Iraq: The Way Forward: A Conversation with Senator Joseph Biden
Last May, Senator Joseph Biden and Council President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb proposed a five-point plan for the future of U.S.involvement in Iraq. Since then, the U.S. military has continued the process of handing over security operations to Iraqi forces, but American public support for the war has waned as fighting has intensified. In a continuation of our Iraq: The Way Forward series, Senator Biden will discuss his ideas for how Iraq and the United States should proceed.
8:00 - 8:30 a.m. Breakfast Reception
8:30 - 9:30 a.m. Meeting
(Note: This event was fed in progress.)
ALTON FRYE: (In progress)—from the beginning, those of us who are Congress watchers have spotted and counted Joe Biden as a growth stock, a legislator who could and would assume great responsibilities. Having chaired both the Foreign Relations and the Judiciary Committees, at this stage, I think one would have to say that Joe Biden is a grown stock.
That fact is confirmed by the finding in a recent National Journal survey that Senator Biden has become the most trusted voice on foreign policy in the Democratic Party.
He has also shown a gift for bipartisanship, reflected in his collaboration with the current chairman, Richard Lugar, and in his earlier working relationship with Senator Jesse Helms, notably in the Helms-Biden legislation that has been crucial in shaping American policy toward the United Nations.
The senator recently returned from his seventh—that’s seven—trip to Iraq. He brings powerful independent perspective on the war, making clear his sharp criticism of the administration’s performance while struggling to frame a balanced approach.
We meet a day after dire warnings have come from the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan group led by Lee Hamilton and James Baker, and after the announcement that there is no likelihood of a reduction in the American military presence until after next spring.
Senator, with that context as the day’s setting, we look forward very much to hearing your current assessment. (Applause.)
SENATOR JOSEPH BIDEN: Well, thank you very much. It is true; we’ve been treading platforms together for a long, long time. And I have always valued your advice and your counsel. And if I had listened to it a little earlier, when I was a little younger, I’d be a little further along. But I want to thank you very, very much for having me here today, and it’s an honor to be before all of you.
Ladies and gentlemen, five months ago, Les Gelb and I laid out a detailed plan that we thought would be able to keep Iraq together, protect America’s interest and bring our troops home in a reasonable time frame. Our plan generated what I view to be a much-needed debate about alternatives beyond the Bush administration’s “Stay the course” rhetoric and those who suggest that we leave now.
Many experts here and in Iraq embraced the plan. Others raised legitimate concerns. Still others mischaracterized or misunderstood the plan, calling it a partition and when in fact it was designed to be the exact opposite of a partition.
Today I’d like to explain in more detail what that plan does and what that plan does not do. But first I believe it’s worth taking just a few moments to review the current situation in Iraq, at least as I see it.
The central reality today is that violence between the Shi’a and Sunnis has surpassed the insurgency and foreign terrorists as the main security threat in Iraq. Sectarian militias are the main instrument of that violence, and instead of disarming, they’re growing, and they’re growing for a very basic, simple reason. Young men have no jobs, and the militias give them a steady pay and a nice gun to carry.
Although half the Iraqi army divisions are capable of leading their operations with American support, the nuts and bolts that any military needs to be self-sustaining are woefully inadequate or totally missing. There are enormous problems with logistics, the ability literally to pay these forces, transportation, procurement, and even food delivery.
On my last trip, our number-two general in country was literally on the phone on his way in, calling his counterpart in the department—in the Ministry of Defense, pointing out that an entire division was left without any food, any water or any supplies for the entire weekend because the local contractor did not show up to deliver them, and they had gone home at 3:00.
The ranks of the Iraqi police are riddled with sectarian forces. The Facilities Protection Force, which no one talks much about here in this country, made up of 140,000 well-armed men answerable and assigned to specific ministries and only to that ministry, also are heavily involved in sectarian violence.
On the surface, Iraq has a unity government, but privately Sunnis and Kurds complain that they are no part of the decision-making process of that unity government. Political competition among the parties made up of the Shi’a coalition prevent any genuine outreach to the Sunnis or any serious attempt to rein in the militias. And on the other side, too many Sunnis continue to aid and abet the insurgency. And as a result, the political process is stalled and polarized.
While sectarianism is the major new reality in Iraq, the old reality, the insurgency and foreign jihadists, are still very much alive. Al Qaeda is so firmly entrenched in Anbar Province that it has morphed into an indigenous jihadist movement. And as a result, Iraq risks becoming what it was not before the war—a haven for terror and al Qaeda, in what I call a Bush-fulfilling prophecy.
And no number of troops can solve the sectarian problem, and we don’t have enough troops to definitively deal with the jihadist threat. And nothing makes that point more clearly, in my view, than the fact that we just pulled troops from Anbar Province to deal with the insurgency and jihadists, where they were fighting and fighting well, and we sent them into Baghdad to secure neighborhoods to stop sectarian violence.
Security operations in one neighborhood are able to force the death squads into another neighborhood, but the moment we leave, they come back in and fill the vacuum. They regroup, return to the neighborhoods we’ve cleaned when our troops have to move on to the next neighborhood. And when they all leave, I see nothing—nothing—nothing—that indicates to me there will be peace and security in those neighborhoods.
So that’s where we are, in my view. But the more important question is, where are we going, something you’ve been discussing here at the council for months.
Unfortunately, this administration, in my view, does not have any discernible strategy for success in Iraq. I believe the strategy it has is to prevent defeat and to hand the problem over to the next person who occupies the White House. Meanwhile, more and more Americans, understandably frustrated, support an immediate withdrawal even at the risk of trading a dictator for chaos and a civil war that may very well morph into a regional war.
Both—both—to state the obvious, are bad alternatives. That’s why we put forward this plan. The five-point plan that I have laid out, I think, offers a better way. We start from the premise that the only way to break the vicious cycle of violence and to create the conditions for our armed forces to responsibly leave Iraq is to give Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds incentives to pursue their interests peacefully. This requires a sustainable political settlement, and the essence of that settlement is to give each of these parties some breathing room.
To get there, we promote five specific steps.
First, the plan calls for maintaining a unified Iraq by decentralizing Iraq and giving the Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’a some limited control over their own regions. Let me emphasize that again. Maintaining a unified Iraq by giving decentralization an opportunity, for I am prepared to bet any of you here my remaining part of my career that this unity government will not be able to—with a strong, central government, absent giving additional leeway to each of these regions, each of these constituencies—be able to hold that country together.
The central government, under our plan, would be left in charge of common interests such as border security and the distribution of oil revenue. While we proposed three regions, the exact number should be left to the constitution. The constitution now calls for any single region—any one of the 18 governors can declare themselves a region and be separate. So we leave it to the Iraqis. We talk about three regions, but the Iraqi constitution allows for more. My guess is it would be three.
What matters is the principle of federalism is a way to manage competing interests and visions while keeping Iraq together. But federalism will only work if each group believes that it has an economic stake in a unified government. The Sunnis are in a unique position; they do not have any oil, and they fear being permanently cut off from the natural wealth of Iraq—oil. That’s why some of their leaders continue to resist federalism.
So the second element of our plan is to guarantee that each group will get a proportionate share of the oil revenues. For the Sunnis, that would represent roughly 20 percent of those revenues.
Why would Shi’a and Kurds, you might ask, want to share oil revenues? Well, quite frankly, because it’s better for the bottom line for both the Shi’a and the Kurds if they share oil revenues. For without a(n) oil-sharing agreement, Iraq will not attract—and from my personal discussions with oil companies, my discussions with those who know the oil industry—it will not attract—I emphasize, will not attract the massive investment needed to maximize production in Iraq. If all sides agree on a formula for the distribution of proceeds in a unified oil ministry and policy, investment will begin to flow in large amounts and production will rise, and it will give each group, including the Sunnis and the Kurds—or the Shi’a and the Kurds, a much bigger piece of a much bigger pie. The end result—they’ll be much better off. Oil can and should become the glue that binds this country together.
The third piece of the plan is to improve the living conditions of the Iraqi people and generate and create a significant number of new jobs. But that requires increasing reconstruction aid. But it also requires altering the way in which we spend the money for reconstruction and by tying it as well to protection of minority rights within the regions.
The administration’s early fixation on multinational megaprojects has wasted literally billions of dollars on mismanagement, corruption and security for foreign reconstruction teams, and it has virtually shown no results—no results in electrical generation, sewage treatment, potable water as well as oil production. This incompetence on reconstruction, I acknowledge to you, makes it a very tough sell to the American Congress or to any of our friends. But we must ramp up and revamp our reconstruction program in concert with others, not do what the administration is suggesting, and that is wind down the reconstruction money. To fund this effort, we should insist that our Gulf allies, who have reaped huge oil profits, step up and put up in their own naked self-interest.
The fourth part of this plan calls for an international conference that would produce a regional, non-aggression pact and create a contact group to enforce regional commitments. There can be no lasting solution unless the neighbors of Iraq buy in to whatever the agreement the Iraqis agree upon. And unless they use their respective influence on each of the factions within Iraq to promote stability, most of the neighbors—contrary to popular opinion and what is said, in my view, in this administration—most of Iraq’s neighbors do not want to do us any favors. But being drawn into a civil war that morphs into a regional war is clearly in none of their interests as well, and they know it. It’s not in Syria’s interest, it’s not in Iran’s interest. And even if a contact group can’t prevent a civil war, the more we can restrain the interventionist tendencies of Iraq’s neighbors, the greater the odds that violence can be confined within Iraq’s borders and regional conflagration prevented if we do not stem what is becoming a full-blown civil war in Iraq.
Fifth and finally, under this plan, we would begin a phase redeployment of U.S. troops this year and withdraw most of them by the end of the year 2007. We would need to maintain, in my view, a small follow-on force to keep the neighbors honest, strike at concentration of terrorists and train Iraqi security forces. In the meantime, U.S. troops would concentrate on securing sectarian fault lines.
I said at the outset that some critics have mischaracterized and misunderstood parts of our plan. So let me conclude by telling you what the plan is and what it is not.
Our plan is consistent with Iraq’s constitution, which already provides for Iraqi provinces to form regions, jointly or individually, with their own security forces, and control over most of their day-to-day responsibilities.
Our plan is the only idea on the table for dealing with the militias, which are likely to retreat to the respective provinces and regions instead of continuing to engage in sectarian violence.
Our plan is consistent with a strong central government that has clearly defined responsibilities. Indeed, it provides an agenda for that government whose mere existence—I emphasize, whose mere existence will not end the sectarian violence.
Our plan is not partition. In fact, it may be the only way to prevent a violent partition and preserve a unified Iraq. To be sure, the plan presents real challenges, especially with regard to large cities with mixed populations. We would maintain Baghdad as a federal city belonging to no one region, as stipulated in their constitution. And we would require international peacekeepers there, and in other mixed cities, to support local security forces and further protect minorities. To state the obvious, for now, participation of any other country in a peacekeeping force is a nonstarter. But a political settlement of the nature I have outlined, a regional conference, and a contact group to demonstrate international resolve, could change their calculus and willingness to participate in such a force.
At best, the course we’re on in Iraq has no happy end in sight. At worst, it leads to a terrible civil war that turns into a regional war and leaves a new haven for fundamentalist jihadists in the heart of the Middle East.
This plan offers a way to bring our troops home, protect our security interests, and preserve Iraq as a unified country. And to those who understandably reject the plan, those who reject it out of hand, I have one simple question: What is your option?
I thank you all very much, and I’m looking forward to your questions. (Applause.)
FRYE: We’ll take a moment, Senator, while you get a lapel mike on.
Let me reflect on one aspect of what you’re raising, because it’s the central truth that you bring, that constitution-making in Iraq, as in our own experience, requires the creation of a balance of incentives. Madison faced that issue in leading some of the efforts after our own Revolutionary period. And a key test came when the federal government, with Jefferson joining Hamilton and Madison, agreed to assume the hangover debts from the states that had come out of the Revolutionary period. That was all part of a process of shaping incentives.
And it’s hard to dispute your basic argument that unless the unity government can move toward a recrafting of those incentives among the disparate interests, it is probably doomed. I think that’s not too hasty a judgment, based on the rise in sectarian violence that we’ve seen.
But there are some tensions in your proposal that I think we should explicate. And perhaps I can do it in the following manner. At the heart of your proposition is the argument that the Sunnis have to have a stake, they have to feel that they are part of the continuing Iraqi enterprise. But it’s also the case that there is a tension between the proposal that you want to give the Sunnis a stake, and their wariness of decentralization. The Sunnis obviously are expressing considerable reticence about decentralization, along the lines that you and others have proposed, and there’s even substantial Shi’a reticence among the Sadr faction, from what we’ve been told by the reports.
My question is simple. Have you identified significant Sunni leadership within Iraq who will buy into your plan?
BIDEN: Yes. Let me point out that—let’s take the example of what’s happening in their Parliament right now. You have Hakim calling for this establishment—for a process to establish a Shi’a region made up of roughly nine provinces—nine areas. And you have Sadr, the very guy who’s leading the charge to kill as many Sunnis as he can in other parts of Baghdad and Anbar province, siding with the Sunnis in resisting this. You have the Sunnis saying the main reason they’re resisting is what’s in it for them. They know they get left in the middle of a province that in fact has no natural resources.
It seems to me that Sadr siding with the Sunnis makes my very point on two fronts.
Sadr knows, as the British general in Basra told us in my last trip, that if in fact there is a Shi’a region, there will be intense competition among the multiple Shi’a militia for who is going to be the equivalent of their state police, their Maryland or Virginia State Police, who is going to be in charge. Matter of fact, this general referenced the fact, we have no insurgency, we have no civil war; we have the equivalent of a group of mafia dons waiting to see who leaves and is going to control the region.
The second point is the Shi’a have realized that they are no longer able to control Iraq as they did in the past. And they’ve concluded—the bulk of the tribal leaders—that they are better off in the deal if in fact they have a part of the action, because they know they cannot rely on a parliament dominated or a government dominated by the Shi’a and expect to get their water project funded in Fallujah three years from now.
So I would argue that the very split you’re seeing makes the point that I am arguing—the incentive to stay in and stop supporting the insurgency is a piece of the action. And the fact that Sadr is taking issue as hard as he is with a Shi’a province knows that he is going to be left outside of that because Baghdad is part of the capital city, and his influence inside—he’ll have to compete with the Badr Brigade and other militia for ascendancy.
FRYE: Senator, let me ask you to address one other thing that you’ve spoken to in other settings.
There is a concern among Iraqis about the scale and perhaps duration of the American presence. Without stepping on another organization’s study that will be revealed in the next few days, the trend seems to be that a rising majority of Iraqis favor attacks on American forces. Even though they may not all want to participate in those attacks, there’s a sympathy curve running in that direction. You’ve argued that we should make very clear, in legislation if necessary, that there will be no permanent American bases in Iraq. That hasn’t taken. Do you see any prospect that there are ways to signal to the broad majority of Iraqis that we are there for the short term rather than the long term? And how does that relate to the need to reassure them in the short term?
BIDEN: I don’t think much is going to flow positively, absent a national consensus on a political solution. I don’t think many people in Iraq, no matter what their sectarian preference is, view the unity government as the answer to their problem. I don’t think many Shi’a think that their mosques are no longer going to be bombed, now that there’s a Shi’a-controlled government, even if calm is restored in Baghdad temporarily. I don’t know many Sunnis, as I’ve gone in and out of that country, who believe that there is a likelihood that their interests will be preserved in any way under this unity government.
And when the constitution was voted on—and I came back and I was one of the official representatives there at the voting and going to the polling places—I came back and debriefed the president and his war Cabinet, and he told me what a great democratic demonstration it was. And I said, “Mr. President, it was democratic, but it was not a democratic—it was not the notion of democracy that spurred them to the polls. It was a sectarian vote.” They were going to learn 92 percent of the votes cast were cast along sectarian lines. That a democracy does not make.
So you’ve got to figure out how in fact you get the Sunnis to conclude that support of the insurgency is not the only way in which they can have any prospect of not being overrun by Shi’a death squads and being dominated completely.
And as a consequence of all this, there is this lack of ease anywhere, including in Kurdistan, on the part of Iraqis that think there is a solution at hand. When they voted for that constitution, particularly the Sunnis, it was on the implied promise two things would change: the constitution would change, they’d get a say in regionalism and they’d get a say in resources. Remember at the very last minute when our ambassador got them to amend the constitution so that it could be further amended, and they didn’t even—weren’t able even to write out the language of that amendment? That’s what brought the Sunnis to the polls.
And so when you—and I’m making this answer too long—but when you bump along in any one of these regions seeing no long-term solution, you lose in rapid time frame any empathy or sympathy for the forces who are there allegedly to protect you. And therefore, although you may not engage in it, you choose a method, you choose a side. You choose the insurgency, you choose the sectarian militia, you choose to isolate yourself in the north. All of that adds up to very bad news for American forces sitting in the middle.
And folks, as the old saying goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You’ve not seen anything yet. Wait until, God forbid, the conclusion is there is no hope here and the militias all begin to, figuratively speaking, open fire on American forces.
And that’s why I introduced the amendment to just signal that there would be no permanent bases in Iraq, because the view of the people now is, “I see no end in sight of this occupation,” for a whole range of reasons. Not because of just U.S. intent, but because of a lack of any hope out there that there will be peace and unity flowing from the present circumstance.
FRYE: You’re very well familiar with the old political maxim that if you want to change the policy, you have to change the people. And I want to press you a bit on the prospects for American policy in this interval that is before us. Whatever the outcome of this November’s congressional elections, President Bush has more than two years running in his term. You’ve suggested that Secretary Rumsfeld—(laughter)—you’ve suggested that Secretary Rumsfeld should resign or be fired. But what difference would that make, given the president’s deep convictions about his view of staying the course?
BIDEN: Optimism is an occupational requirement in my business. I refuse to allow myself to believe that faced with irrefutable facts over time, intelligent men will not change their course. Even if they won’t, what choice do I have? I mean it sincerely. A lot of people have said to me, “Why put this plan out there, Biden? It’s only going to get shot at.” You notice, nobody else has put a plan out, not because there’s not brilliant women and men in this town and around the country. Nobody, not a single person. Why? Because, A, you either believe it won’t matter because the administration will pay no attention to it; or B, it just allows those who support the administration to have something to shoot at.
And the truth of the matter is, it’s my responsibility. I think I have a responsibility to lay out what I think the best plan is. And I can hope. I believe it is still possible because there are so many people in the military, so many generals on the ground, so many people who know the essence of what we’re saying—maybe not the exact plan, the essence of what we’re saying—is true. Ask the rhetorical question, including how can you possibly figure out a positive outcome for Iraq if you don’t get all the parties to conclude that they’re better in the detail than out of the deal? I mean, it’s pretty basic stuff.
So I don’t know what else to tell you.
FRYE: Well, that is part of the dilemma that we face at this stage in our life.
We turn now to questions among our collective participants here. In the general discussion, our focus having been on Iraq, I hope you will stay with it, but the senator is amenable to queries on issues other than Iraq, and obviously both Iran and Afghanistan are related to the campaign undertaken in Iraq as well.
I’ll ask you please to wait for the microphone, speak directly into it. It will be helpful if you stand, state your name and affiliation. And remember that brevity is the soul of wit. (Laughter.) And apart from that, the presider is instructed to enforce that rule.
Right here, please.
QUESTIONER: Thanks very much. Thank you, Senator, for your steadfastness on this issue.
QUESTIONER: My name is David Apgar. I’m with the Corporate Executive Board. A quick question. Within your plan, why not split up Baghdad, split it down the river? That way, the Sunni part of the country would at least have a capital. It would be 40 percent of today’s Baghdad as a commercial
country that otherwise would have only natural resource remittances, 20 percent of the oil revenues if all went well. And on the eastern side of the river, Sadr’s base would be united with the Shi’ite part of the country, so at least he might start pulling for the kind of decentralization which you, I think probably rightly, say is the only way to get where you hope to end up.
BIDEN: Two reasons. One, the Iraqi constitution calls for Baghdad to be the unified capital. Two, I don’t know how you have a unified country without a capital that all parties believe is their capital. That’s the reason. It does make it more difficult. It does make it more difficult. If I were going to go that route, I would be inclined—and I’m not. I would go the route of our friend—oh, my goodness; I’m having a senior moment here. Worked in the Foreign Relations Committee, who recently wrote a book—
FRYE: Peter Galbraith.
BIDEN: Peter. Peter. Ambassador Galbraith’s proposal just to completely separate the country. My intention is to have—end up with a unified country in the region with a single capital. It is harder. It is—will take more work. It is difficult. But I also think it has the benefit of putting Sadr in a circumstance where he has to deal with the other Shi’a in order to be able to maintain any political base. And it also requires the Sunnis to buy into a total government, a government that’s a central government. That’s the reason.
FRYE: Question here in the front. Microphone is coming.
BIDEN: Excuse my cold. I apologize.
QUESTIONER: Thank you, Senator.
BIDEN: And don’t tell Peter I didn’t remember his name! (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: Amy Bondurant. My question is simply the incentive part of your plan, the oil revenues, is that likely to destabilize further the Shi’a into more factions?
BIDEN: Well, it does have that possibility. As you well know, there is a new Shi’a faction and militia that has called for the establishment of an independent country regarding four—encompassing Basra and four adjoining provinces, and argued by the leader of that faction that in fact they have access to the sea, they have oil, they have all they need; they can be an independent country.
I am sure that it will, in part, do that. But the main overriding forces within the Shi’a coalition remain Sistani, and on the moral side of the equation here and the unifying side of the equation, as well as the Badr Brigade and the two major parties. And I think they will work it out.
But it could. It could.
I’m making—you know, the longer this goes on, folks, the more difficult any plan becomes to implement. So I can’t guarantee what would happen. But I believe the likely prospect would be the major parties and the major militias working out an agreement among themselves to deal with the local control of their region.
FRYE: On the aisle in the middle, please, with the microphone there. The logistics are slightly slower in a room configured this way. But we’ll get a mike there in half a moment.
QUESTIONER: Good morning. Babak Yektafar with Washington Prism and Center for Defense Information. My question, Senator, is that what guarantees are there in your plan that once these regions are set up, they will not be absorbed by the neighbors, such as Shi’ites towards Iran; Kurds focusing on Turkey, and so on and so forth.
BIDEN: That’s why the need for the regional conference. That’s why the significant part of this plan is to get the Permanent 5 of the United Nations to call for a regional conference, have a real knock-down, drag-out agreement based upon the negative alternatives failing to reach an agreement, and have them see that light. And it will even place a contact group. And that’s the second reason why there’s a need to have a capital city that is in charge of distribution of these assets, so that if in fact you have a central government that has control of the borders, control of the national army, and control of the natural resources, it diminishes the prospect that there will be the tendency or desire to either engulf and/or separate from this unified government.
FRYE: Right here.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Jeff Morley, WashingtonPost.com. I’m wondering what you make of Hakim’s decentralization proposal. It seems to fulfill some of what you talked about: Iraqis deciding on their own to decentralize. So is that program a step forward or not? And I think that it’s going to be brought up for a vote again. That’s the first question.
The second question is, what’s your message to the people on the other side who are resisting that proposal? Why should they buy into your plan?
BIDEN: Well, I don’t think the militia—some of the militia, I don’t think the jihadis, and I don’t think the—a lot of the former Saddamists are going to buy into it under any circumstance. The question is how do you buy away their support? How do you undermine their ability to continue to have the kind of sway and impact they have? And that’s the answer to your second question.
The answer to the first question, Hakim’s got it half right. And everybody understands what Hakim is doing; it is not automatic—he’s setting up the mechanism that would allow this to take place in a vote within their parliament to set up these regions. I think Hakim is going for the trifecta here, and that is the region, the oil and the control. And that’s why he’s getting resistance from Sunnis and some Shi’a. And the Kurds are sitting there kind of observing. So I think Hakim’s plan, absent a Sunni guarantee, is a non-starter.
FRYE: Right here, please.
QUESTIONER: Nancy Bearg from Search for Common Ground. Senator, I wonder if you would comment on the prospects for bipartisan support of this? And you may already have it and I just don’t know. And also, how it could get implemented, what your role would be and how it could become implemented.
BIDEN: Well, the truth of the matter is, there’s only two ways this plan could get implemented. One is that the president of the United States decides that he thinks it’s the way to go, and he instructs our ambassador and all our moldable pressure points to put pressure upon this existing unity government to make these kinds of offers and concessions.
A second, indirect way is to do what it has done. The national security adviser, among the Shi’a, has endorsed this plan. There’s others in Iraq who have endorsed this plan and parts of the plan. So it’s at least had the benefit of generating a debate within Iraq. And that’s another way, in a burgeoning democratic system, to be able to get ideas into that debate.
With regard to bipartisanship, I do not want to hurt his reputation, but if you notice, the language being used by Senator Lugar and many of my colleagues now mirrors very closely what we’re talking about. Dick Lugar and I were on the Lehrer hour last night, and Lehrer asked him about my plan, and he thinks—he said, “Yeah, Joe’s plan, I think, is the essence”—I don’t want to quote him.
But the point is, everybody’s arriving at the following conclusion. How do you get the Sunnis in? How do you stop the militia from killing each other? And there’s a need to get the neighbors to buy in to a deal. I mean, all those pieces—(chuckling)—whether you buy the Biden plan or not, I don’t care. And I have no pride of authorship, and nor does Les have on the five points. You may have a seven-point plan—(chuckling)—a two-point plan. The bottom line is, there is no plan now. There is no plan now.
And folks, we continue to argue that soon as we train them up, we’ll stand down. What are we talking about? Folks, there is no—let me emphasize this now—there is no civil side of the equation over there. There is no Agriculture Department that is able to function. There is no Department of Education. There is no—just go down the list. They don’t know how to turn the traffic lights on and off. Saddam did that.
I’ll give you one little example. I’m meeting with Chiarelli, a really first-rate guy. And I’m paraphrasing him now. He said, “Joe, if you—I ever—you ever hear me criticize the bureaucracy again, pop me. I need a bureaucracy.” And then he gave an example. He said, “Look, they have the date palm,” which is the natural fruit—the national symbol of their agriculture. They used to be the bread basket of the region, as you all remember, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, right? Forties, fifties and sixties.
Now he says, “So I went to the embassy, and I said, ‘You got to spray these date palms,’” because there’s the equivalent of the boll weevil for cotton, whatever it is, for date palms. It’s been five years. It’ll get wiped out if you don’t spray them. He said, “They told me that’s up to the Department of Agriculture. I went there. They don’t know how to do it.”
So he basically said—my words, not his—“I did what Saddam did. I took our helicopters, our guys. I went out and sprayed the date palms. Then I went back, and I sat down with the Department of Agriculture. I said, ‘Look, this is what you’ve got to plan for next year.’”
Folks, there ain’t nobody there. If you were president of the United States, I’d be saying as your secretary of State, “Madame President, go make a speech at the Department of Agriculture today, for real, and plead for volunteers from the Department of Agriculture to go to—to go to—Iraq, go to the State Department, and say, ‘It’s no longer optional. We need about 500 more of you to come. We need you to help set up these agencies.’”
So what’s going to happen, folks, the most likely outcome—and this is going to get me in trouble—most likely outcome is, when we do stand up—and we’re making progress in standing up their army—you’re going to find, Joe, six months from now, a year from now, two years from now, the Army saying, “There is no civilian control. We must take over.” And we’ll have supplanted one strongman for another, hopefully one that is more benign.
But folks, there’s no there there, and you’d better figure out pretty quickly how to begin to deal with it.
So I think that it is—can only occur when the president reaches the conclusion that we’re kind of at the end of our rope here, and there needs to be a Plan B.
And again, it doesn’t have to be exactly what I’ve said, and you watch—I predict to you: More and more people of your caliber and all of you in this room are signing on to this approach, more and more people in Iraq are signing on to this approach, and more and more of my Democratic and Republican colleagues are signing on to this approach. And I don’t mean sign on to what Biden says. They’re signing on to the need to deal with the elements that I’ve laid out in this plan.
FRYE: Senator, you’ve been very flexible about the elements of a plan to deal with this problem, but you do reject a one-element plan that would involve withdrawal of the American forces by a date certain. Is that accurate?
BIDEN: That is not a plan. That is not a plan, that is an action. That is a tactical decision. I said to a group of my colleagues—we were arguing about this and someone was talking about withdrawing. And there were eight of us in this room in a meeting. And I said, “Let me ask you all a question.” And I ask you this rhetorical question. If the president of the United States invited you to the Oval Office today and said, “Sam, Harry, Mary, tell me what to do, and I guarantee you I will do it,” would your plan be—would you say to him, “My plan is, withdraw”? Anybody here? Raise your hand. Is that a plan?
That may be a forced decision because of the incompetence of this administration leading us to a point where there is no alternative but to pick that choice among other bad choices, but is that a plan? That’s why I reject it. It’s not a plan. It may become a necessity because there’s no option, but it’s not a plan.
FRYE: Right here. Margaret.
QUESTIONER: Margaret Daly Hayes from EBR Associates, and once upon a time a Foreign Relations Committee staffer too. Thank you, Senator, for your interest in this issue and the attention you’ve given to it.
Can you comment on what the incentives are to the militias of these different groups not to just—under a separate geography—not to just continue the sectarian violence and civil war? And secondly, and particularly given your comments on the absence of governance in the current situation, what does this central authority that’s going to guarantee the distribution of equitable portions of revenue look like? How robust does it have to be?
BIDEN: Well, it has to be fairly robust. I’ll start at the end. It has to be fairly robust. And we’re going to have to continue to be involved and get our European friends to take on some version of Tony Blair’s suggestion a year and a half ago of “adopt a ministry,” the European governments. We have to get more civilian capability in to help them build this government. You’re more inclined to do that if in fact you have the violence at—you know, if not evaporating, the violence significantly reduced.
So now, why militia? Why would the militia be inclined to turn in rather than out? Militia are all about power. This is all about each of these militia leaders are seeking some ascendancy of their own. Sadr would like to run the country. Sadr would like to run the region. If Sadr has to concentrate on figuring out what part of the Sunni plan he becomes part of, what part of the Sunni operation he has—I mean Shi’a—excuse me—operation he has control of, he’s going to have to concentrate internally. He’s going to have to concentrate in dealing with that portion of the population that he has to draw his sustenance from and his support from. So the competition will necessarily turn inward. And I think that is almost a guarantee.
Now, how that plays out, could it play out very violently? It may. It may. I don’t know enough to know the answer to that question. But I know that it will—I don’t know—I strongly believe that it will greatly diminish his or anyone else’s desire to merely seek retribution and/or civil war.
The other piece of this is—I start from the basic premise that about a year and a half ago there was a bit—as we Catholics say—a bit of an epiphany that took place in Iraq. And that is, although the Kurds would love nothing more than absolute independence, they have realized that they’re not about to give up on reclaiming Kirkuk. They know if they reclaim Kirkuk and, quote, “cleanse” it and de—de—get the Arabs out—(laughter)—they know that the Turks are not going to stand by and they know that the Iranians aren’t going to stand by if they claim an independent state. They’re very smart. They’re the most sophisticated group. They’ve got most of it together. They know their autonomy is best preserved within a united Iraq.
The vast majority of the tribal leaders among the Sunnis have reached a conclusion there is no future in the insurgency where they’re going to be able to control Iraq for another five generations. So how do they maintain their interest and increase their influence and their independence of action within their own region?
And the Shi’a have come to the conclusion that they can dominate politically but they cannot dominate—they cannot dominate physically. They’re still going to have their mosques blown up. So there is an incentive on each of their parts.
Do they like it? No. Is this one of those marriages everybody says, “Let’s reconcile and make up?” No. Most times that’s not how countries function.
And so I think it is a realization of the changed circumstance for their own physical well-being on the ground that makes this plan or some version of it much more probable today than it was if you did it a year and a half ago.
And I would note another analogy, if I may make it; you’ve talked about the need to deal with absorbing debt in the national government. Well, you know, look at this way. What do you think would have happened, folks—and I realize this is trite sounding—what do you think would have happened if at Yorktown—two months after Yorktown we tried to pass the American Constitution as it was eventually written in Philadelphia 11 and—finally ratified 13 years later? Does anybody think Delaware and Georgia would be in the same outfit? Does anybody think Massachusetts and Maryland would be part of the same outfit?
It took us 11 years to get to our Philadelphia moment. And so you’ve got to give them some breathing room while keeping them together, and I’d offer Bosnia as another example, Kosovo. There’s all imperfect examples, but the same principle’s at play.
FRYE: Right here. Microphone to the front.
QUESTIONER: John Alterman, Center for Strategic International Studies. Thank you very much for your presentation. I agree with a lot of it, and there’s part of it that bothers me. And I’m hoping that you can help explain it, and it has to do with the role of the central government in a federal system. The role that I understand you to have laid out is not only sort of the U.S. government before World War II, it feels a lot like the U.S. government before the Civil War.
With all the assets outside, most of the firepower in state and local militia, why does anybody listen to the central government? What authority do they have? I mean, you can set up the embassies, except the Kurds wanted Kurdish representatives in all the embassies. I mean, it feels in some ways like it becomes unified in name only and not the sort of flexible system we have, but instead a papering over of essentially dividing the country.
BIDEN: It could very well become that if it is not done well. That’s why Baghdad is the capital. That’s why a national army controlled by Baghdad and the unity government and the parliament in Baghdad. That’s why the need for the heads of each of the departments, including the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy, the departments, et cetera, are controlled by that parliament and that government sitting in Baghdad.
And the incentive there relates to the same reason why we ended up with a commerce clause. There is no real likelihood of each of the regions realizing their economic incentives, their economic prosperity absent a unified country, absent a central government. And I would again go back to oil as the example. You are not—and many of you probably have forgotten more about the oil industry than I know, but I’ve taken the time to go out and try over the last year and a half to understand what incentives are required for the major oil companies to deal with this second or third, depending on the—on whose judgment you take, oil reserves in the world.
They want two things. They want a unified oil market, and they want some stability in Iraq. And so the incentive is—the incentive is the prize. The prize is hundreds of billions of more dollars. The prize is that through this unity and a centrally-controlled Oil Ministry, everybody—they don’t care about the others—everybody in the Shi’a area does a lot better than they would attempting to control it by themselves.
So there are the incentives that are built-in, and that’s why I’m not calling for—I’m calling for loosely federated here in the sense that the constitution calls for, their present constitution allows for local police control, and it allows for local control over local issues—marriage, property distribution, education. And that’s what we’re talking about. What are the things that ultimately are separating these people besides vendettas that have been built up, which are a big deal?
FRYE: I’m going to take two last questions. One right here in the front, and then, back—I saw Ed in the—yeah, right there. Mike there. Mike here first.
BIDEN: If you ask a “yes/no,” you might get in four.
FRYE: Let’s take them both before you respond, Senator, okay?
QUESTIONER: I’ll speak quickly then. Senator, my name’s Jim Sosnicky. For two years, I was an Army Civil Affairs officer in Iraq. In my travels around the country, I never got a sense of an Iraqi identity. I got a sense of an Anbar identity, a Shi’a identity. My question is, why is the idea of a unified Iraq sacrosanct?
When the Ottomans ruled it, they ruled it as three different provinces. It’s been held together for 90 years as an artificial country through draconian measures. And I’ve heard the argument made that well, if it breaks into three parts, it will cause all this turmoil in the region.
But breaking it down into the three, wouldn’t you think that the Turks could be appeased by using leverage to EU membership as an incentive to get them to cooperate with an independent Kurdistan? In the south, the Shi’as are always identified with Iran, but in fact, they’re two completely different ethnic groups with two languages. And during eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, you did not see a mass of Shi’a guys defecting to the other side. And then in the central region, one could make the argument since we’re the ones who turned everything upside down, maybe the province—or the new country of Al Anbar becomes the, you know, third-largest recipient of aid, after Jordan, or whatever, from the U.S. (Laughter.)
So that is my question to you, is why is this—why is the idea of holding—it just strikes me as odd that when the Soviet Union broke up, no one really complained about that. But we are trying with all our might to hold together Iraq. And do you see a way forward that deviates a bit from your plan where it could break up and it wouldn’t be that bad? Thank you.
MR. FYRE: You can hold your comment on that. Pete Galbraith might not be here, but he has a very effective surrogate. (Laughter.)
BIDEN: No, it’s a good point. A good point.
QUESTIONER: Edwin Williamson from Sullivan & Cromwell. I must say, the last question has been one that I’ve always wondered, too, is what’s so sacred about the unified Iraq.
But my question is sort of a variation on that. And trying—and, Senator, trying to understand exactly what your plan is that’s different from now, what is it different—
BIDEN: Let me say, if you haven’t figured that out yet, I’m not going to be able to explain it.
QUESTIONER: Well, I would just ask, and how different would things be in the Kurdish section under your plan than they are now, just the Kurdish—
BIDEN: “Fear,” and “not very different” are the answers.
We can get two more in. (Laughter.)
MR. FYRE: Ah! All the way to the back.
QUESTIONER: Senator, Jim Slattery. I’m just curious, we’ve talked here for an hour about Iraq with very little discussion of Iran. And I’m just curious about what role you see Iran playing in Iraq as we go forward. And two, how do we engage Iran?
BIDEN: A, we should engage Iran, we should engage Iran directly, in my view. B, Iran likes it just like it is now. We are bleeding red blood and treasure, and we are occupied (sic) in a way that has freed them up in a profound way by our actions in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and they like it just the way it is.
The only thing they don’t like is the prospect of 17 million Shi’a learning how to organize and shoot straight, who are Arab in background and not just Shi’a, who may very well destabilize the 60 million out of 72 million Iranians who are Shi’a who don’t like their central government. So the last thing they want is a civil war in Iraq. So the incentive need be that they get involved in how we make an agreement on non-aggressions; how they are satisfied, along with the Turks, along with the Syrians, along with the Egyptians, along with the Sunni states, how are they best served by a unified Iraq. Which is in a way is a backdoor way of answering the question that was asked, which is a profound question: Why not look at the historical composition of this part of the world and recognize reality and say let’s go back to the that? The problem is the rest of the world around it has changed so drastically that I think it makes it very difficult for that to happen without further and greater conflagration than would be by trying to keep this outfit together in a way that they all marshal their interests and make the basic conclusion, in conclusion, that it’s better in the deal than out of the deal; that it’s better inside this entity than outside this entity. And that’s the conclusion I think the majority have reached.
And I would make one parenthetical note here.
What’s your name again? I’m sorry.
BIDEN: Jim represents one of the most impressive things I observed in 33 years as a United States senator. I went to those provinces as well. I watched you and your counterparts in the military doing outstanding things. I watched in the beginning young captains, young lieutenants, young majors and colonels, sit there in the midst—in a mosque with 250 people from neighborhoods around, Shi’a and Sunni, and these kids, basically, bringing those neighborhoods together and actually, actually making progress, until we, in terms of our overall approach to this, began to really screw it up. I’m telling you, you would be—you know, we all talk about those guys out there shoot straight and they’re able to kill and they’re risking their lives. They’re great fighters. But the thing that people don’t know about the U.S. military and the young women and men we have out there, they are incredible diplomats. They solve problems on the ground. They do it all.
And so I want to tell you something. I have nothing—and I’m not being—this isn’t the old “God bless the military.” I have nothing but respect for these kids we’ve put out there in the middle of these neighborhoods who have diminished the problems. As bad as things are, my God, how much worse they’d be for you guys not being out there. It’s really amazing.
FRYE: Senator, as we come to the end, I’m going to ask you for 30 seconds of a net assessment regarding the Iran dimension of this problem. The president spoke at some length yesterday at the United Nations. Iran was a large part of it. Did his approach, as he articulated it yesterday, help or hinder the engagement of Iran in the kind of supportive resolution of the Iraqi conflict that you mentioned?
BIDEN: Thirty seconds—the president’s audience, I think, was the United States, not intended to be Iran, number one.
Number two, he did something very good, in my view, in talking to the Iranian people, talking to the Syrian people. I think that was important. I don’t know why that doesn’t underscore for him the need to actually talk.
And thirdly, I think the rhetoric was sharp enough that it probably did not move the ball forward. I don’t think it’s useful when you’re in that setting to talk about regimes and about, you know, the way in which he phrased these things. I think—but the audience was here, in my view. It wasn’t the international community. I think there was a missed opportunity in the third part of the way—in his style and in the way in which he referenced these other countries. I think it was—I think (he) missed an opportunity.
FRYE: Senator, I think we’re still puzzling over the problem that Winston Churchill commented on in a note to Lloyd George when Churchill was responsible for the British role, the question being, “Why are we investing vast sums for the privilege of sitting on an ungrateful volcano,” in Churchill’s phrase.
We want to thank you very much for exploring these problems with us, and we are most honored by your presence and instructed by your views. (Applause.)
BIDEN: I would suggest the lesson to that is don’t fool with Mother Nature. (Laughs, laughter.)
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THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT.
This weekend, President Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit India twice and the first to be a guest for India's Republic Day. The upcoming meeting comes only four months after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to the White House. Alyssa Ayres, CFR senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, discussed what to expect from the president's visit.