Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sat down with Salon over coffee at the Marriott Hotel here Monday morning for a 90-minute interview about foreign policy and the Democratic presidential race. According to Biden, when it comes to foreign policy, there’s him, and then there’s every other Democratic candidate. Below are excerpts from the interview:
The way to avoid a war with Iran — and to avoid a really dangerous Iran 10 years from now — is to figure out how to connect the dots. And one of the things that I find when I talk to my Democratic colleagues is that they view everything in isolation. As if you can have an Iranian policy that can succeed that has no bearing on the relationship with Russia, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. And that is the part that I find so unsettling.
Take the recent vote on Kyl-Lieberman. [Kyl-Lieberman was a nonbinding Senate resolution declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to be a terrorist organization. Hillary Clinton voted for it, but Biden and the other Democratic presidential candidates were opposed.] My argument against Kyl-Lieberman didn’t go to the merits … of whether or not the Revolutionary Guard was all bad or only some bad. And it didn’t even rest upon the notion that [approving the resolution was] going to embolden Bush. It was just counterproductive. And it amazes me that the candidates with the money [Clinton, Obama and John Edwards] don’t seem to get it … This [vote] was going to cause the price of oil to skyrocket…
Guess what happened? Oil went up $30 a barrel. It’s not all because of that, but at least 15 percent of the risk factor [is] related to Iran. So you have [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad with $25 billion last year — at $50 a barrel for oil — to do bad things. Now he’s going to have $50 billion to do bad things.
[Among Iranians] you take the focus off the failure of Ahmadinejad’s domestic policy and you unite the country under one thing — the bad guys want to bomb us. People are sitting around Iran at a table saying, “Do you think [the Americans] want to attack us?” Do you want to unite the Iranian people who already don’t like Ahmadinejad, who don’t like the theocracy, [against the United States]?
What I don’t get is that [the other Democratic candidates] think like Bush in terms of this linear view. It seems that a lot of the candidates don’t understand is that this all plays into “This is a war on Islam.” It has an impact in Pakistan. It has an impact in [Afghanistan] … We’re so conditioned in the Bush era [that we think] we can segregate completely foreign policy without it overflowing into other relationships…
So my answer to your question: I find stark differences not between the candidates but with myself being the odd man out. Two debates ago when I mentioned Pakistan, there were blank looks on everybody’s face. Literally … Some people looked at me like, “Where did that come from? Pakistan?”
… I keep telling myself that maybe my fellow Democrats are being politically smart, maybe they think it is too complicated to talk to the American people about. Or else they don’t know what they’re talking about. One of the two.
Which do you think it is: Do they not know what they’re talking about? Or is it politically smart not to mention things like Pakistan?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. Richardson surprises me because I thought he knew a lot better. It doesn’t surprise me that Barack — this is complicated stuff, and you have to have a little time with it. Hillary, I just don’t know.
If I hear you correctly, what you’re saying is that — besides who has the most experience — the fault line among Democratic candidates is really, do you have a foreign policy? or do you have a series of individual positions about individual countries?
My observation is based on [everything from] private discussions that I have had off-the-cuff to what I’ve observed in their speeches to what I’ve heard in our joint appearances. There is a patina of a [Democratic] foreign policy that rests on “I’ll negotiate and not go to war.” That’s about it. But when it gets beyond that, into, what is your foreign policy? what is the essence of it? what are the basic principles? — it gets kind of murky.
Take the debate that is happening now in the press between Hillary and Edwards on Iraq. He distinguished his position by saying that he would get 50,000 troops out right away while she wouldn’t get them out right away.
When you talk to these people and listen to what they say on Iraq, they miss the entire point. The point is not what your tactic is. It’s: What is your strategy? What is the strategic objective of your policy? Is your strategic objective the same as your tactical objective — just get out and hope for the best? … But what is your objective in Iraq?
[There is this] notion that all we have to do is to get out, which Bill Richardson is trying to develop. You just get out, and things will calm down because we’re the catalyst causing the fighting. And the great one with Bill, God love him, is “Bring in an all-Muslim force.” Give me a break. What is the last thing you want to do? You bring in a Sunni force? You bring in a Shia force?
… Tactically, I wouldn’t take much issue with John Edwards’ point that you draw down 50,000 troops right away. But what are you going to draw them down to do, John? I happen to think that’s right … But then what?
Ask Barack, ask John, ask Hillary. After they tell you what they’re going to do [in Iraq], ask them, “Then what?” They don’t answer the “then what?” Because then-what could be very bad. Then-what could be a regional war. Then-what could be both Turkey and Iran with military forces in Iraq. Then-what could be the Saudis making a very bad bet and concluding that they have to support the al-Qaida in Mesopotamia elements — and al-Qaida, period — because they’re the only Sunnis who can fight.
My strategic objective is to get America out of that killing field. But leave behind a relatively stable, relatively representative republic that is not a threat to its neighbors, that’s not a haven for terror and has an accommodation among the warring factions that over time can be ameliorated. That’s as good as it will ever get in the next year.
Turning back to Iran…
We buy into this bumper-sticker foreign policy. The Democrats are buying into this bumper-sticker foreign policy. Imagine if you said to me, “I can take down Ahmadinejad. But the result would be that oil prices would be 35 percent higher, that I would increase the number of Americans dead from approaching 4,000 to 8,000, that I would end up with no rational way to lead without things go back to the way things were before or greater chaos.”
I love these guys talking about how it’s always human rights — I’m glad that Bill [Richardson], God love him, wasn’t president when we were fighting World War II — because they sure as hell wouldn’t have hung out with Stalin.
Chris Dodd, who I talked with on Saturday, made the same point about Stalin, almost word-for-word.
Jesus, talk about vacuous expressions coming from people who want peace. I’m not talking about any candidate now. If I can make a comparison. There is a tendency in the [Democratic] Party right now to play to [the peace wing] either because they don’t know the facts or they feel it’s too dangerous to explain the facts…
It frustrates me because I think to myself, “If you win, how do you govern a country, how do you lead a country? How do you lead the nation without using this primary and general election as a crucible to actually debate the real differences, so that when you’re elected you have established in the minds of the public that is paying attention a rationale for your presidency and a rationale for what you’re going to do…
Going back to your original question: Is there any difference among the Democrats and is there any difference among the other Democrats and me? The distinction that I try to pick out among the other Democrats is that, as they debate one another, it’s all tactics. I have not seen any strategic difference.
The difference that I have with the rest of the field is both their tactics and also strategically. What will you do, “President Kucinich to Clinton,” relative to Pakistan? You will get a Pakistan answer. What you have not gotten so far is that I will make the following regional moves. I would move to change the calculus in Afghanistan because that would change the calculus in Pakistan. I would move to change the calculus relative to China because that affects India and India’s attitude towards Pakistan…
The president of the United States is threatening war — and he even used the phrase “World War III” — against Iran. And the Democrats are trying to prove to the right that they will guarantee that they will prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. And the nuclear weapons that Iran will get sometime in the next decade is enough highly enriched uranium to make one bomb. Twenty-six kilograms if they run their 3,000 centrifuges — which they have not without interruptions — successfully for one solid year. That will provide them enough to make one nuclear bomb. And then they are going to have to figure out how to miniaturize it and put it on top of a missile … And we’re worried that it will strike Israel, that it will strike other places in the Middle East. The president is worried that it will strike Europe; that’s why he wants to put up a nuclear defense shield.
But there are missiles — and I want to make sure that I’m being careful about classified stuff. We believe that there are a sufficient intermediate-range continental ballistic missiles and warheads in Pakistan today — somewhere between 25 and 50-60 — that can strike anywhere in the Mediterranean right now. And can strike on the other side of the Indian Ocean into Bangladesh.
And we’re worried about Iran as the priority? And we’re talking about going to war there when the president didn’t even speak initially to Musharraf when he might have been able to cauterize this wound that is festering now? You have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time…
What concerns me about the Democrats is the idea that the Democrats always must look tough. If they are perceived as the party of weakness, they fear they will lose. But if you’re so busy looking tough, don’t you also have to act tough?
Exactly right. Exactly positively right. What do you do as president of the United States when you say — to use similar language to Rudy Giuliani — in my term I guarantee you that Iranians will not get a nuclear weapon? You have just said that you are going to war with Iran if you cannot come up with a diplomatic alternative to this. Period. That’s it.
I have an expression that I have used in my career that is very much in vogue these days: “Big nations can’t bluff.” I find myself wondering — all kidding aside — that the single biggest advantage that I have in being the Democratic nominee is that none of you guys [in the press] will wonder whether I’m tough enough. I don’t have to threaten. I don’t think anybody who has worked with me in 35 years, who has covered me, for all the foibles I have, wonders whether I’m going to have to prove in a general election that I’m a tough guy by taking some stupid position about war. I think what people make judgments about is what kind of president they think you’re going to be based on your track record and their perception of your character and how you deal with tough things.
I admit that under our sexist society it is probably more difficult for a woman to be able to communicate that [toughness]. I think that Hillary communicates resolve and toughness alone. I wish she didn’t think that she had to sign on to some of this other stuff.
We’re back to Kyl-Lieberman?
Yes. Kyl-Lieberman is an example … No world leader is going to have to wonder about what I think, and no world leader is going to wonder what I am talking about. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to be right…
Going a step further, leaving Hillary’s gender out of this entirely, she has certainly taken the political view that Democrats always have to be tough.
Look, I am not talking about Hillary now. I am talking about Bill Clinton, who I worked with very closely for eight years. Bill Clinton came in because we re-litigated the Vietnam War in 1992. Our generation re-litigated that war. And Bill Clinton, through no fault of his own, found himself way behind the eight ball with the military. So he was not able initially to say to [Colin] Powell, [then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], “Hush up, this is what we’re doing.” About Haiti, about Somalia, about a lot of different things.
I didn’t go into the military, because I flunked the physical. So you say, same record as [Bill] Clinton. But I have known these guys [running the military] for a long time. But I don’t think anybody has to wonder about me, notwithstanding that I didn’t serve in war. So I have an advantage because I’ve been around, I’ve been engaged, I’ve been doing this stuff. Even a war hero like John Kennedy had Quemoy and Matsu and the missile gap. So it’s always been something for a Democrat [to deal with]…
In the very first debate, Darfur was a big topic. I said I didn’t oppose a no-fly zone; I’ve been there; this is what I would do. All the candidates disagreed. In the second debate, all the candidates liked a no-fly zone. No one for it in the first debate. Second debate, “Joe’s right.” In the first or second debate, [it was how much] to get the troops out. “I’ll get them out in three months. I’ll get them out in six months. I’ll get them out in two months. Dah-de-dah.” So I say, “Hey, that makes no sense at all.” Now all them, even Richardson, say, “In a year, I’ll get them out.”
So if I don’t do anything, if nothing else happens in this primary process, hopefully, at a minimum what I’ve done is to a force a little more candor and factual-ness into the debate.