Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Joe Biden declares Obama Victory in Iraq

It has been observed that when politicians sense the crowd is moving in a certain direction, they rush to the front of the stampede and then claim they are leading the charge. So it seems to be with the latest on Iraq. We are winning. The Iraqis are winning. They are embracing democracy and capitalism. They are embracing heretofore unknown freedom. In other words, it appears the goals of the Bush Administration are in sight. That development, as astonishing as it has been for Democrats, has spurred Biden to credit Obama for the history-making success.

Biden's Diversion Strategy Joe's 'gaffes' have a political logic.

It's easy to pile on Joe Biden. Vice presidents, after all, acquire reputations in Washington they never really shake. Dick Cheney was Darth Vader, and now Joe Biden is the embarrassing uncle you try to keep away from the microphone.

Neither is entirely fair. Still, when Mr. Biden claims success for a victory won by a surge he and Barack Obama opposed, you wonder what he's up to. When this same genius is then dispatched to counter Mr. Cheney on the weekend talk shows, you wonder what the administration is up to.

Start with Mr. Biden's first whopper: telling CNN's Larry King last week that "one of the great achievements of this administration" may well be a democratic Iraq. "You're going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. . . . I've been impressed how they have been deciding to use the political process rather than guns to settle their differences."

Now, many have jumped on Mr. Biden for claiming this as an Obama achievement. Perhaps more striking, however, is that the same Iraqi government that so impresses him today is something he once declared impossible.

That was back during a Democratic presidential debate in 2007, when Mr. Biden told ABC's George Stephanopoulos it was a "fundamental strategic mistake" to believe "there is any possibility in the lifetime of anyone here of having the Iraqis get together, have a unity government in Baghdad that pulls the country together. That will not happen, George."

Now it has not only happened, but it has happened, like all good things in our world, because of Barack Obama.

On substance, it's a line of argument that is hard to make. It's even harder when your attorney general and your national security adviser are out there admitting major policy goofs. And it's harder still when you send a Biden to do a Cheney's job.

That's what happened this weekend, when the White House deployed the sitting vice president to the talk-show circuit after learning that the former vice president would be appearing on ABC's "This Week." In many ways, it was a rerun of a clash back in May, when the White House hastily added a security-and-values speech in an effort to pre-empt a speech Mr. Cheney was delivering the same day.

My former colleagues in the Bush administration cannot understand why any White House would allow a former vice president to define the debate. One explanation is Mr. Cheney's low approval ratings, which may lead the president's advisers to conclude that they can use him as a foil. The danger is that such matchups by their nature diminish a White House while elevating the challenger.

In this case, the debate also plays to Mr. Cheney's strength.

Americans might not buy everything he says. But Mr. Cheney has a clear and consistent view about how to deal with men who want to kill us. Of late, events have helped make the Obama view a little less coherent.

Look at how Mr. Biden danced around the questions about a civilian trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. On "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation," Mr. Biden said the president would soon make a decision on what to do—never mind that in November Americans had been led to believe we had a decision when Attorney General Eric Holder announced that KSM and four other operatives would be "brought to New York to answer for their alleged crimes in a courthouse just blocks from where the twin towers once stood."

Plainly, Mr. Biden's interlocutors did not find his answers persuasive. They were, however, probably the best the vice president could do at a time when the administration is publicly walking back Mr. Holder's decision. In an interview in yesterday's New York Times, Mr. Holder set up the U-turn: "I think that I make the final call," he said, "but if the president is not happy with that final call, he has the ability to reverse it."

Ditto for Mr. Biden's efforts to reassure Americans about the handling of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian caught trying to blow up a Northwest flight. Again, he was playing a weak hand.

The same day Mr. Biden's interviews appeared, National Security Adviser James Jones told "Fox News Sunday" the president had not been well served by the Abdulmutallab case, admitting that the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group should have been operational. He promised to "learn from our experiences."

So go ahead and chuckle over Mr. Biden's "gaffes," if you think he was on television to win an argument. But if you think his assignment was to use a Sunday-show duel to deflect attention from the Obama administration's two big backtrackings on terror, you might want to give Joe a little more credit.

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