Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has a long foreign policy track record and very little of it is impressive. Mondoweiss spoke with Jacobin staff writer Branko Marcetic about Biden’s past votes, devotion to Israel, disagreements with Obama, and how a Biden foreign policy would look compared to Trump’s.
Marcetic is the author of the excellent new book Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, which was published by Verso.
Michael Arria: Biden was sworn into the Senate way back in 1973. There’s been some discussion about that era, particularly about busing. However, there hasn’t been much talk about the foreign policy positions of his early years. Was it a priority for him, did he lead on any of those issues, and what did his votes look like?
Branko Marcetic: His foreign policy isn’t terrible, particularly in the earlier years. When he came in, he wasn’t a guy who had particular ideological commitments or really a strong kind of sense of his own politics. He was mostly going by either what was popular at the time or what was going to win him votes in Delaware. So when he initially ran, he made this forty-minute announcement speech, which sort of became this Biden trademark. But he didn’t actually nail down what his stance was on Vietnam, which was one of the hot button issues of the day. He wasn’t initially super eager to take an anti-war stance. I think he wanted to distance himself from [1972 Democratic presidential nominee George] McGovern. In fact, there was actually a friend of his who would say decades later that he had basically been a Vietnam War supporter for most of the time that she had known him in the 60s and university.
But during that campaign, I think he realized that Vietnam was a good issue so he really ramped up the kind of anti-Vietnam “Bring The Boys Home” kind of rhetoric. Actually, for the first couple of years while he was in the Senate, I wouldn’t say he was on the left in terms of foreign policy, but he was definitely opposed to intervention and U.S. imperialism, to use that phrase broadly. He criticized [former Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger and he criticized Democrats for extending the war, and that kind of thing.
He was supportive of the United States’ effort to extricate itself from the Panama Canal, but ultimately what passed wasn’t really all that radical. It’s been suggested that he had heterodox foreign policy views and then, like a lot of his politics, that all starts to change by about the mid 70s.
Biden, from what I can tell from researching him, is not someone with a very strong ideological side. He tends to be someone who is driven by whatever the political moment at the time demands. He’s also influenced a lot by the people around him. So I think, as he became more established in the Senate, his views start moving closer to establishment D.C. foreign policy, the Washington Consensus. So, in the 1980s [former President Ronald] Reagan wins two elections by landslides and the whole country seems right-wing by that point. Biden basically says, “It’s time to move right with him.” To be less reluctant to use force. Less ponderous and more muscular and aggressive.
But some other not-so-bad things he did…he had been leading on nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. I think that obviously there was much more of a consensus around that issue at the time. I don’t know if that’s necessarily what he would do now as President, because now there’s such a fierce anti-Russian atmosphere. Not just in in Washington more broadly, but for the Democratic Party, which has really kind of run on this really militaristic, aggressive stance on Russia. So, whether there would be that political space for him to do anything on this as President, I don’t know. We should all hope so, because obviously the world right now is in a perilous place when it comes to those two countries’s relations and the nuclear stockpiles. That’s one positive thing of note that he did after the 80s. But beyond that, he really just becomes a pretty standard hawk on the issue of foreign intervention, leading up to his Iraq war vote in 2003.
Arria: Let’s talk about that vote. On the campaign trail, and during some of the debates, Biden had this perplexing defense where he claimed he had voted for the Iraq War, but then immediately opposed it. What do you make of that claim? You document how he did a lot more than just vote for the war.
Marcetic: That statement was a lie just as, I would probably say, around 80% of Biden’s statements about his Iraq vote on the campaign trail have been. He claims that he voted for the war so that Bush had the ability to negotiate with Iraq, and to send inspectors. However, it’s clear if you go through the public record, if you go through Biden’s public statements (not just leading up to that vote out, but really for the entire year before that vote) he was repeatedly saying that Saddam had to be removed. After there was a report that Bush had launched a covert operation to get rid Saddam, he went on a talk show (I think Meet the Press) and asked, “Are we going to be prepared to move from covert operations to an overt operation?” He said repeatedly that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, that he was working with terrorists and all this kind of thing.
Secondly, no one who voted for the Iraq War actually believed that they were simply granting Bush leverage to be able to send inspectors. Everyone knew that the Bush administration was hellbent on war and this vote meant that they were giving them the power to launch it. This idea that he opposed it after he voted for it is completely untrue. In fact, a couple months after the vote, he toured the Middle East. He went to Qatar, Israel, Jordan, he went to the Kurdish part of Iraq and basically was setting the groundwork up for the war, trying to get alliances, trying to meet with opposition figures, basically just saying, you know, we’re going to do this and we want to make sure that everything’s in order for when the invasion happens. He actually spoke to the Kurdish parliament, he told them basically, “We’re going to back you guys up.”
Biden was also one of the longest holdovers of support for that war. While the rest of the party was really starting to turn against the war, because they realized what a disaster it was becoming, Biden held the line. Even as late as August 2003, he was calling for an infusion of something like 50,000 to 60,0000 more troops into Iraq. He was saying that Howard Dean’s opposition to the war should should not be the position of the wider Democratic Party.
I’d say around 2005, after the wider political winds had really already shifted and became untenable for the Democrats to support the war, that’s when he finally shifted. [Former Democratic presidential candidate John] Kerry had just lost to [former President George] Bush. He was actually Kerry’s foreign policy advisor. They’ve really had a very identical history when it came to the Iraq war. As for his role in selling it, you’re right that it wasn’t just one vote. This is the key difference between him and [former presidential candidate] Hillary Clinton, who also had that black mark on her record that Trump was able to exploit in 2016. Biden was more involved in selling war than Clinton, he was the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. He made a conscious decision to latch himself onto Bush. The most infamous part of that was probably the committee hearing that he held on Saddam [Hussein’s] alleged weapons of mass destruction. He opened it up by declaring that Saddam must be removed. The vast majority of witnesses he invited were pro-war and said that Saddam had the weapons. Then after those hearings, he goes on the Sunday shows and he cites all this testimony
So, Biden’s position on the Iraq war is a complete lie. We’ll see if the media actually calls him out on it, or if the issue ever becomes an issue in the election.
Arria: At Mondoweiss, we frequently cover how things are shifting on Palestine among Democrats. This is happening at a much more rapid rate among Democratic voters than it is among lawmakers, but there’s been some reasons for hope. The elections of Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, Michigan Rep. Betty McCollum’s historic child detention bill, you had presidential candidate Bernie Sanders bringing up the subject of conditioning Israeli aid on the campaign trail. You wrote a piece for Jacobin in 2018, that said, “Yet under a President Biden, with his long, chummy relationship with Israel, the Overton window on this issue would likely be shut and padlocked.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Marcetic: I think I’ll start with the 1972 campaign, his very first campaign for Senate, because there was a very revealing story that was published by one of the local Delaware newspapers. A graduate student had been hired by the Biden campaign to write a Middle East position paper and he told the press that he was instructed not to include Biden’s real views on Israel.
According to the student, Biden had said that Israel should return the the land it illegally occupied during 1967 War, but that any pro-Israel position he took during the campaign, he would stick to for the rest of his political career.
Biden kind of denied it and said he was just playing devil’s advocate [when making the comment about the land], but he also then said, “Look, a lot of different ideas were being thrown around at the time.”
What happened after that? Biden did, in fact, keep a pro-Israel positition for the rest of his career and he’s been showered with gifts as a result.
When he ran for president 1997, he raised millions of dollars, easily outraised his opponents. The people in that campaign were either pro-Israel donors or lobbyists or had connections to that world. So he was able to raise a lot of money. He’s gotten just over $630,000 from pro-Israel donors, which might not sound like a lot, but is actually quite a lot of money. He was also recipient of money for paid speeches. His time on the paid speech circuit hasn’t been as shameless as a Clinton or an Obama, but he’d get paid to talk at universities and things like that. A large part of those events were organized by pro-Israel people that were paying him to appear at these events, and he’s had a close relationship with AIPAC. He was actually involved in an AIPAC membership drive at one point. He was a very, very vehement supporter of Israel. Basically, no matter what they did, Biden backed them. In fact, he supported a pro-Israel measure that was even opposed by Reagan. He supported a measure to increase aid to Israel at a time when the country’s debt to the United States had ballooned. Then later, Biden supported an initiative to restructure Israel’s debt on very favorable terms.
Biden, of course, has said that he’s been very close friends with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin} Netanyahu for his entire career. He was doing events with him back in the 1990s.
You would think that all this devotion to Israel, would have yielded some kind political benefit for Biden when he became Vice President. But instead, of course, we know what happened. Netanyahu ritually humiliated the Obama administration.
The Obama administration would kind of “tut, tut” and wag their fingers and tell Netanyahu, “You really you got to stop these illegal small settlements” and then Bibi would say, “Yeah, sure, sure” and just keep building them. He actually announced a round of new settlements when Biden was visiting Israel, a really provocative and kind of humiliating move. Biden said some things about how all this is not very helpful for Israel or the Peace Process, but of course it didn’t change anything. There’s a lot more to it, but those are some of the greatest hits in terms of Biden’s fealty to Israel. I don’t really see any sign that that’s going to change.
Arria: [Former President Barack] Obama has been cited a lot by Biden throughout the campaign and during the debates. I think there is a belief among many people that if Biden beats Trump, his foreign policy will largely be an extension of what Obama’s was. I’m wondering whether you agree with this assessment and, if it would be different, how do you think it would be different? Were there any foreign policy disagreements between Obama and Biden which might prove to be important?
Marcetic: I think it is important that Biden, despite being a hawk for most of his career, was reportedly one of the less hawkish members of Obama’s administration. So he opposed the attack on Libya. He opposed the troop surge in Afghanistan. He also reportedly opposed Obama’s reckless decision to go into Pakistan and assassinate bin Laden.
So, I think he deserves points for all that. But also, when we talk about being less hawkish in the context of the Obama administration, that’s kind of like being the tallest dwarf. At the end of the day, Biden was the guy who came up with the counterterrorism approach that kind of defined Obama’s foreign policy. Instead of invading or “putting boots on the ground”, we will simply drone and bomb countries, send special forces teams in the middle of the night to go kill people and terrorize villages and neighborhoods and that kind of thing.
I guess in some ways that’s better, compared to the Iraq War and the massive vortex of instability that was created there. But I mean, this is the story of the Obama administration. Maybe it’s not as bad as what Republican administrations have done, but it still feeds into the same fundamental problems. One of those problems is tremendous civilian death and terror. People are now traumatized in these Middle Eastern countries by just the noise of a drone flying overhead. At the same time, these policies feed into anti-American hatred in that part of the world because people’s friends and neighbors and families are being killed. For a second it seemed like the United States could take a different approach and change its standing in that part of the world, but instead Obama actually made it worse. I think by the time Obama left office, and this is in large part because of Biden’s foreign policy, the U.S. actually had the same standing as the Bush administration in the region.
What would this all mean for a potential Biden administration, how would it compare to Obama’s? On the one hand, I think he will just continue the same Obama approach of counter-terrorism. I do think there’s going to be an attempt to roll back some of those excesses of the Trump administration. Things like the Muslim ban, maybe scale back the level of drone warfare. But beyond that, I think it’s just going to keep going on ahead the same as it’s been.
There would probably be some differences on Iran but, at the same time, take the U.S sanctions on Iran for example. If we just move away from the accepted framework of war, the U.S. sanctions policy really is a war and they’ve basically become genocidal polcies amid a pandemic, particularly for places like Iran and Venezuela that have already had their economies and the health sectors devastated by years of crippling sanctions. So what’s happening is tantamount to a war, even if it isn’t involving planes and people with uniforms and guns. It’s basically the same result.
So, Biden was recently asked, would you remove the sanctions on Iran? And he couldn’t even say yes! To me, that’s the easiest answer in the world, particularly if you want to contrast yourself with Trump. Even if you’re going to say, we should return to the status quo. Then you should say, let’s not only go back to the Iran Nuclear Deal, but let’s also take these sanctions away, which are obviously fostering anti-American sentiment. He couldn’t even say that. So in some ways, I think it would be a continuation of Obama’s foreign policy, but in other ways Biden might be too timid to even roll back some of these things that Trump has done.
Another good way to find out his direction, would be to take a look at who he staffs. We’re still waiting to find out who is actually going to be put in charge, but there’s been some leaks about potential Cabinet picks. One leak said that Michèle Flournoy was going to be Secretary of State or some high ranking foreign policy position. Flournoy was one of the people who was going to be Clinton’s Secretary of State. She was a Kamala Harris advisor. She is a founder of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which is this Democratic John Podesta-aligned think tank. It basically pushes the liberal hawk foreign policy line. You can have a look at what some of her plans for Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy were going to be, but suffice to say, it wasn’t going to be any sort of meaningful pivot away from what Trump ended up doing.