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BIDEN AND IRAQ

Experience Is Double-Edged Sword for The Ticket

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. greets well-wishers as he holds his granddaughter Natalie Biden after Sunday services at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church in Greenville, Del.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. greets well-wishers as he holds his granddaughter Natalie Biden after Sunday services at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church in Greenville, Del. (By Pat Crowe Ii -- Associated Press)

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 24 -- A week after a young state senator named Barack Obama stood in Chicago's Daley Plaza and denounced the move toward a "dumb war," Joseph R. Biden Jr. took to the well of the U.S. Senate to make a much more nuanced argument, both for a resolution that he knew could lead to the invasion of Iraq and for a diplomatic effort that he hoped would avert it.

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Over three contentious days, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made it clear that his support for President Bush's war resolution was designed to bolster the president's ability to get United Nations weapons inspectors back into Iraq. But he also stated clearly that Saddam Hussein had to be dealt with sooner or later. Ultimately, he voted to grant Bush the authority to invade.

With Biden now on the Democratic ticket, Obama's case against John McCain on the central issue of the war may well become far more complicated. Obama has declared time and again that he had the judgment to oppose the invasion of Iraq from the very beginning, despite political winds that gusted toward war. McCain, Obama says, did not.

McCain aides said Sunday they intend to use Obama's running mate against him. They want to make the presidential contest a two-against-one fight, with Obama on one side and Biden and McCain together on the other, not just on Iraq but on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Biden voted for, and the 2005 Republican energy bill, which Biden and McCain voted against.

"Ultimately, we look forward to a debate between Joe Biden and Barack Obama about whether Barack Obama has the judgment and experience to lead," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

Biden campaign spokesman David Wade dismissed those tactics as "desperate efforts to muddy the rhetoric." Biden voted for the war resolution only after his efforts to work with a Republican colleague in the Senate, Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), to trim Bush's war aims were torpedoed -- by Republicans such as McCain and also by Democrats unwilling to stand up to Bush just weeks before the 2002 election. Biden used his Foreign Relations chairmanship to force Bush's intentions into the open that summer, with a series of grueling hearings on the threat Hussein posed and the costs and consequences of war.

Once the United States attacked, Biden became one of the most emphatic voices against the administration's prosecution of the war and ultimately against the war itself. And by 2005, Biden forthrightly stated that his vote was a mistake.

"The choice on Iraq in this election is clear and compelling," Wade said. "Joe Biden believes the war was a mistake. John McCain would still do it all over again. Joe Biden knows the Bush-McCain policy has weakened our hand fighting terrorism and finding Osama bin Laden. John McCain started beating the drums for war after September 11th and wants to double down on the Bush policy for four more years. If Barack Obama and Joe Biden had set Iraq policy these last six years rather than George Bush and John McCain, we wouldn't be in the hole we're in today."

In the days that led up to the vote on the war resolution, Biden and McCain stood together on the Senate floor, sometimes fighting against each other, sometimes fighting in tandem. They teamed up to shoot down an amendment by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) that would have forced Bush to seek further authorization before an actual invasion. They were on opposite sides of the effort to narrow the war mission from regime change in Iraq to combating Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction. And Biden expressed plenty of misgivings about Bush's intentions.

"The president always has the right to act preemptively if we are in imminent danger. If they are coming up over the hill, he can respond. If troops are coming out of Tijuana, heading north, we can respond. If they are coming down from Toronto, we can respond. If missiles are on their way, we can respond. But that is not the way I hear it being used here. We are talking about preemption, as if we are adopting a policy," Biden said.

The senator from Delaware even warned colleagues that threats to use Congress's power of the purse to choke off Bush's war would go nowhere, that a vote for war would set in motion a conflict not so easily controlled from the Capitol. "The power of the purse is useless because it presents us with a Hobson's choice," Biden cautioned on Oct. 10, 2002. "We have our fighting men and women in place, and we are told, by the way, the president will not take them home, so let's cut off the support for them so they have no guns, no bullets, no ability to fight a war. And no one is willing to do that."

Once Obama joined Biden in the Senate, the senator from Illinois would try to use that power of the purse -- and would fail, just as Biden predicted.


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