Biden As Change Agent

Washington Matters

Biden As Change Agent

Sure, Sen. Joe Biden brings considerable and sorely needed gravitas on foreign policy and national security issues to the Democratic ticket. Just as surely (and predictably), Sen. Barack Obama is being castigated as a hypocrite by some because the first major decision by the self-proclaimed agent of change was to turn to the very prototype of the Washington insider -- Biden is working on his fourth decade as a senator.

But that's true only if the decision is viewed through a purely political lens. What's being overlooked is that Biden brings a quality to the ticket that could help Obama actually deliver on his promise to change the way Washington works -- forging policy through consensus and pragmatism.

Using the past two terms of top-down legislating, where compromise was seen as a last resort and winning by one vote was plenty good enough, as a sharp contrast to his own approach to governance, Obama has made how policy goals are achieved and implemented nearly as important as the goals themselves. That could prove to be an especially important approach when it comes to foreign policy and national security.

When it came to issues of security at home and protecting and advancing U.S. interests abroad, achieving consensus and drawing from various viewpoints used to be the rule rather than the exception for American policy makers. While that was more true than ever immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, the situation changed when the Bush administration became so fixated on Iraq and determined to oust Saddam Hussein despite some reluctance and concern on both sides of the aisle.

I covered Congress during the run-up to the war and after the invasion and was impressed with how Biden, the top Democrat on the panel, and Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, the top Republican, worked hand in hand. Lugar was a stronger backer of the war than Biden, but only marginally so. Although Biden appeared more willing to be patient, both men ultimately were willing to see the U.S. act alone if need be but hoped Bush would first build a broad coalition that stepped up pressure on Saddam and would use force only if he did not knuckle under. As war appeared increasingly likely, they saw their job as serving two essential purposes: Helping Bush build broad support for the war in Congress and making sure that the war and subsequent rebuilding of Iraq would be planned and conducted in a way that best ensured success.

That approach, in turn, resulted in two huge efforts by them and their committee. Behind the scenes, they sought to develop middle ground between congressional Democrats and the White House, with Lugar trying to get Bush to exhaust diplomatic options and with Biden trying to get Democrats to face up to the idea that diplomacy might ultimately fail. Publicly, the committee held an extraordinary series of hearing to spell out the specific goals of a war and figure out what it would take to best ensure that those goals would be met.

I spoke frequently with both Biden and Lugar during that period and would have been hard-pressed to find significant differences between them. Biden was confident the war could be a success, but, and a big but at that, said it has to be done "perfectly. Like threading a very narrow needle. There's no margin for error." To him and Lugar this meant worrying far less about the actual invasion and far more about just what, exactly, the United States would do once it was in this foreign land. Who would be allies and who would be foes? What would it take for the United States to be perceived as a savior and not an occupying power? What kind of experts would be needed to make sure troops and civilian officials could talk to and work with local Iraqi officials? How would the long-neglected water and power services and the food supply chain be rebuilt and protected? How would a country run so long by whim and iron hand learn to govern itself? What would happen to the bureaucrats that had been essential to making the country work on a day to day basis government but were identified with Saddam's regime?

On the one hand, asking those questions -- and making sure there were reasonable answers -- would seem obvious. On the other, the Bush administration's repeated answer, in essence was, Don't worry about it. It's all under control. And we know now that things were far from under control and that planning for a post-invasion Iraq was so woefully inadequate that it imperiled -- and still imperils -- U.S. objectives there.

White House and Pentagon officials almost always treated Lugar and Biden as pests and even obstacles to overcome, not as allies asking reasonable and important questions. In other words, the administration treated the war like it had other policy issues on the Hill -- as a political campaign to be won by hook or by crook. They didn't understand what Biden and Lugar did: winning an argument is not the same as getting what you want. In fact, they would argue, if you gave in on some key points in order to end up on the same side of an argument, you are far more likely to hang together if and when things go south. This did not have to be a "Republican" war or Bush's war. There was an opportunity to develop much broader bipartisan support -- and doing so would have improved the odds of succeeding early on. There would have been a political benefit as well -- keeping both parties in the loop and deeply involved would make it harder for either one to back away and blame the other later on. Responsibility would be shared.

Although Obama opposed the war at the time and Biden supported it, Obama approved of Biden's approach and sees it as a model for handling global crises. So while there may be plenty of instances where Obama can be criticized for flip-flopping, being disingenuous or even being hypocritical, selecting Biden as his ticket mate is not one of them. In fact, in many ways it may be the most concrete evidence yet that Obama is dead serious about changing the way Washington develops and pursues policies -- be it here or abroad.