Biden's Brief Expands to Include Iraq

Vice President Joe Biden's official portfolio is expanding. NEWSWEEK has learned that President Obama has asked Biden to take the lead role on Iraq as the U.S. begins its scheduled drawdown of combat troops, a move that comes as administration officials are expressing concerns about the uptick in violence and political instability in the region.

Biden's role will be something of an unofficial envoy to Iraq, though he won't handle day-to-day dealings with officials on the ground. The goal is to "raise the level" in hopes that Biden's stature encourages Iraqi officials to bridge their political differences, says a senior administration official who didn't want to be named talking about high-level personnel decisions. "He knows the players," White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel tells NEWSWEEK. "He brings a lot of experience and expertise on this issue to the table, and the president trusts him."

While they insist that overall incidents of violence in Iraq remain low, Obama and his aides worry about the recent spate of bombings in the region and the Iraqi security forces' ability to respond. But it's the continued political turmoil that has officials most anxious. Both Obama and Biden have raised the issue repeatedly with Iraqi leaders in recent months, without much success. "I think the Maliki government is not only going to have to continue to strengthen its security forces, but it's also going to have to engage in the kind of political give-and-take leading up to the national elections that we've been talking about for quite some time," Obama said on June 26. "I haven't seen as much political progress in Iraq … as I would like to see."

The senior administration official was careful to note that Biden's efforts will not undermine Christopher Hill, who is the U.S. ambassador to Iraq—though many outside observers haven't been shy in noting Hill's lack of Middle East experience (he was last assigned to North Korea).

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden visited the region nearly a dozen times and has been an active player in policy discussions. Speaking about Iraq last February, he said, "We're going to have to get in there and be much more aggressive in forcing them to deal with these issues."