You’d have to be a fool not to listen to Bob Gates. The former head of the CIA, retired defense secretary and tough, outspoken, nose-to-the-grindstone amateur historian, is viewed as a sage observer of all-things-Washington. His judgments are regularly quoted, celebrated, admired and repeated. That’s important just now, as President-elect Joe Biden mounts his transition to the Oval Office, a room he’s regularly frequented, but never inhabited. Is Biden prepared? Bob Gates doesn’t think so: Biden, Gates told us in Duty, his memoir of his years in government service, “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
The Gates judgment has become a kind of political graffiti: as commonly accepted as the tags that adorn the underpasses of superhighways. When the Gates judgment was first issued, back in 2014, it brought knowing nods from political insiders who had watched Biden through the years, a coterie of Democratic party stalwarts and political hacks who might have agreed with Donald Trump’s description of Biden as “sleepy Joe”—if only Trump hadn’t authored it. There’s only one problem with the Gates description: it’s not true. Not only has Joe Biden not been wrong “on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue” over the past four decades, on the most important ones he’s been decidedly right.
Take Afghanistan. In January of 2008, Vice President-elect Biden visited Afghanistan to get a feel for the issues the new Obama Administration would be facing there once it took office. The trip did not go well: Biden’s meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai was tension-filled, while his talks with senior U.S. military officers left Biden filled with doubts. Every time Biden asked a military officer to explain what the United States was doing in Afghanistan, he got a different answer—from fighting the Taliban to fighting al-Qaeda to helping Afghans rebuild their country. Biden’s exchanges with American soldiers were even more worrisome. What are you doing here? Biden would ask those he met. They didn’t know.
And so it was that, following Obama’s inauguration, Biden emerged as the administration’s leading Afghanistan skeptic: worrying that the military would press for a surge of troops in the country (but without laying out what exactly the surge was for), questioning whether a change in commanders (from Gen. David McKiernan to Stanley McChrystal) was really necessary, then upending the administration’s discussions on the military strategy by suggesting it was wrong to promote a counterinsurgency campaign that focused on the Afghan people. What was needed, Biden said, was a counterterrorism campaign that focused on al-Qaeda. As the last person to talk to the president on any important issue, Biden was both confrontational—and protective. Or, as Bob Woodward would later describe it, Biden “believed the military could not push him around, but they could roll an inexperienced president.”
As it turns out, Biden was right on all three counts. Within a week of his return from Afghanistan, the new president was pummeled by military officers recommending a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops (Biden was stunned), McChrystal’s appointment foundered on a sea of alcohol-fueled embarrassments (complete with personal stabs at the vice president) and Biden’s fear that Afghanistan would become “just another version of Vietnam” proved prescient: at the end of Obama’s first term the war was still being fought, and still going nowhere. The history is painful but instructive: of all of Barack Obama’s senior national security officials, it was Joe Biden who most closely questioned the military’s Afghanistan plan, primarily by pointing out that they didn’t have one. [Continue reading…]