How Easily Confused Are Foreign Leaders?

biden-iraq.jpgThe Politico recently ran this rather bizarre item about “concerns” over Vice-President-elect (and current U.S. Senator) Joe Biden’s trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan:

[Biden] won’t really be traveling as the vice president-elect – he’ll be traveling as the chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Only he’ll be resigning from the Senate in a few weeks. Even though he was sworn in Tuesday for his seventh term.

Got that?

Many foreign policy observers don’t, raising the concern that officials in the countries on Biden’s itinerary may hold to the quaint notion that the vice president-elect is the vice president-elect and that Biden will be sending not-very-subtle signals about U.S. policy in the Obama administration – even though George W. Bush is still in office.

“Many foreign policy observers” in this case means two: Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation:

“This is a very delicate time,” said Thomas Donnelly… “It’s hard to see what positive he could do. On the other hand, the potential for confusions, missteps or a gaffe are greater than usual.”[…]

[Curtis] said it could be worthwhile to have Biden in the region when tensions are so high but it could also stir confusion.

“That’s kind of strange to be saying ‘I’m not coming out as a representative of the Obama administration’ even though he’s taking over as vice president in a matter of days. It may be a bit awkward for foreign officials in the region to know how to receive him,” Curtis said. “Most people he meets with are going to be thinking of him as the vice president-elect.”

So, basically, the Politico story is premised on two right-wing think tankers expressing concern that Joe Biden’s status as both U.S. Senator and Vice-President elect could so confound foreign leaders that it might cause a breakdown in protocol and possibly spark an international incident. It seems like a pretty odd concern — or a headline in search of an actual story — especially given the seriousness of the crises we face in that region.

Actually, Biden’s congressional delegation — on which he’s being accompanied by John McCain’s own favorite traveling companion, Sen. Lindsey Graham — tracks with what Biden has described as his responsibility to help bring a fresh analysis of the foreign policy challenges that the Obama administration will inherit from George W. Bush.

In December, Biden told George Stephanopoulos that one of his tasks “is to work with [Obama’s foreign policy team] to come up with a baseline for the president as to what we view the circumstance we’re inheriting in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan” independent of the analysis being handed over by the outgoing administration.

Let me give you an example in Iraq. Iraq, there is a great deal of focus and has been on the military side of the equation, very little focus on the political resolution in Iraq. One of the jobs that I’ve been asked help honcho is to get a consensus or get an agreement or disagreement…among the foreign policy team.

So we the new administration have a priority set that we’re going to start with and a baseline from which we’re going to start as to what we think we need to do

The Politico story notes that “had Biden waited two more weeks and gone to South Asia as vice president, he would have had a pool of reporters in tow catching his every word. Instead, his stops in the region as ‘Senator Biden’ will be covered by local media and news outlets with reporters already on the ground.” Which is, of course, the point. It seems like a pretty wise move for Biden to take advantage of his current status as a senator in order to do a somewhat lower-key fact-finding trip, before his future status as Vice President of the United States of America turns his every international move into an even more heavily-advanced and deeply protocolled media event.