Monday, March 12, 2007

Joe Biden’s Iraq Town Hall

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 679

And then a miracle occurred: the schedule held, and Joe Biden actually appeared at campaign events in Iowa! Quite a relief, since I was starting to feel that I was laboring under the political equivalent of the Curse of the Bambino.

There was one small change of plan, come to think of it. Instead of attending the Saturday morning breakfast event, I opted for a Friday night wine and cheese thing at the Des Moines Club: same candidate, same topic, but with better food and windows with a view.

Before I get to what Biden said, I just want to say that this was my kind of campaign event: issues-focused, before a serious-minded group (vis-à-vis throngs of onlookers flocking to see a celebrity sign autographs at a media shutter fest), and on a scale that does not require a rope line between attendees and the candidate. Not that there isn’t, nor should not be, room for huge rallies in political campaigns. It’s just nice that there’s also some space left for participatory events like this.

So on to the event itself. Would anyone be shocked that it started late? Like, an hour late? Me neither. This provided a nice opportunity to talk with some of the people in attendance, including Ann Schodde, executive director of the group U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy, who sponsored the event, and a nice guy named Ted who put up the money to get the group off the ground in the first place.

Finally, Biden arrived, and after brief introductions, began his remarks, which he delivered without notes. He started off by saying domestic issues predominate in most presidential campaigns, leaving foreign policy as a step child. Not so this cycle. This time around, for the first time in a long while, virtually every urgent issue facing the country has an international component to its solution. Biden repeated his stump line that this, and the debacles of the Bush administration, leave the next president virtually no room for error.

Biden next said that campaigns should be about not just character, but about issues as well. He spent most of his time discussing his Plan for Iraq, which he developed with Les Gelb, the Chairman Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. Biden emphasized that every candidate, both Democrat and Republican, agrees on two points about Iraq:
1) there is no military solution to the current situation
2) there must be a political solution between the factions

Beyond these two, Biden went on, there is a crucial third point, which he claimed he is the only candidate to have addressed, and that is: what then? What comes next? Not addressing this third point, simply pulling out US combat forces and leaving Iraq to its fate, Biden said, would subject the United States to negative consequences lasting a generation.

Biden continued that sectarian warfare throughout history has been settled in one of four ways:
 The first is to let the factions fight it out among themselves until one group achieves dominance over all others. Moral considerations aside, this is not an option in Iraq because the warring factions are not just national, unique to Iraq, but regional, overspreading Iraq’s borders into Turkey, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Thus, we risk a broader regional conflict, in which the United States would surely be required to intervene, if the Iraq civil war is not settled quickly.
 The second is to undertake imperial rule and foreign military occupation to suppress the violence. We’ve already seen that attempts to do this in Iraq have proven fruitless, not just for the United States, but for the British and other empires throughout history.
 The third is to install a dictator to crush factional violence and restore order through one-man rule. This is a non-starter, obviously, given that “regime change” was meant to get rid of that sort of thing in the first place.
 Finally, the fourth is multilateral diplomatic intervention to allow the warring factions to disengage and securely withdraw into their own regions, where they would control their own day-to-day affairs and have their own laws regarding internal issues such as taxes, marriages, property, law enforcement, etc. The central government in Baghdad would oversee national issues like oil exports, foreign policy and national defense. This arrangement would be backed up by an international force, including significant participation from the world’s most populous Muslim countries (Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Egypt), to maintain security between the regions and help secure Iraq’s borders. Biden characterized this approach as “federalism,” and said it was fully within the letter and intent of Iraq’s constitution.

The answer, according to Biden, is to work with the Iraqi government and factions on an internal settlement while conducting multilateral diplomacy to address issues concerning the entire region.

Biden concluded by stating that the future pillars of American foreign policy will need to be behavior change, rather than regime change, to address foreign governments with whom we have conflicts, and prevention, rather than preemption, to address future threats to American interests and security.

Biden spoke for about an hour, leaving time for but three questions. Biden’s best moment of the night came in response to the question, “How do we begin to convince the world that America has not permanently lost its way is now nothing other than corrupt, unethical and reckless?” Biden’s answer: simply stop being corrupt, unethical and reckless. Big applause for that.

No bumper sticker slogans here, as you see. Biden was professorial, authoritative, sophisticated in his appreciation of the nuances and complexities of the challenges awaiting the next president. If you’ve seen Joe Biden talk at all, either in person or on television, you may have noticed an interesting mannerism of his, that when considering what to say in extemporaneous remarks or in answering a question, he shifts his gaze away from the audience or cameras, to an unpopulated middle distance, where he seemingly checks in with his private self, as if making sure what he’s about to say passes muster with himself, both personally and professionally. Such inner consideration is fascinating to watch, and undoubtedly helps keep Biden honest with himself, as it were; but it has disadvantages as well, perhaps contributing to Biden’s reputation as a rambling and long-winded speaker.

So, did this event do any good for Joe Biden’s campaign for president? It didn’t hurt, but I don’t think he closed any sales at this event. It introduced Joe Biden to an involved, activist audience. There were no gaffes, no statements clearly made simply to pander to the audience of the moment (see John Edwards’ “I am not a politician” quote for a shining example), nothing that didn’t hang together logically or rhetorically. There were even one or two moments when, if you squinted and held your gaze just right, you could view Joe Biden as vaguely presidential.

But, as lucky as the Democratic party is to have such a foreign policy heavyweight in the race, Joe Biden has a long road ahead in grabbing attention away from the rock stars for long enough to get voters to listen to him. He also, unfortunately, carries some baggage from the circumstances that forced him from the race in 1988, as well as his January comments to the NY Observer about Barack Obama. Not insurmountable, probably, but he’ll have to work hard to clear those factors effectively enough to get his message across, and he’s got a tall enough hill to climb as it is.

On the plus side, Joe Biden has actually surpassed Barack Obama in one respect during this campaign: he wins my prize for requiring the shortest commute to a campaign event. Obama, the previous title holder in that category, recently hosted a town hall event at the Polk County Convention Center that required me to make only a quick stroll through the skywalk to attend; Biden’s Friday night event was even better, requiring nothing more than an elevator ride. On the minus side, however, the setting wasn’t really one for popping off photos, so no event pics this time around.


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