James Kirchick on How Biden Gets it Wrong (Again) in Newsweek

Joe Biden’s comment to Newsweek about the Taliban is the latest of his foolish assertions, says James Kirchick.

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

When Barack Obama selected Joe Biden to be his running mate in 2008, the media lauded the decision as the perfect choice to beef up a ticket in need of foreign policy credentials. Announcing his decision just weeks after Russia’s August invasion of its tiny neighbor Georgia, the selection was clearly motivated by Biden’s well-cultivated reputation as a foreign policy savant, supposedly evidenced by his long-time service on, and chairmanship of, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “No Democratic politician has more foreign policy experience and expertise than Senator Joe Biden,” declared London’s Daily Telegraph. The Economist labeled him a “foreign policy heavyweight.” And NPR’s Jennifer Ludden deployed the word that Democratic partisans have repeated endlessly in trumpeting Biden: “gravitas.”

Can we finally put to rest the myth that Joe Biden has any clue what he’s talking about in the realm of foreign affairs?

In a wide-ranging interview for Newsweek with Les Gelb, Biden said the following about a rumored reconciliation deal with the Taliban: “Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy.” Just to be clear, Biden was talking about the clerical fascist group that conquered Afghanistan in 1996, willingly hosted al Qaeda, refused to extradite the perpetrators of the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings (while declaring that Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the operation, was “a man without sin”), and then reiterated that refusal when asked again by the United States and the United Nations Security Council following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Almost as if to negate the inevitable White House walk-back that his statement was “taken out of context,” Biden dug in his heels. “That’s critical. There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests.”

If the “Taliban is not our enemy,” then why is it seeking the release of four of their commanders currently being held in Guantanamo Bay prison, all of whom had extensive ties to al Qaeda and two of whom are wanted by the United Nations for War Crimes? One of these detainees, Abdul Haq Wasiq, according to a Joint Task Force Guantanamo threat assessment, “was central to the Taliban's efforts to form alliances with other Islamic fundamentalist groups to fight alongside the Taliban against U.S. and Coalition forces after the 11 September 2001 attacks.” Another, Mullah Norullah Noori, is accused by the U.N. of having murdered thousands of Shi’ite Muslims, and, according to declassified U.S. government memos, “fought alongside al Qaeda as a Taliban military general, against the Northern Alliance,” “hosted al Qaeda commanders,” and “met a subordinate of Osama bin Laden to pass a message from the Taliban supreme leader.”

These are just a handful of the Taliban officials, who, by any objective definition of the word, are “enemies” of the United States. Indeed, if these men are not our “enemies,” then the word has lost all meaning. Biden’s attempt to draw a bright line between al Qaeda (which the administration has, to its credit, been relentless in pursuing), and the Taliban, is dangerously misleading. As my colleagues Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies have written, “It is not clear where, say, al Qaeda ends and the Taliban and other terrorist groups begin. This is by design. Bin Laden envisioned al Qaeda as the vanguard of a broader jihadist coalition. Al Qaeda was always a joint venture, drawing from the manpower of sympathetic organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan and throughout the Arab diaspora to replenish its ranks.” Whatever their occasional ideological or tactical differences, al Qaeda and the Taliban are united in their desire to evict the United States and its NATO allies from Afghanistan, overrun the shaky government in Kabul, and once again assume control over the country, thus rendering it the very safe haven for terrorism that so many American men and women died attempting to prevent. While the administration has been pursuing a hopeless reconciliation strategy with the Taliban, in September, the Quetta Shura – the Taliban’s leadership structure in Pakistani – assassinated former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the man tasked with negotiating a compromise with the group.

Biden’s comments on the Taliban are overshadowing another alarmingly naïve statement he made in the same interview. “But the critics are looking at Iran as if it has gained power and momentum,” the Vice President told Gelb. “They’ve actually lost power, lost momentum. They have less influence in the region than they have had in the last 20 years.” By no objective standard is this true. For years, Iran has been killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan by smuggling weapons to its allies in both countries. Its nuclear program is a bald-faced attempt at regional hegemony, one that comes closer to fruition with each passing day. And though the regime in Syria, Iran’s one Arab ally and partner in plundering Lebanon, is faltering, Tehran remains powerful in the Levant, as evidenced by the fact that its client, Hezbollah, is Lebanon’s ruling party.

Indeed, on the subject of Hezbollah, Biden’s recent remarks about the Taliban are far from the silliest thing he’s uttered. That distinction must surely go to the assertion he made in the 2008 Vice Presidential debate with Sarah Palin. In the course of a discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden went off on a bizarre tangent:

When we kicked — along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, “Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don’t know — if you don’t, Hezbollah will control it.”

Literally not a word of this is true. Neither the United States nor France ever “kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon,” where it has safely resided, from strength to strength, ever since its founding by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps in the early 1980’s. Nor did Biden or Obama ever suggest that NATO “fill the vacuum” in the Levant. Had Palin made a remark so blindingly ignorant, she would have been rightfully mocked as a novice and an incompetent. But not Biden, who somehow maintains a reputation as a foreign policy “wise man” on the level of Dean Acheson and George F. Kennan.

10 years ago, George W. Bush declared, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Meant as a declaration to the world, it began to polarize at home, as critics took it to imply that one had to support each and every action undertaken by the Bush administration, including controversial ones like the Iraq War or the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, in order to be “with” America. What it meant, and what it still means, is that America has enemies, namely, the people who attacked us on 9/11 and the people who harbored and succored them. If the Vice President of the United States cannot recognize this bare fact, than we are in much deeper trouble than anyone could have possibly imagined.