In January 2009, shortly before my own departure from Iraq, I again hosted Biden, then the vice president-elect. My clearest recollection of the visit has nothing to do with politics. His son Beau Biden had been deployed in Iraq as a reserve officer in a signals battalion. Though Joe Biden had come to consider the Iraq War a major mistake, he was proud of his son’s service. Still, the elder Biden’s schedule was so tight—duty before everything else—that their only opportunity to meet was in my vehicle. Biden got to his point immediately: Beau needed to come back to the U.S. for the inauguration. Beau demurred. He had checked flights, and the circuitous routing of military air meant that he would be away from his troops for too long.
Franklin Foer: Joe Biden has changed
On my way back to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, I had an idea. I was planning to fly back to Washington in a few days, at Bush’s direction. My flight would be nonstop from Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey, taking days off the military’s normal schedule. I could take Beau with me. I advised General Ray Odierno, then the commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, that, given the conversation I had heard in the car, he would probably need to give Beau a direct order to make the trip. Odierno did. Watching his dad pick Beau up at Joint Base Andrews, I felt that, at no cost to the taxpayer, I had done a small good thing for a family that believed in public service and took its patriotic obligations so seriously.
What does any of this tell us about what makes a president “good” at foreign policy? Interest and experience are essential. Although Biden’s readiness to visit areas in crisis is a credit to him, a president cannot be everywhere at once. Biden has a team of smart, experienced advisers—fundamentally decent people who have been with him for years. He has also shown a willingness to change his mind as complex situations evolve. As my experience with him on soft partition in Iraq suggests, he doesn’t double down on bad calls.
I retired in 2009, after my Iraq tour. Early in 2010, I became the dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service—named after President George H. W. Bush—at Texas A&M University. I was set, I thought, for a second career as a pseudo-academic. But in the spring of the following year, Biden reappeared in my life. Over a private dinner at his Naval Observatory residence, Biden asked me to return to Afghanistan as the U.S. ambassador. If you have been a Foreign Service officer and the vice president asks you to serve abroad in a time of war, only one answer is acceptable, and I gave it. Biden and I discussed the need for a steady and consistent approach to Afghanistan, and the administration in which he served delivered that.
Nearly a decade later, under Trump, the U.S. is playing a less predictable role in the world. Biden’s commitment to alliances and collective problem-solving would mark a return to a global framework that Trump has dismissed and sought to dismantle. But the past four years have only emphasized the need for American leadership, a reliable course, and policies situated in the facts.