Vice President Joe Biden decided to make one more last-minute push to convince President Obama that the advice his generals were giving him was disastrously wrong. It was Thanksgiving weekend 2009, and Obama was on the verge of committing 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan.
Biden was in Nantucket, Mass., with his family for the holiday. He pulled out a legal pad and began writing a memo for Obama in longhand that he hoped might limit the damage from the president’s decision.
The memo summarized the arguments he had been airing for months to the growing irritation of the military’s top brass. The Pentagon’s strategy was too broad, too expensive, and too focused on the Taliban insurgency, instead of al-Qaeda.
The vice president fed the handwritten pages into a classified fax machine — he wanted Obama to know these were his unfiltered thoughts — and sent them to the president.
There was little in Biden’s past that could have predicted that he would stake out such a hard position in his first months as vice president.
Today, Biden’s role in the Afghanistan debate offers perhaps the clearest indication of how as commander in chief he would use America’s unrivaled military power to defend the country and allay the world’s worst human suffering.
Biden talks about America in grand, almost Reaganesque, terms. It’s “an idea stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant,” he has said. But inside the Obama administration Biden was a consistent voice of caution.
The mismatch is a product of an approach to foreign policy that is guided largely by impulse and feeling rather than abiding philosophy. And it reflects a decades-long career in which Biden has been all over the map on the biggest questions of war and peace.
Biden voted against the first Iraq War in 1991 and in favor of giving President George W. Bush the authority to launch the second invasion of Iraq in 2003. He later expressed regret over both votes. In the intervening years, he blasted the Clinton administration for its initial reluctance to use military force to stop the killing in Bosnia. “This is truly a policy of despair and cowardice,” he railed.
Even on Afghanistan, Biden had been maddeningly inconsistent, calling for more U.S. troops and money in 2008 only to abandon the position in 2009 when he moved from the Senate to the White House.
Some aides attributed his tough stand as vice president to his frustrations in Afghanistan’s leaders and his sense that the American people were sick of war. Others cited his eldest son’s deployment to Iraq in 2009, which sharpened his view of the stakes for military families. Biden declined to be interviewed for this story.
“I wish I could say Biden was a student of history and understood how problematic nation-building would be in Afghanistan,” said one former top Obama Pentagon official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter frankly. “That’s not Biden. He has gut instincts.”
In the years that followed the Afghanistan surge decision, Biden advised Obama not to launch the risky raid that killed Osama bin Laden, warned against the war in Libya and urged the president not to vow retaliation in Syria if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons.
A few days after Thanksgiving in 2009, Obama called together his national security team to end the months of deliberation and lay out his final decision on the Afghanistan surge. Biden asked to huddle privately with Obama in the residence.
“I want to meet you before you go in,” Biden told him, according to contemporaneous interviews done for Bob Woodward’s 2010 book “Obama’s Wars.”
“No,” Obama replied. “We’re fine.”
Biden ignored the rebuff and intercepted Obama on the White House portico. He only had a few seconds with the president, and he used them to press Obama to think about the possibility of failure in the months ahead. Would his ego allow him to concede that his war strategy wasn’t working? Would he stand up to the generals who would muster mountains of data and insist that they needed just a few more months or a few thousand more troops to make it work? Biden was sure the strategy would fail.
“You might get a position where you’ve got to make a really tough god----ed decision on this,” Biden warned.
‘Immense human suffering’
As a law student in the late 1960s, Biden wasn’t the type to join the angry throngs demonstrating against the Vietnam War. “When I was at Syracuse, I was married. … I wore sport coats. I was not part of that,” he told reporters on the campaign trail in 1988. Others “felt more strongly than I did about the immorality of the war,” he said. Biden’s view was that it was “lousy policy.”
He got a draft notice after law school but failed his physical because of asthma. When he ran for the Senate in 1972, opposition to the war wasn’t a big part of his campaign.
As a Cold War-era senator with White House ambitions, Biden modeled himself after heavyweights like Sens. Michael Mansfield and Sam Nunn — serious, independent statesmen who advised presidents of both parties and gave big speeches on foreign policy that drew the attention of national newspapers and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Biden mastered the arcane details of Soviet-era arms control treaties. He tried to make up for his dovish vote against the Gulf War by insisting that President George H.W. Bush should have removed Saddam Hussein after the liberation of Kuwait. The elder Bush’s caution had led him to choose the “worst” option, Biden said in a 1991 speech. The result was “immense human suffering within Iraq.”
At a moment of unrivaled American power, Biden transformed into an ardent interventionist. He returned from a trip to the Balkans in 1993 and blasted President Bill Clinton for ignoring the slaughter of besieged Muslims. Biden cast American inaction as a moral failing.
“We have turned our backs on aggression. We have turned our backs on atrocity,” he warned. “We have turned our backs on conscience.” A year later, Clinton began bombing Bosnian Serb targets.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the toppling of the Taliban, Biden called for setting aside billions in aid to rebuild Afghanistan — a proposal that was rejected as too costly. In Iraq, he dramatically recounted an encounter in Fallujah with an unnamed U.S. general to make the case for more U.S. soldiers. “Senator, anybody tells you that we have enough troops here, you can tell them they’re a GD liar,” Biden recalled the officer confiding to him in 2004 as he boarded a Black Hawk helicopter for Baghdad.
Two years later, Biden was looking for a way out of the war. The answer came to him on the shuttle from New York to Washington when he was seated by chance next to Les Gelb, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. The men used a serendipitous three-hour delay to sketch out a plan to separate the warring combatants into self-governing Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves.
The main goal of the Biden-Gelb plan was to minimize the costs of an American defeat and withdrawal. “Biden had begun to understand that he didn’t understand much about these places,” Gelb said in an interview shortly before his death last year. “Iraq was the moon to him.”
Biden’s foreign policy views are the product of a passionate interest that dates back decades, aides said. As a senator and vice president, he relished the pageantry of state visits and enjoyed jawing with world leaders, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his friend and frequently nemesis.
Chance encounters overseas with think-tankers and policy experts often turned into hours-long debates. Middle East expert Dennis Ross bumped into Biden during the Second Intifada in 2002 at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, where they spent a long, unplanned breakfast discussing how to stem the violence.
“Do you have ideas I can pass to the president?” Ross recalled Biden asking him. Biden was guided by a “genuine curiosity” about how to fix a “terrible situation,” Ross said.
Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress, crossed paths with Biden late one night in 2008 at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan. Both men were unable to sleep, so Biden invited Katulis over for a milkshake and then spent two hours laying out his ideas for a new Democratic foreign policy.
By that point, Biden was beginning to turn against the war in Afghanistan. He had just arrived from Kabul where he “blew up” during a briefing from the U.S. ambassador and top military commander that put an optimistic gloss on U.S. operations, recalled ambassador William B. Wood. “I didn’t feel he was convinceable,” Wood said.
Later that evening he assailed then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai over corruption and the growing heroin trade. “He was getting more and more irritated,” said Chuck Hagel, a senator who accompanied Biden on the trip. “Eventually I had to grab Joe’s arm to settle him down.” Biden wrested free and slammed his fist on the table in frustration, Hagel recalled. A few minutes later the meeting ended.
Back in Washington, though, Biden took a position that was largely in line with the presidential front-runners, who viewed the war as faltering but still winnable. “More blood will be spilled, and more treasure will be spent,” he said. “But … it is nothing, nothing, nothing compared to the blood and treasure we’ve devoted to Iraq. And, it is much more doable than what we’ve done thus far in Iraq.”
Later that summer, Obama chose Biden as his running mate.
‘It’s all failing’
Biden told friends that he had only visited the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory twice during his four decades in Washington — one time each during the Reagan and Clinton administrations. Because he was one of the few modern vice presidents who had never lived in the nation’s capital, he and his wife, Jill, had no furniture. A few days before the inauguration, they dashed out to buy a mattress. They chose couches and tables from a government warehouse and toured the observatory with outgoing Vice President Richard B. Cheney, joking with him about his indifference to color.
“Everything was beige,” Biden said, “all beautiful but beige.”
Biden seemed giddy to be at the center of the action, and the center of the Afghanistan debate, where Obama urged him to voice his skepticism.
“Joe, I want you to say exactly what you think,” Obama recounted telling Biden in a 2010 interview. “I want every argument on every side to be poked hard.”
Biden also sought to ensure that the Pentagon brass didn’t try to mislead the new and inexperienced commander in chief. “The military doesn’t [screw] around with me,” he told aides. “I’ve been around too long.”
His relentless questioning and long Situation Room speeches irritated top Pentagon officials. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates complained that Biden was subjecting Obama to “Chinese water torture.” “Every day [he’s] saying, ‘the military can’t be trusted,’ ‘the strategy can’t work,’ ‘it’s all failing,’” Gates recalled in his memoir “Duty.” Upon leaving office, he accused Biden of being wrong on “nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Biden’s defenders blamed the barb on lingering animosity from the Afghanistan review. “Gates was unhappy that Biden was a wrench in the Pentagon’s finely calibrated works,” a senior Biden aide said.
Dissatisfied with the troop-surge-focused strategies put forward by the Pentagon, Biden sought out his own experts. He met quietly with Colin Powell, who had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. “If we leave Afghanistan now, who the hell is going to remember?” Powell told him, according to officials who took part in the meeting. Biden urged Powell to pass the same message to Obama.
He found another ally in Marine Gen. James Cartwright, a fighter pilot and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who shared his view of the war. Senior Pentagon officials maintained that the U.S. government had to build a capable Afghan government and army to prevent al-Qaeda’s return to the country.
Biden and Cartwright dismissed that approach as too costly. Intelligence officials told Biden that there were fewer than 100 al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan — most had fled to Pakistan. Biden and Cartwright thought that a relatively modest U.S. counter-terrorism force would be enough to keep the al-Qaeda fighters from crossing the border where American forces could operate with no restrictions. The remaining U.S. troops would work to train the Afghan army and police. Biden was agnostic when it came to the survival of the Afghan government in Kabul.
In the 1990s, Biden had made an impassioned argument that U.S. credibility and the country’s moral standing demanded that it use military force to stop a slaughter in the Balkans. In Afghanistan, Biden rejected the notion that America had any moral obligation to improve the lives of Afghans or prevent civil wars.
“He had that empathy for the people in the Balkans. He even had it for people in Iraq,” said a senior Obama administration official who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “I never saw it in Afghanistan.”
An unwinnable war
Six months after Obama announced his new Afghan strategy, Biden huddled with a handful of like-minded advisers at the Naval Observatory.
All agreed that the war was going badly. Karzai remained an unreliable partner. The Afghan army and police forces were corrupt and ineffective. “Is there a political solution in Kabul that bails us out?” Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who oversaw Afghanistan policy in the White House, recalled the group asking. “Is there a wild card we can play with Pakistan?” They decided there were no easy ways out.
In Situation Room meetings, Biden seized on the Afghan government’s failings to show that the administration’s strategy was unworkable. In 2010, senior Afghan officials had been caught looting nearly $1 billion from the Kabul Bank.
Obama asked U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who was appearing via a video feed, whether Karzai was capable of cracking down on the theft.
“It would be politically suicidal for Karzai to do that,” the ambassador replied, according to officials at the meeting.
“That’s what I’ve been saying!” Biden yelled. “That’s exactly what I told you!”
The long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been a sobering experience for many in Washington — especially those such as Biden who had been in positions of influence in the 1990s when American power was at its peak.
A few months before his death in 2010, Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, met privately with the vice president in Washington. Their relationship dated to the 1970s. “They were practically the same age, similarly dominating, agreed on almost everything, and so naturally couldn’t stand each other,” wrote George Packer, Holbrooke’s biographer, in his book “Our Man.”
Holbrooke recorded their brief and contentious exchange in his diary.
Both Biden and Holbrooke were convinced that the war was unwinnable. Still, Holbrooke argued that the United States owed Afghans continued aid and assistance, particularly directed at the women who had suffered under the Taliban’s brutal rule.
The United States simply couldn’t abandon the country.
Holbrooke’s appeal infuriated Biden, who was so angry that he rose from his chair, according to Holbrooke.
“I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights!” the vice president shouted at him. “It just won’t work, that’s not what they’re there for.”