Former Vice President Joe Biden may well become president next month. The advice he gave President Barack Obama ahead of the 2011 Pakistan raid that ended the life and reign of terror of Osama bin Laden will gain new relevance if he does, for the simple reason that it will be Biden, not anyone else (we know of) who will be rendering final judgements on calls of similar weight when they arise. Joe Biden’s choices will matter in ways they never have during the prior 47 years he has spent in office.
We can be assured that such issues will arise. On January 3, 2020, President Trump made the decision to kill Iranian terror mastermind Qassem Soleimani, who had been destabilizing Iraq and orchestrating attacks on local and American forces there. Most Americans had never heard of Soleimani despite the fact that he had American blood on his hands. His killing, in a drone strike in Baghdad, inspired warnings that it could start World War III, from no less than Joe Biden himself, who suggested a “new kind of major conflict in the Middle East” could happen in the wake of Soleimani’s death, as Iran would respond. Biden also said the world would likely see Iran “ramping up its nuclear enrichment in the coming days.” Biden allowed that Soleimani was an enemy, but offered no positive effects from taking him down.
War did not result from Soleimani’s killing. In fact, Trump later negotiated the historic Abraham Accords, establishing normalized relations between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors for the first time. The Abraham Accords are a dagger pointed at Iran. Biden has already signaled that he’ll tilt back toward the Islamist dictatorship, though.
Biden’s reaction to the Soleimani mission now appears to have been entirely political; he was still running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president at the time and used that moment to criticize the incumbent president. It’s possible that Biden was just wrong in his calculation. Robert Gates served as defense secretary while Biden was vice president, and wrote in his memoir that Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Specifically, gates noted “He said that when the Shah fell in Iran in 1979 that that was a step forward for progress toward human rights in Iran.” We now know, and frankly most knew at the time, that the Shah’s fall and Ayatollah’s Khomeini’s rise was a disaster for Iran, for the human rights of its people, and for the world. But Joe Biden…well, he just didn’t see it that way.
For some reason, that barely came up during the campaign, and foreign policy was never the subject of any mainstream media-orchestrated debate. Not even on Fox News, where moderator Chris Wallace wasted America’s time on many other issues, but not Biden’s actual record on the one issue portfolio he’s supposedly good at.
Biden has offered us an answer, or actually several, regarding how he approached the bin Laden raid. His evolving answers don’t agree with each other and are confusing.
Initially, in January 2012, Biden told the world that he advised Obama not to approve the bin Laden raid.
When the president asked his top advisers for their final opinion on the mission, all of them were hesitant, except for the former CIA director, now Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Biden said.
“Every single person in that room hedged their bet except Leon Panetta. Leon said go. Everyone else said, 49, 51,” Biden said, as he offered the unsolicited details of the decision-making process.
“He got to me. He said, ‘Joe, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘You know, I didn’t know we had so many economists around the table.’ I said, ‘We owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there,’” Biden recalled.
Obama agreed with Panetta, who appears to have been the only real leader in the room, approved the raid, and bin Laden was killed.
Even at the time, Biden’s answer appeared political. Obama was running for reelection when he greenlit the successful raid, and his campaign and the media in unison cast the bin Laden raid as his “gutsy call.” He even went against his own, far more experienced, vice president to approve the raid, so the story went. Gutsy! Google “Obama gutsy call” and you’ll see that it became a talking point for Obama’s campaign and the media. Biden, the so-called foreign policy expert, opposing it was key to setting up just how “gutsy” the call was. In this rendering, Biden played his assigned political role.
About a year later, with Obama safely reelected, Biden began to change his story. The New York Times Magazine reported that Biden said he told Obama “Just go with your instinct.”
In 2020, Biden rewrote his bin Laden history entirely, telling Fox News that he was fully on board with the raid.
During a brief exchange with Fox News on Friday, the former vice president was presented with a hypothetical situation similar to the one President Trump says he faced before ordering an airstrike to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
“As commander in chief, if you were ever handed a piece of intelligence that said you could stop an imminent attack on Americans — but you have to use an airstrike to take out a terrorist leader — would you pull the trigger?” Fox News asked Biden.
“Well we did – the guy’s name was Usama bin Laden,” Biden replied.
“Didn’t you tell President Obama not to go after bin Laden that day?” Fox News followed up.
“No, I didn’t,” Biden said.
Biden was, of course, running for president when he told Fox he did not oppose the raid. He had to project cavalier strength, despite the known and established facts of history and the “gutsy call.”
The Guardian has yet another take on all this. It comes from Obama’s newest autobiography.
“In my view,” Biden told CNN, “there was one option there that was remaining: you could have done one more very low flight … spying down on the site” – a compound in Abbottabad – “to determine whether this was Bin Laden, because again, there was no certainty.
“ … And so I looked around the table, I said, ‘I didn’t think we had this many economists in the room. On the one hand, the other hand.’ I said, ‘Mr President,’ to give him space, I said, ‘I think you should wait.’ And do one more pass.’ Knowing that if you made the lower pass, they might observe it and he’d flee.”
The “to give him space” line is curious. On a first pass it indicates Biden advised Obama against the raid just to give the young president a political excuse should he decline. He could blame his more experienced vice president for the terrorist mastermind getting away.
But as Biden’s remarks continue, the “space” may not be for Obama. Take a look at that last part again.
I said, ‘Mr President,’ to give him space, I said, ‘I think you should wait.’ And do one more pass.’ Knowing that if you made the lower pass, they might observe it and he’d flee.” (emphasis added)
Did Biden want bin Laden to get away? Who else would “observe” the low reconnaissance flight and then flee the compound? It’s a head-scratcher that deserves some clarification.
As we’ve seen, Biden is far from consistent about all this. He opposed the “gutsy call,” likely to make it appear more gutsy for political reasons, then he told Obama to go with his “instinct,” then he favored the raid entirely, then he wanted to give someone “space” and suggested a final look-see flight might prompt someone to “flee.”
It’s all quite strange. But we can be assured that the same media that avoided foreign policy entirely during the presidential campaign will not press for answers about this now. Foreign policy is a core presidential duty, but there was never even a debate on the subject during the presidential election. Biden and Harris avoid the media, and the media appear to be fine with this.
Foreign policy expertise was supposedly the reason Obama selected Biden as his vice president, and the reason Biden stood out among the Democrats running against Trump in 2020.
There are others out there plotting against America and our allies, and the next president will be presented with options concerning the opportunity and/or responsibility for dealing with them. We have no idea what Joe Biden will do, but per his own remarks and those of Robert Gates, we can be confident that he’ll very probably get it wrong.