- The Washington Times - Friday, October 23, 2009

PRAGUE | Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. waved off recent attacks from Dick Cheney about President Obama’s handling of Afghanistan with a “Who cares?” and called his predecessor “absolutely wrong” on the question of whether the new administration was “dithering” in setting a fresh course for the war.

“I think that is absolutely wrong,” the vice president said of Mr. Cheney’s criticism. “I think what the administration is doing is exactly what we said it would do. And what I think it warrants doing. And that is making an informed judgment based upon circumstances that have changed … to come up with a sustainable policy that has more than one dimension.”

Mr. Biden’s staunch defense of the Obama administration came during a 30-minute, wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times and two other news outlets Friday in the ambassador’s residence here. During the interview, the vice president provided his most extensive comments to date about the ongoing internal deliberations in Washington over the course of the Afghan conflict, saying “to fail to sit back and reassess where we are, I think, would be absolutely imprudent.”

More than once, a vice president who has been derided as gaffe-prone leaned back in his plush arm chair to ponder or reconsider the remarks he was making. In one striking moment of self-censorship, he was asked about Mr. Cheney’s recent suggestion that the prior administration had already left behind its own thorough assessment of the Afghanistan war. Mr. Biden at first looked piqued. “Well, look, I don’t…” He paused. “Who cares what…” he began again, sounding annoyed. He paused again, looking as though he wanted to stuff the words back in his mouth.

“Well, let me put it maybe,” and he paused a third time, glancing at his communications director with a smile.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I can see the headline now,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m getting better, guys. I’m getting a little bit better, you know what I mean?”

The sit-down interview came in the final hours of a week-long trip to Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic, where the vice president was dispatched to defuse a diplomatic uproar over the Obama administration’s abrupt announcement that it was scrapping a Bush-era missile defense plan based in the region. Mr. Biden acknowledged the policy change should have been handled better, but said that his mission to undo the damage was a clear success.

“Look, there’s always a better way to be able to communicate change than whatever the way you used,” he said. “But that’s the reason for the trip. I think I set out on behalf of the president to convey to three central European allies that we’re committed. We’ve ended the trip, we’ve ended the meetings, and I’m absolutely convinced that the leaders of the opposition as well as the governments of all three countries have no doubt about the commitment.”

By the time the vice president boarded his plane to head home, he had secured support from both Poland and the Czech Republic for the Obama administration’s new approach, and had received a request from Romania to join the program in some fashion. The details of how each country would support Mr. Obama’s modified missile defense effort remain to be ironed out.

Mr. Biden said high-level U.S. defense officials would fly to Prague next month to work on those details with their counterparts.

Much of the concern raised by the shift in missile defense plans stemmed from the impression that the United States was taking a more conciliatory approach to Russia at a time when its Eastern European neighbors continued to view Russia as a looming threat. Mr. Biden took pains during his stops in all three countries to make clear that the U.S. remains committed to protecting its new NATO allies from any security threat.

Mr. Biden also insisted all three countries expressed an eagerness to participate in the Obama administration’s new version of missile defense. The new approach, which involves systems that would attempt to neutralize attacks using short- and medium-range weapons, was not only safer for Europe but less threatening to Russia, he argued.

“Quite frankly, there’s no way ever to know whether what I’m about to say is true, but if I’m sitting in Moscow, I’m reassured,” Mr. Biden said. “Because this missile defense system can get short-range and intermediate-range missiles that are accidentally or intentionally sent in basically any direction.”

Mr. Biden said when he returns to Washington, he will participate in another meeting of the president’s top security advisers on the war. He said Mr. Cheney is not wrong about a review being left from the prior administration. But he said that fact is “irrelevant.”

“That’s why the president asked me to get in the place in January and go to Afghanistan,” he said. “I came back with a different review. I came back with an assessment as to what I thought … we were inheriting, okay? But unrelated to whether they left us a review or not — let’s assume they left us a review. A whole lot has changed in the last year. A whole lot’s changed. So the idea — even if they did — let’s assume they left us a review that was absolutely correct, is that review relevant and totally applicable to today in light of the changes that have taken place in the region, in Afghanistan itself? So I think that is sort of irrelevant. Not sort of, I think it’s irrelevant.”

On more than one occasion, Mr. Biden declined to delve into a topic, saying he surrendered the freedom to speak freely to the media when he accepted the second spot on Mr. Obama’s presidential ticket.

Mr. Biden was asked whether he agreed with the recent comments by Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who said it would be “reckless” to settle on an Afghan strategy before run-off presidential elections clarified the country’s leadership situation. He declined to answer.

When asked if his power to act as vice president would be diminished if Mr. Obama opted to dismiss his opposition to a massive counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, Mr. Biden again paused several beats before wading into an answer.

“I’d be surprised if he publicly dismissed anything I had to say, number one,” he said. “Number two, look, I knew when I signed on as vice president that he is the president. The only thing, the only guarantee I got — and that he’s kept — is that I get the opportunity on every important decision to be in on the deal, to give him the benefit or lack thereof of my opinion.”

“The truth of the matter is that he has kept that deal,” Mr. Biden continued. “He has sought my opinion, not generically but in detail. And if he reaches a different conclusion than I do, that’s OK. He’s the president.”

Mr. Biden appeared tempted to continue fleshing out that thought. “But, I am…” he started. Then he stopped himself. “Anyway, I guess that’s the best way to answer the question.”

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