A Conversation with Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Council on Foreign Relations
New York, N.Y.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: I'm Nicholas Kristof from The New York Times. A couple of announcements first of all. Those of you with cell phones, please do remember to turn them off. And also, in contrast to normal policy, this meeting is on the record, so we don't have to warn the members of the press to keep this off the record.

I'll start off by— I'll start the discussion off by raising some questions, and then we'll turn it into a more open dialogue after about 20 minutes.

Senator Biden of course needs no introduction. Usually that's the prologue to a long introduction, but let me just emphasize a couple of points that are relevant to today's discussion. First of all, his long tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee along with [Democratic presidential candidate] Senator [John] Kerry; he's also, I think it's fair to say, one of Senator Kerry's closest friends, and because of that, we'd like to turn the discussion today into a look at what a Democratic— or a Kerry— foreign policy would look like in a coming administration, if that happens. And finally, I think also Senator Biden has a well-earned reputation for bipartisanship, and I think that also is very relevant to whatever happens in the years ahead.

Let me start off— I'm just fresh off the boat from [Sudan's] Darfur [region], and it's an issue near to my heart. Can you give us a sense of what a Kerry administration— how an administration, a Kerry administration, would deal not just with Darfur but, more broadly, with the questions of failed states or failing states? And if you can look a little [inaudible]--I mean, Haiti, Darfur, Liberia— what would President Kerry do about these kinds of problems?

JOSEPH R. BIDEN, JR.: Well, let me make it clear at the outset— first of all, thank you for doing this. And, Richard, thank you for inviting me. It's an honor to be here. I'm always impressed when I come in and see all those portraits. [Laughter.]

Let me say that— make it clear— I do not speak for John Kerry, and if you're all lucky, I will not end up speaking for John Kerry [laughter], because I think John Kerry may have an opportunity January 20 to deal with these questions. And so I mean it sincerely. Please, for the press, I will be as candid as I can, which is always more than I should, but I want to make it clear I am not speaking for John Kerry. When I know what John Kerry's view is with precision, I will say it. And if I don't, it means it's my view, and I will give you my best guess.

The first thing I think that John Kerry— and this part I know— thinks that we have to develop, in a broader way, a policy of prevention as much as an option of pre-emption. And that requires a whole new way of looking at— I mean, as [William Butler] Yeats said, speaking of his Ireland in his poem "Easter Sunday," he said, "The world has changed— it has changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born." A terrible beauty has been born. The world has changed utterly in the last 10 years. And so what hasn't changed are the rules of the road. What hasn't changed is what constitutes legitimate action on the part of a nation-state that violates the sovereignty of another nation-state. What hasn't changed is any consensus on what constitutes a humanitarian crisis, and under what circumstances an individual state, let alone a group of states, has the right to intervene. And for the first thing that I think you'd see a Kerry administration doing is putting together, at an undersecretary level across the board, the beginning of genuine reaching out, starting with our NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] allies and the major powers, to begin these discussions about what constitutes legitimate use of force in areas where you have a failed state, where there's a humanitarian crisis— where there's genocide. To this administration's credit, finally, in my view, as you may recall, because I've been reading what you've been writing, I thought five months ago we should have declared this to be what it is: genocide. And [U.S.] Secretary [of State Colin] Powell came forward and did that.

And so, on a general sense— and I don't want to speak to this too long— I think you would see an approach that would try to reach the beginning of reaching a consensus on what constitutes legitimate action where there is a failed state, where there is genocide, where there is a harboring of terror, et cetera. And then I think that would be institutionalized, or attempt to be. And that will take time. That's not going to happen in six months or a year, but by the end of an administration, I suspect that would be a goal to have it more readily definable.

Secondly, I think that with regard to Darfur, as well as Haiti, you have to look at what tools are available to you, assuming it is concluded that there is a legitimate rationale for action to be taken by some actor or actors in the international community to stem some bad thing that's happening, like what's happening in Darfur. I think you have to look at what resources are available to impact on the tragedy that's occurring— Darfur, Haiti, or anywhere else in the world. And that depends in part upon our legitimacy and what influence we have with our friends and others in the world. For example, I suspect had we had a little better relationship with— and I'm not making a judgment whether or not this administration was right or wrong, but if we had a little better relationship with the French right now, they have the capacity from Chad to enforce a no-fly zone. They have the capacity to do things that we don't have the capacity to do right now. You might find a more ready audience in what is always— and I apologize to any of my European friends in here— what has always been the case in the 30 years I've been a senator, there is very seldom an initiative that is generated from the European community to take action on almost anything. It is usually [that] we have been the catalyst to do that. I'm sure if I thought hard enough— as Eisenhower said, If you give me enough time I can think of something they did— if I thought hard enough I'd come up with an example. But I can't right now. [Laughter.] And I'm being very earnest when I say this. I really think part of it is American leadership. American leadership depends upon American credibility. And right now our credibility is at a pretty low ebb.

In addition to that, our range of options in terms of the use of American forces, the use of American military assets, is also pretty stretched. Having said that, let me answer specifically what I think— what, based on— I did discuss this with John— with what I think John would look to do. We passed in the United States Senate an amendment that I introduced that calls for providing $75 million immediately for airlift capacity to have the AU, the African Union, provide somewhere up to 3,000 forces. They are a bit of a rag-tag operation, but we could— and should— be spending more money to actually train them, and to actually facilitate their movement into the region, even though they are observer status only, although some have suggested that they would in fact be more than observers were they in place— that to see whether that has the interdictive capacity that some think it would to stop some of the more egregious things that are happening, number one.

Number two, I think it is, we have also— we have also already— and, by the way, that legislation is just sitting there going nowhere right now, because the president, in my view, has not put his muscle behind it, notwithstanding the fact that we have an asset forfeiture provision relating to Khartoum and so on. There's a lot of things we specifically could do that don't require and don't necessitate the use of American forces. But some, to use the Liberia example— I'm probably answering this too long and too thoroughly— but we have limited capacity right now in terms of availability of troops, but we do have the capacity to provide airlift; we do have the capacity to provide some troops in terms of being able to be organizational in terms in of distribution of these AU troops. And, I think we should be working on— I would argue that our European friends in the [United Nations] Security Council is being mildly irresponsible here, and I think I would— a Kerry administration would be putting much more pressure on them to step up to the ball as well. I don't know if that answers your question.

KRISTOF: On Iraq, let's follow the point about reaching out as it applies to Iraq. Senator Kerry emphasizes the degree to which he would do that, and I think a lot of us in the room would feel a lot better and think that American[s] would have a better image in the world if we were to work more with allies. But realistically, would it make any difference in terms of Iraq? And what, in practical terms, would the difference be between a Kerry administration, looking forward on Iraq, and the Bush administration?

BIDEN: Well, let me start off by saying I don't know. The honest-to-God truth is, I don't know for certain, but it's a little bit like that old expression, you know, G.K. Chesterton, who said that it's not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting— it's been left untried. You know, the fact of the matter is [that] this has been left untried, notwithstanding what you hear.

I have met personally with the president. I have met literally for several hours with the president on this single subject over four occasions. The president always tells me that they're working toward getting international assistance. It is not true in terms of what constitutes work. For example, I'll give you a specific [example]. About four months ago in the Oval Office with the president and the secretary of state— I mean the national security adviser— and the vice president, I was— and [Senator] Dick Lugar [R-Ind.] and I were there— and we were talking about what should and shouldn't be done. He [the president] asked our opinion— I guess actually it wasn't even four months ago, it was August— and we said we should reach out to NATO for training, et cetera. He said, "We've already done that." And I looked at the vice president and [said], "Mr. Vice President, or Condi [National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice], have you— either of you— ever thought of a single example, or any of you diplomats in this room, where the NAC [North Atlantic Council] has taken a decision absent the United States tabling a specific proposal as to how to proceed? Can anyone in here?"--and this is more experience in this room than I can find in any single room in America. I can't think of any, after 31 years as United States senator. And so it's one thing to go— it reminds me of when I went to [former U.S. President Bill] Clinton— and I know I wasn't particularly popular— suggesting— I came back and wrote this report, Lift and Strike, in '94 [that said] we should lift the arms embargo, use air power against the Serbs crossing the Drina. [Former Secretary of State] Warren Christopher insisted that he come while I talked to the president. He was supposed to— he was going to contain me. [Laughter.] And he didn't contain me, and after— and the president, after an hour, was convinced. And he said, "I'm going to ask the secretary to go to Europe, and I'm going to ask him to seek a mutual lifting of the arms embargo." Well, I got reports back from my friends in NATO that he went and he said, "You guys really don't want to lift this embargo, do you?" That's not what I call pushing to lift the embargo. Well, that's exactly the kind of initiative we've gotten on trying to get outside help.

Specific answer to your question— I'll give you one specific, NATO. NATO sent— was it 47, 48— a staff guy here, Puneet Talwar [of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee], can correct me— 47, 48 military personnel to Iraq [in] early August to do an assessment of what NATO was capable of doing in training Iraqi military forces as part of this effort to train up the Iraqi forces. They came back. They wrote a report laying out three options. In general terms, the one option was: We can take care of senior command. We can try to identify the most competent generals. We can begin to train them, and we can do that and do it in Baghdad. We can have a larger war college establishment where we put somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 NATO forces to protect this war college where we'd train a larger cadre. Or we can take the entire operation over. Did any of you hear even a whisper of the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, the president, picking up the phone or going to Brussels to say, "Hey, we like option three?" [Laughter.] I'm not being facetious. I'm being deadly earnest. And you all are too cynical about— and the press is too cynical about what they will do and what they will not do. I remind you the press said the president could not, if he went to the United Nations, get a resolution. The most recent resolution they got this summer— couldn't get it, was impossible. He got it. He's done nothing to enforce it. He's done none of the jawboning that a Kerry administration would do had we been here. We're talking about a summit. We're now talking about a summit of the very people we've been calling for a summit for, for 10 months. It's going to take place after the election.

As they say in my neighborhood, give me a break— give me a break. What's the president supposed to do, Jim? He's supposed to stand there at the United Nations and call his friends in the room. Seriously, what would you do? What would any one of you do if that was your goal, if you genuinely wanted the U.N. resolution that was passed enforced? Wouldn't you be calling and saying, "By the way, you promised to step up to the ball and forgive the debt, you promised to assist in training?" Specific proposals. Now, maybe the reason you don't do it is you're afraid of the answer. The answer is going to be no. Well, that could be. But it seems to me— it seems to me that if that's your goal, you in fact do— and the United States always has a hell of a lot more in the bag than anyone thinks they do. And we don't use any imagination here. I spent an hour and 50 minutes with [French President Jacques] Chirac two weeks before Christmas. I told a couple of you this privately. Chirac has an ego as big as this room. He's an interesting guy. We all understand the French have been less than helpful, and they've been a pain in the you-know-what. But guess what? I sat down, I start up the conversation, I said, "Mr. President, let me ask— what can I ask of you— what can I answer for you?" I said, "Mr. President, has your desire to see [President] George Bush defeated yet been overcome by your desire to see France's interests promoted in the region?" And he went, "Mon dieu, I— " [laughter]--yes. [Laughter.] Then I made it very clear I could not negotiate at all, obviously— I'm a minority senator who no one listens to. But I said, "How about if our president did A, B, C, and D— would you do X, Y, and Z?" And we spent what was supposed to be a 20-minute meeting, we spent two hours in significant detail making firm commitments as to what he would do. I said, "Am I at liberty to communicate this to the president of the United States?" He said, "Absolutely." I came back, asked to the see the president. I don't ask to see presidents very often. I always go when presidents ask to see me. He was busy. He wrote me a very nice handwritten note: "Condi will be in touch." Condi was in touch and told me don't worry— we're already working on it. The fact is, there wasn't any work on it. And the point was, remember now, we never— at a minimum, we're not very good at calling the bluff of our friends and exposing them, because there is this continental divide— there is this San Andreas fault that runs through this administration. This is the most divided administration— I've been there for seven presidents. I can't think of one that was close to this divided.

And so I think— again, what happens is the Kerry administration— and, who knows— I don't know who John Kerry is going to pick in his administration— but if John Kerry is the John Kerry I've worked with for 24 years in the Senate, known for 32 years, there would be much more aggressive policy. But, so— I'm completely blunt here— I think it's going to be a lot harder than John thinks it is. I think it's going to be a lot harder. And, if you'll notice, the last speech John made he interjected seven times in his speech at the suggestion of some of us, but it's getting harder every day.

This bar of incompetence is being raised every single day. [Laughter.] I am not joking. I am deadly earnest. It is harder and harder and harder every single day to encourage people to be involved. But why, ultimately, will they? They will for one simple reason. I will not mention the speaker of a parliament in one of our major allies in Europe that recently came to see me to encourage me— and this will come as no shock to anybody in this room— hope Kerry wins. And I said, "Be careful what you wish for. Be careful what you wish for." And he said, "Why is that?" And I said, "Because the day after he wins I will, within two weeks, be in your office— as a senator— be in your office making it clear that you've got to get responsible real quick. You've got to take on more responsibility." And we went through this discussion about, "Well, we're being— " and I said, "No, you're not being responsible. You are not being responsible now, and you're not going to have George Bush as an excuse any longer." Then he said, "What would you do?" I said, "Well, then I'd advise— if you would not act at all, I'd advise Kerry to leave Iraq." [The speaker] said, "You wouldn't do that?" I said, "Look at me— we inherit Lebanon. You were not going to do anything, none of Europe will step up to the ball. You have more to lose than we do. You have more to lose than we do in the immediate term." They know it, they understand it. Then we went down to, Well, what would you expect. I wouldn't ask you— and so on. So there's ways to do this, but it's going to be very difficult, and will depend on what the situation is on January 20.

KRISTOF: So is it fair to say, do you think, that if things go badly, if it's hard to get more international help, that a Kerry administration would be more likely to pull troops out in the context of a mess than a Bush administration?

BIDEN: No, no, I don't think that's the case at all. I don't think you would have any more fewer or— I don't think they'd view the options at that point any differently than the Bush administration would view the options. If you take a look at the Bush administration, they basically haven't done what they in fact indicated they were going to do in Afghanistan, from their Marshall Plan to the amount of troops that they were going to commit, and not having the need for international forces.

And, by the way, one of the reasons why I think there's been a surprisingly successful election in Afghanistan is we did what some of us have been calling we should be doing in Iraq. We in fact had a surge of force. We had an increase of about, what?--30 percent, 25 percent the total number of foreign forces in Afghanistan to provide for additional security in order for the first phase of this electoral process to go off. That's necessary in Iraq. It was necessary six months ago. It was necessary a year ago. It will clearly be necessary in January. And so I don't think that one or either are going to be more or less likely to withdraw troops. I think they each are going to be limited in the options they have available to them.

KRISTOF: You mentioned a representative of parliament who came in kind of praying for a Kerry victory. I think there are people like that in a lot of places. But actually when one looks at East Asia, there's something of an exception to that, and that's because of trade. Relations with the Bush administration are probably better in Japan and China, and I think there's a real apprehension that the Senator Kerry that people got used to is different from candidate Kerry, and the person President Kerry would become. And I mean, isn't it true, in fact, that the Bush administration may be closer to the Clinton administration in terms of trade policy than at least where candidate Kerry is? And wouldn't the kind of trade policies that we're seeing inklings of, wouldn't that undermine this kind of internationalism that Senator Kerry is aspiring to?

BIDEN: The answer is: It could, but I don't believe it. In other words, what you're seeing now— look, we have picked all the low-lying fruit out there in terms of trade policy, and what's happening now, is there is sort of a growing recognition that both the rights of workers and the environment still should not be a prohibition for moving forward on broadening trade, but that they are topics that warrant— increasingly warrant discussion. They are going to— whether anybody likes it or not, no matter who is president— they are going to, because of the nations now that are being folded into the international community. They are going to be— they are going to come up in the dialogue more than they did before— not as a quid pro quo, but as an element of the discussion, number one. But that should not frighten anyone. I think you're going to see a Kerry administration being very, very close to a Clinton administration, and a little further from the Bush administration in terms of enforcing the WTO [World Trade Organization], in terms of going to the WTO, in terms of taking on the actions and currency questions relating to the Chinese, and others. I think you'll see a more aggressive administration under existing trade rules, at the same time expanding trade.

But if I were all of you, what I would worry about with U.S.-China and U.S.-Japanese relations is not that you'll see a deterioration in trade and internationalism, but that you'll see a nuclear Japan and a China responding in a way that is more than proportionate, if in fact we don't get it straight with regard to [North] Korea. But that's another subject. But I think— that is, for me— that, for me, is the overriding concern in terms of our Asian policies, whether or not we end up with a nuclearized peninsula. And that, in turn, I believe— I believe within a year of that happening, you would see Japan a nuclear power and you will see responses from China and a response in turn from India that are unpredictable but not in our interests.

KRISTOF: Well, I was going to turn toward the Middle East, but since we've brought up that question, let me ask that as my last question before we open this up. If you look at North Korea and Iran, those are going to be enormous headaches for whoever takes office in January. At this point, isn't it pretty clear that both Iran and North Korea basically want nuclear weapons and aren't going to negotiate away that option? And maybe that's because of mishandling by the Bush administration in the past. But at least looking ahead, is there anything that a Kerry administration can reasonably do, do you think, to actually avoid a nuclear Korean Peninsula or down the road, a nuclear Iran?

BIDEN: Following the advice before I got up here, and following my instincts, I'm not going to go through cataloguing the squandered opportunities I think we had in both those places over the last four years. But let me move right to the— to answer the question. The answer is, I don't know. I don't know whether it's inevitable, no matter what is done from this point on— that North Korea is bound and determined to not only increase their nuclear arsenal, but to have a throw-weight capacity to be able to put it on top of a missile and send it hurtling across the ocean with a third stage of a Nodong missile. I don't know. I suspect that is it. I don't know that in fact it can be stopped.

The same with Iran. You have different motivations in Iran, but you could argue from the standpoint— if you're just sitting here in this seminar on foreign policy and Iran— you could make— and you were given the side of the argument that, if you were an Iranian, no matter where you fell in the political spectrum you would want to be in a rough neighborhood, you'd want to have a nuclear capacity, and it's inevitable.

But you know what? One of the reasons why I am in elected office and some of you aren't, is I'm an optimist. It's an occupational requirement. [Laughter.] If, in fact, I conclude that it is not possible ahead of time, then I might as well get out of this business now, because it is not very, very— a very appetizing view of the world that we're going to likely inherit.

I still think we should test for two reasons— test the proposition with both Iran as well as North Korea in different ways as to whether or not there is an inevitability— an inevitability of the thing we fear the most. And the way to test that in North Korea, in my view, is the way that Dick Lugar and I and others have been arguing for the past two years. And our friends the Chinese and the Japanese and the South Koreans and the Russians and five parties or four parties to the six-party talks have been urging us to do, and that is to engage North Korea one on one— not negotiate, but in effect, sit down and make it clear what the carrots and the sticks are, and find out what their bottom line is as well.

Now, the reason I would argue that this has been difficult for this administration to do, as divided as it has been— it has come down on the side of the neoconservative view— and I say that with respect. I do not— I am not being pejorative when I say that. I have an overwhelming respect— they are some of the brightest people I have ever met in government. But the view for them, everybody knows, [is] if there is going to be any deal in any way with North Korea, it is going to require some version of a non-aggression pact, some version of a guarantee that we're not going to do anything in conventional parlance to destabilize the government that's already unstable. That's the bottom line. That's going to have to be part of any negotiation.

And for my friends— my neoconservative friends— to enter into a discussion where that— [where] they know that's the ante going in, is a little like me as a Roman Catholic denying the existence of the Trinity. It is not possible to do. And that has been the ultimate sticking point. Now, even if Lugar was right or Biden was right, or others were right that negotiations— not negotiations, actually just discussion to find out what the red lines where— were to take place, even if that were offered, it may not be possible— may not be possible to curtail— to curtail an administration in the north that's hell-bent on this capability, but sure in hell [it] is worth trying.

And one of the reasons to try it is, ultimately, reserving the option of the use of force requires as a practical matter— as any of you former military women or men in this audience would tell your colleagues— it requires the cooperation of South Korea— minor point. And I'm not being facetious now. We act like it doesn't matter, by the way. Let's not kid each other. We act like it doesn't matter, this administration.

And so we should be pursuing what all of the parties, including the Chinese, notwithstanding that last debate— unless the Chinese ambassador is telling me something when I meet with him on a fairly regular basis isn't true, which is possible— they very much want us not to abandon the six-party talks, but to walk and chew gum at the same time. So I would try it. Kerry would try it for two reasons: maybe there's an opening; and, at a minimum, it provides a better opportunity and possibility for unity in whatever judgment is made [over what] must be done to contain, curtail, or deal with North Korea.

Iran— similar situation, but a little bit different. We did, in my view, squander opportunities there again. But who knows if we had done what some of us suggested to try to deal with a democracy— not pro-Western— but a democracy movement. And, by the way, so much for leveraging power. They wait for 160,000 forces, we're surrounding Iran— and then said, "Now, watch us— we haven't been willing to do this for the past six years— we want the whole world to watch us— we are going to crush the democracy movement. Everybody see it— real clear— we've done it— over, done. No, no, no, no democratic force with any voice left at the moment."

Now, so what do you do about it? Well, it seems to me there's only one way to deal with this as well, and that is to actually engage— engage not only with our European friends, but decide whether or not this fuel cycle arrangement could be arrived at. Even if— even if it is— we knew ahead of time— the Lord almighty came down and said there is no possibility of Iranians engaging us in that discussion— it is a prerequisite for European unity. We are not going to be able to deal with either of these countries most effectively alone— alone. And in case we haven't noticed, our bona fides are in question. I'm not being facetious. I'm being deadly earnest: they're in question. Our motives are in question, whether they should or shouldn't be.

So there are two objectives I would have in suggesting to Senator Kerry, as President Kerry, [as to] how to proceed in both countries. One is: Take those actions which have a legitimate basis upon which you can genuinely test the resolve or the possibility of some kind of agreement for purposes of the agreement all by itself; but, secondly, you need to pursue it in order to bring the regional powers along with you when you have to go to Plan B.

KRISTOF: At this point, we're going to open it up to a broader discussion. When I call on you, please do stand up and identify yourself and your affiliation. Yes?

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I'm Kenneth Bialkin. I'd like you to comment, if you will, on the revelations we've seen recently about the [United Nations-administered] food-for-oil program in Iraq, where we've learned of pervasive corruption in the U.N. [and] the complicity of France, Germany, Russia, and China in sending money to Saddam Hussein. We've learned from the Duelfer report [on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction] that Saddam Hussein literally wished to deceive people about his WMD so that he could seek the release of sanctions, so that he could re-get WMD when sanctions came off. I wonder if you could tell us what you've learned as a result of these investigations, how you look at the functioning of the U.N., how you've looked at the performance of our so-called friends and allies in dealing with it, and whether you think the world is safer or less safe today because Saddam Hussein is gone.

BIDEN: I didn't learn anything from the Duelfer report, and I'm going to say something outrageous because the press is in here. Before we went to war I said everything the Duelfer report said, and I also said— on the record, if you want to— anybody want to write to me, I can give you the statements, the dates, the hearings, the places— I never believed they had weapons of mass destruction, I had never believed they weaponized their capability. I believe they had the raw material for weapons of mass destruction. And, as I've said on occasion, this separates me from Kerry as well as Bush. I believed all along that this was not, as we debate this— people have short memories— this wasn't about whether or not we go to war, the status quo ante; this is about whether or not sanctions were lifted, and/or we could, in fact, strengthen the resolve of the international community to maintain sanctions, and if need be, use force if there was evidence that he had moved in directions that I didn't think he had moved. That was really where we were. There were the facts. They were the facts. And I said at the time, holding those hearings— and I don't say, "I said"--but Dick Lugar said, not just me— a number of us said— that we in fact believe that Saddam left unfettered, we believe he was getting somewhere between a billion [dollars] and a billion-two illegally from the [Oil-for-Food] program. We believed that that was all going to go toward his ability to, over the next— in my case, I said five to seven years left unfettered, if sanctions were lifted he would in fact present an imminent threat. But he did not present an imminent threat at the moment.

I have a view of the U.N. that somehow, I happen to think is realistic, but people don't like. People either conclude, generally speaking— with the notable exception— probably the majority of people in this room are the exception— they either believed that the U.N. is a peacekeeping organization, that when war breaks out and/or any nation acts in a corrupt way, it's a failure of the United Nations, because they should have, and could have, or are institutionally capable of dealing with that. I never have that— I don't set that goal for the United Nations. That is not a goal that I anticipate it's ever going to be able to meet, No. 1; or, No. 2, that is of absolutely no value and is an impediment to our ability to act.

The United Nations is an institution that, with wise leadership in the United States of America, is one that we should be able to hopefully reform— but [an institution that] we should [be] able to use to our benefit in generating consensus for things that make sense in our own interests, and [that] we hope [are] in the interests of the world at the same time. So, the fact that the French were in fact acting duplicitously, the fact that others were acting corruptly, is of no surprise to me— none whatsoever. But does that mean that we should not have been smarter in attempting to isolate the French and expose their failure to deal with Saddam Hussein instead of treating it in the way we treated it? Did I ever think we'd get France or Germany to participate in the invasion of Iraq? Absolutely not. Did I think it was fully within our power to be able to isolate and expose the French, who are unwilling under any circumstance to do anything at all about Saddam Hussein? Yes. Would it have made a difference? Yes, in my view it would have. But only history could— I mean, hindsight— you know, maybe it wouldn't have. Maybe we'd end up in the exact same place. But understand, I'm not one of those people who believe that. We were— and so said— this is not Monday-morning quarterbacking— so stated— the reason why I was a bit of a pariah within the Democratic caucus— I never believed— I never believed, do not believe now, that the United Nations was likely to in one fit of resolve take on Saddam Hussein and hold him accountable. But I thought that's what diplomacy was about. I thought diplomacy was not just about getting people to agree with you, but exposing circumstances when people don't agree with you to add to the credibility of your case and your argument.

You know, a point I really think is important to make is that I think that your question implies [it] shouldn't matter. You know, when Kerry was asked about— he said something about, you know, seeking, you know, the consent of the world or whatever it was— I know what John meant, and I think the president— well, maybe the president didn't know what he meant [laughter], but he didn't mean what the president said. And, look, you know, our forefathers used preemptive action. They didn't ask for anybody's permission. But what did they do in that same document when they announced why they did it, where they pledged their lives and their property and their sacred honor? They opened up the preamble of the Constitution— and I wanted to make sure I did not in fact misrepresent anything— when in the course of human events— and you declare separation— but add the words you decide to go [to] war, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare those going to war, declare the causes which impel them to separation. But I changed it to "action." Why did our forefathers figure that out? They figured we're more likely to win— we're more likely to get the world to agree with us, if they understood the credible reasons why we were separating.

So my view of the U.N. ties with that notion. The U.N. is a forum, at a minimum, for us to be able to, if we are smart, to lay out why— why— we are doing what we are doing and the rationale for it. And part of that is exposing those who are being phony about it.


BIDEN: I can really answer yes or no. [Laughter.]

KRISTOF: OK, well, let's do alternating.

QUESTIONER: This will be a short question. Senator, my name is Roland Paul. I'm a lawyer. Some years ago, I was counsel to a subcommittee of your committee. It's good to see you here once again. Maybe you can reconcile an apparent inconsistency about Iraq for us. Several representatives of the administration— [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State] Richard Armitage, and I think before your committee, said if the Iraqis ask us to leave, we'll leave. Others, such as Colin Powell, also I think before your committee, said, "I have no doubt that they won't ask us to leave when we don't want to go." But there are popular politicians in Iraq— [the anti-U.S. Shiite cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr being the most prominent— that clearly want us to go, and may command a big constituent— I think the polls are very much sort of that way too. So what explains the inconsistency there?

BIDEN: No. [Laughter.] I don't know. I'm not sure how much of an inconsistency it is. I think it's less an inconsistency than a difficulty in framing what everybody is saying, what everybody means, which is, when there is a representative group of Iraqis who we believe represent a broad cross section of all the sectors of the Iraqi people, that asks us to go, we'll go. We haven't gotten there yet.

I predict to you— this is a dangerous thing to do in front of this crowd, because you all remember— and I'm stuck, God willing, and the creek not rising and my health holding up, you're stuck with me four more years in the Senate. So I'll be around for you to remind me. But I predict to you, if we are fortunate enough to actually pull off an election in January, which is generally representative, and puts us in a position where there is a possibility that there will actually be a constitution drafted that has general legitimacy and is voted on at the end of the year in a presidential election— if we get down the road that way, I predict to you sometime in the middle of next year [Iraqi interim prime minister] Mr. [Ayad] Allawi will ask us to go. Mr. Allawi will set a timetable— not immediately— he'll set a timetable for his own electoral prospects, and you should hope he does. President Bush should hope he does. President Kerry should hope he does. But I think that's what everybody is talking about [inaudible] and eating a piece of it, because this guy is as straight as anyone I have ever, ever dealt with. I have an overwhelming amount of respect for him, and I don't think it's inconsistent with what Powell is saying. I think when there is essentially a representative government that, as messy as it may be, and they say go, we will go.


QUESTIONER: Commander Steve Brock, a Navy fellow at Rand. With each passing year, China gets closer and closer to capacity to retake Taiwan by force. And if that were to occur, and if the next administration decided to defend Taiwan, there would be a naval and air battle on a scale not seen since World War II. What would a Kerry administration do to, either on the one hand constrain [President of the Republic of China] Chen Shui-bian and his inclinations for independence, or to, on the other hand, constrain China with an ability to meet their challenge?

BIDEN: As [the editor of Foreign Affairs] Jim Hoge would tell you, 20 years ago, we would have answered that question. I'm not going to respond to a hypothetical question. I— the policy of John Kerry will be the same policy as the last seven presidents: studied ambiguity. [Laughter.]

KRISTOF: But the policy has— I mean, the Bush administration in a sense ended the policy of strategic ambiguity. And Bush said that he would defend Taiwan.

BIDEN: By accident. [Laughter.] I'm not being facetious. [Laughter.] I am not being facetious. I am not being facetious. By accident he changed it. And, if you'll notice, the administration has been trying to put it back in the box since. They have not changed the policy. The secretary of state called me— I was riding down on the train— this is eight months after the president had been elected— six months. We got through the tunnel in Baltimore— I commute every day. The phone rang, "Joe, did you see the Charlie Gibson interview?" I said, "No, I didn't." I think it was a Charlie Gibson interview. I said, "No, I didn't." He said, "The president just accidentally changed our policy on Taiwan." [Laughter.] And he said, "When you get off the train, can we agree that he meant the answer to question A?" [Laughter.] And I said, "What's question A?" And I got the questions handed to me, and that's what the president did mean, the secretary of state said. And, by the way, I'm not being a wise guy— I got in a lot of trouble with the Democrats for defending the president, but this is complicated stuff. Look, remember, we've had eight— of the seven presidents I've served with, four have been governors. None, no matter how bright or wise or slow or fast you thought they were— none came with any background in foreign policy. And they all— every single one of them— every single one of them, on some of the knottier problems that have— where there is an entire vocabulary that has grown up around the policy— have not gotten it right. They have not gotten it right. So I'm not being critical of the president when I say this. I really mean it. It's a very difficult thing when you haven't focused on it. And so, off-the-bat he answered, and he declared by accident a one-China policy again. And in fact the policy— the secretary of state said, and I quote, "Our policy did not change six years ago, six months ago, it will not six days ago. It did not change today, it will not change six days from now, six months from now, or the remainder of this term." I take him at his word.


QUESTIONER: Richard Gardner, Columbia University. Senator, there's one question on which the two presidential candidates appear to agree, and that is that nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists could constitute the greatest threat to the future of the United States and to all humanity. What more, in your view, should we be doing to avoid that threat?

BIDEN: A great deal more. You all heard the question— a great deal more. We should vastly expand the Nunn-Lugar [Cooperative Threat Reduction] Program. We should not have gone through the period where it got cut and some in the administration— some who are sitting in the front row, I expect— pushed very hard back to reinstate the funding. We should not have allowed this Helms amendment to be used as a rationale why in fact we would not go forward, which took six months of paralysis before we moved. We should be sitting down now and negotiating at— with the major powers— what constitutes a legitimate basis upon which to interdict on the high seas, interdict in the air cargo. We should be having this as the single most significant focus in terms of destroying— in terms of destroying stockpiles that exist in the former Soviet Union and in Russia. We should be moving to amend, in my view, the [Nuclear]Nonproliferation Treaty. We should be doing a whole range of things which really would take too much time here. It is the thing that is in our capacity to do. This is one of [the] areas where it's in the self-interest of every nation-state, just about every nation- state in the world, every major power in the world, to see it happen. And we should extend, which we have, in technically but not practically, Nunn-Lugar to states that in fact did not qualify up till now.

And so this is a— this is an urgent, but it is a do-able— it is a— there's many things we can do now— can do now— that we are not doing. It goes beyond what I said, but these are— you are asking me seminar questions here— for me anyway— I can't think of how to shorten them without doing them an injustice. But there's a great deal more that we can do— everything from new international agreements and treaties to expanding Nunn-Lugar, to dealing with cooperation at the intelligence community level in ways we are not doing it now. There's just a lot of things we could be doing.

KRISTOF: Professor Gardner mentioned that as one area of commonality between the candidates. Another is, in a sense to some degree, Middle East policy. And, I mean, I don't buy the flip-flop allegation, but I do think there has been a clear migration in Senator Kerry's policy toward issues like the [Israeli security] fence over time.

BIDEN: You say the fence?

KRISTOF: The fence. So, if you look at— you obviously work with Senator Kerry all the time— what would a Kerry policy toward Israel and the Middle East look like, and would it look more like Senator Kerry's policy or more like candidate Kerry's policies?

BIDEN: Well, look, first of all, Kerry, like every president I have worked with so far, as an intellectual, [has] a political and an emotional commitment to Israel— it's real, it's real. And people just have to deal with that. There is also an emotional component to this. It's real. It's sort of part of the psyche, and it's real. And, I realize that everybody expects the president to be totally dispassionate on this issue. You're not going to get a dispassionate view from Senator Kerry. There is a piece of him that, in effect— to overstate in the interest of time— that will cut slack where maybe some would not be cut for others. All right, that's No. 1.

No. 2, there is— this is not a static circumstance, this changes every single day. A position that the president had on the fence before it was constructed, and now is different— it's different, necessarily so, necessarily so. You deal with the realities you find on the ground when you become president of the United States of America. But I think what would be different— what would be different in a Kerry policy in a generic sense, is there would be significantly more engagement.

By the way, one of the reasons why I have, so full disclosure here, I am, as some would argue, an unabashed supporter of Israel. My arguments with Israel have been loud in private, and not mentioned at all in public. And so, but, you know, there are some who believe, if you start off with the proposition that some in the American-Jewish community do, that there is no possibility for a two-state solution, that there are not a majority of Palestinians who share the view that a two-state solution is the solution, and there are not a majority of Israelis that share that view, if that is your view, then there's not much you can do at all. Then the fact of the matter is, you'd just better hunker down and whatever the Israeli government decides to do, you're going to have [to] decide if you want to support them, you support them.

If you believe, as I do, and as I still think a majority of the Israeli leadership believes, and the majority of the Israeli people, that more than 50 percent of the Palestinians would, in fact, support a two-state solution, and more than 50 percent of the Israelis, then the issue is, how do you get and who do you get at the table in order to begin to get to the point where you can arrive at that kind of an accommodation. And, it seems to me there are three or four factors that Kerry views differently than this administration— apparently views, apparently views. One is that you've got to broaden the participation on the Palestinian side, which we began to do, by providing alternatives to Arafat that do not put those who wish to be an alternative in direct competition with Arafat after the negotiation, for fear they will be shot dead. We did that with [former Palestinian National Authority prime minister] Abu Mazen [also known as Mahmoud Abbas] and [Palestinian Finance Minister Salam] Fayad— we did that initially. I thought it was a good beginning, and in my view, we did not give them nearly enough support in order to be able to have them be able to deliver anything to build a constituency within and among their own people.

I met with Abu Mazen, [and] I said, "Please give me your list, if I guaranteed you— " which I believe we could have done— "if I guaranteed you [that] you could get immediately $60 million in money, wouldn't that be useful when you decide— " and remember, they were going to turn over control of the last six miles of the road in Gaza, remember that piece— "that when you stand there as that's turned over, you announce that you now are going to pay for the education— college education— of every Palestinian, not [members of the Islamic fundamentalist group] Hamas. You're going to pay, and you have the money. And on this site, you're going to build the largest, most modern hospital in Gaza. You need something, you have to demonstrate. You have a capacity to produce something."

We had these internal debates and fights about what would we do to— to use a word we overuse in American politics today— empower a man who I thought presented a hope, a genuine hope, for an alternative to a man I have no faith in, and [who] cannot deliver— cannot deliver, in my view, a two-state solution, which is [President of the Palestinian National Authority Yasir] Arafat. And we didn't. We can second guess why we didn't, shouldn't, how we could have, if we could have.

So, you've got to do three things. You've got to go out and you've got to re-engage the process, and you've got to have to ask— I'm going to be deliberately facetious here, as my conservative friends in the southern part of Delaware would say, remember that [former Republican] Senator [Alexander] Wiley from Wisconsin said, "The thing that the Arabs and Jews should get together and do is settle their differences in the true Christian spirit." I'm paraphrasing him. I'm going to be a bit facetious here. We ought to have a come-to-Jesus meeting, as they say in southern Delaware, with Saudi Arabia. We ought to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with them. We ought to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with an old friend, and he is a friend who occasionally calls me at home— I always know it's him when he says, "Joe, it's [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak. What are you doing?"

Well, we should send a message to both of these guys that, in fact, there has to be a different deal here, in terms of being willing to acknowledge and come forward. The Saudi plan initially, it sounded good on paper; it didn't get pursued. And one of the real prices we pay, by the way, whether it's Kerry or whether it is Bush, or whether it was Clinton or the previous Bush— we pay a price when our relations are damaged severely over one issue, in terms of our ability to deal with folks on other issues.

The European Union [EU] should not have been, and should not be, supporting Arafat specifically to the extent they have. But, we have virtually no leverage, because of how soured the tonal relationship is. All these things have a price.

When I say at home to a much less sophisticated audience, they say: What difference does it make what anybody thinks? I say: Let me give you an example, and you're going to think this is exactly what you expect of a hackneyed politician. I say: You know, assuming you and your wife are having a serious debate about what college your daughter is going to go to, and you are stupid enough in the middle of the debate to say, I make the money, she's going to Penn. And then 20 minutes later you say, "Honey, let's go to bed." They don't have nothing to do with each other, do they?

I'm going to really get in trouble. Now, you are all in this room with these incredible portraits of incredible men hanging here. You think foreign policy is a lot more complicated than it is. But, foreign policy is— and I get in trouble with my intellectual buddies on this, because Biden is just an old politician when he says things like this. I've only been doing it for 30 years— foreign policy is not a lot more than the logical extension of personal relationships, with a whole lot less information to act upon. And you know, folks, all these mistakes, or inadvertent mistakes, or venal kinds of things we do in Democrat and Republican administrations relative to other countries, [but] they eventually matter. They matter.

So our ability to go to the EU in this moment, our ability to deal with the Europeans generally, and say, "Whoa, wait a minute, cool it here, let's make a deal here, we can put together this. You back off here, we'll do this, and so on," but you've got to have— it's not enough to have— I guess what I'm saying, and I think John [Kerry] understands— believes this, and understands, believes— a peace agreement will not be arrived at, ultimately, if in a literal sense the only two people at the table are the Palestinians and the Israelis. There has to be the Americans, the Europeans, and the Arabs, if not literally at the table, they all have to buy into the deal. And that requires presidents to take chances. That requires presidents to act.

The circumstances have been set so much, particularly in this election— I had breakfast with a very prominent leader in the American Jewish community this morning, an old, old friend of 31 years. And we had breakfast with him this morning, just to catch up with him. And he's talking about— he'll probably become chairman of the committee, and he's been out there helping the Democrats and— he said, "By the way, I'm voting for Bush." And I said— his name is not Harry— I said, "Harry, you disagree with him on almost every major thing." He said, "Yes, but he's been good for Israel. He's been flat good for Israel, and I've got to reward him for that, because this means so much to me— it means so much to me."

One of the brightest guys I know on this issue has been kind enough not to say a word, Malcolm. He's sitting there in the back. He's forgotten more abut these subjects than I'm going to learn. But, there's this notion among some friends of mine that the best policy you can hope for, if you're a supporter of Israel, is a policy which does not in any way attempt to get discussions restarted, because therein lies the only ultimate security— because otherwise, Israel will be put in a place where, in world public opinion, they will be required to do something in return for what appears to be an equal measure, but in fact is not real. Therefore, all you're doing is damaging Israel and her security.

I might note, folks— those of you who are particularly critical of Israel, and I am occasionally, and I am privately, and as [Council on Foreign Relations President] Richard [Haass] remembered in the old days, I am very blunt with every Israeli leader, whether I agreed or disagreed with them. But, let me tell you something, folks, just imagine what would happen in the United States of America, with 300 million, if we left here, and on CNN as we walked through those doors we found out that simultaneously 20 suicide bombers walked into 20 McDonalds in 20 different cities in the United States of America and blew themselves up. Imagine. We're 300 million people. Imagine. Imagine. No one can imagine better than New Yorkers. Imagine.

That doesn't mean we have to roll over with some of the stupidity that occasionally comes from Israel. All democracies produce some pretty spectacularly stupid ideas once in a while. And why we, in fact, can sit here and not understand how the Israelis are split down the middle with one another, and anybody here who takes issue with the present leadership of Israel somehow is not pro-Israel. I don't quite get that. I understand the politics of it, in terms of this logic. This is tough stuff. You all know it's tough stuff. Everybody knows the basic elements of an agreement. I think the fundamental difference between a Bush and a Kerry administration is Kerry would try to move this back to the table, figuratively speaking, rather than just let the events take their course.

KRISTOF: I'm afraid it's the magic hour, 2:00. If I allow another question we'll turn into pumpkins.

Thank you all very much for coming, and thank you, Senator Biden. [Applause.]






Top Stories on CFR


A year into the civil war in Sudan, more than eight million people have been displaced, exacerbating an already devastating humanitarian crisis.


The unprecedented Iranian attack on Israel presents U.S. officials with mounting challenges in trying to contain the conflict and maintain a deterrence against Iran and its allies.


The highlights from Kishida Fumio's busy week in Washington.