In recent weeks, Joe Biden has emerged as one of the loudest voices within the Obama administration arguing against escalating of the war in Afghanistan. Were President Obama not seriously considering committing 40,000 more American troops to the conflict, this would hardly be news. However, in light of the president’s very public deliberations on the way forward, and Biden’s firmly staked position, the suggestion has been made that if the president declines to follow his advice, Joe Biden should resign as Vice President of the United States.
The debate began in earnest two days ago, when Arianna Huffington posted an op-ed on her Web site calling on Biden to step down if President Obama ignores his advice and acquiesces to General Stanley McChrystal’s request for a troop increase. Her reasoning is simple: It has been widely reported that Biden strongly opposes a troop increase believing that a focus on Afghanistan endangers American national security interests by distracting from the dangers posed by Al Qaeda’s increasing presence in Pakistan (which unlike Afghanistan has a nuclear arsenal). If Biden’s opinion is ignored, she argues, he therefore has a moral responsibility to leave the administration and become its leading critic on Afghanistan policy, positioning himself as the de facto leader of a newly energized national movement “… to wind down this disastrous war and focus on the real dangers in Pakistan.”
While I believe that Huffington is right in opposing military escalation in Afghanistan, her call for Biden’s resignation in the event of a troop increase seems deeply misguided, for several reasons.
Foremost among these is the simple fact of Biden’s willingness to oppose vocally a military escalation, from his position within the administration. His opposition is already being registered at the highest levels of decision-making; to call on an administration’s leading voice of reason to walk away from his seat on the war council is self-defeating. Huffington seems to think that Biden’s resignation would so profoundly and immediately change the national conversation on Afghanistan that Obama would be prevented from escalating. In this her logic is flawed.
It is impossible to deny that a vice presidential resignation would be a massive shock to the country, likely of a high enough voltage to resuscitate the necessary debate about our Afghanistan policy. However, once Obama publicly announces an increase in troops (Huffington’s condition for Biden’s resignation), it would be impossible for him to change course, even in the face of significant public opposition. To waffle on such a crucial issue would undermine his credibility as commander-in-chief and deeply damage his ability to have his military decisions taken seriously by the public, his generals and the world. Assuming that Biden could not cause Obama to change his position, there is little chance that Congress would subsequently reject Obama’s proposal; the Republican caucus has already promised support for a troop increase and a significant number of Democrats would be unwilling to contradict their President. As such, it seems impossible that Biden’s principled stand (or standing down), would have much of a concrete impact on troop levels.
Moreover, Biden’s resignation could severely limit Obama’s ability to modify his initial position. If private citizen Biden were to crusade against President Obama, the latter would have little choice but to harden his attitudes toward the war in the face of Biden’s opposition. Members of the Democratic Party would be forced to choose a side, fracturing whatever fragile consensus exists within the party and imperiling the rest of Obama’s agenda. A political civil war of the type that would be provoked by a Biden resignation would doom the chances of passing health care reform this year, as the Democrats and nation at large descend into what would surely be a state of chaos.
If Biden’s resignation could definitively prevent an escalation in Afghanistan, none of the above would matter. A seat at the negotiating table is less valuable than the ability to dictate the outcome, and political considerations should always be secondary to tremendous questions of our national security interests and military commitments. But given that Biden’s leaving the administration would likely prove insufficient to block a decision by Obama to increase troop levels, his resignation would do much more harm than good. If anything, Biden’s current opposition, even if it is ultimately ignored, has already proved how essential it is that his voice be heard from the platform of the vice presidency.
Huffington concludes her piece with a telling comment: “Biden loves drama. And what could more dramatic than resigning the vice presidency on principle? And what principle could be more honorable than refusing to go along with a policy of unnecessarily risking American blood and treasure — and America’s national security? Now that would be a Whisky Tango Foxtrot moment for the McChrystal crowd — one that would be a lot more significant than some lame, after-the-fact apology delivered in a too-late-to-matter book.” She is correct: Joe Biden resigning the vice presidency would be dramatic. However, only in the world of the 24-hour news cycle is great drama confused with great leadership. As entertaining as a Biden resignation and the ensuing chaos might prove to be, Biden has shown through his dissent that he belongs exactly where he is: firmly planted on the deck of the ship of state. Even if he is not steering, it is far better to have him shouting directions to the captain over the howling gale of misdirection and media commentary than jumping overboard in a doomed attempt to set the ship on a better course by taking its rudder in his teeth.
Ilan ben-Meir is a sophomore in Trumbull College.