There’s a common perception that Vice President Joe Biden lost the administration’s debate over Afghanistan policy because President Obama did not adopt the course Biden favored. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
On the contrary, Biden played the distinctive vice-presidential role that Walter Mondale proposed 33 years ago. In so doing, Biden helped shape Obama’s policy toward Afghanistan and offered a model for a constructive role vice presidents can play in presidential decision-making.
Mondale argued that in addition to providing substantive advice to a president the vice president can help foster a process to ground presidential decision-making in “the free flow of ideas and information which is indispensable to a healthy and productive administration.”
Over the past weeks, Biden made a distinctive contribution to the decision-making process regarding Afghanistan. He challenged the assumptions behind Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional troops, sought to define American objectives and questioned whether a corrupt Afghanistan government could provide a reliable partner. In so doing, he forced a fuller examination of all aspects of America’s involvement in Afghanistan and helped produce a plan that addressed those concerns.
Vice presidents have not always been able to play such a role. Presidents have traditionally excluded them from their inner circles. Franklin Roosevelt never told Vice President Harry S. Truman of efforts to build an atomic weapon. Dwight D. Eisenhower famously confessed in 1960 that he would need a week to recall some major idea that Richard M. Nixon had contributed to his administration. Lyndon B. Johnson barred Hubert H. Humphrey from discussions of Vietnam after Humphrey expressed dissenting views early in his vice presidency.
That pattern changed during Jimmy Carter’s administration. In a memorandum of December 1976, Mondale proposed that the vice president serve as a senior presidential adviser. Mondale thought he could offer Carter the advice of an experienced politician whose perspectives were not biased by responsibilities for any particular department.
But Mondale’s recommendation also reflected a deeper concern regarding presidential decision-making. He had an insight into how vice presidents could make a distinctive contribution to solving “the biggest single problem” of recent administrations. That problem was, in Mondale’s judgment, “the failure of the President to be exposed to independent analysis not conditioned by what it is thought he wants to hear or . . . what others want him to hear.”
Mondale was right. To guard against such tendencies, every president needs a trusted figure who has the credibility and skill to challenge shared conceptions, the stature to put experts through their paces and the independence to make sure that the president hears a full assessment of the risks of courses others may recommend.
Mondale thought the vice president was well-equipped for this role. The vice president had the job security, political judgment and stature to discharge this assignment, and his recognition of a shared political destiny with the president provided incentive to protect the president’s interests.
Carter accepted that recommendation and gave Mondale the necessary access. Largely as a result of Mondale’s performance, his successors have also functioned as presidential advisers.
But vice-presidential access does not guarantee that the vice president will help expose the president to “the free flow of ideas and information.” It depends on how the vice president exercises the advising role.
Many don’t always do it well. Vice President George H.W. Bush was largely silent during discussions of trading arms to Iran for the release of hostages during the Reagan administration in the mid 1980s. Dick Cheney focused on persuading President George W. Bush to pursue policies that he preferred. Cheney often obtained Bush’s agreement following private meetings rather than making sure presidential decisions followed an airing of competing views.
Biden, however, played a more critically useful part. Over the last few months, he emerged as the primary questioner of McChrystal’s request for additional troops in Afghanistan and probed many dimensions of the challenges in the region during administration discussions. Why was America spending 30 times as much in Afghanistan as in Pakistan, which has a nuclear arsenal and where al qaeda has moved? Could the United States expect success given corruption in President Hamid Karzai’s government? How would the United States measure success? What was the exit plan?
Biden’s questions may have reflected his misgivings about America’s effort in Afghanistan. But his prodding also demonstrated the unique ability of a vice president to help ensure that presidential decisions are based on a full consideration of competing perspectives.
That’s the vice-presidential role Mondale recommended 33 years ago, and that’s a role Biden assumed during the deliberations on Afghanistan.
So Vice President Biden didn’t lose on Afghanistan. He did his job, and in doing so, he helped President Obama do his.
Joel K. Goldstein
Joel Goldstein is Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at the Saint Louis University School of Law and a writer for the History News Service.
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