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Biden’s Ukraine role risks tarring political future

Vice-President Joe Biden walks through the Cerro Castillo palace gardens on his way to having lunch with Chile’s newly sworn-in President Michelle Bachelet, in Viña del Mar, Chile, yesterday.
By Matt Spetalnick
Reuters (*)

Hopes to run for US president in 2016

WASHINGTON — As the bloodiest day of anti-government protests in Ukraine was drawing to a close last month, US Vice-President Joe Biden called president Viktor Yanukovich for the second time in three days and delivered a blunt message.

Pull back your security forces now and accept a European-brokered settlement or you will be held accountable, Biden warned the pro-Russian leader. “It WILL catch up with you.”

Initially defiant, Yanukovich sounded subdued by the end of the hour-long call, according to a senior US official knowledgeable of the conversation. Within hours, Yanukovich signed a deal with the opposition and then fled to Russia.

Whether Biden’s 11th-hour warning was decisive or merely served in a supporting role to European Union negotiators, his intensive telephone diplomacy illustrates the kind of troubleshooting that has become integral to his portfolio in US President Barack Obama’s second term. However, given the United States’ limited options in the Ukraine crisis after Russia seized the Crimea peninsula, Biden’s role as a loyal adviser on foreign policy poses risks to his political future if he runs for president in 2016.

Biden would be unable to separate himself from the administration’s record on Ukraine if the West comes out on the losing end of its stand-off with Moscow.

“He’s tied to Ukraine policy, no matter how it comes out,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. “So he could be vulnerable.”

Republican critics can also be expected to keep the heat on the administration — and by extension, Biden — for what they say is a foreign policy that has exposed US weakness in issues like the Syrian civil war, Iran nuclear talks, Afghanistan and the growing military challenge from China.

Possible 2016 Democratic rival Hillary Clinton decided to stake out a hawkish stance on Russian President Vladimir Putin last week. In condemning Moscow’s Crimea incursion, she invoked Adolf Hitler’s actions leading up to World War II.

Though Clinton said she was not making a direct comparison between the two men, the former secretary of state’s line of attack was at odds with the White House’s more cautious approach and made her look tough on Russia as she considers a possible presidential campaign.

Diplomacy with power

Biden made a name for himself early in his Senate career as a centrist Democrat calling on his party to be more willing to back diplomacy with power. But since taking office, Biden, mindful of the country’s war-weariness, has often been in sync with Obama’s reluctance to commit to new armed entanglements.

Former Defence Secretary Bob Gates put Biden on the spot when he wrote in his memoir released in January that the vice-president, over the past four decades, had been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security — areas long viewed as his strengths.

Republican Senator John McCain said Gates’ critique had merit, telling CNN that Biden “has been wrong on a lot of these issues.” McCain has since blamed the administration’s “feckless” foreign policy for inviting the Ukraine crisis.

As Biden eyes a possible White House bid, another unpopular war could still weigh on his decision. Though he spearheaded administration policy that brought about the US withdrawal from Iraq, he failed to secure a deal to keep a modest troop presence there.

Even years later, an issue that would likely resurface in a presidential campaign is an often-ridiculed proposal he made as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that essentially advocated splitting Iraq in three along sectarian lines.

Biden could also have to answer questions about the advice he famously gave to Obama in 2011 not to go ahead with the raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. The vice-president has admitted he thought the special forces operation was too risky.

The ability to act as outspoken contrarian in the inner circle was one of Obama’s chief reasons for picking Biden. He also brought vast congressional experience in foreign policy and personal relationships with a who’s who of world leaders.

Biden’s old-school, back-slapping style — and occasional verbal gaffes — makes him the opposite of the cool, deliberative Obama. But what he won from Obama was a promise to allow him to be the last voice in the room, associates say.

After five years, Biden’s role appears to be that of tending to some of Obama’s toughest problems — going to “places that he doesn’t want to go,” as the vice-president told a Munich security conference only half-jokingly in 2013.

But some supporters privately wonder whether, as he gets closer to a decision on 2016, he may want to start easing himself out of Obama’s shadow, especially on foreign policy.

For now, Biden’s fortunes could hinge to an extent on what happens with Ukraine and its former Cold War master, Russia.

It was Biden, in fact, who was credited with coining the phrase “push the reset button,” the administration’s early — and since abandoned — approach to Russia.

Republican critics point to Crimea as final proof that the “reset” was naïve, and they can be expected to try to use it as ammunition against Democrats in this year’s mid-term elections and against Biden if he seeks the presidency two years later.

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