Tarred and Feathered

Vice President Joe Biden's confident speech today painted Mitt Romney as both George W. Bush and Michael Dukakis when it comes to foreign policy.

Perhaps the two most important truisms about the politics of American foreign policy right now are: 1) Americans are pretty happy with Barack Obama's foreign-policy performance, and 2) they think George W. Bush was a foreign-policy disaster.

If you don't believe me, I present to you Vice President Joe Biden's major foreign-policy speech on Thursday, April 26, at New York University -- a combination of both the Obama administration's greatest hits and dark warnings that a Mitt Romney presidency would represent a return to the "failed policies" of the not-too-distant past, i.e., the Bush years.

Declaring that Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive, Biden aggressively defended the Obama administration's stewardship of the country's global interests. In key respects, it's hard to argue with Biden's mantra: The troops are out of Iraq, and they are starting to come home from Afghanistan; bin Laden is in fact dead, and America hasn't been hit by a major terrorist attack during Obama's presidency; and the country's alliances are in better shape, and relations with key allies have seemingly improved.

While some would no doubt quibble with Biden's taking credit for closing down foreign prisons and ending torture (while ignoring Guantánamo Bay and the administration's repeated executive power grabs) or boasting about Obama's development agenda, which has been anything but robust, the big themes of Biden's speech are compelling. More importantly, they are ones that have broad public support -- as indicated by Obama's sterling poll numbers on foreign policy and national security. This wasn't the usual Democratic fare of foreign-policy defensiveness and awkward chest-thumping (though there was a little of that). Instead, Biden's remarks represent perhaps the most confident and -- from the perspective of recent history -- counterintuitive foreign-policy speech given by a Democratic ticket since, well, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But it was the flip side of the vice president's argument that was perhaps most telling -- and indicative of how dramatically the foreign-policy terrain has shifted in just the past four years. Biden attacked the presumptive Republican nominee, Romney, for his inconsistency, recklessness, and occasionally contradictory statements on foreign policy. He hit him for opposing the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and for his description of Russia as America's No. 1 geopolitical foe. He attacked him for his lack of foreign-policy experience (even dredging out a 2007 quote in which Romney said that a president needn't be "a foreign-policy expert" and could outsource that responsibility to the State Department). But the real crux of Biden's broad assault was the notion -- repeated over and over again -- that a vote for Romney would represent a return to the Bush years. Said Biden, in one of the speech's more quotable, albeit hackneyed phrases, "to the extent he's [Romney] shown any foreign-policy vision, it's through the glass of a rearview mirror."

According to Jeremy Rosner, a Democratic pollster who served in Bill Clinton's National Security Council, Republicans, in general, still maintain a reasonably positive foreign-policy profile -- and Democrats have yet to make the case that they are the better party on national security. The Bush years are seen as something of an outlier to the usual legacy of GOP competence on national security, just as Obama is viewed as an outlier from the Democrats' legacy of fecklessness. From that perspective, it wasn't hard to figure out Biden's objective -- to turn the Bush and Obama exceptions into a new political rule.

"They want to hang Bush's legacy around Romney's neck and ensure that Americans associate the GOP brand on foreign policy with Bush," said Rosner. "Given the current president's success regarding bin Laden and his predecessor's failure regarding Iraq, the contrast they are trying to frame can be summarized in six letters -- OBL versus WMD."

Indeed, Biden aggressively played the OBL toughness card, including making the rather suggestive declaration that Obama carries a big stick. He also said that the president has a backbone like a ramrod (two comments that are sure to send Freudians scurrying for cover). But above all, Biden basically argued that if Romney had been president during the past three years, bin Laden would still be alive. In effect, Biden was implicitly comparing Romney to another former Massachusetts governor -- Michael Dukakis.

From the safe political ground of "keeping our fellow citizens safe and our nation secure" Biden offered a strong defense of the Obama record of diplomacy and multilateral engagement. Republicans have criticized Obama for trying to negotiate with Iran. Biden not only defended this approach but accused Romney of "loose talk" about war with Iran that risked undermining ongoing negotiations with Tehran to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions. "This kind of Romney-talk" said Biden, in a phrase that political watchers may have to get used to, "is just not smart." It's almost as if the Obama camp is trying to bait Romney into attacking it on Iran.

With the glaring exception of a particularly obsequious section of the speech defending the Obama administration's handling of the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship, Biden was tellingly undefensive about the particular issues on which Romney has accused the White House of not being resolute enough.

What gave Biden the political opening to so forcefully defend the Obama record is that the contrast is, of course, the Bush record. If you don't like Obama's liberal internationalist foreign policy, Biden appeared to be suggesting, don't forget what the alternative is. The challenge for Romney will be to contrast his foreign-policy views with those of Obama, while at the same time avoiding being tarred with Bush's legacy. How he does that is decidedly unclear, since the most logical place for a Republican to attack a Democratic incumbent is from the right -- and as Biden's speech demonstrated, that's precisely the political ground where the Obama campaign believes he is most vulnerable.

In the end, this was perhaps the most striking element of Biden's speech -- Obama's reelection campaign wants -- needs -- a fight on foreign policy. And if Thursday's speech was any indication, it will be a fight unlike any other we've seen in quite some time.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images


Ostriches and Automatic Weapons

My surreal afternoon with Charles Taylor. 

The news that former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted by a tribunal at The Hague on Thursday, April 26, on 11 counts of planning, aiding, and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone is undoubtedly a victory for international law and hopefully some solace for his victims in two long-suffering African countries. But I also find myself thinking back to an afternoon 10 years ago, a memory featuring a crumbling mansion, a lawn filled with ostriches, and some of the most anxious men I've ever encountered.

In July 2002, I was working for the International Crisis Group (ICG), researching the ongoing conflict in Liberia. A colleague and I were aware we had been under close scrutiny from Taylor's government as we conducted our research over the course of two weeks in the country; there was little that went on in the capital, Monrovia, without Taylor's knowledge. Tensions were high as a rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), was gaining steam in the countryside and pushing toward the capital. Staying in the only lodging that served expats throughout the war, the Mamba Point Hotel, we were frankly relieved that our research was nearly completed, and we were ready to depart for neighboring Sierra Leone.

It was then that we got word that we were to be granted our request to have an audience with Taylor, one of the most feared leaders in Africa -- a man rumored to have threatened to burn down his high school after losing a student council election and whose brutality had only grown as he made a bloody climb to the presidency. Taylor ran his army as a virtual cult of personality and had directed the killings of too many people to count.

Our meeting was to take place at the executive mansion, a gloomy concrete monstrosity built in the 1960s. It had not aged well. A broad reflecting pool and fountain in front of the building were stagnant with moss and weeds. Mildew stained the exterior walls. I assumed the meeting would be little more than a courtesy call.

After a cursory security check, an aide escorted us out to the back lawn of the mansion. Walking down the broad concrete steps that looked out to the Atlantic, I tried to act nonchalant, but given my surroundings, it was a struggle. Muscular young men in T-shirts toting automatic weapons patrolled the grounds. A workman lazily pushed a lawn mower in the far corner of the yard. Several ostriches, remarkably large birds when viewed up close, grazed on the patchy grass between the bodyguards.

We were escorted to a large gazebo where Taylor was holding court. The president had assembled much of his senior cabinet for the meeting, including his national security advisor, foreign minister, and chief of staff. Several local reporters clicked photos of us being greeted by the president, to use later as propaganda. Taylor quickly dismissed them with a wave of his hand.

Taylor was dressed in a cream-colored sports jacket. His gold watch and ring were conspicuously large. He yelled at an assistant, who in turn yelled at the worker in the yard, and the lawn-mowing ceased.

As we sat down, Taylor admonished us to take out our notebooks "so you do not make any mistakes about what I say." He began with a long, scolding lecture about the ICG's reports on Liberia, which had been uniformly critical of his ruinous leadership. His assembled ministers provided periodic punctuation by nodding their agreement or solemnly intoning, "Yes, Mr. President."

Taylor seized on the issue of the war-crimes tribunal that had recently been set up to prosecute atrocities conducted during the 1991-2002 war in Sierra Leone. Taylor had directly supported the militia faction that had committed the worst abuses in the neighboring country, while profiting wildly from an illegal diamond trade that flourished in the midst of the war. There were growing calls for Taylor to be indicted by the tribunal, and his vehemence convinced me he was deeply nervous about it -- justifiably so, as it turned out.

Taylor also went on at great length about the LURD rebels. With the 9/11 attacks still a fresh memory, he mimicked the language of U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, calling the rebels "terrorists" and "Islamic fundamentalists," though there were no grounds for such charges. Indeed, only a portion of the group's followers were Muslim, and they had no links to any international terrorist group. Turning history on its head, Taylor claimed that the notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone -- the militia group he had directly supported -- was some kind of Islamic conspiracy. Taylor denied that his government supported the RUF, even though it was a poorly kept secret that it did. The RUF had become notorious for hacking arms off opponents, real and imagined, and even small children.

"The way the RUF has been cutting off people's arms," suggested Taylor, "maybe this is a sharia practice. I do not know." He insisted that his own forces had been very well behaved as they fought the LURD rebels in Liberia's countryside. "We were so careful. War is not child's play," he said. It was an unintentionally ironic statement given the number of Taylor's child soldiers we had seen manning checkpoints during the previous days.

Taylor claimed that all his actions, including smuggling in weapons from Eastern Europe to circumvent a U.N. arms embargo and cracking down on opposition groups, were in keeping with the United Nations Charter and the rights of a sovereign government. He blamed Washington and London for conspiring against him. I noticed the foreign minister craning to read my notes as I jotted all this down.

After taking us to task at length, Taylor tried a more personable approach. He insisted we should not impose our worldview on Africa, saying, "You see, my brother, political feuds border on hatred in Liberia. You cannot expect First World standards. Things are just different; everyone wants power. It is not like the politics you know."

Smiling, he continued: "I live well and have no regrets. I am a good Christian. I lived and studied in Boston. All these men sitting around you have advanced degrees, most of them from good universities in the United States. But a politician from America could not survive in Africa no more than I could survive in Alaska."

I politely interjected, "President Taylor, I am convinced that if you moved to Alaska, you would be governor within eight months." He laughed, and a number of the cabinet ministers grinned at the thought.

Looking around at that moment, I came to a powerful realization. These men, the most powerful and feared in all of Liberia, lived in constant fear. Fear of falling out of favor, fear of being betrayed, fear of being held accountable for what they had done. They were afraid of Taylor and afraid of each other. As the ostriches and armed thugs wandered across the lawn, I realized that no matter how terrifying Taylor might be, he was still just a man -- and a vulnerable one at that. The guns, smuggled diamonds, and expensive Thai mistresses were all just a house of cards, always near collapse.

Our meeting took the better part of two hours. Taylor concluded the discussion with a smile and a threat: "If your next report contains the same inaccuracies, we will think it was not done in good faith."

As we were being escorted off the lawn, I turned to the aide who was seeing us out. I had to ask. "What's the story with the ostriches?"

"The president likes animals," he replied. "There are three ostriches. There used to be four. One ostrich swallowed a cell phone, and when it rang, the bird went berserk. The bird was so badly injured that he died. The president was very upset." He told the story as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

This week, Charles Taylor was held accountable for his crimes, the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. International justice may be slow and imperfect, but somewhere out there right now is another group of warlords sitting around a table, uneasily eying each other, realizing after Thursday's ruling that their abuses may land them in The Hague next. That's a victory for justice.