Saturday, November 28, 2009

After Cheney

IN THE FIELD Biden meeting in Baghdad with Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

An interesting article about Biden as Vice President. His experience in the Senate, his personality, his garrulousness, his role in the Obama administration, his succession of Cheney.

Some details from the story stand out for me.

First, this web and tangle of relationships: while Cheney’s staff fought for dominance with the White House, Biden’s is deeply enmeshed in the policy-making structure. His national-security adviser, Antony J. Blinken, and two other aides are also directors in the National Security Council, while a number of former Biden aides occupy important posts in the N.S.C. Thomas Donilon, deputy national-security adviser and coordinator of policy across agencies, has been a close friend of Biden’s since the 1980s; Donilon’s brother, Michael, is a senior adviser to Biden, and Donilon’s wife, Catherine Russell, was Biden’s former administrative assistant and is now chief of staff to Biden’s wife, Jill. During the transition, Biden told James Jones that he didn’t want his own N.S.C. but wanted to be able to call on the N.S.C. as needed. Jones complied; on the first day in office, he told his staff, “You work for the president and the vice president.” National-security aides routinely accompany Biden on his foreign trips. As one policymaker who was not authorized to comment publicly on internal administration issues said to me: “I don’t in my head distinguish between Office of the Vice President people and N.S.C. people. We’re all the White House staff.”

Whether such a sweeping statement is full reality or a variation of reality and wishful thinking, there seems little doubt that the style and substance of the Bush and the Obama administrations are quite different.

THE MEDIATOR So far, Biden has avoided the White House infighting that marked Cheney’s tenure.

The difference between Biden’s role and Cheney’s has at least as much to do with the culture of the two administrations as it does with the men themselves. Bush’s discomfort with world affairs created a vacuum that Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others fought to fill. Moreover, Bush’s tendency toward the snap judgment and the gut call undermined the formal policy process in favor of jockeying for position at key moments. By contrast, there is little question where foreign policy is now decided — in the Oval Office — and the absence of a San Andreas fault line has as much to do with clarity of authority as it does with personal vibes. What’s more, as the agonizingly deliberative debate over policy in Afghanistan has demonstrated, Obama wants to hear a case fully argued out before reaching a conclusion, even at some political risk. This perfectly suits Biden, a gifted expostulator and an indifferent schemer.

Biden is described as a knowledgable Washington hand, experienced in foreign policy matters, and the like.

“When you’re talking about a country which has an 85 percent rate of illiteracy, which has virtually no history of modern governance, you should go in with an overwhelming dose of humility,” he told me. “And you’d better damn well have as precise a notion as you can of what your objective is.”

Saying virtually is, perhaps, being kind.

Biden and those around him do not seem to believe that McChrystal’s strategy can work — not because they question the abilities of the military, but because they think the generals are far too optimistic about the civilian elements upon which the overall plan depends. They are deeply skeptical that the government of President Hamid Karzai can somehow gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people; that the U.S. can quickly develop the enormous civilian capacity that would accompany a military surge, or can train as many as 400,000 Afghan soldiers, especially with attrition rates now running around 25 percent; that Pakistan will accept a policy designed to bolster Afghanistan’s Pashtun-led government; that NATO allies will overcome public resistance to offer major help; or that the U.S. can afford to spend something like $250 billion on Afghanistan at a time when deficits are already running very high.

Key point there: Pakistan accepting a Pashtun-led Afghani government.

If Al Qaeda can be bottled up on the border with Pakistan through counterterrorism measures involving troops as well as drone attacks, and with the help of an expanded Afghan army, then it is unnecessary to build a secure Afghanistan that can defeat the Taliban.

And perhaps provide a handle on an exit strategy?

Patient and humble are not words that come to mind when you think of Joe Biden; yet even his limitations may suit him for this new world. Biden is the one who knows many little things but no big thing. As gifted as he is at retail politics, he has none of Barack Obama’s talent for the sweeping formulation or inspirational language, which perhaps explains why he has fared so poorly in presidential campaigns. Biden does not project even slightly in the realm of myth. But for this very reason, he is allergic to magical, wish-fulfillment thinking. “Guys,” he’ll say — this is how he describes addressing the Joint Chiefs of Staff — “what if it doesn’t work?” An administration full of youthful true believers, enraptured with their heroic leader, needs a skeptic and a scold. Obama may need one himself. And yet Biden is also, like Obama, an optimist. As vice presidents go, he has more in common with Hubert Humphrey, the happy warrior, than with dark Dick Cheney. He may well, as Tom Lehrer once sang of Humphrey, dream of staging a coup; but he is likely to remain happy as long as he has apple carts to overturn.

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