Hirsh: Joe Biden is Dead Right on Iraq

For a guy whose presidential campaign was declared dead almost the day it started, Joe Biden sounds a bit too confident these days. Especially when it comes to Iraq. “If it were up to us,” says Larry Rasky, Biden’s chief campaign flack, “all 90 minutes” of Thursday night’s inaugural debate between the eight Democratic candidates would have been devoted to the subject of Iraq. Why? Because the six-term senator from Delaware is “the only one with a comprehensive plan for getting us out of Iraq without leaving chaos behind,” says Rasky.

Of course his spokesman would say that. But in this case, Rasky has a point. When it comes to staking out clear, convincing positions on Iraq, the rest of the Democratic race resembles a bad day at the Demolition Derby. Even the golden-tongued Barack Obama, while waxing eloquent about the global leadership vacuum left by George W. Bush, had little to say about Iraq the other day in his first big foreign-policy campaign speech. (Obama reiterated his call for “a phased withdrawal of American forces with the goal of removing all combat brigades from Iraq by March 31st, 2008,” without saying what would be left behind.) Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and others back the Democratic-sponsored legislation that also calls for a withdrawal deadline. That bill passed the House and Senate this week largely along partisan lines, but almost every politico in Washington believes that, after Bush vetoes it next week, the Dems will ultimately sign onto a relatively open-ended spending authorization—in effect, giving the president what he wants. On the Republican side, the two fron runners, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, are both trying to out-Bush Bush—tying the war on terror to “victory” in Iraq—while Mitt Romney has been hard to pin down to a firm position.

Biden, on the other hand, has been on the record for a year with a fully thought-out vision for Iraq that offers a real alternative to the bleak choice we’re getting from everyone else. Let’s face it, the “debate” pits the Bush administration’s model-democracy delusion against the Democrats’ let’s-just-get-out state of denial. The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee—far and away the most experienced foreign-policy hand among the Democratic candidates—has proposed a quasi-partition plan that actually does reflect the bloody reality emerging on the ground. His scheme calls for dividing Iraq into three or more separate regions held together by a loose central government, thus clearing the way for withdrawing most U.S. troops by 2008. It’s a solution, not a surrender, and it’s what they used to call realpolitik.

History, in fact, has moved decisively in Biden’s direction. The Bush “surge” plan is utterly bogged down, as Gen. David Petraeus came close to acknowledging in remarks to Pentagon reporters Thursday. And with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seemingly paralyzed over plans for federalism, oil-revenue sharing and amnesty for Baathists, the dream of reconciliation is turning into dust. “I think we’re moving toward a de facto partition,” says one U.S. Army officer working on Iraq. At Fort Riley, Kansas where the army is training U.S. advisers to the Iraqi Army, the program is moving at the same slow pace as it was last fall because U.S. combat brigades are now on the front lines in Iraq rather than being rotated out so their commanders and noncommissioned officers could be turned into advisers. U.S. counterinsurgency officials working under Petraeus have begun to acknowledge the reality of the spheres of influence carved out by tribesmen and Shiite militias. They even went so far as to try to erect an Israeli-style barrier between Shia and Sunni neighborhoods, though that was voted down by the ever-cautious Maliki.

Biden predicted much of this. (Not all of it, however: His plan called for the central government to control oil revenues, winning over Sunnis by giving them 20 percent of the total; that may not happen now). And perhaps because he knows his analysis has been on target, Biden has also been more impressive rhetorically in confronting the Republicans over Iraq. Compare what Senators Biden, Obama and Clinton have said in recent days in response to Republican attacks. After Giuliani, in comments that were almost Cheney-like in their ferocity, ridiculed the Democrats over their Iraq withdrawal strategy, saying they “do not understand the full nature and scope of the terrorist war against us,” Obama and Clinton responded with comments that sounded almost Kerry-like in their meekness. “Rudy Giuliani today has taken the politics of fear to a new low,” Obama said. Senator Clinton didn’t even mention the name of the man who had just attacked her, opting instead to inveigh against partisanship. “One of the great tragedies of this administration is that the president failed to keep this country unified after 9/11,” she said. As Kevin Drum, the Washington Monthly blogger, put it: “More whining.” (Is Bob Shrum back, anyone?)

But after Bush delivered a similar attack on the Democrats, Biden responded by comparing him to Richard Nixon in his isolation. “The president appears to be totally removed from reality,” Biden said. Refreshing.

And for a guy best known for putting his foot in his mouth—the very day Biden announced his candidacy, he almost sunk it with some ill-considered comments on Obama that rankled African-Americans—the Delaware senator has mustered some real eloquence about Iraq. Consider what he said in his floor speech this week on the spending bill:

“History suggests only there’s only a couple … ways to keep together a country driven by sectarian strife. And it’s not to put American troops into a city of 6.2 million people to try to quell a civil war. Throughout history four things have worked. You occupy the country for a generation or more. That’s not in our DNA—we’re not the Persian Empire or the British Empire. You install a dictator. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate irony for the United States—to go back after taking one down and install another one? You let them fight it out until one side massacres the other—that’s not an option in that tinderbox part of the world. Or lastly, you make federalism work for the Iraqis. You give them control over the fabric of their daily lives. You separate the parties. You give them breathing room. Let them control their local police, their education, their religion and marriage.”

That’s about what’s happening on the ground right now. Partition of some kind—with a nominal but weak central government—is probably no longer a choice in Iraq. We can either help it along responsibly or stand in its way while once again we misread the situation. Biden has this one right. He may have little chance to win the presidency—he’s way down in the polls—but the word was that John Kerry would have made him his secretary of State in 2004. If Clinton, Obama or any of the other Democrats gain the White House in 2008, they might want to make Joe Biden the same offer.