Biden versus Gates: foreign-policy smackdown

 


(Jim Watson/AP)

It’s a foreign-policy smackdown!

First, former defense secretary Robert Gates, in his memoir “Duty,” lashed out at Vice President Biden as being “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

Now, in an interview with the New Yorker magazine, Biden has fired back: “You go back, and everything in the last forty years, there’s nothing that I can think of, major fundamental decisions relative to foreign policy, that I can think he’s been right about!”

Both men have offered specific pieces of evidence to back up their claims. The merits of some of these decisions can still be debated, but factually, how do they stack up?

Gates’s case

Gates expounded on his case in an interview with NPR. Here are the highlights, with the language smoothed for clarity.

“When he was a senator, a very new senator, [he] voted against the aid package for South Vietnam, and that was part of the deal when we pulled out of South Vietnam to try and help them survive.”


 Gates is correct that Biden in 1975 voted against a Ford administration request to provide military and humanitarian aid to South Vietnam as U.S. involvement in the war was winding down. But the effort failed in the House—and just days after the Senate vote, the capital of Saigon fell to the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army.

“He said that when the Shah fell in Iran in 1979, that that was a step forward for progress toward human rights in Iran.”


 No evidence can be found to support this statement, at least in news clips at the time and copies of the congressional record that we examined. Our colleagues at PolitiFact, who had earlier this year examined Gates’ claims,  located a reference to the statement in a 2008 opinion article published in The New York Post by Amir Taheri, an Iranian-born conservative writer; we also found a similar statement made by Taheri in 2008 Forbes column. He did not respond to e-mail queries to provide evidence for his claim, so at this point we have to rate this as doubtful.

Update: In an interview with Charlie Rose on July 22, Gates said that he had read that Biden had taken this position on Iran but as a result of this column he is withdrawing this statement.

“He opposed virtually every element of President Reagan’s defense buildup. He voted against the B-1, the B-2, the MX and so on.”


 This is generally correct. Biden was a reliable vote for amendments that would strip or curtail funds for the B-1 bomber (which President Jimmy Carter had eliminated), for the B-2 “stealth bomber” and for the MX intercontinental ballistic missile. Ultimately, Biden often voted in favor of the final spending bills, but as any denizen of Capitol Hill knows, the key votes are on the amendments. The Council for a Liveable World, which opposed the buildup, rated many of those amendments and Biden scored well according to its criteria.

“He voted against the first Gulf War.”


 No argument here. Biden was in the minority when the Senate, by a narrow margin of 52-47, voted to authorize the use of force in 1991. Many of the hyperbolic worries made by Biden and other Democrats in the debate before the vote turned out to be unfounded.

Biden’s case

Here are the points that Biden raised in his interview with The New Yorker.

“Bob Gates is wrong about the advice he gave President Reagan about how to deal with Gorbachev! That he wasn’t real. Thank God the President didn’t listen to him.”


 Gates was deputy head of the CIA (and then head of the CIA under George H.W. Bush), and his failure to anticipate Gorbachev’s emergence as a reformer ranks among Gates’ worst foreign policy calls. But, in fairness, just about every foreign policy analyst at the time was skeptical of Gorbachev, including almost all of Ronald Reagan’s top aides.

Gates, in his earlier memoir “From the Shadows,” argues that even Gorbachev at first didn’t know what a revolutionary he would turn out to be, but that he evolved as his early half-measures at reform failed.

In any case, as documented by James Mann in “The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan,” one of the most important influences on Reagan’s thinking was an outsider—Suzanne Massie, an author who secretly swayed the president’s attitude with her stories of the Russian people.

“Bob Gates was wrong about the Balkans. Bob Gates was wrong about the bombing.”


 Biden appears to be referring to the 1999 NATO air campaign against Serbia during the Clinton administration, which during the crisis over Kosovo turned from aiming at strictly military targets to buildings that signified President Slobodan Milosevic’s political control.

Gates, who was not in government at the time, was certainly a skeptic of the strategy, telling the Associated Press, “If anything, it will only stiffen his resolve.”  Eventually, however, Milosevic agreed to withdraw from Kosovo, without the need for a ground offensive. (Interested readers also may be curious to read a Washington Post examination of how Biden inflated his own role in the Balkan crisis.)

“Bob Gates was wrong about the Vietnam War, for Christ’s sake.”


 It’s unclear what Biden is referring to here (a Biden spokeswoman did not respond to a query). In “From the Shadows,” Gates says that from his experience working on a missile base in 1967 as a young officer, he knew the war could not be won. He also describes the CIA as being highly skeptical about the war, with “antiwar sentiment strong at the Agency.” But Biden could be referring to Gates’ dismay at Biden’s vote on the final funding push mentioned above. (Update: In the Charlie Rose interview, Gates said he opposed the Vietnam War.)

The Pinocchio Test

Foreign policy is a difficult game to score, and both men clearly are exaggerating when they claim that the other guy was completely wrong for 40 years. But on many of the specific issues they each raise, they come close to nailing each other’s mistakes. It’s not quite enough for each to earn a Geppetto, but both certainly score points when they list each other’s failures.

But the question is: Should congratulations or boos be offered?

One Pinocchio


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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