Religion, Violence and the Middle East: A Conversation with U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr.
The Brookings Institution Washington, D.C.
U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., was first elected to the United States Senate in 1972 at the age of 29 and is currently serving his sixth term. Senator Biden serves on the Foreign Relations Committee and the Judiciary Committee and is recognized as a leading expert on national security issues. He chaired the Foreign Relations Committee during the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and helped steer American foreign policy as the country faced a new war on global terrorism. The Pew Forum hosted an event at which Senator Biden discussed the convergence of religion and violence in the Middle East, the rise of radical Islam and the implications for U.S. foreign policy.
Joseph R. Biden Jr., U.S. Senator (D-Del.)
E.J. Dionne Jr., Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; Columnist, The Washington Post
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center
LUIS LUGO: I am Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. We are a project of the Pew Research Center here in Washington. As such, we are a nonpartisan organization and do not take positions on policy debates. This luncheon is part of the Pew Forum luncheon series, which brings together journalists and policy leaders to discuss timely topics at the intersection of religion and public life. The Forum’s partners in this luncheon series are Michael Cromartie and E.J. Dionne. They help us moderate these events, and we are very grateful for that.
E.J. DIONNE, JR.: I want to welcome Senator Biden, welcome all of my friends and colleagues here today for another of these lunches. Senator Biden was of an illegal age when he was first elected to the Senate. It was in 1972. He was 29 years old, but turned 30 before he was sworn in. It was one of the great campaigns. He beat Senator J. Caleb Boggs, who had been an incumbent forever. And it was the most brilliant campaign because it was absolutely un-nasty; it was all based on praising the senator by way of saying it was time for him to retire — (laughter) — and it worked. And he has been reelected by my count five times since then.
SENATOR JOSEPH R. BIDEN, JR.: Six. You’re leaving one off — six. I don’t want to have to step down immediately. I am joking. (Laughter.)
MR. DIONNE: Well, anyway, he has been reelected a whole bunch of times since 1972 and has never been defeated. He served as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. He has also been chair of the Judiciary Committee, and he has helped create an oasis of bipartisanship on foreign policy issues in this desert of polarization with his colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Someone at this table said that Senator Biden is one of the few people we will indulge thinking out loud. And my brother-in-law came up to me recently and said, I like this guy, Biden; he says what he thinks, and he actually has something to say. The bad news, Senator, is my brother-in-law is not rich and cannot do fundraising for you; the good news is that he is a school psychologist and an excellent judge of character.
I give you Senator Joe Biden. Thank you for joining us.
SEN. BIDEN: First of all, the only election I lost, I withdrew from in time to avoid the loss. (Laughter.)
The assignment that I was given, just so we are all on the same page, was “What is the best way to understand the rise of radical Islam?” How should we view this phenomenon? Is it, as some neocons [neoconservatives] say, the external threat to America in the 21st century? And what is our best strategy for combating violent extremism? How can we make sure that the jihadists, rather than we, are alienated from the mass of the world’s Muslims?
And the answer to all of those questions is, I don’t know; and I don’t know anybody who does know the answer to those questions. We each have our view and much of it is based upon, from my observation, lack of adequate information, and on information that is simply inaccurate.
Yeats, writing about his Ireland in 1916, wrote a poem, “Easter 1916.” There was a line in that poem that I think more accurately describes the world we live in than it did Yeats’ Ireland in 1916. He said, “All has changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” All has changed in the last 15 years, not just since 9/11; it changed long before that. All has changed.
And there has been this terrible beauty born. In a sense, you have cultures that we, the United States, the average citizen, didn’t even know existed and now have been exposed to. We have found ourselves in a circumstance of being the world’s sole superpower without any of the historical institutional capabilities that go with being an empire, not knowing quite how to deal with it, this new role we have.
I often say when I speak at undergraduate classes that the children of those graduating today, when they are doing their senior theses at one of the great universities, the one who is going to win the prize in response to the question of why they didn’t get it right at the turn of the 21st century will be the one who says, why should they have gotten it right? What makes you think they had enough information to get it right?
I guess what I am trying to say is that I think there is more we don’t know than we do know. But, the fact is, we still have to have a policy. We still, as a government, have to position ourselves somewhere in this uncertain world. And the changes that I think have been the most drastic are the changes that are nongovernmental; they are just the changes in technology, globalization, the whole notion of the information age, which so far exceeded where we thought we were going that we are still trying to catch up.
And if I can be very colloquial, I take it back to a hundred years ago when I was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and I was trying to figure out the reason for what appeared to be a rapid rise in violent crime, gratuitous violence, in the criminal justice system. And this was looking at the period from the late ’70s to the mid-’80s.
This guy who worked for me, his name was Ted Kaufman. He asked, what makes you think this phenomenon is unique to America? Why don’t you take a look at what is going on in other countries? And we did. We found out during the same period, there was a significant escalation in violence and it didn’t matter where the culture was. It was in France, it was in Germany, it was in Japan. What was going on? What was the reason for this?
I would make the same generic point with regard to where we are now in terms of fundamental Islam. I don’t think it’s coincidental that you saw the rise of fundamentalism in all of the major conventional faiths in the last 20 years, whether it’s Catholicism, mainstream Protestant religions or Judaism.
I am going to make a statement that I cannot sustain; it’s just a politician’s instinct. I think it has a great deal to do with the fact that a significant number of people, clearly more than any time in my lifetime, and I would suggest any time in a long time, feel like they have less control over their destinies. They have less control over their ability to affect their day-to-day lives.
And it is not unique to the Islamic world as it is being exposed to the modernity of the 21st century. I look in my home state of Delaware, and I see the very people who 20 years ago thought that I was being too paternalistic because I worried about my workers being laid off and the plants shutting down. All of my neighbors would blithely suggest that all you Democrats are the same; you are always trying to figure out how you can order people’s lives. And then I found an interesting phenomenon starting in the early ’90s. All of those folks at DuPont, Hercules, ICI America and other major companies walking in one day, having done everything absolutely right — they went to the best schools; they got the best grades; they never had evaluations in their two, five, 10, 25 years of working with the company that hadn’t been exemplary; they had done their jobs and — Guess what? — they had no jobs.
And all of a sudden they were asking, what is going on here? What is going on? I can’t control it. There is nothing I can do. What could I have done to enhance my ability to affect my life’s situation? There is nothing I can do.
And you take that all the way down and look at the people who do everything right with regard to their children and then find out their children are on drugs. They find out that their children are involved in premarital sex when they are 13 years old — good families, not bad — rich families, poor families, middle-income families.
When I was in Afghanistan right after the Taliban fell, our very generous secretary of defense did everything in his world to keep all of us out, and I decided that I was going in anyway, and I went in with the United Nations mission. I caught a flight to Islamabad, and I spent five days literally living in the embassy that had just been opened and in a bunker where there were 87 young Marines traveling between Bagram and the capital.
I remember one instance where we were stopped; it was an unauthorized checkpoint. There was a woman in a full burqa and a man dressed in traditional Afghan garb, and what looked like a kind of hut that they lived in, but it was an adobe kind of arrangement. And, as I sat there thinking to myself, I watched and could see a kid sitting there on a portable computer.
And I thought to myself, what happens if that kid punches up the ads for Victoria’s Secret? Not a joke. Talk about a culture clash. I mean, here is his mother dressed in the full burqa. The rapidity of change in the Islamic world is just staggering. What I am trying to say is, I think a lot has to do with coping not just with modernity but coping … even in the West, with this notion of what do I do so that I can affect and control my destiny, so that I can control what is going to happen to me?
I’m not sure that is the reason why we had a bunch of folks with box cutters take down our two towers. I don’t know that. I don’t even know that I could make the case that that is the reason for the kind of rapid response you see to what appear to be relatively minor slights that occur in France, with the Muslim population deciding that they should burn most of the automobiles in sight from Normandy down to the Mediterranean. I don’t know. But something tells me that this is part of this unsettled terrain we are all operating on right now. That is number one.
Number two: I think if you take a look particularly at the Arab-Muslim world, you find that these changes are harder to absorb because there are no outlets whatsoever except the mosque; there is no outlet for any of this frustration, fear, concern, anger, whatever you want to call it. There is no outlet but the mosque.
Quite frankly, I think the reason we are handling this change better in the United States than in Europe is that there are not as many outlets in Europe as there are in the United States for this sense of frustration and anger that exists among many people. In this context, I think we understandably, in a sense regrettably, tend to look for pretty sharp, clear and incontrovertible answers. We are looking for an answer, and we are looking for a policy prescription once we find the answer. We agree on what the nature of the problem is.
And the truth of the matter is, I think we have been presented with a lot of false choices that have been placed out there in this building and a similar one not far from here. You know, the neocons have a very nice — as we say in law school, it all fits within four corners of the document — a nice, clear prescription as to how you deal with this phenomenon that is occurring, and it is democratization. Because everybody knows everybody wants freedom; everybody knows everyone wants to be unshackled, and therefore everyone knows that whoever accommodates that unshackling will be greeted with and looked on as an ally, a friend, a liberator.
And you have this backlash coming from some within my party and the so-called realists that democratization is a pretty bad thing. Look what it has wrought. This president has inadvertently given democracy a bad name in terms of the places where you look at it. It produced the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; it produced Hamas in the West Bank; it produced Hezbollah in Lebanon; it has produced two major parties that are more aligned and more clerically oriented in Iraq than existed before. So there is immediate reaction you are seeing occur; some within my party, as well as the Kissingerian realists are coming back, saying, look, this isn’t all a good thing, this notion of democracy.
I don’t think there are easy answers for any of this. I am looking for [George] Kennan. I am looking for the memorandum [reference to “The Long Telegram” from 1946, which is an 8,000-word telegram sent by Kennen, an American diplomat working in the Soviet Union, on his recommendations regarding containment of the Soviet Union. It is widely believed to have formed the basis of U. S. foreign policy on the Soviet Union for the Cold War years.] I am looking for — and I wish I were smart enough to write it, but I know what the tagline on the memorandum is: We are in this for the very long haul. This is a process that is going to take a very long time.
But, in the meantime, we have to deal with some very specific problems, specific concerns, of the United States. And I think the first one is, do we buy into the argument that these “Islamofascists,” terrorists who want to set up a caliphate from Spain to Indonesia, do they present an existential threat to the United States of America in a way that there was an existential threat presented to us by over 12,000 ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missiles] mounted with multiple warheads on them presented to us from the ’50s through the ’90s or through the ’80s? Is that the kind of existential threat we face? Is it an existential threat that is similar to Hitler’s Germany?
How do you define this phrase? We all use this phrase, this “existential threat.” And it seems to me the threat is not existential in the sense we have to worry about this government of ours collapsing, being occupied, a caliphate imposed upon the United States of America, all women wearing burqas, etc. It’s a different problem, equally profound, in a sense.
I think the problem is that we have built this great nation — the whole Constitution — premised upon the notion of openness; it has been premised upon the notion of exchange of ideas; it has been premised on the notion of tolerance; it has been premised on the notion that we are a society that can absorb significant change; we can absorb significant differences in culture; absorb significant differences in religion. And that is the very thing that is most in jeopardy in my view, at least in the short run, because when people are frightened, people do things against their own interests.
In a sense, only a terrorist or a group of terrorists with a weapon of mass destruction — a thermonuclear weapon — presents a real existential threat. And even then … I remember the bumper sticker when we were in undergraduate school: One nuclear bomb could ruin your day. So I am not in any way diminishing — I don’t want any of you walking out of here, because this is all on the record, saying Biden says, “Don’t worry; be happy.”
I don’t think we have gotten our — I haven’t, anyway got my arms around the extent of the threat, and a definition of the nature of the threat to the American people. How do you define it? Because, the extent to which you define the threat dictates policy prescriptions. And my problem with this administrations is that it has defined the threat much too broadly and, I think, inaccurately.
Now, you say, well, Biden, how do you define the threat? In truth, I haven’t been able to define the threat, nor has my party defined the threat either. But I go back — I have a guy named Jonah Blank with me. Jonah teaches — the reason I hired Jonah years ago — he taught the history of Islam at Harvard, a little bit at Georgetown, now at SAIS [School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University]. He’s been with me six-and-a-half years. This was before 9/11. I hired him because I knew I didn’t know anything about Islam. I didn’t know anything about it, and there are 1.3 billion people who claim it as their religion. I thought I had become relatively informed over the years, but I realized how little I knew about it.
So prior to 9/11 I would have Jonah basically on-staff to give me seminars, literally bring in folks, bring in Arabists, bring in Islamicists to talk to me about what was going on. And I learned enough to know that the administration knows nothing on the front end of this. I am not being facetious. I mean that; I am deadly earnest when I say that.
What we ended up with was a response to a crisis in which, no matter who was president on 9/11, they would have made serious mistakes — no matter who it was. But what happened was, it seems to me, you saw this pivot in American foreign policy from us going from a neo-isolationist-led administration, based on how they ran and how they began to govern, to all of a sudden adopting, at least in a generic sense, a theory that had been hanging around for 20 years.
This whole neo-conservative notion of the world was like something you could reach up and take off the shelf, and it was whole. It was fulsome; it was rational; it was consistent with the president’s view on social policy and domestic economic policy; it gave a tight, coherent notion of what had gone wrong in the world and how to make it right. I am vastly oversimplifying it in the interest of time.
So what did we end up with? We ended up with what was bound to be a difficult response, no matter who was president, with an idea of how to deal with this rise of — if it is not an existential threat, it is a unique threat. I can’t think of any period since the Assassins [in the 11th -13th centuries] when individuals with no geography or population to defend presented a steep, serious, at least economic threat to thousands if not millions of members of nation states. That is a new phenomenon, a genuinely new phenomenon.
And couple that with modern technology, modern equipment, weapons or material that is loose and out there, weapons of mass destruction, and all of a sudden it is not very hard to put together a scenario that is catastrophic for our country or other nation states. It understandably generated a new way of having to look at the dilemmas we faced.
Again, I don’t want to be too judgmental here because I don’t know anyone who would have been president on September the 12th, 2001, who would have necessarily come up with the right initial response. But, as we have seen, how they have played this out, both the irony and the danger is the decision to make judgments about supporting — they would not argue it this way — imposing democracy on people. That is, take away the oligarch, take away the dictator, take away that boot that was holding folks down and you will see — as someone said to me — it’s like the default key on the computer. You take away that boot, and boom, you are going to see things flourish. A couple of you covered me when I got back with Sen. Hagel from being smuggled into Northern Iraq, just prior to the war, going up to where we would be able to meet with, to speak to the “Kurdish Parliament.”
I made a comment I got myself in a little bit of trouble with. I said, there are a lot of people who think, as I rose through those mountains, that there was a Jefferson and a Madison hiding behind each of those rocks. All you had to do is turn it over and, boom, you are going to have this spontaneous notion of what constituted democracy.
And it is a nice idea; it is an appealing idea. But the truth of the matter is, it is a very dangerous notion to think that that is the essence of all one need do. Now, you say, Biden, this administration didn’t just do that; they did a lot of other things — well, not a whole lot of other things. You remember the argument. The argument was: The reason we don’t “finish the job” in Afghanistan — and I predict to you we are going to be in Afghanistan a lot longer than in Iraq if we had brains in our heads — the reason we didn’t “finish the job” (or really begin the job in earnest after the Donors Conference in Japan, where we were going to have — remember not my words, the president’s words– a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan) is because a lot of very bright people, whom I admire very much, in this administration concluded that the way you deal with this phenomenon of Islamic terrorism is by cutting the heads off of this hydro-headed monster, and the way to do that is to go to state sponsors. And if you also are going to teach folks a lesson — if we go in and we do this in the full light of day with the shock-and-awe capability, in spite of the moral disapprobation of the rest of the world, the rest of the states, which are what allow this terrorism to be nurtured and maintained — they will look at you and say, “Look at their capability; we better get it straight with them.” That is an unfair oversimplification of the neo-conservative notion of leveraging power. But that was the essence of it, if you recall.
I would argue that that has been proved mistaken. Maybe it will last for a little bit. Maybe it would last if we still had a million-man army as we did after World War II and a half-a-trillion-dollar-a-year surplus instead of a half-a-trillion-dollar-a-year deficit, or thereabouts. But it surely could not work and will not work with our present military posture capability and our present economic situation and our incredible dependence on oil. Our foreign policy is being held hostage to oil, not just oil in the Middle East, oil outside of the United States. And so we have our options limited as to what we are able to do in a lot of foreign policy.
Where does all of this end in answering any of your questions, the questions relating to the best way to understand it? The best way, in my view, to understand the rise of radical Islam is to make sure that we understand one size does not fit all; one theory does not fit all. The Islamic world is as divided as East and West is divided. They are not the same.
The idea of comparing the Islamic world, the hostility that exists in the West, in Saudi Arabia and in Turkey as manifesting itself in the same way, I think, is not rational. You have an Islamic government, democratically elected, wanting to be part of the West, and if we can prevent our European friends from following their usual bad instincts, they will be allowed to become part of the West. You have Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, and India, the second largest Muslim country in the world, actually having some version of functioning democracies with other outlets. The correlations and the similarity among Muslims are, I think, vastly different. You have political, cultural and protest versions of Islam, and they manifest themselves in different ways. We have to understand that as well.
The second point I would make is that we ought to retire strange references to the dangers of the past, this totalitarian Islam, the idea of a caliphate — which I respectfully suggest they probably don’t understand or have any background on — nor did I, until several years ago — on what the caliphate was for the previous thousand or 2,000 years and its iterations.
And lastly, I think we should avoid this dead-end, false choice that is mounting between the Republican idea that democracy is a good thing, a be-all, end-all that you can in fact unleash and walk away, or, on the Democratic side, the notion that this is not such a good idea and you will get bad things that happen when you have elections.
I don’t know many of the most severe oligarchs or dictators that have resisted elections. They had elections in Iraq before we got there; they have elections in Pakistan, and so on. So I think we have to be a lot more discriminating in how we look at this. Is there a coherent approach at this point? I think there are elements of it.
And I will end with this: I think the elements of a coherent approach are, first, understand how different this is; one size does not fit all. Democratization is a process. It is going to take a long time. It’s going to cost a lot of money — not a little money, a lot of money. We have to begin to figure out ways that are a financial help. To use fundraising terms, the bundling of that help is one that focuses as well on NGOs, civil societies and direct aid.
Let me give you one example. I believe, with regard to Pakistan, we should be saying to the Pakistani that we are going to continue this. Half of this aid is military aid — But guess what? — tell us the cost of your education system and we will build you another thousand schools. We will give you aid. We will give you aid for education. We will give you aid for a healthcare system. We will go in and give aid, as I suggested when I got back from Iraq; Powell embraced it fully. The administration resisted it.
We had overwhelming evidence that you could set up a functioning school that would admit women and men, young boys and girls from the primary grades through high school for $20,000 a year. I came back and asked, why don’t we go build a thousand schools? I wasn’t joking about that. You have got 700, 500 madrassas in the region. What do the Saudis do? What do the Wahhabis do? They build schools.
Does that answer the question? No. Does that solve our problem? No. But it is the nature of the kind of engagement I think we have to have in these arenas, because I reject the notion that this is all driven by poverty or by just failed states; it is much more complicated than that. Again, I don’t have the full answer, to state the obvious, but this is a process.
I used to have a friend named Bob Gold (God love him, he died). He was a kid three years behind me in high school, and he was a very bright guy. He used to have an expression; he used to say, “You know, Joe, you have got to know how to know; you have got to know how to know.”
Well, in this very sophisticated town, among you very sophisticated people, and the semi-sophisticated people I work with, we have got to know how to know. We are not going about it very well. But I know one thing, the route we are on isn’t going to get us there, and exaggerating the nature of the threat, making Osama bin Laden not 6’5″ but 12 feet tall is not in our interests either.
MR. DIONNE: I want to thank you very much. I like to think of distorted headlines that come out of sessions like this: “Biden praises Rumsfeld as Generous,” “Pronounces Brookings Neocon Institution,” “Admits Paid Staffers Just Ran Seminars,” and “Proposes Bringing No Child Left Behind to Pakistan.” (Laughter.)
I am just going to ask one obvious, totally simple question and then turn it to everybody else. Is there any way the United States can get to a good outcome in Iraq? One outcome that is not acceptable is, it depends on what the meaning of “good” is, although that may be part of the answer. If there is a way, do you have any idea what it is?
SEN. BIDEN: Yes and yes, if you use my definition from the beginning. This is not Monday morning quarterbacking. When we held those hearings six months before we went to war — this is one of the first places there of a detailed record, a paper trail at that time where I, mostly joined by Sen. Lugar, said, a) we would not be greeted with open arms; b) there wasn’t enough oil to make this work — we need to invest $30 billion in the ground before we start getting the oil out; c) we were going to need at least 100,000 troops for five to 10 years if we were going to be engaged in nation building, which was going to be required; and d) there was no bureaucratic infrastructure to stand up once, in fact, we knocked Saddam out.
So I concluded from all of that, that whatever we did, even if we did it all right, the best you could hope for is essentially a federated republic that was secure within its own borders, not a threat to its neighbors and not a haven for terror, where each of the major constituencies believed they had more at stake in maintaining the country together than it spinning apart.
If you start with the premise I started from, it is still soluble. There is still a way to reach that outcome, but it is becoming extremely elusive. It is down to a three-point shot at the buzzer from somewhere between the key and mid-court. That is about where we are, but it is possible; it is possible.
I plan on making a much more fulsome explanation of what I am going to just outline very briefly here, and that is: It rests upon making sure, on recognizing, to state the obvious, that at this moment the Sunnis, the Shi’as and the Kurds have a different view of reality than they had six months ago. That is my premise.
The different view of reality is that the Shi’as now believe they are more physically capable of delivering pain and suffering in retribution to the Sunnis, but I also believe they are reaching a conclusion there is no way they can, in fact, be the main player in that country and not have an insurgency coming from the Sunnis that will last as long as they are alive. They cannot eliminate them. They cannot establish a circumstance in which there is control over the triangle that does not cause them great pain for the foreseeable future. They can be the dominant force; they can be the first among equals, but they cannot spare their population serious retribution.
I believe the Sunnis have reached the conclusion, or are on the verge of reaching the conclusion, that the idea of regaining their status as the dominant party, the dominant people running the country as in previous decades, is beyond their reach now. So the question is: What is the minimum requirement they need in order to be able to buy in, where they can conclude they are better off in than out? And I think that has to do with their semi-autonomy, and revenues and how they are going to win. So I think that begins to be the basis upon which that happens.
Although they like the idea, I think the Kurds would have been very happy in my meeting with Barzani and Talabani before the war. They would not have been disappointed if we had left Saddam in place as long as we kept the no-fly-zone in place. They were doing very well (I’m not being facetious). You rode through that part of the world and you saw the construction of hundreds and hundreds of new schools and hospitals. You also saw shining, new, emerald-green and royal-blue mosques with golden domes. And when I asked them, “Where does that come from?” they said, “The Saudis. We can’t stop it; we can’t stop it.”
Even as much as they desire independence, I think they have become seasoned and smart enough to know that if there is a total collapse in the geographic boundaries that we now call Iraq, that they will play hell with the Turks and play hell with the Iranians because of their overwhelming concern about the remaining millions of Kurds in both of those areas.
So that is the starting point. I’m not prepared to say it all now because, quite frankly, I am working it out in detail, hopefully within the next two weeks, with the help of some of the people I have been working with inside my staff and out. I will be able to lay out an alternative, but the elements of it relate to what I call a new realization on the part of the players inside. I think there is also realization by the players outside, the regional powers. By the way, I would argue that the administration is still split. There was this San Andreas Fault that ran through the administration that I talked about the first year Mr. Bush was president, and people thought I was a little nuts. But it was the widest gulf I’ve ever seen in the seven presidents I’ve served with as to how to proceed internationally. With the departure of Powell and company, I think that everybody thinks everyone is on the same page. I don’t think they are on the same page.
I think there is a serious debate still going on internally about whether to get out, say we’re staying in, or actually do something about being in and actually trying to build a country. And I think that’s far from resolved. The president says the decision will be made on troop levels based upon the conditions on the ground. Tell me what happened in the last 100 days that justifies drawing down 30,000 American troops, if that’s really what’s driving this?
I think there is still disagreement, but here is the premise I think that has not been adopted. I’ve operated on the premise from the outset that we haven’t taken advantage of the fact that it is not in anyone’s interest, including the Iranians, for a full-blown civil war to break out. I think the Iranians love it exactly how it is. They’re bleeding the United States. We’re in there. It’s just fine. We’re preventing a full-blown civil war and we’re hurting and they like that. I also think the last thing they want is a full-blown civil war with 17 million of their religious brethren learning how to hone their fighting skills, acquire weapons and have the ability to give ideas, thoughts and notions to their 60 million Shi’a brethren in Iran who are Indo-European but hate the clerics that are running that country. If you’re sitting in Tehran, that’s not a thing that you would think is such a good idea, to have a full-blown civil war in Iraq with regional war consequences. The same with Turkey, the same with our Sunni brethren, the same with the Germans (and they’re worried about the Kurds) and the same with the French.
We have not taken advantage diplomatically of this factor. The region isn’t looking for a civil war and the world is not looking for a civil war, so how do we leverage that to our interest? We have not done that well either. The elements of a new policy, which I doubt this administration will embrace, relate to, I think, a change in reality of the aspirations and possibilities that each of the parties in the region think exist, and the concern and threat that poses if it breaks down to the region. And that’s as much as I’m prepared to say about it right now. Back in December when I came back from my sixth trip, after a long dinner with Jafari, I talked about the fact that there is no basis for any ability to build something on his back, and there is no reasonable prospect of that.
Also, remember my saying that I thought the whole notion of having a non-clerical head of the Department of Interior in the Army was essential. And you may remember, I said two years ago there is no police force; they’re death squads; that was a bunch of malarkey. We have not trained a police force. There is no legitimate police force. There was no legitimate training. It did not exist, has not existed from day one, and it has become a vehicle for the Shi’as to be able to impose retribution upon the Sunnis. So there was a need for fundamental change there.
Even if that happens, I think events have moved far enough that I don’t know what this new government does then. You may have those, if you will, departments controlled by nonsectarian forces, but what happens to the health minister who is a Shi’a? Do you think he’s going to cut a clear hand and a piece of the pie for the Sunnis? Do you think that’s going to happen on roads? Do you think it’s going to happen on water? I think things have moved so far that I’m beginning to worry about whether there is a possibility to have the kind of government I envisioned a year ago. And who knows? As Monday-morning quarterback, I would argue if we had done certain things then, it may have been.
I think it’s beginning to emerge into a new ballgame in terms of how you define the regions, how you define revenues and the like. I’m working on a proposal, quite frankly, with a couple other people that I hope to unveil in a way that is something other than a transitory headline in a single or multiple papers or on “Meet the Press,” and then everybody yawns and we move on.
MR. DIONNE: So that was the appetizer version of the Biden plan. I was thinking, you know, another fake headline: “Keep God out of Interior Department, Biden says.” (Laughter.)
SEN. BIDEN: Well, you’re not going to do that because I just met our nominee for Interior Department as we were walking out. I think God’s there — I don’t know. (Laughter.)
MR. DIONNE: Why don’t we bring in a couple of people at a time?
JONATHAN BEALE, BBC: (Off mike.) What does that say to you about the compatibility — (off mike) [Question asked of Senator Biden about the intense international pressure put on President Hamid Karzai to drop the case against Abdul Rahman, the Afghan man who converted from Islam to Christianity and faced a possible death sentence for his conversion.]
SEN. BIDEN: Inevitable, finessed very well and the kind of conundrum we’re going to go through for the next 20 years in dealing with that part of the world. It demonstrates to me that Karzai desperately wants us around. I contacted him. I’m sure a lot of other people did. I also contacted the foreign minister, and they both understood the politics of failing to reach the resolution that was eventually reached, to basically say you’re on your own, he’s out, and not try him and hang him. I think it’s a process and I think we’re going to see more of it. I don’t think anyone should reasonably expect any clear, defined outcomes in the next several years that comport with our notion of what we expect these emerging societies to embrace.
JONATHAN RAUCH, NATIONAL JOURNAL: Thank you for coming, Senator. Could you give us your current thoughts on Iran — the magnitude of the threat, how to deal with it and what to do differently?
SEN. BIDEN: (Laughs.) I think the president has gotten it right in terms of joining what Sen. Lugar and I and others for three years — Sen. Hagel, Sen. McCain and I, speaking separately to the Iranian-American Chamber of Commerce — argued: that we should be having direct contacts with the NGOs. We should have been inviting members of their parliament out of country to meet with those of us who were willing to exchange ideas and talk. I think we finally got it right. We’re on the same page as the Europeans (at least at this moment), the Russians and the Chinese. We’ve got to make sure we are not viewed as having been the problem, the reason things didn’t work. It’s substantive as well as diplomatic.
I think we’ve got to stay on that same page. I think the real crunch point is going to come in the very near term. My prediction is the Europeans are going to say we’ve got to put more carrots out there on the table in order to get a deal. I think we should go along with what they suggest. I don’t know whether or not it will be accepted, but it reinforces who the bad guy is. Then the real crunch time is going to come when in fact, and if in fact, the UN, but particularly the world powers — meaning Europe, Russia and China — decide on a sanctions regime. I think it’s very uncertain, and I think that rather than push it hard now, we should push it gradually. It’s going to have three or four stages to it before it breaks down, hopefully, and hopefully it won’t break down. But, if you think logically, you could say what we should do is run the risk of energy sanctions. We’ll hurt them more than we’ll hurt us. It will be very damaging to the West, but it will cripple and bring to its knees this regime. I don’t think we’re ready for that. I don’t think the world is together on that yet.
And the last point: the threat. I view the threat as not being nearly as imminent as the Israelis, and I believe that we have time. How much time? I think we have time to play out the diplomatic string for a while yet before we find ourselves in a situation where we are directly, immediately threatened by a nuclear capability on the back of a missile coming from the Iranians.
MR. VAN WESEL, THE JERUSALEM REPORT: We don’t know anything, what his views are presently with the formation of a new government. Do you have any insight?
SEN. BIDEN: No, I don’t. I can state the speculation and tell you what I’m more inclined to think than not, but I don’t know. And I have plumbed this with our folks in the intelligence community and people who I believe have some genuine expertise when it comes to Iraq, and it’s not clear. At least I don’t get a clear, unified response. It’s somewhere between Sistani finding that his troops have gone and moved out ahead of him and he’s trying to figure out how in fact he maintains this aura of being the most powerful presence and the most powerful notion within Iraq — between that and the fact that he has, by and large, been reluctant to take a position — or at least even let it be known it’s a public position, without asserting it through his spokespersons — choosing among and between the Shi’a parties.
So I think that doesn’t mean he may not be in the background trying to coalesce a position, but I think thus far, because there is no position, you see now the prospect of a split among the Shi’a right now, the Daawa and SCIRI Party as it relates to Jafari. I don’t know whether that is the silent hand of Sistani or whether he’s hands-off because he can’t control it. I don’t know the answer.
HAFEZ AL-MIRAZI, AL JAZEERA: Hafez Al-Mirazi, Al Jazeera.
SEN. BIDEN: I should ask you the questions.
MR. AL-MIRAZI: (Chuckles.) First, well, let me really congratulate you for the very clear assessment of what is not the problem.
SEN. BIDEN: I wish you wouldn’t do that in front of all these people. (Laughter.) I can see the new headline: “Al Jazeera endorses Biden for president.” All right, thank you very much. I’m only kidding. I shouldn’t — (laughter)
MR. DIONNE: That’s good. We’re getting good at this.
SEN. BIDEN: Yeah, I am. Believe me, I read what you write. (Laughter.)
MR. AL-MIRAZI: Despite your humble introduction that you don’t know much about the region or the problem, at least saying, these are not the problems, or this is not the problem and we are getting the wrong diagnosis, I think is half or 60 or 70 percent of how to approach it. Given that those people who are giving the wrong diagnosis of what’s going on are already executing policies and getting into ways of how to do it.
Let me get to the Al Jazeera part of my question. You are perceived — at least to me, as a person working with the media in Washington for more than 20 years — as a supporter of a project for the media of the Arab world, or reaching out to the Arab- Muslim world. That is one of the largest perceived failures or wrong approaches for reaching out to the Arab and Muslim world — the Radio Sawa and Arabic-language TV station Alhurra, funded by the U.S. I used to work with Voice of America, and we remembered that Senator Biden said, there are no such things as government journalists. But here you are with Radio Sawa and Alhurra broadcasting to people who look to the U.S. to be independent and not interfere in media, approaching them with U.S. government-owned or government-funded radio and TV stations, giving them answers for questions they did not ask, and I wonder why, if you could explain that. Thank you.
SEN. BIDEN: I would be happy to explain it. I would disagree with your characterization of how much it’s been embraced or not embraced. Radio Sawa has a listenership in at least four Arab countries that is the largest listenership of any radio station in the region, according to the figures I’ve been given, number one. Number two, the model is not and was not intended to be Voice of America. It’s a constant fight for me with the last head of the board of broadcasters, the BBG, the chairman of the International Broadcasting Bureau, the IBB. The model is Radio Free Europe; the model is not Voice of America.
And I’ve listened to the broadcasts, translated for me, so I’m assuming the translations are accurate. I recall Sawa reporting the circumstances in Abu Ghraib. You all don’t report the flip side of anything good that’s happening, I’ve noticed, and so what I’ve noticed is that this: Radio Sawa and Alhurra actually have, if you listen to the debates on that station, people debating and criticizing U.S. policy. I don’t see anything like you all have on that. I mean, you look like a wholly-owned subsidiary to me. And I don’t mean that in a personal sense; I mean that literally.
MR. DIONNE: “Al Jazeera Withdraws Endorsement.” (Laughter.)
SEN. BIDEN: But seriously, again, the question here is how can we in fact engage in a competition of ideas — which we’re not doing very much of — a competition of ideas in the 21st century with a much, much, much more fulsome notion of what constitutes public diplomacy, being willing to engage the rest of the world in a way that we’ve been unable or unwilling to do today?
I’ll end with a short story. When Lech Walesa came to the states for the first time after having been elected, and Poland was free, we hosted him in the Foreign Relations Committee. Many of you have been in that room and know how we line up and greet the dignitary coming to lunch. I happened to be over in the corner on the telephone because he was late. He walked into the room, and he walked across to me and put his arms around me and said thank you, before I could get to the receiving line. And I said, geez, no, no, no, Mr. President. I said, thank you; thank Solidarity. He said, no, no, no, not Solidarity. He said, Radio Free Europe and the Holy Father. Ideas. Where do we compete and put our ideas out for debate?
Now, Alhurra may not be the best way. Radio Sawa may not be the best way, but you’ve got roughly 50 percent — in some cases as high as 60 percent — of the Arab world listening, including the Persian world, under the age of 21. How do you get to those folks? How are you going to get to them in this country? Are you going to have Joe Biden or President Bush or John McCain go on and tell them not to use drugs? I’m not being facetious; I’m being deadly earnest. What you do is you go to the rock stars. The most popular people in entire the Arab world are rock stars. And so what do we do? Guess what? They’re turning on that channel because they in fact like the music, and if 5 percent of what they get is real, live news — five minutes at the beginning and the end of the hour, and the half hour — that’s a positive start.
But we’ve got to be willing, I think — because I’m willing — to compete with these ideas. We’ve got to be willing to show ourselves, warts and all. My problem with my conservative friends is they don’t want to show the warts. But I think the way to gain some credibility is to show the warts. And so, for example, when we accidentally bombed that wedding — how long ago was that, 18 months ago or longer? — that wedding party — Guess what? Alhurra had it on TV. They showed it. Radio Sawa also played it.
I’m not suggesting that Radio Sawa is, any more than any press outlet — I’m going to make you all mad — I would argue that Radio Sawa is no more controlled than any of you who work for Knight-Ridder or any of you who work for the major corporations of this country, or any more than —
MR. DIONNE: Actually, nobody controls Knight-Ridder. (Laughter.)
SEN. BIDEN: That’s right. Well, that’s true. Knight-Ridder. Wrong example. At any rate —
MR. AL-MIRAZI: Very quick follow up, if you would allow me.
SEN. BIDEN: Sure.
MR. AL-MIRAZI: The problem is the information. I would hope you use the same approach that you did with understanding the problem of radical Islam to verify the information that you get. Zogby International and University of Maryland released information showing the U.S.-funded Alhurra TV with 1 percent viewership in six major Arab countries, compared with 60 percent for other networks, including Al Jazeera.
SEN. BIDEN: Well, I think that’s true. Television is a lot harder.
MR. AL-MIRAZI: I’m not asking you to stop funding Radio Sawa because my wife works there; I don’t want her to lose her job. (Laughter.)
SEN. BIDEN: An honest man. (Laughter.)
MR. AL-MIRAZI: But I am saying it does not solve the problem. And the music and rock stars, they make things worse for some conservative societies because if the problem is U.S. policy, you don’t want to bring in values. You don’t want people to think that America is about Britney Spears; you just want to give a more mainstream vision of America, not the rock stars. Thank you.
SEN. BIDEN: Well, again, the rock star is just to attract the audience. I mean, as all of you know, it’s hard to gain adherents. As a friend of mine says, let me get in your car, turn it on and see what buttons your radio is tuned to and I can tell a lot about you. Nobody has that kind of allegiance on television. You cannot go in and tell me — well, maybe you can with Fox, I don’t know, if you’re Cheney (laughter) — but other than that, all kidding aside, it’s a very different sell. It’s not surprising. And when I supported it and suggested that Alhurra be set up, I said, quite frankly, I’m not sure this will work because television is a much more difficult medium for gaining that kind of viewership and allegiance than radio.
And again, the only reason for the rock star stuff is that I want to figure out how to get to the 60 percent of the world that knows nothing about us except what they get from you, that we just bomb women and children all the time — which we do occasionally — and there is nothing more to us. That’s the reason for it. It may not be the answer. I don’t expect an answer, but I view it as a beginning. And I don’t know how else we begin to compete. Our policies ultimately are what matter, and at this moment, I’ve not been very successful in changing those.
JANE LITTLE, BBC: In a way, my question is very related to Hafez’s question on the media. You talked about the psychological causes of fundamentalism and the fact that one size doesn’t fit all, and that Islam’s movements manifest in different ways and different places. But, arguably, the big thing that connects them is a seething anger at the U.S. and the sense of humiliation and wounded pride. How, in that context, with those feelings, can the U.S. encourage civil society, build schools in Pakistan when, arguably, many of those schools might get burnt down if they’re associated with the U.S.? Shouldn’t, for instance, the U.S. be taking more of a back seat and quietly encouraging a homegrown Islamic reformist movement?
SEN. BIDEN: The answer is yes, we should. They’re not incompatible in my view. We should be doing a whole lot of things. And I would point out, I don’t recall us being the most hated nation in the world and the organizing principle for Islam in the year 2000. You [the United Kingdom] were. You don’t treat your immigrants as well as we treat ours. France doesn’t treat its immigrants as well as we treat ours. Our policies and our president and our arrogance went a long way to changing overnight — overnight — go to the Pew Research Center studies — see where we stood in the world in the year 1990, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000.
So I would argue that we overcame Britain and overcame France as the organizing principle because of arrogance and a policy that — not withstanding our position all through this period — supports Israel. When I talk about Islam, remember, the smallest portion of Islam is Arabic. Everybody forgets that. The smallest portion of Islam is Arabic. The reason it’s so important is it has all the oil, which I would argue is the reason why we need a demonstrable, radical change in our energy policy, which will take a decade or more, but at least to signal to the boys, hey, someday we aren’t going to need you. You better have, as they say in southern Delaware — really mixed metaphors here — a come-to-Jesus meeting, a little altar call. (Laughter.)
Now, I’m not joking. I really mean it. The idea that somehow the United States and our values have been perceived as being antithetical to Islam for any period of time — it’s a little like I say to my democratic friends, you know, we have the strategy to win a presidential election: 17 [states] plus one? Give me a break. If you can’t have appeal in 12 to 15 of those red states, forget it; you can’t govern. You might win, but you can’t govern. And they say, how can you do that? Well, if our boy Clinton had run again, he would have won in Louisiana, he would have won Missouri, he would have won Tennessee, he would have won Florida, he would have won Colorado, he would have won Ohio. There wasn’t this epiphany, as we Catholics say, in which all of a sudden America stood up and was born again in Jesus Christ and George Bush and conservative doctrine. That’s a bunch of malarkey.
Well, it’s the same way about the world. The world didn’t all of a sudden wake up one day and say, hey — Guess what? — you know, we’ve been wrong about the U.S.’s policy initiatives. The arrogance with which we employed them, in my view, is the reason why there has been this phenomenal shift and turn. Remember some saying the “Arab street” was going to rise if we went into Afghanistan? We did it the right way then. The president spent months sending envoys to every country. I was in those meetings. I sat there. I was asked at that time to be part of it. He did it right. We went in and bombed the living daylights out of the Taliban and nobody rose. No embassy was burned. No uniform or remotely approaching uniform hatred for the United States resulted because we consulted, we laid out why we were doing it, and we spent a lot of time making the case why it was a justified war, which it was. And then along came that old song, “Along Came Jones” — then along came Iraq.
There is a right way to do things, folks, and a wrong way. And I would argue that the biggest deficit this administration is going to leave the next president of this nation is that my party will conclude that force is never a legitimate tool. I fought that for four years with Clinton, and that’s not hyperbole. I beat Clinton up and about the head from 1994 on about Bosnia and Kosovo and mass graves and rape camps. And the constant refrain I got from my Democratic friends who wanted none of it was, we learned our lesson in Vietnam, Joe; you can’t get in there, man. These people have fought each other and hated each other for years. There is no room for force in there. But we did it [in Kosovo]. We didn’t lose a single American troop. We used our brain. We did not wait for consensus from the United Nations.
Folks, there’s a right way and a wrong way. I’m fearful the legacy this president is going to leave is that no president will have as a legitimate arrow in his quiver the use of force, which is an essential element of American foreign policy — not the use of it, but the availability of the use of it.
MR. DIONNE: I know the senator is going to have to leave shortly, but there are at least three hands. Let’s bring them all in together, and then that of course gives the senator a chance to evade whatever question he wants.
NINA EASTON, BOSTON GLOBE: Along the same lines, I sensed early on, and of course in your last statement, a lot of criticism about your own party, which came out with its national security plan last week. You were there on the back of the stage. What do you think of where the party is right now on national security?
JAMES KITFIELD, NATIONAL JOURNAL: You mentioned that there was so much we didn’t know going into Iraq, and that now we’re at the three-point shot from the mid-court level. In the top of your mind, if we knew then what we know now, how could we have avoided this? I would be very interested to hear your comments on that.
ALEC RUSSELL, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH: As you probably know, in the last few years there has been a lot of talk, certainly outside America, of two competing religious forces coming head to head: political Islam coming up against a very sort of strong, muscular right-wing Christianity.
You were talking about President Bush and his colleagues drawing a book of neoconservative doctrine, or whatever it was, sort of off the shelf. I know that’s a very loose analogy, but I wonder whether you could just say to what extent you think President Bush’s strong faith played a role in his decision-making.
SEN. BIDEN: I don’t know. I don’t know. In all my meetings with him he’s never phrased it in terms of his faith. I think, to the extent that his faith works, as I think that — I have alcoholics in my family. I don’t know whether President Bush is an alcoholic, but he said he had a problem with alcoholism. I have a brother recovering, and I’ve had uncles and aunts, and one of the things I notice is that there is a strong sense, a conviction that grows from being able to beat it. Dr. [Herbert] Kleber once said to me, there are only two ways alcoholics make it. One is they have a see-Jesus syndrome — they literally come home one night, they run over their cat, are about to lose their job that they’ve had for 20 years or about to lose their child or daughter, and sometimes they have an epiphany. They actually look to a higher meaning in their life and it works for them. For others it’s AA. There is no other formula out there that I’ve ever observed, and I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to figure it out.
And I think President Bush draws strength from a confidence in himself — a confidence and a willingness. He always amazes me. I’ve been in this a long time — as I’ve said, I’ve been there for seven presidents. And I hope by this time I’m good enough — whether I know any policy — to know whether the person I’m talking to means what they say or doesn’t mean what they say. And it astounds me. I’ve kidded Bush to say, Mr. President, how can you be so sure, knowing you don’t know the facts? I mean, how can you say these things? And he’ll say, my instincts — my instincts. I think he draws a real inner strength and a willingness to stand alone. So I think he is less susceptible, because of that experience he’s had, to being buffeted by political winds. In that sense it’s a great asset that he has. It can be a liability. It can turn from determination to obstinacy, and I think that’s where it is, in my view.
So that’s as much as I’ve ever observed about Bush, and I equate his faith with his sense of certainty and calmness and his being at peace with himself, not with propagating the faith, going out there and making the world a Christian world. I didn’t get any sense of that, ever, in any conversation I’ve had with Bush. I know others have written about that, but I’ve never experienced anything like that, so if I had to guess, I’d guess that’s not part of it.
With regard to foreign policy generally, the national security plan of the Democrats, and if we knew then what we know now: I knew then what we know now. We wrote then what we know now. The only thing I didn’t know then that we know now is how incompetent this administration has been, and I mean that literally; I don’t mean that figuratively. It’s been incompetent — incompetent. For example, just take the contracts — the way in which the first year and a half we were handing out contracts. I’m not talking about scandals. I’m not talking about Haliburton or anything. We had young people who were over there making judgments about what projects to support who had no experience — none, zero, none at all. We did not move serious State Department personnel in-country for a lot of reasons. We did not approach this with the same degree of professionalism that we have many other areas of the world and many other circumstances.
So if I knew then what I know now, it would be the inability of this administration to handle the power we gave them wisely. Going back to the question about this foreign policy as it emerged, it seems to me that the president initially acknowledged but misread why we gave him the power. Put another way: Had I been president, I would have asked for the authority. I would have asked for the authority not to go to war but to coalesce the country and to bring pressure in the United Nations, because everybody forgets. I know you all know it, but it’s always what the moment is.
Back then, remember what the essence of the debate was: Do we lift sanctions or do we use all the pressure we have to get the world to screw down the sanctions tighter? That was the context of the debate. Remember, we were the reason why all those poor children were dying and there weren’t enough supplies in the hospitals, and so forth. Some on the left in this country were making that argument, and throughout Europe the argument was being made. And we all put the rationale to give the president the power in terms of having to give him the authority to use force for it to be credible. I remember my meetings with the secretary of state; I’m absolutely convinced at the front end of this he misread it as much as I did. I’m convinced he didn’t think we were going to use force — that he actually thought he could get something done at the United Nations to help screw down these sanctions.
There is a lot more to say about that, but the point is, I think the president was dead wrong. I think that Powell and Lugar and Biden and a lot of other people were outsmarted, in the sense that I really thought there was an open question. I really thought the president had not resolved that war was the alternative. Looking back on it you can say, well, it’s so clear that that’s what he intended. Well, I wasn’t smart enough. I thought he would actually use this power given in a way that I believe — Who knows? — could have avoided war, tightened the screws on Saddam and rendered a different policy. But that’s for history to decide, not me. I misread what I now believe was an absolute certainty that they were going to go — wasn’t any stopping it, that was the deal, because of the underlying rationale about nation-states being the breeding grounds for supporters of terrorism.
The Democratic national security plan. I am anxious for the debate in this election on who’s post-9/11 and who is pre-9/11. These folks are derelict in their homeland security. Look, measure them by their own standard, the standard this administration set up to measure themselves in terms of their fight on terror and their dealing with our physical security here at home. They got failing grades across the board from a bipartisan group that’s operating on our own nickel. As late as December 5th of last year in a detailed report that said — I’m paraphrasing — there is no plan, no strategy and no decision on how to allocate scarce resources. We have a plan, a real plan as to how to deal with homeland security. And it relates to priorities, folks. The fundamental difference between where we are and where the Republicans are now is: priority.
I’ll give you one example. We’re going to spend $6.6 billion roughly on “Star Wars” issues — the least likely threat America faces, by the way — and with a distant prospect of it working. Were I president or you president, you could put 1,300 more cops on the street, 1,000 more FBI agents in the street, you could buy 10 million doses of acute radiation-sickness vaccine. You could, in fact, inspect every single, solitary cargo container that reaches an American port, and you could, in fact, have the 35 major cities in America have interoperability capability for the police, first responders, National Guard, United States military and the Coast Guard to be able to communicate in case of emergency, which does not exist now.
This is dereliction. And the Democratic Party has finally, in my view, stepped up and said, here’s what we would do. Now, they capture Osama bin Laden and kill him — okay, that is a little bit of politics. But the actual policy changes — the actual policy changes are real changes in priorities.
MS. EASTON: Going back to Iraq, you had members of your own party calling for withdrawal of troops, including —
SEN. BIDEN: No we don’t, by the way —
MS. EASTON: Well, John Kerry.
SEN. BIDEN: What did Jack Murtha say? Who has [said that]?
MS. EASTON: John Kerry did — withdraw 20,000 over the holidays, he said.
SEN. BIDEN: Well, the president withdrew 30,000; how is it different?
MS. EASTON: But, you know —
SEN. BIDEN: Look, look, look —
MS. EASTON: But there is a wide range of views within the party on Iraq that I think —
SEN. BIDEN: No, there is not.
MS. EASTON: — glossed over in this program last week, which said, let’s have some transition this year.
SEN. BIDEN: Look, we have never relied on Democratic unity to win, so I’m not making the case here. (Laughter.) But let’s look at the fact. Tell me the difference between Jack Murtha’s plan and the plan announced by the president — six months? Let’s get a life here, okay? Does anybody here believe this administration is going to keep more than 100,000 forces in Iraq by January of next year? Raise your hand, I’ll buy you lunch.
You know they are not going to keep the troops there. So what the heck is the difference between Murtha and the president? The president has to say, “Win at all costs; we are staying, we are staying.” As I said, give me a justification for withdrawal; this president called for drawing down 10,000 more troops than John Kerry called for. If I were John, I would be a little embarrassed. I’m being literal; I’m not playing a spin game with you here; look at the facts.
There is this notion, there is truth to the idea, that, just like the Republican Party has about 35 percent of its party in the hands of the extreme right, there is about 20 percent of the Democratic Party — I don’t know exactly what the number is — who probably want to withdraw troops from Afghanistan as well. They are not saying it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. If there is ever a just war, ever a rationale, ever a need to stay, it’s Afghanistan; that is where al Qaeda is; al Qaeda is there; the Taliban is there.
As I said to the president as respectfully as I could when he talked about the great victory in Afghanistan, Mr. President, how many body bags did you count? Not a joke, folks. How many Taliban body bags did you count? Where did all of these guys go? Did you think all of a sudden they had a conversion? They are still there.
I admit to you that we have a split in the Democratic Party. But think of the difference here. The differences are no greater than the differences that exist in the Republican Party on Iraq right now; they really aren’t. Yeah, Joe Biden three years ago was saying we needed more forces, and I spent two years arguing that we needed to put 50,000 to 100,000 forces there. My party did stand back; they didn’t disagree with me because they are not sure what to do, but no one ran out in front and joined them.
John McCain said initially, Biden is being hysterical, and two months later he said, we need 100,000 troops. That time has passed. We are beyond that. There is no way that can work positively now.
I guess what I am trying to say to you is, there is a difference in one important sense. If you poll Republicans and you poll Democrats, there is a great push on the part of all the Democratic office holders to say: I want out of Iraq; get me out of Iraq; it doesn’t matter how, just get me out. On the Republican side, there is a great push to say: Although this is a failure, don’t get me out of Iraq, don’t cut and run. But what you have in between is a general consensus, with 56 percent of the Americans people who say you can’t pull the troops out now.
Here is what they have done, folks, in my opinion. Maybe I am a victim and a product of running for office during the Vietnam War. Sen. Lindsey Graham came up to speak to 500 of my folks last night. I have this thing called Biden Seminars twice a year and I bring people in from both political parties — people pay $100 to join us — not a fundraising vehicle. They are the business community, the labor community, the activist community, probably 60 percent Democrat, 25 percent Independent, the rest Republicans.
Lindsey Graham comes up and speaks last night to us. The last speaker I had was Sen. Dick Lugar, because I want people to see the other side of this equation. When asked about Iraq, Graham made the point to them that we have made significant and gigantic mistakes in Iraq, and went so far as to say, if he had listened to Biden, maybe we would be better off; he was being nice to me.
But when it got down to the questioning, Lindsey’s point was the same point that Lugar has made, the same point McCain is making now, that Hagel is making, that the vast majority of the people who were viewed as having some knowledge of and/or expertise or interest in foreign policy would say, and that is, whatever high expectations you had about the prospects of success in Iraq, diminish them; wherever you started from, if you had a positive expectation — whatever it was, cut it in half, and that is about as good as you are going to get.
After Lindsey left for the train, some of my liberal friends in the audience asked me, Joe, why don’t you talk more about Iraq and the failures of Iraq? When you talk to Democrats, tell them. I said, for the same reason I didn’t talk about Vietnam when I ran. If you go back and look at that race, it drove liberals crazy. I was excoriated. I said, here is my position on Vietnam, bang, and that was the end of the conversation. You know why? By November 1972, every American had a firm view on Vietnam. Guess what? I’m sure 95 percent of the American people have a firm view on Iraq now. Some are hoping against hope it can get pulled out and others are absolutely convinced it is gone.
The question for me is, how do I keep my party from giving Bush the excuse for the reason why we failed when it’s his failure. This is Bush’s war, beginning, middle and end — Bush’s war. And my argument with Democrats is, even those who don’t agree with me, for God’s sake, let Bush be the guy to not be able to turn and say, but for those Democrats I could have done it. We have given him everything he has asked for; the problem is he hasn’t given his commanders what they have asked for from the beginning.
What you sense, I think, legitimately, is a real tension inside the leadership of the Democratic Party and the rank-and-file in the Congress saying, why don’t we just stand up and say we lost, because it looks like we lost. And you have got guys like me saying Bush lost this; let the world and the country know he lost it and don’t give him and Karl Rove this malarkey of saying, you know, those Democrats say we lost; you know, that undermined our ability to get things done; but for that we would have won this thing.
So, to that extent, I’m being very blunt with you. There is politics in it. But the truth is, I don’t know a single, solitary member of this administration talking about putting more troops in. I don’t know anybody — any consensus in this administration that says anything other than we are going to have to drastically draw down the number of troops. And the only debate is going to be how rapidly you draw down and what you redeploy.
The new debate, the new legitimate debate, is going to be: Can we redeploy in such a way that we can act as a break on the worst things that could happen in Iraq, but recognizing we are not going to be able to, through the exercise of military force, produce the best things that could happen in Iraq? I know I am a broken record on this, folks, but we cannot want peace — we cannot want security in Iraq more than Iraqis want it; we cannot.
So the debate now is going to be — mark my words — a dangerous thing to say because there are so many national journalists here, because you will mark it and remind me legitimately — I think the debate is going to be: What is the redeployment strategy? What do we do to prevent a regional war from happening and delay the onset of a real civil war to give a last chance here for the Iraqis “to come to their senses,” to some degree, to cobble together a government.
Anyway, thank you all very, very much for having me. I appreciate it greatly.
MR. DIONNE: You know, some politicians give the impression they are telling you what they think. Unless you really fooled us, you really told us what you think, and what you think about how to think. Thank you very much, Senator.
SEN. BIDEN: Thank you.