The World Won’t Organize Itself

Biden understands what career diplomats know: America’s relationships overseas require hands-on management, and conditions in the field are messier than they appear.

Joe Biden with Afghan troops.
Shah Marai / Getty

In an association that has spanned a number of years, I think I made Joe Biden really angry just once. It was in 2008. Biden was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I was a senior United States Foreign Service officer then serving as the ambassador to Iraq. A reporter asked me about a plan, first put forward by Biden and the foreign-policy analyst Leslie Gelb in 2006, that would grant significant autonomy to each of Iraq’s three major demographic groups. Many were calling it “soft partition”; supporters preferred “advanced federalism.” I said something to the effect that Iraq didn’t need any more sweeping political-reform plans, much less a partition plan, designed by the U.S. or anyone else.

A day or so later, one of Biden’s staffers called to say that I would be getting a letter from the senator, but that I shouldn’t take it too seriously. The letter did come. It was short and pithy: I was twisting Biden’s words; he had never called for partition. He stopped short of telling me what I could do with my criticism, but I inferred it. The epilogue: Neither of us referred to the incident again, and I never heard him mention advanced federalism to any Iraqi official. (Iraq was already a federal state.)

The episode illustrates some important points. First, externally imposed solutions to complex problems almost never work. One need only look at the ill-conceived and sloppily executed British partition of India and Pakistan, a policy that not only killed more than 1 million people at the time but also fostered enduring sectarian tensions and instability between two countries that are now nuclear powers. Second, when similarly sweeping solutions are proposed today, they almost always emanate from Washington, not from the field.

Foreign policy looks far different up close than it does from a congressional hearing room or think-tank auditorium. And although I disagreed with Biden over the concept of soft partition, I have otherwise observed, through tough field experience over the years, his unusual commitment to getting the facts right.

In foreign-policy circles, Biden faces a number of criticisms: that he is too soft or too hard on China, that he is too partial to the use of military force, that he lacks grand theories and strategic vision. I disagree. In an article earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, he laid out a clear worldview: “The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats.” This is roughly the same worldview that all presidents supported from 1945 until Donald Trump was elected.

Biden’s article is also noteworthy for acknowledging that relationships with other nations require close contact and skillful management. “The world does not organize itself,” Biden wrote. Neither friends nor foes will do what the U.S. wants simply because officials in Washington order them to do so. And conditions on the ground—as career diplomats know—are messier than they appear from thousands of miles away.

I served as an ambassador to six countries—three under Democratic administrations and three under Republicans—during a Foreign Service career that spanned almost 40 years. Foreign Service officers staff embassies and consulates around the world, many in difficult and dangerous places. In three of the countries where I served as ambassador, one of my predecessors had been assassinated on the job. The Foreign Service, like the military, is apolitical. For either to succeed, elected policy makers need to know what is really happening and, even better, see it with their own eyes.

During his many years on the Foreign Relations Committee—as its chair when Democrats controlled the Senate and as the ranking member when they did not—Biden traveled often, particularly to hard places. In January 2002, President George W. Bush sent me to Kabul to reopen our embassy in Afghanistan. Our first congressional visitor later that month was Biden, who emphasized that he was there to gather information, not pursue a partisan agenda. His trip was not a junket. He slept on a cot in my office. His staff joined the rest of my team in the embassy’s underground bunker. A company of marines was billeted with us for security. The wait for the bathroom was long. And it was the middle of winter, maybe the coldest in years. Biden loved it.

Biden articulated early his support for U.S. education efforts in Afghanistan, particularly for girls who had been deprived of that opportunity during Taliban rule. We visited a girls’ school in Kabul, already up and running. In one first-grade class, we saw girls as old as 12 who were just reaching school age when the Taliban had reached Kabul years before and denied them an education. We asked one of the older girls whether it bothered her that she was in a class with 6-year-olds. Her response was that the only thing that mattered to her was being in that class. Biden’s support for education in Afghanistan, especially for girls, has improved thousands of young lives.

The challenges facing the United States were somewhat different in Iraq. Biden had voted in support of the 2003 U.S. invasion, but by the time I returned to Iraq in early 2007 as ambassador, the setbacks of the intervening years had shifted his views. He traveled to Iraq in September 2007, shortly before General David Petraeus and I were scheduled to testify before Congress on the situation there, an event widely viewed as crucial to continuing legislative support for the military surge that Bush had authorized. As chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden thought he needed to see what was happening in the field before presiding over the hearing.

As it happened, Petraeus’s superb leadership of the surge, along with a change of mission to prioritize the protection of civilians, had reduced violence to the point that different factions in Iraq could make political accommodations with one another. Under intense pressure from the U.S., Iraq’s highly sectarian Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had agreed to sign over a $250 million budget allotment to Anbar province, the epicenter of the Sunni insurgency. Conditions had improved enough that U.S. officials in the country could contemplate a visit to Anbar province to celebrate the budget deal. When I had arrived in Iraq, less than six months earlier, going to the provincial capital, Ramadi, would have been unthinkable. The visit Biden and I made there was not without risk. Not going to Ramadi—and not having his assumptions challenged by facts on the ground—would have been far easier for Biden, but he went anyway.

When we arrived, a large hall in the provincial governor’s compound was packed with Sunni notables. They were joined by Iraq’s deputy prime minister, who was Kurdish, and vice president, a Shia. Biden told those present that he felt privileged to witness such a gathering, whose very occurrence was a positive sign. Still, he warned, the American people were tired of the conflict and wanted to see results that would let us bring our troops home—a message I employed with effect on recalcitrant Iraqi politicians who needed an incentive to negotiate with their foes.

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.

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.