In Last Night’s Debate, Joe Biden Continued Rewriting His History on Foreign Policy

How can Joe Biden reconcile his history as one of the Democrats’ leading hawks with the party’s more antiwar direction today? Simple: lie through his teeth.

Former vice president Joe Biden delivers his closing statement during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Scott Olson / Getty

One of the stunning things about last night’s debate — aside from the outrageously biased moderating and Elizabeth Warren’s decision not to “de-escalate” her conflict with Bernie Sanders after all — is how far things have shifted on foreign policy.

The previous two Democratic contests in 2008 and 2016 had no shortage of forceful hawkish voices, thanks to the presence of figures like Hillary Clinton, Jim Webb, and Joe Biden. Last night, seemingly no one wanted to appear too eager to send US troops halfway across the world to fight in some strange conflict.

Warren repeatedly talked about the need to withdraw “combat troops” from the Middle East. Amy Klobuchar bragged that she opposed the Iraq War and that “I have long wanted to bring our troops home” from Afghanistan. Sanders reminded the audience about his antiwar bona fides and once more brought up Barbara Lee’s lonely war against the war in Afghanistan, whose judgment nineteen years ago now appears to be the envy of every candidate on the stage.

Indeed, Tom Steyer also admiringly brought up Lee’s vote, before calling out “twenty years of mistakes by the American government in the Middle East.” Even Pete “Not Too Late for Us to Be a Constructive Force” Buttigieg did his best to sound antiwar, pledging to replace the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force with something more limited and attacking Trump for sending more troops to the Middle East (while also hoping to “remain engaged without having an endless commitment of ground troops”).

Biden, for his part, also tried to reinvent himself as anti-interventionist. Having crashed and burned in 2008 over his role in selling the Iraq War, Biden now reminded viewers he had fought against a troop surge in Afghanistan and, of course, lied shamelessly about his Iraq War role, portraying himself as a doe-eyed innocent duped by the Bush administration and a committed war critic as soon as the war began. And despite being part of an administration that, at his urging, turned global assassination-by-drone into an official, institutionalized plank of US foreign policy, Biden now presents himself as a leader committed to limiting the war-making powers of the president.

“I ran the first time as a twenty-nine-year-old kid against the war in Vietnam, on the grounds that the only way to take a nation to war is with the informed consent of the American people,” he told the audience.

But if you read my forthcoming book on Joe Biden’s political career (only $9.95 plus shipping!), you’ll learn there are two problems with this. One is that, as Biden’s championing of drone warfare suggests, Biden has been far from a principled advocate of war through “informed consent” throughout his career. The second is that this newly war-skeptical party is an awkward fit for a candidate who pushed the party to become more war-hungry for electoral considerations.

Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories spooked a timid Democratic Party and set it out on a search for a new direction. Just as he did on domestic policy, Biden urged Democrats to stop being so damn soft and become more like Reagan on the world stage. Voters, he said in 1986, were “afraid the Republicans are too tough, but they think we are not tough enough — and they have tipped the scales in favor of what they perceive as firmer hands.”

So Biden, who had won his 1972 upset victory partly on the back of a fairly strident anti–Vietnam War message — though at a time when even Nixon was withdrawing troops and promising to bring the war to a speedy end — proceeded to give his backing to a series of grubby Republican military interventions, none of which received congressional authorization.

When Reagan invaded Grenada in 1983, bombing a hospital in the process, Biden said he “did the right thing.” When he bombed Libya three years later, killing thirty-six civilians and dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s fifteen-month-old daughter, Biden said, “There can be no question that Gaddafi has asked for and deserves a strong response like this.” And when George H. W. Bush invaded Panama three years after that, an outrageous war to depose a leader who had been a CIA asset and that saw dead civilians “buried like dogs,” as one witness put it, Biden called it “appropriate and necessary.”

To his credit, Biden was a forceful critic of the elder Bush’s subsequent war, this time against Iraq. But once he realized how popular Bush’s litany of war crimes had made him, he quickly withdrew his opposition, praised Bush for his leadership, and happily admitted he had been wrong to ever oppose it. Biden would spend the next decade pushing for repeated military interventions in the crumbling nation of Yugoslavia and supporting bombing and regime change in Iraq, often more eager for war than his Republican colleagues.

“Better a devil you don’t know,” he said in 1998, as he backed US efforts to foment Saddam’s ouster.

Then September 11 happened, and the rest is history.

Just as Joe Biden is paradoxically the front-runner to lead a party that is further to his left on domestic policy than it has been in decades, he is also paradoxically the front-runner to lead a party that already once rejected his poor judgment on the world stage, judgment that may well make him a sitting duck for Trump. The question is, with three weeks to go until Iowa, will Democratic voters realize it?