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Vice Presidential Contenders Wade Into Foreign Policy Debate

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As foreign policy gains steam in an otherwise economy-fueled election, it's not just the presidential contenders whose opinions matter — their running mates have plenty to say as well.

At the Republican convention, Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick, Paul Ryan, gave a forceful speech that impressed audiences, while on the Democratic side, Vice President Joe Biden also won plaudits for his speech, which played up President Obama's role in ending the Iraq War and killing Osama bin Laden. And in such a tight race, the performance of the two vice presidential candidates takes on added importance in the upcoming debates and on the campaign trail.

At the outset, foreign policy appears to be neither man's strong suit. Biden has been an asset to Obama's re-election campaign precisely because of his ability to connect with middle-class voters on bread-and-butter issues like jobs. Likewise, Ryan, a Wisconsin representative in the House, is the Republican wiz kid whose bold budget plans have come to define conservative thinking on how to fix America's economy.

But both VP candidates do harbor strong views on U.S. engagement with the world — reflecting and influencing the ambitions of their bosses.

Though they represent polar opposite ends of the political spectrum, looked at from a certain angle, Biden and Ryan aren't as worlds apart as this divisive campaign may suggest. Both men come from working-class backgrounds, both have persevered over tragedies in their private lives, both tirelessly dove into their congressional committee work, and both supported the invasion of Iraq before having strong reservations about the endeavor.

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Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama talks with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), left, during a February 2010 national televised bipartisan meeting on health insurance reform. Whatever bipartisanship may have existed has long evaporated since Ryan became Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick.

The evolution of the Iraq War is critical to understanding the foreign policy mindsets of both men. Subsequent to their support for the war, both flirted with hawkish internationalist views while also taking more nuanced foreign policy positions.

Biden in fact brought to the vice presidency a formidable background in foreign affairs. Among his 36 years in the Senate, he served as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Judiciary Committee, where he also served on the Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

For a large part of his Senate career, Biden was a proponent of aggressive American intervention abroad. He told the New Yorker in 2005: "There are some really bright guys and women in my party who underestimate the transformative capability of military power, when coupled with a rational policy that is both preventative and nation-building in nature."

His record in the Senate bears out that belief. During the 1999 Kosovo conflict, he cosponsored a bill, alongside Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, authorizing the president to use "all necessary force," including ground troops, to confront Slobodan Milosevic over Serbian transgressions in Kosovo.

Over time, and with the experience of Iraq, Biden's belief in intervention became far more nuanced. Despite his initial support, he soon became an ardent critic of President George W. Bush's policies in Iraq, sponsoring bills that opposed permanent U.S. bases in the country, for instance. He also opposed escalating America's troop commitment in Iraq, sponsoring the Iraq War Policy resolution in January 2007 that stated "it is not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq." The resolution did not pass but it signaled Biden's reversal from his earlier unequivocal, muscular backing of the war.

But neither is Biden completely opposed to intervention. In July 2007, a few scant months after his sponsorship of the Iraq resolution, he introduced a resolution alongside Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) advocating military peacekeepers in Sudan's Darfur region.

Biden's belief in the power of military intervention seems to hinge on where U.S. troops might be useful versus where they may cause harm and only inflame tensions. As such, he's supported drawing down forces in Iraq while refocusing American resources on what he claimed was the "central front" in the war against al Qaeda: Afghanistan — mirroring Obama's strategy to redirect resources toward that conflict.

But Afghanistan also illustrates Biden's evolution in thinking, especially as circumstances change. Michael Crowley of the New Republic attributes this change of heart largely to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"Soon after Karzai took office in December 2001, Biden traveled to Kabul and, over lunch on two successive days, clicked with the new leader," Crowley wrote in the 2009 article "Hawk Down." But within a couple of years, Biden became disillusioned over rampant corruption and Karzai's inability to establish a strong central government, according to Crowley.

"Whereas he had once felt that, with sufficient U.S. support, Afghanistan could be stabilized, now he wasn't so sure," Crowley wrote. "The trip also left Biden wondering about the clarity of America's mission. At the White House, he told colleagues that 'if you asked ten different U.S. officials in that country what their mission was, you'd get ten different answers,' according to a senior White House aide. He was also growing increasingly concerned about the fate of Pakistan. Biden has been troubled by the overwhelmingly disproportionate allocation of U.S. resources to Afghanistan in comparison to Pakistan."

So as the Afghan war dragged on and Obama debated substantially increasing troops to the country as part of the 2009 "surge," Biden pushed for a narrower counterinsurgency strategy that called for 20,000 additional troops (not the 40,000 that the army brass recommended), according to the new book "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan" by Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Obama ultimately sent around 30,000 troops.

Biden has also reportedly urged Obama to rely more on unmanned drone strikes to weed out Taliban insurgents, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama has evidently taken his vice president's advice, ratcheting up drone strikes while winding down both wars.

On other fronts, Biden has been instrumental in Obama's signature achievement with Russia, the New Start nuclear weapons treaty, and the strategic "pivot" toward Asia to hedge against Chinese dominance in the region (the vice president often served as Obama's point man on China).

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Photo: Christopher Dilts / Obama for America
Vice President Joe Biden campaigns for President Obama in Detroit in August.

As such, Biden's foreign policy experience was front and center at the Democratic National Convention. Former President Bill Clinton paid tribute to Biden's role, noting that Obama "trusted him to oversee the successful end of the war in Iraq ... and Joe Biden did a great job."

The selection of Ryan to be Romney's VP pick has also added impetus to the Republican presidential hopeful's campaign, although Ryan's specialty clearly lies in the economic domain. As such, his critics charge that the wonky congressman has zero foreign policy experience.

It's true that Ryan is more renowned for his work on domestic issues, notably his budget blueprint that drastically shrinks the size of the U.S. government, but since being vaulted to national stardom, his foreign policy views have begun to come out of the woodwork — ever so slowly. As late as August, James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations complained that "his congressional web page doesn't even list 'foreign policy' as a choice for constituents looking to learn his views."

Currently, Ryan's congressional web page does have sections on homeland security and the war on terror that convey some of his foreign policy beliefs. The language, though, is cloaked in his domestic role as chairman of the House Budget Committee, as he declares: "I am committed to ensuring that the federal government provides our military with the necessary resources to accomplish the missions that they have set to protect our nation from those who wish to do us harm."

The subject of resources is a recurrent theme for Ryan, who argues that America's power abroad will be jeopardized if it does not get its fiscal house in order — hence his all-consuming focus on tackling the deficit.

"Our fiscal policy and our foreign policy are on a collision course, and if we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power.... Economic growth is the key to avoiding the kind of painful austerity that would limit our ability to generate both hard and soft power," he said in a 2011 speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society.

Ryan also trumpets a more activist American leadership on the world stage, which mirrors Romney's core foreign policy argument against Obama that he has been a weak president.

Ryan's speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society offers some of the clearest insights into his worldview. "A world without U.S. leadership will be a more chaotic place, a place where we have less influence, and a place where our citizens face more dangers and fewer opportunities," he warned, adding that "a central element of maintaining American leadership is the promotion of our moral principles — consistently and energetically — without being unrealistic about what is possible for us to achieve.... A safer world and a more prosperous America go hand in hand."

Thus, Ryan supports the promotion of democratic movements abroad, but he doesn't seem to fully back the kind of nation-building endeavors launched by George W. Bush. This has led to questions whether Ryan fits the neoconservative or realist wings of the Republican Party. Lindsay of CFR explains that "neoconservatives applaud the 'so we must lead' line. Realists take comfort in the caveat that comes with it: not 'being unrealistic about what is possible for us to achieve.'"

However, Matthew Yglesias, writing in the liberal-leaning American Prospect after Ryan's Alexander Hamilton speech, said Ryan was following "more or less the liberal internationalist vision that's already at the core" of the current policies of the Obama administration.

In contrast to Biden, Ryan was a strong advocate of the surge in Iraq, but like Biden, he's also shifted on the issue. In 2007, Ryan argued that the surge is "probably the best gamble to take before throwing in the towel and allowing sectarian genocide to take over." At the same time, he estimated that America could save $1 trillion over the next decade by ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That figure was later adopted by Democrats in Congress and the White House in their own arguments for winding down those two wars. Both Biden and Ryan's attachment to the Iraq War faded over time, though for different reasons. And on Afghanistan, Ryan has echoed Biden's calls for a carefully transitioned drawdown of troops.

But one area where Ryan and Biden are sharply divided is free trade. As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Ryan helped to negotiate free trade agreements with Bahrain, Morocco, Oman and Jordan. He was also an early supporter of the Middle East Free Trade Area Initiative announced by the Bush administration in 2003. Ryan sees free trade as critical to spreading American values such as human rights and democracy

"This is a way to help expand democratic capitalism, because through each of these trade agreements we require things like the rule of law and forcible contracts, women's rights, advancements towards openness, transparency and democracy," he said in a 2009 talk at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Biden, despite being a strong proponent of free trade, criticized the Bush administration's drive on bilateral and regional free trade agreements. He voted against the FTA with Oman in 2006 and against the Central America Free Trade Agreement because he believed it lacked effective provisions to enforce labor and environmental standards. Previously in the 1990s, though, Biden had voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Ryan and Biden do find some overlap in their views on the Arab Spring. Both are cautious about unfettered support for democracy in the Middle East. Years before the first stirrings of upheaval, Biden told the American Jewish Committee in 2005 that "there is often a short-term conflict between democracy promotion and our vital security interests." He added that "pushing too hard, too fast on democracy risks alienating governments whose help we need."

Ryan too spoke in similar terms during his address to the Alexander Hamilton Society. "It is too soon to tell whether these revolutions will result in governments that respect the rights of their citizens, or if one form of autocracy will be supplanted by another," he cautioned. "While we work to assure the former, American policy should be realistic about our ability to avert the latter."

John Nance Garner, vice president to Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1941, once complained that the vice presidency wasn't worth a "bucket of warm piss." But times have changed. Looking at the commanding role former Vice President Dick Cheney had in the Bush administration and even Biden's influence and steady hand in the Obama administration, it's clear that the power of a president's No. 2 should not be underestimated.


About the Author

Talha Aquil is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

Last Edited on October 1, 2012