The word going around is that Joe Biden’s selection as VP beefs up Obama’s foreign policy credentials. Biden has many years of experience in the Senate and is a long-time member and chair of the Foreign Relations committee. Part of Biden’s foreign policy stature comes from his much publicized proposal for ending the war in Iraq, passed as a Senate resolution in late 2007 (less than a year ago) as the Biden-Brownback resolution.
As described by Wikipedia, the key tenets of the plan were as follows:
1. Giving Iraq’s major groups a measure of autonomy in their own regions. A central government would be left in charge of interests such as defending the borders and distributing oil revenues.
2. Guaranteeing Sunnis — who have no oil rights — a proportionate share of oil revenue and reintegrating those who have not fought against Coalition forces.
3. Increase, not end, reconstruction assistance but insist that Arab Gulf states fund it and tie it to the creation of a jobs program and to the protection of minority rights.
4. Initiate a diplomatic offensive to enlist the support of the major powers and neighboring countries for a political settlement in Iraq and create an Oversight Contact Group to enforce regional commitments.
5. Begin the phased redeployment of U.S. forces in 2007 and withdraw most of them by 2008, leaving a small follow-on force for security and policing actions.
To the extent that Biden’s foreign policy credentials rest on this proposal, we should ask, was his plan any good? I would argue that it was not.
It isn’t all bad. Point 2, oil rights, are a pretty broadly supported policy. Guaranteeing shared benefits of oil profits could be an ameliorating measure that would prevent minorities from feeling like they were being cheated or cut out. In general, I would expect shared oil rights to help knit the country together and stabilize its politics.
Other parts are fluff or nonsense. How exactly did Biden intend to force Iraq’s neighbors to pay for its reconstruction (point 3)? Having someone else pay for your stuff is a great idea, but of course someone else had that idea too. And as for the “diplomatic offensive” (point 4), I say go for it, whatever. Let’s just not make that the linchpin of our plan to halt civil war in Iraq.
Which brings us to the first adventurous part of Biden-Brownback: the plan to partition Iraq into autonomous zones (point 1). I am at first tempted to group this in with the fluff; the idea that we could have imposed such a drastic and wildly unpopular measure on Iraq’s democratically elected government as late as September of 2007, is breathtakingly audacious. It would have been daring enough to have tried to force this on Iraq in May of 2006 (when Biden first proposed it), by which time the Iraqi Constitution had already been written, and the Iraqi National Assembly selected in general elections.
But since we are evaluating the plan on its merits, it is worth at least mentioning how potentially disastrous this measure could have been. In the short run, plans to divide the country would have intensified ethnic cleansing, as militants struggled to make sure they were on the right sign of demographic fault lines. Where shared oil revenues would help knit the country together, partions would have cemented ethnic loyalties, the main source of the nascent civil war. And in the long run it would have risked creating the sort of fractious, quasi-genocidal conflicts that have plagued the Balkans for the last few decades. But this time there would be no NATO to intervene.
Because the key point of the plan was troop withdrawals (point 5). At the height of a violent ethnic conflict that had paralyzed the Iraqi government, Biden proposed to remove the troops that propped that government in place. This was the most significant, and the most egregious, part of Biden’s proposal. Biden sold his plan as a “third way” between withdrawal and “staying the course”. It was not a third way; it was withdrawal, candy-coated.
Biden meant his proposal to be, I think, a dry-eyed and uncompromising last ditch effort in Iraq. But his plan was flawed by simultaneous recklessness and timidity. From where we stand now, it seems that the policies followed by our government (the surge, building up the Iraqi military, local alliances with Sunnis) were successful. Biden’s wildly different proposal would likely have had disastrously worse results.
UPDATE: For another take on the “partition” part of Joe Biden’s plan, see Dave Kopel’s related article, defending Biden from some of the charges against him.
Kopel says that the 2007 Biden-Brownback resolution advocated a weaker version of autonomy than Biden’s original 2006 proposal, and was not a proposal for all-out partition. This seems to be an argument about degree. To the extent that his plan advocated meaningful autonomy, it would have facilitated instability. But if Biden was proposing only very weak and non-meaningful partition, it is unclear what positive benefit autonomy could have delivered.