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A Conversation on Iraq with Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Speaker: Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Published February 15, 2007



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Delaware Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, gave this February 2007 speech on Iraq at the Brookings Institution.

SENATOR BIDEN: Thank you, Mister Ambassador. Quite frankly, you summarized my speech. Ladies and gentlemen, I want to begin by thanking Brookings for offering me this forum once again and to make it available. I have been grateful for the many opportunities to be able to speak to important issues from this platform and I appreciate you giving me this opportunity again. Thank you very much.

To state the obvious, ladies and gentlemen, this is a time of tremendous challenge for America and the world. We must contend with an ongoing war in Afghanistan, genocide in Darfur, the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, the rise of China, and the reemergence of Russia, the growing insecurity of our energy supply, the fragility of our climate, and the threat posed by radical fundamentalism. But there is one issue that dominates our national debate today, and it is Iraq.

If we deal with Iraq successfully, we can recover the freedom, the flexibility, and the credibility to meet more aptly these other challenges that I have just mentioned. That is what I want to talk to you about today, Iraq.

Listen to the debate about Iraq here in Washington. It centers in my view on a false choice that is also a bad choice. We either continue on President Bush's failing course and hand off Iraq to the next president, or what we do is we just leave and we hope for the best. I believe there is a better choice. I believe it is still possible to bring our troops home without having traded a dictator for chaos, a chaos that engulfs Iraq and quite possibly spreads to the Middle East. Ladies and gentlemen, this must be our goal, leaving Iraq without leaving behind chaos. Leaving Iraq is necessary, but it is not a plan.

We also need a plan for what we are going to leave behind. Nine months ago with Less Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, I proposed a plan. I will not take the time to go into great detail today, but go on my website and you will get all the detail that you need. Essentially our plan recognizes that there is no purely military exit from Iraq. Instead, we set out a roadmap to a political settlement in Iraq and one that gives the warring factions a way to share power and offers us the chance to leave with our interests intact. The plan has five major pieces.

First, maintaining a uniformed Iraq by decentralizing Iraq, giving the Kurds, the Shiites, and the Sunnis breathing room in their own regions as, I might add, the Iraqi Constitution calls for. The central government would be responsible for common concerns like guarding the border, currency, and the distribution of oil revenues.

Second, secure support from the Sunnis who have no oil and no obvious natural resources by guaranteeing them a fair share of the oil revenues, and allow former Baathist Party members to go back to work to reintegrate Sunnis with no blood on their hands back into the system.

Third, increase economic assistance to Iraq, not diminish it, and economic assistance to its regions. Insist that the oil-rich Gulf States put up most of the money. Tie it to the protection of minority rights and create major job programs to deny new militia recruits. As General Chiarelli said to me when I made my last trip to Iraq, "Do you want me to deal with the rise of militias? Provide jobs. I will take care of the militias."

Fourth, initiate a major diplomatic offensive to enlist the support of Iraq's neighbors. Create an oversight group with the United Nations and the major powers to enforce their commitments to whatever political settlement is arrived at. Ladies and gentlemen, these countries have a profound stake in preventing chaos in Iraq, and they have the credibility that we lack to press for compromises by all Iraqis. If a political settlement fails to take hold in Iraq, these countries are vital to any strategy to contain that chaos within Iraq.

Fifth, instruct our military to draw up plans for withdrawing U.S. combat forces by 2008, leaving behind a small force to take care of dealing with jihadis who may congregate, and to train Iraqi forces, for that is the best way to focus Iraq's leaders on the political compromises they are going to have to make, is to make clear to them that we are going to be leaving.

Many of you heard me discuss this plan before. What is new I would argue is the growing support it is receiving. That support was evident during the 4 weeks of hearings we just held in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the month of January and into this month. It is evident in the new National Intelligence Estimate for Iraq, a consensus of the report of all U.S. intelligence agencies. The NIE and virtually all our witnesses agreed that the fundamental problem in Iraq is self-sustaining sectarian violence. Yes, jihadis, Baathists, criminal gangs, intra-sect violence, all contribute to the growing chaos, but Sunnis killing Shia and Shia killing Sunnis is the heart of the matter and that is what we have to stop or we have to come up with a plan to stop if we want to leave Iraq with our interests intact.

The question is, how do we stop the sectarian cycle of revenge? If history is any guide, we have to wait until one side wins or both sides exhaust themselves. That could take years of bloodletting, yes, I would posit, that we do not have. History also suggests it is possible to short-circuit sectarian strife. A decade ago Bosnia was being torn apart by ethnic cleansing which threatened to engulf the entire Balkans. The United States stepped in with the Dayton Accords which kept the country whole by paradoxically dividing it into ethnic federations, Muslims, Croats, and Serbs, each retaining separate armies and separate presidents. Since then Bosnians have lived in a decade of peace, we have had thousands of troops none of whom thank God have been killed as a consequence of enemy fire, and now in the Balkans they are slowing coming back together. There is much work to be done, but slowly coming back together.

I would argue that Iraq presents a similar possibility. Here is what the National Intelligence Estimate says that we need, and I quote, "Broader Sunni acceptance of the current political structure and federalism, and significant concessions by Shia and Kurds to create space for Sunni acceptance of federalism." That is exactly what is behind the Biden-Gelb plan. That is the exact strategy.

During our hearings, witness after witness, including former Secretaries of State, foreign-policy experts including some from this institution, and elected officials came to a similar conclusion. So have a growing number of opinion makers.

What more and more people are beginning to recognize is that there are very few possible futures for Iraq in the near-term, and only one of them protects America's interests. Think about Iraq's possible futures. The Bush Administration has one vision, that Iraqis will rally behind a strong democratic central government that keeps the country together and protects the rights of all its citizens. But since the Samarra Mosque bombing, and I would argue since my comment in 2002 that was referenced here, that vision has been cloudy to begin with and engulfed by flames of sectarian hatred since the Samarra Mosque bombing.

The hard truth in Iraq is that there is no trust within the government, no trust of the government by the people, and no capacity by the government to deliver services and security. And there is no evidence, I would argue, none, that we can build the trust and capacity of that government anytime soon.

But there are two other ways to govern Iraq from the center, a foreign occupation that the United States cannot sustain, or the return of a strongman who is not on the horizon, and even if he were, replacing one dictator with another would require a savagery to rival Saddam's worse excesses.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us in my view with an idea a large majority of Iraqis have already embraced and endorsed in their constitution and that our plan would help make a reality, federalism. Federalism would keep Iraq together by vesting power in the regions. It would bring decisions and responsibilities down to the local level, give Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds control over the fabric of their daily lives, security, education, marriage, jobs. Very few people, probably with the exception of some in this room, have actually read the Iraqi Constitution which I have with me. Very few people further still understand that legislation to implement its articles on federalism will take effect in Iraq within 15 months. They have already been voted by the Iraqi Parliament.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my assertion that federalism is Iraq's best possible future, but unless we make federalism work for all Iraqis, the violence will not stop. We have to convince the major powers and Iraq's neighbors that a federal Iraq is the best possible outcome for them as well and to put their weight and their influence behind such an outcome. Then together we have to bring the Sunnis in and convince the Shiites and Kurds to make real concessions. That is what the Biden-Gelb plan proposes. It demands a kind of sustained, hard-headed diplomacy for which this administration has shown little interest or aptitude, but it offers the possibility, not a guarantee, it offers the possibility of producing a soft landing in Iraq.

If we fail to make federalism work, there will be no political accommodation at the center in my view. Violent resistance will increase, and the sectarian cycle of revenue may very well spiral out of control and out of the country. At best, the result likely will be a violent breakup of Iraq into multiple failed states, at worst the result will be Iraq's total fragmentation into warring fiefdoms and the neighbors will not sit on the sidelines.

Already Iraq has aggravated deep Sunni-Shiite divides that run from Lebanon through Afghanistan, Pakistan through India. This fault line intersects with other cultural and political rifts between Arabs and Persians, Turks and Kurds, jihadis and the Muslim mainstream, to create conditions for a cataclysmic explosion at worst.

Iran and Arab states will back Shia and Sunni extremists as part of a proxy war, and eventually I believe they will intervene directly. Sunni jihadists could flood Iraq to confront the Persian-Shia threat, creating another haven for terror. Turkey could move into the north and crush the Kurdish ambitions, and Sunni-Shia tensions will rise from Beirut to Karachi. Individually these would be bad developments, together they would do terrible damage to America's interests in that part of the world.

It seems to me that we must lead a determined regional and international effort to end the Iraqi civil war and contain if it we cannot end the civil war. We must begin to make Iraq the world's problem, not merely our own, because it is the world's problem.

In my view, ladies and gentlemen, it is no surprise to you I believe the Bush Administration is heading in exactly the wrong direction. Instead of a diplomatic and political offensive to forge a political settlement, it proposes a military offensive that would send 17,500 American troops on the offensive in the middle of a city of 6,200,000 people in the midst of a vicious, vicious cycle of sectarian violence. This military surge is not a solution, it is a tragic mistake. If we are going to surge anywhere, we should be surging in Afghanistan. I was glad to hear the president this morning recognize what many of us have been saying for years, unless we surge troops, hardware, money, and a high level of attention into Afghanistan, it will fall back into the hands of the Taliban, terrorists, and drug lords which control a significant portion of it now.

I support the steps the president announced today, but I hope they are only the first steps, not the last, in the recommitment of the United States to the stability of Afghanistan, for if Afghanistan fails, the impact on Pakistan will be profound, and we do not have to wonder about whether or not they have significant radical elements of their society, nor do we have to wonder about whether or not they have weapons of mass destruction.

Ladies and gentlemen, the House is about to pronounce itself on the president's surge plan for Iraq, and the Senate will do so as well soon I hope. Some minimize the significance of nonbinding resolutions. They say it is meaningless. I would respectfully suggest if it is so meaningless, why did the White House and the president's political supporters mobilize so much energy against this nonbinding resolution? Opposing the surge I have said from the beginning is only the first step. We need a radical change in course of action in Iraq. If the president will not act to change, the Congress will have to attempt to do so, but Congress must act responsibly. We must resist this temptation to push for changes that sound good but may very well produce bad results.

The best next step in my view is to revisit the authorization Congress granted to the president in 2002 in the Use of Force Resolution for Iraq, and that is exactly what I am doing as we speak. We gave the president the power to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, seek accommodation with the U.N. resolutions, and if necessary, to depose Saddam Hussein. The WMD were not there, they are not out of synch with U.N. resolutions, and Saddam Hussein is no longer there. The 2002 authorization in my view is no longer relevant to the situation in Iraq.

So the legislation I am working on would repeal that authorization and replace it with a much narrower mission statement for our troops in Iraq. Congress should make clear what the mission of our troops is, to responsibly draw down while continuing to combat jihadis, train Iraqis, and respond to emergencies. We should make equally sure what the mission is not, to stay in Iraq indefinitely, and to get mired down in a savage civil war. Coupled with the Biden-Gelb plan, I believe a new resolution for the authorization of use of force is the most effective and responsible way to start to bring our troops home without leaving a mess behind.

I want to leave you with one thought. For our sake and the sake of the Iraqi people, we should be focused on how we get out of Iraq but with our interests intact. Everyone wants to bring our troops home. They want to bring them home as soon as safely as possible. But tempting as it is, we cannot just throw up our hands, blame the president for misusing the authority we gave him, and he did, and walk away without a plan for what we leave behind.

I will end where I began, leaving Iraq is a necessity, but it is not a plan. We need a plan for what we are going to leave behind. That is what I have offered. And to those who disagree, and it is reasonable to disagree with my plan, I have one simple question: What is your alternative? Thank you very, very much for listening, and I would be delighted to take questions.

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