by Victor Davis Hanson
“I am very optimistic about — about Iraq. I mean, this could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” — Joe Biden, February 12, 2010.
All politicians hedge and backtrack, as the daily news proves their previous assertions and boasts wrong. That somersaulting is part of American politics. But even the most astute triangulators know when to go silent, especially in the age of the Internet when one’s past statements are so easily juxtaposed with present reality.
Consider for a minute the Joe Biden odyssey on Iraq, because it has proven a variable primer on how the political class reinvented itself depending on the current pulse of the battlefield. Biden, like others, did not merely “evolve” on the war, but at each stage of his metamorphosis, emerged as a vehement, loud advocate of an entirely new position usually at odds with his prior assertions.
He apparently felt that either his charisma might delude us, or his apparent instability might earn from us an exemption along the lines following his unhinged statement that FDR addressed the nation on TV as President in 1929 — “Ah, that’s just Ol’ Joe being Ol’ Joe”, or that we all suffer from collective amnesia.
Biden’s Timeline — ”Dead, flat wrong”
1990: Biden Votes against the first Gulf War and Bush I’s efforts to get Saddam out of Kuwait.
1998: Biden supports Bill Clinton’s call for regime change and “to dethrone Saddam Hussein over the long haul”.
2002: Biden asserts that Saddam has biological and chemical weapons and is seeking a nuclear arsenal, proclaiming, “We have no choice but to eliminate the threat.” He then votes in October for 23 writs authorizing President Bush to remove the dictator by force if need be.
2005: Joe Biden reassures the country that we must stay in Iraq: “We can call it quits and withdraw from Iraq. I think that would be a gigantic mistake. Or we can set a deadline for pulling out, which I fear will only encourage our enemies to wait us out — equally a mistake.”
2006: Biden declares that a sovereign Iraq is not sustainable, calls for trisecting Iraq into three separate entities and demands that President Bush “must direct the military to design a plan for withdrawing and redeploying our troops from Iraq by 2008.”
He adds that “Mr. Bush has spent three years in a futile effort to establish a strong central government in Baghdad, leaving us without a real political settlement, with a deteriorating security situation — and with nothing but the most difficult policy choices.”
2008: Joe Biden forecasts, “The surge isn’t going to work either tactically or strategically “Tactically it isn’t going to work because … our guys go in and secure a neighborhood, but because we don’t have enough troops, we have to turn it over to the Iraqis, and they can’t hold it or won’t hold it.”
Joe Biden votes for legislation to oppose the surge, declaring that, “It’s an attempt to save the president from making a significant mistake with regard to our policy in Iraq.” He reiterates that the surge will not only fail, but make things worse: “I believe it will have the opposite — I repeat — opposite effect the president intends.”
Biden later elaborates on that, “The purpose of the surge was to bring violence in Iraq down so that its leaders could come together politically. Violence has come down, but the Iraqis have not come together…”There is little evidence the Iraqis will settle their differences peacefully any time soon. I believe the president has no strategy for success in Iraq.”
Biden then tells Gen. Petraeus that he is “dead, flat wrong.” He later concludes there is “no end in sight” in Iraq and staying is “killing us.”
2009: A President Obama accepts the Bush-Petraeus plan of continuing a U.S. combat presence in Iraq, and accepts the status of forces agreement negotiated with the Iraqis by the Bush administration to remove U.S. combat troops as envisioned by the end of 2011.
2010: Biden claims credit for winning Iraq: “I am very optimistic about — about Iraq. I mean, this could be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.”
This general timeline of “adjustments” could be applied to a number of politicians and beltway pundits, and in some regards to Obama himself.
After all, in 2002 Obama said he opposed the war.
But by 2004 Obama also said he did not know how he would have voted had he been in the Senate in 2002.
In 2004 Obama also asserted that “there is not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.”
Accordingly, he voted in 2004-6 to continue to fund the war.
But in 2007 a now presidential candidate Obama proclaimed that he wanted all U.S. combat forces out of Iraq by March 2008.
Then in 2008 he announced that the surge “was not working.”
But then again in 2009, he accepted the Bush status of forces agreement on Iraq, and kept U.S. policy there unchanged.
The Logic of it All
If one were to factor in four outside variables—a) proximity of presidential elections; b) current polls regarding Iraq; c) current polls regarding George Bush’s popularity; d) current level of violence in Iraq — one could pretty much have predicted all of Biden’s seemingly incoherent positions and many of Obama’s.
That is, they are not illogical, but simply shadow the above four considerations at any given time.
E.g., Bush polling well, election way off, majority support for the war, progress in Iraq = bipartisan, statesmanlike support for an ongoing American war in Iraq.
But Bush not polling well, presidential or congressional elections coming up, majority of Americans polling against the war, deadlock in Iraq = shrill, partisan attack on ongoing American war in Iraq.
We expect this from most of our politicians on most issues. But in times of war, when thousands of Americans are executing a policy abroad at great risk to their lives, it is a dangerous thing to predicate support almost entirely on politics.
Try All That with WWII?
Imagine a ‘what if?’ with WWII: we would support the war after Midway, but then lose confidence given the later cost of Tarawa and Iwo Jima?
Call off the B-17 attacks in 1942-3, but praise them to the skies in late 1944?
Damn the billion-dollar B-29 program for its relative failure in China; proclaim it awe-inspiring after the leveling of the Japanese cities?
Proclaim invading France impossible after the Dieppe raid, but not so after Normandy Beach?
Praise Eisenhower to the skies for a successful landing, but damn him for the hedgerow catastrophe in the ensuing weeks?
Bradley and Hodges were saints after the breakout of summer 1944? But soon to be demons for being surprised at the Bulge? And so on.
Of course, this is precisely what nations — that after all are merely collections of fickle people — did with Hitler from 1936 to 1945. Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, and most of Eastern Europe wanted to join him or praise his genius, brought on by his apparent success; but by the end of 1945 not a man in Europe could be found who ever supported Hitler’s Nazis.
Winston Churchill had many flaws, but of all the men of the 20th century he will probably prove to be its greatest. He sized Hitler up when few could. He saw the danger when it was unpopular to do so, and when there was little hope in stopping him. The British people were with him only after Poland was the proverbial straw that broke the appeasing camel’s back and France was later invaded; the Russian people came in only after the June 1941 invasion of Russia; the American people only after the Pearl Harbor attacks and Hitler’s December 1941 declaration of war on the U.S.
In contrast, Churchill, among his own and those abroad, was continually resolute, constant, and neither depressed by adversity nor artificially animated by success. He was there in the beginning, unchanged through it all, and the same when it ended.
In other words, Churchill was the ultimate un-Biden.
No wonder Obama removed his bust the moment he entered the Oval Office.
Despite his earlier criticism of Bush for terrorizing Afghans through Predator missile launches, now a President Obama has vastly increased the number of Predator drone attacks along the Afghan-Pakistani border. But note the silence of the hard Left that went after Bush on everything from waterboarding to Guantanamo.
One can only draw the following conclusion that the last eight years of acrimony were always just about politics and power, never principles.
Why? Consider — the liberal critic of Bush was angrier about a conservative president ordering the waterboarding of three known terrorists in a relatively comfortable facility in Guantanamo than a liberal president ordering the execution of dozens of suspected terrorists in mud brick compounds abroad.
What a strange time we live in.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson