On the most fundamental matter at stake in the recent debate over the war in Afghanistan, Vice President Joseph Biden ultimately lost.
Weeks before President Barack Obama officially announced that 30,000 additional troops would be heading to a war in its eighth year, Biden was casting doubt on the wisdom of just such a move. Pointing out that the ratio of U.S. expenditures in Afghanistan compared to Pakistan is 30 to 1 -- despite the overwhelming presence of al Qaeda and nuclear weapons in the latter country -- he asked, quite simply, whether further escalation made "strategic sense".
The president decided that it did. And as a result, questions have surfaced about Biden's standing within the administration.
But White House aides say that despite being overruled on the troop-strength issue, the vice president scored some victories. He was able extract a specific date to begin troop withdrawals. He is also considered partly responsible for the new plan's focus on fighting al Qaeda rather than nation-building. And by openly challenging the wisdom of military command, aides say, Biden effectively cleared the way for other administration officials to weigh in with concerns of their own.
When the president finally phoned Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry (a surge skeptic himself) to announce he had settled on 30,000 more troops, Biden was literally and figuratively right there next to him. And it was Biden who was out defending the policy the next day on the network morning shows.
"My view all along has been [that it's] less important what the number is than what the strategy is," Biden told Good Morning America on Wednesday. "The President's got the priorities right. The number of troops is much less important than that narrowed, clear strategy."
"Every principal involved, from Secretaries Gates and Clinton to Generals McChrystal and Petraeus to Vice President Biden, made important contributions to the final product," a senior administration said, declining to elaborate further.
But the public view of how Biden fared in the debate is mixed. One Democratic foreign policy strategist said it was "disheartening" to see the vice president -- who was tapped for his position "precisely because of his foreign policy experience" -- forced to gloss over the issue of military escalation as if it were of secondary importance.
Moreover, while Biden may have won a withdrawal date, subsequent testimony from administration officials on Capitol Hill has made it clear that the July 2011 target is more an aspiration than a carved-in-stone declaration.
Some foreign policy analysts have more complimentary takes. "What he did was to get the White House to focus on things other than the military," said Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "He was the one who said 'Focus on Karzai here'; that 'you have to have an end date there'. He also pointed out that if Karzai doesn't make it, it doesn't matter what you do."
"There was a winnowed down set of objectives that was very Biden-esque," concurred Steve Clemons, a fellow at the New America Foundation. "He lost on the troop surge. He lost on the military footprint issue. What he won on was re-clarifying the focus. Their primary object is al Qaeda and their subordinate goal is to continue the economic security and political stabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's not nation building and it's not open-ended."
Clemons also argues that Biden played a key political role for the president, providing a heterodox element to a deliberative process that had been dominated by military voices. He was "the skunk at the picnic," Clemons said. And while such a role would traditionally place someone at the outer edges of the White House inner circle, it fit in with the narrative that the president has fostered a "team of rivals."
There is even, in certain corners, speculation that the vice president's anything-but-secret opposition to the surge was mostly for show. "It was a leak authorized at the very highest levels of the administration," said David Frum, a former George W. Bush adviser who knows a thing or two about White House communications strategy. "It was a play performed for the benefit of Congress so that the liberal members would feel -- in this theatrical performance of adjudication -- that their point of view was represented. I think we know very little about what Joe Biden thinks and feels. We know a great deal about what the administration would like us to think Joe Biden thinks and feels."
White House officials adamantly deny that the vice president was used as some sort of political pawn in the Afghan debate. Indeed, it is understood that within the administration, Biden had been arguing against a military ramp-up, essentially alone, since last spring --before other lower-level officials felt more at ease expressing their reservations.
"The vice president believes it is his job to give the president the best and most candid advice he can -- and to give it privately," said Jay Carney, Biden's spokesman.
In the end, the advice failed to move the president's hand on the key issue of troop strength. But it may have been enough to secure important strategic victories. At the very least, it showed that the vice president is comfortable staking out a dissenting position inside the administration and pulling people to his side -- even if means losing out in the end.
"My impression is that the president highly values Biden's contributions on foreign policy and, in particular, raising tough questions about the recommendations from the military on Afghanistan," said Thomas Mann, a government affairs expert at the Brookings Institution. "Those questions prompted a more serious review and more nuanced, less open-ended commitment. Biden is providing Obama with honest reactions and complete loyalty. I think his standing in the administration will remain strong."
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