What would Joe Biden's Middle East policy look like?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Aug. 25 2008 11:10 AM

What Would Biden's Middle East Policy Look Like?

Joe Biden is an erratic pragmatist.

Also in Slate: David Greenberg argued that Joe Biden's plagiarism shouldn't be forgotten. Jack Shafer called Biden "the unusually creepy kind" of plagiarist.

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The interesting thing about his prescription for the Middle East is that, in theory, it's not that different from President George W. Bush's. He once said, "I believe President Bush's strong rhetorical support for democracy has made a difference by creating space for and emboldening modernizers and moderates." Biden would cautiously continue that policy—when circumstances allow. In other words, never. That's the essential difference between Biden and Bush: the measure of practicality they apply to the reforms they both want to see.

Biden would not push for regime change in Iran for practical reasons. He would encourage Israel to engage Syria in the hope that "we can weaken the Iranian-Syrian marriage of convenience." When that doesn't happen (and it won't), Biden would reconsider and take a new position. One can hardly envision him pushing for reforms in countries like Egypt (too risky) or making Lebanon a priority (not important enough and far too complicated). Supporters will see his approach as the pragmatic way to achieve liberal goals. Critics will say it's a recipe for doing nothing.

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But Biden would not be a do-nothing policymaker. His position on Darfur—the most daring of all the candidates', Democrat or Republican—demonstrates that his patience with rogue regimes is limited. He is ready to take action. Morally, calling Darfur the exception is an easy case to make. Strategically, not so much. Can Biden support unilateral American intervention in places in which the United States has no direct strategic interest while rejecting such actions in places where the interest is clear? Apparently, he can. And the reasoning is sound: Biden's toughness on Darfur has something to do with the fact that Sudan is weak enough for Washington to force it to cooperate. His mellow approach to Iran derives from the fact that Iran is, well, strong.

Is that wrong? Not at all. There's a case to be made for the pragmatic expert who judges conditions on the ground without being held hostage to a preordained framework. However, the outcome would be a policy dictated by events and controlled by regional leaders rather than by American desires.

That has its upside—but it is far from perfect. Biden's caution would not necessarily make his decisions safer for the region or for America. Case in point: He was wrong on Iraq. He is also wrong on Syria, and he has not offered a viable solution for stopping Iran.

But here's a comforting thought for the stormy Middle East: If Biden was the person making foreign policy, his mistakes would not be the mistakes of an inexperienced policymaker, like Clinton. Nor would they be the mistakes of a hard-nosed ideologue, like Bush. They would not be mistakes of ignorance or arrogance, nor of the zealot or the dumb observer.

Biden's mistakes would have the unique distinction of being erratically practical.

Shmuel Rosner is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times, and political editor for the Jewish Journal

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