Joe Biden's Empty Words
In his first international speech, the vice president promised a new day and a new tone. But when it came to America’s policy on Iran, Russia, and the Middle East, he offered little more than atmospherics.
The 45th Munich Security Conference, which concluded Sunday, was as notable for the prominence of its participants as for anything said in the venerable Bayerischer Hof Hotel, where it is held. Usually a gathering of defense ministers, flag officers, diplomats, legislators, old NATO hands, and journalists, this year’s conference was attended by 12 heads of state or government, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and senior officials of the new American government. National Security Adviser General Jim Jones was present for the entire three-day conference. US Central Command chief General David Petraeus and Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, were also in attendance.
Beyond changes to the treatment of detainees (no more torture and adios Guantanamo) and increasing foreign assistance, the substantive changes in US statecraft were made less clear by the vice president than its atmospherics.
The most-anticipated conference speaker, however, and most senior American official ever to attend the annual conference was Vice President Joe Biden, who gave what was advertised as the first major administration foreign-policy address. His promise of “a new day,” “new tone,” “new approach,” and lots more engaging, listening, and consulting with our allies, and his pledge to “hit the reset button” in US-Russia relations, were received warmly by Bush-weary Europeans and politely, if less effusively, by the Russians. But beyond changes to the treatment of detainees (no more torture and adios Guantanamo) and increasing foreign assistance, the substantive changes in US statecraft were made less clear by the vice president than its atmospherics.
According to the vice president, we will strive to prevent threats but not pre-empt them. (Something about that distinction, perhaps the words “strive to,” might worry those who believe that should our preventive striving not succeed, pre-emption might merit reconsideration.) We will not recognize the independence of Georgia’s breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or a Russian sphere of influence throughout the late Soviet empire, and we believe sovereign states are free to choose their own alliances.
But resisting those Russian assertions by allowing Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO seems unlikely, what with the impediment it might create to hitting the reset button, and the threat it poses, according to Sarkozy, to the trans-Atlantic family’s values. We will continue to develop missile defenses, but no one knows if that still includes basing missile interceptors in Eastern Europe. We want more help from our allies, but specifically what that entails in, for instance, Afghanistan, wasn’t explained.
Biden also reaffirmed the administration’s intention to negotiate directly with Iran and offer it unspecified incentives to end its nuclear-weapons program. In a pre-buttal of sorts, an earlier speaker, Europe’s favorite Iranian “moderate,” Ali Larijani, mocked the “new tone” in Washington and made clear that even though the Obama administration has generously dispensed with preconditions for negotiations, Tehran still insists on a few of its own. Accepting Iran’s right to develop nuclear weapons and abandoning US support for Israel figured prominently in his enumeration of those preconditions, following which he treated conference participants to a handheld slide show of Israel’s “atrocities” against the Palestinians in Gaza.
Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and missile-defense policies are all, appropriately, subject to ongoing review by the new administration, which explains why the vice president had so little guidance to offer about their probable direction. Headline writers at the New York Times betrayed the confusion that policy opaqueness often causes them by first declaring, “Biden Takes a Hard Line,” and subsequently surmising, “Biden Signals US Is Open to Russia Missile Deal.”
Whether the vice president was holding a hard line or promising a new openness, the Russians showed little immediate interest in reconsidering their own positions. Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Putin protégé Sergei Ivanov, who attended the conference and met separately with Biden, declined to respond in kind to whatever might have been on offer by the Americans; instead, he likened such public discussions to an “Oriental bazaar.” And he reiterated Russia’s insistence on establishing military bases in an independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia’s threat to deploy missiles on its border with Poland.
That Afghanistan is a very hard problem was the only consensus that seemed to emerge among conference speakers who addressed the subject, though they also agreed on the necessity to ensure that our objectives there are “achievable”—always a sensible goal when fighting wars. How to solve it or what the administration believes is achievable in Afghanistan remains, like so much else, to be determined.
In the last panel discussion of the conference, Holbrooke, after inspiring his listeners with a stirring portrayal of Cincinnatus called from his plough to save Rome again, proclaimed it hard; harder than Dayton; harder than Iraq; harder than Vietnam; just very, very, very hard. Though the talents of mere mortal diplomats would be no match for the task, our special envoy intends to do his excellent best to achieve the impossible and keep his personal archivists working overtime.
It was left to Holbrooke’s fellow panel member, the estimable General Petraeus, to offer a pointed reminder to the conference of what any achievable goal in Afghanistan, short of defeat, would require.
“Military action,” he noted, “while not sufficient by itself, is absolutely necessary, for security provides the essential foundation for the achievement of progress in all the other so-called lines of operation.”
The first goal of successful counterinsurgency tactics, the general explained, is “to secure and serve the population,” and that will require a substantially increased commitment on the part of the US and its allies, including “more combat forces...more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms...more military police, engineers, and logistics elements; additional special operations forces...more lift and attack helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft; additional air MedEvac assets; increases in information-operations capabilities; and so on,” as well as “a surge in civilian capacity” to promote economic and political development.
General Petraeus is a hard man for a hard problem, and skilled at communicating to the hopeful West the stubborn realities of the threats we face and their demands on us. Changes in American administrations, like changes in the atmospherics of diplomacy, are easier to achieve than genuine improvements to our security in this still-hostile world.
Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Senator John McCain and senior adviser to his presidential campaign.