The great statesman John Nance Garner, America's Vice President from 1933-1941, said that his high office was "not worth a bucket of warm piss." You'd think the second highest office in the land was a pretty big deal, but you've probably never heard of Vice-President Garner. Maybe he had a point.
As the Federal government has grown, though, the office of Vice President has acquired unofficial power, simply because there's only so many hours in the day and the actual President doesn't have time to do everything he should. For a long time, many people believed that Vice President Dick Cheney was the "real" president and George W. Bush merely his puppet.
Nobody thinks that of Vice President Joe Biden. In keeping with the tradition of the past few decades, however, President Obama has diligently used his Vice President for high-profile, delicate, important negotiating tasks where the presence of a Very Important Person is absolutely essential but there are other things the President would rather do. Therein lies a tale.
When Barack Obama took office in 2008, the war in Iraq was pretty close to over. American forces had defeated Saddam Hussein's army in record time, but had a much more difficult time stopping terrorist insurgents. Poor Iraq was in total chaos for several years.
With the Sunni Awakening beginning in 2005, the tide seemed to turn as local Iraqi militias got fed up with murderous foreign terrorists and started helping the US roust them out. George W. Bush handed Mr. Obama a mostly peaceful, somewhat organized, kinda free nation of Iraq.
Of course, Iraq is in a dangerous neighborhood and is riven by sectarian disgruntlement. Keeping Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds from each other's throats required a deft political settlement guaranteed by an impartial outside power. All sides expected America to enforce whatever political agreement they reached.
Only one thing was required for this plausible plan to work: a "status of forces" agreement. This is a binding treaty between the US and a foreign country in which American forces are operating. It sets down the rules our soldiers have to follow and how the foreign military and law enforcement treat them.
Obviously, US soldiers can't follow ordinary laws; they have to be able to do things that civilians and even police can't. Equally obviously, they can't just do whatever they please or they're an occupying army. Either way, we don't like doing this for any longer than we must.
Negotiating a workable "status of forces" agreement in Iraq was critical to our achieving anything permanent there for good. This sort of negotiation is as delicate as can be and as strategically high-level as it's possible to get.
In fact, it was so important that Mr. Obama's presidential transition team specifically called it out as a primary objective:
Obama and Biden believe it is vital that a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) be reached so our troops have the legal protections and immunities they need. Any SOFA should be subject to Congressional review to ensure it has bipartisan support here at home.
The President of the United States can't really sit down for days on end with a foreign government to negotiate the details, but if he sent an ordinary diplomat, the Iraqis would be insulted. So Mr. Obama sent the next-highest American official, Vice President Joe Biden. Nobody could be insulted by that, after all, it's the Vice-President!
In December 2011, President Obama withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq after failing to negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement with the fledgling democracy.
Joe Biden didn't come home with a bad SOFA. He didn't get a one-sided one that had to be rammed through Congress on a partisan basis. He didn't even get one that didn't give our army the powers it needed to do a decent job.
No: he didn't manage to reach a status-of-forces agreement at all. He came home with nothing whatsoever and Mr. Obama duly pulled out all our forces except for Embassy personnel. Today, in the complete absence of the American army, Iraq is a morass of warring fiefdoms heavily influenced by neighboring Iran, our sworn enemy.
Yes, we got rid of Saddam Hussein, but in all other respects, the situation in Iraq is worse than it was before we invaded at a cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. Is that Mr. Bush's fault? Or Joe Biden's, for failing to make any use of our victory so costly won?
The nice thing about elected office is that you can't be fired, so Joe Biden's total failure didn't cost him anything. It's hard to say whether he even realized he had failed: after all, our troops came home, and that's what Mr. Obama said he wanted, wasn't it?
Let's be fair: Joe Biden has not been publicly put in charge of negotiating a status-of-forces agreement in Afghanistan. Indeed, retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates' recent book claims Joe Biden has criticized our military's actions in Afghanistan at every opportunity and thinks we should pull out just as we did in Iraq. Putting Mr. Biden in charge of an Afghan SOFA would be the same as telling everyone, "This is just for show, we really don't want a SOFA at all and, as usual, we are going to skedaddle just as fast as we can."
Yet it's striking that, Joe or no Joe, the Afghan SOFA negotiations are going in the same direction as the Iraqi talks. The Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the proposed SOFA we thought we'd negotiated, even though (because?) we've said that not signing means we're leaving.
In fact, it almost seems like we've given up yet again; Afghanistan may sign a SOFA with NATO but not with us, and sure enough, Mr. Obama has publicly told the Pentagon to plan for a complete withdrawal this year.
It doesn't take a genius to realize what will happen to Afghanistan when we leave. It won't be two years before the Islamofascist Taliban throw out the insufferably corrupt Afghan government we'd been propping up, and Afghanistan returns to the Stone Age barbarism that welcomed Osama bin Laden.
How many more bin Ladens will find refuge in how many more Tora Boras, out of our reach after ten years of fighting there, because we threw in the towel?
In a way, the story of the SOFAs highlights Mr. Obama's strategic brilliance, at least politically. He could not appear to want to abandon the hard-fought gains of George Bush. Yet, he wanted to make sure there was no benefit to the United States from Mr. Bush's wars, even from achievements which were actually in our grasp.
So he sent Joe Biden for negotiations, knowing he'd screw them up and achieve the defeat Mr. Obama wanted. He's managed to insulate himself from blame, however, because he sent the Vice President! Can't get more senior than that!
Actually, you can: like it or not, the buck stops on the desk of the President. Joe Biden will be no more remembered, nor blamed, than John Gardner. When history writes the story of the Obama administration, it'll be exactly that, and not the Biden administration. In the 5 years of his vice presidency, Joe Biden has gotten his name in a Scragged headline exactly once, today, compared to Mr. Obama's dozens. History will read pretty much the same.
If a legacy of American defeat and stupidity is what Mr. Obama wanted to achieve, he has accomplished that goal artfully, shielded for now by Joe Biden's reliable incompetence. In the long term, history tends to see through such craven political maneuvering, but by then it will all be academic.
We may not even have to wait for the long run: The New York Times just published an article headlined "Biden Arrives in Europe to Reassure Allies." Doesn't that sound strangely like propaganda reports from losing generals whose "victories" are ever closer to home?
Over the past five years, the editors have been secretly working on a book that summarizes the fundamental viewpoints of Scragged.