A Conversation With Tim Kaine

Monday, December 14, 2015
Don Pollard
Tim Kaine

U.S. Senator (D-VA); Former Governor, Virginia (2006-2010)

Juju Chang

Coanchor, Nightline, ABC News

Tim Kaine discusses U.S. leadership and involvement in the Middle East, provides his view on the need for Congress to authorize military action against the Islamic State, and addresses U.S. policy options in the region.

CHANG: Welcome to the meeting today with Tim Kaine. We’re thrilled to be here. You have his bio in front of you, so I’ll give you a brief description.

One of the factoids that I thought most interesting was the fact that he is one of only 20 people in the history of the republic who has been mayor, governor, and senator. So we’re very pleased to have that distinction, which we all kind of gamed out in the parlor room. I thought that was fascinating.

He’s also one of the few people who has the overlap of being on the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee, so it’s obviously something that he’ll bring to bear today.

Another footnote is that he spent time as chair of DNC, another distinction that makes his CV very interesting. He’s had time—

KAINE: I can’t keep a job. I mean, that’s the bottom line. A lot of title changes. (Laughter.)

CHANG: Right, exactly. Just a big revolving door.

He spent time in Honduras as a missionary. I also found that interesting and distinctive.

We’ll open up questions to you in the audience, obviously, and feel free to ask what interests you. But obviously we’re going to start in the Middle East, which is what today’s talk was billed as. Later you can ask him, too, about the Iran nuclear agreement. He was one of the co-authors on that as well. So there’s a lot to discuss, a lot on the table today.

But clearly, I think, post-Paris attacks, post-San Bernardino, there is a renewed interest, renewed focus on U.S. policy with regard to stopping ISIS. Clearly, the signature policy is coalition airstrikes. And yet, there was a recent Washington Post headline that quoted you as being “madder than ever” that Congress has not declared war on ISIS.

KAINE: Right.

CHANG: Why is that such an important policy point for you?

KAINE: Forgive me for being a Virginian; I really care about Madison, Jefferson, and the Constitution.

CHANG: (Laughs.)

KAINE: I don’t think we should be at war without a vote of Congress. And just to dive into it—why is it important constitutionally, but what’s the value that underlies it—Madison wrote the Constitution and tried to change the history of humanity because war was for the monarch, the king, the executive, the emperor, or the sultan. That was who war was for before 1787. And Madison wrote this letter to Jefferson a few years after the Constitution was affirmed, basically saying our Constitution supposes what the history of all governments demonstrates, that it is the executive most interested in war and thus most prone to it. For this reason, we have with studied care vested the question of war in the legislature. The idea was to change history and put the question of war in the legislature—Congress declares, the president executes as commander in chief.

It’s really a good strategy. So not is it just constitutional, but the reason it was done is so that we wouldn’t force people to risk their lives unless there was a consensus that the mission was worth it.

So we got 3,600 people who have been war against ISIL since August of 2014. The president started a bombing campaign, came to Congress within a month and said I would welcome your involvement, but hasn’t really pushed the involvement.

CHANG: There was a renewed push, though, in his Oval Office address.


CHANG: How seriously, if at all, do you think Congress is listening to that?

KAINE: Well, I don’t—I, frankly, don’t think either my advocacy for 16 months or the president’s words are having much effect with Congress. But I’ll tell you what is—and, Juju, you started it off. When ISIL’s running wild in Iraq and Syria, Congress didn’t want to have the discussion. When ISIL killed four American hostages, they didn’t want to have the discussion. Ten American service members, didn’t want to have the discussion. Attack and bombing in Paris, that starts to change the equation because it looks like 9/11. We had an American student abroad who was killed. The shooting in San Bernardino hasn’t been tied to ISIL, but the radicalization effect clearly is there. So I think what you see in Congress now is, man, maybe we better get off the sidelines and do that.

So the president called upon Congress to do it, and he used an interesting phrase that had an edge to it: “If Congress thinks like I do, that ISIL is an enemy, then Congress should authorize.” I mean, is Congress indifferent, Congress don’t know what—who to call an enemy? So I actually think we’re being—we will—Congress will do an authorization, but it’s because like that story of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” it just keeps getting closer and closer to us, so that we can’t stay on the sidelines anymore.

CHANG: Give us a sense of—your sense of how effective the airstrikes have been, how effective the campaign is now. And there’s obviously a growing discussion, if not debate, over the use of ground forces eventually to make the strategic, you know, importance.

KAINE: Yeah, big picture the strategy still needs a lot of work because it’s three issues that interlink. It’s the civil war in Syria, it’s the war against ISIL, and it’s the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. And you’ve got to have some—a couple of strategies with respect to each, and they all connect.

The airstrikes, they have worked very well in a couple of places. I’ve been in Irbil, Kurdistan and watched the joint operations between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the U.S. forces and the forces of other nations. They’re working quite well there. They’ve worked well in northern Syria, also in the Kurdish area. So where you have an area where there is a regional, local ground force that has some capacity and we’re helping them, and we’re doing airstrikes and we coordinate well, we’re seeing some big success. But outside of those areas, it’s been more difficult—especially in the Sunni areas near—in the Anbar Province in Iraq and Sunni areas in Syria, because it’s harder to find that ground force that we can partner with.

Nevertheless, I still think that the strategy—the military strategy; the other two elements we got to do more on—we’re basically using the right levers, because you’ve had General Petraeus come out and say significant use of U.S. ground troops would be a mistake. And General Allen, who was President Obama’s envoy on the anti-ISIL campaign, said the same thing. And King Abdullah of Jordan has said that over and over again. This can’t be the U.S. against ISIL. It can’t be the West against Islam. The ground forces need to be forces from the region. And if we are willing to go all in, then we need the U.S.’s help. So I think air, Special Forces, spotters, training, and equip is generally the right thing for us to do. We can do more of it, but we—if we turn it into U.S. on the ground, that fundamentally—and I think you and I were talking about The New York Times had a great piece about this about a week ago—it’s really what ISIL wants. And before you do what your adversary really wants you to do, you really got to analyze about whether it’s the right thing to do.

CHANG: It plays into the prophecy that—

KAINE: Absolutely.

CHANG: —Western crusaders would come in. And yet, you’ve talked about the refugee crisis. It’s an ongoing refugee crisis that we’ve seen, the flight from Syria. You had talked at once about creating safe zones.

KAINE: Yeah, humanitarian zones.

CHANG: Humanitarian safe zones. And would that require troops on the ground, or would that be a sort of regional coalition?

KAINE: You would—you would definitely have to enforce it with military assets.

And I’ll say on the humanitarian zone, I was not the first. It took me a while to realize that this would be the right strategy. McCain was early saying we should do this, and I didn’t agree, necessarily. But in—I went over to Lebanon and Turkey and Jordan, and have talked to Syrian refugees. And in February of 2014, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution—2139—that called for cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees without asking Bashar al-Assad for permission. Russia didn’t veto it. It was during the Sochi Olympics, so they couldn’t veto it and be an apologist for humanitarian atrocities right when the world was watching. We should have started to enforce that as soon as it was passed. And instead, the world hasn’t enforced it.

And it would take military assets. We would have to let Bashar al-Assad know, and anybody know, look, we’re going to deliver humanitarian aid in accordance with this U.N. Security Council resolution. Don’t mess around with us or you’ll regret it. But I actually think if we had done that, they wouldn’t have messed around with us.

And I also think if we’d done it—that was about 2 ½ million refugees ago, you know? By that point, a million and a half or so had left Syria. Now it’s 4 million. But I still think we ought to do it because there’s another 8 million in Syria who are displaced who could leave. And so I think that that would have been a smarter strategy, although not risk-free, than what we did.

CHANG: When you talk about Assad, though, do you—what do you see in terms of regime change? What, you know, pressure points can the U.S. bring to bear to bring about sort of the political process post-Assad in Syria? How does that play out?

KAINE: I think—I think the—folks have some thoughts and critiques of the president with respect to red lines in Syria, and most say the red line that he shouldn’t have allowed to be crossed is the chemical weapons. I actually think there was a different red line, because we helped Syria destroy their chemical weapons, which is good for the entire region. But I think when President Obama said Assad must go, I think he heard himself say that and then he said, you know, President Bush said, you know, that Saddam Hussein must go, and then I said Muammar Gadhafi must go, and I said Hosni Mubarak must go, and when we say those things it often doesn’t work out the way we thought. So I think the president announced that, raised expectations, and then decided maybe that shouldn’t be official U.S. policy.

So where is it right now? Thank goodness, the parties are back at the table in Vienna. And actually you have something pretty rare, which is you’ve got Saudi Arabia and Iran—which is so rare—as well as Russia and the other nations around the table, trying to figure it out. There isn’t a long-term future for Assad because the Syrian people won’t put up with it, but there could be a short-term transitional phase. I think what nations like Russia—Russia could care less about Assad, could care less about the person. They’re embarrassed by him, increasingly. But they want to make sure that the Alawite minority, the 17 percent or so that’s been the ruling class, but that have run things like the sewage treatment systems and trash pickup and civilian government, are not all chased out of the country or involved in some ethnic reprisal because of the fact that they backed Assad. So I think we need to be around the table, negotiating for a transition. And that transition needs to include the Alawites as part of a—you know, a multiethnic ruling strategy going forward. And Assad’s status, I’m quite confident, is going to be a negotiation for him to leave.

CHANG: Let’s move the lens to here at home. Clearly, the homeland security issues that came up post-Paris and post-San Bernardino are percolating, and there are legislative impacts. So one of the ones that I found interesting was the idea of cyberterror, the idea that there were encrypted communications between these suspected terrorists that were undetected, which allowed them to sort of launch this attack without any chatter to be picked up.

Tell me, what is the state of the art in terms of cybersecurity? The same goes for San Bernardino because those attackers are in communication with known suspected terrorists, and we—our intelligence community did not pick that up.

KAINE: Right. This is a really hard policy balance to strike, the balance between protecting privacy and national security interests on cyber. And so here’s a challenge that we’re going to have to grapple with as Congress, which is, you know, what kind of requirements to put on our own providers, for example with respect to encryption. You know, the one position—and this would be sort of the Director Comey position---not to put words in his mouth, but simplify it—that there oughtn’t to be encryption technologies that don’t have some path in that can be accessed, for example, with a warrant. So that would be one strategy.

The reverse is, if you allow a path in, it’s not just a path for somebody with a warrant, it’s a path for anybody who’s a super-smart hacker. And so then you, you know, really compromise communications that should be secret. The other challenge is, if we as Congress were just to pass a requirement of you got to have a path in, a lot of communication would migrate to non-U.S. providers that would have complete encryption.

So here’s a—here’s a little, you know, thought. Most encryption right now that’s end-to-end encryption, even if you can’t decipher the content, the metadata of who is the sender and who is the receiver is still accessible. We don’t want to chase all that to other providers where even the end users are not accessible. So we’re going to have to kind of really grapple with, if we go down a path of, you know, we want more ability to get into encryption, and then we chase communications, you know, to users where the end users, the sender and recipient, are not accessible, we might have hurt ourselves. And this is something that we’re really starting to grapple with.

We did a cyber bill, but the cyber bill that we did was only about voluntary information sharing. It didn’t get into this issue about the encryption. And I think that’s a big issue that we have to tackle, and I suspect we’ll be doing something on that early in 2016.

CHANG: Interesting.

KAINE: Whether we’ll get to the—you know, get to the answer that we’ll get everybody on board is TBD.

CHANG: The other big, obviously, homeland security issue is the idea of terrorists embedding with refugees—the idea that we need to shut our borders in order to stay safe. Obviously, Donald Trump has been quite vocal about his feelings about Muslims coming to the United States. The House voted recently on something called Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, the SAFE Act, which you were vocal against. Where do we stand? How do we strike this balance? And can we get you to comment on Donald Trump’s policies?

KAINE: Sure. So—(laughter)—let me—let me talk about the SAFE Act. It infuriates me. I’m not going to be able to convey the degree to which it infuriates me.

Why does it infuriate me? So the—

CHANG: That’s my question: Why does it infuriate you? (Laughter.)

KAINE: Yeah. So that is the act that basically puts up roadblocks, and almost a complete blockade, of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. “Security Against Foreign Enemies”—refugees are foreign enemies? That bill was drafted, debated, and voted on in two days—we’ll call refugees “foreign enemies.” For 17 months we haven’t been willing to call ISIL an enemy. Congress has been on the sidelines about ISIL. We won’t have an authorization debate. We won’t call them out. We’re comfortable just criticizing the president. But we’ll call refugees enemies in two days? It just made me nuts.

You’ve seen the pictures, the grim pictures of the challenges that these people are living under. And that doesn’t mean you can’t be concerned about could somebody, you know, come in and hide. But to call these poor people—this is the worst crisis since World War II—enemies when we won’t call ISIL an enemy, you got to be kidding me.

So we got to take the security concern seriously. And I am proud of my colleagues, because after the House passed that bill, right before Thanksgiving, I think people stepped back and said, well, let’s look at the vetting process for the refugee(s). Four million register with the U.N. The U.N. knows which countries will take who under what circumstances. So they do their own vet for about a year, and then they have recommended 20,000 to the U.S. And then the U.S. vets for 18 months, and 2,000 have come in. That vetting process—not foolproof; we’re human beings—but the vetting process is quite tight. And if there isn’t information to answer the questions about somebody, they don’t get in. But I do think, as we looked at it, we realized the Visa Waiver Program.

CHANG: That was my next question, because you—

KAINE: Then maybe even tourist visas and fiancée visas. There may be other—the fiancée visa raised, obviously, by the San Bernardino shooting—there may be other areas where we need to get tighter. And I think the—I think there’s kind of an emerging consensus.

CHANG: Give us a sense of what you’re talking about in terms of the Visa Waiver Program, because you are reexamining that.

KAINE: Yes, absolutely. So 38 nations have this Visa Waiver Program with the United States, where you don’t need to get a visa every time you come visit. Twenty million people come into the U.S. on a visa waiver every year.

CHANG: And it’s also if you’re transiting through a country with whom we are allowing a visa.

KAINE: You know what, let’s see. So I’m—

CHANG: Am I making that up?

KAINE: I’m not sure. No, I actually think—I don’t think you automatically get a visa waiver just when you come through. I think you have to be a national of one of the countries who have the Visa Waiver Program.

But the Paris attackers were largely citizens of nations with whom we have Visa Waiver. And so the idea is, what can you do—you don’t want to—in that 20 million, that’s critical to commerce, it’s critical to tourism. You don’t want to clamp that down too much. But what can you do that would reasonably reduce the chance of somebody coming in under that program to do us harm?

And so the bill that’s—that the House is working on, that we will take up this week in connection with the omnibus and the tax-extender debate that we’re having, is a bill that would basically say, if you have transited into Syria and Iraq and Iran—Syria/Iraq/Iran in the last five years—you don’t get a visa waiver. You could still get a visa. So remember, not getting a visa waiver does not mean you can’t come in, it just means you’ve got to get a visa to come in, and that normal kind of consular process of investigating you and making a determination about a visa would be substituted for the complete waiver. And I think we will get to some version of that here in the next week.

CHANG: We are in an incredibly heated presidential primary, and there’s a debate tomorrow night. What was your reaction when you heard Donald Trump say what he said about Muslims coming into this country?

KAINE: It drove—it drove me nuts. (Chuckles, laughter.) I mean, I—look, people have fear. But Thomas Jefferson in 1780 was the governor of Virginia, and he helped craft the Statute of Religious Freedom, which was the statute that became the basis for the First Amendment to the Constitution. And it’s first for a reason. It’s first for a reason. And the Jeffersonian phraseology about freedom of religion was basically that nobody should be preferred or punished because of how they worship or not worship.

And Gary Wills, the historian, basically says this is the one novel idea in the American Constitution; that generally the Constitution is a superb example of picking good ideas and then putting them together, but this notion of official no preference—punishment, preference for how you worship or choose not to worship—it’s been such a bedrock principle for us. And then there are other clauses of the Constitution, too: no religious test for office. So when somebody suggests, A, you know, that Muslim—we’re going to pause on letting Muslims come in, it is contrary to the very bedrock principle that has made us so great, first. And secondly, you know, there is a desire on behalf of violent jihadists to paint the U.S. as this anti-Muslim, anti-Islamic, you know, kind of successor to the Roman Empire. That’s what they want to paint us as.

As I’m driving over here today, I have—we have an Uber drive, and he was Senegalese. And he heard me talking about policy in the back seat. He goes, the great thing about this country is how you pull together. I’ve lived here for 15 years and, you know, we’re imperfect like everybody else, but we pull together across lines that can be so poisonous in other parts of the world. Let’s not lose our ability.

And so it’s strategically bad and it’s against our principles.

CHANG: I mean, what’s interesting is we are so consumed by terror and ISIL right now. On the Foreign Relations Committee, do you ever worry that it squeezes out other priorities? And if so, what priorities might we be ignoring?

KAINE: Yeah. No, I do worry. There is a tendency, always, to focus on problems. Edison said discontent is the first sign of progress, so you should focus on problems and challenges. But sometimes things are going well, and the best thing you can do is help them go better, right?

So I’ll give you an example. The Americas. So we don’t spend virtually any time on the Foreign Relations Committee talking about the Americas. If the cease-fire starts in Colombia with the FARC, we will be two continents without war for the first time in recorded human history—37 nations, a billion people. Are there problems in the Americas? Sure there are. But the last war in the Americas is the five-decade-long civil war in Colombia.

And Colombia was a basket case that, through three presidential administrations, our partnership helped them get stronger. Now Colombia wants to offer peacekeeping troops to the U.N., and they’re in the Sinai as part of the multinational force of observers. They’ve gone from basket case to peace promoter and peace exporter.

And so, if you look at the Americas—a billion people—and you think about what it means to be without war—the frozen relationship between the U.S. and Cuba on toward a rapprochement that is opening up all these opportunities in the Americas—we’re not spending time harvesting a lot of upside in the Americas because we do spend time focused on the challenge zones, obviously: Russia and the Middle East. And not that we shouldn’t focus on the challenge zones, but sometimes we let go areas where I think there’s a lot to be gained.

CHANG: Let’s turn your focus to the Iran nuclear deal you co-authored. Give us a status update—a sense of, you know, checks and balances.

KAINE: Look, it’s really questionable as to whether this deal is going to work, but it is imperative that we try it.

So I was the co-author, with Bob Corker, of the Iran Nuclear Review Act. So the president—yeah—the president believed he could do this deal without Congress. And I’m really close to the president and I often agree with him, but I said on this one you can’t do this deal without Congress because, first, politically, I didn’t think it was wise; but second, the guts of the deal was a negotiation about a congressional statute, the sanctions, and so Congress needed to weigh in.

So Senator Corker and I together wrote a bill that set up what would be an appropriate role for Congress. The president has Article II prerogatives to conduct diplomacy, definitely, and Congress shouldn’t screw around with the president’s Article II prerogatives. But Congress needs to have a voice if we’re talking about a congressional statute, so we wrote the review process. The deal got on the table, I looked at the deal, and then I encouraged my colleagues to support it.

And I’ll jump to the bottom line about why. Senator McCain and I—he’s my chair on Armed Services, and we differed on this. And we had a debate recently, and he went on and said all the horrible things about the deal and why it was so bad. And I just said, OK, now here’s my counter: John McCain prays that I’m right, and I’m afraid that he’s right. So John McCain prays that I’m right. We both want a non-nuclear Iran, diplomatically achieved if possible. Of course we both want that. And McCain said, no, of course I hope Tim’s right. And I said, and I’m afraid that John McCain is right, and John McCain’s argument is basically you can’t trust Iran. But he’s right—and you can assign that an 80 percent or you can assign it a 20 percent—if he’s right, then the day’s going to come when we’re going to have to make a decision about whether to use military action against Iran.

I got a kid in the military. We already made the military got to war once over a nuclear program that didn’t exist, in Iraq. If we’re going to have to go to war against Iran, I got to be able to look the American public in the face and our troops in the face and our allies in the face and say, we tried diplomacy first. I can’t look them in the face and say, well, we walked away from a diplomatic table 10 years ago, I think that was a big mistake, but now we got to go to war? No. We have to say we tried diplomacy first. You’ve got to keep the focus on Iranian behavior, not American negotiating tactics and walking away from the table.

So we do need to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. But I just happen to think a deal where in the first paragraph on the first page they say we reaffirm that we will never seek to purchase, acquire, or develop nuclear weapons, that gives us a predicate to take military action if we need to. It gives us a legal justification to wage war if we need to. And frankly, 130 full-time inspectors of the IAEA in Iran gives us a lot of intel that we don’t have right now if we ever need to take that step. I pray we won’t. I don’t think we’ll have to. But if we—if we had to take that step having walked away from a diplomatic table, I think it would have been disastrous.

CHANG: Do you see signs of progress with the loosening of sanctions?

KAINE: Well, look, I think—I think I see some, but I also see some backsliding. What I—what we have to do as we look at other nations is we have to realize they are no more monolithic than us. We’re used to our political debate and polarities and divisions, and other nations have the same thing. And in Iran right now there is a huge battle between the reformers, who like this deal, and the people who hated it. Some of the negotiators for this deal in Iran were called out on the floor of their legislative body, threatened with death publicly on the floor of the legislative body—how dare you do this. And some of Iranian behavior since the deal was done, missile testing, is the hardliners trying to—it’s less a message to us than it’s a message from the hardliners to the reformers: hey, you think you’re going to reform and get closer to the West? You still have to deal with the hardliners.

There are Iranian elections in early 2016. And I think those elections will really be important to look and see what I hope to be the case, that the hand of the reformers has been strengthened in this battle.

But I think we have to take a very tough view on enforcement. Some of Iran’s—Iran is following the JCPOA, but they are taking steps with respect to missile testing that, in my view, clearly violate other U.N. sanctions. So we got to keep the pressure on them in a major way in all these other areas because I think that sends a signal to the reformers that the bellicose behavior of the hardliners are jeopardizing their desire to have a stronger economy. So we got to stay really tough on going after them for violating any other international rules, and if they violate the JCOPA we got to be tough about that, too.

CHANG: There are a number of headlines that tout you as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton.

KAINE: A lot of speculation out there.

CHANG: A lot of speculation. You know, when your colleague, Senator Booker, you know, wants to sing your praises, you know that you’re in good standing. Give me a sense of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. Give us a sense of what—you know, what you would praise and what you might consider shortfalls.

KAINE: Sure. First, I was speculated about—being speculated about is—you know, that’s nothing to be too great about. And Cory was just trying to deflect attention from himself. I was speculated about eight years ago, and it never seemed likely I would be anything other than governor of Virginia. And I feel the same way; I’m—John Warner is my model, who served Virginia for 30 years doing Armed Services work. And I really want to do the same thing.

With respect to Secretary Clinton, I think, you know, a few things that, I think, clearly emerged from her track record that are really important. One is a very important focus on using the empowerment of women not only as a strategy, but as a bit of critical evidence to determine whether democratization projects are working or not.

CHANG: It’s like the McDonald’s test on the economy. If there’s a McDonald’s in it—right.

KAINE: It really is a test.

And you saw it—like, for example, the Grameen Bank that, you know, got all the—the Nobel and everything for their microfinancing, what they learned is make loans overwhelmingly to women and they’re going to be more successful. And it was partly about women’s empowerment, but partly it was just this is the way to really do the kind of work that we want to do. So I think the women’s empowerment focus is huge.

I thought the secretary’s speech here a month or so ago was very strong. And I was happy that she was willing to come out and say, look, on this humanitarian safe zone issue, you know, we missed the boat. I worry that the Syrian thing is going to be like the—I mean, we intervened in the Balkans in the ’90s and we didn’t intervene in Rwanda, and the answer for why is not a pretty answer. I don’t think there is a good answer. I think there’s an answer that is a very discouraging and dispiriting answer, and I’m worried that the non-intervention—to really try to stop this humanitarian concern in Syria by the U.S. and other nations is going to be looked back on as very negative. And I very much have appreciated that the secretary has been willing to say, to intervene for humanitarian purposes, to help enforce a U.N. Security Council resolution, we definitely should do that.

So, look, I think she’s going to have a muscular willingness to use all the tools at her disposal. And you definitely want somebody who knows there’s more than one tool. So it’s not just the military tool. You got to have the diplomatic tool and the strength of the moral example and trade and the economy. Those are all part of the tools. And I think she understands, you know, that there’s a lot of tools in the toolbox, and you got to be creative but be willing to be assertive in using them all.

CHANG: And if you got the nod, would you say yes?

KAINE: It is not even—just not even helpful to think about. It really isn’t. (Laughter.) I mean, and again, my gut tells me just what it did in ’08, which was it’s nice to be mentioned, my mom likes it—(laughter)—but I got to—I mean, just to say this: I’m a Catholic, and I have that kind of Catholic feeling of calling. I meet people who like or don’t like President Obama, but they don’t say the Article II branch of the presidency’s broken. I meet people who like or don’t like the Roberts Court. They don’t say the Article III branch of the judiciary is broken. Democrats, Republicans and independents, they think the Article I branch of Congress is broken. So in terms of going to where the need is, there is a lot of work right now to try to restore here at home, but around the world that the Article I branch is capable of being a value add rather than a drag on everything.

CHANG: I love that your mother’s happy. (Laughter.)

Let’s go to questions in the audience. I see a tall hand back there. Yes? And please state your name and your affiliation.

Q: Herbert Levin. I’m a Council member.

KAINE: Hey, Herb.

Q: Since you’re not up for reelection for three years, do you really think that we need 11 battle carrier groups, considering the kind of problems we face?

KAINE: What a great question.

CHANG: What a great question.

KAINE: So obviously, every carrier is built at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. (Laughter.) I mean, so this is the—this is the unstated premise of the question. (Laughter.) And maintained there and refueled there.

Here the military believes we need 11. And I’m not—I’m not challenging them. I didn’t serve in the military. I got a boy in the military, but I didn’t serve. So I’m not challenging them on that.

Here’s what I will say generally, though, about carriers and about the Navy. So if you’re thinking about how to position force in the 21st-century world—this is my phrase; I haven’t heard anybody from the military look at it this way—but I look at fixed force and flexible force. Carriers are flexible force. I like flexible force that can be in the Atlantic theater or could be in the Pacific theater, could be in the Indian Ocean. And so the reason that the Navy is particularly helpful is because it’s flexible force. The number of land bases we have around the world, that’s fixed force. And I think the days of fixed force is like, you know, why does Megabus do better than Greyhound? Well, because Greyhound has fixed force—they got to have bus stations everywhere, and Megabus doesn’t.

So I think—I think you want flexible force, not fixed force. And I think carriers and subs—the naval assets are flexible force, and I think that’s what you need going forward.

CHANG: Yes, right up front.

KAINE: Hey, Alan.

Q: Thank you, Senator. Alan Blinken, Washington Center.

KAINE: Good friend.

Q: There was a Republican candidate here last week, and I asked him the question I’m going to ask you. In the last 10 years there have been approximately 300 American deaths through terrorism. In the same period, there have been over 300,000 Americans deaths through gun violence. Would you—what would you do about the following three things? One, a ban on someone on the no-fly list owning a gun. Two, the loophole—

KAINE: Support that.

Q: —the loophole—the gun-show loophole. And three—

KAINE: Close that. (Laughter.)

Q: And three, an assault weapons ban.

KAINE: Yeah, so definitely support—there’s nine categories of people who federal law prohibits from owning a weapon, and I’d add a tenth for the no-fly list with a process, if you get tripped up and you shouldn’t be on the no-fly list, there’s got to be due process to get off it if you’re not on. So that one’s easy.

Closing the gun-show loophole, just universal background record checks is so smart. Ninety percent of Americans support it. Overwhelming majority of NRA members and gun owners support it. The only reason the NRA doesn’t support it—and they used to—is the NRA now is basically a front for the manufacturers of guns, rather than the owners of guns.

And then the third one, the assault weapons ban, this is the only one that’s a little bit tricky, and I’ll tell you why. I really like the ban on high-capacity magazines, you know, because that is really definable and you can control it. Assault weapons—the weapons that were used by the shooters in California, there is an assault weapons ban, a state ban, in California. But what happens is you define what an assault weapon is and then the manufacturers add a tweak, and then suddenly, oh, this doesn’t fit within the definition anymore. And that’s what they did to these AR-15 weapons, that are assault weapons under any of our definition. They took one of the toughest state laws in the country and manufacturers adjusted it, and then those weapons were lawfully sold.

So I have actually voted for an assault weapons ban. I voted for it in June of 2013 and I would—I would vote for a well-drafted one that came up. But the problem is it’s just too easy to end-run it. I think the high-capacity magazine is a—is a better way to go after the carnage that gets committed with these massive ammo clips.

CHANG: Right in the middle. Yes.

Q: Yes. Jim Zirin.


Q: Following up on the last question, after 9/11 we kind of cracked down on flight schools so that someone appearing at a flight school that said I want to learn how to fly a plane but I don’t care how to take off or how to land—(laughter)—would be—it would be reported to somebody.

KAINE: Yeah, mmm hmm.

Q: Do you favor an increased scrutiny of gun ranges, so that if a husband and wife are visiting five different ranges within a radius of their home it would excite some suspicion and some report to investigative authorities, particularly if they’re using different weapons?

KAINE: That’s—you know, I hadn’t thought about that, but that’s actually worthy of some thought. And let me put it in a—in a kind of an intellectual construct that’s—that I think is kind of interesting.

We put burdens on the sellers of products in this country. Use alcohol and tobacco as an example. So you, you know, going to buy cigarettes, you’re going to buy beer, they’re going to card you to try to make sure your bona fides check out. That is—and federally licensed gun dealers must do that, but others don’t have to do that. Why don’t we just have a universal requirement, you know, that if you transfer a weapon into the hands of somebody who’s on one of those nine prohibited categories, whether or not you did the background records check, you know, you run risk of liability yourself, civil liability or some penalty? We do that with respect to alcohol and tobacco. Why wouldn’t we do that with respect to firearms, to require somebody to at least take reasonable steps to determine that somebody isn’t on one of the prohibited lists?

So I think that—I think—and look, the Second Amendment is as important as the First Amendment. But the First Amendment—freedom of the press allows—you know, you can’t libel and slander somebody without a consequence, so the Second Amendment has to—is consistent with reasonable regulation. And I think things that put more of a burden on those who have knowledge or who are making transfers is consistent with the way we do other things and consistent with general constitutional law.

So I hadn’t thought about that one till you asked, but worth exploration.

Q: Thank you. Jeff Laurenti.

KAINE: Hey, Jeff.

Q: Governor, first, I think all of us here have been impressed by the very thoughtful and intelligent presentation you’ve laid out for us. I wanted to ask you about what was the first battlefront in the so-called war on terrorism, and that’s Afghanistan. For the past year, we have tried to see the Afghan government take care of itself and it’s been under a lot of pressure. I guess the bright lining on the cloud is that it didn’t collapse right away, but it’s under heavy pressure, and the Americans and some of our allies have quietly tried to step up to fill in a little bit of the gap. To what extent do you see support in the Congress for an open-ended commitment to maintaining a non-jihadi style government in Afghanistan? And is Afghanistan, in a sense, almost the kind of precedent for all of those countries in the Muslim world that have had a strong jihadist movement, that you’re going to have an open-ended, long-term Western support for maintaining a non-Islamic extreme, we might think, government?

KAINE: Very, very tough question. I think the—I don’t know that if you asked members of Congress how do you feel about open-ended, I don’t think “open-ended” is a word that folks like. But I do think there is a strong bipartisan consensus in Congress right now—and the president heard that, and then he’s adjusted—that a path in Afghanistan that is dependent on the day of the calendar rather than conditions is not the right thing to do. We ought to be conditions-based. We ought to be conditions-based in everything we do. We shouldn’t just embrace budget caps that were passed in August of 2011 and not pay attention to current realities. And similarly, an announcement that we are going to be basically down to a consular protection unit at the end of 2016, well, if the—if the circumstances don’t allow that, then, you know, we should go further. And the president has basically signaled that that is his intent.

You know, I think the—a year into the Abdullah-Ghani government it hasn’t fallen apart. There have (sic) been some progress. I was—it’s been about 10 months since I was there, so I’d want to go back and kick the tires more. But I do think that there continues to be some progress of them being able to operate this government.

I am convinced that, contrary to Iraq, that really wanted to kick us out in 2011 and they regret it now—the guy who was the foreign minister has often said we wanted you to leave, and you did, and now we regret it and wish we’d done otherwise—I think in Afghanistan there’s a strong desire that we stay and play the right role. So that’s going to be continuing to up-train and help equip the military, but also help them with economic initiatives, help them with regional relationships. The Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship has gotten better, really, post-Karzai, and that’s impressive.

So there are just, you know, signs of progress. And looking at a big picture, the life expectancy in Afghanistan was 44 years in 2001 and it’s 62 now. And you know, my kind of knucklehead math, I mean, 17 years times 30 million people is 510 million years of human life. And that’s been purchased by a lot of American investment and coalition investment that have enabled things like health centers to open and be able to serve people. That’s a huge step forward for that country. And as long as we can keep playing an appropriate role and keep moving it forward, I think we should.

CHANG: Let me have you turn a little bit to Iraq on that same topic, because obviously we were reading in the last few days about skirmishes with ISIL and Islamic State fighters in cities in Iraq. Is there a renewed passion for sort of re-upping, reenlisting our services there? Do you feel like it will extend larger/longer?

KAINE: Yeah, interesting question. In the Senate and the Congress, as we battle around what to do against ISIL, not that any of it’s easy, but the Iraq discussion tends to be easier than the Syrian discussion. We haven’t been thrilled at the performance of the Iraqi military, although there have been some strengths to it—the special forces in the military do well. To the extent that the Iraqi military has melted away in some battles, we’ve tended to attribute it more to leadership challenges rather than the will of the fighters. If you’ve got leaders—and this is what—you know, this was the Maliki style—you pick leaders based on their loyalty to you, not on their military competency, then if you’re serving under those leaders you’re not going to hang around when you have incompetent leaders. So trying to up-train the Iraqi military on the leadership side I think is generally shared by members of Congress.

The thing that’s a little bit challenging in Iraq, there are some differences of opinion about whether—we all believe strongly in the partnership with the Kurds. Should it be a direct partnership or should it continue to go through the central government? I think until we give up on the idea of a unified Iraq, we need to do that through the central government to try to make that closer. But we need to maintain that strong partnership with the Kurds.

CHANG: Are you in favor of arming the Kurds?

KAINE: I wouldn’t arm them directly. We are arming them right now through the central government. And I have investigated whether they’re getting what they’re supposed to get, and my conclusion is generally that they are.

CHANG: The Kurdish fighters are being praised considerably.


KAINE: Yeah. Please, ma’am. Oh, OK, here, and then—I’m sorry.

CHANG: Oh, yeah. Oh, you’ll be next. I signaled to him that he was—yes.


CHANG: There’s a microphone right there for you.

Q: My name is Herbert Schlosser. I’m retired, NBC.

My question is this. In all the discussion of ISIL and the dangers our country faces, we don’t really have on the front burner what may be one of the most important dangers not only to us, but to the world, and that is the presence of nuclear weapons in so many countries, the possibility of accident or theft. Now, the Sunnis and the Shiites are engaged in a civil war. There is a Sunni nation that has nuclear weapons and they’re increasing the number of weapons at a rapid pace. Does our government, so far as you know, have a policy or a plan to monitor what they’re doing and to act if there is any danger that some of the militant members of that society would seek to get them?

KAINE: Yeah, we’re talking about Pakistan.

CHANG: Great question.

KAINE: No, it’s—it is a great question. And I would say I have no idea what the president will say when he writes his memoirs in 15 years, but one of the things he might say that will surprise everybody is one of the most perilous moments in the history of the administration was early in his term when rebel activity in Pakistan was within dozens of miles of their nuclear arsenal. And then that was—that was fought off and there’s more space that’s been created. And the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, which was at its absolute bottom point when we undertook the action in May of 2011 to kill bin Laden, I mean, it was really at its bottom point. It actually has been getting stronger. I was in Pakistan about a year ago, but we’ve continued to have a lot of dialogue on the committee with both Prime Minister Sharif and then, no relation, General Sharif, the head of the Pakistani military. It is definitely getting better.

But the safety and security of that arsenal in Pakistan is a very much front-and-center issue for the administration. It’s one of those issues that doesn’t—you asked, are there issues we don’t talk about because we’re focused on the—you know, the tyranny of the urgent instead of the important, and that’s one of the ones we don’t talk about a lot on the policy side in Congress. But I know it’s been a matter of deep concern to the administration. And that’s one of the reasons why I think the arc of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in the last maybe year and a half or so has been better and better, and there’s a real commitment to keeping it up. But it’s still a very serious threat.

Q: Thank you both. Raghida Dergham. I’m the bureau chief of Al Hayat and founder of Beirut Institute.

KAINE: Excellent.

Q: And this week I suppose on the 18th it looks like there will be a meeting for the Vienna process principals. It seems to be here in New York. So what do you see on multiple levels—A, in the relationship between Russia and Turkey, which is deteriorating; is it going to impact that process? And two, when Iran is at the table, now Iran is sticking to Bashar al-Assad unlike, as you correctly said, Russia—could give up with—could give him up.

KAINE: Right. Yeah, that’s very true. That’s very true.

Q: So Iran is absolutely—you know, we bring Iran to the table and Iran says, no, Bashar stays, it’s a red line. So what do you think our policy should be in the States and in Washington? Should the president continue to walk back from Bashar must go, or should he be firm with Iran on that issue?

And the third point, if you would address it, kindly: How good is it for the United States, or for the region for that matter, to go on allowing militias that belong to Iran to fight in Iraq, in Syria? Is that not a dangerous investment in the potential of fighting Daesh effectively? Because you do need the Sunnis to fight them—to fight them there.

KAINE: Yeah, fantastic question. And just to underscore a point that I think is really important that I didn’t fully grasp until within the last few months, which is that the—we hear, you know, Russia and Iran are both propping up Bashar al-Assad. Not in the same way. Russia wants stability for the only country in the world where they have a military base outside of the former Soviet Union. They could care less about Assad the person. Iran does care about Assad the person. So Russia and Iran have different—they have different takes on the situation there.

So just to talk about the process, this is going to be a very difficult process, and it has proven so. But I do think it ultimately improves the chances of success, even if we don’t assign it a high percentage, to have all the parties around the table.

So when Russia put military weight into Syria in a significant way over the summer, I had colleagues in the Senate saying that’s a horrible idea. Now, I said to them, they’ve been militarily in Syria since the 1950s. It’s us that haven’t been militarily engaged with Syria. So the notion that there would be kind of a dictated outcome for what would happen in Syria that we’d be part of and Russia wouldn’t, completely naïve. You may hate that Russia’s involved, but it’s completely naïve to think there was going to be an outcome without Russia’s involvement.

So the fact that everybody’s at the table—Russia’s at the table, and Iran, and Saudi Arabia as well—you don’t get Iran and Saudi Arabia at the same table often. And since there was—an earlier question, you know, laid down the predicate of we’re dealing with Sunni-Shia challenges throughout the region, part of what has to happen is a strategy to take that tough relationship, whether it’s Sunni-Shia or Arab-Persian or Revolutionary Guard-monarchy, you’ve got to de-escalate the tension. And having folks at the table about this discussion is generally, I think, a positive.

The president feels strongly when—it’s one thing to say the U.S. says Assad must go. That’s the U.S. telling another nation who their leader should be. And I think the president has realized maybe regime change shouldn’t be the official stated policy of the United States because we’ve gotten it wrong so often. But the notion of Syria should have a leader that the Syrian people embrace, not somebody that’s, you know, barrel-bombing his own people—and so we have to have a process that can produce an outcome that the Syrian people will accept. And if we trust that, we know Assad’s going to be gone because aside from a minority that is—you know, feels like he is their protector, the Syrian people don’t want Assad as their leader. And you know, I’ve been spending time—I’m no—I’m no expert, but I have spent time with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, in Jordan and Turkey—in Turkey repeatedly, and they don’t see—there’s not a future for Syria with Assad at the helm.

So, again, it’s not the U.S. saying Assad must go, but it’s the U.S. saying with other nations we have to have a plan that works for all Syrians, and we got to have everybody around the table to make it happen. And that is clearly going to be a plan where Assad is not in the leadership.

Now your other point.

Q: (Off mic.)

KAINE: Yeah, with respect to Iran. It is a challenge to have, you know, the—you know, it’s so odd to be at odds in so many ways, but then we may have a little overlap in some ways in the battle against ISIL. But more and more Iranian-funded militias in Iraq and in Syria and elsewhere, a huge challenge, just like the Iranian activity in Yemen, the Iranian attempts to destabilize the government in Bahrain. The Moroccan—the Moroccan government kicked Iran out, you know, 10 years ago. That’s thousands of miles away from Iran, but they were trying to destabilize activity in Morocco.

So I think we’ve got to take the non-nuclear side of the Iranian issue as seriously as we’ve taken the nuclear side. We’ve taken that nuclear issue and put it at least—not in suspended animation, but put it in a different place for probably 15 years. But then we can take some of the energy off that and really go after the non-nuclear bellicosity of the Iranian regime in the region.

And what’s the right mixture of the strategies to use, of sanctions and coalition-building? You know, we’re going to have to work that through. But the existence of the JCPOA does not mean that we back off at all on the non-nuclear issues with Iran. If anything, we might be able to double more into it.

But as we do it, the one thing that we have to be very careful about: ultimately, Iran, like any nation—like the United States, like any nation—you know, the best change is going to come from within. So we want to do things with some thoughts about this battle between the hardliners and the more reform element, and we want to do things that will not—that will not weaken the hand of the reformers. So we have to think strategically about our own actions.

I mean, just to, you know, extend the—you know, extend the point, we always face this with sanctions. So Russia goes into the Crimea. OK, so we’ve got sanctions. Or we don’t like what’s going on in Venezuela. We have the ability to do sanctions. But if you do sanctions and it gives a dictator that is lording it over everybody and screwing everything up the ability to say, see, it’s the United States’ fault, you can sometimes weaken an internal political opposition that would say, hey, no, Putin, it’s not the U.S.’ fault; you’ve mismanaged the economy, and it’s your fault. If you give a dictator the ability and the excuse to blame everything on the U.S. or somebody else, sometimes you can weaken an internal political opposition.

I was very gratified at the elections in Venezuela last week. But you—but we used sanctions against Venezuelans, but in a—in a not a(n) overly strong way. We had big ability, but we used them delicately. And then there was an internal political homegrown, you know, response. And that’s what we would hope to see in Iran and other countries as well.

CHANG: Right there.

Q: Hi. Gary Sick, Columbia University. I share Jeffrey’s views very much that—thank you very much for your very candid talk.

I’d like to take you to a slightly different location, and that’s Yemen, where the Saudi intervention and that coalition and the bombing that they’ve been doing, the one thing they did was take the Houthis’ eyes off ISIS and al-Qaida, and both of them are doing extremely well there now. And—

KAINE: Yeah. Sometimes against each other, but they’re both doing well, yeah.

Q: But they’re both—they’re both thriving, actually. And that raises a very broad question, because we are in fact supporting Saudi Arabia in its intervention by providing logistics and the like, as to where we go with our policy toward Saudi Arabia these days. Because it seems to me there’s—it raises almost as many problems.

KAINE: It does.

Q: Why it’s not—why aren’t the Saudis up there fighting with us on ISIS? Why are they down doing something in Yemen that, in fact, strengthens ISIS and al-Qaida very much? I just would appreciate any comments from where you sit.

KAINE: I think—I think the Saudi—the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been an important one, but I think it raises all kinds of very, very difficult challenges. I think the—there is an opportunity for kind of a new way in this relationship. You’re still a year into a new king, with Saudi Arabia looking for ways to, OK, how do we recalibrate the relationship with the United States. Clearly, to Saudi Arabia, our dramatically reduced dependence on them for energy assets is a huge creator of existential angst on their side. So they’re looking for, OK, well, what’s the relationship going to be going forward? And it’s not lost on members of Congress that, you know, when there was activity by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, Saudi Arabia jumped in with a lot of military assets that they weren’t using against ISIL. And, you know, we know they have them because we sold a lot of them to them. But they used them quickly in Yemen, but not against ISIL—even though ISIL has done mosque bombings in Saudi Arabia and, you know, shootings at the border.

So Saudi Arabia has a threat from both Iran and the Houthis and ISIL. They’ve take one threat seriously and they haven’t seemed to take another threat seriously.

And then how about the refugees who are coming out of Syria? You know, look at the numbers that have gone into nations—not just Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, but you know, Germany and European nations. And then look at what Saudi and Gulf State countries have done, or really not done, with respect to the resettlement of refugees. And it makes you really ask hard questions. We’ve got to be asking those questions.

And that’s one of the reasons why—back to this ground troop thing against ISIL—the king of Jordan says it very well. This is not our fight—this is not your fight, it’s our fight. You can’t fight against ISIL. We got to stand united against ISIL, and if we do we want help from you and we want a lot of help. But it can’t be you against ISIL. And we really have to demand as—I think as a condition of the ongoing relationship we’ve got to demand that there is some resolve that’s really public against Sunni extremism.

I think a tradition that everyone in this room is familiar with is in, you know, people who are willing to tell you, yeah, this is a real problem and we all should do something about it, but they’re not willing to publicly call out horrible behavior or take really public steps against it. They just want to tell you it’s bad and encourage you to do more. Well, those days are over. We’ve got to demand—ISIL was born and bred in the region. The U.S. took steps that, you know, accelerated it, but it’s born and bred in the region. And it claims as a mantle of authority the religion of the region, even though it’s a profanation of the religion. The region has got to be standing up full force against it. And if so, we ought to help them a lot. But there’s no amount of American ground troops that can do this if the region won’t stand up against their own Sunni extremism.

CHANG: You talked about how interesting it is to see Iran and Russia sitting at the same table, and yet—

KAINE: And Saudi Arabia, yeah.

CHANG: And yet, here we’re looking at the U.S. and Russia’s strategic interests coming into alignment. Do you see this as peril, as opportunity? And what would guide our foreign policy?

KAINE: I’m a—there’s a lot of peril and there are very little area of overlap that we have with Russia, very little. But I am a big believer in the Venn diagram theory of life and politics and policy, which is you look for the overlaps and you work in the overlaps instead of spending all your time working in the areas that don’t overlap.

And there are areas of overlap with Russia. Certainly anti-ISIL. You know, when they went into Syria it was really more to prop up the regime. And then there’s a bombing of a plane that ISIL claims credit for and they get bogged down and they realize, OK, well, we may have thought we were just propping up the regime, but now we see ISIL as bad. And groups in the Caucasus pledge allegiance to ISIL. So there is an area of overlap with Russia right now in terms of dealing with this threat of ISIL and also in terms of trying to find a stable next chapter in Syria. And we do need to work with Russia, just like President Kennedy, you know, in the height of the Cold War negotiated the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union in the early ’60s while we were checking off against them all over the globe on so many other things, in Vietnam and elsewhere. You’ve got to find the overlap. And stability is an area where there is some potential overlap.

CHANG: We are running out of time. We’re going to take one last question and then we’ll adjourn.

Q: Bill Luers, the Iran Project.

KAINE: Bill, thanks. Good to see you.

Q: You and I have talked.

KAINE: Indeed.

Q: It is very refreshing to hear a senator in this room speak with such knowledge, passion, and understanding of the issues that the Council on Foreign Relations is so concerned about. Congratulations.

KAINE: Well, thank you, Bill.

Q: One question. Did I hear you suggesting that you can imagine circumstances in which our difficulties with Iran might give cause to a renewed set of sanctions that would be unrelated to nuclear?

KAINE: I would—I would say—I would not now think about renewed, I would think about trying to vigorously enforce those that are in place. I really—I think it is important for—because what is the message that we would send to Iran about our willingness to enforce the JCPOA, the terms of it, if we’re cavalier about not enforcing the terms of other sanctions regimes or U.N. Security Council resolutions that they’re under? So if we take a cavalier attitude to here, the message that we send is we’re probably going to take a cavalier attitude on the JCPOA as well. So I think it’s less about, you know, renewed or new sanctions on the non-nuclear file as it is to showing, no, but we’re going to continue to take those seriously.

CHANG: Thank you so much for your questions. Thank you for being here.

KAINE: Hey, thanks a lot. Appreciate it.

CHANG: And thank you, Tim Kaine, for your insights and your time. It was fantastic. (Applause.)

KAINE: Yeah, mmm hmm. Yeah, oh, this was fun. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.