Who says Joe Biden hasn't got the right foreign policy chops?
Well, former Defense secretary Robert Gates did, in January, when he wrote in his memoir that the vice president has been "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."
But the criticism hasn't slowed Biden down. For the past four months, the vice president has been Washington's prime point of contact with Ukraine, quietly taking care of diplomatic maneuvering for the Obama administration stateside while Secretary of State John Kerry meets with European officials abroad.
Between November and February, Biden spoke to now-ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych by phone six times—an unusual level of contact.
On Nov. 22, Biden told Yanukovych the U.S. was disappointed by the Ukrainian government's decision to not sign a trade agreement with the European Union, the very move that precipitated Yanukovych's eventual overthrow. A few weeks later, the vice president was calling about his "deep concern" for "the growing potential violence" in the region.
On Jan. 27, Biden urged Yanukovych to pull back riot police and negotiate with the opposition. Two more calls soon after reiterated the message. By Feb. 18, Biden was expressing "grave concern" about what was happening in the streets of Kiev. Two days later, Biden warned that the United States was prepared to sanction Ukrainian officials responsible for the violence.
And two days before the Ukrainian leader fled Kiev late last month, as protesters clashed with police in the streets, he spent an hour on the phone with Biden, who helped convince Yanukovych to sign a deal with opposition forces.
This week, Biden cut his Latin America tour short, skipping a scheduled visit to the Dominican Republic and flying home from Chile to attend Wednesday's meeting with President Obama and new Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Biden has also been making his rounds with Ukraine's neighbors as the standoff between Ukraine and Russia continues. He spoke with the prime minister of Poland in late February, the presidents of Latvia and Estonia last week, and the president of Cyprus on Monday. Biden also rang Russian Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev last week to urge his country to withdraw its troops from Crimea.
The verdict is still out on whether Biden is "wrong" on this particular major foreign policy issue. His plan for Yanukovych to peacefully handle the protesters in Kiev didn't pan out, although the situation could have escalated further if the Ukrainian president had stayed in office.
But the vice president's deep involvement in the crisis may affect his not-so-distant political future. Matt Spetalnick explains how, for Reuters:
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 worst standoff with Moscow since the Cold War.
"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."
If the U.S. comes out a winner—bolstering Ukraine's integration with the West and keeping Russia out of eastern Ukraine—Biden can pad his resume for a possible 2016 bid. The vice president has already hinted that his extensive foreign policy experience—he served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a Delaware senator for years—makes him a good presidential candidate. "I think my knowledge of foreign policy, my engagement with world leaders, my experience, is—uniquely positions me to be—to follow through on the agenda Barack and I have of bringing up world peace in a way that is real and substantive," he said last month.
But if the U.S. emerges from the conflict with geopolitical wounds, Republicans will have all they need to attack Biden's foreign policy shortcomings if he runs. Whatever the end result, Biden will remain at the center of America's policy in Ukraine for as long as the crisis continues. The vice president has said Obama trusts him to deliver on major international tasks, such as the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Looks like the president trusts him on Ukraine, too.
This article appears in the March 14, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.