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Joe Biden’s predictions ‘come true’ about Iraq

Filed on June 22, 2014

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

The Bush administration chose to ignore it. 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 militants seize entire cities and the United States faults the 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 violently towards 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 Defence 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 US forces there, but didn’t vehemently pursue it once those talks sputtered. Now as Sunnis fight Shias 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 central government.

All the while, Biden has retained a key role in the US 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 travelling in Latin America, Biden discussed the crisis with Iraq’s prime minister, its parliamentary Sunni speaker and its Kurdish regional president.

Other Biden predictions on Iraq have proven less prophetic. In 2010, as the US was pulling its troops out, Biden professed optimism that Iraq was moving towards 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 criticised 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.

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.

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