The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In interview, Biden calls Trump ‘whiner in chief’ on foreign policy

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday. (Logan Cyrus/Bloomberg News)

In the wake of the successful U.S. mission that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former vice president Joe Biden is warning that President Trump’s utter incompetence on foreign policy is going to squander this victory, lead to more Islamic State recruitment and further destabilize the Middle East.

Biden, one of the few Democratic candidates who supports keeping some U.S. troops in Syria, is putting national security at the forefront of his campaign and calling on Trump to reverse course on his Syria pullout. In an interview Monday, Biden told me Trump has no idea what he’s doing on foreign policy and is being treated like a baby by his own national security officials.

“What’s going to happen now? What’s the plan, Stan?” Biden said. “There’s no coherence. He has no foreign policy. He seems to act on a whim. … The way he is operating in Syria has made it highly unlikely that we would be able to repeat an event like [the Baghdadi raid] any time soon.”

Biden lamented that Trump’s own friends and officials have essentially tricked him into leaving some troops in Syria by telling him he could control the oil there and referred to a U.S. official telling The Post: “This is like feeding a baby its medicine in yogurt or applesauce.”

Follow Josh Rogin's opinionsFollow

“It’s like dealing not with a commander in chief, but a whiner in chief,” said Biden. “It’s bizarre.”

Several outlets have reported that Trump allies including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) persuaded Trump to reverse his complete pullout of U.S. troops from northern Syria by showing him maps of the oil fields. Trump has repeatedly said he wants to control the oil fields and the money they make.

Obama administration officials always made clear the United States was not in Iraq to steal the country’s oil, Biden said, because that’s exactly what the terrorists allege in their propaganda. “There was a reason for that,” he said. “We know that it’s a recruiting tool.”

Biden’s argument for leaving some U.S. troops in Syria also puts him in disagreement with his main primary competitor, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who said at the last debate she would pull all U.S. troops out of the Middle East. Warren’s campaign later clarified she would leave “non-combat” bases, whatever that means.

Biden said there’s a middle ground between committing hundreds of thousands of troops to overly ambitious interventions and deploying the military for limited missions to lead coalitions and help local partners fight common enemies. In fact, he noted, that’s how we got Baghdadi.

“The death of [Baghdadi] is proof in the wisdom of the strategy, that without committing our troops to endless wars, you can still in fact protect our interests and the interests of friends and allies,” Biden said. “You need people on the ground. You need allies on the ground.”

Biden said he worked to keep some U.S. troops in Iraq in 2011, but the Iraqi government simply wouldn’t agree to acceptable terms. That’s true, although many in the Obama White House at the time called the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq a campaign promise fulfilled.

Regardless, Trump has yet to explain to anyone how his Syria pullout enhances U.S. security or what the plan is now for preventing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran from reaping the benefits. That total lack of strategy also undermines the security of U.S. allies, including Israel and Jordan, Biden said.

“I don’t think [Trump] has any sense of geopolitical concerns that exist, where interests lie, why we need allies and why we don’t need forever troops,” said Biden. “He doesn’t seem to understand that the ability of ISIS to reconstitute itself is real.”

Assad will now have free rein to brutally take over the last few provinces of Syria still free from his control, Biden said. Iran will complete its long-sought project to control a land bridge from Tehran to Beirut. Israel will be dependent on Moscow for protection. Our allies will conclude that the United States can’t be trusted to honor its commitments.

Like Trump, Biden heaped praise on the U.S. national security professionals who planned and executed the mission to get Baghdadi. But Biden said Trump was simultaneously disrespecting those professionals by ignoring their advice and constantly attacking them in public and private, because of his perception they are undermining his agenda.

“He doesn’t take them seriously, apparently. He treats them like the ‘Deep State,' ” said Biden. “I can only imagine … what the pros must be thinking now. It’s got to be an absolute morale buster.”

Biden’s plan to run on his foreign policy credentials is not without risk. The Democratic primary electorate and the country in general are weary of military interventions. But Biden is betting that Trump’s actions on Syria have woken up more Americans to Trump’s lack of knowledge and lack of strategy — and that voters still believe in American international leadership.

Read more:

The Post’s View: In Trump’s world, Syria is a success. In the real world, it’s a humiliation.

Brett McGurk: Baghdadi’s death underscores what we’ve lost by abandoning Syria’s Kurds

Max Boot: Baghdadi’s death could have been Trump’s finest hour. He messed it up anyway.

David Byler: Baghdadi’s death won’t save Trump from his political problems

The Post’s View: The Baghdadi raid is a success that may be unrepeatable

Henry Olsen: Trump has diminished the nation’s victory against the Islamic State’s leader