Monitor Breakfast: Senator Joseph Biden

Selected quotations from a Monitor Breakfast with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Joe Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972 at the age of 29, the second youngest person ever elected to the body. The voters of Delaware have re-elected him 4 times, and he is running again this year.

From 1987 to 1995, Senator Biden chaired the Judiciary Committee. His last appearance at a Monitor Breakfast was while he was judiciary chairman.

He became ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee in 1997 and moved into the chairman's chair last year.

On how the war on terrorism going:

"I think the war is going relatively well. I think the failure to capture bin Laden or most of his primary operatives is a problem. But there is no reason to conclude that because it hasn't been done yet that it won't be done...

I think the president is in the process of having to refine and coordinate what still seems to be some differences of opinion within the administration about how to proceed on the war on terror. At this very moment I suspect, although I am not sure, [a] meeting is still going on trying to determine what next to do on the unwelcome war they didn't want to be any part of that is going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

...There is a bit of a disconnect now on Afghanistan in particular. There seems to be understandably some discussion going on as to what to do next in terms of both specific proposals and degree of engagement in Israel now. And you still continue to have the talks about and discussions and utterances out of the administration about Iraq which occasionally confuse me – not the intention, but in terms of timing.

It is premature to say the war on terror has succeeded or not succeeded. It is a work in progress. The work is getting a little more difficult to be able to divine exactly what the contours of the effort are – where we are engaged, where there is specific troop commitment.

Where we have been clear, I think things are going very well. The hard part now comes. We are now into the difficult part. And I don't get yet a clear message from the administration ... a lot is in play now in the administration in terms of what they do next in a whole range of areas."

On the president's use again this week of the phrase 'axis of evil':

"The last time I met in person with Condoleezza Rice, which is three weeks now, she implored me to continue my effort to try to bring about some opening of dialog with Iran. I had made a speech on Iran three weeks ago that created a great deal of interest within Iran...the reason it kind of surprises me [reusing the 'axis of evil' phrase] is [that] she was very explicit that she and the president and the administration thought that was a very good idea to try to open a dialog with the Iranians – any even quasi-democratic forces within the Iranian government."

On Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East:

"I think it would be premature and I think it would be wrong to conclude Powell's trip was a failure. I think it would be a mistake to suggest they have no idea what they are doing with regard to Iraq right now. A lot of this is a work in progress."

On the US role in the recent brief coup in Venezuela:

"I have no evidence that the administration was proactive in or complicit in what amounted to a coup. It is pretty obvious the administration ... acted somewhat prematurely and I suspect if they had time to reflect on it, might very well have not reacted the same way....

We find ourselves in the embarrassing position of having looked like at least we were saying, "OK boys, let's get the job done now. Let's hope the new government is going to act responsibly." That is the impression.

We asked in the Foreign Relations Committee whether or not we had damaged ourselves in the region and the answer was yes, we had. I think that is repairable, I don't think it is any gigantic breach for us, but I think it was at the best, ill timed."

On what policy approaches he favors for a Middle East settlement:

"....I have been suggesting that we should move from the tactical approach to the situation in the Middle East which no longer has any relevance.....I think there has to be a political horizon here that simultaneously is laid out with the tactical and practical initiatives to get people off the firing line.

...that requires the President even getting more deeply involved...in the Middle East. I can't think of a single major breakthrough – even if it has only been temporary – that has not come other than as a consequence of the President of the United States inserting himself, from the Suez crisis to the last White House meeting on the lawn.

But that is a high-risk situation for presidents, it is a high-risk situation for us, the United States. But I don't see any alternative....

My idea of a second Madrid [conference], broadening that table, bringing in the Arabs and making them, as mom would say, Fess up. There may be a better idea, but I don't know how you get to it......

The way I look at it, I think the President has to come up with some mechanism, some vehicle, that essentially allows for surrogate leadership for the Palestinian people that doesn't totally exclude Arafat. [Nations in the region] whether it is true or not, believe they are in jeopardy. They believe they are in jeopardy and therefore they have an incentive to settle."

On US policy toward Iraq and Saddam Hussein:

"There is no possibility of taking out Saddam Hussein and leaving without there being chaos.... Arab heads of state or ... European heads of state...are all saying the same thing. "Get rid of [him], he is no good; we don't like him. Fine, take him out. But are you going to stay? We will stay with you. What is your game plan?"

On whether the President is in trouble on the wider war on terrorism if he can't make progress in the Middle East:

"No ....he is still waging an effective and determined war relative to Al Qaeda beyond Afghanistan,. I think he is waging an effective war against the Taliban with a lot more to go in the region. I think he has made great progress – a lot more to go – with the Pakistanis....

If you define the war on terrorism as eliminating Saddam Hussein, taking down the Iranians and the North Koreans, if he defines it in a broad, broad way, then I think it was a false way to define it to begin with. If he wants to be judged on that score, then, well, he has built in a guarantee of failure.

Events have affected whether or not ... and if and when he can move against Saddam Hussein. So, in that sense, the Middle East impacts on what he believes – and some of us believe– is a logical extension of the war....

So the President has turned this into a generic war, eliminating all terrorism on his watch, then it is a laudable goal, but I think it is one that is beyond the capacity of anyone to do in any near term measure. I think this is also a process, so first things first. Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda networks worldwide. Second thing, making sure there is no circumstance that is allowed to reemerge in Afghanistan allowing Al Qaeda and its progeny to come back and have the same kind of authority and reach that they had.

The third thing is Iraq.... They have and they ... have demonstrated they will use weapons of mass destruction. So it is totally reasonable and appropriate to say we want to deal with that. But I see them ad seriatim [in turn] and I don't see them as connected to the initial effort that was undertaken....

European Union leaders are slated to meet next week. Do they have a legitimate bone to pick with the Bush administration?

"Yes, they do....There is a significant part of this administration that truly believes that Europe is no longer as relevant as it was a couple of years ago or 10 years ago. I hear it from some of my very well-informed conservative friends: "Joe, the six largest armies in the world are not in Europe."

I am very much a Europeanist. I think America has to remain a European power.....we have done a number of things that seem disconnected, that make the Europeans wonder whether or not we are engaged. We have unilaterally withdrawn from the ABM treaty. It was a big deal there...

We need the Europeans to win the war on terror no matter how you define it. We need the Europeans to have an effective foreign policy that allows us to accomplish many of the ends we have in mind. We need the Europeans in multilateral actions with them both in peace and in war for our own naked self interest and they are doing their part everywhere they are asked and beyond that."

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