I’ve been publishing a series of emails about Joe Biden and his candidacy. Here I want to share something different. It’s an window into his candidacy and potential presidency. Back in 2004 I was writing an article for The Atlantic about John Kerry’s foreign policy. I did a range of interviews for that piece and one of them was with then-Senator Biden, in his office one evening up on Capitol Hill. It was loose and unstructured. When you talk with Biden he’s thinking out loud, discussing ideas, not a lot of couching or sound-biting or hedging. It’s very immediate and unfiltered. The issues then were quite different. This was maybe 15 months after the invasion of Iraq. George W. Bush was late in his first term. But even if the issues are from 15 years ago, you still get a pretty immediate sense of the man, how he thinks and specifically how he approaches the world abroad. So with that, I went back into my notes and pulled out the transcript of the conversation, which you can read here …
Josh Marshall: There’s several points I wanted to touch on, and a number of these — if you can answer them descriptively, or prescriptively I’d be interested in both. One of the main points of the piece, a hypothetical Democratic administration 9 months from now, what the continuities and discontinuities would be with where Clinton left off in 2000. I mean obviously the chessboard has moved all around, and that’s a given, but on an issue like North Korea, an issue like Iran, the Atlantic relationship and so forth, and broad kind of questions about how you mix diplomatic muscle and military force. What would you identify as the main continuities and main discontinuities? Again, either descriptively or prescriptively.
Joe Biden: I wouldn’t even try. 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 knowingly the potential consequence of a serious international terrorist organization coordinating a lethal attack against the United States. There isn’t anybody who wrote about it.
I made a speech on September the 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, there are no straight lines — I don’t see, anyway. I could better answer the question in suggesting you ought to think how a Kerry administration would divert from or be — or have continuity with a Bush administration
M: Sure, okay.
B: I can do that because I don’t think anyone could rationally do the former, honestly. I think that the — a Kerry administration, a Kerry administration would reflect a foreign policy that was emerging and being debated during the Clinton administration but I think has 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 1994 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 — we had no right to intervene.
So I think one of the things that has happened in the debate within my party, my team has won. And that is 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 in 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.
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. That 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 of the United States
B: So that I think that what you see emerging as 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 the UN would not go. I said don’t go to the UN — and I’m an internationalist — I said don’t go to the UN, you’re going to get no 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. That was a gigantic departure from the orthodoxy of not only the left but also the center of my party. That is now the center of my party.
M: 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 yes.
No we didn’t beforehand, we went before NATO agreed.
B: We went before NATO agreed and we attempted to then make it a NATO operation because I was convinced that what would happen is 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 be able 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. Seventy-five percent of the people of France and Germany thought we should — that their countries should act in Bosnia. Their leaders, because they were weak and having no clear mandate from their people — weak not personally, 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, if 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 exercising of that force. So there is a very classic judgment that needs to be made about the doableness. But if it is doable, there are new circumstances in which quote “the integrity of a nation” 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 seventh year of his — but that was, remember, I love these Republicans, that was in the face of overwhelming Republican opposition.
And the 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 operated our national interests in every circumstance where we can under the umbrella of the 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 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 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, you guys are going to have a hell of a lot more — 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 we ought to stop that guy, we ought to stop that guy. And everyone says, “Oh no, no this guy’s a bad guy, this is gonna cause all these problems and there’ll be dadda dadda da,” And if I say, I don’t care what the hell all of you think and I get up and I go beat the shit out of the guy, and I come back in and sit down. They’re all going to look around. When you misbehave, and then I say, “hey man,” you’re going to go “whoa, whoa, whoa.” These are the nine guys that aren’t going to be able to constrain him. He doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. That’s what they mean by leveraging power.
M: Or the demonstration effect?
B: Exactly, that’s the same thing, 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. These guys really think — Paul Wolfowitz is an idealist. He really thinks you can impose democracy. We all agree democracy — if the world, if all the Middle East was a democratic institution, then in fact we and our interests are greatly enhanced because democracies tend not to go to war with 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 time, I know John well. There is a need for you to work very hard to establish the soil under which the seeds of liberal democratic institutions can take root. That means public diplomacy, that means 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 a mix of those things. These guys don’t think that, they think that all this soft power is useless. If you listen and you read 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?
M: I don’t.
B: Okay, let’s assume you had a — tomorrow you’re getting married and in a year you have a young child and you think well where the hell is — what’s that kid when they’re asked to write their senior thesis you know in the year 2024 and asked 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 growth of the Third and Fourth World, the spread of epidemics and pandemics like AIDS, and you can name a few more.
Not the growth of radicalism — in particular the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world — not a single one 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 has argued that military solution basically is never a solution unless we’re physically attacked. The Republican side says the only solution under the neoconservative approach, international organization are the Lilliputians that are tying down Gulliver, us. And that includes, by the way, NATO. Just think, they will wax nostalgically, 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, “Joe, I don’t do nuance, ” as if that was a real cool thing, right? I mean literally, that’s a quote. When I said to him, “It’s a nuanced situation, Mr. President,” he said, “I don’t do nuance, Mr. Chairman.” Well you know — and Kerry’s accused of being only nuanced. 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. And 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 for 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, we need a new international consensus on two important points. Number one — at least a U.S.-European 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, let alone nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction — take a chlorine filled train tanker and blow it up in the tunnel underneath the Supreme Court of the United States of America. Fully within the range of possibility. You don’t need weapons of mass destruction. That tunnel runs from Union Station under the Supreme Court and under the Rayburn Building. Do it under the Rayburn Building. You have a hole as big as a little mini Hiroshima. And it’s not like running a plane into the Pentagon or running a plane into the Capitol. It’s much more damaging. So the combination of technology, sophistication, laptop computers in a cave in Tora Bora. They could orchestrate that. Now that, we’ve never faced that before.
M: Can I ask you a question? It seems that one of the shortcomings of the neoconservative worldview is precisely their focus on states.
B: Exactly right, bingo.
B: You’re one of only three goddamn guys that’ve gotten this.
M: Well, can you —
B: No, I really mean it, ask Norm [communication director Norm Kurz]. I mean Norm’s had to sit through, listening to me in all these things. This is the point that I was trying desperately to make to my colleagues and I tried to articulate it on Stephanopoulos’ show. The fundamental flaw in the neo — 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 — I’ll 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 Iran, Iraq, 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 tomorrow 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 Washington or Sao Paulo? Gimme a break. But they really believe this is the way to do it.
Aide: Can I just point out, parenthetically here, that this is exactly the argument that Richard Clarke was making in that discussion that he supposedly had with Wolfowitz. He tried to convince Wolfowitz of that point and Wolfowitz didn’t get it Right? I mean we read those excerpts.
B: I forgot about that.
Aide: I mean, right, it was very much on that point.
B: Well see these guys aren’t stupid it’s not like these guys are venal bunch of guys. These are really smart guys.
M: There’s a quote from — I don’t remember it word for word — Doug Feith basically said that’s the fundamental insight of their strategy is the continuing centrality of states.
B: Exactly right, and I think that’s fundamentally mistaken, fundamentally mistaken. Now if they were going to make the kind of ad hominem arguments they usually make when they have these debates, other than guys like — guys who will have a serious discussion with you are you know, what’s his name over at the, the conservative Weekly Standard publication —
(unintelligible crosstalk with aide)
B: Kristol. Kristol sits here with me and Kristol argues and makes his case without ad hominem arguments — but the way Cheney’d responded to that would be to say, “Well, Are you telling me that there’s not more terror when these guys are running [the show]?” Yeah there is. Do they aid and abet, do they have a sort of 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, it’s not law enforcement. It’s not law enforcement in the sense that we have to have a warrant to go get them — that’s 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 organization beyond bombing their training bases. Bombing their training bases, that’s a good thing by the way. 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 their 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 one, 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. There are only 20, 30 people in an administration who are the intellectual energy and center of an 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 bouncing along, on national missile defense. After 9/12, all the focus went — whoosh, Iraq. So What did we lose with that?
M: Which was part of the connection in their mind to missile defense in the first place.
B: Bingo, bingo, bingo, bingo. You got it. Hire this guy, we can’t pay him enough. Seriously, no joke. Think about it. How many of your colleagues or anyone else got that connection? They don’t talk about it. In my view, You’re dead-on right. Now what were some of the consequences of that? One of the consequences were — these guys want to get rid of al Qaeda more than anybody does, they want to hang Bin Laden by his private parts, I mean 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 Cheney and Rumsfeld’s 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? Whatever the hell it was, 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, you’ve got to expand the security force here. These guys said, Oh no, no, no. 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 about in January, after — almost a year later in January. I said, Condit, I meet with her once a week, we’re supposed to do — telephone not meeting, 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, “We got a meeting, we got a meeting,” it was agreed Joe would meet with her once a week. You know, Mikey will eat the cereal [unintelligible].
And I came out and I remember telling Tony Blinken — he might know the date or the time. I said, you know what she just said to me? I said, “Condi, we may lose Afghanistan.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, look what’s going on in Herat with Ismail Khan. She said, “Oh God, what’s the matter”? I looked at her and I said, Well, you know, and I started explaining. She said, “Look, al Qaeda’s not there, the Taliban’s not there. There’s security there.” I said, You mean turning it over to the warlords? She said, “Yeah, it’s always been that way.”
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, we had a split among the neoconservatives, between the nation builders and the guys who said, No we don’t build nations. So we had Cheney and Rumsfeld among others finding it convenient to say, consistent with neocon principles, We’re going to move on to Iraq, but also I don’t give a crap about rebuilding.
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 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 Saddam [he means bin Laden]? I don’t know, but let me tell you something, it seems to me that we diverted our attention from — as my dad used to say, God rest his soul, Joey, first things first. If everything is equally important to you, nothing is a priority to you, son.
M: That’s the question about the neoconservatives and sort of the difference between their sort of different grand views.
B: I didn’t hear you, what did you say?
M: Oh, let me just start again. Looking at what their sort grand strategic view. And when I first started, I wrote a lot about Iraq, about the buildup to the war. And what I was struck by, was that even though there seemed to be lots of gaps in the logic in how they had sort of thought it through, that the strength that they did have was to, at the broadest sense — and I agree with you, that sort of like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia could become liberal democracies tomorrow, but there’d still be an al Qaeda — but in the long-term view, if you had rule-of-law states there and blah blah blah blah, that that is in our long-term strategic interest.
M: It seems to be, that they were able to, not that they were the only ones, but as the debate was carried on in 2002, to say, what we have done for the last 40 years, time is not on our side, we’re playing a losing game associating ourselves with these different autocratic states.
B: Isn’t it ironic that these are the guys that said that when I criticized Saudi Arabia, they went bullshit down at the White House and the rest? But you’re right, you’re right and they were right, in a way. If you’ll read, what I was saying leading up to the war and after the war, is let’s be discriminating. This makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense to change the map of the Middle East. But let’s be realistic with the American people and with ourselves. Let’s read a little history here. I’m ready to make the investment.
But let’s be smart. That’s why Lugar and I, we are in lock-step in this stuff. Why we held those hearings. Why we held the hearings when I was chairman and he followed on. We didn’t hold the hearings about taking down Saddam. That’s a good thing. Good thing. We held hearings about, not the day after, the decade after. And they were first-rate hearings. Self-serving thing to say — go take a look at them. And what we established beyond a reasonable doubt was that if we went in alone, we would lose alone in the end. Because the cost was going to be multi-billion dollars, the commitment in troops was going to be a minimum force of 75,000 people for at least five years, probably as many as ten. That we would have to maintain the support of the American people, and we better damned well explain to them what we were about to ask of them. And, they didn’t listen to any of it. There would be no oil to rebuild this. I mean, everybody thinks that I say this stuff in hindsight. Go back and look at what we were saying.
Aide: This is the New York Times op-ed on the day the hearings began. It’s a Biden-Lugar op-ed that lays out what the purpose of —
B: But then if you go look at the report we wrote and the hearings that we had, we set up methodically, basically the president said to me about two months later, in early September, he said, “Joe, why aren’t you with me?” In the Cabinet Room with me. ten other senators and congressmen are in the so-called foreign policy leadership. From Ted Stevens, to the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the House, to Henry Hyde to the majority leader, to me. And he turned — you know, this is his style. He turned, and I’m sitting on his left because I’m chairman at the time. And he says, “Why aren’t you with me, Mr. Chairman?”
And I said, “Mr. President, I’ll be with you. I want to remind you — there’s a reason why your father didn’t go to Baghdad.” And he literally, this guy backed up, thinking that I was criticizing his father. And he looked at me, and I said, “Mr. President. The reason that he didn’t go to Baghdad is that he wasn’t prepared to stay for five years.” And he looked at me. And I said, “Secondly, Mr. President, I’ll be with you on two conditions. You guarantee me you’re prepared to stay for five years, and you publicly address the American people and tell them what this is going to take. Level with them.” And what everybody, matter of fact, what my colleagues, they’d kid me, because they’d quote what I kept repeating. I’d say, No foreign policy can be sustained, no matter how well-formed in the United States, without the informed consent of the American people.
M: Do you think some of the , at least the foreign policy brain trust, let’s say the neoconservative foreign policy brain trust in this administration, that they realized those dollar signs and troop levels that you were talking about but they were trying to create, basically a fait accompli, no one thinking that it was the right thing, but —
B: No I don’t think — I think they were split. I think that some of them actually believed this horseshit, that there was going to be all of this money there, that garlands were going to beat our feet. The democratizers believed that, I think. I don’t think that Cheney believed that for a second. I don’t think that Rumsfeld did. I think that they knew that if they didn’t move swiftly, there may not be a consensus to move. And that’s why I think they vastly exaggerated the threat. They had to create a sense of urgency. If you look at the polling data before I held those hearings in — July, was it? In July. Don’t hold me to the exact numbers but you can get ’em. I can get them for you. I think that there was something like 63, 64, 65% of the American people were for going into Iraq. When the hearings were finished, without anything else happening, it was down to 48 or 47 or 49%. That didn’t go unnoticed by them. So they figured, we gotta create a sense of urgency. We’ve got to have a rationale. And what’s the rationale that’s a guarantee?
M: The nuclear —
B: Nuclear weapons. And in the face of 9/11, what’s the other one? Weapons of mass destruction, in coordination with terrorists. There wasn’t a freaking shred of evidence for any of it. And just in case you don’t think I’m being again, Monday morning quarterbacking, we just had a self-defense, because some serious reporters like you said, “Hey, wait a minute. What did you say at the time. “We went back to the record. We’ll give you a — You got it in there? — an excerpt of the things I said contemporaneously, like when the vice president was on Russert saying, They’ve reconstituted their nuclear capability.
I, in the contemporaneous time frame, said this, I saw not a single shred of evidence for that. I didn’t believe it for a moment. And unless they weren’t showing me the information they were supposed to, the vice president is ill-informed. I made the argument that there was no connection to al Qaeda. None. And I laid out because of Jonah Blanca, an Islamic scholar who was from Harvard on my staff, why in fact, why in fact Osama bin Laden was hated by — I mean why Saddam was hated by Osama bin Laden. He stood for everything Osama bin Laden opposed. Nobody bothers to read these people, in what they write and what they say. These — meaning even Osama bin Laden. There was no connection, other than passion. It was incidental if it occurred. Weaponized the anthrax with UAVs? Give me a break. Assertions that they had the capacity to kill, what was it, tens of thousands, I think the phrase was, American people? No evidence of that. No credible evidence. Including my taking on, and I don’t think for a minute Armitage or the secretary of state believed it either, this whole question of the aluminum tubes.
What I said contemporaneously, I do this thing with the foreign policy press every month or so for a couple of hours in my conference room, they come in and we have coffee and they ask me questions for a couple hours. And they said, Well, are you saying at the time, that the president’s lying about this? And I said, No, he’s not lying. The president is not telling the whole truth. The president is leading the American people to believe that the entire intelligence community has concluded that these aluminum tubes are for a gas centrifuge system to get highly enriched uranium. And the community is split on that.
Did you notice, you oughtta get — presumptuous of me to say this, but most people missed it, Tenet’s speech at Georgetown? The single most important sentence in his speech is, I’ll paraphrase it. He said, We never told the President of the United States of America or anyone in this Administration that Saddam was an imminent threat. I’m gonna dig up that up so that you have it. Because what was the implication from every single thing that everyone said, including the president? That if we don’t act, man, we’re in mortal danger. We can’t take the chance. We have this new doctrine of preemption. We’re lowering the bar so low in terms of burden of proof, because the damage is so potentially high, we can’t wait. So we created this semi-sense of hysteria about this guy was a threat. He was never a threat, in the near term.
Is it a good thing he’s gone, is it a good thing that we began to implement a vision? I’m going to say something outrageously self-serving. I, two years earlier at the Davos Conference got the living crap kicked out of me for speaking at one of the plenary sessions, saying that the problem with our Arab friends is that they’re causing us problems. It’s in my interest that you democratize. Your choice: If you don’t, we disengage with you. And this administration publicly criticized me.
M: Roughly when was this?
B: First one was in New York. When we did New York and Davos, or Davos and New York. And then —
Aide: It was right after 9/11 [unintelligible]
B: They wanted to show support. And then, it was in January, and then in June of the next year, I did the same thing in Davos and Jordan.
M: So late ’01, and then in 2002.
B: And then in late ’03, and then recently in ’04, we just did Davos in [crosstalk between Biden and aide over the timing, unintelligible] Maybe it was January. Anyway, over the last several months, and all these guys, you oughtta get a copy of this speech that we gave in Europe when we were there about the president’s London speech. The speech he made in — the Whitehall speech. And I started off my speech addressing the European Parliament, the EU saying that, you know, I could have written the president’s speech. This is an epiphany. This is a change. And I hope it’s real. But this is, it kind of morphed here. I think they’re right. The reason that Tom Friedman always kids me, he says that You and I are out on a limb, old buddy, because we think that, on balance, it was the right thing to do, if it was done correctly. And my response is, Who could have assumed the incompetence level that they demonstrated? It’s not fair to hold me accountable for their total incompetence after the fact. The truth is, it is important that we try to walk and chew gum at the same time, but we have got to be honest with the American people.
Listen to what the president continues to do. He continues to make the argument that if we don’t stop them in Baghdad, we’re going to have to stop them in Boston. Why? Because he knows that that’s the only thing in his mind that’s going to keep the American people in support of his actions in Iraq. When, in fact, they’re more sophisticated. The reason we have to win Iraq is the geopolitical consequences of failure in Iraq are a disaster for a generation. We will bring the end of modernity in the region for the next two decades. Democratization has zero possibility of prevailing. We will embolden and enhance the power of Iran in a way nothing that’s been done since the Shah was taken down has occurred. And we run the risk of NATO being splintered over the Turks deciding they have to frontally confront the Kurds, and probably the Jordanian government will fall within 16, 18 months after that, as well as Egypt. I mean, and then what do you do? We lose Pakistan. I mean, we lose Afghanistan then. And then where do you go if you’re Musharraf? You’ve got 128 million people, nuclear weapons, and a radicalized population. What do you do? That’s the reason why we have to win. But these guys have a total disregard for the Congress and, I think, for the capacity of the American people to deal with sophisticated issues. I truly believe that.
By the way, the ancillary, the flip side of that is, they also believe all they have to do is get a world leader and that it doesn’t matter whether their populations come along. Even Bob Kagan. Not even. Bob Kagan called me, I called me, and we’ve been talking. I have great respect for Bob Kagan. Read Bob Kagan’s article in the Post after Madrid. A week ago. He calls me and he says, “Joe, you should weigh in and try to get the president to go to Europe now. Now. Show solidarity. Now. My word, don’t squander another opportunity. Now.” But look — they have total disregard for what the German people think, what the French people think, what the British population thinks. As long as they have the leadership, they figure that’s all they need. It is the flip side of, all you’ve got to do is decapitate the bad leader, and all you have to do is have the good leader. Because these guys think like they think about the economy. Now I’m not being pejorative. I really truly believe this. They think from the top down. I mean, they really think from the top down.
M: It’s a different spin on the spread democracy stuff.
B: yeah, but that’s how they spread it, by the way. The way to spread it is, you go in there and you don’t do the hard slog in the public diplomacy — you ought to give him a copy of my 9/11 proposal. The President asked me, and he was serious at the time, remember they were worried about the Arab street, and Afghanistan, would it rise up in Afghanistan? So he said, “What would you do?” And I said, “Mr. President, I think there’s a need for a full-blown doctrine of public diplomacy,” and blah blah blah blah.
He said, “Can you put it together for me?” I put it together for him, and I agreed in great detail by going to the Board of International Broadcasters, Arab scholars that I respected, and I put this thing together. It’s about a $900m project over 5 years. I gave it to him. He was excited about it.
I think the guys down there told him, “Hey, this is soft shit. What are we doing this for, what are we doing this for?” Well, let me tell you: Building a democracy that is based upon the notion of the rule of the majority is a disaster for us. We are not a democracy with a small d in the United States of America. Our enlightened nationalism coming out of a period of Enlightenment in the sixteenth century is about liberal democracies, meaning press, non-governmental institutions, monetary systems — they take time to build, take time to build. And it’s hard slogging.
But I don’t think they think that. I think they think two things. One: as long as you have a [unintelligible] and it is inconceivable to them that there isn’t a generic desire on the part of the population. It must stun them when the polls coming back, whether it’s in Russia or Iraq, that the definition of democracy is, we need a strong man. Whatever the numbers are. The Pew Foundation — 70% 89%, whatever the hell it is. We want democracy. We need a strong leader. We’ve got to educate people to this. That is difficult. That takes time. That’s nation-building.
What the hell do these guys think we did after World War II? I don’t get it. How can they not remember? It took us decades. Not to bring down the Berlin Wall, but to bring and restore democracy to Western Europe. I mean what they hell are they — like, whoa.
M: How about in — well presumably, we will only have so many cases like Iraq, where we actually have de facto control over a land mass for a period of time —
B: But I don’t think they think that.
M: Well, no, I’m speaking in the hopeful
B: Yeah, you’re being rational.
M: In the hopeful intent. Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Different spins on a similar problem. It seems to me that —
B: More complicated. I gotta ask you two things. I’d like to make one point that I think is important that you, not that you agree with it, but that you understand to sort of square the circle here in terms of my thinking. Then say to you that I’m supposed to go to this Correspondents’ Dinner and I’m supposed to be on Nightline or whatever. I don’t know when your article is due. I promise I can try to do this on the telephone with you back and forth. I have a funeral tomorrow, my grandmother-in-law. But I can try to get you on the telephone and do it. I’m running out of runway here. I’m interested and anxious to talk to you but I don’t wanna —
M: Well I can, maybe if I can ask you one final question? And then we can , I mean if I an get more time on the phone —
M: Sure, sure.
B: Yeah, let me make this final point. The irony of the neoconservatives’ exercise of power is, I genuinely believe, unrelated to terror, they weakened us. The very thing they anticipated has had the opposite result. They anticipated the leveraging of power would chasten North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Libya, etc. That’s why they’re clinging so desperately to the argument of relating to Libya. I spent 2 hours with Qaddafi — at their request, by the way, the president’s and the White House’s request. The guy doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body.
M: When was this?
B: Two weeks ago? I addressed the Libyan Parliament on condition that they in fact broadcast everything I said uninterrupted and unedited — and they did, nationwide. Now, here’s the point I want to make. The irony of all ironies is — and I’ll ask this as a general rhetorical question — do you think anybody — Let’s just take Iran. The rationale of Wolfowitz and company was — there is a more than a nascent, there is a genuine desire for democratization in Iran. There has been genuine proof and efforts of movement toward that. Whether it is Khatami, who okay, who pushed as far as he could but would push much further if he could. There was this momentum building and a critical mass being generated in Iraq [he means Iran] that, given sustenance and help, would eventually overtake the clerics.
Wolfowitz’s argument — I don’t know this for a fact, but the neocon argument was — the demonstration of power on their border, as awesome as it is, would chasten the clerics in a way that they would do one of two things: They would make a deal with and enhance the democratization taking place, or the democratizers would be more bold and move the clerics out of the way. I’m oversimplifying a bit, just a tad.
What has happened? Once the clerics realized that the hands of this administration are now tied in terms of our own public and the stretched-thin capacity of the United States military — 375,000 people engaged abroad — what did they do? Something they would have never done before that power was exercised. They wiped out, in the clear view of day, with all the world to see, the democratic instincts, the democratic institutions, and the democratic, how could I say it, the emerging democratic consensus. Unabashedly, they just said, Boom, 198 of you can’t run, you’re out of the parliament. It’s like King George II going out, King George II dissolving the parliament. Now think about that. I mean, literally, nobody’s focused on that.
I’m gonna — you know, when you get the Pulitzer, I want a piece of it.
M: Okay. Heh heh.
B: Obviously I’m being a wise guy. But all kidding aside, think about it. I mean, just think of it. [unintelligible] Just think of it in a totally cold and calculating way. Can you imagine, can you image a year and a half ago, immediately after 9/11 when we were in Afghanistan, can you imagine the clerics doing that? I can’t.
But why have they done it now. Same reason Bashir Asad saw Jesus immediately and all of a sudden realized they can’t do anything. And as for Qaddafi making the deal? That deal was made two months before we went into Iraq and Qaddafi was very straightforward with me. I mean this was one hard-assed son of a bitch. This guy looked like he had — as big as cue balls, this guy was serious. I looked at him like, whoa, this guy’s like shoe leather. I probably drive Norm — but he’s an athlete as well — I drive him crazy. I always put things in the context of me looking at the other guy in the field. Do I know that he knows that I know that I can beat him? Or does he know that I know that he can beat me? Well, look at Qaddafi, it’s like — yo, Richie, this guy, I wouldn’t screw with this guy, in terms of his personal — Qaddafi sits there and he says to me — first of all he walked in and says, “You know, I only have a few minutes,” through an interpreter. I said, “That’s no problem, we can go, it’s really nice.” “No, no, no, just sit here a minute.” I said, “No you’re busy, we don’t want to take your time we don’t need to take your time. It’s okay.” “No, no, no,” he says, “You have a question” — I’m paraphrasing — “do you have a question?”
And I said, “Yeah, why, why the change of heart?” And he says, “The real question is” — through an interpreter — “The real question is, why did we get off this way, why did you sanction me in the first place?”
I looked at him and said, “That’s easy. You’re a terrorist.” I didn’t mince, I said, “You are a terrorist.” I said, you know I leaned to him and said, “You’ve engaged in supporting terrorists. Matter of fact, you blew up 35 of the kids who went to my alma mater along with another hundred or so people. You’re a terrorist, that’s why.”
He sits there and he goes like this, he goes, “That’s logical.” (laughs) I mean the guy was great! And I said, “So, Okay. Tell me why.” And he went, Well — I’m paraphrasing — “Nuclear weapons didn’t help you very much in Vietnam, they didn’t help you in Iraq and if I ever used them you’d blow me away.” Not my phrase, blow me away, but whatever he said, you know. And they’re expensive, they didn’t do anything for me. So what do I need ’em for? Deterrence works for states.
Second, he says — I said, how about the best — you were in the room, Richard — the best one was about terrorist groups. I said to him, I said, “Why refrain from supporting terror?” And he says the following — chime in if you have — if I leave some of — he said, I supported the PLO, the ANC, the IRA, Hamas, and he listed, the Sandinistas —
Aide: He went way back.
B: He went way back. He went back and named people I wasn’t even sure he ever supported. And he looks at me and he says — I forget the exact phrase — he says, And they made their own bargains.
Aide: He said they’ve all been on the White House lawn.
Biden: Yeah, he said, they’ve all been on the White House lawn. (laughs) And he says, So basically — I forget the phrase — but he said, “Why should I be purer than they? I’m getting penalized for this, these buys are cutting their own deals.” But the phrase was, “and they all ended up on the White House lawn.” Gerry Adams, Yassir Arafat, etc.
So it’s basically like, what am I doing this for? So he looks at me and he says, “That’s the reason.”
And I said, jokingly, “That’s logical.”
And the next thing he says, he said, And by the way, he says, “We’re an Athenian democracy.” That was the phrase he used about what kind of democracy he is.
And I said, “That’s amazing.” I mean this is the nature — no joke. I said, “That’s amazing. That means your parliament can vote you out of office?”
He said, “No, I’m the revolutionary, I started the revolution.”
I said, “We had a guy like that, his name was George Washington.” I said, “We only kept him for eight years and got rid of him.”
He looked at me and I said, “You know, I’m moving to Libya.” I said, “I like this job security.” I said, “Can I run for the job?”
And he laughed, first time he smiled, he cracked a smile, he kinda laughed. I said, “I love this kind of democracy.” This is great.
And you know, I mean it was like — but he was no bullshit. He made a calculated deal. And it made sense. It had nothing to do with going into Iraq. I mean Bashir Asad is no — Bashir Asad may worry he gets assassinated, but he sure as hell ain’t worried that you’re going to have American forces cross the border. They’re building berms, they’re not going across.
So the irony is they’ve weakened us. The very thing that they thought would be the effect, which was the leveraging, the perception, the you know, the inflicting of fear and awe, [unintelligible] conduct, has had the exact opposite effect. And that is the untold story, I predict. That’s the story your kid you don’t have is gonna write for a high school thesis. That’s the one. Their thesis was, this will bring the malcontents in line, when in fact it gave them more breathing room. Now that is not inconsistent with saying that they, that by demanding democratization in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, that that can’t work. Because that’s not about the exercise of force, that’s about the withdrawal of support. They’re different things. You follow me? So that card is still there to play. And it should be played. But it shouldn’t be played in a way, in my view, like I said to the crown prince in — when I met with him in Riyadh. This is now a year — I guess — this is on the way back from Afghanistan. When was it?
Aide: No, it was on the way back from the first Iraq — from the second Iraq trip.
B: That’s right, second Iraq trip, okay. And I’m sitting with him in Riyadh.
[Back and forth with aide about whether it was King Fahd or Crown Prince Abdullah]
B: Anyway, here’s what he says. He said, You know — he speaks perfect English. You could tell him, “You must democratize.” I said, I’m not telling you anything, I’m not telling you anything. I’m just telling you that one of the things that 9/11 showed us is — and we ought to give him this speech, cause it’s the last one I made — 9/11 has showed us a simple thing: We no longer have the luxury of saying, we can justify support for your autocratic regime because of the Cold War, because of oil, because of geopolitical considerations.
That has all been trumped by terror. We are the target in large part because of you. Osama bin Laden never looked at us, never gave a tinker’s damn about the Palestinians — it was you. After Gulf One you asked us to stay and protect you. We stayed, and we became viewed as the reason for your continued existence. And so, were I president, were I secretary of state to a president, I would say, unless these fellows start to squint — and he was very well educated about American history — I said there is a governor named Wilson from Pennsylvania. And one of the proposals made for how the Supreme Court justices would be picked, his response was, “You squint toward monarchy.” I said — Let me paraphrase that. I said, “Unless you start squinting toward democracy, I must tell you, I for one am willing to take the pain of the oil shock of your cutting us off. I will cut my deal with someone who is not a lot better, but who can fill my needs in the near term, Mr. [unintelligible].”
And it was like, whoa, he’s serious. And I am serious.
B: I think we should be saying to the Egyptians, hey look — I know I gotta go and I’m going — we have a proposal that says — that I’m scrubbing now to make sure that I’m right on the numbers. And instead of the aid to Egypt being two-thirds military and one-third for social — Pakistan, I mean. This is Pakistan but we’re talking about doing the same for Egypt, we’re scrubbing the Pakistan numbers. We should be saying to the Egyptians, We’re gonna help you. We’re only going to help you now economically in terms of your social circumstances. We gotta get this right, old buddy. We cannot continue to be perceived as the people who are keeping you in power when you are not democratizing. And by the way, I Joe Biden, with no authority as a minority member, a ranking member — a euphemism for no power — I mean it, were I president, were I secretary of state, were I chair of the committee — that’s the pursuit that I would be on. Does it change it overnight? No, it doesn’t, it’s gradual, but that’s different than going in and deposing them and saying, find me a democracy. A lot of these guys are sort of, they’re not just the neoconservatives, they’re the conservatives from the 50s and 60s. And these are the same guys that thought there was a Thomas Jefferson hiding in every rice paddy, a Thomas Jefferson hiding behind every boulder in Afghanistan or Northern Iraq, a Thomas Jefferson hiding behind every coca plant in Columbia — that’s not how it’s done.
Now that’s an unfair statement on my part, implying that these guys simplistically think that you can just pluck somebody and you know, do it. But it is illustrative of how I think they think. This is really hard slogging, man. Really hard slogging.
M: In the lead-up to the war, one of the most prominent opponents — Brent Scowcroft. He wrote that column and everything. There was a pattern that a lot of — I guess a lot of Democrats sort of sensed, looking for some solid ground politically, and looked to Scowcroft, who again, was opposing on pretty standard old line realist grounds and so forth —
B: As did Baker, by the way.
M: And I wondered, a lot of the points you’ve made, are outlining a foreign policy that would be very different from the neocons but still very bold, with an emphasis on expanding liberal democracies and so forth. So I wonder if you see a problem for the Democrats — and I mean this as a mix of policy and politically — of what you might call sort of “creeping Scowcroft-ism.” Of falling back on a kind of, sort of the safe-harbor of realism. To find something that —
B: Well, you see, I would not characterize Scowcroft that way.
B: But I can understand how it could be easily characterized. I don’t characterize him that way.
M: He even said that he’s that kind of —
B: I understand what you’re saying. I’m not taking issue.
B: But in order to understand my answer. I think that that is possible that it be perceived that way. But the truth of the matter is, it’s the reason why Lugar and I were in lockstep on all of this stuff. This crosses party lines. This doesn’t have to be a Democratic policy. All foreign policies that have succeeded have been able to cross party lines and generate a solid center of the consensus of this country. And there are the pieces to do that. It will have to be lead now by a Democratic president. It is possible that if Hagel were running for president and he got elected, he would be able to generate it. It’s possible that he would pick Scowcroft again as his national security advisor. It is possible that — so, the fact, that it is similar — and, by the way, if you look at what Lugar and I wrote before Scowcroft wrote this stuff, Scowcroft’s pattern — what we’ve been saying. That’s not about who’s first. My point is about how the world changed, and it changed even Scowcroft’s view. It no longer was this sort of —
M: Strategic interest in expanding liberal democracy.
B: Exactly right. Because he wasn’t there before. He wasn’t talking about expanding liberal democracies. He was status quo Annie. He was a realist. And the realists at that time — and I’m being unfair to Scowcroft, because I’m over-simplifying — but, he was one who said, Hey look, we need the oil, so let’s not screw around. Again, I want to make it clear, I know that’s a vast oversimplification and unfair. But, in essence, it was that. Now Scowcroft comes along and is looking and saying, Wait a minute. I didn’t realize these guys built 7,000 madrassas. And, guess what — I didn’t know what these madrassas did. I knew, but I didn’t know. I didn’t understand this. Holy shit. These guys better straighten up and fly right or we’re going to have to make some hard choices. I sense a new realism, if you will. You follow me?
M: Or a new realism that includes that strategic —
B: Yeah. But he could argue that, born out of realism. As in, now I realistically understand that I can’t fall back on, democracy’s realistically what we need, and a movement toward it.
Aide: [unintelligible] A guy who’s saying it more boldly who’s part of that old school realist establishment is Brzezinski. And he’s come on it much more hardly.
B: And he’s made two really first rate speeches.
M: I saw the one at the conference, what, back in October, and that was great.
B: First-rate. I think that the goal of whoever the hell the next president of the United States is, should be, literally, you could put it on a wall. You could nail it on the wall, every time the president goes to the bathroom, he’s looking at it. It should say the following: It should tell the story about Acheson speaking to de Gaulle on behalf of Kennedy.
M: He was showing the evidence.
B: You got it. There is not a single leader in the world, in my view, that would not ask this President, “Show me.”