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June 21, 2014

For Biden, Iraq crisis offers timely vindication

WASHINGTON — As Iraq edges toward chaos, Joe Biden is having a quiet I-told-you-so moment.

In 2006, Biden was a senator from Delaware gearing up for a presidential campaign when he proposed that Iraq be divided into three semi-independent regions for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Follow his plan, he said, and U.S. troops could be out by early 2008. Ignore it, he warned, and Iraq would devolve into sectarian conflict that could destabilize the whole region.

The Bush administration chose to ignore Biden. Now, eight years later, the vice president's doom-and-gloom prediction seems more than a little prescient.

Old sectarian tensions have erupted with a vengeance as Sunni militants seize entire cities and the United States faults the Shiite prime minister for shunning Iraq's minorities. While the White House isn't actively considering Biden's old plan, Mideast experts are openly questioning whether Iraq is marching toward an inevitable breakup along ethnic lines.

"Isn't this the divided Iraq that Joe Biden predicted eight years ago?" read an editorial this week in The Dallas Morning News.

If there's a measure of vindication for Biden, it's come at the right time.

After staking his claim to leadership on foreign policy, Biden has watched his record come under sometimes bruising criticism, including former Defense Secretary Bob Gates' insistence that he's has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy decision in four decades. And as he contemplates another presidential run, Biden's political clout has been eclipsed by that of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

So the trajectory in Iraq, and the public musings about Biden's being ahead of the curve, haven't gone unnoticed by his supporters — even if Biden is staying quiet about his 2006 plan to avoid upstaging President Barack Obama. Biden's office declined to comment.

"He's been right," said former Sen. Ted Kaufman, the longtime Biden aide and confidant who replaced him in the Senate. "But you'll be hard pressed to find an 'I did this' or 'I did that.' He's not an 'I told you so' kind of guy."

The Bush administration didn't pursue Biden's approach. When the Senate voted overwhelmingly in 2007 to back it, Obama, then a senator from Illinois, didn't vote. Once in office, Obama and Biden sought to secure an agreement with Iraq to keep some U.S. forces there, but didn't vehemently pursue it once those talks sputtered. Now as Sunnis fight Shiites in Iraq once again, Obama is imploring Iraq's prime minister both publicly and privately to find ways to bring other ethnic groups into the Shiite-led central government.

All the while, Biden has retained a key role in the U.S. response to Iraq, handling the portfolio during the troop drawdown and serving as Obama's primary liaison to Iraqi leaders. On a single day this week while traveling in Latin America, Biden discussed the crisis with Iraq's Shiite prime minister, its Sunni parliamentary speaker and its Kurdish regional president.

Other Biden predictions on Iraq have proved less prophetic. In 2010, as the U.S. was pulling its troops out, Biden professed optimism that Iraq was moving toward a stable, representative government. "This could be one of the great achievements of this administration," he said.

And even if the doomsday scenario Biden envisioned appears to be coming true, those who criticized his 2006 proposal insist it wasn't a good plan then and wouldn't have produced any better a result.

Retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who was chief executive to Gen. David Petraeus when he was the top commander in Iraq, said it took eight years of authoritarian governance under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for Iraqis to begin seriously wondering whether they'd be better off without a unified Iraqi state.

"Back in 2006, I didn't meet a single Iraqi who thought the Biden plan was a good idea," Mansoor said in an interview.

The plan originated when Biden found himself stuck on a runway in New York for nearly three hours, waiting to fly to Washington. On the same airplane was Leslie Gelb, a former New York Times reporter who became president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"For the three hours, we talked about nothing but this Iraq idea," Gelb said, and when they finally got to Washington, they presented it to Biden chief of staff Tony Blinken — now Obama's deputy foreign policy adviser.

Modeled after the 1995 Dayton Accords that produced a framework for peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the plan sought to establish an Iraqi state with three largely autonomous regions, one for each ethnic group. The central government in Baghdad would handle security and foreign affairs, plus distribute the nation's vast oil revenues among the ethnic groups — the glue that would hold the three regions together.

Pitched by Biden on editorial pages, Sunday talk shows and in public speeches, the plan became a cornerstone of Biden's second bid for the White House. He lost to Obama in the Democratic primary.

The White House didn't take the plan seriously, at least not at first.

William Inboden, who ran strategic planning at the National Security Council and now teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, said the Bush White House rejected Biden's plan out of hand until it showed up in a piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks. The White House took a closer look, Inboden said, but determined that the plan was impractical and potentially bloody, and it was eventually shelved.

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