Iraq makes most politicians look bad. Joe Biden’s record is actually a bit above average.

During the Republican National Convention, we heard an argument that will surely resurface this fall: Former Vice President Joe Biden’s judgment on national security matters is supposedly poor. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, famously put it this way in his memoir: “I think he’s been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

Gates’s sweeping comment seems unfair, even nasty. After all, Biden supported arms control accords to help corral Russia’s nuclear weapons after the Cold War, major trade agreements that helped propel sustained global economic growth for decades, strong defense and intelligence budgets, and climate-change accords that, while far from adequate, have been a useful first step in addressing this great challenge of our era. But leave those matters aside for now. People like Gates often place particular focus on Iraq, since then-Sen. Biden voted against authorizing Operation Desert Storm in 1991 (which was a success) and in favor of authorizing the 2003 invasion of Iraq (which was not). 

Biden was in good company in 1991

Having been part of the Iraq war debate and watched Biden’s role in it for 30 years, I believe it is considerably better than allowed by critics like Gates, or political foes like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas. Iraq has a way of making almost anyone look bad if they stay in the conversation long enough. But Biden has also made positive contributions to the policy-making process that need to be weighed in any net assessment of his record.

Start with that 1991 vote. Yes, Biden did vote against the war authorization, which nonethelesspassed the Senate 52-47, and yes Bush deserves great credit for his vision and courage to reverse Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait (which he might have done even if the Senate vote had gone the other way). But while a few Democrats backed the resolution, many others — including party luminaries like Sam Nunn, John Glenn and Lloyd Bentsen — joined Biden in opposition. Bob Woodward later reported that Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was extremely wary as well. 

So Biden had good company. Kuwait was not a U.S. treaty ally; the United States had larger and more formal security interests and obligations in Europe and East Asia; and with the Cold War just over, the nation needed to turn more of its focus inward. While these arguments may not look compelling in hindsight, that does not mean they were unreasonable.

U.S. Marines on Feb. 1, 1991, near Khafiji, Saudi Arabia.

But the real crux of the matter is the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2006-2007 debate over the troop surge. Here Biden’s record holds up better than you may have heard.

Yes, Biden voted to authorize the invasion, along with most senators; the resolution passed the Senate 77-23. But as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden held a series of hearings in the summer of 2002 that remain the best public discussion of the likely challenges any such military campaign would face. They underscored how complex any invasion and stabilization effort in Iraq would surely be. That the Bush administration chose to ignore the Senate’s advice, and prepare for war on the premise that overthrowing Saddam would be a “cakewalk,” as defense policy analyst Kenneth Adelman infamously predicted, is not Biden’s fault.

COVID and the Middle East:ISIS is using the COVID distraction to rearm and regroup

Indeed, at the time, Biden said that “in many ways the most critical question relates to our responsibilities, if any, for the day after Saddam is taken down, if taken down by the use of the U.S. military. This is not a theoretical exercise. In Afghanistan, the war was prosecuted exceptionally well, in my view, but the follow-through commitment to Afghanistan security and reconstruction has, in my judgment, fallen short.

“It would be a tragedy if we removed a tyrant in Iraq, only to leave chaos in its wake. The long suffering Iraqi people need to know a regime change would benefit them. So do Iraq’s neighbors. We need a better understanding of what it would take to secure Iraq and rebuild it economically and politically.”

Shaking up policy to salvage Iraq mess

By 2006, Saddam Hussein was long gone, and tragically so was any semblance of stability in Iraq. At that time, building on a concept first developed by Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden proposed partitioning Iraq. The Kurds in the north, the Sunnis in the west and the Shia in the center and east would each have their own self-governing areas. 

My 2007 research with Johns Hopkins professor Edward Joseph suggested the proposal would have been daunting to put into effect. Fortunately, the famous troop “surge” picked up steam and ultimately succeeded. The partition plan was not needed and Biden stopped pushing it. But in proposing such an idea, rather than advocating a reckless withdrawal as others were beginning to favor at the time, Biden played the rightful role of loyal opposition in American politics — trying to shake up the policy process, and salvage something out of the mess that Iraq had become.

Later, as vice president, Biden consulted frequently with Iraqi leaders of various stripes and attempted to rein in the increasingly sectarian ways of Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was trying to ban numerous Sunni leaders from Iraqi politics and stack the government and military with his own lackeys. That Biden was ultimately unsuccessful was tragic, since it led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq in 2014 and other huge setbacks. In retrospect, the United States should have backed the moderate, Ayad Allawi, and his political party more strongly. But with President Barack Obama having decided that our forces would soon leave Iraq, Biden’s leverage was limited. 

Joe Biden: Trump is worst possible leader to deal with coronavirus outbreak

Speaking of ISIS, despite earlier mistakes, the Obama-Biden team recovered smartly in 2014 — forcing Maliki out of power as a precondition for U.S. military support in an Iraq-led campaign against the caliphate. Because Obama and Biden realized that any effort needed to be Iraqi-led, the effort took time, since its main ingredient had to be a rebuilding of the Iraqi military.

The campaign started to show promise by the time Obama and Biden left office, ultimately resulting in the defeat of ISIS and restoration of Iraqi government control throughout the country early in the Trump presidency. Today, though few would defend the 2003 invasion, and though the country still has a very long way to go, Iraq is showing glimmers of hopefulness.

Grading Biden on a curve, I would argue he has been a bit better than average for top U.S. leaders over the years.

Michael O’Hanlon, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe.” Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelEOHanlon

Leave a Reply