“I’m not going to change,” Joe Biden said in his 2008 vice presidential debate with Sarah Palin. “I have 35 years in public office. People can judge who I am. I haven’t changed in that time.”
Biden has been in public office for all but four of the past 49 years. Never in U.S. history has the country had a president with the voluminous paper trail that followed Biden into the White House. He has cast thousands of votes, sponsored or co-sponsored hundreds of bills, and taken public positions on virtually every possible foreign and domestic policy issue. He has served long enough to make it possible to chart the evolution of his positions on a range of issues, to analyze his contradictions, and to draw conclusions about how he sees the role of Congress and the executive branch on the most sensitive and consequential decisions made by the government — decisions about war and organized state violence.
The Intercept conducted an exhaustive analysis of Biden’s political career with a focus on his positions on dozens of U.S. wars and military campaigns, CIA covert actions, and abuses of power; his views on whistleblowers and leakers; and his shifting stance on the often contentious relationship between the executive and legislative branches over war powers.
The picture that emerges is of a man who is dedicated to the U.S. as an empire, who believes that preserving U.S. national interests and “prestige” on the global stage outweigh considerations of morality or even at times the deaths of innocent people. It also reveals a politician who consistently claims to hold bedrock principles but who often strays from those positions in support of a partisan agenda or because he wants a policy adopted regardless of the hypocrisy or contradictions. Nowhere is this dynamic more pronounced than on U.S. wars.
Joe Biden entered the Senate in 1973 opposing the Vietnam War on strategic, not moral, grounds. He was one of the co-sponsors of the War Powers Act and was a founding member of the Senate Intelligence Committee empowered to oversee the CIA. But when President Jimmy Carter nominated an outsider to run the CIA, Biden sided with the security state over his principles.
In the early 1980s, Joe Biden was a fierce critic of excesses in U.S. foreign and security policies, but he also compromised with the architects of these policies. While he sought to impose conditions on U.S. support for right-wing forces in Central America, he showed flashes of sympathy for a more militaristic foreign policy and less accountable security state. Biden also began what would become a career-spanning defense of Israeli militarism.
By the end of the 1980s, Biden had thrown his support behind a U.S. attempt to assassinate Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as well as the invasions of Grenada and Panama. But he also pushed for military restraint in his first presidential run. In the Iran-Contra affair, Biden displayed a willingness to take the purveyors of clandestine dark arts at their word.
The early 1990s marked a return to Biden’s war powers principles, leading him initially to oppose the first Gulf War. But then he flipped positions and became a leading hawk on Iraq. Biden was among the most aggressive proponents of U.S. militarism in the former Yugoslavia, while arguing that intervening to reverse a right-wing coup in Haiti wasn’t in the U.S. interest. These stances came to define the next decade- and- a- half of his work in Washington.
As the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden pushed aggressive policies against Iraq, Cuba, and foreign terror threats. His skepticism about security state overreach diminished as he backed sweeping surveillance laws and the militarization of the so-called war on drugs. He also presaged the policies of the post-9/11 era as he pushed a preemptive war against Serbia and called for a military occupation.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Joe Biden served as one of the Bush-Cheney administration’s key allies in greenlighting the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He also claimed credit for drafting significant parts of the Patriot Act. Biden was an early supporter of detaining people at Guantánamo Bay prison, but after the Abu Ghraib torture was exposed, he would help lead the charge to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld while denouncing CIA “kidnapping” and secret prisons.
As vice president, Joe Biden occasionally offered a dissenting voice. He was skeptical of the plans to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, opposed the regime-change war in Libya, and argued against a troop surge in Afghanistan. But as history unfolded, Biden would praise both the bin Laden raid and the war in Libya.