balance that devalues women in a culture which prizes male offspring. One child is at the heart of the terror state that persists in China since it limits a basic human right that not even Stalinist Russia ever directly challenged. While a case could be made that China had to do something to deal with the imbalance between its resources and a growing population, the correct answer to this problem was not less freedom but more. Centralized planning is no match for the benefits of human creativity aimed at expanding wealth and resources. Even in an era in which it has allowed some limited freedoms in its economy, Beijing still seeks to impose the heavy hand of tyranny on the most personal of decisions.

The Communists’ problem is the same as that of every tyrant who seeks to loosen their strangleholds on the lives of their subjects: freedom is infectious. Let it loose in one area and there’s no telling where it will lead. They had thought allowing people to own property would compensate for their lack of say over anything else but sooner or later, human beings will not be satisfied with the crumbs of liberty their masters allow them. While Chinese President Xi Jinping would like to let some families have a second child, once the floodgates are open, it’s not clear that they could be closed.

Ever since President Nixon normalized relations with China, apologists for détente with Beijing have told us that the Chinese people don’t value or don’t want freedom and that discussion of human rights in the planet’s largest tyranny is pointless or unnecessary. But they have always been wrong. China’s freedom fighters have gone to nameless deaths in the laogai but the notion that Communism can suppress a people’s nature longing for freedom even in a culture that values community is a myth. Sooner or later, one child is doomed and the country’s leaders know it. But they also may understand that once the threat of forced abortions and sterilizations is removed, something beyond the population figure will increase in China. Once you give a person back that sort of personal autonomy, there’s no telling what they will ask for, and more will be swept away in the tide that will eventually follow than restrictions on family size.

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Will Biden Strike Back at Hillary on Terror?

Most of the early focus on the 2016 presidential election has been on the Republicans as a gaggle of potential first-tier contenders maneuver for position. But those who thought the cheap shots would be confined to the infighting between Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and a long list of other likely candidates were wrong. In what may have been the first shot fired in the Democratic nomination contest, former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stuck a knife in the back of a former colleague who is a possible rival. As Politico reports:

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday took some indirect swipes at Vice President Joe Biden at an off-the-record gathering, a state representative in attendance told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I know she’s running for president now, because toward the end, she was asked about the Osama bin Laden raid. She took 25 minutes to answer,” George State Rep. Tom Taylor told the newspaper. “Without turning the knife too deeply, she put it to [Vice President Joe] Biden.”

Clinton, a top potential 2016 contender, addressed the National Association of Convenience Stores in Atlanta on Tuesday, where “social media, photography, recording, writing about and/or videotaping” was prohibited, according to guidance released a day earlier.

But Taylor told the newspaper that while answering the question about bin Laden, Clinton depicted herself and former CIA Director Leon Panetta as champions of the raid, while also noting Biden’s opposition to the action. Biden is also a potential 2016 hopeful.

“She took the rest of the time and went over, answering that question,” Taylor, a Republican, said. “She was ready to speak on that.”

Clinton struck a similar theme at another recent speech before the Long Island Association, according to an attendee.

The remarks show that, contrary to the expectations of many pundits who think Biden will stay out if she runs, Clinton clearly believes that Biden is in the race no matter what she does. Rather than play nice and hope that the vice president will choose not to challenge his old allies, Clinton seems to think a no holds barred approach to the most serious potential adversary is in order. As such, and very much in line with the old Clinton “war room” philosophy, she is determined to destroy him even they confront each other in the primaries. But by highlighting her alleged toughness on terrorism, Clinton may be giving an opening to Biden (not to mention Republicans) to ask some hard questions about her role in the Benghazi fiasco, including some behind-the-scenes information that could be problematic for her presidential hopes.

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Most of the early focus on the 2016 presidential election has been on the Republicans as a gaggle of potential first-tier contenders maneuver for position. But those who thought the cheap shots would be confined to the infighting between Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and a long list of other likely candidates were wrong. In what may have been the first shot fired in the Democratic nomination contest, former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stuck a knife in the back of a former colleague who is a possible rival. As Politico reports:

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday took some indirect swipes at Vice President Joe Biden at an off-the-record gathering, a state representative in attendance told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I know she’s running for president now, because toward the end, she was asked about the Osama bin Laden raid. She took 25 minutes to answer,” George State Rep. Tom Taylor told the newspaper. “Without turning the knife too deeply, she put it to [Vice President Joe] Biden.”

Clinton, a top potential 2016 contender, addressed the National Association of Convenience Stores in Atlanta on Tuesday, where “social media, photography, recording, writing about and/or videotaping” was prohibited, according to guidance released a day earlier.

But Taylor told the newspaper that while answering the question about bin Laden, Clinton depicted herself and former CIA Director Leon Panetta as champions of the raid, while also noting Biden’s opposition to the action. Biden is also a potential 2016 hopeful.

“She took the rest of the time and went over, answering that question,” Taylor, a Republican, said. “She was ready to speak on that.”

Clinton struck a similar theme at another recent speech before the Long Island Association, according to an attendee.

The remarks show that, contrary to the expectations of many pundits who think Biden will stay out if she runs, Clinton clearly believes that Biden is in the race no matter what she does. Rather than play nice and hope that the vice president will choose not to challenge his old allies, Clinton seems to think a no holds barred approach to the most serious potential adversary is in order. As such, and very much in line with the old Clinton “war room” philosophy, she is determined to destroy him even they confront each other in the primaries. But by highlighting her alleged toughness on terrorism, Clinton may be giving an opening to Biden (not to mention Republicans) to ask some hard questions about her role in the Benghazi fiasco, including some behind-the-scenes information that could be problematic for her presidential hopes.

The substance of this line of attack also shows that Clinton thinks that if running on the death of bin Laden was good for President Obama, it can be just as good for her. Portraying the verbose Biden as a wimp when it comes to giving the order to kill the arch-criminal gives the lie to the vice president’s blood-curdling rhetoric about the same subject in which he has frequently thumped his chest and talked about pursuing the bad guys to the gates of hell.

But in striking the first blow in such a snarky manner, Clinton is more or less daring Biden to either dispute the charge and/or to start dishing about the chaos in the State Department on 9/11/12. The assumption on the part of the mainstream media has always been that Clinton was bulletproof on Benghazi because the only people complaining about the decisions that led to the deaths of four Americans and the lies told about the event afterwards were conservatives. But if Biden starts probing or, even worse, relaying whatever inside gossip about the event that has made its way to the West Wing, it could open the floodgates for liberals to begin asking the questions that have heretofore been solely the province of Republicans. Even if Clinton did nothing wrong other than minimize the importance of the lies (“What difference does it make?”) that will still hamper her efforts and give Biden a boost.

Biden may be a blowhard but he has never been known to shy away from a fight. If Clinton thinks her shots fired in his direction will deter him from running, she’s wrong. If anything, it could have the opposite reaction. While President Obama may want the two 2016 contenders to shut up, this is not likely to be the last blow struck between two Democratic powerhouses. Though Hillary drew first blood, it also could be the beginning of a bumpy ride for a Clinton candidacy that many of us thought would be acclaimed with near unanimity.

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2016 and the Shutdown: Joe Biden Edition

Yesterday I wrote about Harry Reid’s attempt to bench President Obama in the ongoing shutdown showdown. Reid’s justification for this power trip was, according to Democrats, that Reid’s party is concerned Obama might negotiate in good faith and end the shutdown. That put them in direct competition: the president’s responsibility is to govern, and Reid sees his current role as protecting Democrats from having to vote on anything remotely controversial and marginalizing the Republican minority. His aims are incompatible with the president’s.

But removing Obama from the equation seems misdirected. After all, Obama has terrible relationships with the Hill and has made a career out of torpedoing major bipartisan deals rather than implementing them. When the administration needed to make a deal with Republicans in Obama’s first term, the president had to be sidelined so a deal could be struck. It was Vice President Joe Biden who stepped in to negotiate. Wouldn’t Reid, then, have more to gain by keeping Biden away from this showdown? As Politico notes today, he’s done that too:

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Yesterday I wrote about Harry Reid’s attempt to bench President Obama in the ongoing shutdown showdown. Reid’s justification for this power trip was, according to Democrats, that Reid’s party is concerned Obama might negotiate in good faith and end the shutdown. That put them in direct competition: the president’s responsibility is to govern, and Reid sees his current role as protecting Democrats from having to vote on anything remotely controversial and marginalizing the Republican minority. His aims are incompatible with the president’s.

But removing Obama from the equation seems misdirected. After all, Obama has terrible relationships with the Hill and has made a career out of torpedoing major bipartisan deals rather than implementing them. When the administration needed to make a deal with Republicans in Obama’s first term, the president had to be sidelined so a deal could be struck. It was Vice President Joe Biden who stepped in to negotiate. Wouldn’t Reid, then, have more to gain by keeping Biden away from this showdown? As Politico notes today, he’s done that too:

When President Barack Obama laid out his strategy for the current debt-limit fight in a private meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this past summer, Reid stipulated one condition: No Joe Biden.

And while Biden attended the White House dog-and-pony show meeting last week with congressional leaders, Reid has effectively barred him from the backrooms, according to sources familiar with the situation.

The vice president’s disappearance has grown ever more noticeable as the government shutdown enters its eighth day with no resolution in sight and a debt limit crisis looms. Biden was once Democrats’ deal-maker-in-chief, designing budget pacts with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the summer of 2011 and New Year’s Eve 2013.

Coverage of the shutdown showdown has framed it as a battle of wits between President Obama and congressional Republicans (especially those in the House). The shutdown is centered on the GOP’s efforts to defund ObamaCare and undo what the president considers his signature legacy. In that respect, this is absolutely a contest between the House GOP and Obama personally.

But it doesn’t explain all the factors involved. Reid’s behavior fills in the blanks. Today’s Politico story claims Democrats think the White House–represented by Biden–gave away too much in previous deals. The first question to ask in response to this is: So what? Is the president not the leader of his party? Is it not his name on the policy that’s causing all this friction? And since when does Barack Obama (and by extension, Joe Biden) take orders from Harry Reid?

The answer has a lot to do with the timeline. The 2011 deal that Biden helped strike was before the president’s reelection. The New Year’s deal was right after Obama and Biden won the election and the political capital that comes with it. But Obama isn’t running again. It may seem strange, but Obama’s own party is treating the president as a lame duck far more than Republicans are. The sixth-year midterms traditionally can be uphill elections for the party that holds the White House. And this time it’s Reid’s legacy (somewhat) on the line.

Reid may be an unappealing spokesman for his cause, but his political instincts are still sharp. He’s right that the 2014 congressional elections have supplanted the 2016 presidential primaries as the reference point for trying to gauge the motivations of Republicans. Reid preferred not to vote on separate, piecemeal legislation to fund certain parts of the government during the shutdown, fearing it would cascade into a line-item frenzy that favored the GOP. But when Republicans in the House passed a bill to fund active-service military personnel, Reid allowed the bill to move forward in the Senate. As Byron York writes at the Washington Examiner, Republicans plan to do exactly what Reid hoped to prevent:

GOP rebels want to focus on red-state Democrats, particularly those up for re-election in 2014, and make the shutdown a question of support for veterans. (It’s a tactic that certainly wasn’t hurt by the Park Service’s ham-handed attempts to close down the World War II and Vietnam War memorials on the National Mall.) Cruz’s Growth and Freedom Fund PAC has created a new website, Fundourvets.com, that urges people to tell Senate Democrats that “legislation to fully fund the Department of Veterans Affairs…needs their support.”

The GOP rebels believe those vulnerable Democrats will eventually cave on veterans’ funding. And if they do, having voted once to keep the military going, and then again to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs, what is the rationale for resisting other funding measures?

This dynamic also explains why sidelining Biden was more significant than sidelining Obama. The president may not have another election coming up, but Reid isn’t the only Democrat with electoral considerations. Biden appears to be strongly considering running for president in 2016, and his work in helping craft bipartisan deals in the administration’s first term was seen as resume building.

Obama doesn’t have much to lose by being excluded from these negotiations, especially because Reid would never sacrifice ObamaCare to the Republicans. That’s not the case with Biden, who is enough of a loose cannon to push back on Reid if he deems it necessary. Thus the 2016 presidential election may not be motivating Republicans’ current strategy, but it could easily be a source of conflict for Democrats.

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Biden’s Not Bluffing About 2016

The consensus among political pundits and Democratic operatives is that there is only one way for Vice President Joe Biden to avoid being the first sitting veep since Alben Barkley to be denied his party’s nomination for president: don’t run. Barkley, whose grandchildren invented the term veep to refer to the vice presidency, was a typical example of a No. 2 of that era. He had been put on the Democratic ticket in 1948 for the purpose of geographic balance and was given nothing to do other than to preside over the Senate and go to funerals. The reason why the 74-year-old former Kentucky  senator thought he could win the presidency has been lost to antiquity, but in those days the idea that the post, which was held in general disrepute, was a stepping-stone for the presidency was an eccentric notion. Since then several veeps have won their party’s nominations and a couple have won the presidency (Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush). Since Barkley’s day, presidents have given their running mates much more responsibility and the job has become far more visible and influential rather than the source of humor.

But with Hillary Clinton gearing up for another presidential run that has most of her party already enthused about the prospect of the first female commander in chief, what chance has Biden got? Polls already show her leading other Democrats by huge margins. So what exactly was Biden’s camp up to feeding the Wall Street Journal the line that the vice president is “confident” and plans to run in 2016 no matter what Hillary does? The front-page story in today’s Journal that cites sources close to Biden and his political team might be interpreted as a tactical message to Democrats that the vice president is ready to run if the former first lady and secretary of state disappoints her loyalists and doesn’t try. Given that most Democrats think the real competition will be for Hillary’s choice to replace Biden rather than the top spot, that makes sense. But I think that’s a mistake. Biden may be a huge underdog who would be at a clear disadvantage against Clinton, but I think his camp’s effort to get this message out in such a prominent forum should be seen as a shot fired over the bow of the Clinton juggernaut. It’s a reminder to Democrats that the man whose ego is bigger than the small state that sent him to the Senate for 36 years isn’t inclined to go quietly into the night as the Obama presidency winds down. The vice president has spent his life itching for the Oval Office and if you think he will be deterred from running by long odds, you don’t know Joe Biden.

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The consensus among political pundits and Democratic operatives is that there is only one way for Vice President Joe Biden to avoid being the first sitting veep since Alben Barkley to be denied his party’s nomination for president: don’t run. Barkley, whose grandchildren invented the term veep to refer to the vice presidency, was a typical example of a No. 2 of that era. He had been put on the Democratic ticket in 1948 for the purpose of geographic balance and was given nothing to do other than to preside over the Senate and go to funerals. The reason why the 74-year-old former Kentucky  senator thought he could win the presidency has been lost to antiquity, but in those days the idea that the post, which was held in general disrepute, was a stepping-stone for the presidency was an eccentric notion. Since then several veeps have won their party’s nominations and a couple have won the presidency (Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush). Since Barkley’s day, presidents have given their running mates much more responsibility and the job has become far more visible and influential rather than the source of humor.

But with Hillary Clinton gearing up for another presidential run that has most of her party already enthused about the prospect of the first female commander in chief, what chance has Biden got? Polls already show her leading other Democrats by huge margins. So what exactly was Biden’s camp up to feeding the Wall Street Journal the line that the vice president is “confident” and plans to run in 2016 no matter what Hillary does? The front-page story in today’s Journal that cites sources close to Biden and his political team might be interpreted as a tactical message to Democrats that the vice president is ready to run if the former first lady and secretary of state disappoints her loyalists and doesn’t try. Given that most Democrats think the real competition will be for Hillary’s choice to replace Biden rather than the top spot, that makes sense. But I think that’s a mistake. Biden may be a huge underdog who would be at a clear disadvantage against Clinton, but I think his camp’s effort to get this message out in such a prominent forum should be seen as a shot fired over the bow of the Clinton juggernaut. It’s a reminder to Democrats that the man whose ego is bigger than the small state that sent him to the Senate for 36 years isn’t inclined to go quietly into the night as the Obama presidency winds down. The vice president has spent his life itching for the Oval Office and if you think he will be deterred from running by long odds, you don’t know Joe Biden.

Handicapping Biden’s intentions for 2016 are really no different than understanding why he ran in 2008. Few gave him much of a chance and his abortive campaign to win the Democratic nomination was a colossal flop. Back in 1988 when he made his first run for the presidency, he had been briefly considered a first-tier contender in a race that was eventually won by Michael Dukakis. But his candidacy didn’t survive when Biden was exposed as a serial plagiarizer. His stump speech was found to be a copy of the one used by Neil Kinnock, then the head of Britain’s Labor Party. It soon came out that he had also plagiarized a law school paper. That seemed to put an end to his presidential ambition, but the fever still burned inside him. When, seemingly close to the end of a lengthy political career, he tried again, it was not the result of any groundswell on his behalf. Rather, it was the act of a politician with enormous self-regard. The 2008 run was not so much his last hurrah as it was Biden deciding to make a sacrifice and give the American people one last chance to do the right thing and make him president. Unfortunately for him, nobody else felt that way.

Barack Obama’s decision that he needed Biden’s gravitas and foreign-policy experience (a laughable notion since virtually every position Biden had taken had been largely discredited) got him closer to his goal than anybody (other than Biden) thought he would achieve. But Clinton’s strength is such that the general assumption is that she would clear the field and run as a virtual incumbent in the 2016 primaries. Given the fact that they would have to draw upon much of the same sources for funding and political support, conventional wisdom would indicate that Biden should step aside rather than get run over. But that sort of thinking does not take into account Biden’s hunger for the presidency or his sense that it is his destiny.

Does Biden have a chance to actually upset Hillary? Not really. He would probably be able to raise enough money to run and, as he has already shown with his trips to the early voting states, will work hard in Iowa and New Hampshire. But Clinton has too much going for her to be stopped by a man who, however much affection he has earned among the Democratic grass roots for his hyper-partisanship, is still generally regarded as an embarrassing gas bag in much of the country. But just as Biden is undeterred by his frequent gaffes, no one should be surprised if he persists in running despite the odds. Joe Biden thinks he should be president, and nothing the Clintons do is likely to persuade him otherwise.

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