JEFF GREENFIELD: Hi, there. Today -- good afternoon. Welcome. Very impressive turnout, considering the weather. In fact, even not considering the weather. We are now amending Noel Coward's famous song: "Mad Dogs, Englishmen, and Council on Foreign Relations Members" come out in the midday sun. (Scattered laughter.) Okay.
Jim Webb came to the U.S. Senate probably with the most extraordinary resume', I think, of any political figure I can think of. I think you probably have to go back to Theodore Roosevelt to find somebody who entered public life with the kind of background that he did.
You have his biography. I'm not going to recite it, but you start with a highly decorated Marine combat veteran in Vietnam, a lawyer, staff member on a House committee, an acclaimed novelist, writer of nonfiction, television journalist -- Emmy Award-winning television journalist and now the soon-to-be senior United States senator from Virginia, now that John -- well, or something else. We'll -- may talk about that. (Laughter.)
But the other thing I want to mention is his new book, A Time to Fight. Whatever else you read, read this. It's an extraordinary book. Even the highways and byways are fascinating. Why he admires Theodore Roosevelt as president but doesn't think he deserved the posthumous Medal of Honor; why Douglas MacArthur's record in Korea was different from what David Halberstam has described; and then much more serious stuff about where we are.
So we're going to talk for about 20 or 25 minutes, and then turn it over to you to ask questions. But I do want to concentrate on what's in the book because I think what he has to say is quite extraordinary.
So welcome, Senator.
SENATOR JIM WEBB: Nice to be with you.
GREENFIELD: The argument -- I know this is the Council on Foreign Relations, but I want to start with your argument about economic fairness and why it's so central to your view of what's gone on in America.
You cite CEOs' salaries, the gap between the average working man and woman and the people at the top. What's your sense of why, in a country that celebrates entrepreneurship, why you regard this as so toxic?
WEBB: Well, I think that the greatness of this country is the individual spirit. And in areas like entrepreneurship and in other areas, we have the opportunity -- I have one entire chapter in this book about the Constitution, the genius and the limitations of the Constitution -- that we have the opportunity, when people are given the chance in this country, to excel.
At the same time, I think it is undeniable that aristocracies can be created by government policies, can be protected by government policies. And we have reached the situation here just in my adult lifetime where we've seen a calcification along class lines in a way that we haven't seen since Teddy Roosevelt's period.
We've seen, partly as a result of a lot of these Great Society programs, an unintended stagnation at the bottom. We're in danger of creating a permanent underclass at the bottom. I write a good bit about this and about the incarceration statistics in this country and how worrisome they are.
That we've seen as a result of globalization, the internationalization of the economy and a lot of other factors a real hit on the middle class in this country, the working people who are pretty much in disarray. When I was -- economically in disarray, in terms of being able to predict their future.
When I was running for the Senate I used to begin talking about the economic fairness issue by mentioning that if you look at productivity of American workers, it's about the highest in the world right now. The productivity of the American work force has gone up at the same time that wages and salaries have stagnated and are at the lowest percentage of our national wealth at any time in recorded history.
And then there has been a great migration of wealth to the very top 1 percent in this country. It's undeniable. One of the statistics that I used when I gave the response to the president's State of the Union address was that when I graduated from college in 1968, the average corporate CEO made 20 times what the average worker made. And today the average corporate CEO makes 400 times what the average worker makes.
And as I mention in the book, if this were simply a phenomenon of globalization, you would see that reflected in the ratios in other countries, particularly the very successful economies, and you don't. We're 400 to one; in Japan it's 10 to one, I think. In Germany it's 11 to one. So there's something going on here that needs to be addressed, and we -- we need to address it fairly, but we shouldn't shy away from talking about it.
GREENFIELD: Let's explore this for a minute. Because in the first year of Bill Clinton's presidency, taxes were raised on the top 1 percent of Americans. And in the first year of Bush's presidency, those taxes were lowered. And yet whether the taxes were higher or lower, what you're talking about proceeded virtually unabated.
So the question, I guess, is this -- is what you're describing a product of specific government policies that can be changed, or is there something else going on that may be beyond the reach of public policy?
WEBB: Well, I'm the last one to say that the government itself should regulate CEO compensation, other than the fact that I happen to believe that this argument with respect to hedge fund managers, whether that is real income or capital gain is a legitimate issue to examine.
But I don't think the government should intrude into the marketplace in that way. But what has happened is that we have reached a point where the statistics that I have indicate that more than half of the stocks in this country are owned by 1 percent of the people. And that impacts on corporate board selections and compensation boards and those sorts of things.
But the problem is a lot more complex than that. One of the things that we have been looking at over the last couple of months in the Congress, in response to the increase in the price of oil, is the extent to which that has been driven by speculation on the markets.
And Senator Carl Levin and Senator Cantwell have done a good bit of analysis on this, and they indicate that from the end of 2000 to today, if you look at the level of speculation on the oil markets, it's gone up 12 times. About 40 percent of the buys on oil futures come from speculation, and that you can buy in at 3 (percent) to 4 percent, whereas in other areas -- you can't buy a house at 3 (percent) and 4 percent.
So those are kind of things that I think it's appropriate for the government to look at.
GREENFIELD: But on the broader issue of where national wealth and income is going, if you go back to the post-war era when things became to boom, cars were built here. Television sets were built here. We manufactured stuff here. So if you had a high school education, you could leave high school, go to the River Rouge Ford Plant and have a lifetime job, and it was a pretty good job.
Bill Clinton famously and, to some extent, John McCain and even Barack Obama have said those jobs probably aren't coming back. So if we're in a world where those -- where the market value of those jobs has, for big reasons, eroded, are there public policies in a broad sweep -- raising taxes on wealth, not letting carried interest be treated as a capital gain -- I don't know. If not regulating CEO pay, I'm not sure what else you do. But taxing a pack --
I mean, the book is called A Time to Fight, and what I'm trying to zero in is what do you want to fight for in this area, specifically?
WEBB: Well, I don't want to sit here and go through a laundry list.
WEBB: That's what -- and I will make a -- I will give you a couple of examples of areas that -- where I believe the problems occurred and what might be done. But one of the intentions in this book is to elevate the issue so we could have the kind of discussion, rather than simply putting out a legislative formula.
Even when you go back to the Clinton era when we moved toward globalization, when these agreements were being negotiated, provisions protecting the American worker were not put into them. We just did a trade agreement for the first time where we actually put -- actually put in from the United States government perspective that when we do these free trade agreements we should protect American workers.
One of the areas where -- I'm going to give you a couple of areas where I think we could be doing something governmentally. It may not be totally popular with a lot of people here, but I think you can say it bluntly.
GREENFIELD: It's a nonviolent crowd. (Laughter.)
WEBB: I think we need to come up with a different formula on capital gains. And one of the things that I have been examining carefully with my staff is what the potential would be if capital gains were graduated in the same way that ordinary income -- not at the same levels as ordinary income, but Warren Buffett, you know, famously says that he pays 15 percent on his income and his secretary pays 38 percent on hers. And that violates a notion of fairness.
And if you have a situation here where 1 percent of the people own 50 percent of the stocks, I think it's a fair way to go about it. And if you graduate it -- in other words, if you protect the small investor in a sequenced percentage on your capital gains, then you're allowing other people to get into the game too.
Another one is all -- people like to beat up on the oil companies. But quite frankly, I think the oil companies deserve to be beat up on right now. They have made the highest profits of any corporation in American history, and it's not because they're working harder.
When the month that the Congress voted for -- to authorize the war in Iraq, oil was $24 a barrel. I hate to think what it is today, but it's probably around 130 (dollars). It was very -- even higher than that last week. I think we should have a windfall profits tax on oil.
I think one of the most frustrating votes that I saw taken over the last year and a half in the Senate was a vote to preserve a lot of the tax breaks for the oil companies at the same time that they're making these profits. And it's 12 (billion dollars), 13 billion (dollars) a year, as I recall. So we don't want to upset the apple cart, but I certainly believe that there are ways for the Congress to weigh in.
One of the things I said in the book, by the way, and you and I were talking about a bit beforehand, is the Democratic Party needs to get back on message with respect to the American worker. And that would make a lot of difference on these types of issues.
GREENFIELD: Well, funny you bring that up, because that's -- we didn't rehearse this, but it's really where I wanted to take this, because there's obviously a political dimension to this.
What's interesting to me is that I've heard year after year Democrats, candidates for president, Democratic figures, talk about this. Once the ordinary American, to use that wretched phrase, hears our plan for economic fairness, they will stop voting for Republicans who are not against their interests. Thomas Frank's old book What's the Matter with Kansas? is a book about, as the Marxists would say, false consciousness.
And yet the other side of this argument is folks are talking about it, people most aggrieved. White working class, for instance. I've been hearing Democrats say this, and they haven't been voting for Democrats. Why?
WEBB: I think a dramatic change came to the Democratic Party toward the end of the Vietnam War. It's one of the reasons that I, having basically grown up in the Democratic Party, drifted away like a lot of other people who would call themselves Reagan Democrats or whatever.
And that change was that the Democratic Party moved away from its central foundation, all the way from Andrew Jackson forward, that the principal reason for the Party was to take care of the people who were doing the hard work of society. And they still argue about that, but it became one of a series of interest group issues. So there's labor, but it wasn't the same as it had been before.
And another piece of that is how the Democrats have been running a lot of their elections over the past couple of decades, where they tend to focus on issues rather than symbolic leadership; that the Republicans have been very good at moving issues of --
Basically, the Karl Rove formula is this: I'm going to destroy the credibility of my opponent, I'm going to take him (at his ?) strength; I'm going to destroy his credibility. I'm going to say my opponent is not like the people who are voting for them. I'm going to say you can't trust my opponent, and I'm going to hold my person up and I'm going to say this person understands you. That's how all these emotional issues move forward -- this person you can trust.
And the Democrats have come forward, been -- not in all cases, but in many cases, and just said -- as you just said, I'm going to give you a minimum wage packet; I'm going to push this issue; I'm going to push that issue. All of which are important, but you've got to start with the leadership issues.
GREENFIELD: Okay, now, the way that this really interesting book on the rise of conservatism called Right Nation put it was that what the conservatives figured out and liberals or Democrats didn't was values trump programs.
If that's true, then can, in your view, Democrats prevail by stressing the issues you talk about, if they don't first figure out how to combat these symbolic --
WEBB: Well, actually, I think the answer's the other way around. And that is if the Democrats don't step forward and take the hits on the issues that affect the well-being of the American working family, then the voter looks out and says, well, neither of them are really going to make a difference in my life in terms of my economic benefits, my security, the direction of this country and its foreign policy. But this person's going to keep them from burning a flag. And away we go into all those symbolic issues.
GREENFIELD: One of the issues, non-economic issues where the Democratic Party clearly -- I'm going back some decades -- lost a whole lot of middle- and working-class voters was civil rights. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he supposedly said to an aide, we have delivered the South to the Republican Party for a generation. And he looked pretty prescient about that.
Now, I don't know if you'd count that as identity politics, but do the Democrats really have a choice to stay focused on economic issues and not step forward on civil rights?
WEBB: I think they could have done both. One of my -- as someone whose entire family came through the Appalachian Mountains, the East Arkansas, the whole Southern experience -- I write about this fairly extensively in my last book, Born Fighting -- that the history of the South has never been black versus white. It's always been a veneer of white manipulating black versus white.
And so much of the emotions that came out of the civil rights movement, in retrospect, I think inflamed the emotions of people, white people who didn't have anything. It didn't have to be an either/or.
To give you an example, in 1936, there were 1.8 million sharecroppers in the South. One point two million of them were white. And once you get past the drinking fountains and the -- those sorts of issues, socioeconomically, the journey from -- particularly from the Civil War, Reconstruction forward, hadn't been that different. So there could have been, and there can be now, a way to make sure that the division doesn't occur.
In fact, I wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal three weeks before the '04 election after my book Born Fighting had come out. It basically talked about the Scotch-Irish culture and how the Republicans understood this culture and the Democrats didn't even know it existed. The piece -- the Wall Street Journal titled this "The Republican Secret Weapon."
But the last paragraph in this piece said if this cultural group, the basic white working-class cultural group of the South and the Midwest can get to the table with black America that they can remake American politics in very short order.
GREENFIELD: And before I turn to the greater world -- I promise you not too many political questions, but we are in the season -- it would seem to be in Barack Obama's interest to try to bring these two groups to the table, particularly given his performance in the primaries. Do you see any signs that he's capable of doing this?
WEBB: I think he can. And it's almost -- there's almost one of these odd ironies that from the beginning place that you're talking about that perhaps the circle had to be completed so someone with Barack's background would be the person to bring them together.
GREENFIELD: Do you have anything -- is there any -- if you'd like to tell us what you privately advise him, that's fine with me, but on the odd chance you might not want to -- (Laughter.)
WEBB: You won't tell anybody else. (Laughter.)
GREENFIELD: What could you tell this on-the-record group about the way he might go about that, other than bowling? (Laughter.)
WEBB: Well -- rednecks don't bowl. (Laughter.)
WEBB: And I am one, by the way, so --
I've had a number of talks with Barack about this, and my own belief is that, first of all, a lot of the people who voted for Hillary -- let's give her some credit here. She's talented, she's smart, had a great organization. They voted for Hillary affirmatively because of what they believed in; it wasn't negatively because of Barack. They're going to come to Barack from this cultural -- the bedrock of this cultural group is from central Pennsylvania straight down through Ohio, Kentucky, all the way down to Northern Georgia and northern Alabama. So I think Barack is going to get a significant percentage of those votes.
And I think also, if he does what I think he's going to do -- which he did last week, by the way, by starting in Virginia -- he's going to go into the teeth of the tiger. He's going to talk about the issues that are important. I think he's going to get a lot of Reagan Democrats come back who voted for George W. Bush rather reluctantly in '04.
GREENFIELD: Let me turn to the wider world. There's a piece in the New York Post today by a historian who says that those people who've been critical of the Iraq War and its conduct are going to eat a lot of crow because it is now clear that we are winning. John McCain, one of his principal arguments is I was prescient; I urged the surge; General Petraeus executed it and things are now turning.
From your perspective as someone who was against this notion from the beginning, have things changed enough so that we can say, to use an old phrase, there's light at the end of the tunnel?
WEBB: We all want a situation in Iraq that will contribute to the stability of the region. What has happened from day one --
And, by the way, it's very interesting looking at Scott McClellan's book when he talks about the time line of when a lot of these issues, from his view, were being manipulated. I -- like a lot of people, I know what it was like to have to have a political debate going on while you're fighting a war. I did it when I was in Vietnam.
I had -- I was in Beirut as a journalist in '83. I saw the confusion of the multiple factions when you're trying to resolve these issues. I had some experiences when I was secretary of the Navy during the Iran-Iraq war where we tilted toward Iraq. I recommended against it in writing.
After 9/11, I could see where this was going. I -- like a lot of people -- I did some shows and it was just so clear the momentum was for -- toward the invasion, after a while I just stopped talking. And then in September of '02 -- this is like a dovetailing with what McClellan's saying in his book -- I finally said I have to say something. I wrote a piece in The Washington Post in September of '02. The basic bottom line was this isn't a good idea. It's going to increase terrorism. There is no exit strategy because these people don't intend to leave.
So the first thing to say is that tactically everywhere we put the United States military over the last five years they have done their job. And they have done their job in this case.
At the same time, what do we want? Even when they were arguing about going into Iraq before they invaded, they would never state clearly what the end objective was. So what we need is the type of national leadership that can bring a solution that, in my view, should be the complete withdrawal of American combat forces from Iraq. I think that's the only way that you're going to have long-term stability in the region. We don't see that.
GREENFIELD: May I interject?
GREENFIELD: Because the argument that comes right back is if you have this withdrawal now, this complete withdrawal, you are offering, giving victory to the bad guys. Chaos will ensue and it will be a defeat. And once again the enemies of the United States will say you see, we can run them out, and that will in turn produce more trouble.
WEBB: You know, the irony when -- and here we go again, but the irony is that the argument that I and a lot of people from both political parties and a lot of senior military people were making before the invasion is if you go into Iraq you're going to destabilize the region. You're going to affect the American economy. You're going to increase international terrorism in terms of recruiting and activities elsewhere, and you're going to empower Iran. We were saying that about -- that was going to happen if you went in. And the argument for the last year has been that's what's going to happen if you leave.
Now, we should separate the mechanics from the diplomatic policy, because in the -- logistically, in the mechanics of withdrawing our forces we could have our forces out of there in a year, in an orderly way. But you can only do this, and I've been saying this for a number of years, with the right type of strong diplomatic leadership.
And I'm obviously not alone in saying that. Brent Scowcroft was saying it; the Baker-Hamilton Commission was saying it. We have not seen any of that from this administration. That's been the great failure. They keep going back to the troops, having them do their job.
And when you talk about the time line here, we basically have been in an occupation, and not a war for five years. Our military has been an occupying force. In classical military terms, they've been in what's called a holding action -- holding block by block, city by city, in one country, waiting for the political objectives to be met.
GREENFIELD: There's an aspect to that diplomatic solution that I -- I'm not being cute about this -- I literally don't understand.
If you look at trying to bring the neighboring forces in -- for a diplomatic solution, and you're talking about Sunni nations and Shi'ite nations, and if you're talking about countries like -- I don't know, to reach out -- Jordan and Saudi Arabia, that are in mortal fear of Iran and what it's up to, can those forces -- can they work together in some way?
WEBB: The longer this goes on, the harder it becomes other than if you have new national leadership. But it's interesting to look at what happened in Afghanistan right after our invasion of Afghanistan, where through our national leadership we pulled representatives from Iran, Pakistan, China, India, as I recall. We pulled them together to try to get some agreement as to where the governmental system of Afghanistan should go. And that resulted in the creation of the Karzai government.
When I look at the Arab-Iran divide, I go all the way back 21 years ago when I was in the Pentagon and how we ended up tilting toward Iraq, because that was one of the logics, even then, was that there was going to be this pan-Arab strategy. We were going to galvanize the Arab world to hold back Iran.
Iran is not -- obviously not going to go away. We have to build multilateral relationships in order to address the Iranian power in the region. And I think all the countries that you just mentioned have a stake in stability in that region.
GREENFIELD: We're going to -- just a couple more minutes and I want to turn to the audience. But you raised Iran, and that does raise an interesting question.
Senator Obama says he would talk to them. John McCain says what would you possibly want to talk to Ahmadinejad about?
WEBB: I think Jim Baker mentioned when the Baker-Hamilton report came out that you don't do yourself any good if you do not engage in some sort of interaction with your adversaries.
Now, that doesn't mean that I believe that a new President Obama should sit down with Ahmadinejad or whoever succeeds him -- because, as you know, he's not the most powerful political figure in Iran -- without the right sort of advance work.
The thing is that -- or, the problem is that that sort of serious approach leading toward a high-level resolution of some sort has not been occurring. And when I first came to the Senate I sat down with Secretary Rice three times, talking about this.
I met with Ambassador Crocker before he went over. One of the things that he said to me before his confirmation hearing was that the people in the State Department who work this region, the career people, all agreed that you're not going to resolve the situation in Iraq without the right sort of over-arching diplomatic leadership.
And actually, the model -- it's an imperfect model -- but the historical model, to me, is China.
If you go back to 1971, China was a rogue nation with nukes, had an American war on its border that it was actively assisting in Vietnam, was spouting all kinds of hostile rhetoric and we found a way, without taking off the table any of our options or without abandoning any of our alliances, we found a way to engage China and arguably to bring them into the world community.
GREENFIELD: Now this is an argument -- I've heard the response by folks like Norman Buthoretzen (ph) that says but China was fundamentally a state that was interested in its survival and Iran is led by people who are perfectly willing to martyr themselves in pursuit of their goals. And so therefore you can't talk to them.
WEBB: I don't see the evidence that the Iranians are that self-destructive. You know, you've got Ahmadinejad out there spouting a lot of rhetoric but you know he can very well be an ephemeral figure here. So I think if I were advising Barack on this issue looking into the future, I would say strategically the smartest thing that we could be doing in the region right now is working to break away Syria from Iran. It's an unnatural alliance, it doesn't match the histories of those two countries. And if you break Syria away from Iran, you sort of break the elbow of so many of the other problems that go down into Hezbollah and Hamas. The Syrians have given a lot of indications that they are willing to have some discussions, in fact the Israelis have been having discussions with the Syrians. And -- that would be step number one.
And then step number two would be to find a way to move forward, pushing China and Russia and the EU to work multilaterally with respect to Iran. That's really the bright spot of this administration's foreign policy, if there has been one is the approach that was kind of forced on it by Chris Hill in Korea.
GREENFIELD: Last note before we turn. You stress in this book the need to face up to hard truths, and there's a lot in this book that clearly was not written in response to poll numbers. You think there are too many people in prison. You think the drug laws are kind of crazy. The anti-Vietnam war wing of the Democratic Party will still find things in this book that will not make them happy. But I'm wondering how far we can push this. And I just have one example.
Gasoline is now $4-and-something and it's going up. Most economists left and right say the only way we're ever going to get to alternative fuels is if gasoline keeps going higher. We don't need, you know, we need $7 gas. That's the only way we're going to get people out of their cars. Now can anybody -- first of all, I don't know if you agree with that, but assuming that that's --
WEBB: I don't, by the way.
GREENFIELD: -- ah, well then maybe that, I should ask you why that -- I may not get to this next question. Why do you not accept that notion? I mean, with a rebate to low income people by the way is the idea.
WEBB: Well let me say -- let me approach it in two different ways. The first is I talked about the transfer of wealth inside our country, one of the greatest worries that we all should have right now in terms of the future of this country is the enormous transfer of wealth that has gone out because of our trade policies with China and because of the increase in the cost of oil and if you look at the oil producing nations right now, the amount of money that they're getting -- and China too, by the way -- the amount of money that they're getting, our money, is going into infrastructure, while our infrastructure is receding because of the price of oil and because of the war in Iraq.
So play that out 10 to 15 years from now and see where the power centers could end up being and in terms of how we view ourselves around the world. So that needs to be addressed, but I don't believe that the price of oil in and of itself -- first of all, I am really interested in this studies that we're doing about the effect of speculation on the oil market, which is a lot of pretty experienced people believe there's like a $50 variable in what we're paying on oil.
But the second point is I think the way to get into alternate energy resources is to develop incentives coupled with programs like cap and trade which we had in this climate change bill that was up last year, but make them clearly technology incentives so you -- the idea of cap and trade is you cap the amount of carbon dioxide emissions and then you -- as a result you get remunerations that you can put in certain areas. This bill was a very flawed bill because it was putting a lot of it into bureaucracy and this sort of thing, but if you take that money, put it into technology, give the incentive for the technology to grow, you will change the formula.
GREENFIELD: Questions and let's just all agree may we please on a common definition of question. (Laughter.) Short, brief inquiry, unaccompanied by lengthy expositions of opinion.
Yes, sir. And speak -- we have microphones?
QUESTIONER: Hi, thank you, Senator, for coming today. My name is Marcus Mabry from the New York Times. You mentioned that the importance for the Democrats is to understand symbolic messages, one might say vision, as opposed to programs and the power of those to animate voter turnout and voter participation and votes for them. And you had a fascinating I thought on -- (inaudible) -- blacks and the question is madam what is the message Barack Obama needs to give to white Appalachian voters to make them kind of understand what you're talking about and to get beyond the veneer you talked about of manipulation that's happened to them for hundreds of years?
WEBB: Symbolic leadership makes someone comfortable with the wisdom, the reach, not just on the issues and Barack I think by starting the general campaign in Virginia, he actually had his first meeting, town hall meeting in Bristol, Virginia which is right in the heart of Appalachia; Bristol, Virginia is the birthplace of country music.
By going into these areas, by showing people that he understands their cultural history, their cultural values, what -- you know, where they need to be in the future, where he wants to bring the country, showing respect and talking about the issues. And I think he has started to do that. I think he's going to -- and he's also going to need, as they say in politics, validators. He's going to need people of the culture, from the culture to stand alongside him and say this guy understands you. And by the way, a lot of people don't know this, but you know they keep talking about Barack as being potentially the first president of African-American heritage, but he also has the potential to become the 14th president of Scott-Irish heritage. (Laughter.) And he needs to be going out and be making that point.
GREENFIELD: I'm working my way around the room. Go ahead, yes.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. David Greenberg, Rutgers University, I'm a historian. I've seen a tribute to you, Senator, but I'd like to hear you discuss it, a view of the -- America's defeat in Vietnam as not that the war was unwinnable as I think it's fair to say most historians hold, but that there was a kind of failure of nerve, failure of will at home. Please tell me if I'm characterizing it accurately or inaccurately or could you just lay out your view on sort of why Vietnam went as it did.
GREENFIELD: For those of you who've not read David's book, "Nixon's Shadow," it's one of the great history books of modern times -- sorry, it's a plug for somebody else's book, I apologize. (Laughter.)
WEBB: My "um" was not well placed -- (chuckles) -- as I said again. That's -- would take more time than we have but here's an important distinction that actually goes back also to the notion of how people react to symbolic leadership and these sorts of things. I may be one of the few people who believe that our strategic objectives in Vietnam were proper and attainable from the, historically I think from the assassination of Zhiem(sp) forward it was a complete uphill challenge. But I -- you know, on the one hand I believe that. On the other, I cannot give you a valid strategic justification for the invasion of Iraq. And I say that as someone who grew up in the military and who spent five years in the Pentagon, et cetera.
And one of those data points -- I actually mention it in the book -- is that eight years after the Gulf of Tonkin in October of 1972, the American public still believed by a percentage of 74 percent to 11 percent, in a Harris poll, which is the more liberal of the two polls back then, that it was important that South Vietnam not fall to the Communists. The American people in general terms understood what we were attempting to do, however badly the strategy was carried out and however long the war continued -- and by then we probably had 50,000 American dead. And you could not get a majority of the American people to agree in the strategic objectives in Iraq within probably two years after -- maybe, maybe less than that.
So, you know, I'm not here to reargue the Vietnam War. I think that if I were -- let me say something, just -- this is a foreign policy crowd, let me take three minutes and talk to you about my view of East Asia right now and I've spent a good bit of time all through my adult life in East Asia; I used to spend a couple of months a year over there before I got involved doing this -- and when I was a young man, the focus of our national security interests in Asia were particularly around the Korean peninsula. That was the only spot where Japan, China, the Soviet Union, the United States intersected. Northeast Asia was a big focus. We obviously had the war in Vietnam.
But what we're seeing right now with the emergence of China on the one hand, the emergence of India on the other, and the volatility of the Muslim world, which effects particularly Indonesia, Malaysia, the southern part of the Philippines, all of those having a dramatic impact on East Asia at the same time that the American footprint has been receding. I am very concerned that we need to strengthen and keep our friendships and our alliances over there. And looking into the future from my perspective that would basically go from Japan into Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, that is an axis that goes right into almost a geographical divide between all of these power centers. So Vietnam, ironically, when we -- because of the way that, you know, we were so exhausted by it at the end of the war, Vietnam was a very important country for the future of the United States.
GREENFIELD: Hang on just a second. That's it, thank you.
QUESTIONER: Hi. I'm wondering is there more that the United States can be doing to work with intermediaries, including China and especially India, in terms of influencing Iran and -- especially Iran?
WEBB: I would agree. And, in fact, that's one of the things that I had said a few minutes ago about how I believe our approach should be changing in the next year or so. We need to use the diplomatic levers that we have in order to convince China and Russia particularly about the EU and other countries that we should act with some cohesion as we look at Iran.
GREENFIELD: Question here right up front. I know -- you understand there's not a chance we're going to get to all the questions yet, but if we can get a mic up here. I apologize to all of you in advance I'm not calling on. Don't take it personal. Or do, I don't really care. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: Hi. Evelyn Leopold, journalist at the UN for 100 years. On Iran, how can we build any kind of coalition in the Middle East when many countries consider Iran a sectarian Shi'ite government that kowtows -- I mean consider Iraq a sectarian Shi'ite government that kowtows to Iran?
WEBB: Well, I don't want to say I told you so but -- (laughter) -- you know, this was one of the -- I wouldn't accept the exact terminology that you put on it. Many people do consider them that. You've got Maliki talking to Iran I think as we speak or certainly yesterday. I will tell you an interesting comment that Ambassador Crocker made at our hearings the last time that General Patraeus and Ambassador Crocker testified because it actually from my perspective it goes to why I believe we can withdraw from Iraq under the right circumstances.
Ambassador Crocker was asked about this. One of the things that he said was that the Iraqi Shi'a are Iraqis in their mind, the bulk of them are Iraqis, they consider themselves to be Iraqis. He said several hundred thousand of them died fighting Iran and that they will identify with the Iraqi nation rather than with Iran when push comes to shove. The other comment that he made was that as we know, it was the Iraqis who finally got sick of al Qaeda out in the Ramadhi area Sunni area and caused al Qaeda to re-center its mass back basically in the Pakistan Afghanistan. If you take those two data points together, you can see that the Iraqis are, they have been living next door to Iran for thousands of years and that there comes a point when we can expect that they will assert their identity against Iran.
GREENFIELD: Question up here in the front. I'm making it very difficult for the microphone people, but I'll ease up, I promise.
QUESTIONER: Ralph Buttens (sp), New York University. Senator, you have given us a very impressive discussion of the issues at stake and your views on them. You also spoke of the importance of symbolic leadership. I want to ask you a very direct question which I know is on the minds of many people here. What do you think you bring to the national leadership that is different from others, assuming you would be participating in national leadership? (Laughter.)
GREENFIELD: For the record, that question was not asked by a daily working journalist. (Laughter.)
WEBB: That said, I'm happy to give Barack all the advice he needs.
QUESTIONER: (Inaudible) -- what do you think you bring?
WEBB: You'll have to -- you have to ask the people who -- who want to talk to me. (Laughs.)
GREENFIELD: Okay. Yes, sir. Just hang on for the mic. Yeah.
QUESTIONER: Philip Gravage (ph) Paris View. I was wondering you talk about drifting away from the Democratic party after the Vietnam War and the party got identified a bit as defeatist, retreatist in international affairs. In the run-up to Iraq you had people who called themselves humanitarian hawks or liberal hawks who supported the war, thinking it was for democratization and so forth and tyranny. If the party now stands for withdrawal, how do you avoid appearing to be retreatists and defeatists, how does America project force and win hearts and minds in a global war on terror or a global war for public opinion? And is there any where that you see now, be it Darfur or elsewhere, that the use of force should be on the American agenda?
WEBB: I don't think it can be said that in terms of international opinion about the United States, the invasion and occupation of Iraq increased our respect around the world. And actually I did Novak (ph) one-on-one in November before the invasion, and he asked me what I thought would happen, and I said we are on the verge of squandering an historic opportunity to bring the rest of the world with us on the issue of international terrorism by invading Iraq.
So the question becomes -- the question always was to the Bush administration if you say you have a strategy, define the endpoint of your strategy. If you cannot define the endpoint of your strategy, you don't have one. That was the problem during the lead-up, that's the problem in terms of the changing explanation for why we are there. We -- I think if we were to conduct ourselves in a responsible manner as the world's leader in terms of bringing diplomatic leadership to the fore and getting our troops off the streets in Iraq and still demonstrating that we're willing to focus on international terrorism, I think that's a winner for the United States.
And the other thing that we always will communicate to the rest of the world is that if it becomes necessary, the United States is always ready to defend its interests, properly defined, with military force. The danger of where we are in the world view right now is that we are viewed to be sort of the national security go-to rather than the economic go-to or the cultural go-to.
I had the ambassador of Indonesia visit my office three or four months ago, and if -- there are some who will remember that the Chinese government attempted a coup in Indonesia in 1965 -- the great movie called, "Year of Living Dangerously" that was written about that period -- but the Indonesians have not always been very friendly with the Chinese. So he came in and he said yes, I would just -- you know, we just had the leader of China visit Indonesia. And I said what'd you talk about? He said trade. You know, what do you talk about when the United States comes? Terrorism. You know, we need to rebalance where we are around the world.
QUESTIONER: Could I just follow up very briefly. It has been said that the infusion of a few thousand, I guess mostly American, troops into Rwanda might have saved many of those 800,000 people, and we're talking about the same at a lesser scale in Darfur. Are those situations in which you remain or are very skeptical about that idea?
WEBB: I am skeptical. I think we have to clearly define the United States' national interests before we send our troops in -- you know, let's put the kid test on it. You know, if you've got a kid in the United States military today, what's worth their life. I think that's a fair test. And there are other ways that we can attempt to work on these issues. Darfur, for example, over the last year, we've been working very, very carefully with the Chinese to assume more responsibility to attempt to address the issues that are there.
QUESTIONER: I'm Gary Rosen from the John Templeton Foundation. So I'm assuming a very smart Barack Obama names, say, an attractive Southern Democrat with good conservative credentials to join the ticket with him. How would that hypothetical VP explain to these constituencies that seem alienated from Barack's candidacy right now, the meaning of his much-publicized remark that many working class whites in this country have turned to the right because of their bitterness over economic issues, and this explains why they cling to guns, to God and to all these other typical culture war questions.
GREENFIELD: Yeah how would you explain that, Senator? (Laughter.)
WEBB: Actually, you know, I as his friend have attempted to explain it a few times, and I'll do it again. You get a campaign, you get tired, every word is judged, you know, like even in the Senate campaign, which doesn't in any way compare to what these people have been through, I had a camera in my face everywhere I went, any time I was outside of, you know, my house there was a camera on me. So I think what Barack was going after is right. The words that he used were not.
It almost goes back to what we were talking about before about where the Democratic party's priorities had drifted away from working people. It's not that they retreat into these issues, and it's not even that they're bitter, see that's bad -- you know, I don't think they're bitter, I think a lot of them are mad. They don't believe that their leaders have been sticking up for them when they watch, you know, whole industries outsourced overseas, they see their jobs going away, you know, all these things that we know about, and what -- I think if they look up and you see two people running for federal office or national office who won't stick up for you, then you turn around as actually we were saying before, all right, if they're both going to be the same on that issue, well, this one's not going to let them burn the flag or whatever -- and by the way, I'm a Second Amendment person, that's an issue that I'll vote on if everything else were equal.
So I think Barack Obama is right that -- in the sense that the Democratic party needs to get back to putting as its principle concern the person -- the people who are doing the hard work of our society.
GREENFIELD: Ted Sorenson. And would you wait for a mic? Can I plug another book? Ted Sorenson's just out with his memoirs -- you won't mind, will you, Ted? (Scattered laughter.) It's quite an extraordinary run through history, please.
QUESTIONER: Thanks, Jeff, very much. Senator, many thanks for coming. I'd like to follow up on your answer to Professor Bullgen's (ph) question which you answered in terms of advising Barack Obama. I'd like to know what is your concept of the vice presidency. Under the Constitution, it's been said vice president has only two obligations, one is to preside over the Senate whenever he feels like it and the other is to inquire each day after the president's health. (Laughter.) By the end of the campaign, in the modern campaign, he often has two other responsibilities -- one as a lightening rod and the other as an attack dog. How do you feel about that? (Laughter.)
GREENFIELD: Thank you, Ted. (Laughter.)
WEBB: Honor to meet you. (Laughter.) I think you could see over the past several presidencies that the relationship between the president and the vice president's kind of task organized. You're right, there's nothing in the Constitution that defines it and there's nothing in the political system that demands any particular role. One thing that I've said when people have been asking me about this in the media is that there are two clear decisions that Barack Obama and John McCain have to make. One is how to win the election, and the other equally important in my view is how to govern. And having been inside an administration for four years and watching how intricate -- as you well know, how intricate the coordinating process is and the management of this leviathan executive branch and with all the political appointees that are in it, you -- whoever this -- whether -- you know I tend to think Barack Obama's going to win pretty strongly this fall, but whether it's Barack Obama or John McCain, they have to put a lot of energy into that.
GREENFIELD: We're almost at the end, and there's a question -- I'm taking moderator's privilege -- in -- because I think you know this is one of the more -- I'm trying to figure, the signal to noise ratio from Jim Webb is very high, let me put it that way. So I want to ask you -- put you on the spot a little. In this book, there are a number of occasions where you go back and look at arguments you've made that have been, in your view, proven right, whether it's the reconfiguration of U.S. forces in Asia and Europe or Iraq. But over the last 20 or 25 years -- and I ask this by the way of most public figures -- was there a notion you had that you've had to substantially revise or even abandon in the wake of evidence? And if so, what did it teach you?
WEBB: Well, I don't think that I could go back and pick, you know, one particular theme or another. But, you know, I -- the process that I went through before I decided to run for office was, I think, illuminating in terms of re-evaluating where I think the country is and where I think the answers are. And, you know, as we discussed before, I had never run for office, I had never really been involved in organized politics, and I'm very proud to have served in the Reagan administration. At the same time, when the United Mine Workers had their landmark strike in 1989 down in southwest Virginia, I went down and helped them. But in sitting down over the -- from '01 to '06 and watching the turmoil and looking for leadership and where the answers are, my view was that the answers are in the Jacksonian traditions of the Democratic Party. And I decided that if I were to run for office, I would run as a Democrat.
GREENFIELD: So that was a change in how you saw broader issues? There was nothing --
WEBB: I think that's -- yes, it was definitely. I was not a strong party person in either sense, but if you really -- but I think we were -- our age group was in one sense really shaped by the Vietnam War and there was a lot of things that I personally was putting into place in my own mind on that, but if you assume a level playing field on foreign policy between the two parties, with national security policy which we now have, then the answers for fairness and where the country needs to go are in the Democratic Party.
GREENFIELD: You know, I should mention that one of the books Jim Webb wrote, as we conclude this, came out in 1990 or '91, "Something To Die For." I mentioned that one of the major characters in that book is a politically shrewd, arrogant secretary of Defense looking to start a war in a volatile region of the world. (Laughter.) And that book came out in 1990. So you might want to look at where we're all going to be in 15 years and check out Jim Webb's novel. because it could be a little frightening. (Laughter.)
Senator, thank you so much -- (applause.)
WEBB: Thank you. Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here. Thank you.
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