Michael Crowley follows Joe Biden's transformation on Afghan military policy and shows "how a leading liberal hawk found realism in the Hindu Kush."
During the 1990s, Joe Biden emerged as one of the Democratic Party's chief foreign policy spokesmen, a strong proponent of the idea that U.S. military power could be used unapologetically for altruistic purposes. He was a strong advocate for military intervention in the Balkans, for instance, and, despite some doubts, he supported the 2002 resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq and even defended the wisdom of the invasion for several years. "There are some really bright guys and women in my party who underestimate the transformative capability of military power, when coupled with a rational policy that is both preventative and nation-building in nature," Biden told The New Yorker in March of 2005. But the transformative power of military-backed nation-building is just what Biden is now coming to doubt in Afghanistan.
People familiar with Biden's shift in thinking say it has many roots. But none is more apparent or vivid than his disillusionment with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. Soon after Karzai took office in December 2001, Biden traveled to Kabul and, over lunch on two successive days, clicked with the new leader. "They took to each other very well," says a former Biden aide. Impressed, Biden argued that Karzai deserved America's full support, even as Bush officials questioned whether the Afghan was capable of establishing a strong central government.
Within a couple of years, however, Biden was criticizing Karzai's candor and leadership. Nothing shook his faith quite as much as what you might call the Karzai dinners. The first occurred in February 2008, during a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan that Biden took with fellow senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel. Dining on platters of rice and lamb at the heavily fortified presidential palace in Kabul, Biden and his colleagues grilled Karzai about reports of corruption and the growing opium trade in the country, which the president disingenuously denied. An increasingly impatient Biden challenged Karzai's assertions until he lost his temper. Biden finally stood up and threw down his napkin, declaring, "This meeting is over," before he marched out of the room with Hagel and Kerry. It was a similar story nearly a year later. As Obama prepared to assume the presidency in January, he dispatched Biden on a regional fact-finding trip. Again Biden dined with Karzai, and, again, the meeting was contentious. Reiterating his prior complaints about corruption, Biden warned Karzai that the Bush administration's kid-glove treatment was over; the new team would demand more of him.