Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
In post-9/11 world, Biden leads shift in US priorities
He aims to reorient land still reckoning with terror attack
WASHINGTON — Few Americans have been closer to the wars, legal debates and political discord that split America following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks than Joe Biden.
As a senior senator, Biden helped write legislation that shaped the U.S. response to the attacks. As vice president, he advised Barack Obama on the continued U.S. retaliation, including the 2011 raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.
Now as president, Biden is trying to turn the page and reorient U.S. priorities — an aspiration that led to the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last month.
Biden “is leading a fundamental shift in foreign policy and national security policy in moving toward a post9/11 posture,” said Tom Donilon, a longtime friend and adviser to the president. “It’s a fundamental reorientation of national security and also of domestic investment challenges.”
On Saturday, Biden visited all three sites of the Sept. 11 attacks — ground zero in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the early 2000s, he led debates over the military incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq and voted in support of both.
“We learned that unity is the one thing that must never break,” Biden said in a video released Friday. “Unity makes us who we are. America at its best. To me, that’s the central lesson of Sept. 11.”
But 20 years later, as he ordered the Afghanistan withdrawal, Biden said he saw no further benefit to America’s longest war.
“I’ve seen him evolve,” said California Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat who was the only member of Congress to vote against the Sept. 14, 2001 resolution that gave Bush broad authority to use military force against terrorists.
Biden, she said, now understands “that it may not work, the military-first approach, whereas before, his voting record would show that that was a priority.”
Biden’s team had hoped the full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August would be a triumph ahead of the Sept. 11 anniversary. Instead, its messy execution — more than 100 Americans and thousands of Afghan allies were left behind in the country, and 13 U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing by Islamic State-linked terrorists — has left Biden with the lowest approval rating of his presidency.
“The problem we have is that there’s no pretty way to do something like that,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat whose endorsement was crucial to Biden winning the presidency. “And the vast majority of the American people think that we came out of there in a very clumsy way. So I suspect that hindsight being 20⁄20, the president might do it differently if he had to do it all over again.
As vice president to Obama, whose own swift political rise was fueled by his opposition to the Iraq War, there were signs that Biden’s views were shifting. He opposed Obama’s surge of troops into Afghanistan, returning from a 2009 visit especially pessimistic about the U.S. nation-building endeavor, and advised caution ahead of the bin Laden raid but ultimately told Obama to trust his gut.
Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden aide and former senator, said that Biden’s skepticism of the U.S. capacity for nation-building began with the Vietnam war. He understood that “going in and trying to build a nation just wouldn’t work if you had corrupt leaders,” Kaufman said.
After 9/11, he said, Biden had “a lot of anger at the idea of just the horror of so many people getting killed that way.”
The aftershocks of the Afghanistan withdrawal are just one way the U.S. government still grapples with Sept. 11. The Pentagon’s budget ballooned far faster than the rate of inflation to more than $700 billion annually. The largest overhaul of the federal government since the years immediately following World War II brought together immigration, transportation and law enforcement agencies at the Department of Homeland Security, a conglomeration that is periodically criticized as unwieldy.
Biden has committed to continuing military strikes against foreign terrorists, including the offshoot of Islamic State that claimed credit for the bombing during the Afghanistan withdrawal. But he seeks to reframe American foreign policy objectives, shifting the national focus to major-nation competition and potential conflict with China and Russia.
Biden has long held that the country must be alert to a range of potential dangers, without focusing heavily on one adversary.
Just before Sept. 11, he expressed concern that the Bush administration’s emphasis on building a missile defense system left the country vulnerable to terrorism.
In an appearance at the National Press Club on Sept. 10, 2001, he warned against diverting “all that money to address the least likely threat while the real threats come into this country in the hold of a ship, or the belly of a plane, or are smuggled into a city in the middle of the night in a vial in a backpack.”