Empire Politician

A project by Jeremy Scahill

A Half-Century of Joe Biden’s Stances on War, Militarism, and the CIA

1973-1980 An Era of Restraint

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.

1981-1984 Placing Conditions on Empire

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.

1985-1989 The Wavering Interventionist

By the end of the 1980s, Joe 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.

1991-1995 The Making of a Hawk

The early 1990s marked a return to Joe 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.

1996-1999 The Bombing Senator

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.

2000-2008 Warrior on Terror

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.

2009-2016 The Occasional Dissenter

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.


Editor-in-Chief: Betsy Reed. Authors: Jeremy Scahill, Murtaza Hussain. Project Editor: Ali Gharib. Creative Direction: Philipp Hubert. Product Design: Fei Liu, Soohee Cho. Photo Editing: Elise Swain. Motion Design: Jil Tai. Deputy Managing Editor: Rashmee Kumar. Copy Edit: Sunny Sone. Product Manager: LJ Ruell. Software Development: Stephanie Harris, Carl Licata, Raby Yuson. Video Production: Lauren Feeney, Travis Mannon, Paul Abowd, Mariam Dwedar. Additional Research: Jack D’Isidoro, W. Paul Smith.