Sunday, April 1, 2007

Six-term Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware has a rhetorical reputation for shooting from the hip. But Mr. Biden wasn’t doing that during two war-related speeches he delivered Wednesday. First at a presidential forum hosted by the AFL-CIO and then on the Senate floor, even as the House and Senate had become mired in bipartisan warfare over Iraq, Mr. Biden displayed remarkable leadership. His action resulted in the bipartisan embrace of a policy that will help to protect the lives of tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and Marines fighting in Iraq.

“If [the armed forces] build a new type of Humvee called an MRAP [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected] vehicle,” he informed the union members, “there is four times less possibility of injury to a soldier inside that vehicle.” This is crucial because 70 percent of American casualties in Iraq are caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the roadway bombs that often detonate underneath the flat-bottom un-armored Humvees. MRAPs have a blast-resistant V-shaped hull that displaces much of the explosive power of IEDs. “We need 7,700 [MRAPs],” Mr. Biden continued. “We’re only going to build 2,000 of them this year because it costs $8.5 billion,” he said with evident disgust.

“What in the hell are we doing?” the senator demanded to know. “How can we justify anything, anything we do before we spend that money now to put these kids in those vehicles?” Because each MRAP transports four to 12 troops, accelerating this year’s production by 2,500 vehicles would “affect from 10,000 to 30,000 lives in the next six months,” he explained. “We’re sitting here making no sacrifices, making no sounds about the urgency of doing that?”

For Mr. Biden, the issue proved to be much more than merely rhetorical. Later that night, on the floor of the United States Senate, Mr. Biden introduced an amendment to increase the production of MRAPs by 2,500 vehicles before Oct. 1. The amendment was attached to the 2007 Iraq and Afghanistan supplemental spending bill, which had already ignited partisan warfare in the Congress and throughout Washington. “I have never begun a discussion of an amendment,” Mr. Biden told his fellow senators, “by saying something as graphic and as drastic as ‘this is literally a matter of life and death.’ But it is. This is not hyperbole. This is not an exaggeration.” He was right on all counts.

Mr. Biden quoted a March 1 memo from Marine Corps Gen. James Conway to Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Getting the MRAP into Al Anbar province is my number one unfilled warfighting requirement at this time,” Gen. Conway declared. Several hours before Mr. Biden spoke on the Senate floor, Gen. Conway told the senator in a phone conversation that getting sufficient MRAPs to his Marines in Iraq was “a moral imperative.”

During a March 14 Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Sen. Byron Dorgan asked Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker: “Why would we not do everything to mobilize, to move as many [MRAPs] into the field as possible?” Gen. Schoomaker replied: “We can build what we can get the funds to build. It’s strictly an issue of money.”

“If there is any place we should not consider the cost — emphasize again: not consider the cost,” Mr. Biden implored his colleagues, “it is when there is a consensus that what we are purchasing can save lives.” The next day, by a vote of 98-0, a bipartisan Senate followed Mr. Biden’s wartime leadership and embraced his initiative.

Very well done, Sen. Biden.

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