Interview with Vice President Biden

Interview with Vice President Biden

By This Week - July 5, 2009

STEPHANOPOULOS: Hello, again. On this July 4th weekend, we begin with our exclusive headliner, Vice President Joe Biden. Just a few hours ago, I touched down at Andrews Air Force base on Air Force Two, after an overnight flight from Baghdad. Biden had just completed his first mission as President Obama's personal enjoy to Iraq.


BIDEN: We think we can be helpful, with the government, with your neighbors.


STEPHANOPOULOS: He spent Saturday at Camp Victory, thanking troops that included his son, Beau, the Delaware attorney general, who is completing a one-year tour as a captain in the Army Reserves. After that, I sat down with Biden for an extensive conversation. We covered a lot of ground, including Sarah Palin 's surprise resignation, the administration's evolving strategy for Iran, its mounting concern on the economy, and Biden's new role in Iraq.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Major milestone this week here in Iraq with the American troops pulling out of the cities. And I wonder if you can put the broader American mission in context. Are we in the process of securing victory or cutting our losses to come home?

BIDEN: Securing victory. Look, the president and I laid out a plan in the campaign which was twofold. One, withdraw our troops from Iraq in a rational timetable, consistent with what the Iraqis wanted. And the same time, leave behind a stable and secure country.

And one of the reasons I'm here, George, is to push the last end of that, which is there's need for political settlement on some important issues between Arabs and Kurds and among the confessional groups. And I think we're well on our way.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, your predecessor doesn't seem convinced.


STEPHANOPOULOS: John Hannah, Vice President Cheney's national security adviser, wrote this week that under Obama, Bush's commitment to winning in Iraq has all but vanished. The vice president warned against a premature withdrawal.

He said, "I would not want to see the U.S. waste all the tremendous sacrifice that has gotten us to this point."

BIDEN: You know, it's kind of ironic. It's their timetable we are implementing. Cheney and Bush agreed with the Iraqis before we were elected that we'd have combat troops out of the cities by June 30th. STEPHANOPOULOS: So he's wrong to be worried?

BIDEN: Well, I mean, it's -- I mean, for this, he can't have it both ways. He negotiated that timetable. We have met the commitment, the timetable the last administration negotiated with Iraqis, and we're totally confident that is the right thing to do.

So I find it kind of ironic that he's criticizing his own agreement that he negotiated.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You're also facing a little bit of criticism from the Iraqis. You know, yesterday you stood up there with Prime Minister Maliki and talked about your commitment to solve these political problems, yet his spokesman came out after the meeting and said, "This is purely an Iraqi issue, we don't want the Americans to get involved."

What do you say...

BIDEN: Well, that's that not what -- that's not what the prime minister said. The prime minister said that we may need you to get involved.

What we offered the prime minister, as well as the speaker, as well as the two vice presidents, was that to the extent -- let me give you an example. The United Nations has started a process to deal with what they called the "disputed internal borders." And that is the debate between the Kurds and the Arabs as to where the line is.

Kirkuk is probably the biggest flashpoint. And we were asked that we would -- would we be helpful to the United Nations in doing this? I was further asked that would I communicate to the Kurdish leadership, who I have a close relationship with, that their passing a constitution through their parliament in Kurdistan was not helpful to the process that was under way.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So what's going on here? Maliki says one thing...


BIDEN: Well, look, I think that it's very important that Prime Minister Maliki and all of the Iraqi leaders are able to in fact communicate, which is true, to the people of Iraq, that they're now a sovereign nation. They take directions from no one. That they are able to handle their own internal affairs. And the fact -- my guess is, if the spokesman said that -- which surprises me, if the spokesman said that, I'd imagine they're worried about an upcoming election, making it look like the United States is going to continue to try to direct things here.

We are not. That is not why I'm here.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We're not going to direct things, but what if the Iraqis -- they've been dealing with these political disputes for an awful long time -- what if they can't solve them, the violence flares up again?

BIDEN: Well, that's going to be a tragic outcome for the Iraqi people. We made a commitment.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But are we going to put our lives on the line again?

BIDEN: No. We made a commitment to withdraw our troops from the cities by the 30th, to withdraw our combat brigades from Iraq by next summer -- the end of next summer -- and withdraw all troops according to the SOFA, that agreement we negotiated with them, by the end of 2011. That is our intention.

STEPHANOPOULOS: No matter what, 2011, American troops all gone?

BIDEN: That is the intention. We believe the Iraqis will be fully capable of maintaining their own security. And we believe that with the timeframe, with their upcoming election -- you know they're having an election in January, I know you know that, they'll form a new government early -- in late winter as a consequence of that election.

And it is our expectation that that election will come off peacefully and that their democracy is gradually maturing, so.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me turn to Iran. We're three weeks out from their election.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you have any doubt it was stolen?

BIDEN: Well, look, what I don't want to do is play into the hands of the supreme leader and Ahmadinejad like they're blaming the British now. You know, there -- that the reason why there was unrest is outside influence.

STEPHANOPOULOS: They're saying they have confessions from reformers saying that.

BIDEN: Well, you know, they say a lot of things. That's simply not true. The -- I think the dust hasn't settled yet in terms of...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Still, three weeks ago.

BIDEN: Well, no, here's what I think. I mean, I think it's clear that the consequences of the way the election was conducted and the way that the election was declared -- who was declared the winner and how, is going to have a rippling effect.

What that effect will be, I don't know. I think we have to wait to see how this settles out and -- before we can make a judgment.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But there's no doubt now that they responded violently. BIDEN: Oh, there is no doubt about that. There is no doubt. The whole world saw it. And it is -- we have to acknowledge as a free and sovereign nation that we abhor the violence that took place. We think it was inappropriate, the way in which they treated those protesters.

And so there is no question, we and the rest of the world looked at them and said, my lord, this is not the way to conduct...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But how do you respond to critics who say the United States should have come out forcefully right away, right away and said, this is wrong, stop it, and they say that would have made a difference?

BIDEN: Well, I don't -- I think the president was absolutely pitch-perfect. I think what the president did it exactly the right way. I think the president did not allow us to be used to as the scapegoat, us to be used as...

STEPHANOPOULOS: There were some reports that you were arguing for a more forceful response earlier.

BIDEN: Well, I think the president did it exactly right. I think he was correct.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And going forward, what next? What should the strategy be right now?

BIDEN: Well, look, the Iranian government has a choice. They either choose greater isolation, and from the whole world, or they decide to take a rightful place in the -- in civilized, big, great nations. They can -- that's the path they have to choose.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Haven't they already shown evidence in the last few weeks of what their choice is?

BIDEN: Well, they have in terms of the way they conducted their election, but they haven't in terms of whether -- the real key issues to -- now, are they going to continue the nuclear program? Are they going to be braced by what happened? Is this going to alter their behavior internally or externally?

Look, responses that they saw on the street in any country have consequences. It's hard to predict what those consequences will be.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And what are the consequences for the U.S. relationship? I mean, the president had said he wants to meet with the Iranians over the nuclear program through the P-5. But how does he engage with the Iranians now without breaking faith with those reformers?

BIDEN: Well, the way you do it is if they choose to meet with the P5, under the conditions the P5 was laid out, it means they begin to change course. And it means that the protesters probably had some impact on the behavior of an administration that they don't like at all. And it believes and I believe that means there's consequences to that.

Now, if they in fact decide to shut out the rest of the world, clamp down, further isolation, I think that takes them down a very different path.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How do you respond to those who say that it's the United States now that should hit the pause button, there should be a course correction, and we shouldn't rush to sit down...


BIDEN: Well, we're not. We're not rushing to sit down.

As I said to you, we have to wait to see how this sort of settles out. And there's already an offer laid out there by the permanent five plus one to say we're prepared to sit down and negotiate with you relative to your nuclear program. And so the ball's in their court.

STEPHANOPOULOS: When I saw President Ahmadinejad back in April, his response to that was that we need to see more from the United States first.

Is it fair to say now that there will be absolutely no more concessions to the Iranians in advance of those discussions?

BIDEN: It's fair to say the position the president has laid out will not change.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But there will be engagement -- if the Iranians want to sit down...

BIDEN: If the Iranians seek to engage, we will engage.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And meanwhile, the clock is ticking...

BIDEN: Let me (inaudible) -- if the Iranians respond to the offer of engagement, we will engage.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the offer is on the table?

BIDEN: The offer's on the table.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it pretty clear that he agreed with President Obama to give until the end of the year for this whole process of engagement to work. After that, he's prepared to take matters into his own hands.

Is that the right approach?

BIDEN: Look, Israel can determine for itself as a sovereign nation what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether we agree or not?

BIDEN: Whether we agree or not. They're entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that's going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed.

What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues.

If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.


STEPHANOPOULOS: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?

BIDEN: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination, that they're existentially threatened, their survival is threatened by another country.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You say we can't dictate, but we can, if we choose to, deny overflight rights here in Iraq. There are ways we can stand in the way of a military strike.

BIDEN: I'm not going to speculate, George, on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what's in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what's in our interests.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Meanwhile, North Korea...


STEPHANOPOULOS: ... seven missile launches in the last 24 hours, 11 this week. Anything the United States can do about it?

BIDEN: The question is, is there anything that we should do about it?

Look, this has almost become predictable behavior. Some of it seems like almost attention-seeking behavior.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you don't want to give them the attention?

BIDEN: And -- no, I don't want to give the attention, because, look, I think our policy has been absolutely correct so far. We have succeeded in uniting the most important and critical countries to North Korea on a common path of further isolating North Korea. They're going to be faced with a pretty difficult choice, it seems to me.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But not a path that includes very forceful enforcement of the sanctions. The Russians and the Chinese blocked any boarding of the ships, didn't they?

BIDEN: No, no. Well, what they did was, if you noticed, the ship had to turn around and come back. Why? Because no port would allow them into port. There was no place they could go with certitude that they would not be, in fact, at that point, boarded and searched. And so I would argue that it, in fact, worked.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is our policy now though basically waiting for the Kim Jong-il regime to collapse?

BIDEN: Our policy is to continue to put united pressure from the very countries that North Korea was able to look to before with impunity. They could take almost any action and got no reaction, no negative reaction.

That's changed. And it is -- there is a significant turning of the pressure. And there are going to be some very difficult decisions that that regime's going to have to make.

There's a real debate going on right now, George, about succession in North Korea.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Reports that he's tapped his youngest son.

BIDEN: That is the report.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you believe it?

BIDEN: Well, if I had to bet, that would be my guess. But I don't think anyone knows for certain.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The clock is also ticking on Afghanistan. Key members of Congress made it pretty clear during the war supplemental debate that they're going to give until early next year to see progress in Afghanistan or they're going to cut off the funding, move to cut off the funding.

Is that the right approach?

BIDEN: Look, I think the right approach is the one we have chosen, the Obama/Biden administration.

We did a thorough review of what our objectives and policies were and should be in Afghanistan. We set in motion a policy which is now only beginning to unfold. All the troops we agreed to increase are not even all in place at this point. We also believe, as General Jones accurately said, that, ultimately, the success or failure in Iraq will rest not on a military outcome, but on a both economic and political outcome internally, getting better governance in place and economic development in that country.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But do Americans have a right to expect that if we don't see continued progress in the next six to nine months, six to 12 months, then we should think about cutting back and pulling out?

BIDEN: Look, I think the Americans have a right to expect success. And I think the success is measured by how we defined it. STEPHANOPOULOS: At any cost?

BIDEN: No. Success. And if they conclude that, whatever the policy that's being undertaken by any administration as not succeeding, they have a right to say, look, cease and desist. But I don't think that's where we're going, George.

STEPHANOPOULOS: There were some reports this week that the president has already made the judgment, sending General Jones over to Afghanistan with a clear message -- no more troops. This is it, this is all you can get.

And Bob Woodward wrote about it. He talked about the general meeting with various military figures in Afghanistan, and this is what he said -- this is what he reports that General Jones said. "If there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment. Everyone in the room caught phonetic reference to WTF -- which in the military now sort of means, what the (blank)."

Are you concerned that this is sending some kind of a chilling message?

BIDEN: No, not at all. Look, here's...


STEPHANOPOULOS: You don't want to hear the advice?

BIDEN: Look, no, no. We got the advice.

We spent five months with the entire national security team, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security adviser, down in that tank, down in that Situation Room, laboriously banging out the plan. The military came in with explicit requests. The president gave them what they asked for. It hasn't even been implemented yet.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You were on the other side, it was reported, that you didn't want an expansion of troops.

BIDEN: No, no. I did want an expansion of troops. There was a slight difference about how to layer them, how to proceed. The president -- we all ended up in -- you know, this was an open discussion. The thing I like about the president, he seeks everyone's opinion.

Well, we reached a consensus opinion, and the consensus opinion of the national security team, of which I'm a part, was to do exactly what's under way.

The point is -- I suspect the point that Jim Jones is making is, hey, it hasn't even been implemented yet. Troops are still on the way. Slow up, guys.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But to be clear, you're saying if the military believes there should be more troops, they shouldn't be afraid to give that advice. They should give that advice?

BIDEN: They should not be afraid to give whatever advice from the field or from the Pentagon to the president and the secretary of defense that they think they need.

STEPHANOPOULOS: While we've been here, some pretty grim job numbers back at home -- 9.5 percent unemployment in June, the worst numbers in 26 years.

How do you explain that? Because when the president and you all were selling the stimulus package, you predicted at the beginning that, if you get this package in place, unemployment will peak at about 8 percent. So, either you misread the economy, or the stimulus package is too slow and...


BIDEN: The truth is, we and everyone else misread the economy. The figures we worked off of in January were the consensus figures in most of the blue chip indexes out there. Everyone thought at that stage -- everyone -- the bulk of...

STEPHANOPOULOS: CBO would say a little bit higher.


BIDEN: A little bit, but they're all in the same range. No one was talking about that we would be moving towards -- we're worried about 10.5 percent, it will be 9.5 percent at this point.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But we're looking at 10 now, aren't we?

BIDEN: No. Well, look, we're much too high. We're at 9 -- what, 9.5 right now?


BIDEN: And so the truth is, there was a misreading of just how bad an economy we inherited.

Now, that doesn't -- I'm not laying -- it's now our responsibility.

So the second question becomes, did the economic package we put in place, including the Recovery Act, is it the right package given the circumstances we're in? And we believe it is the right package given the circumstances we're in.

We misread how bad the economy was, but we are now only about 120 days into the recovery package. The truth of the matter was, no one anticipated, no one expected that that recovery package would in fact be in a position at this point of having distributed the bulk of the money.

STEPHANOPOULOS: No, but a lot of people were saying that you needed to do something bigger and bolder then, including the economist Paul Krugman. He's saying -- right now he's saying the same thing again -- don't wait. You need a second stimulus, you need it now.

BIDEN: Look, what we have to do now is we have to properly, adequately, transparently and effectively spend out the $787 billion.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's your job. You're in charge of that now.

BIDEN: That is my job, and I think we're doing it well. If you noticed, George, I mean, there were other predictions. This was going to be wasteful and all these terrible projects were going to be out there, and we're wasting money. Well, that dog hasn't barked yet.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, Senator Coburn has identified some.

BIDEN: Yes -- no, he hasn't, but he did, he identified 148 of which we had already killed. And so -- and the rest I dispute. So the bottom line, though, is, I think anybody would say this has been pretty well managed so far.

The question is, how do you now -- do we -- what we have to do, George, is we have to, as this rolls out, put more pace on the ball. The second hundred days, you're going to see a lot more jobs created. And the reason you are is now all of these contracts for the over several thousand highway projects that have approved.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you're also seeing states across the country cutting back on their programs. Many of the people on unemployment...

BIDEN: Sure.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... today are going to run out of unemployment in September. That means for a lot of those people, if there is not a second stimulus, they're going to be out in the cold.

BIDEN: Well, look, we have increased the amount of money unemployed -- those on unemployment rolls have gotten, 12 million people are getting more money because of the stimulus package. We've increased the number of people eligible by 2 million people. We've given a tax cut to 95 percent of the people who get a pay stub. They have somewhere -- $60 a month out there that's going into the economy.

There is a lot going on, George. And I think it's premature to make the judgment...

STEPHANOPOULOS: So no second stimulus?

BIDEN: No, I didn't say that. I think it's premature to make that judgment. This was set up to spend out over 18 months. There are going to be major programs that are going to take effect in September, $7.5 billion for broadband, new money for high-speed rail, the implementation of the grid -- the new electric grid. And so this is just starting. The pace of the ball is now going to increase.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're in charge of the stimulus. You're the president's envoy here in Iraq. You're supposed to settle this dispute between the director of national intelligence and the CIA over who is going to appoint the station chiefs. By the way, have you solved that one yet?

BIDEN: I think we've solved that one.


BIDEN: Well, let me put it this way. I think we're well on the way of that being solved.


BIDEN: They both won.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So they're going to share the responsibility to appoint station chiefs?

BIDEN: Not done yet. Let me comment on that next week to you.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK. Well, let me get to the broader point then. You've fixed -- you say you've fixed a problem that will...

BIDEN: Well...


STEPHANOPOULOS: ... to find out that they fixed the problem -- look to find out the details on all of that. But you've got all of these discrete projects now. And when you came in, you talked a lot about how you didn't want to get bogged down in individual projects because you wanted to be, you know, the president's primary adviser. Are you're worried you're going to far in the other direction?

BIDEN: No. Because all of these projects have end dates on them. You know, they all have sell-by dates, because -- and that's I think that -- I hope I've brought some real expertise to this job, available to the president. The things he has asked me to do, I hope I'm relatively good at. And -- but all of them have specific objectives.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally, Sarah Palin .


STEPHANOPOULOS: You were the last person to run against her.


PALIN: Can I call you Joe?



STEPHANOPOULOS: Were you surprised by her decision to step down?

BIDEN: Well, look, you and I know -- and I shouldn't say that because that implicates you in my answer, so. But those who have been deeply involved in politics know at the end of the day, it is really and truly a personal deal. And personal family decisions have real impact on people's decisions.

I love reading these history books and biographies of people, the reason they made the choice to run or not run was because the state of the economy. It maybe had a lot to do with what the state of their life was and the state of their family, et cetera. So I'm not going to second-guess her.

STEPHANOPOULOS: She cast herself as the victim of political blood sport in that press conference. Is that how you see it?

BIDEN: No. I respect her decision. I don't -- I don't know what prompted her decision to not only not run again and also to step down as a consequence of the decision not to run in 2010. And I take her at her word that it had a personal ingredient in it, and you have to respect that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. Vice President, thank you very much.


The Big Questions in Iraq
David Ignatius · November 12, 2014

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