Biden’s Opposition to Contra Aid, Missile Defense Open to Criticism

By Kevin Mooney | August 26, 2008 | 6:36pm EDT

Vice presidential candidate Joe Biden on Tuesday thanked Delaware delegates for standing by their home-state senator and served up a mea culpa for his foibles and imperfections.

( – When he ran for president for the first time in 1987, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) spoke out against key foreign policy initiatives favored by the Republican Reagan administration, such as missile defense and military aid for anti-communist rebels.
Today, with Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader of the 1980s, back as president of Nicaragua, and with Poland now prepared to accept anti-missile interceptors, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate’s long-held views are sure to figure into the 2008 presidential contest, according to public policy analysts and political scientists.
Although Biden can be viewed as a “net positive” – acceptable to various factions of the Democratic Party and conversant in foreign policy – he adds little in the way of electoral appeal, John Sides, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, told
“This debate we have about the vice president and what he brings to the table is really just cocktail party conversation for Washington, D.C.,” he said. “He has a passion for foreign policy and by choosing him [Barack] Obama clearly wants his perspective at the table. But this pick will have very little bearing on average voters.”
However, Biden’s long liberal public record, particularly as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could provide the Republican contenders with an opening into potential points of vulnerability, Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation, suggested.
“This was not a pick to go to the moderate center and that’s instructive,” Darling said. “It was a pick to stay on the far left of the Democratic Party. He [Biden] has a record of being a staunch opponent of Contra aid in the 1980s and also a critic of missile defense.”
The nonpartisan National Journal ranked the presumed Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and his running mate Biden as number one and number three respectively under the category of “Most Liberal Senator in 2007.” 
“If Barack Obama gets a gold medal in liberalism, then Joe Biden gets a bronze,” Darling observed.
Darling said Biden’s opposition in the 1980s to aid for the anti-communist Contra rebels fighting against Ortega’s government in Nicaragua raises questions about “how tough” a Democratic administration would be in 2009 in opposing the spread of totalitarianism throughout Central and South America.
While most attention has been focused on Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, the re-emergence of Ortega in Nicaragua also deserves attention and consideration from the next administration, he said.
Despite his opposition to financial and military aid to the Contra rebels in the 1980s, Biden expressed willingness at the time to take a forceful stand against the strategic maneuverings of Ortega and Cuba’s Communist dictator Fidel Castro.
"[As president] I would say to [Nicaraguan leader] Daniel Ortega, 'If you attempt to change the geopolitical balance – that is, move troops across the border or set up a Soviet or Cuban base – we'll come down on you like a ton of bricks.' And I wouldn't define what that means,” he said in The Washington Post.
“I'd tell him that the Contras are his problem – we're out of there,” said Biden. “I'd support the Contadora process. I'd provide economic aid to democracies in the region. And I'd tell (Russian leader Mikhail) Gorbachev and (Cuban leader Fidel) Castro: 'Keep out.’”
Another area where Biden could push for significant policy changes is in the realm of missile defense, which has been pushed by the Bush administration.
The European Site Initiative, which calls for the installation of radar systems and anti-missile interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland, could “experience a significant slowdown,” Darling said. (See Related Story)
Biden voted against funding for President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – “Star Wars” – in September 1987, in the midst of his presidential run. He was quoted as being highly critical of the missile defense concept in a May 1987 Washington Post article.
“This immaculately conceived notion has obviously demonstrated a certain mystical appeal. Unfortunately, it has no possibility of practical implementation,” Biden said.
“It has confused our national debate ... increased and misallocated our defense budget ... diverted valuable research and development resources ... weakened the Atlantic alliance by raising doubts about America's commitment to the collective defense ... and pushed Soviet behavior the wrong way ... The president's continued adherence to it constitutes one of the most reckless and irresponsible acts in the history of modern statecraft,” he said.
Biden has remained critical of missile defense during the Bush years. In a briefing paper released in 2001, he cautioned against funding and emphasizing a new system that might not prove effective for many years, possibly several decades.
“A national missile defense could well cost hundreds of billions of dollars – and have only limited effectiveness,” he declared.
Sen. Biden and Iraq
With regard to Iraq, Biden offered a serious proposal that speaks to his foreign policy credentials, according to Michael O’Hanlon, a national security expert with the liberal Brookings Institution.
Biden’s proposal called for a political settlement in Iraq based on the principles of federalism.
Under this arrangement, power would be placed in the hands of regional governments throughout the country, while maintaining a role for the federal government that is particular and limited. This arrangement was separate and distinct from any approach that would partition the country, Biden explained in an editorial.
“I was a supporter myself,” O’Hanlon acknowledged in an e-mail message to “At the time, it seemed among our only remaining hopes. I thought Biden performed a service in proposing it and fleshing it out even if it turned out not to be necessary, at least not in the form originally expected.
“So I’d be careful about drawing conclusions for the future from his federalism proposal of the past,” O’Hanlon added.
Darling, meanwhile, anticipates that Biden’s approach to foreign policy will be very much weighted toward State Department diplomacy, which tends to be at odds with the preferences of the U.S. Defense Department in his estimation.

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