Senator Biden’s Odd Notions of Right and Wrong

Joe Biden’s acceptance speech last night was well-delivered and powerful. The only part that raised my hackles was the Iraq section, with the thrice repeated “John McCain was wrong. Barack Obama was right.” At the time I thought it bothered me simply because I continue to support the decision to overthrow Saddam. But on inspecting the transcript today, I believe Biden’s argument also was intellectually dishonest.

The obvious problem with arguing that Obama’s judgment is better than McCain’s is the “surge.” McCain was a champion of the concept of a surge, long before the Bush Administration put it into action. even described the surge as “McCain’s idea” — that’s a bit hyperbolic, but a nice compliment nonetheless. Obama consistently opposed the surge, and as recently as a month ago he was still trying to explain away the apparent success (thus far) of the change in tactics. Last night Biden took his party’s best remaining option with regard to the surge, which was to ignore it.

But that’s not even what I mean by intellectually dishonest. Here’s the dishonesty:

Now, let me ask you: Whose judgment should we trust? Should we trust John McCain’s judgment when he said only three years ago, “Afghanistan — we don’t read about it anymore because it’s succeeded? Or should we trust Barack Obama, who more than a year ago called for sending two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan?

It’s hard to catch when listening to him say it, but I’ve added emphasis to the switcheroo that he hoped we all would miss. Three years ago there was, in fact, very little in the news about Afghanistan, because the Taliban was quiet. Two years later, under very different circumstances, Obama seized on a resurgence of violence in Afghanistan as protective cover to avoid being seen as a doctrinaire pacifist, while continuing to argue that America should promptly surrender in Iraq. (P.S.: McCain also favors sending additional troops to Afghanistan.)

The other sleight-of-hand in Biden’s speech was his statement that “Now, after six long years, the Bush administration and the Iraqi government are on the verge of setting a date to bring our troops home.” This is offered as evidence that Obama was right in supporting a timeline for withdrawal and McCain was wrong in opposing it.

“On the verge” may be an overstatement, but more to the point, the timeline being discussed is the end of 2011. The argument over a “timeline” began back when we were arguably losing the war, and Obama and others talked about a timeline of months, not years, regardless of the situation on the ground. On principle I think a timeline is still a bad idea, but if the current leaders of Iraq and the U.S. want to set a timeline for three-plus years down the road, so be it. There will be plenty of time to reconsider if necessary before any significant troop draw-down begins.

Biden also didn’t mention the original decision to authorize war in Iraq, which he… um… supported. Obama opposed the authorization, from his seat in the Illinois state senate, not quite six years ago.