If the polls are to be believed, Joe Biden could soon be elected president of the United States. Internationally, there is no shortage of leaders hoping to see Mr Trump become a one-term president, putting an end to America’s experiment with uncontrolled chaos in government so that business as usual can once again resume.
There is something appealing as well as something true in all that. Innumerable high profile refugees from the Trump administration attest to the White House’s resemblance to pandemonium. Their best-selling memoirs describe summit diplomacy with no object, seemingly random choices made in matters of twisting strategy, and frequent expressions from the president of his desire to vacate dealing with foreign affairs at all.
Compared to this, a Biden administration would be a tonic. But some of us have memories longer than four years. As Vice President, Biden was given wide latitude over foreign affairs, and those who recall the foreign policy of the Obama years rarely do so favourably. The worst aspects of those eight years must not be allowed to follow Biden into office.
Let’s be clear: a Biden presidency would be better than four more years of Trump. But there are great problems lurking in Biden’s past that do not bode well. Worse still, these adverse precedents have steadfastly gone unaddressed in the course of the last four years, and have hardly featured in his campaign to date.
Let us examine some of that history from the Obama years, which Biden has so far not seen fit to reconsider.
Notably Iraq – a country for which Biden assumed responsibility under Obama. Biden’s time in the White House left Iraqis with a shattered country – a morass of internecine violence and Iranian proxies, and a place where the Islamic State (IS) could establish a foothold.
Not all of these eventualities can be blamed directly on Biden. IS was as much a tide as it was an organisation. But the failures of Iraqi politics are as much Biden’s fault as they are anyone’s. Every opportunity to unify the country or to promote inclusive, well-run institutions was squandered.
Biden embraced Nouri al-Maliki, a vicious sectarian whose party had no majority in the legislature, and who could command no majority in the country. Maliki’s policies degraded the state and undermined its readiness in the event of an unforeseen shock, while Biden masterminded an American retreat from Iraq in 2011 that left a vacuum into which IS flooded barely three years later.
Laying the rise of IS in Iraq at Biden’s feet is something observers naturally skirt. But less avoidable is his record of presiding over the moment Iran captured Iraq’s institutions, and began a takeover of its security services which threatens the survival of the state today.
Under Maliki, sectarian Shia forces in Iraq began a de facto alliance with Iran. Maliki forged alliances with militias in Iran’s stable of proxies, notably the Badr Organisation and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq – both of which were hardly strangers to violence.
Later Maliki was involved in the creation of the Popular Mobilisation Units, the umbrella movement of militias thrown together to fight IS. The militias operated largely outside of state control, and were primarily held together by Iranian oversight. The militias also served Maliki’s political ends.
Biden fell out of love with Maliki only after a successor was appointed by Iraq’s president – after all the rot that Maliki created had been allowed to spread.
Iranian-sponsored militias still dominate Iraq’s politics, and they have killed hundreds of protesters in the streets this year. Biden has not said a great deal about it, nor has he indicated he would do anything to address this fact if returned to power.
Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, claims he wants to defeat militia influence over Iraqi politics. He shows muted promise, but Biden has shown no obvious interest in helping him along his way. Another wasted opportunity to help Iraq awaits.
Any return to ‘normalcy’ that includes the old ways of doing business in Iraq is worthless, yet this is something Biden has not acknowledged.
It is not without some justice that Robert Gates, a defence secretary for two presidents including Obama, wrote of Biden – whose character he praised – ‘I think he’s been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades’.
Of course, if Biden’s character is good, and he is more consistent than Donald Trump, there is still a chance that he might run a decent foreign policy, as well as one better than the current president.
But here Biden’s claims to be a ‘return to normality’ do not help him. His reluctance to learn is typified by the people with whom Biden surrounds himself. Biden’s foreign policy staff is claimed to number a thousand. But the ones that count are old faces, associated and tarred with the failures of the Obama years.
Even defences of Biden’s record on Iraq ring hollow in the face of this fact. They tend to stress how Biden, alone among Obama’s team, wanted to do the right thing by Iraqis. If Biden does not acknowledge the failures of the past, and that team returns wholesale, a better result can hardly be expected.
Frustratingly, none of this should serve as conclusive. Anyone reading this should know that Donald Trump’s record on Iraq is less consistent, and worse, than Biden’s. The problems Biden cannot be trusted to address grew and spread under Trump, after all. A victory for Biden is still, all the above said, a lesser of two ills.
Cheer a Biden victory in November, by all means – but remember his record and who he surrounds himself with. And on Iraq, perhaps begin to prepare for at least four years of disappointment, meriting vigorous opposition come January.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.