On Afghanistan, Joe Biden plays devil's advocate

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One of the more intriguing features of U.S. President Barack Obama’s painstaking review of his strategy in Afghanistan is the widespread coverage that has been given to his vice president’s dissenting views.

Vice President Joe Biden listens to Romania's President Traian Basescu (not in picture) during their meeting at Cotroceni Presidential Palace in Bucharest October 22, 2009. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel

Anyone who reads newspapers, blogs or watches television knows that Joe Biden is wary of sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, as recommended by the top military commander there, and wants to narrow the U.S. strategy to focus more on pursuing al Qaeda than first defeating a resurgent Taliban.

In fact, Biden has yet to utter a single word in public on the issue, and what Americans know about his thinking is based solely on a stream of anonymous leaks.

Like other senior administration officials, including national security adviser Jim Jones and Obama’s special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, Biden is keeping quiet while Obama ponders a decision that could define his presidency.

With Americans increasingly weary of the 8-year-old war in Afghanistan, skeptics of Biden’s skepticism have asked why his views are being given such a public airing and are not being to confined to the White House situation room, where Obama held another in a series of meetings on Afghanistan on Thursday.

Analysts say that whoever is leaking Biden’s views is doing so with tacit permission from a White House keen to show that Obama is debating a wide range of views and is not simply going to rubber-stamp the military’s troop request.

“I think the White House wants it out in this way. It could be they are trying to make it clear to people ... that they will have heard all sides, and that the Biden point of view will have been given serious consideration by Obama even if he chooses something different, said Thomas Schwartz, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University.


Former Democratic colleagues in the U.S. Congress dismiss suggestions that Biden, who has not ruled out another run for president, is bowing to public opinion and positioning himself to be on the right side of history.

“I think Joe Biden is just being Joe Biden. He is a wonderful, smart guy who has expressed his opinion. I don’t think it is part of a plan,” said Representative Ike Skelton, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee who backs sending more troops.

Despite his considerable foreign policy experience and Obama giving him the responsibility of overseeing Iraq policy and making sure that economic stimulus money is spent properly, Biden has struggled to shake off his gaffe-prone image.

But, while Obama has been portrayed by Republican critics as overly cautious and indecisive on Afghanistan, Biden’s skepticism has won generally positive media coverage, including a Newsweek cover headlined “An Inconvenient Truth Teller.”

The White House has dismissed criticism of the president, arguing that such a momentous decision requires careful consideration. It has also praised Biden’s role.

“There are very few people in this town who have the type of experience and expertise that the vice president brings to this. The president greatly values that experience,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

“The president also values ... somebody who provides advice with candor and would challenge not just other people’s assumptions (but) the president’s too in order to come to the best decision,” he said.


Obama views Biden as a team player and has no doubt that he will support whatever decision he makes, Gibbs stressed.

“In the end, the president is the commander in chief. Everyone else is an adviser,” said another senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Biden’s critics ask why so much weight is being given to his views when he voted against the 1991 Gulf War, for the 2003 Iraq war and proposed partitioning Iraq, a move many Iraq experts say would have had disastrous consequences.

“Mr. Biden has a record rare in its consistency and duration of being wrong about big national security questions,” Karl Rove, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal.

Former Senate colleague, Senator Chris Dodd, a Democrat, however, defended Biden’s record.

“He’s been right more times than not over many years on various matters, from Bosnia to the Middle East. So, I’m sure the president’s listening carefully to Joe’s advice.”

Liberal blogger Arianna Huffington, who runs the high-profile website Huffington Post, has called on Biden to resign if Obama decides to order more troops to Afghanistan.

No one in Washington seriously believes that is a possibility, as he relishes his role as devil’s advocate in the administration. When Obama finally announces his decision, expect to see Biden standing by his side. (Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Doina Chiacu)