As we promised yesterday, below is the first installment of our interview with Senator Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The interview was originally done for an article on John Kerryâs and the Democratsâ foreign policy, which you can find in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
The interview was conducted in late March, in Bidenâs Senate office, with one member of his staff present.
The second installment of the interview will be published the beginning of next week.
TPM: One of the main points of the piece --- take a hypothetical Democratic administration nine months from now --- what would the continuities and discontinuities be with where Clinton left off in 2000? I mean, obviously the chessboard has moved all around. That's a given. But on an issue like North Korea, an issue like Iran, the Atlantic relationship and so forth, and broad kinds of questions about how you mix diplomatic muscle and military force --- what would you identify as the main continuities or the main discontinuities? Again, either prescriptively or descriptively.
BIDEN: I wouldn't even try.
TPM: Iâm sorry?
BIDEN: I wouldn't. I don't think you can connect those dots prescriptively or descriptively. I think it is a false --- I think the paradigm is the wrong one. I mean, I think it is literally impossible to suggest how the policies of the Clinton administration would be continued, augmented, changed, morphed, discarded in the year 2005. The world has fundamentally changed since he left office. And the damage done to our relationships around the world, coupled with the emergence of what was a perceived threat. But even the Clinton administration never fully contemplated --- no one did --- the potential consequence of a serious international terrorist organization coordinating a lethal attack against the U.S.
There isn't anybody who wrote about it. I made a speech on September 10th to the Press Club. I laid out in great detail what it was I thought we should be doing and how this administration was squandering the opportunity to deal with this threat of terror. But the truth was that I don't think that anybody contemplated --- I didn't anyway --- contemplated how not only the psyche of the country but the psyche of the world was changed by that event. And now so many pieces have been moved on the chess board [that] there are no straight lines. I don't see any way. I could better answer the question in suggesting to you how I think a Kerry administration would divert from or have continuity with a Bush administration.
TPM: Sure, okay.
BIDEN: I can do that because I don't think anybody could rationally do the former, quite honestly. I think that the --- a Kerry administration, not Kerry, [but] a Kerry administration would reflect a foreign policy that was emerging and being debated during the Clinton administration but I think is now gelled as a consequence of events in the last four years.
Let me be more precise. In 1994, when I was pleading with the president to use force in the Balkans, Warren Christopher was adamantly opposed. The bulk of the administration except for the president was adamantly opposed. We talked in terms of sovereignty, of nations not being able to be violated. I made a very controversial speech in â94 saying I believe countries forfeit their sovereignty when they engage in certain activities --- genocide being one of those activities, harboring terrorist organizations with the knowledge that they are doing damage to other nations.
I was roundly criticized by the foreign policy establishment in my party for that at the time and ironically by the Republicans. When I introduced legislation here to give the president authority to use force in Kosovo the people who blocked it were the conservative Republicans. And if you go back and look at their argument it was the sovereignty of Yugoslavia --- âwe had no right to interveneâ.
So I think one of the things that has happened is that in the debate within my party, my team has won. There is no longer nor should there remain the standard for use of force that pertained from the Vietnam War until the time that we lost the election in 2000. And there is an emerging change in the standard. Even Kofi Annan two years later came along and by inference acknowledged that an international body cannot allow genocide to take place within a nation. We were still arguing --- Democrats and Republicans --- or the bulk of them were still on the side of the equation different than the one I was promoting, for example.
I think John Kerry --- I know John Kerry personally --- and I think the Democratic party generically in a new administration would be a party that was, a government that was, something along the lines that I've been arguing for, which is to have an enlightened nationalism --- to realize that force is a legitimate tool in the toolbox and able to be exercised under a series of circumstances short of all out invasion [on the part] of the United States â¦
So that I think that what you see is emerging, is that the world has changed, is that a Kerry administration would reflect a willingness to use force unilaterally if one of several conditions pertained: One, international conventions were being violated; they affected American interests; and the international community would not step up to the ball.
Case in point --- took me a while, and I think he would tell you this if you asked him, to convince Clinton to use force in Kosovo. He kept saying, âThe UN will not goâ¦â . I said âDon't go to the UNâ --- and I'm an internationalist --- I said âDon't go to the UN. You're going to get ânoâ for an answer. But they know, we know and the world knows that there's genocide taking place on the continent of Europe. You have an obligation to lead. And if you do, the French will follow.â
That was a gigantic departure from the orthodoxy not only of the left but the center of my party. That is now the center of my party.
TPM: Can I ask you a hypothetical about that? What happened in Kosovo was, as you say, we just decided not to ask the UN. But we did ask NATO and got a âyesâ. And even thoughâ¦
BIDEN: No. We didn't beforehand. We went before NATO agreed.
BIDEN: We went before NATO agreed and we attempted to then make it a NATO operation because I was convinced that what would happen is that the French and Germans would be exposed. They knew we should've done this. But they do not have the political center or the political leadership in Europe to generate that consensus. They were timid. But that's why America must remain a European power. By our acting it made it impossible for Germany and France not to act.
And ironically if you go back and look at the polling data, what I predicted at the time turned out to be true. 75% of the people of France and Germany thought their countries should act in Bosnia. Their leaders, because they were weak and having no clear mandate from their people --- weak, not personally weak, but weak in terms of either having been coalition governments or bare majorities in their parliaments --- were unwilling to take the chance. So I think you'd see a Kerry administration being willing to exercise force in the face of --- if two conditions pertained --- One, that the exercise of the force was likely to result in the outcome that we were seeking. The difference between exercising force in Kosovo and force in Somalia is that we did not have the physical wherewithal and the likely allies to be able to succeed in the exercise of that force. So there is a very classic judgment that has to be made about the doability. But if it is doable, there are new circumstances in which --- quote --- âthe integrity of a nationâ can be violated if they're engaged in genocide, if they're clearly and unequivocally harboring terrorists who have done damage, and beyond the question of whether or not they are about to attack, preemption or the like.
It's not preemption. It is a new standard for when you basically forfeit your sovereignty as a nation-state. You cannot claim to be a civilized nation if you're engaged in genocide. So, every place with genocide should we intervene? No There has to be the practical capacity to do so. But where the two exist, I think you see the Kerry administration exercise power like the administration of President Clinton did in the 7th year of his [presidency] --- but that was, remember --- I love these Republicans --- that was in the face of overwhelming Republican opposition!
Second thing is, so there's kind of a new standard that has emerged, that I think is the combination of what I refer to as this enlightened nationalism, that we operate in our national interests in every circumstance where we can under the umbrella of international rules and the international community. But where the damage and danger is irrefutable, we reserve the right to act in our own interest or in the interest of humanity, if we have the capacity. And that is a different standard than existed for the first 27 years I was a United States senator.
That is different than the standard and the rationale of our neoconservative friends. They argue that the exercise of force is important because we are at the apex of our power and that we are more enlightened than the rest of the world. And when we have the ability to exercise force it allows us to leverage our power in direct proportion to the moral disapprobation of the rest of the world.
So if I say, if there's ten people in the room and there's a guy out in the hall screaming and he's bothering us and I say âWe ought to stop that guy. We ought to stop that guy.â And everyone says, âOh no, no. This guy's a bad guy and this guy's gonna cause real problems and there'll be dah dah dah dah dah.â And if I say, âI don't care what the hell all of you think.â And I get up and I go beat the shit out of the guy out there. And I come back in and sit down. Youâre all going to look around, and when you misbehave â¦ And I say, âHey man!â Youâre going to go âWhoa whoa whoaâ¦â
These are the nine guys that aren't going to be able to constrain him. He doesnât care what anybody else thinks. That's what they mean by leveraging power.
TPM: For the demonstration effect?
BIDEN: Sure, you've probably read these guys as well. And they're pretty smart guys. These are not a bunch of Christian Coalition guys. These are serious, serious people. These are patriotic Americans. These are guys who really truly aren't looking to get Halliburton contracts --- that's an ancillary benefit --- but these guys really think --- Paul Wolfowitz is an idealist --- he really thinks you can impose democracy.
We all agree democracy --- if all the Middle East was a democratic institution then in fact our interests are greatly enhanced because democracies tend not to go to war with other democracies. But that's a far cry from being able to impose it.
The Kerry administration will understand, in my view --- I know this from a long --- I know John well --- is that there is a need for you to work a long time for you to establish the soil under which the seeds of liberal democratic institutions can take root. That means public diplomacy; that means [being] engaged in economic initiatives; that means political interchange; that means everything from student exchange programs to saying if you step across that line I'm going to blow you to kingdom-come.
There's is a mix of these things. These guys don't think that. They think all this soft power is useless. If you listen and you read [Joseph] Nye's book about soft power, it is ridiculed by these guys. Well let me tell you, soft power is not enough to do it. But you can't get the ultimate --- if you were to take a look if --- do you have any children?
TPM: I don't.
BIDEN: OK, let's assume you had a --- tomorrow you get married and in a year you have a young child and you think where the hell is --- what's that kid when they're asked to write their senior thesis in the year, you know, 2024 and ask the question, what were the major problems facing humanity at the turn of the 21st century?
They would probably list everything from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the growth of international terror and the nexus between that and weapons of mass destruction, the great disparity between the haves and have-nots and the development of the third and fourth world, the spread of epidemics and pandemics like AIDS. And you can name a few more â¦ Not the growth of radicalism --- in particular among the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world --- not a single one of these lends themselves to a military solution. Not one.
But at least three of them may require the exercise of military force in the exercise of a solution. Internationalists up until now --- and 30 percent of my party --- have argued that a military solution basically is never a solution unless we're physically attacked. The Republican side says [itâs] the only solution, under the neoconservative approach, international organizations are --- they're the Lilliputians that are tying down Gulliver, us.
And that includes, by the way, NATO. Just think, they will wax nostalgically that if we weren't in NATO we'd have another 110,000 troops to deploy. And what the hell do we need them there for? So I know it is --- I know you fully understand this.
You know the president always brags with me. And what he said to me not long ago was, âJoe, I don't do nuanceâ --- as if that was a real cool thing, right? I mean literally, that's a quote. When I said to him, âIt's a nuanced situation, Mr. President.â He said, âI don't do nuance, Mr. Chairman.â Well you know --- and Kerry's accused of being only nuance. Well let me tell you something, a lot of this is not so simple and it requires the use of more than one tool in the toolbox.
So what you see is emerging, I think, and I think it will in the Kerry administration, an intersection of --- to oversimplify it --- an adherence, and a value, and a promotion of international institutions like our grandfathers did at the end of WWII so we wouldn't carry the whole load of the whole world all the time, and the willingness to exercise force if need be to enforce the rules of the road when they're violated.
Case in point, imagine if after 9/11 the president of the United States sent the secretary of state and the vice president to Europe and said, âWe need a new international consensus on two important points.â Number one --- at least a U.S.-Europeean consensus --- there must be some policy short of deterrence that is available to us --- either non-action or deterrence and retaliation --- there must be something because we have a new situation here.
The neocons are right: this is the first time stateless actors with no territory to protect, no interest in protecting individuals, capable of using modern technology, let alone nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction â¦ You don't need weapons of mass destruction. So the combination of technology, sophistication, laptop computers in a cave in Tora Bora. They can orchestrate that. We've never faced that before.
TPM: Can I ask you a question? It seems that one of the shortcomings of the neoconservative worldview is their focus on states.
BIDEN: Exactly right. Bingo.
BIDEN: This is the point that I was trying desperately to make to my colleagues and I tried to articulate it on Stephanopoulos's show. The fundamental flaw --- forget flaw, the fundamental difference between Joe Biden, John Kerry on the one hand, and the neoconservatives on the other is that they genuinely believe --- and put it in the negative sense --- they do not believe it is possible for a sophisticated international criminal network that will rain terror upon a country, that has the potential to kill 3,000 or more people in a country, can exist without the sponsorship of a nation-state.
They really truly believe --- and this was the Axis of Evil speech --- if you were able to decapitate the regimes in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, you would in fact dry up the tentacles of terror.
I think that is fundamentally flawed reasoning. If every one of those regimes became a liberal democracy tomorrow, does anybody think we wouldn't have code orange again in the United States? Rhetorical question. Does anybody think we don't have to worry about the next major event like Madrid occurring in Paris or in Washington or in Sao Paulo? Gimme a break. But they really believe this is the way to do it.
See, these guys aren't stupid. It's not like these guys are a venal bunch of guys. These are really smart guys.
TPM: There's a quote from--I don't remember it word for wordâbut Doug Feith basically said that's the fundamental insight of their strategy: the continuing centrality of states.
BIDEN: Exactly right. And I think that's fundamentally mistaken, fundamentally mistaken. Now if they were going to make the ad hominem kind of arguments they usually make when they have these debates, other than guys like --- guys who will have a serious discussion with you, Kristol sits here with me and Kristol argues and makes his case without ad hominem arguments. But the way Cheney'd respond to that would be to say, âWell, are you telling me there's not more terror when these guys are running [the show]?â
Yeah, there is. Do they aid and abet, do they have sort of a synergistic impact? But are they, if you eliminate them, the life blood that flows to these organizations? It is much more important for us to be able to go at their sources of funding. It's more like organized crime. They love this thing about, you know, it's not law enforcement. It's not law enforcement in the sense that we have to have a warrant to go get them--- thatâs the implication. But it is basically gumshoe work.
It is intelligence; it is cutting off the source of their supply of money. It is infiltrating their organizations beyond bombing their training bases. That's a good thing. They bomb their training camps --- thatâs a good thing. We did a good thing in getting rid of Saddam. That son-of-a-bitch was a butcher. But it had nothing to do with our central problem, terror.
And the reason why it's so dangerous what they're doing, their approach --- it's not intentional --- but it takes their eye off the ball. It's the wrong focus. If you take a look at ---it's presumptuous of me to say this ---take a look at the speech I delivered on the 10th of September 2001, the day before, actually about 14 hours before, 20 hours before what happened. And my argument there was, these guys --- like most of us --- their greatest strength is their greatest weakness. And their greatest strength is the ability to focus. What has every Republican administration concluded was the most important lesson for presidential governance from Reagan on? Focus. One of the biggest criticisms of --- generic criticisms of --- Clinton? Too many foci. So these guys, focus.
Now, when they came into office they had two overwhelming preoccupations and necessarily at the expense of everything else. There's only so much gray matter able to be brought to a subject matter in any administration. It is not a criticism; it is kind of hard to walk and chew gum at the same time on this stuff. People don't understand that. Thereâs only 20, 30 people in an administration who are the intellectual energy and center of the administration. Every administration.
And what did they focus on? National missile defense --- from the day they took office, at the exclusion of everything else. The preoccupation was palpable. And that's why I made the speech. I didn't know it was going to come on the 11th. But I said it was going to come and it was gonna come relatively soon. Because they ignored --- I'm not arguing they could have stopped 9-11. But I am arguing that all the resources --- the intellectual, political, and military resources --- were focused on, except to keep everything else just sort of bouncing along, on national missile defense. After 9/12, all the focus went, whoosh, Iraq. So what did we lose with that?
TPM: Which was part of the connection in their mind to missile defense in the first place.
BIDEN: Bingo. You're dead-on right. Now what were some of the consequences of that? One of the consequences of that was --- these guys want to get rid of al Qaida more than anybody does. They want to hang Bin Laden by his private parts. They want to chop him up, these guys --- it's not they don't care about it.
But what did this preoccupation require them to do? It required them and the president to choose Cheneyâs and Rumsfeldâs advice over Powell's advice about expanding the international security force in Afghanistan. We came back from --- how long were we there? Four days? Three days? Five days? [Crosstalk with aide] We met with every major --- and we were at Bagram as well --- we met with every major military figure in the country we had, including the Brits and others who were there. Every military man said, âYou've got to expand the security force here.â These guys said, âOh nah, nah, nah.â
Two neoconservative principles pertained. Not joking. One was that if you bring them in, they're going to constrain our ability to go after al Qaeda because we're going to have to coordinate with them. But the second one trumped the first. We're not going to put enough forces in to really get al Qaeda, because we'll be draining forces and resources from our efforts in Iraq, which we really want to do.
So what was the result? They turned it over to the warlords, basically.
And I can assure you --- my conversation with Condi Rice â¦ was, I said, âCondiâ¦â I meet with her once a week, we're supposed to do telephone not meeting --- itâs a long story --- remember I was the guy saying these guys are full of hubris, they don't talk to us anymore? And then Henry Hyde said it. And then they got a meeting and we got a meeting and it was agreed Joe would meet with her once a week. You know, Mikey will eat the cereal [unintelligible]. And I remember coming out and I remember telling Tony Blinken --- he might know the date or the time.
I said, âYou know what she just said to me?â I said, âCondi, we may lose Afghanistanâ.
She said, âWhat do you mean?â
And I said, âLook what's going on in Herat with Ismail Khan.â
She said, âWhat's the matter.â
I looked at her and I said, âWell, you know â¦â and I started explaining and she said, âLook, al Qaida's not there. The Taliban's not there. There's security there.â
I said, âYou mean turning it over to the warlords?â
She said, âYeah, it's always been that way.â
So here's the other little piece to --- not confuse you --- but I don't know how you write it. See the other piece that came in here, is you had a split among the neoconservatives, between the nation builders and the guys who said, âNo, we don't build nations.â
So we had Cheney and Rumsfeld among others finding it convenient to say, consistent with neocon principles, âWe're going to move on to Iraq.â But also, âI don't give a crap about rebuilding.â Look, remember that game when you were a kid. You'd go up to the boardwalk when you rented the place for two weeks and it rained and your parents didn't know what to do with you? And it was called whack-a-mole. This little mole pops its head up and you hit it?
Well these guys believe in whack-a-mole. They believe, look, if these guys come back, if the Taliban comes back, we'll go back and crush them again. It's more logical. It's more realistic. There's never been a nation state here of any consequence. We can't do this anyway. And by the way, we have Iraq.
So what's happened now? Do we have those attacks in Madrid and in Bali because we didn't get [bin Laden]? I don't know. But let me tell you something: it seems to me that we diverted our attention --- as my dad used to say, God rest his soul, âJoey, first things first. If everything is equally important to you, nothing is a priority to you, son.â
End of Part One.
Part two of our interview will run the beginning of next week.