Last Hope

I know what I'd like Obama to say at the final presidential debate, but I'm not holding my breath.

"Welcome to the third and final presidential debate. Our topic tonight is foreign policy. First question to you, Mr. President. Your critics say that you have no clear strategy, that you just react to events. Is there an Obama Doctrine? If so, what is it?"

"I killed Osama bin Laden."

"Thank you, Mr. President. Governor Romney, your turn: What's wrong with the Obama Doctrine?"

"Libya. Libya. Libya."

"Well, I guess that wraps it up for tonight. Vote early and vote often, folks."

That would be a merciful version of Monday, Oct. 22's upcoming debate on foreign policy. In fact, we should probably feel thankful that Candy Crowley, the moderator of the Oct. 16 town-hall debate earlier this week, did not, as expected, divide the questions equally between foreign and domestic policy. During the few minutes devoted to foreign affairs, both candidates postured shamelessly on getting tough on trade with China, after which Barack Obama won a round on Libya by catching Mitt Romney ("get the transcript…") in a semantic error. But that was fair, because Romney's objection to Obama's Libya policy was itself semantic: When did he say "terrorist," and what did he mean when he said it?

Of course, Monday night's debate will give the candidates a chance to air their differences on Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Russia, and Syria -- as well as Libya and China all over again. And some of those differences are real, rather than simply rhetorical. In recent weeks, however, the foreign-policy debate between the two candidates has narrowed down to competing banalities. This tells us something about both men: Obama has very few achievements that he thinks he can safely brag about, while Romney has so few real convictions on the subject, and is so desperately attuned to public opinion, that he's prepared to latch on to anything, and to stand just about anywhere, in order to undermine his rival.

It's hard to remember now, but before the economy cratered in the summer and fall of 2008, Obama ran a campaign focused on fundamentally reorienting America's posture in the world. He spoke of putting aside George W. Bush's "color-coded politics of fear" in order to embrace a new foreign policy based on opportunity as much as on threat. In his foreign-policy debate with John McCain, he said that America had to make children around the world look toward the United States with hope, as his Kenyan father once did. And so, as he said throughout the 2008 campaign, America would double foreign aid, ban torture, close Guantánamo, and speak a new language of mutual respect for mutual interests. Obama had perhaps the most ambitious foreign-policy agenda of any candidate since John F. Kennedy: reverse nuclear proliferation, stem climate change, repair fragile states, and restore America's standing in the world.

As president, Obama has chalked up some very real successes. He signed an arms-control treaty with Russia, forged a global coalition to isolate Iran, intervened in Libya to overthrow a hated dictator, and ended America's military entanglement in Iraq. The world would have been worse absent Obama's patient and pragmatic internationalism, just as the American economy would be in much worse shape had Obama not authorized $800 billion in stimulus spending and intervened to save the finance and auto industries. But, as Obama has discovered, "It's better than it would have been" is not an argument that has much pull at the ballot box. And right now, with Syria in flames, Libya in chaos, Iran unbowed, and the "reset" with Russia in tatters, even that argument isn't easy to make.

The affirmative agenda of 2008 has disappeared. The world has turned out to be vastly more intransigent than Obama thought, or perhaps hoped. He learned, as I wrote two weeks ago, that citizens in the Middle East were waiting for a change in American policy, not a change in American leadership. Afghanistan has proved to be a vast pit of quicksand swallowing up time and attention, not to mention U.S. lives and dollars. And on climate change, nonproliferation, foreign aid, and the trial of terrorist subjects in civilian courts, congressional Republicans threw every obstacle in his path they could lay their hands on.

If the president has changed his hopeful worldview, so has his audience. It's a truism that voters don't care about foreign policy, but they also don't feel good about America's capacity to make the world a better place. According to the latest Pew Research Center poll, the proportion of Americans who believe that the Arab Spring will turn out well either for Arab peoples or for the United States has plummeted since the heady days of early 2011. Almost two-thirds of respondents say that they want the United States to be less involved than it has been in "Middle East leadership changes" -- an unambiguous negative on intervention in Syria. Growing numbers want to see tougher action on Iran and China, while a solid majority favors removing troops from Afghanistan "as soon as possible."

Is it any wonder that when Obama talks about his successes today, you hear almost nothing about the 2008 agenda or even about the New START arms-reduction treaty?

"I killed Osama bin Laden" and "I'm getting out of Afghanistan" speak both to his own diminished expectations and to a very dark public mood. That loss of public hopefulness is itself the most powerful sign of the failure of the promise that Obama once incarnated.

Is this his fault? Maybe yes, in the sense that he raised expectations he could not satisfy. But mostly it's not, because Obama has been dealt as lousy a hand abroad as he has been at home. He inherited two wars, the Iranian nuclear standoff, and an increasingly assertive China, and he had to contend with an epochal convulsion in the Arab world over which Washington has very little control. Voters are fearful and angry in part because America's capacity to determine what happens in the world is so plainly dwindling.

And Romney is quite content to exploit that fear and anger. He and his proxies have focused relentlessly on the trivial question of whether Obama ascribed the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to terrorism -- though recent news reports have vindicated the White House's initial judgment that the attack was provoked by a video insulting the Prophet Mohammed rather than being the result of a long-gestating plan. On the far more important question of whether the United States should have intervened in Libya -- and whether the White House should use force for humanitarian purposes in the absence of overriding national security goals -- Romney has accused the president of acting both too slowly and too precipitately, and once actually ran away from reporters rather than provide a direct answer.

Romney has also tried to score points on Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria, but he is hobbled by the fact that his expressed views are almost identical to those of the president. Instead he fires blanks, loudly insisting that Obama is wrong, weak, irresolute, even where the two fundamentally agree. It's disingenuous, but apparently effective: The Pew poll found that Obama leads Romney on foreign policy by only 4 points.

Until recently, it seemed obvious that this final debate would give a lift to Obama's candidacy, if a modest one. That's no longer obvious at all. Although Obama acquitted himself well in the town-hall debate, it was striking how much of the debate was conducted on Romney's side of the policy argument, whether the subject was energy or guns or even tax relief. Given the narrowing poll numbers, that may be even starker on Monday. It will be "I made you safer" versus "No, you didn't."

Yet I have to believe that Obama's best chance lies instead in widening the lens, talking about how he has adapted American policy to a changing world, used international institutions to magnify U.S. power, and assisted at the very difficult birth pangs of democracy in the Middle East. He can strike a hopeful note without sounding naive.

Maybe I'm giving voters too much credit. Still, the World Series doesn't start until Wednesday, so I guess I'll be watching.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

The Biden Doctrine

How the vice president is shaping President Obama's foreign policy.

Every morning that President Barack Obama chooses to receive the daily intelligence briefing in person, Vice President Joe Biden sits by his side in a matching armchair in the Oval Office. Biden attends -- and often speaks volubly at -- the "principals meetings" of the president and his top national security officials, as well as at the president's weekly meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Often he stays afterward for a few minutes of private talk, or the president walks over to Biden's office 30 paces down the hall. He and the president have lunch, by themselves, every week. In a White House where foreign policy is made, to an extraordinary extent, by the president and a few close advisors, Biden is first among equals. It is safe to say that on foreign policy, Biden is the most powerful U.S. vice president in history save for his immediate predecessor, Dick Cheney.

The Obama campaign is counting on Biden to seize back the momentum in Thursday, Oct. 11's debate with his Republican counterpart, Paul Ryan -- momentum that the president himself lost with his strangely diffident debate performance last week. Much of the debate, of course, will focus on the economy and domestic policy, the subjects that preoccupy the American people. Biden has played an important role on these issues as well, and after four decades of talking about them in the Senate and on the Sunday morning talk shows, he should be able to hold his own even against the prodigiously wonkish Republican nominee. But Ryan and GOP nominee Mitt Romney have recently tried to build a case that Obama has proved to be an irresolute global leader, and no one is better equipped than Biden -- at least if he can somehow limit himself to two-minute answers -- to defend the administration's policies abroad.

Biden has played a central role in White House decisions on policy in Afghanistan, Russia, China, Israel, and the Arab world, and his worldly pragmatism has helped shape a White House posture less starry-eyed, and perhaps also less hopeful, than many had expected at the outset of Obama's tenure.

Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Obama asked him to be his running mate in 2008, and he confided to friends that he feared his second-banana role would reduce rather than increase his influence over foreign policy. But in January 2009, Obama asked Biden to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan to help him figure out what needed to be done there. Once Obama took office, he dispatched Biden to the Balkans, to Lebanon, and to Georgia and Ukraine to put out fires and issue strategic reassurances -- though Biden started a small fire of his own when he returned from this last trip to say that Russia had a "withering economy." The president asked him to deliver a key strategic address in Munich, where Biden coined the term "reset" to describe the administration's plan to restore relations with Russia as part of the new paradigm of "engagement." Biden quickly became a chief strategist, devil's advocate, and implementer of White House foreign policy.

Biden's exceptional role owes both to Obama's regard for his judgment and experience, and to Biden's own bottomless connections to other leading figures. He has known the national security advisor, Tom Donilon, for a quarter-century; Donilon's brother serves as Biden's domestic-policy advisor, while his wife works for Biden's wife, Jill. Biden's staff, including Antony Blinken, his national security advisor, is highly regarded in Washington, and former aides are salted throughout the National Security Council (NSC) and the executive branch agencies. When I was writing a profile of Biden for the New York Times Magazine in 2009, a White House official told me that on Obama's first day in office, James Jones, then the national security advisor, said to his staff, "You work for the president and the vice president." The vice president's staff was so deeply integrated into the top levels of the policy-planning process, this official added, that, "When you can't get to the president, you can get to them and know what the White House is really thinking."

This cozy relationship also illustrates the difference between Biden and his predecessor. Cheney was a supremely cryptic figure who rarely spoke at meetings and who exercised his influence, to the eternal frustration of national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, in private meetings with President George W. Bush, thus effectively disabling the White House's national security apparatus. Like Cheney, Biden wanted to be the last man in the room, and he is. But no one has to wonder what he thinks. The combination of intellectual vanity and sheer lack of impulse control renders Biden almost physically incapable of not saying what's on his mind (though he has gotten noticeably better at biting his tongue in the face of leading questions from Sunday morning talk show hosts). He is also an exuberant cheerleader, teammate, and coach who wants everyone to hold hands in the huddle. The Obama foreign-policy team has remained broadly collegial (far more than on the domestic side) despite immense pressures, and Biden has played a role in damping down conflict among the (somewhat overhyped) "team of rivals."

Biden hadn't wanted a specific portfolio of his own, but the president gave him one. At an NSC meeting in June, 2009, he turned to Biden and said, "Joe, you do Iraq." (Biden had been deeply involved in Iraq as a senator, and had once proposed a partition plan for the country from which he later backed away.) Biden has made seven trips to Iraq since Obama's directive. It is a job tailor-made for a career politician who loves plotting strategy, brokering compromise, talking about the wife and kids, squeezing a shoulder, an arm, a knee, or any other body part that hoves into view. Biden still spends a quarter or so of his time trying to prod Iraq's endlessly bickering Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders into working with each other rather than trying to kill each other. Exactly how successful he's been is a matter of dispute. A recent report by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes that as tensions rise among competing ethnic blocs, "a political crisis seems likely if not inevitable." Cordesman also notes that the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 has both sharply reduced American influence and increased sometimes lethal political jockeying. On the other hand, as Blinken points out, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his chief rivals are still competing through politics, not gunfire.

Beyond Iraq, Biden has assigned himself a distinctive role, one that could not be more different from Cheney's. "The president shouldn't be the one to turn over the apple cart," Biden told me in the course of one of our long and numerous conversations in 2009, "but I think it's much in his interest that the apple cart be turned over." Biden has specialized in disrupting groupthink and in forcing Obama's most senior advisors to examine the consequences of their proposed choices. The most famous example, of course, was the agonizingly protracted 2009 debate over strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of the reasons it took so long is that Biden kept questioning the argument advanced by David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, then the military overseers of the Afghan war, for a major counterinsurgency campaign with 40,000 additional soldiers and a large-scale civilian component.

The Washington Post's Bob Woodward has since reported, in Obama's War, that from the outset of the debate in March, Biden argued for a much more modest counterterrorism effort focused on degrading al Qaeda in Pakistan rather than defeating the Taliban in Pakistan. Woodward quotes the late envoy Richard Holbrooke comparing Biden's role to that of George Ball, Lyndon Johnson's under secretary of state, who persistently questioned the logic of escalation in Vietnam. I was talking to Biden throughout this period, and at one point he said to me, "You're going to be angry with me, because I'm not going to talk much about Afghanistan because I want the president to hear what I have to say." He then spent 13 minutes talking, off the record, about Afghanistan, and returned to the subject at much greater length later on.

Biden's office declined my request to put some of those remarks on the record, so I will just say that what Biden told me confirmed Woodward's account of his views: that counterinsurgency wouldn't work owing to the corruption and incompetence of Afghanistan's government; that the strategy wasn't necessary because al Qaeda was unlikely to return to Afghanistan even in the case of a Taliban victory; and that the real focus of the effort should be Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. The president encouraged Biden to challenge Petraeus and McChrystal; but in the end Obama was unwilling to reject their plan, though it seems clear that he shared many of Biden's doubts. Obama authorized a civil-military strategy with 30,000 additional troops. The White House continues to present its Afghanistan strategy as a success, though even many of Obama's supporters in the foreign-policy community regard it as his worst decision. In exchange for a vast investment of blood and treasure, the United States has made military gains that may prove transitory, has trained troops still unable to act on their own, and has watched helplessly as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has protected corrupt and brutal figures. The United States has crippled al Qaeda -- but through the counterterrorism tactics Biden had proposed. Obama must wonder if he would have been better off listening to his vice president, as LBJ must have felt about George Ball.

Biden's role in the AfPak debate suggests that he is not merely a contrarian but a classic foreign-policy realist. Biden first came to Washington in 1970, amid the carnage of Vietnam, as a member of the Democrats' anti-war faction. But he was a centrist and a straight arrow, not a radical. "I wasn't against the war for moral reasons," he told me. "I just thought it was a stupid policy." He invited George Kennan, the grand old man of foreign-policy realism, to come speak to him, and Kennan talked about the absurdity of the "domino theory" and of the monolithic idea of communism. Biden spent the next several decades getting to know the world's leaders as member and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, an experience that tends to produce an appreciation for the status quo. Biden was one of the Democratic senators who voted for the resolution authorizing George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq, but he insists that he never shared Bush's vision of a transformed Middle East and, less plausibly, that he believed Bush wouldn't rush into war. He told me that he loved The Freedom Agenda, my book on democracy promotion -- Biden doesn't merely "like" anything, he loves things -- because it warned against the naïve faith in America's capacity to install democracy in autocratic places. Biden is a rarity: a cockeyed optimist who nevertheless has a streetwise instinct for the harsh reality lurking under grandiose plans.

Like virtually all practicing politicians, Biden disdains ideological labels, but he has in fact given quite a lot of thought to where he stands in the spectrum of American foreign policy. When I asked him about the role human rights should play in U.S. foreign policy, Biden said, "The difference between where I think we should be and where we have been in the past going all the way back to [George] McGovern and when I first came here is you either decry the behavior and cut off relations, or ignore the behavior and enhance your relations. My gut is, you deal with it in realistic terms." What that means, Biden explained, is that you criticize abuses while acknowledging that you can't do much to change them, and continue to pursue a relationship based on national interests.

Biden used the example of the Obama "reset" with Russia. He rejected, he said, the "balance-of-power" approach, which he described as, "you take what you want and you give us what we want." Turning a blind eye to atrocities in Chechnya or aggression against Georgia, granting Russia's definition of its sphere of influence, would constitute, to Biden's mind, amoral realism. At the same time, Biden said, preaching to Russia about democracy or admonishing it about autocratic tendencies, as the Bush administration was wont to do, comes dangerously close to hubris. "I think," Biden told me -- and he slowed down in order to choose his words with care -- "that our administration has a more realistic view of what we are capable of determining or dictating in terms of the behavior, the internal functioning, of other states." Biden argued, with some justification, that the Obama administration had been able to put relations with Russia on a better footing, ultimately leading to the New START agreement and cooperation on sanctions against Iran, without sacrificing its concern with human rights.

Realism, for Biden, is a precipitate of experience, both in the world's capitals and in Delaware hiring halls and coffee shops. I once heard him say, "Foreign policy is just like human relations, only people know less about each other." His boss, of course, tends to dwell in loftier realms than the earthbound Biden. Obama has a soaring sense of what politics can accomplish, and oratorical gifts to match. But he appears to find Biden's advice congenial because he has a deeply cautionary sense of the means available to achieve those great ends. His foreign-policy heroes -- men like Brent Scowcroft and James Baker -- are, in effect, Kennan's sons. And recent experience has reinforced intellectual conviction. As I argued in my column last week, tough sledding in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Israel/Palestine has taken the rosy glow off Obama's hopes that he could serve as a transformative agent in the world. The Obama of 2012 is a more tempered and wary figure than the Obama of 2009.

Over the last few years, and especially amid the Arab Spring, events have forced the Obama White House to choose between its prudential instincts and its great ambitions. In almost every case Biden has sided with the skeptics. In January 2011, massive crowds took to Tahrir Square demanding that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's hated autocrat, step down. Biden viewed Mubarak as a staunch ally, and opposed those in the administration who wanted Obama to publicly demand that he leave office. He called Mubarak, whom he had known for decades, as well as intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, and implored them to establish a plan for transition. Only when Mubarak proved intransigent did Biden change his view.

Biden also opposed the intervention in Libya (as did Tom Donilon and Robert Gates, then the defense secretary). "It didn't go to core interests," a senior White House official says in explaining Biden's views. "It wasn't something he thought was necessary to do." Biden told me that he had supported a humanitarian intervention in the Balkans in the mid-1990s because chaos and violence in Europe threatened American national security, and because we had "the wherewithal to intervene and determine an outcome." In Libya, too, we had the wherewithal, but not the national interests; by Biden's calculus, that meant that we should stay out. Biden's innate skepticism also led him to advise Obama against conducting the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound until he had a higher degree of certainty that the al Qaeda leader was, in fact, there. Soon afterwards, Biden was telling audiences that you could "go back 500 years" without finding "a more audacious plan" -- precisely because the chance of success had been so low. It was classic Biden: He went from caution to hyperbole in a matter of hours.

Biden has often been on the losing side of major White House debates; that may be the inevitable consequence of playing the role of spoiler. But if you step back, overall Obama administration policy looks very much like Biden's tempered realism, Kennanite but not Kissingerian. Obama has refused to intervene in Syria despite the toll of more than 30,000 dead in its ever-bloodier civil war, and only gently criticized autocratic allies like Bahrain, whose monarchy has undertaken a major crackdown since protests began in the early days of the Arab Spring. The White House has largely stopped pushing on the closed door of Middle East peace. Despite provocations from President Vladimir Putin, it has continued to pursue the reset with Russia -- albeit with much less success than it enjoyed in the first two years of the Obama administration. The result is that while Obama has greatly disappointed human rights advocates and many of his own idealistic supporters, he has left a very small target for his Republican challengers when it comes to his foreign policy. Ryan has preposterously compared Obama's response to the wave of 9/11 attacks this year on American embassies to President Jimmy Carter's response to the 1979 kidnapping of American diplomats in Iran. One can easily imagine Biden's response if Ryan tries out this analogy in the debate: "Look, man, I was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1979; you were in third grade."

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