Biden understands what career diplomats know: America’s relationships overseas require hands-on management, and conditions in the field are messier than they appear.
In an association that has spanned a number of years, I think I made Joe Biden really angry just once. It was in 2008. Biden was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I was a senior United States Foreign Service officer then serving as the ambassador to Iraq. A reporter asked me about a plan, first put forward by Biden and the foreign-policy analyst Leslie Gelb in 2006, that would grant significant autonomy to each of Iraq’s three major demographic groups. Many were calling it “soft partition”; supporters preferred “advanced federalism.” I said something to the effect that Iraq didn’t need any more sweeping political-reform plans, much less a partition plan, designed by the U.S. or anyone else.
A day or so later, one of Biden’s staffers called to say that I would be getting a letter from the senator, but that I shouldn’t take it too seriously. The letter did come. It was short and pithy: I was twisting Biden’s words; he had never called for partition. He stopped short of telling me what I could do with my criticism, but I inferred it. The epilogue: Neither of us referred to the incident again, and I never heard him mention advanced federalism to any Iraqi official. (Iraq was already a federal state.)
The episode illustrates some important points. First, externally imposed solutions to complex problems almost never work. One need only look at the ill-conceived and sloppily executed British partition of India and Pakistan, a policy that not only killed more than 1 million people at the time but also fostered enduring sectarian tensions and instability between two countries that are now nuclear powers. Second, when similarly sweeping solutions are proposed today, they almost always emanate from Washington, not from the field.