Biden's questioning helped Obama shape Afghan policy

There's a common perception that Vice President Joe Biden lost the administration's debate over Afghanistan policy because President Barack Obama did not adopt the course Biden favored. Nothing could be further from the truth.

On the contrary, Biden played the distinctive vice presidential role Walter Mondale proposed 33 years ago. In so doing, Biden helped shape Obama's policy toward Afghanistan and offered a model for a constructive role vice presidents can play in presidential decision-making.

Mondale argued that, in addition to providing substantive advice to a president, the vice president can help foster a process to ground presidential decision-making in "the free flow of ideas and information which is indispensable to a healthy and productive administration."

Over the past weeks, Biden made a distinctive contribution to the decision-making process regarding Afghanistan. He challenged the assumptions behind Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional troops, sought to define American objectives and questioned whether a corrupt Afghanistan government could provide a reliable partner. In so doing, he forced a fuller examination of all aspects of America's involvement in Afghanistan and helped produce a plan that addressed those concerns.

Vice presidents have not always been able to play such a role. Presidents have traditionally excluded them from their inner circles. Franklin Roosevelt never told Vice President Harry S. Truman of efforts to build an atomic weapon. Dwight D. Eisenhower famously confessed in 1960 that he would need a week to recall some major idea Richard M. Nixon had contributed to his administration. Lyndon B. Johnson barred Hubert H. Humphrey from discussions of Vietnam after Humphrey expressed dissenting views early in his vice presidency.

That pattern changed during Jimmy Carter's administration. In a December 1976 memorandum, Mondale proposed that the vice president serve as a senior presidential adviser. Mondale thought he could offer Carter the advice of an experienced politician whose perspectives were not biased by responsibilities for any particular department.

But Mondale's recommendation also reflected a deeper concern regarding presidential decision-making. He had an insight into how vice presidents could make a distinctive contribution to solving "the biggest single problem" of recent administrations. That problem was, in Mondale's judgment, "the failure of the president to be exposed to independent analysis not conditioned by what it is thought he wants to hear or ... what others want him to hear."

Mondale was right. To guard against such tendencies, every president needs a trusted figure who has the credibility and skill to challenge shared conceptions, the stature to put experts through their paces and the independence to make sure the president hears a full assessment of the courses others may recommend.

Mondale thought the vice president was well-equipped for this role. The vice president had the job security, political judgment and stature, and his recognition of a shared political destiny with the president provided incentive to protect the president's interests.

Carter accepted that recommendation and gave Mondale the necessary access. Largely as a result of Mondale's performance, his successors have also functioned as presidential advisers.

But vice presidential access does not guarantee that the vice president will help expose the president to "the free flow of ideas and information." It depends on how the vice president exercises the advising role.

Many don't always do it well. Vice President George H.W. Bush was largely silent during discussions of trading arms to Iran for the release of hostages during the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s. Dick Cheney focused on persuading President George W. Bush to pursue policies he preferred. Cheney often obtained Bush's agreement following private meetings rather than making sure presidential decisions followed an airing of competing views.

Biden, however, played a more critically useful part. Over the last few months, he emerged as the primary questioner of McChrystal's request for additional troops in Afghanistan and probed many dimensions of the challenges in the region during administration discussions.

Biden's questions may have reflected his misgivings about America's effort in Afghanistan. But his prodding also demonstrated the ability of a vice president to help ensure that presidential decisions are based on a full consideration of competing perspectives.

That's the role Mondale recommended 33 years ago, and that's a role Biden assumed during the deliberations on Afghanistan.

So Biden didn't lose on Afghanistan. He did his job, and in doing so, helped Obama do his.


Studies of brain activity in monkeys suggests we learn from our successes but not, as we'd like to hope, from our mistakes.

Maybe that explains why we keep doing things even when we know the outcome will be bad. That's worth thinking about amidst the uproar over coal and its impact on the environment and economy.

One coal story that hasn't gotten much play is the release of an inspector general's report on the Martin County coal waste spill that blackened 100 miles of waterways in October 2000.

The report had been heavily redacted. Almost three pages are still being withheld. But thanks to Mine Safety and Health News publisher Ellen Smith's persistence, the Labor Department released most of the report last month.

The newly revealed details confirm, as former mine safety official Jack Spadaro had claimed, that after the Bush administration took control, there was an inordinate amount of meddling and interference by Mine Safety and Health Administration brass into what should have been an independent investigation. The operator of the failed impoundment, Massey Energy, got off with a light fine.

Even more telling, though, is what the IG discovered about the years leading up to the spill, when it could have been prevented.

After the impoundment broke for the first time in 1994, Massey wanted to keep using it to hold waste from a coal-washing plant. But MSHA district manager Jesse Cole refused because Massey's plan failed to address safety concerns raised by MSHA engineers. In short, there was no way to make the impoundment, which was built over an underground mine, safe.

Cole routinely sought technical advice on permit questions. After he was criticized by coal operators for not moving permits fast enough, he was transferred, at his request, he said. But Joe Main, then a union safety official, now President Barack Obama's assistant labor secretary for mine safety, told the IG that an MSHA official told him at the time that Cole was transferred because of coal operators' complaints. Cole's replacement, Carl Boone, gave Massey's plan a green light.

The point: Safety problems were known; the unsafe impoundment was allowed to remain in use anyway. The outcome was disastrous.

Fast forward to today: Along another pretty creek in Eastern Kentucky, this one in Harlan County, the almost 900 residents of Lynch, a historic coal town, are depending on state regulators to prevent what everyone knows will be a bad outcome if permits to expand mining operations above and under Looney Creek are granted.

The quality of Lynch's water, now remarkably good, would be degraded or ruined. Worst case: Lynch is left high and dry if an underground reservoir is disturbed. Without good water, the people of Lynch, some of coal's best friends, know their town is doomed. But will anyone, other than them, act to stop the bad outcome?

Now skip across the globe to where polar ice is melting faster than climate models predicted. Or to India where the monsoons on which food production depends now come at the wrong time. This decade has been the warmest since record-keeping began in 1850, the World Meteorological Organization said last week.

Go ahead and dismiss climate change as hyperbole by alarmist scientists or something over which humans have no control.

Or heed the lessons of Martin County and Looney Creek. This is one of those moments when, if we keep doing what we've been doing, the outcome will be bad.