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Biden and the AUMF

By Matthew Yglesias on August 24, 2008 at 9:54 am

"Biden and the AUMF"

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Biden Iraq

There’s a lot of interest, naturally, in Joe Biden’s vote in favor of the 2002 Iraq AUMF. Fortunately, Biden is much more disposed to deliver long talks on foreign policy than is your average Senator, so it’s possible to put his voting record in more context than is usually available. In particular, these three speeches seem relevant:

– Here’s a January 31, 2003 speech to the National Conference of the World Affairs Council of America.

– Here’s a February 3, 2003 speech “On the Possibility Of A War With Iraq”.

– And here’s a speech in Delaware on February 20, 2003 on “Two Crises: Iraq and North Korea”

The speeches read as somewhat incoherent. Biden is keenly aware of the problems with the President’s policy — war is likely to be more costly than Bush says, less necessary for American security than Bush says, and more of a distraction from al-Qaeda than Bush says. Biden also exhibits a clear understanding of the general structure of the international situation and why a threatening and unilateral posture could undermine a lot of important international objectives. He co-sponsored a resolution with Richard Lugar that would have put some breaks on the slide to war, but when the perfidy of Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt scuttled Biden-Lugar he voted for the AUMF and against an anti-war amendment by Carl Levin. But having done that, in his January speech Biden perceptively argued that the administration’s focus on Iraq made no sense:

So to put it in perspective, our failure, if you notice, I was told if you check Lexis-Nexis, since 9/11, or shortly thereafter, the President only mentioned Osama Bin Laden 6 times. He probably mentioned Saddam Hussein 6,000. In relative terms they’re not close. I would note parenthetically that we no longer have soccer moms in San Diego or Wilmington or Washington or Seattle, we have security moms. An abnormally high percentage of women between the ages of 25 and 40 with children, believe that they are likely to be a victim of a terrorist attack, which is not accurate but close to 40% believe that. Which has another destabilizing effect on us as a country.

So to make a comparative point, I think Saddam Hussein is a genuine danger and cannot be left unattended. Do I think it should have been moved front and center to the degree it has now? My answer to that is no, but it has. I think there are other things that are of a much more immediate concern, but that’s not where we are right now. And so what do we do? What do we do?

The answer he gives is: “My suggestion is that we should, and what I have attempted to do, and I will not speak for Dick Lugar, who is a close friend and whom – which will shock you all, we agree on almost everyone of these major issues – is to weigh in on a side of an incredibly divided administration.” The explanation that follows seems pretty incoherent to me, but Biden’s basic take is that the administration is deeply divided between a reasonable Powell faction and a crazy faction. The crazies are hot for a doctrine of unilateral prevention:

And so some folks believe, and I will not use names, but these folks sincerely believe that if we go it alone even when help is offered to reject it, we will demonstrate to the world our resolve. We will leverage the power we have, and to put it in colloquial terms Khomeini will sit there and say, “Oh my God! Look what they did in the face of the whole world of objecting, in Iraq we better straighten up our act.” Kim will say, whoa, we see what’s coming we’d better, you think I’m exaggerating. The only thing I’m doing here is unfairly and not fully, because of time, giving the complete rationale for their argument. And there is a chance they may be right. But I disagree with it.

Biden seems to believe, in a massive misunderstanding of how things work, that by signing on with the administration he would be able to weigh-in on the side of the non-crazy faction and thus influence events in a positive manner. I don’t really understand why he would have thought that would work, but maybe he had his reasons. Beyond that, the main things that stand out about the speeches in retrospect are that Biden was a bit too credulous about the WMD intelligence, and even as he (rightly) accused the Bush administration of understating the size of the task he himself understated the size of the task, talking about how “it could take from one to five years to win the peace and may take as many as 75,000 troops to secure victory with a cost of 20 billion dollars or more.”

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