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A Conversation with Senator Joseph Biden [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service, Inc.]

Speaker: Joseph R. Biden Jr., Member, U.S. Senate (D-DE)
Presider: Brian Williams, Anchor and Managing Editor, NBC Nightly News
November 21, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations

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Council on Foreign Relations
New York, NY

BRIAN WILLIAMS: If I could bring this to order by welcoming everyone to today's meeting on the Council on Foreign Relations. And the usual reminder: Phones, BlackBerries, all wireless devices off, please. One more reminder: Today's session is indeed on the record.

Our guest is, of course, familiar to all fellow members; Democrat from the great state of Delaware. The ranking Democrat on Senate Foreign Relations. A once and perhaps future candidate for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. (Laughter.) And as to his longevity in office, we can put it this way: A child born the year Senator Biden was sworn in would be an adult of 32 today. (Laughter.)

Ladies and gentlemen, Senator Joe Biden. (Applause.)

SENATOR JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): Thank you very much. I want the record to show although there are only four members of the Senate who have now served longer than me, there are roughly half who are older than I am! (Laughter.) That's a very important thing for you all to know — at least for me.

Folks, today I'd like to talk with you about Iraq, and I want to start by addressing the question that's on the minds of most Americans, at least in my state: When will we bring our troops home?

Here's my conviction. In 2006, American troops are going to begin to leave Iraq in large numbers, and by the end of that year, I believe we'll have redeployed at least 50,000 American forces. And in 2007, a significant number of the remaining 100,000 forces will follow suit.

But the real question is this: As Americans start to come home, will we leave Iraq with our fundamental security interest intact, or will we have traded a dictator for chaos?

By misrepresenting the facts, by misunderstanding Iraq and misleading the war, I believe the administration has brought us to the verge of a national security debacle. As a result, many Americans have already concluded that we cannot salvage Iraq and that we should bring troops home and bring them home as soon as possible, as my grandfather would say, if not immediately.

They include some of the most respected voices on military matters in this country, like Congressman Jack Murtha. They're mindful of the terrible consequences of withdrawing, but even worse, in their judgment, would be to leave Americans to fight and to die in Iraq with no apparent strategy for success or having concluded it's already lost. I respect these voices. I share their frustration.

But I am not there yet. I still believe we can preserve our fundamental security interests in Iraq as we begin to redeploy our forces. But this is going to require, in my view, for the administration not to stay the course but to change the course, and to do it now. Though it may not seem like it, I think there's actually a broad consensus on what the administration has to do, at least in the United States Congress.

Last week was one of the most significant votes taken in the 30 — close to 33 — going on 33 years I've been a United States senator. It was a powerful, powerful, powerful message and, I would argue, indictment of the administration's failure to handle the war in Iraq with any competence. Last week, 79 Democrats and Republicans in the Senate came together and said to the president: Mr. President, we need a plan. We need to know precisely what it is, and we need you to contemporaneously tell us how it is unfolding. Level with us. Give us the specific goal and the timetable for achieving each one of the goals, so that we know exactly where you are, where we're going. And quite frankly, written in this — as all of you know, we don't get to write foreign policy in the United States Senate, we only get to react. What was embedded in this resolution was: Mr. President, we don't want you to backslide from any new commitment, we hope you will make, along the lines we've outlined.

As I've been urging for some time in order for the president to let us know where he's going with any prospects of success, it'll require many changes — as many changes at home as on the ground in Iraq. For the gap between the administration's rhetoric and reality of Iraq has opened a huge — a huge credibility chasm, which I spoke to last time at the honor of being here before the council. The problem has been compounded by the president's failure to explain in detail his strategy and to report regularly to both houses of Congress on the progress and the problems faced. Can you imagine if this had been going on at the time when William Fulbright were chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee? Very little oversight.

As David Brooks reminded us in The New York Times yesterday, and I quote Brookes, "Franklin Roosevelt asked Americans to spread out maps before them, and he described step by step what was going on in World War II" — where the United States was winning and where it was losing. Why can't today's presidents do that? Why can't we show — why can't he show that he's aware that his biggest problem is not in Iraq, it is on the homefront?

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to see the president regain America's confidence and trust. It is vital to our young men and women in Iraq today, and it's vital to our security, that we get this right. George Bush is our president, and he will remain president for the next three years. I want him to succeed because his success is ours. His failure becomes ours and to level with the American people is absolutely essential to begin this process. Without the ability to regain their trust, he has very, very, very, very little running room.

But regaining their confidence is not enough, the president has to be realistic about the mission, and I would argue, forget the grandiose goals he started with, which I've never subscribed to. Iraq will not become a model democracy any time soon. Instead, we need to refocus our attention on our mission — of our mission on preserving America's fundamental interests in Iraq. And there are two of them, in my view. One, we must ensure that Iraq does not become what it was not before the war — emphasize "was not before the war" — a haven for terrorists, a jihadist stronghold. And we must do what we can to prevent a full-blown civil war that runs the risk of turning into a regional war.

To accomplish that more limited mission and to begin redeploying our troops responsibly, it seems to me we have to make significant, measurable progress toward three goals, and you only have about the next six months to demonstrate that progress. One, we must help forge a political settlement that gives all of Iraqis' major political groups a stake in the country remaining together. Two, we must strengthen the capacity of the Iraqi government and revamp the reconstruction program to deliver real, demonstrable benefits to the Iraqi people. And three, we must accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces and transfer control to them.

I'd like to discuss each of these goals one at a time, if I may.

First, we need to build a political consensus by starting with the constitution that will be finally voted on late this winter, early spring, a constitution that gives the Kurds, Shi'a and Sunni a stake in keeping Iraq together. Iraq cannot be salvaged by military action alone. Last month the constitution passed overwhelmingly, but the vast majority of Sunni Arabs voted no. Unless changes are made by next spring, I believe the constitution will become a document that divides rather than unites Iraqis. So all sides have to compromise. Sunnis must accept the fact that they no longer run Iraq and rule, but less Shi'a and Kurds give them a stake in the new order and make some concessions, they will continue to resist.

if the situation devolves into a full-blown civil war from the simmering civil war that exists now, all the king's horses and all the king's men will not be able to keep Iraq together. Does anyone here support using American troops to fight a civil war against the Sunni on behalf of the Kurds or the Shi'a? I don't, and I doubt that any American would. But if we fail to forge a political consensus soon, that is exactly the place our troops may be dragged into.

The Bush administration, in my view, was AWOL until the arrival of our new ambassador this summer. And Zal has done a first-rate job since he's been there, in my view. We let the Iraqis fend for themselves in writing the constitution for much too long, and in our absence, no headway was made. We can't make that same mistake again over the next several months. We need to be fully engaged.

And next month, there's an election for the National Assembly, and I expect, as I suspect everyone in here does as well, that the Sunnis will participate in large number. But after that election, we have to turn our attention immediately to encouraging the Kurds and the Shi'a to make some genuine compromises to make it worthwhile. Our ambassador can't be the only one in the room cajoling the Iraqis. We need a regional strategy that persuades Iraq's neighbors to wield their influence with the Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds for a political compromise — the same argument I made when I was here last time speaking before all of you. I believe they will do it, because no one other than the terrorist has any interest in seeing Iraq devolve into a full-blown civil or regional war.

But the major powers also have a stake in this. Europe has unintegrated Muslim populations that are vulnerable to Middle East extremism. India and China need stable oil supplies. Our allies must get over bruised feelings and help forge a political consensus. We must get over our reluctance as well to fully involve them, which seems to still be an overhang that this administration suffers from.

We should form a contact group, as I suggested here a year ago, that becomes Iraq's primary national interlocutor. That would take some of the burden off of us, maximize the pressures on Iraqis' main political groups to compromise.

As I said, I know I'm broken record in calling for this, but I'd like to point out a regional strategy and international contact group has been repeatedly called for, and not just by me; so have three former Republican secretaries this year — Secretary Shultz, Secretary Kissinger and Secretary Powell. It's what the Clinton administration did in the Balkans, and it's what this administration did, with help of the director of this outfit, in Afghanistan. Organized, sustained international involvement can make a significant difference. Emphasize: It can make a significant difference. But it will only happen if America leads. It will not happen spontaneously.

Second, we need government ministries in Iraq that provide work and basic services. And we need to redo the reconstruction program to deliver real benefits to the Iraqi people. I've made five trips. I'm about to go in another couple of weeks. I'm telling you, there's very little change is taking place on the ground. Walk out the door of some Iraqi homes, and you step into three feet of sewage or at least — excuse me — at least a foot and a half of sewage, up to the hubcaps of the humvees you ride in. Right now Iraqi ministries are barely functional. They make FEMA look like a model of efficiency. (Soft laughter.) And the Bush administration belatedly has developed plans to build up the government's capacity, but there aren't enough civilian experts with the right skills to do the job at this point.

We need a civilian commitment in Iraq equal to our military commitment. I recommended the president and the secretary of State consider ordering staff to Baghdad if there are shortages. Just as military personnel are required to go to Iraq, why shouldn't the same apply to the Foreign Service? The dedication and courage of our Foreign Service officers that I've witnessed firsthand in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and every area of conflict where I've visited over the past 32 years is incredible. They'll take on the toughest assignments if they're asked. They have not been asked. This should not be their burden alone, though. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Blair proposed that individual countries be partnered with individual ministries within Iraq. I thought then and I think now it's a very good idea. But it got a lukewarm reception. I think it should be revived. Our military commanders tell me we can't defeat the insurgency unless we have a reconstruction program that makes a difference in the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

Congress gave this administration $20 billion for reconstruction. There is, if you've been there — there is far, far too little to show for it. To quote my friend Dick Lugar, about 10 months ago referring to this, he said we have been, quote, "Incompetent. Incompetent in spending that money." And as I said earlier, raw sewage in too many streets, lights are on for less than half the day, water isn't safe to drink and too many homes — too many homes are worse off than they were before the war. Unemployment rates are around 40 percent. And if 40 percent of the Iraqis have no job and no hope, the insurgency's always going to have a place to fish.

(Coughing.) I apologize.

We were told before the war that oil would pay for reconstruction. Now, two and a half years after Saddam's statue has fallen, Iraq still is not exporting as much oil as it did prior to the war. There are 700,000 barrels a day below target. That's roughly $15 billion in lost revenue per year. The president may be the only guy running an oil company that's not making money this year. (Laughter.)

The prospects — excuse me — projects have been delayed or never started, and now the money's nearly gone and the need is still great, nearly gone because a significant portion of all of this money has had to be spent on security.

And the president has yet to explain how he plans on filling this gap. Of the $13.5 billion in non-American aid pledged at the Madrid conference two years ago, only $3 billion has been delivered. The administration is — and I think this is a very good thing — creating provincial reconstruction teams modeled on the Afghan model, and they will focus on getting local governments to deliver services — local governments — to deliver the services. That's a very good idea, but it's long overdue and it's not enough.

We should step up the recruiting of allied civilian experts to be part of these reconstruction teams. I would redirect our spending to Iraqi contractors, away from expensive multinationals. Iraqis don't have to add a line item worth 40 percent of the value of the contract — which we do now — for security if we turn to them. Will there be graft and corruption? Yes. Yes. Will it equal what's happening now? No. I'm glad — I'd be glad to see us being able to save the taxpayers some money and take this thing a little further down the road, with Iraqis doing much of this work.

And we need to get other countries that have already pledged economic assistance to actually deliver it and to pledge more. Ladies and gentlemen, I think it's time — and I'm not being facetious — for another Jim Baker mission. The president should ask former Secretary Baker to convene a conference of our Gulf allies. These countries have had a huge windfall in oil profits, and significantly from our pocketbooks. We've gone to war twice in the last decade to preserve their security. I think it's past time that they step up and give a little bit back.

The third goal is to build Iraqi security forces that can provide law and order in the neighborhoods, defeat the insurgency and to isolate and ultimately eliminate the foreign jihadists over time. The administration tread water on training for two years, and not until the arrival of General David Petraeus in June of 2004 did we start a training program worthy of its name either for police or for the military.

And back in Washington, all we have heard from the administration is misleading number after misleading number after misleading number after misleading number. In February of 2004, Secretary Rumsfeld announced that there were over 210,000 Iraqis in the security force. He called it — and I quote — "an amazing accomplishment." Seven months later, he said there were 95,000 trained forces. Now, on a program I was on with him yesterday, he said they're back up to 210,000 trained Iraqi forces.

You know, folks, when my folks back home hear those numbers, when we advertise we have 210,000 Iraqi forces trained, they look at me and they say, "Well, why the hell do we have to be there? If there are 210,000 trained Iraqis, why is my kid there? Why do we need 160,000 American forces there?"

It seems to me the president at every turn over the last several years just undercuts his own credibility and undercuts the prospect of getting support from the American people.

Folks, what we need to know, and what the administration refused to tell us until recently relating to security, is how many Iraqi forces can operate on their own and how many Iraqi forces can operate in the lead with Americans embedded in their force. We're finally starting to get answers. And this past September General Casey said, two and a half years into the training program, one battalion — one battalion — that's less than a thousand people, probably closer to 600 — one battalion of Iraqis can operate independently, and 40 or so can now lead counterinsurgency operations with American support.

Beyond the question of capabilities, there are real concerns that the security forces are more loyal to political parties than they are to the Iraqi government; that militia members dominate this — certain units, the peshmerga and the Badr Brigade; and that others have been infiltrated by insurgent informists. But General Petraeus overhauled the training program, and as a result, there's much greater professionalism and a chance that much more can be done.

But as you all know, training takes time, and just as it was getting on track, to my astonishment, the administration reassigned one of the most competent generals we had in the field, General Petraeus. He may have deserved to go home — I don't think he asked to come home — but he was reassigned back home. I think that was a serious, serious, serious mistake.

Congress needs to know from the president the schedule for getting army battalions, regular police and special forces to the point they can act on their own or lead with American support. And we also need to accelerate our training efforts, but not at the expense of quality. We should urge the Iraqis to accept offers from France — and they have made offers — Egypt — and they have made offers — Germany and other countries have made offers to train police and to train troops, especially at the officer level, including training them outside of Iraq. Why can't we walk and chew gum at the same time?

We're only now beginning to do what several people in this room had suggested, along — and along with me, should have been done two years ago. This de-Ba'athification program was such an excess that it became incredibly counterproductive. Now we're looking at majors and below to see if we can get them back into the deal.

And if embedding more Americans with more Iraqi units would do the job, then we should do it. We should devote the resources necessary to develop the capacity of the Iraqi security ministries, Defense and Foreign Affairs. Even the most capable Iraqi troops will not make a difference if, as is the case now, they cannot be supplied, sustained or directed by the ministries.

And we must focus our efforts on the police as well, who are lagging behind. Establishing law and order through a competent police force is as important for the Iraqis as defending insurgents — as defeating insurgents is for us. You realize — many of you have been there. A woman or a man cannot send their daughter out of the home to go the equivalent of a local store without worrying about that daughter being kidnapped or raped, kidnapped and sold. If you can't walk out your front door, don't tell me you have a free election. Don't tell me that you're making great progress. Don't even tell me you've gotten rid of the jihadists.

Which leads me to the final piece of the Iraqi puzzle, in my view, forging an effective counterinsurgency strategy. Until recently, we have not had one. I got back from Iraq, my fifth trip, over Memorial Day. I will not name the generals, but I commit to you, I give you my word, every flag officer with whom I met said we are incapable of mounting a counterinsurgency strategy. They pointed out that our forces clean out of town, particularly in Anbar province, which you hear a lot about. Then, they move onto the next hornets' nest, and then, shortly thereafter — they can't leave anybody behind — and shortly thereafter, the insurgents return. Why? Because we do not enough American troops or the capable Iraqi troops to leave behind, to hold what we had cleared. And meanwhile, neither the Iraqi government nor our reconstruction efforts were capable of building a better future for those who were temporarily liberated from the violence, as we cleaned these areas.

The administration seems to finally understand the need, not only to clear the territory, but to hold it and then to build upon it. The critical question, though, is this. Who will do most of the cleaning and holding? We now have no choice but to gamble on the Iraqis. In the past, I argued we needed more American troops in Iraq for exactly that purpose. But failure to provide them, in the absence of capable Iraqis, made a clear-and-hold strategy impossible. We also left, in the process, if you all remember — it's worth remembering this — huge ammunition dumps unguarded — 800,000 tons. We allowed unchecked looting, created a security vacuum filled by Sunni insurgents, foreign jihadists and common criminal thugs.

But the time for large number of additional American troops, I believe, has now passed. What we need now is a different mix of troops, civilian affairs officers, trainers and special forces, and that'll be hard to come by as well. The hard truth is that our large military presence in Iraq is both necessary and increasingly counterproductive. Our presence remains necessary because right now our troops are the only guarantor against chaos. Pulling out prematurely, in my view, would doom any chance of leaving Iraq with our core interests intact, but our large presence is also increasingly part of the problem.

Two years ago, or even one year ago, the Iraqis were prepared — and remember these polling results — Iraqis were prepared to accept an even larger American presence if that's what it took to bring security and real improvement to their daily lives. But our failure to do just that has fueled growing Iraqi frustration, and a liberation is increasingly felt as an occupation. And we risk creating a culture of dependency as well, especially among Iraqi security forces. Even if more troops may still make sense, to state the obvious, we don't have more to give. In fact, we will not be able to sustain — and you've had — I think you've had a number of generals come here and speak — we cannot sustain what we have now beyond this spring, unless we extend deployments beyond 12 months, send soldiers back for third, fourth and fifth tours, or pull our forces from other regions, or mobilize the entire National Guard. That's why it is virtually certain we will redeploy a significant number of forces from Iraq in 2006, and more will follow in 2007.

If we succeed in preventing a civil war that devolves into a regional war, perhaps 20,000 to 40,000 Americans will stay behind for a time after that to continue training and equipping the Iraqis, to keep Iraqis' (sic) neighbors honest, and to form a Rapid Reaction Force to prevent the jihadists from establishing a permanent base in Iraq. But I emphasize, that will only have the consent of the American people if it is demonstrable we've made significant progress over 2006 and into '07. If — if that redeployment is accompanied by measurable progress, forging a political settlement, building a real Iraqi capacity to govern and transferring control to Iraqi security forces, we can start the journey home from Iraq with our fundamental interests intact. But if it doesn't, we will start the journey home anyway. But it will be without our fundamental interests intact.

But if we fail to implement the plan I've described or something close to it, then Iraq is likely to become a Bush-fulfilling prophecy: the terrorists gaining ground, and we will see a full-blown civil war that at least has a reasonable chance of developing into a regional war. If that happens, folks, nothing we can do will salvage Iraq. We will be reduced to trying to contain the problem from afar. And those who today are calling for us to leave will prove to have been tragically prescient.

I still believe that if the administration follows the plan that I've outlined today, which is not unique to me, and if the president brings it to the American people and asks for their support, we can start climbing out of the hole the administration has dug so deep and start to leave Iraq with our interests intact. Iraqis of all sects want to live, I believe, in a stable country. A majority of each of the sects wants to live with a stable country. Iraq's neighbors don't want a civil war. It's in none of their immediate interests, because they're not quite sure how it would play out as it relates to their interest. And the major powers don't want a terrorist haven in the heart of the Middle East, particularly our European friends.

And the American people want us to succeed. They want us to succeed very badly.

And if the administration listens, if it levels, and if it leads, it can still redeem their faith. If it does not, it will have been lost, and I believe we will have lost.

Thank you very much for listening. (Applause.)

WILLIAMS: Senator, thank you. And before we open up for questions here, one reminder: when the — please wait for the microphone to come your way, speak directly into it, stand, please state your name and affiliation. And we're also going to get to a question or two from national members.

But first, I'd told, I'm allowed just a couple. Senator, why aren't more Democrats standing behind Congressman Murtha, if that's the way they feel?

BIDEN: I think because most of them think that we still should go through the election and the constitution, and there is, as my grandpop would say, "Hope springs eternal" that the administration will begin to act more rationally.

So I think they think it's premature, although I do think that many of them have reached a conclusion, as many of my Republican colleagues, that this is lost, and they just don't want — they're not quite there yet. They're not quite there yet to say it. They're hoping against hope it may not be.

WILLIAMS: What was your reaction when the president said that those of you who were called upon for an up-and-down vote on authorization had access to the same intelligence he did?

BIDEN: Well, he's half-right. He has conflated two issues. We all had the same access to the same intelligence about — including the U.N. inspectors — that there were these stockpiles of weapons. I will not bore you, but I happen to have here with you, for the press who may be interested, contemporaneous statements I made at the time when assertions were made about the cooperation with al Qaeda, about nuclear capability, about unmanned aerial vehicles, and my saying — and many others at the time, and on a couple of your shows — saying there is no evidence to sustain that position.

So the question is — we all operated on bad information, but the only ones who took the information that was most questionable and asserted it as fact was the administration.

(Pause.)

WILLIAMS: Sorry. Incoming message —

BIDEN: (Chuckles.)

WILLIAMS: — of the most urgent matter.

BIDEN: I don't like the word "incoming." I'm heading back to Iraq. (Laughter.)

WILLIAMS: Did we interrupt you?

BIDEN: No.

WILLIAMS: Okay.

BIDEN: It was a brilliant answer.

WILLIAMS: My apologies. (Laughter.) Incoming message at the most urgent time.

You said in your remarks just now, and I will actually join you on the stage in just a moment — "I want to see the president regain the people's trust." Let's turn that over. Do you truly believe this president has lost the people's trust?

BIDEN: Absolutely, positively, unequivocally, yes. I believe he's lost the trust — when I mean trust now — I don't mean he's a liar — I'm not — they do not trust that he has a plan to succeed in Iraq. They do not trust that there's a plan. And I think that it is not universally held, but 65 to 70 percent of the American people have lost faith in the administration's ability to deliver on Iraq.

WILLIAMS: Because I think I was just politely told to sit down because I'm blocking the view of at least two tables, I'll read this question from a national member, and then I will.

From the overwhelming number of current proposals for getting out of Iraq, Senator, what is your view of the suggestion that we immediately withdraw enough troops to add motivation for Iraq to get on with establishing a government viable enough to provide adequate security, followed by proportionate U.S. withdrawals as the new government demonstrates its ability to provide adequate security?

BIDEN: I agree with that — it's a matter of timing. I would rather see that begin immediately after the vote on the constitution. That is going to spell what the likely outcome is going to be. If, after the constitution is finally voted on in the spring — late winter — if it's a consensus document, that works. If there is a — if it divides more than it unites, that may be necessary, but it will not work.

WILLIAMS: Anyone wish to ask — if you can just wait and we can get some — one microphone starting right here.

QUESTIONER: Esther Newberg. Senator, I think you told Bob Schieffer this summer that you would announce whether you would run for president by the end of this year. So my question is, do you consider this the end of the year, and would you like to do it here?

BIDEN: I think the end of the year is probably June of next year. (Laughs; laughter.) No, I — what I told Bob Schieffer — and I'm not — I haven't done this presidential stuff in 20 years, so I wasn't — I wasn't appropriately coy enough to give the right answer. (Scattered laughter.) The answer is that I said that I would, by the end of this year, make a judgment whether or not I thought I had a shot of being a real candidate and getting the nomination. And right now, to be completely straight-up, what I've been doing is going out in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, LA and Miami to see if I can raise the money. And I have been going into Tennessee, Oklahoma and, quote, "the Red states" to see if my message would sell. So far, I have not reached the conclusion I can't do it, but I'm not there yet to determine whether I can raise the sufficient amount of money.

QUESTIONER: Morton Janklow, Janklow & Nesbit. As a veteran of military training, I remember that was had eight weeks of basic training, which made you what we called prepared for overseas replacement. If you were going to go on to a very specialized area, like tank command or something like that, it took another eight weeks. But the maximum preparation any GI had for any of our wars was 16 weeks, more often eight weeks. What is it that takes so long, in your judgment, in the training of Iraqi troops?

BIDEN: You had an officer corps; they did not. You had a structure, a defense structure; they do not. This administration — understandable — it's easy to Monday morning quarterback — I mean, I said it at the time — but this administration totally decapitated and disengaged the entire four-hundred-and-some thousand Iraqis who had been trained in some form or another. Gigantic mistake. We did not do that after World War II in Germany, we did not do that.

And so the difference is you had an officer corps. That's why two years ago when I spoke to the Germans and they said they'd be willing to consider taking 500 Iraqis, very closely screened, from colonel down, putting them on a 747 and flying them to Germany and train them for the better part of a year, I pled with the president and anyone who would listen to me to do that. And there is no officer corps, there is no leadership; it's only now beginning to be developed.

WILLIAMS: Ms. Zahn?

QUESTIONER: Thank you, (Brian ?). Paula Zahn, CNN. You were saying on your last trip to Iraq, field officers told you that we cannot mount a successful counterinsurgency movement right now, and then you went on to suggest that we need to reshuffle resources in Iraq. Will that be enough, or do you see a time in the near term where you might need additional boots on the ground?

BIDEN: I think the time for additional boots on the ground has passed, Paula. I don't think we have them to put on the ground, and I think to put them on the ground now has a negative impact in that we're more occupying.

What is happening — the administration, to their credit — and I was talking to — it wasn't just field officers, I was talking about the flag officers. Every flag officer I spoke to, and I spoke to them all, was lamenting the inability, as one three-star said: We learned in Officers Candidate School, I learned in the Academy what it takes to mount a counterinsurgency. You have to go in, clear, occupy, stay, and rebuild, and we can't do that.

What they're doing now, if you notice, is they're redeploying American forces from many of the towns because some of those folks trained six and eight weeks can perform some functions — Iraqis, that is — and they're moving them into the areas of border patrol. And they are taking the trained-up Iraqi forces — and there are some trained-up Iraqi forces — and they're moving the more competent ones trained-up into holding the territory that we have cleared.

The question is, it's a race against time. And that's why I said in the speech, we have to, quote, "take a chance." We have take a chance on leaving Iraqis behind. Up to now, we've left nobody behind. There's been no one left behind. Literally we go in — you've been there — clear it out, leave. Nothing happens. The administration has the right plan, if there's enough time. Go in, clear, hold and reconstruct. And that's why they're now working these — these regional teams like we have in Afghanistan — which is a good idea; going in, in addition to leaving Iraqis behind, saying okay, how do you get the main water interceptor hooked up? How do we, in fact, get the sewage movement? How do we get — so there's something happening in coordination with the people left in the town. But it's not too late. It may be, as somebody said in one of the major papers today — yesterday — at best it's a 50/50 chance. But there is a 50/50 chance, and we got to take the chance.

WILLIAMS: One devil's advocate question, as we — you can go ahead and get — as we wait for the microphone to get to the next questioner. My first trip, I guess the combat was three days under way when our — the helicopters I was flying on were shot at by the "black pajama guys" as we called them, the Saddam Fedayeen. And I remember it was General Wallace, the three star, who gave what might have been the quote of war, saying, "We knew they'd fight. We didn't know they'd fight like this." Would any prewar intel on the part of this administration have known about the uprising of that Saddam Fedayeen? You know, we were shot at by the driver of a pickup truck, not by anyone in uniform.

BIDEN: The answer is there are a lot of people who did predict just that. As a matter of fact, I won't embarrass him. I wouldn't mention Mr. Haass's name. But —

QUESTIONER: (Laughs.)

BIDEN: — there are people that he knows and others and people in our committee who predicted that based on expert testimony for the following reason. When the 4th ID was not — I think we badly, badly, badly botched our relationship with the Turkish government. I think we could have worked it out. I think we had plenty of time to wait. There was no imminent threat. If the 4th ID had come down from the North at the same time we were moving up from the South, these guys wouldn't be left. If we had taken — at least a significant number — what'd they do? No one's defeated — this in no way denigrates the great bravery of our American forces — but there weren't that many people defeated on the battlefield. So there weren't — and I'd count the bodies — there weren't a whole lot of body counts of people in uniform.

What happened was the die was cast. They knew they couldn't do it. So what'd they do? Took off their uniforms and went home with all their weapons. The next most significant thing, Bryan — and I know I'm a broken record on this — the idea that we would not send more forces in to secure those 800,000 tons of open ammunition dumps, some with incredibly sophisticated material there, I thought, was absolute lunacy.

So the combination — these went home, they're trained, they brought their weapons with them, and they had access to the party — I think is the reason why the guys in black pajamas, as many of them, were able to fire at you and me. Last time I left Iraq, we got up about 2,000 feet, a missile — whoom! — all of a sudden that old lumbering C-141 — I didn't think it could turn so quick.

QUESTIONER: (Laughs.)

BIDEN: So you know, there's a lot of that stuff out there, as they say, and I think it was a matter of absolute incompetence in the unwillingness to put more force in at the time we should have put more force in.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Senator, Roland Paul, a lawyer. Welcome again. It's always good to see you here.

BIDEN: I would like you on the court, yes.

QUESTIONER: (Laughs, laughter.)

BIDEN: I'll trade you. Even up right now.

QUESTIONER: My colleagues there.

You mentioned in your remarks that 40 Iraqi battalions can lead in combat with embedded U.S. I believe Secretary Rice, in front of your committee, used a number that there were 91 battalions of Iraqis who could fight and have fought in combat. I ask you, isn't that also a relevant number? But equally important, you know, after Vietnam, according to Kissinger's book, once we started withdrawing, it was absolutely impossible as a political matter — a domestic — to stop. Do I understand that's the case here, too?

BIDEN: Let me try to parse the question. The first question is about the number of trained Iraqis. I would just offer my track record and their track record on who turns out to be right on this and who's turned out to be right so far. Ninety battalions — and keep that in mind, now — if there's 90 battalions, we're talking about 600 a battalion — there's a lot, but there are not that many forces. I'm sure they have seen combat, there have been 90; the question is, if we still have to maintain an entire American battalion with that battalion, then we have not really lessened the likelihood of our battalions being shot at and killed along the way. The issue is, what is the relevance between their training and our ability to draw down, at least in the minds of most American people? But let's assume there are 90. Ninety is a far cry from 210,000 trained Iraqi forces.

Secondly, as many of you have been there and know, that the Iraqi police battalions, the Iraqi military battalions we have are not equipped like ours are. We don't have — understandably, we're greatly concerned about sending our forces into areas without armored — up-armored humvees. We're sending these guys in in Toyota pickup trucks. And so there is a relationship between being trained and being equipped, as well.

And we just got started much too late. I think the last time I was here I was pointing out I visited the training facility outside of Amman, Jordan, for the police, and the head of the entire operation, an American contractor, said — I said, "Is this worth it?" They said no, it's not worth it. We were arguing then we were training a thousand Iraqi police at a crack over a six-week period. We didn't know where the hell they were going. They'd get put back in the plane; there was no way of checking what department they went to, whether they were still there, or whatever.

So the point is, we're finally getting this in place now. The administration is finally getting it done. I don't care whether it's forty — I think most people would tell you there's somewhere between 35(,000) and 40,000 Iraqis who can shoot straight, some with and some without the help of America. But that's a big improvement. That's the process we have to continue.

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)

BIDEN: The other — well, ask it again.

QUESTIONER: Once the withdrawal —

BIDEN: Once the withdrawal starts. Now, there's a distinction between withdrawing people from the roof of a — I'm not being facetious, I was there, I was a United States senator at that point where we were withdrawing people from the roof of the embassy in Saigon — and redeploying troops in an orderly process. And I think they're very different things. We have already drawn down as many as 20,000, plused up another 10(,000), drawn down another 20(,000) based upon events on the ground — upcoming elections, et cetera.

So I don't think that it becomes a rout when you conclude, if you've trained up these Iraqi forces, you draw down a commensurate — not necessarily commensurate, but some number of American forces. There's a logic to that. And I don't think it is what Dr. Kissinger, if I remember, was saying — it begins a rout mentality. I don't think that is the case.

WILLIAMS: One here, and we have several over there.

QUESTIONER: Robin Duke. Senator —

BIDEN: Yes. How are you?

QUESTIONER: (Chuckling.) Fine, thank you.

Senator, would you give us your assessment of Mr. Chalabi? (Laughter.) He is the deputy prime minister —

BIDEN: I have been very outspoken for five years about Mr. Chalabi. As many of you know — or you probably wouldn't have asked the question, Ms. Duke — I have no faith in Mr. Chalabi, zero. I think he did mislead us in order to get — and I think he became the darling of the administration. And I'm not — I shouldn't say — that sounds pejorative. He convinced — no, no, no, and I mean sincerely — you can — there are people with whom he dealt, particularly the vice president, the secretary of Defense and the White House, who believed this guy was spouting the Gospel According to John, that it was real.

The CIA thought he was a charlatan. Most of the people I knew in the Defense Department who wore a uniform thought he was a charlatan. I think he is a charlatan. He was indicted, should have been convicted and probably should be in a Damascus prison right now, literally, not figuratively, literally, not figuratively.

But he is now in a position to — the reason why he has sort of a new life — talk about a cat having nine lives! — the reason he has a new life — he has split from SCIRI, he's split from the more Islamicist parties among the Shi'as, and he is now trying to form a party — part of — that is slightly more secular and has some interfaith or, you know, intercommunal membership. And so there's still a bet on him.

I don't bet on him. I don't have a whole lot of regard for him in terms of his judgment. And I don't trust him. And — but that's me, and nothing's changed in four years, in my view, about him.

WILLIAMS: Some — many questions over here.

QUESTIONER: Chris Yegen, the Yegen Company. Senator, I hope that your plan would work. But just in case it doesn't, we and the British and the French put Iraq together back in 1922. Would it be such a bad thing if it came apart now?

BIDEN: Well, it would be a very bad thing if it came apart now, only because you end up, in my view, with a genuine — this is not hyperbole — a genuine permanent base for terror sitting right dead center in the middle of the Anbar province and beyond. I think it then also runs the risk — and the reason why I think the Chinese and the Russians and others have a keen interest, particularly the Chinese and Indians — if it devolves into that kind of open civil war with this kind of setting, here's what's going to happen. You're going to have intelligent people, many of whom you know and have had speaking here, and you'll have me probably signing on too, saying, look, we only have one choice; you pull out, you end up with saying we'll supply the Badr Brigade, we'll supply the Peshmerga, you go crush the insurgents, you go crush the Sunnis. That runs an overwhelming risk of increasing the prospects of a regional war. I don't know how happy the Turks will be with the Kurds. I don't know how happy the Iranians will be with the Kurds and the — I mean, it just gets very, very complicated very, very quick.

Can I guarantee you chaos will ensue? No. But if I were betting man, it's overwhelming prospect chaos will ensue. We do not have a circumstance like World War II — like after World War I or World War II where we can sit down with the major powers and divide and carve this thing up. And so therefore, I don't think the analogy is an appropriate one — the 21 analogy. And I think it would be serious — seriously debilitating for our interests and the interests of many others if it does devolve into that kind of circumstance.

WILLIAMS: (Off mike) — right in front of you there.

BIDEN: They tell me there's only a few minutes. I'll try to answer yes or no. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: Herbert Levin. Thank you, Senator, for keeping Amtrak running between here and Washington.

BIDEN: You saw what they did to Gunn when he — when they did it. He succeeded and they fired him. But anyway, that's another story! (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: I'd like to continue this downward spiral from your last response. When I sit down with Iraqi friends — Sunni, Shi'a, Kurds, et cetera — and with Arab friends from nearby countries, and from Pakistani friends who speak Arabic and who have served there, ask them how they think it's going to come out, they say well, it will either be Somalia with everybody killing each other and foreigners only taking what they need and not caring about the place, or it will be Lebanon after Eisenhower (sic/Reagan) pulled out after 254 casualties. It'll take them a long time, and then eventually they'll get together.

That's the realist span, and the kinds of Bush-saving scenarios you've been putting forward, they don't seem to think are very likely. Could you give us your views of the span of negative scenarios?

BIDEN: Well, in a nutshell, what your friends all said, it's lost. Every one of them said there is no prospect of there being a united Arab country at peace, not a threat to its neighbors, and not a haven for terror. So they've reached a conclusion a lot of Americans have reached, and they may be right.

The more likely analogy, I think, is Lebanon. Lebanon, with oil, bordering oil, and full of oil. And that is a totally different world in terms of our interest. It ain't Somalia. We left Somalia in a way that was not very — not very nice. But when we left Somalia — you saw a lot of what has happened since then in terms of human carnage and chaos. What you haven't seen what has happened — and I don't mean to be, you know — think that's not critical and important — but you have not seen the rest of the world's fundamental interest impacted on because of the economic consequences of that. That's a different world. That's a different world. This is Lebanon plus, Lebanon on high octane, Lebanon breathing pure oxygen in the middle of an oil fire.

WILLIAMS: What do you think, are you going to do yes or no? (Laughter.)

BIDEN: Yes.

WILLIAMS: You like that? Okay.

Two-minute warning. Right back there.

Going pretty well so far, though.

QUESTIONER: Thank you, Senator Biden, for coming and exposing your plan. And I want to go back to your plan, if I may.

BIDEN: Sure.

QUESTIONER: There are one or two weak spots in your plan which you just spoke up about, which is oil. And let's go back — I think there's a negative center in the plan, though I personally approve of it. That is not the issue. The issue is what do you think the negative aspect of that plan is? One item in it — one section of it has questions.

BIDEN: Yes.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Senator. (Laughter.)

BIDEN: There's a number of parts of the plan that, given the place we've been delivered to, give it a less than an even prospect of succeeding.

But if you're a United States senator, you don't get to make foreign policy; you get to make Hobson's choices. And the administration's made bad decisions. I've given you the best of a lot of bad alternatives.

WILLIAMS: On behalf of the membership of the council, those of us who are relegated to working in New York when all the excitement these days is in Washington —

BIDEN: Right.

WILLIAMS: — Senator Biden, thank you very much.

BIDEN: Thank you. (Applause.)

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