During the hard-fought primaries last spring, Barack Obama swooped in from the campaign trail for a brief stop at the Senate hearings on Iraq. With Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker giving testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee, it was one of those rare moments when the spotlight panned back to Washington. And Obama didn't disappoint. Even with all the distractions of taking on Hillary Clinton, Obama asked one of the most penetrating questions of those two days of hearings: How much of an Iranian and Al Qaeda presence in Iraq would be acceptable before we would leave? Both Petraeus and Crocker seemed caught by surprise by this realpolitik reckoning, and Obama received kudos in the media for his smarts. Even Petraeus acknowledged that Obama was "exactly right" in saying that the most the United States could achieve was not to wipe out Al Qaeda entirely but to leave behind a "manageable situation."
What was not reported at the time was that Obama's line of questioning was suggested to him by Sen. Joe Biden, the Committee chairman who had quietly become one of the Illinois Democrat's main foreign-policy consiglieres after abandoning his own presidential bid. "I discussed with Sen. Obama how to proceed with Petraeus and Crocker," Biden told me in late May. "He asked for my advice."
This week, Obama's choice of Joltin' Joe Biden as his vice-presidential running mate, particularly coming after the tenure of perhaps the most powerful veep in U.S. history, Dick Cheney, raises a few serious questions. First, is Obama really as confident about his commander-in-chief and foreign-policy credentials as he says he is? During his now-infamous remarks to a San Francisco fundraiser last spring, Obama cited his international upbringing and travels and declared that "foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton or Senator McCain." His pick for veep, Obama added back then, would likely be "somebody who knows about a bunch of stuff that I'm not as expert on." The Biden choice, however, would seem to suggest otherwise—or at least that Obama believes he has a public-perception problem on foreign affairs.
A second, related question: To what degree will the combative and assertive Biden be a behind-the-curtain influence on Obama's foreign policy as much as an attack dog on the campaign trail? In some respects, Biden is the anti-Cheney. He's a garrulous glad-hander while Cheney is reticent and secretive; he's a sunny champion of diplomatic engagement while the vice president is known for his dark, Hobbesian view of the world. Though he is not averse to the use of force—Biden was one of the first Dems to urge Bill Clinton to intervene in the Balkans in the early '90s—he could not be more different from Cheney in personality or global outlook. But in one respect the Delaware Democrat and the Wyoming Republican resemble each other: like Cheney, Biden is confident to the point of cockiness in pushing his foreign-policy views, and like the current veep he knows how the levers of power work in Washington.
Make no mistake: Obama has always been his own man on foreign policy. During his very first appearance on the Foreign Relations Committee, at Condi Rice's confirmation hearings in January 2005, he made the steely secretary of state-to-be squirm by asking sharp questions about the readiness of Iraqi troops, impressing Biden and other Senate veterans. A little over a year ago, in a defining speech on counterterrorism at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington August 2007, Obama became one of the first senators to call for additional brigades to be sent to Afghanistan—the "real war"—and to substantially increase non-military aid. Biden has echoed him. Obama also anticipated what later became U.S. policy by calling for unilateral strikes inside Pakistan.
But Biden's long record of counseling deep engagement in trouble spots and pushing nuanced, intensive diplomacy—especially talking to enemies—conform in many ways to Obama's world view. In an interview with me in late 2004, Biden sketched out what later became Obama's own position on Iran, saying that Bush should open up direct diplomacy with Tehran "because he has no alternative. The terms [of the talks] should be wide open. This administration spends too much time arguing over the shape of the table. They don't get anything done." He also insisted that Bush open up bilateral talks with North Korea—which the administration later reluctantly did. If Obama and Biden win, it is easy to imagine that they could enjoy something like the one-on-one rapport that George W. Bush is said to have with Cheney.
Despite his reputation for long-windedness, Biden also has a gift for getting to the heart of an issue quickly (recalling Winston Churchill's description of FDR's most trusted aide, Harry Hopkins, as "Lord Root of the Matter.") It was Biden who lectured Rice at her confirmation hearings: "Don't listen to Rumsfeld!" In 2003, when then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz indicated that Iraq looked more complicated than Bosnia. "We've been in Bosnia for eight years," Biden snapped back: "That would seem to compute that we're likely to be in Iraq for a long time--a long time." And even though Obama touts his early opposition to the war in Iraq while Biden voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2002—and the two have differed on how fast U.S. troops should withdraw—the Obama camp was very impressed with Biden's handling of the Bush administration's shift in focus to Saddam Hussein. Biden was aggressive in urging that the Democratic caucus "take its time on the Iraq debate, and couldn't just let the president dictate the timing of it," said one Obama advisor. "That whole summer, and in the fall, he said we've got to make sure we kick tires on this. He is a real pro."
Above all, perhaps, it is Biden who has been most vociferous in urging Obama and other Democrats not to repeat the mistakes of John Kerry in 2004—and to fight back against GOP attacks with brickbats and bare knuckles. The failure of Kerry and the Dems of '04 to seize control of the national-security agenda and counterattack Bush was a mistake "that was emblazoned in my mind," Biden says. Now, with John McCain criticizing the 2008 Democratic contender ever more viciously—"Obama: dangerously unprepared to be president," the latest GOP ad intones—Obama needs Biden out in front more than ever. If he gets to the White House, will Obama repay Biden by giving him Cheney-like access and influence? Biden himself would vociferously reject such an idea; he makes no secret of his abhorrence for Cheney and "the neocons." But as a man who's run for president himself twice—and has 35 years in the Senate to Obama's three and a half—it's difficult to imagine Joe Biden is going to be happy reverting back to the traditional veep's role and flying to funerals.