Biden-Ryan Debate May Produce Foreign Policy Fireworks

By Patrick Goodenough | October 8, 2012 | 4:50am EDT

Vice President Joe Biden, seen here waving before ending a four-day visit to China in August 2011, has many years of foreign policy experience under his belt. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan/File)

( – This week’s vice-presidential debate gives the two campaigns their first opportunity to go head-to-head on foreign policy, an area in which Vice President Joe Biden has gained plenty of experience during a long Senate career.

At the same time, Biden’s propensity to make blunders in public comments will have the Obama-Biden campaign on edge as he takes on a far less experienced but confident Rep. Paul Ryan.

Thursday’s debate has taken on more importance following a generally acknowledged uninspiring performance by President Obama in the first presidential debate last week.

The televised encounter in Danville, Kentucky will deal with foreign and domestic issues, but it is the area of foreign affairs where Democrats will expect Biden to dominate.

While the economy and jobs continue to top voters’ concerns, foreign policy has elbowed its way onto the 2012 agenda, thanks to setbacks in Afghanistan, the return of Vladimir Putin and Obama’s troubled “reset” with Moscow, and in particular the fallout (from Libya to Egypt to Syria) of the so-called “Arab spring.”

As a long-serving member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its chairman in 2001-3 and 2007-8, Biden will be comfortable grappling with these issues. Yet those same years of experience provide his opponent with greater opportunities to recall positions taken by Biden that were controversial or were proved wrong.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus called Biden “a gifted orator” and “very good at rhetoric,” while also noting his tendency to “put his foot in his mouth in very public ways.”

Biden’s most memorable gaffes have been at home, but he has also made comments abroad that caused dismay.

Among these were his August 2011 remarks, to an audience in China, about that country’s “one child” population limitation policy.

“Your policy has been one which I fully understand – I’m not second-guessing – of one child per family,” Biden said. He made no reference to the policy’s coercive elements, a range of rights abuses including forced abortion and forced sterilization, noting only that it was “not sustainable” economically.

Following Republican criticism, Biden’s office issued a statement saying, “The Obama administration strongly opposes all aspects of China’s coercive birth limitation policies, including forced abortion and sterilization. The vice president believes such practices are repugnant.”

One of Obama’s early acts in the Oval Office was to restore funding to the U.N. Population Fund, which had lost some $240 million since 2002 over its links with China’s population control programs. Obama also rescinded the Reagan-era “Mexico City policy,” which prohibits U.S. aid to organizations that promote or perform abortions around the world.

Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan. speaks during a campaign event in Adel, Iowa on Sept. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Given that Biden and Ryan are both Roman Catholics, aspects of the administration’s foreign policy that touch on the church’s teachings on life and morality could provide riveting material for debate moderator, ABC News’ Martha Raddatz, if she chooses to tackle the subject.

Should Libya come up in the debate, Biden will likely point a finger at Mitt Romney, who drew fire for his early criticism of the administration’s response to anti-U.S. violence there and in Egypt on September 11. But the administration’s handling of the issue has more controversial by far, and Ryan will seek to capitalize, building on the harsh criticism from Capitol Hill.

On policy towards Afghanistan, the campaign has not seen significant differences between the camps on withdrawing troops by 2014, although Romney’s insistence that he will not negotiate with the Taliban contrasts sharply with the administration’s willingness to do just that, on certain conditions. The Taliban “is not our enemy,” Biden told a news magazine late last year.

Biden may echo Obama’s frequently repeated assertion about having responsibly brought the Iraq war to an end, but the vice-president’s own record on that conflict could provide openings to his opponent, too.

Biden, like Ryan, voted in 2002 in favor of military action against Saddam Hussein although he later turned against the war. Biden went on to oppose President Bush’s troop surge (as did Obama), which entailed the deployment of an additional 20,000 soldiers and Marines during the first half of 2007. That September Biden said on NBC TV that surge architect Gen. David Petraeus was “dead, flat wrong” for characterizing the strategy as a success. In fact the surge brought a dramatic and sustained decline in troop fatalities – a trend already evident when Biden spoke – and is widely viewed as a success.

The subject of policy towards Russia gives both vice-presidential candidates the opening to call out the other’s running mate – Romney for calling Russia our number one geopolitical foe,” and Obama for quietly offering the Kremlin “more flexibility” on missile defense after the election.

Although vice presidential debates are often downplayed, Benjamin Knoll, assistant professor of government at Centre College in Danville, Ky. – which will host the debate – said in a preview Sunday they provide an opportunity for livelier, more frank exchanges than those between presidential candidates.

“It has been observed that one of the primary roles of a vice presidential candidate is to be the ‘attack dog’ of the campaign, doing the heavy lifting with the mudslinging so that the presidential candidate can afford to stay a little more ‘above the fray,’” Knoll wrote.

“As a result, we may get a vice presidential debate that is a little more critical, frank, and realistic about the ideological differences between these tickets than we got in the first debate between Romney and Obama …”

A CNN/ORC International poll has found 55 percent of likely voter respondents expect Ryan to win the debate, compared to 39 percent for Biden.

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