Former Sen. John Edwards, a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, delivered a speech on defense policy to the Council on Foreign Relations on May 23. Afterward, he sat down with Michael Moran, executive editor of CFR.org, to talk about foreign policy. Edwards defended his plan for a two-tiered withdrawal from Iraq within a year, insisted diplomacy could still forestall a nuclear-armed Iran, and conceded that cuts to American farm subsidies would need to be part of any rethinking of aid to the developing world.
Thank you very much for coming to the Council. You’ve laid out a fairly detailed timetable for how you’d like to see the drawdown take place in Iraq and the eventual withdrawal. There’s some skepticism about the ability of the United States to affect things in Iraq once we do withdraw, and the possibility of a genocide is something you’ve made reference to. So, how does that change your figuring on what the United States would have to do if you did get out and then this happened?
First of all, the long-term stability and chance for success in Iraq is dependent on the Iraqi leadership itself. My view is that until and when we shift the responsibility for Iraq to the Sunni and Shia leadership, it’s unlikely based on history that they’re going to reach any political reconciliation. And so we need to do that in a smart, orderly way by telling them we’re doing it, withdrawing troops over a period of ten to twelve months. We ought to engage in every effort we can to help bring them together, to encourage political compromise, and we ought to engage the Iranians, the Syrians, and other countries in the region into helping stabilize Iraq. The Iranians clearly have an interest in a stable Iraq. They don’t want refugees coming across their border, they don’t want the economic instability, and they don’t want a broader Middle East conflict between Shia and Sunni. The Syrians have a similar interest, although they’re Sunni, not Shia.
And then, the president has a responsibility beyond that. We have interest in the region, that’s obvious, we need to maintain a presence there, in Kuwait, in Afghanistan, maybe in Jordan, depending on what we can agree to there, and we definitely need to maintain a naval presence in the Persian Gulf. And the president has got to prepare for the two things that you raise. One is the possibility that the civil war becomes all-out, so that it can be contained, and the second is the possibility of genocide. My view is that this is something that’s crucial for America to plan for. In the case of the civil war, there are strategies for dealing with it, to contain it—buffer zones, moving away from population centers. And in the case of genocide, this is something we clearly need to be doing with the international community, not America doing this alone. We have to prepare for that. I’m not going to say now this far in advance exactly what the mechanism should be, but America has to have a plan for that.
Let’s turn to Iran for a second. Right now there’s a debate in the foreign policy community about whether we should be planning for a nuclear Iran as a reality, whether it’s still worth negotiating to prevent that eventuality, or whether actually there is inevitably going to be a war. Where do you come down in that field?
There’s a clear, smart path for America, and it’s founded on what’s happening internally in Iran. The notion that the Iranian people are monolithic and they all have the same view is an absurd one to begin with, and they have a president, Ahmadinejad, who is dangerous, no doubt, bellicose in his rhetoric about us, about Israel, but has lost a lot of his political popularity in his own country, as evidenced by the council elections this past December. We need to find ways to drive a deeper wedge between a dangerous leader and a lot of people in Iran who I think are more pro-Western, pro-American.
The way to do that, I believe, is America doesn’t have economic leverage but our friends in Europe do, the European banking system does. We need to work with the Europeans to put a proposal on the table that’s basically sticks and carrots. The carrots are, “We’ll make the nuclear fuel available to you if we control the cycle.” That’s been offered before. But it needs to be married to a serious set of economic incentives, because the Iranian economy is not in good shape. And this needs to be done very publicly, not behind closed doors. And then the flip side is, the stick side is, if they don’t do it, there are going to be serious economic consequences. That’s the path that America needs to be following, given the options that are available to us right now.
In your speech today, you made fairly detailed reference to plans to increase development aid. Many economists say the United States and Europe could do a great deal more good in the developing world if they cut their farm subsidies. You’re from North Carolina, where tobacco farmers took a big hit over the last twenty years and subsidies are very much a real issue for people. How do you square those two things?
It’s a very difficult question. When I was at the London School of Economics a couple years ago now, speaking and basically conducting a London version of a town hall meeting, I had a young man from Africa stand up and say, “I appreciate all the proposals you’re making and your ideas and your optimism, but it’s impossible in my country for us to get families out of poverty. Because our families need to farm, they can’t compete with America’s farm subsidies, and what are you willing to do about that?” And particularly given my own personal interest in issues like global poverty and education and humanitarian crises that exist around the world, it creates a natural tension.
There are some clear choices available to us that we ought to take advantage of. For example, I do not think America should continue to subsidize large multinational corporate farming operations. We’re doing that to the tune of a huge amount of money right now. That should be stopped. Second, farming operations that have high levels of net income—you can argue about exactly where it falls, you know, two hundred thousand to three hundred thousand dollars in net, not gross, net income, probably should not be receiving subsidies from America. And I think those are the steps we ought to take to help deal with what I see. And I’ve seen this for example in northern Uganda, where we were trying to do some work there to promote the peace process, but ultimately if peace is achieved in Uganda, these families that are in internally displaced camps are going to need to go back to farming, and they have the same problem. They can’t compete, they can’t farm, they can’t support their families, because of the subsidy issue. And it hurts us, of course also in having credibility in the world trade forums, where we’re trying to negotiate either bilateral or multilateral trade agreements, because it is sort of a nonstarter in many cases.
This week the Senate tackled the question of immigration and there was a vote on whether or not the temporary worker program is a viable part of the immigration bill. Many senators who are running against you managed to be elsewhere. A couple were there. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) voted for it, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) voted against it. If you had still been in the Senate, how would you have voted?
Well, I’m not in the Senate and I’m not running for the Senate. I can tell you exactly what I think we ought to do about immigration, and if this is not resolved by the time I’m president, what I would do as president of the United States. There are some elements of the immigration bill that’s being considered now that makes sense. We’ve got to do more on our southern border; it’s a mess. That means people, personnel, the tools that are available to us. Second, we’ve got to be much tougher on employers who are knowingly violating the law, and in many cases abusing workers. And then third, there has to be a clear path to earned citizenship, which should include requirements to learn to speak English, and payment of a fine. My concern about the immigration bill that’s being considered right now, and my great friend and a man I have huge admiration for, Senator Kennedy, is very involved in this, is that the path to citizenship, from my perspective, is too difficult, and will be really difficult for a lot of people to achieve. I just don’t think we want to live in a country where we have millions of people who are working as guest workers or living as second-class people. It’s just not the nature of who we are, as a moral issue.