For pundits, what makes a politician strong on foreign policy? Apparently doing something for a long time matters more than honesty and good judgment—and it helps if the bad choices made are the same ones corporate media have cheered.
With Donald Trump’s recent assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, foreign policy has taken the spotlight in the presidential race. But despite Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s prominent role in leading the US into the disastrous Iraq War, and his recent stream of lies and equivocations about why he supported it and when he began to reverse his position, many pundits continue to uncritically paint Biden as “mature” or a “steady hand” on foreign policy.
It shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise: When Barack Obama tapped Biden as his running mate in 2008, pundits lauded the choice as “shoring up” Obama’s “weakness” on foreign policy. It was precisely because of Biden’s initial support for the Iraq War (which Obama had opposed) that media observers saw him as a serious foreign policy thinker, given that those same media observers likewise initially supported the war (FAIR.org, 8/27/08).
In recent days on the campaign trail, Biden has touted his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while Bernie Sanders has hammered Biden on his Iraq vote. (Sanders voted against the war authorization.) On NBC‘s Meet the Press (1/5/20), Chuck Todd contrasted Biden and Sanders, wondering if
voters are going to look at this on the Democratic side of the aisle and say, “Steady hand, Joe Biden,” or, how about the guy who was always against the interventions here? I don’t think we know how Democratic voters are going to react.
Perhaps not—though more Democratic voters are troubled by Biden’s past support for the Iraq War than reassured by it. But by uncritically labeling Biden—who changed both his position on the Iraq War and his story about that position—as a “steady hand” on foreign policy, Todd certainly boosts the narrative Biden is hoping for.
That same sort of uncritical framing of experience as strength came out on the PBS NewsHour (1/6/20), where the New York Times‘ Lisa Lerer opined:
But I do think this could strengthen the hand of two men that have been leading the polls for a while, that have been rising in the limited data we have since the holidays, which is Joe Biden, who can run very strongly on his experience in foreign policy, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s really staked out ground as the liberal messenger, sort of the anti-interventionist face of the party.
Later in the show, when Judy Woodruff asked David Brooks and Mark Shields which candidates benefit from the escalation with Iran, both named Biden; Shields argued that Biden “offers stability and maturity and knowledge.”
On MSNBC (1/3/20), Steve Kornacki asked Mieke Eoyang of the centrist think tank Third Way:
Is there an advantage, perhaps, for Joe Biden, just given his depth of experience in the United States Senate and as vice president, compared to, say, Pete Buttigieg, who’s only been the mayor of South Bend, which hasn’t necessarily dealt with these many foreign policy issues?
Teed up nicely, Eoyang took the shot for Biden:
He’s actually been very thoughtful about how American national security policy can target people who are bad while not trying to get us dragged into full-on wars. I don’t think there are other candidates who have that kind of experience. And so if the American electorate is really concerned about the president’s reckless moves, and are looking for someone who’s a steadying, grown-up hand on foreign policy, that’s Joe Biden. That’s, frankly, why Barack Obama picked him as his vice president.
How Iraq—arguably the biggest foreign policy issue of his career—fits into Biden’s thoughtfulness about not getting us “dragged into full-on wars” is far from clear.
The problem with the media coverage of Biden on foreign policy isn’t limited to thoughtless boosting; since at least July, Biden has been trying to rewrite his Iraq War history, with only sporadic and halfhearted media pushback. In the July debate, Biden was asked about his October 2002 vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq; he responded with an outlandish claim: “From the moment ‘shock and awe’ started, from that moment, I was opposed to the effort, and I was outspoken as much as anyone at all in the Congress.”
It was an obvious falsehood; Biden continued to defend his vote until more than three years later (Meet the Press, 11/27/05), when he first called it a “mistake”—and even then, not because the war itself was wrong, but because “we went too soon. We went without sufficient force. And we went without a plan.” (At that point, support for the war had tanked to the point where people who believed the Iraq War wasn’t worth it outnumbered those who thought it was by 2-to-1.)
But the media silence was remarkable. In one of the few post-debate references to the Iraq discussion, the Washington Post‘s Anne Applebaum (8/4/19) complained that Iraq was old news:
The glancing references to the Middle East mostly involved posturing about the past—specifically about how the candidates did or didn’t support the Iraq War more than 16 years ago.
Biden upped the ante on his tall tales in interviews in early September (e.g., RealClearPolitics, 9/11/19; NPR, 9/3/19), and brought the even more brazen revision to the national stage in the September debate, claiming he only voted for the war authorization “to allow inspectors to go in to determine whether or not anything was being done with chemical weapons or nuclear weapons.”
That finally prompted a few media factchecks (e.g., Washington Post, 9/9/19; Slate, 9/4/19) that challenged Biden’s blatant fabrication (though the Post generously suggested that Biden “would be on more solid ground if he simply called himself a war critic.”) In fact, Iraq had announced in September 2002 its willingness to allow in inspectors without conditions—almost a month before Biden cast his vote. Inspections began in November, and the inspectors were not pulled out until March, when Bush announced he was about to launch his war.
But Biden was also never interested in letting inspectors do their work; when former chief UN inspector Scott Ritter testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1998 about his work—telling the committee that the US was undermining inspections—Biden scoffed:
I think you and I believe, and many of us believe here, as long as Saddam’s at the helm, there is no reasonable prospect you or any other inspector is ever going to be able to guarantee that we have rooted out, root and branch, the entirety of Saddam’s program relative to weapons of mass destruction. And you and I both know, and all of us here really know, and it’s a thing we have to face, that the only way, the only way we’re going to get rid of Saddam Hussein, is we’re going to end up having to start it alone.
It’s difficult, of course, for corporate media to scrutinize Biden too carefully on the inspectors issue—with a long record of garbling the inspection story (Extra! Update, 10/02), of letting politicians lie about inspections (FAIR.org, 12/2/08) and of hiding behind the inspectors to excuse their own role in leading the country into war (Extra! Update, 10/06).
The occasional media factchecks fail to substantially shift the coverage, as media outlets seem to view factchecking as relieving journalists of the obligation to routinely test the veracity of sources’ statements (Extra!, 11–12/04). To the New York Times (1/6/19), Biden’s changing stories don’t get in the way of their judgment that he “is perhaps at his most fluent and comfortable when discussing international affairs”; near the very end, the paper allowed that Biden’s “remarks about when his opposition to the [Iraq] war began” were found by CNN to “be misleading.”
In a piece headlined “Biden Touts His Foreign Policy Credentials, but Faces Doubts,” the Washington Post (1/6/20) only meekly challenged Biden’s claim to have opposed the Iraq War “from the very moment” it started, noting that “the record suggests he supported it initially.” The article went on to take at face value Biden’s recent claim about Bush promising Biden he only wanted to get authority to send in inspectors, though labeling it an answer that “seemed to undercut his argument about how savvy he is on the international stage.”
The Post was not alone: the Associated Press (1/7/20) and LA Times (1/8/20) also repeated that recent Biden claim without challenge.
If journalists were consistently calling out Biden’s Iraq War lies—not to mention reminding viewers and readers that the war cost hundreds of thousands of human lives, aside from a financial cost in the trillions of dollars—their worn-out tropes about Biden’s foreign policy “steadiness” would be incredibly difficult to sustain.