Democrats To Focus On Foreign Policy Vision Wednesday's speeches are designed to show how Biden and Obama will mesh in their approach to America's role in the world. But some question how closely their ideas align.
NPR logo Democrats To Focus On Foreign Policy Vision

Democrats To Focus On Foreign Policy Vision

In August 2008, Biden traveled to the conflict zone in Tbilisi, Georgia. He met with U.S. soldiers on Aug. 17. Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

In August 2008, Biden traveled to the conflict zone in Tbilisi, Georgia. He met with U.S. soldiers on Aug. 17.

Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

Presumptive vice presidential candidate Joseph Biden will headline a Democratic convention evening Wednesday devoted largely to foreign policy and national security issues.

Foreign policy expertise was one of the main reasons Barack Obama brought the Delaware senator to the ticket. The evening's speeches and events are designed to show how the two running mates and other party leaders will mesh in their approach to America's role in the world.

But some question how closely the ideas of Biden and Obama align.

The party platform for this convention contains a long list of areas where Democrats promise to take decisive action, from ending the war in Iraq to combating global climate change.

Susan Rice, one of the Obama campaign's key advisers, says foreign policy occupies about a third of this document.

Rice says the platform committee was about evenly divided between Obama supporters and those of Sen. Hillary Clinton, and she describes the result as a "completely noncontentious unity document."

Biden's Ideas Influenced the Democratic Agenda

While the platform document was drafted before Obama announced that Joe Biden would be his running mate, Rice says the influence of Biden's ideas was strong.

A principal author of the foreign policy section was Tony Blinken, Biden's Senate chief of staff, who volunteered to help with the platform after Biden dropped out of the presidential race last year.

Republican observers don't necessarily buy the idea that the Democrats' foreign policy team is noncontentious.

Robert Kagan, a principal foreign policy adviser to Republican candidate John McCain, says Rice herself represents one side in a foreign policy struggle inside the Obama camp, what he calls the "left-realist view" as opposed to the more "internationalist, democracy-promoting Clinton crowd."

Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees Biden as being closer to the Clinton camp.

Obama, Biden on the Same Page?

Party platforms tend to be short on specifics, and that makes it hard to see whether there are gaps between the running mates' approaches to various issues.

The foreign policy section of the Democratic platform begins with the best-known of Obama's foreign policy positions, his opposition to the Iraq war and insistence on a 16-month timetable for bringing U.S. combat troops home.

It doesn't speak to a proposal that Biden launched in 2006, for decentralizing Iraq and giving Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds their own regions, supported by shares in the country's oil wealth. Biden, who used the plan as the centerpiece of his recent presidential bid, insisted it did not amount to partition but to substantial autonomy for the regions as a way of reducing ethnic and religious frictions.

The platform calls for providing more resources for the war in Afghanistan, including two additional combat brigades, and seeking greater contributions from NATO allies.

It also calls for a "new partnership" with Pakistan. "We will ask more of the Pakistani government, rather than offer a blank check to an undemocratic president," it says.

Both countries are examples of how the two running mates have melded over the past couple of years. In fact, when Biden was running for president in August of last year, his campaign mocked Obama in a statement congratulating him for "arriving at a number of Sen. Biden's long-held views on combating al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Platform Follows A Pragmatic Path

The platform takes a slap at the Bush administration's unilateralism on foreign policy, promising to rebuild alliances and institutions that deal with common security. "Needed reform of these alliances and institutions will not come by bullying other countries to ratify American demands," it says.

But in many ways, it seems to follow the pragmatic path of taking up where the Bush administration leaves off. The platform reaffirms U.S. commitments to Israel and condemnation of Hamas. Rice says that Democrats are not looking to reinvent the wheel when it comes to peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

"We want to assure the parties that their efforts up until now won't have been in vain," she says.

In many ways, Wednesday night's program will be aimed at assuring voters that the Obama-Biden ticket has a firm grip on foreign policy. Leslie Gelb, who co-wrote the Iraq division plan with Biden, says Obama's foreign policy views still aren't widely known. Gelb, who is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, jokes that Biden "has 300 years of foreign policy experience."

Gelb sees Biden as a "pragmatic centrist" and says he'll judge Biden's speech on whether its proposals are practical and achievable. He cites the Georgia-South Ossetia-Russia conflict as an example: "Practical and achievable is helping Georgia to reconstruct itself and getting it to focus on that reconstruction rather than tweaking Moscow's nose."

Derek Chollet, who was a foreign policy adviser to John Edwards' presidential campaign, says he's looking for more than that.

Chollet, who also worked on the Democratic platform, says "foreign policy issues traditionally don't get that much attention at a convention."

The fact that Democrats are highlighting these issues, he says, "shows this is a fight they want. I see Obama's pick of Biden as not showing that Obama is weak on these issues. I think it's a sign that Democrats think they're on the winning side of these issues. It's a display of confidence, and that's a big change."