The assessment is a little tricky, since the Chiefs—though they did build a fairly sensible strategy about Obama’s cuts—would always find something to do with more money; they are generals, after all. But Ryan didn’t explain where he’d get the money for $2 trillion in extra spending (which indeed his budget plan does advocate), or how he’d spend it. So point to Biden.
On Afghanistan, things get a little sneaky on both sides. Ryan first denounced Obama’s timetable to withdraw all troops by 2014, saying the move could reverse our gains and leave Kabul vulnerable to a Taliban takeover. But then he said that he and Romney support the 2014 date—as do all the NATO allies and Afghan President Hamid Karzai—as long as the commanders say it’s sensible.
Biden said we’re definitely leaving in 2014; that’s the NATO policy. We came to beat back al-Qaida, get rid of bin Laden, and train the Afghan army to take over the fight. That’s what we’ve done. He also said that when Obama announced his troop-surge in December 2009 he said “the surge would be out” by the summer of 2011.
That’s not quite true. Obama said that he would begin to withdraw troops by that summer. How many would depend on the situation on the ground. When the time came, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander at the time, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended pulling out only a few thousand troops until the fighting season was over. Obama overruled their recommendation. On this point, Ryan was right.
But then Ryan got his facts wrong. He said that the U.S. military in Afghanistan is performing the same mission—counterinsurgency —but with fewer troops. In fact, they are not still doing counterinsurgency (COIN) to nearly the same degree, not in the same sense as its advocates defined it (nation-building, reform of governance, and so forth). In fact, Obama decided to withdraw all 30,000 of the surge troops—leaving the original 68,000 until 2014—because he realized that the COIN strategy wasn’t working and never would work, in part because the Afghan government was too corrupt to make it work. He scaled back the mission to fighting the Taliban and training the Afghan army; for that mission, the surge troops weren’t necessary.
On substance then, a draw, though on a political scale, Biden may have scored points. He kept emphasizing that we will pull out, adding, “It doesn’t ‘depend’ for us.” Since almost nobody, not even many Republican lawmakers, want to stay in Afghanistan much longer, this is a winning position in public opinion.
When the debate returned to foreign policy, the first issue to come up was Syria. Biden once again ridiculed Romney-Ryan’s “loose talk” about doing more without saying what it is they would do. Do you want to send American troops to Syria, he asked?
Ryan said of course not. The problem, he said, is that Obama attempted a diplomatic solution for too long, hoping the United Nations would impose a settlement, even though Russia would have a veto. Romney would have worked with allies earlier—though to do what, Ryan never said. (In his foreign policy speech this week, Romney too never said he would send heavy arms to the Syrian opposition; only that somebody should.)
Overall, then: Biden finessed a few points, but he spoke with a command of the issues and with a contempt for Romney-Ryan’s “bluster” and “malarkey.” (It will be interesting to see the net effect of this obviously deliberate stance. It will no doubt gin up the Democratic base, but were the independents delighted, turned off, or indifferent?)
Ryan meanwhile recited the party lines, railing against Obama’s “weakness,” lack of “credibility,” and tendency to “apologize for our values.” But he was asked to put meat on these claims, to provide examples of where the charges were true or how Romney would make things better—and he had no answer.