You’ve probably heard politicians with muscular and aggressive foreign-policy views called "hawks" and those with timid or hesitant views called "doves." As a third avian category, I would add the "ostriches," who stick their heads in the sand to ignore gathering threats. Most politicians belong to one of these flocks. But not Joe Biden.
Even by the low standards of a politician, Joe Biden has changed positions dramatically and frequently. Elected to the Senate in 1972, in his own words, "as a 29-year-old kid against the war in Vietnam," he expressed dovish views for the last two decades of the Cold War. But after the Persian Gulf War and well into the Iraq War, he was reborn as an avenging Wilsonian hawk. After setbacks in Iraq, however, he reverted to his dovish past. Along the way, he has also exhibited ostrich-like tendencies, simply sticking his head in the sand about threats, especially those coming from Russia and China. Biden’s erratic, inconsistent views seem hard to square with a coherent, integrated worldview. "I wish I could say Biden was a student of history," said one senior Obama administration official during the debates about the Afghanistan surge, but "that’s not Biden. He has gut instincts." Unfortunately, these instincts tend to line up with Democratic political trends, not America’s national interest.
Having campaigned against the Vietnam War, a young Biden reflected his party’s Blame America First mindset. As North Vietnamese forces advanced on Saigon in April 1975, Biden voted against a bill to give last-minute aid to South Vietnam and to authorize the use of American troops to evacuate our citizens. In an eerie preview of his misjudgments about Afghanistan 46 years later, Biden concluded that "the time has come—perhaps it is past—for a swift, uneventful evacuation of all Americans from South Vietnam before the situation develops wherein it would take large numbers of American troops to bring out our citizens." Biden understood that an evacuation was necessary, but he opposed the military measures necessary to conduct a safe evacuation. The Senate passed the bill but it failed in the House, and Saigon fell a few days later. American helicopters scrambled to evacuate our embassy. The desperate scenes on a rooftop in Saigon would only be surpassed by those at an airport in Kabul.
That same month, Biden also foreshadowed his lifelong hostility to defense spending. He proposed to slash more than 10 percent from the Ford administration’s defense budget, dangerous under any circumstances but especially during a foreign-policy crisis. The amendment was defeated easily, with even liberal stalwarts like Walter Mondale opposing it. "The Congress decided against the war in Vietnam," Mondale explained. "We did not vote to become an isolationist country." But Biden did, complaining that defense spending took priority over social spending and that we shouldn’t base the defense budget on "everything our adversary can do"—which is of course exactly how we should craft the defense budget.
For the rest of the Cold War, Biden took conventional dovish positions. He opposed higher defense spending, new missiles, and advanced weapons, fretting that we would gain the upper hand against Soviet Russia. By the same flawed logic, he opposed missile-defense systems. Biden also championed deeply flawed arms-control agreements such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of 1979, which died politically with Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan that year, but which Biden tried to resuscitate for years. Biden opposed the deployment of medium-range missiles to Europe in the 1980s and called for a nuclear freeze, which would’ve only frozen Russia’s advantage in place. He detested the Somoza government in Nicaragua and opposed Reagan’s funding of the Contra rebels in the 1980s, just as he opposed Reagan’s backing of the pro-American government of El Salvador against a Marxist insurgency. At every turn, Biden hewed to the Democratic mainstream of Blame America First policies.
Biden’s vote against the Persian Gulf War concluded his first flight as a dove. Though it’s largely forgotten now, the vote to authorize military force to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was very close, 52–47, with a few Democrats joining nearly all Republicans. Biden asked, "What vital interests of the United States of America justifies sending young Americans to their death in the sands of the Arabian Peninsula?" The way Biden phrased the question is telling. Kuwait isn’t really on the Arabian Peninsula, so Biden apparently presupposed Saddam might not stop there but rather invade more neighboring countries. That threat was a centerpiece of the case for war, as was the threat to the region’s oil supply, on which our prosperity depended more in those days. Yet Biden seemed indifferent, condemning "a precipitous war that will divide and weaken our nation." Biden was wrong as usual: after a punishing six-week air campaign, our troops destroyed what was then the fourth-largest army in the world in four days.
After the war, Biden shed the soft white down of a dove for the razor talons of a hawk. Perhaps he had recognized the error of his ways. More likely, he recognized that Bill Clinton had at least claimed to support the war and had chosen Al Gore as his running mate, one of the few Democratic senators to vote for the war. In any event, Biden espoused bellicose interventionist views for the next decade.
Biden began his transformation by overcompensating for his misjudgment on Iraq. He acknowledged his error, but that wasn’t enough. He criticized President George H. W. Bush for not removing Saddam from power altogether, which he called a "fundamental mistake." Biden also affirmed that Iraq had a program for weapons of mass destruction, stating in one Senate hearing that inspections and sanctions couldn’t stop the program—only "taking Saddam down" could. These words later came back to haunt him in the 2008 and 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.
Next, Biden was particularly belligerent about the Balkan Wars in the 1990s. He bragged that he was "the first guy to call for air strikes in Bosnia," without articulating a vital American interest to get involved in that country’s civil war. He boasted that he "was suggesting we bomb Belgrade," the Serbian capital, and also "blow up all the bridges" between Serbia and Bosnia. Biden condemned "the bankrupt policy in the former Yugoslavia, begun by the Bush administration and continued with minor adjustments by the Clinton administration." He added that Clinton had a "policy of despair and cowardice." Even worse in his eyes were our European allies, whom he accused of "moral rape."
Finally and most notoriously, Biden supported the Iraq War in 2003—until it became politically inconvenient. Again, it’s largely forgotten now, but this vote wasn’t close, 77–23. Besides Biden, among the Democratic senators who voted for the war were Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, John Kerry, Harry Reid, and Chuck Schumer. Four months after the war started, Biden stood by his vote. "I would vote that way again today," he declared, while adding "the cost of not acting against Saddam I think would have been much greater." A year later, he maintained that his "vote was just" even if the war itself was "unwise." But by late 2005, as he prepared again to run for president, Biden finally recanted and admitted his vote was a "mistake." And he’s spent the rest of his career falsely denying his early support for the war.
Biden has followed the Democratic Party back to its dovish, Blame America First roots. He opposed the Iraq surge, which he called a "tragic mistake," even when it turned out to be a smashing success. As vice president, he stridently opposed a similar surge in Afghanistan as well, subjecting Obama to what Secretary of Defense Bob Gates characterized as constant "Chinese water torture." He opposed the operation to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, alone among Obama’s senior team. Biden also didn’t join other senior members of Obama’s war cabinet in advocating the Petraeus plan to arm Syrian opposition fighters in 2012. To be fair, Biden did counsel against the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the military intervention in Libya; even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Whether dove or hawk, over the years Biden also has behaved like an ostrich, sticking his head in the sand about threats, especially those from Russia and China. Biden is particularly allergic to acknowledging geopolitical competition and rivalry, and heaven forbid a "cold war"—even during the actual Cold War. In 1983, Biden asserted that "we’re not in a cold war," but as a result of Reagan’s policies, "we’re a whole heck of a lot closer than we were two years ago." When Mitt Romney cited Russia as a chief "geopolitical foe" in 2012, Biden mocked his "Cold War mindset."
The same goes for China. In 2019, Biden defended the Chinese Communists as "not bad folks." Even after decades of Chinese crimes and aggression, Biden incredibly declared that "they’re not competition for us." Biden’s ostrich routine continued as president. At his first speech to the United Nations, Biden insisted that "we are not seeking a new Cold War." Of course we’re not and we never did, with Russia or China. Yet China has waged a cold war against us for decades, so our choice isn’t whether to seek one, but whether to win. Biden was so timid, however, that he couldn’t even bring himself to mention China’s name in the speech. Biden has always struggled to see China as a competitor or a threat. He summed up his own long-standing views in 2011 when he recalled a trip to China in 1979 as a junior senator: "I believed then what I believe now: that a rising China is a positive, positive development, not only for China but for America."
Talk about sticking your head in the sand.
The president’s flip flopping between hawk, dove, and ostrich was on full display this year. In March, he showed reckless aggression when speaking about Russia, bellowing, "for God's sake this man [Putin] cannot remain in power." Then, in August, he showed his dovish side continuing nuclear negotiations with Iran, while Iranian leaders gloated about the attempted assassination of author Salman Rushdie on American soil and began sending suicide drones to Russia, for use in Ukraine. And last month, Biden burrowed his head further in the sand on the China threat, once again declaring "we do not seek conflict. We do not seek a Cold War."
Joe Biden’s hybrid hawk-dove-ostrich foreign policy is doomed to failure in a harsh world that demands constancy and strength. A man with such an inconsistent philosophy is unreliable, unstable, and unsuited for the most important foreign policy job in the world.
Tom Cotton, a Republican, is a United States senator from Arkansas. This excerpt is from his new book, Only the Strong: Reversing the Left's Plot to Sabotage American Power, which will be published by Twelve on November 1.