“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.”
Never in U.S. history has the country had a president with the voluminous paper trail that followed Biden into the White House. Since the Vietnam War, Biden has been in public office for all but four of the past 49 years. 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, in great detail, 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. While many of Biden’s positions could be assessed by reviewing his sprawling voting record and public statements, evaluating some of his actions, particularly from the first few decades of his career, required poring over copies of the congressional record, speech transcripts, archival media reports, and declassified government documents, including from the CIA.
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 outweighs 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.
The picture that emerges is of a man who is dedicated to the U.S. as an empire.
While Biden seldom objects to U.S. military action on moral grounds, he has a long track record of confronting executive power grabs and efforts to usurp congressional authorities. Throughout his time in public office, he frequently intervened in debates over impending wars in an effort to impose constraints on the CIA, the military, and the White House, including, on occasion, when he was vice president. There are also several episodes from Biden’s career in which his objections to policy proposals failed to gain traction and he nonetheless supported those wars or operations once they commenced. On a handful of occasions, Biden has publicly retracted his initial opposition to wars or CIA operations, particularly when he perceives them as having been successful or in U.S. interests.
Biden stands out as one of the most passionate legislative defenders of congressional war powers in modern history, beginning with his co-sponsorship of the War Powers Act in 1973, his first year in the Senate. It was this issue — and what Biden denounced as President George H.W. Bush’s “monarchist” disdain for congressional authorities — that led him to oppose the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq. Soon after Bush declared victory in the Gulf, Biden determined that his opposition was a political mistake and began a transformation into a top hawk on Iraq. The shift would lead to transgressions of his early principles; Biden’s career is riddled with moments in which he supported military operations conducted in explicit violation of the War Powers Act, even as he continued to insist that the law mattered. In some cases, he would put up a fight in the runup to U.S. military action in an effort to pressure a president to abide by the law, while in others, he would gently suggest that following the law would be wise but not necessary. Whichever strategy he chose on particular military actions, under both Democrats and Republicans, the end result has been the same: Biden has lent his support to the majority of U.S. wars.
While Biden has seldom expressed concerns about the consequences of U.S. wars on non-American civilians, he often questions whether the potential human costs of the deployment of U.S. ground troops are worth the objectives. His late son Beau’s service, particularly his 2008 deployment to Iraq, has clearly weighed on Biden’s mind as he has articulated a rationale for various foreign interventions. “I don’t want him going,” Biden said in 2007, after he learned that his son’s unit would be sent to Iraq. “I don’t want him going, but I tell you what — I don’t want my grandson or my granddaughters going back in 15 years, and so how we leave [Iraq] makes a big difference.”
As the consummate insider of the foreign policy establishment, Biden has been inclined to tinker around the edges, offering caveats and constraints, rather than directly confronting and opposing the drumbeat for war — an approach that ultimately smoothed the path for wars to happen. Even in cases in which he passionately opposed U.S. military or CIA action, such as in President Ronald Reagan’s 1980s campaigns to aid the Contra death squads in Nicaragua and the right-wing military junta in El Salvador, Biden sought ways to tweak U.S. policy in return for his political or legislative support. In the case of the Contras, Biden offered to back Reagan’s support of the death squads with an agreement on what “the Contras could and couldn’t do with the money.” It is a pattern that hearkens back to Biden’s opposition to the war in Vietnam; his criticisms centered around denouncing strategic mistakes or foolish decision-making. He did not take that position based on the principles or moral values cited by anti-war protesters, whom Biden decried as “assholes.”
Biden entered the Senate at a crucial moment in modern U.S. history. President Richard Nixon would soon be forced to resign under threat of impeachment and removal. The CIA’s abuses, assassinations, and coups, among other scandals, had resulted in a number of congressional investigations, public hearings, and the first real efforts by Congress to impose any sort of limitations or restrictions on the agency’s activities.
In his early Senate career, Biden lambasted the CIA for its abuses, including domestic spying. As an original member of the newly formed Senate Intelligence Committee, Biden found himself in a powerful position to shape the future direction and leadership of the CIA. The cases of two nominees for CIA director early in Biden’s career offer a glimpse into the development of his views on secrecy and leakers.
Democratic President Jimmy Carter had campaigned on a pledge to rein in the CIA, prosecute wrongdoing by its officers and agents, and to cut its budget. He nominated Ted Sorensen, a former aide to President John F. Kennedy and a CIA outsider, to serve as director. Initially, Biden enthusiastically backed the pick, but when he discovered that Sorensen had written an affidavit in support of Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Biden joined with Republicans to kill the nomination. In his unfiled affidavit, Sorensen described a culture of widespread leaking in Washington, explaining that many officials had leaked far more sensitive documents than Ellsberg with no consequences. Biden, noting that Sorensen had also admitted that he took home government documents for a biography he was writing about Kennedy, suggested that perhaps Sorensen himself should be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Carter abandoned the confirmation process, and Sorensen bitterly withdrew his nomination, later blaming Biden for “political hypocrisy.”
Biden also tried to kill the nomination of Reagan’s CIA director, William Casey, in part because of concerns that Casey would return the U.S. to the lawless days of Nixon. Those fears were largely proved correct throughout Casey’s tenure, as the Iran-Contra scandal unfolded and the dirty wars in Central America created killing fields in multiple nations. Yet Biden, who ultimately voted to confirm Casey, both publicly and secretly aided Casey’s CIA in its war against leakers and whistleblowers. And he helped the CIA sell fraudulent U.S. wars, such as the 1983 invasion of Grenada, to other lawmakers.
By the time President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, Biden was entrenched in Washington as an influential senator with an ability to dramatically influence both domestic and foreign policy. Throughout the 1990s, he pushed through harsh and punitive policies on crime, while spearheading sweeping surveillance legislation that would form the basis for the Patriot Act after 9/11.
By the time President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, Biden was entrenched in Washington as an influential senator.
In the aftermath of his “mistake” in opposing the Gulf War, Biden shifted foreign policy gears and spent the entirety of Clinton’s two terms in office advocating for the constant bombing of Iraq, promoting regime change as official policy, and using economic sanctions to “cripple” the country.
Biden also staked out the most hawkish position on the conflict in Yugoslavia, ultimately encouraging Clinton to wage full-scale war against Serbia. While Biden frequently denounced the genocidal pogrom against Bosnian Muslims and passionately advocated for their defense, he also made clear that his motivation centered around U.S. interests and NATO’s credibility. “Who thinks NATO is going to be around five years from now, sustained by public opinion and a hundred billion dollars’ worth of U.S. funds, if NATO can’t play any role in bringing peace in this area of the world, or at least stopping the extent of the aggression?” Biden asked in 1993, as he agitated for the U.S. and Europe to wage war.
By 1999, with the Kosovo War looming, Biden went so far as to suggest that “we should have a Japanese-German-style occupation of” Serbia. His comments presaged an era post-9/11 when the U.S. would attempt such occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Biden, who proudly boasted of his record on the War Powers Act, took a different position on a war he supported: “Arguably, from the constitutional standpoint, [Clinton] doesn’t need it,” he said, adding that it would be preferable for Clinton to get congressional approval.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Biden’s decadeslong campaign for checks on executive power could have become a powerful counterweight to the Bush administration’s overreach. Instead, he merely offered an anemic critique and rote suggestion. Biden would emerge, in the early stages of the “war on terror,” as a leading legislative force supporting the most far-reaching aspirations of the Bush-Cheney White House. He was instrumental in the rushed passage of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the blank check given to the president by Congress for a borderless global war. He also boasted of his work in strengthening the Patriot Act and was an early supporter of sending people to Guantánamo Bay prison as well as denying some of them prisoner-of-war status.
Biden was a key figure, during his tenure as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, in selling the Iraq War and calling for regime change. After the war proved a disaster and the fraudulent claims about weapons of mass destruction were thoroughly debunked, Biden sought to blame his support of the war on a private conversation he had with President George W. Bush. Despite having voted for and promoted the war cause, Biden even claimed that he did not back it: “Immediately, the moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment,” he said. It was a typical move for a politician with a record of staking out muddled positions that can be recast with the benefit of hindsight.
As vice president under President Barack Obama, 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. He has said that he sees the role of vice president as speaking straight to the president and encouraging robust debate, particularly over such consequential policies as the decision to use military force.
Now, after decades in the Senate and two terms as vice president — effectively a lifelong campaign for the White House — Biden is the commander in chief, and the final calls will ultimately be his to make. After a half-century of work on the balance of power and congressional authorities, Biden finds himself as a president with a rabidly and evenly divided Senate. His presidency will undoubtedly present him with decisions to make on which branch of government prevails in a dispute, particularly when it comes to war powers.
His presidency will also exist in a world shaped by policies and dynamics that Biden himself helped establish. He recently announced that he intends to abide by the agreement reached between the Trump administration and the Taliban to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Instead of keeping President Donald Trump’s May 1 withdrawal date, though, Biden said it will happen by the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. In his speech announcing his intention to end the U.S.’s longest war, Biden portrayed the conflict’s history as having begun on September 11, 2001. But during the Carter and Reagan administrations, decades before 9/11, Biden supported U.S. policies that helped incubate both the rise of Al Qaeda as well as the eventual U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. In 1981, he voted in favor of opening the spigot of U.S. aid to Pakistan to use in supporting insurgents fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. When Clinton conducted the first U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan in 1998, in what was a precursor to the policies of the war on terror, Biden supported it.
His presidency will exist in a world shaped by policies and dynamics that Biden himself helped establish.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Biden voted with all but one of his colleagues in Congress in favor of overt war. In 2009, as vice president, he argued in favor of using the CIA, special operations forces, and drone strikes instead of the large-scale troop surge favored by other administration members. In the end, Obama did both. In the closing weeks of the 2012 presidential election, Biden promised to end the war. “We are leaving,” he said. “We are leaving in 2014. Period.” Despite this and other pledges during their eight years in office, Biden and Obama passed the war on to Trump.
Now, as commander in chief, Biden is saying that this time, the end is really at hand, albeit with some caveats. While the timing of this shift in U.S. policy on Afghanistan is a direct result of decisions made by the Trump administration, and not Biden, the current plan as it has been described is similar to what Biden advocated for during the first year of his vice presidency in 2009. The administration and military leaders have indicated that Biden will keep CIA and special operations teams in the region to strike as necessary. How many of these forces will discreetly remain inside Afghanistan is unclear, as is the fate of the roughly 16,000 private contractors on the ground. The policy leaves open the option for U.S. forces to redeploy to Afghanistan as Obama and Biden did in Iraq in 2014 to fight the Islamic State after having “ended” the war in 2011.
As with many foreign policy issues and U.S. wars, studying Biden’s long political history offers a revelatory tour through the excesses, crimes, and contradictions inherent in U.S. empire-building. To produce this project — which consists of 56 entries describing episodes in which Biden played a pivotal role — we reviewed scores of U.S. military operations and CIA activities with a focus on major historical events such as wars, invasions, regime-change campaigns, airstrikes, torture, and abuse of power. It also includes some examination of Biden’s role in domestic surveillance policies and civil liberties. This is not intended as a sweeping analysis of Biden’s entire foreign policy doctrine; rather, it is centered around a narrower set of issues related to war powers, the military, and CIA. When it comes to Biden’s two terms as vice president, we focused only on issues in which Biden held a dissenting view, such as the debates around a troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009 and the U.S. war against Libya in 2011, or in which Biden was a significant voice in the administration on an issue, such as with the cases of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks. This is also not a project focused on Biden’s actions as president but rather a historical analysis of his career leading up to his presidency.
While previous actions and policies help inform our understanding of politicians, this history does not exist in a vacuum separated from the politics and realities of the present. Throughout his career, Biden has shown an ability to adapt and evolve and, at times, to abandon what he claimed to be deeply held principles. Undoubtedly, Biden entered office with an image of his place in history and the opportunities the presidency offers him to shape or alter his legacy and the country’s future. He also seems keenly aware that his ascent to the presidency required a complicated mixture of internal Democratic Party politics, social justice uprisings, and the chaos of the Trump era. To what extent Biden will defer to the demands presented by the times in which we live or the voices of others in his administration, rather than his own historical commitments, is a question only the next chapter of history will be able to answer.
We welcome reader feedback and suggestions for coverage of wars and conflicts from the past 50 years that Joe Biden played a significant role in. To submit comments, please send us an email.