WASHINGTON — The White House pushed back Wednesday against a harsh critique from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who in an upcoming memoir accuses Vice President Joe Biden of being wrong on foreign policy and national security issues over the last 40 years.
President Barack Obama did not have much foreign policy experience when he chose Biden, the former longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as his running mate in 2008.
But Gates’ criticism follows a long line of complaints from Republicans that Biden has been wrong more often than right.
Republican Mitt Romney in 2008 accused Biden of being “wrong for 30 years;” former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove in 2010 accused Biden of being “on the wrong end of virtually every foreign policy dispute” since he was elected in the 1970s; and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, in a presidential debate in 2012, said that taking an opinion counter to Biden would ensure accuracy “100 percent of the time.”
Republicans say Biden got it wrong in the 1980s when he said that President Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup would strengthen the Soviet Union rather than defeat it; that he wrongly opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War under President George H.W. Bush; was wrong after the 2003 U.S. invasion to champion a controversial proposal to divide Iraq into three regions, for Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites; and was wrong when he opposed the surge of extra troops for Iraq in 2007.
On another, Biden now says he regrets one decision: voting for war in Iraq in 2002.
And Biden acknowledged in 2012 that he had advised Obama against launching the mission that ultimately killed Osama bin Laden.
Gates, in his book, called Obama’s decision to order the raid “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”
But his critique of Biden was tough.
The White House sought Wednesday to portray Biden as a trusted presidential adviser, allowing news photographers to shoot Obama and Biden eating lunch together in the president’s dining room, as the two paused between a national security briefing and a flurry of meetings with intelligence community leaders and Secretary of State John Kerry. They noted Biden had spoken with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to pledge U.S. support and aid as his government battles al Qaida-backed insurgents.
Press Secretary Jay Carney said the timing of the luncheon was a coincidence – and that photographers were allowed in as part of the administration’s promise to improve press access. And he said Biden routinely attends major national security meetings when he’s in town.
Carney said the White House disagrees with Gates’ assessment.
“As a senator and as a vice president, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time and he has been an excellent counselor and adviser to the president for the past five years,” Carney said, adding that Biden has played a “key role” in every major national security and foreign policy debate in the White House, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During White House policy debates on Afghanistan, Biden was often portrayed as playing the role of devil’s advocate and reportedly pressed for a more rapid withdrawal of troops from the country than Gates and the military had proposed, citing concerns about the strain of the war on the federal budget and growing opposition to the decade-old conflict.
Obama eventually settled on a middle-of-the-road approach between the military’s recommendations of a slower drawdown and the push for a faster withdrawal.
Carney said the White House knew Gates, who served under President George W. Bush and Obama, was writing the book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” but didn’t obtain a copy until Tuesday night. The book is due out Tuesday.
Obama also comes in for criticism in the book. Gates wrote that Obama lost faith in the troop increase he ordered in Afghanistan and it was ultimately “all about getting out” of the country, according to the newspapers that obtained copies of the book.
In a lengthy excerpt published in The Wall Street Journal, Gates called Obama’s White House “the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.”
Congress fared even worse.
“Such difficulties within the executive branch were nothing compared with the pain of dealing with Congress,” Gates wrote. “I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country.”
Biden and Gates did find themselves in agreement at times. Foreign Policy magazine in 2012 – in an article that dubbed Biden the “most powerful U.S. vice president in history save for his immediate predecessor, Dick Cheney” – noted that among other issues, Biden had opposed the intervention in Libya – as did Gates, then the defense secretary.
Biden recently returned from a weeklong trip to Asia, aimed at soothing tensions in the region, an indicator that he’s seen as a skilled diplomat by the White House and by key foreign leaders, said Joel Goldstein, a scholar of the vice presidency at the Saint Louis University School of Law.
“They haven’t been sending him to peripheral countries where nothing is happening, and that doesn’t happen unless the president and his foreign policy team believe he’s someone who can handle those missions,” said Goldstein. “Of course, anyone who serves 36 years in the Senate and as vice president is going to have some issues they’d like to have a do-over. You don’t get always get the easy ones.”