Washington Bureau

01.10.14

Biden Aide Fires Back at Gates

Gates asserted in his book that Biden has been wrong on foreign policy for decades, but Gates and Biden joined forces to oppose the war in Libya, Biden’s former national security advisor said.

The former top national security advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden Friday fired back at former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who charged Biden has been wrong on every foreign policy issue in 40 years, pointing out that Biden and Gates both opposed Obama’s 2011 decision to go to war in Libya.

“I think [Biden] has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Gates wrote in his soon to be released book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.

On Friday, Julianne Smith, who served as Biden’s national security advisor for much of the first term of the Obama administration, pointed out that if Gates thinks the Vice President was always wrong, Gates is either forgetting the debate prior to the U.S. intervention in Libya or the former Secretary of Defense is admitting that he was wrong in opposing the mission as well.

“It is unfair to say they haven’t been able to agree in four decades,” Smith said at a Friday morning event at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies. “On Libya, this is one case I would note for the record, where Gates and Biden were actually hand in hand, and were in fact often going to the president to express their opposition to this mission. That’s an interesting footnote given what we are reading in the papers these days.”

As Foreign Policy reported at the time, both Gates and Biden opposed to President Obama’s decision to intervene on behalf of Libyan rebels fighting against against Muammar al Qaddaffi, as was National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, now Obama’s chief of staff. Others in the adminstration like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and senior National Security Council staffer Samantha Power advocated for the intervention.

The Secretary of Defense and Vice President were both worried that Libya could descend into chaos if the Qadaffi regime fell, concerns Smith said have been justified by the deterioration of security and governance in Libya in past two years. 

“Gates and Biden, from what I can tell in interacting with both of them, they still feel justified in asking that question ‘and then what’ because that is the glaring failure of this operation,” said Smith. “They were right to ask it and we were wrong not to answer it.”

Both officials also agreed on other less controversial foreign policy issues as well including the need to strengthen NATO and push European allies to bolster their defense spending and hold up their end of the U.S.-Europe alliance, according to Smith.

“What’s interesting about Gates and Biden, they were both brought up as Europeanists… I’ve seen them on countless occasions united on NATO,” she said. “They both have those instincts and that history and generally look at the transatlantic relationship through the same lens.”

The two men also disagreed on a number of issues too. For example, in 2009, Biden advocated for a small counterterrorism force of about 20,000 additional troops in Afghanistan whereas Gates pushed a much stronger American footprint on the ground of 40,000 troops. Obama split the difference and surged about 30,000 new troops to the country.

In a statement Wednesday from National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden, the White House rejected Gates’ criticism of Biden. “The president disagrees with Secretary Gates’ assessment – from his leadership on the Balkans in the Senate, to his efforts to end the war in Iraq, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and has helped advance America’s leadership in the world."

After publication, Smith reiterated to The Daily Beast that she was an admirer of both Biden and Gates, saying "In truth, I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to work for both of these public servants and am grateful for all I learned from them."