If Joe Biden wins the 2020 presidential election, he will be haunted by an old problem: the U.S. war in Iraq.
It’s an issue he has struggled with since 2002, when he cast a Senate vote that led to the U.S. invasion, and throughout his time as vice president—and one at the heart of an identity crisis engulfing the Democratic Party on foreign policy.
Uncertainty over how and when the U.S. should engage overseas defined the Obama administration’s failures in new wars in Syria and Libya, as well as in old ones in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that uncertainty persists in the confused and often evasive rhetoric various Democratic-primary candidates use as they wrestle with articulating a coherent vision of America’s role in the world.
Biden stands out from the crowd for his long record on foreign affairs and on Iraq in particular, where he has played a defining role not just in the war itself but in its chaotic aftermath, which enabled the rise of the Islamic State. While Biden touts his foreign-policy experience as one of his qualifications for office, his rivals bill Iraq as a prime example of his bad judgment.
The criticism tends to focus on Biden’s Senate vote for a resolution authorizing military force in Iraq, which George W. Bush used to justify his invasion. But his time leading Iraq policy during Barack Obama’s first term is more relevant to the present moment. Whoever wins the presidency in 2020 likely will confront a similar dilemma to the one Biden then faced: a lingering U.S. troop presence, a war-weary U.S. public, and an enemy that is down but not yet defeated.
This story begins in early 2009, after Obama swept into office promising to end the deeply unpopular war in Iraq. There were still 150,000 American soldiers in the country. The newly inaugurated president turned to his vice president and told him to bring the troops home. “We were sitting in the Oval Office one day and talking about [the troop presence], and Obama looked at Biden and said, ‘Joe, I think you should do this. We need sustained focus from the White House. You know Iraq better than anyone,’” Antony Blinken, Biden’s national security adviser, told me. “It was as simple as that.”
The gravity of that mission for a man who’d played a part in starting the war was apparent. Seventy-six senators, including 28 Democrats, had joined Biden in the fateful 2002 vote, but he bore special responsibility as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. (He claimed at the time that the authorization would avert war by pushing Saddam Hussein to let weapons inspectors into the country, and later argued that Bush had misused it.) In the years since the invasion, he’d traveled often to Iraq, building relationships with the war’s key players.
Biden threw himself into the mission. He chaired meetings and oversaw negotiations. By the end of 2011, the war was over, and the American troops had left. “He is the guy who oversaw the drawdown, in effect, on the political side, of U.S. forces from 150,000 to virtually zero,” Blinken told me.
Then it all went horribly wrong.
The departure of U.S. troops created a vacuum. The Iraqi government and security forces rotted under an authoritarian and sectarian prime minister. Al-Qaeda, still alive, morphed into ISIS, and seized 40 percent of Iraq in the summer of 2014. The extremist “caliphate” ISIS declared across Iraq and Syria—from the Iraqi city of Mosul—set the stage for a new era of regional upheaval and global terrorism. Soon U.S. troops were headed back to Iraq, where they remain today.
How much of all this should Biden shoulder? That question remains a subject of debate among those who worked at senior levels of the U.S. government with him. It centers on whether, in his push to finally right the wrongs of the 2003 invasion, he was blinded to the risks of the next great American blunder in the country.
To his backers, Biden is guided in his thinking on foreign policy by a moral streak grounded in hard-learned realism. He “knows that we can’t simply go in and flip a switch and fix everything” said Blinken, who worked with him in the Senate and was his national security adviser from 2009 to 2013. “But if we abdicate the responsibility to try in a smart way, with others, that’s not who we are, either. He starts out from a very idealistic position on most of these issues, but that idealism is tempered by experience and reality.”
At times, Biden has lived up to this portrayal. He was a strident voice against apartheid in South Africa and backed military intervention in the Balkans, NATO expansion, and strategic arms control. He also tried and failed to get Obama to considerably scale down the U.S. war in Afghanistan, arguing for a narrow focus on counterterrorism. Asked to comment for this story, TJ Ducklo, Biden’s campaign press secretary, wrote to me in an email that he “can look any leader in the eye on the global stage and command respect” and would take on issues from climate change to China and Russia. “Biden will repair our relationships with our allies and stand up to strongmen and thugs on the global stage and rally the world to meet these challenges,” Ducklo wrote.
Yet Biden’s critics charge that, more often than not, he gets it wrong. “He’s a man of integrity,” Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under both George W. Bush and Obama, wrote in his 2014 memoir. “Still, I think he’s been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
The rise of ISIS in Iraq added tens of thousands of civilian deaths to the already-staggering total from the Iraq War. When it stormed across the Syrian border in the summer of 2014, the Iraqi army, trained at great cost by the Americans, mostly deserted their bases while ISIS commandeered their American weapons and Humvees. Within days, ISIS was at the gates of Baghdad. Soon after this, I was the only passenger on a commercial flight to Baghdad from Istanbul. When I called a former Iraqi ambassador to tell him that the next morning I’d be in the Iraqi capital, he replied, “If it’s still there.” The sense of wasted progress, and of the futile loss of so many American and Iraqi lives, was palpable. It was the perfect time for an I told you so op-ed.
Ali Khedery, who served in Iraq as a U.S. official in a variety of roles for most of the long war, wrote one of these in The Washington Post that summer. He knew exactly whom he held responsible for the unfolding disaster: Iraq’s then–prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the U.S. officials, led by Biden, who had backed him.
Khedery had been an early supporter of Maliki. A Shiite Muslim hard-liner who’d returned from exile after the U.S. overthrow of Hussein’s Sunni-led regime, Maliki had been a surprise choice when, in 2006, U.S. officials were searching for a new prime minister to stabilize Iraq as it sank into civil war. Maliki eventually managed to crack down on the Shiite militias, and the U.S. military scored its signature success in the war following the 2007 troop surge, which Biden had opposed, by turning local Sunni fighters against al-Qaeda and weakening it significantly.
By the time Obama and Biden took office, however, some veteran U.S. officials, such as Khedery, were becoming concerned about Maliki. His rhetoric had taken on a more sectarian and conspiratorial tone. He began purging his political rivals, and dragged his feet on accommodating Sunni fighters and politicians.
“He had this paranoia,” Jeffrey Feltman, who headed the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, told me. “He didn’t believe in the rule of law. He saw enemies everywhere. He wanted to set up parallel structures. I think that was already clear by 2010, the way things were going.”
A parliamentary election in early 2010 seemed to offer a way out. A moderate party backed by Sunnis and Shia won a surprise, albeit slim, victory. Because of the tight margin, neither Maliki nor his opponent could form a government. Khedery thought Washington should put the considerable influence it still wielded behind Maliki’s challenger. Instead, he said, Biden backed Maliki, painting him as an effective leader who offered stability. “I just remember thinking, This is catastrophic. These guys were projecting things onto him that just weren’t there,” Khedery told me. “But they just wouldn’t let go of Maliki. And the rest is history.”
Maliki, a seasoned political operator, pieced together enough seats to resume his post as prime minister in late 2010. Brett McGurk, a former U.S. official with extensive experience negotiating the Iraqi political scene, told me that he doesn’t buy the narrative that Biden is responsible for Maliki. McGurk and others worked to find alternatives, he said, but none of Maliki’s rivals had a realistic chance of collecting more seats. And while they waited on the sidelines for U.S. officials to win them support, McGurk added, “Maliki worked his ass off from day one and just collected seat after seat,” tipping the balance when he secured the backing of Iraq’s influential Kurdish bloc.
“Basically, Maliki was the most resilient, the most effective politician, and the last guy left standing,” Blinken, who was also involved in the negotiations, told me.
Biden understood the need to get this right. Having the right prime minister was crucial to a successful U.S. disengagement from the country—and to resolving the question of whether America would leave behind a contingent of troops and advisers to keep the pressure on al-Qaeda and hold the Iraqi government together.
He encouraged debate among U.S. officials on Maliki—but made it clear internally where he stood. “There was a very strong contingent that said Maliki is that devil we know,” Feltman said, putting Biden in this camp. “And there was another strong contingent, which I was part of, that said that Maliki was showing increasingly Nixonian characteristics.”
Feltman traveled to Iraq with Biden during the standoff. “Biden went to see every Iraqi politician who mattered,” he told me. “Whatever he thought personally, he wasn’t trying to tip the scales. He was trying to get them to come together.”
But with so much at stake, should Biden have tipped the scales against Maliki?
Feltman, who retired from a senior post at the United Nations last year and is now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the U.S. should have been more forceful—if not by taking an expressly anti-Maliki stance, then at least by pushing the nonsectarian and democratic values it had spent so long working to instill in Iraq. “We should have been much more outspoken on those issues,” he said.
Robert Ford, who was deputy U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2008 to 2010, put his view more starkly. “The Iraqis were extremely aware that the Americans wanted Maliki and, oddly enough, they were also aware that the Iranians wanted Maliki,” he told me. “Once the decision is made—and that’s Biden—then the rest of the machine moves forward. The embassy, the CIA, the military—everybody is poised to move in that direction.”
Biden’s position, in part, stemmed from Washington’s urgent need to settle the question of whether U.S. troops and advisers would remain in Iraq after America’s formal withdrawal. “They just wanted it resolved one way or another, and they couldn’t negotiate, because there was no government,” Ford told me. “I think that was a domestic issue for the Obama administration.”
Once back in power, Maliki took a hard line in negotiations over a follow-on U.S. presence—and as Barbara Leaf, a former U.S. diplomat in Iraq, put it, he “started anticipating the end of U.S. troops and the end of people telling him what to do.” The Obama administration, meanwhile, insisted that any continued troop presence would require the Iraqi parliament’s approval, including that American soldiers be immune from Iraqi law—something many observers believed would be all but impossible to obtain. (U.S. troops returned to fight ISIS in 2014 without this approval.) “There was really nobody in key positions across Washington supporting anything other than what was an impossible solution,” McGurk told me.
By 2011, the U.S. military departure was total.
When the Arab Spring kicked off, in January 2011, the time and thought the Obama administration had been able to devote to Iraq quickly became a thing of the past.
Feltman recounted going to the White House “with stacks of folders, because you would go from a meeting about Yemen to a meeting about Bahrain to a meeting about Egypt to a meeting about Tunisia to a meeting about Libya to a meeting about Syria. It felt like we were dealing with crisis management from minute to minute to minute. Meeting to meeting to meeting. We would be in meetings on one country as something was changing in the country we were having a meeting on next.”
Amid this chaos, the Obama administration’s lack of a coherent, overarching vision on U.S. engagement became glaringly apparent.
As protests swelled in Cairo, the administration pushed the Egyptian military to oust America’s ally, Hosni Mubarak, only to look on two years later as the same military launched a counterrevolution and coup and established an even more brutal dictatorship. It mostly watched from afar as protesters were arrested in Bahrain, and later supported, half-heartedly, a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. The administration launched a military intervention that helped to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and then failed to rebuild any semblance of order as the country descended into civil war. Nowhere, though, was the problem as acute as in Syria—which would soon be tied dramatically to the unstable situation America had left behind in Iraq.
In August 2011, Obama declared that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should step down. America provided the opposition with political backing, wide-ranging civilian aid, and weapons—while at the same time making sure its support didn’t do too much to tip the balance. This policy, in effect, prolonged a civil war that has led to the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history. Blinken, who eventually became deputy secretary of state, said it was the U.S. experience not just in the Iraq War but in Libya that weighed on the Obama administration’s thinking. “I believe anyone who had any responsibility for our Syria policy has to look themselves in the mirror and say we failed—period,” he told me. “There is a need that we have not grappled with to distinguish between what clearly is, I think, a mistaken approach, which is large-scale, open-ended deployment of U.S. forces to the Middle East, as opposed to much more targeted, cabined, restrained efforts.”
“I often thought that Syrians were paying the price for American mistakes in Iraq,” said Ford, who was the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014 and is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale. “That’s the question for the Democratic Party: Do you want to effectively help other societies evolve democratically, or do you just want to posture? And if you want to be effective, then how?”
As the war worsened in Syria, al-Qaeda remnants moved across the Iraqi border and regrouped as ISIS, seizing territory and building strength. By late 2013, they were also gathering strength in their former strongholds in Iraq—but by the time Blinken and others convinced U.S. and Iraqi leaders that U.S. troops would need to return to Iraq to deal with the militants, it was too late. “We lost the race,” Blinken told me. “I think the criticism of us that we didn’t see the problem is unfair. It’s fair to say that we were not effective in dealing with it before the fact.”
What followed was a long and painful U.S. effort to make up for two mistakes in which Biden had a hand—the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as well as the ill-planned U.S. withdrawal.
And here—once again—Biden was an important player.
McGurk, the veteran U.S. official, told me that in the summer of 2014, with ISIS at the height of its strength, “there was just a pervasive sense in Washington that it may be impossible to turn this around.”
McGurk, who would become the presidential envoy for the fight against ISIS, told Obama it would take 100 days to create a new political situation in Iraq that could at least lay the groundwork for a serious anti-ISIS campaign. The first order of business: getting rid of Maliki and replacing him with someone both the Iraqis and the international community could rally behind. For help, McGurk turned to one of the U.S. politicians who knew him best. “Biden was quite involved [in Iraq] throughout this period. I probably spoke with him every few days, and he was calling Iraqi leaders constantly,” McGurk added.
With Maliki out of the way, local forces eventually rallied around the new government as a U.S.-led international military campaign began going after ISIS. McGurk told me Biden was “hands on” in helping to negotiate among the various players and supported the strategy known as “by, with, and through,” in which America left most of the fighting to local soldiers and used its special forces, intelligence, and air power as a force multiplier.
The campaign was flawed—support for local troops often came too slowly, and the heavy focus on air strikes resulted in an untold number of civilian casualties. Only in March 2019 did ISIS finally cede the last of its territory.
The “by, with, and through” strategy could nevertheless provide the seeds of a Democratic vision on future U.S. military engagements: the use of force well short of invasion, an emphasis on coalition-building and diplomacy, and an embrace of the idea that America still has a leading role on the global stage.
Blinken’s response had echoes of this when I asked for a summation of Biden’s thinking on foreign policy. Biden recognizes that the U.S. “shouldn’t be the world’s policeman,” he told me. “But the thing he believes equally is that the world doesn’t organize itself, and if we’re not doing it, either someone else will—and not in a way that advances our interests and values—or no one will, and then you get chaos. We can’t abdicate our responsibility to lead, because ultimately it’s in our self-interest.”
Democratic candidates are trying to grapple with that tension now. And the test case may again be in the Middle East, where ISIS remains a threat, U.S. troops remain deployed, and U.S. allies remain in a precarious state.
And if he wins the election, the question for Biden will be the same as it has been for almost two decades: Can he get it right?