Biden on Congress, Iraq and Iran

In an interview, Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, points to the potential for future Congressional action on Iraq and outlined a strategy for getting Iran to support a federal, stable Iraq.

Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, points to the potential for future Congressional action on Iraq. In an interview with National Interest online editor, Ximena Ortiz, Biden also outlined his strategy for getting Iran to support a federal, stable Iraq.

NIo: Your recently announced presidential bid came in tandem with some other long-anticipated announcements signaling the start of the campaign season. Do you believe the campaign environment will spur or stymie meaningful action in Congress on Iraq? Will lawmakers try to steer the administration in the direction they believe the country should move, or will they take a more passive strategy, allowing the administration to make mistakes in Iraq and then leverage those to their potential electoral advantage?

JB: I can only speak for myself. I believe any of us in positions of responsibility-or who aspire to them-have a responsibility to say what we are for, not just what we are against. The debate about Iraq in

Washington centers on a false choice that is also a bad choice: do we continue on the president's failing course and hand the problem over to the next president or do we just leave and hope for the best?

I believe there is a better choice. It is still possible to bring our troops home without trading a dictator for chaos that engulfs Iraq and spreads to the Middle East.

Put another way, we all want to bring our troops home as soon and as safely as possible. But while leaving Iraq is necessary, it is not a plan. We need a plan for what we leave behind so that our interests are protected.

Nine months ago, I proposed just such a plan, with Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, and I wrote about it in the pages of The National Interest. In recent months, more and more experts see its merits. I think reality is catching up with what we proposed. And so that plan remains my affirmative agenda for our Iraq policy, now more than ever.

NIo: The bipartisan resolution you co-sponsored, which opposed the president's surge plan for Iraq, was non-binding. What impact do you believe such measures can have and are you now prepared to follow up with additional action on Iraq?

JB: When Secretary Rice came before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early January to explain the president's plan to surge forces into Baghdad, the reaction ranged from profound skepticism to outright opposition, on both sides of the aisle. And that pretty much reflected the reaction all across America.

I felt it was important to give senators an opportunity to vote on the opposition they were voicing. So Senator Hagel (R-NE) and I, along with Senator Levin (D-MI) and Senator Snowe (R-ME), wrote a resolution expressing opposition to the president's surge plan.

Ultimately, the House passed a similar resolution. A minority of senators prevented a vote here in the Senate. Some argue that a non-binding resolution was meaningless. If that's the case, why did the White House mobilize so much energy against it? Why did a minority of senators block a debate?  

So I think it was meaningful, but the main point is that this is not a static debate. With every passing day that the situation in Iraq does not improve, political pressure increases here at home for a real change in course. If the president will not act, Congress will. And measures that look unlikely to gain enough support now will prove a lot more popular in a few weeks or a few months.

All that said, while these measures are important to demonstrate opposition to the surge and to the President's overall Iraq policy, they don't go to the heart of the problem. And that is the need not just to stop the surge or to leave, but the need for plan that affects what we leave behind.

NIo: Your proposal to contain the civil war in Iraq by establishing three largely autonomous regions, which you described in detail in the Sept./Oct. issue of The National Interest, is gaining political currency as sectarian violence intensifies. Should the United States take other measures to restrain such violence? Should the United States make any concessions to Iraq's neighbors, particularly Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria, in order to gain their cooperation in restraining their proxies or those groups they have influence over in Iraq?

JB: Federalism is Iraq's best possible future, but we have to take the lead in making it work for all Iraqis or the violence won't stop.

We need a sustained diplomatic offensive with the major powers and Iraq's neighbors to convince them that federalism is the best outcome for their interests, too. We have to get them on the same page, backing a common strategy.

Then, together, we would convene a Dayton-like conference to move all the Iraqi parties from civil war to the negotiating table. We'd lock them in a room to sell them on federalism. Through a combination of pressure and reassurance, the Sunni patrons would push them to accept federalism and the Shiite/Kurd patrons would press them to give Sunnis a bigger piece of the pie.

The administration is doing none of this. It requires the kind of sustained, hard-headed diplomacy it has shown little interest in or aptitude for. But putting my plan into effect offers the possibility of producing a soft landing in Iraq. Given the alternatives, that would be a tremendous achievement for U.S. interests.

This isn't about making concessions to any of these countries-it is about engaging them on Iraq and encouraging them to act on their self-interest.

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