Joe Biden On Iraq, Iran, China and the Taliban

Khue Bui for Newsweek

On Thursday, Dec. 15, Vice President Joe Biden sat down in his sunlit White House office adjoining the Rose Garden to do what he loves best—talk about foreign policy—with Leslie H. Gelb of Newsweek/The Daily Beast. What follows are excerpts of their exclusive review of the year’s hotspots.

NEWSWEEK: I know you feel strongly and correctly that economics is really at the heart of not only our country’s future, but our power in the world. You have a bank crisis in Europe right now. And Goldman Sachs just said that at a minimum this means a 1 percent drop in our gross domestic product. And it’s likely to be much worse, as you know, because the Europeans can’t seem to conjure up the courage to tackle their problem seriously. What are we planning to do about it?

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: We’re using every bit of influence,cajoling—from my getting in a plane, to the president appearing, talking to [Treasury Secretary Timothy] Geithner, engaging, and being very blunt. I was in Greece [earlier this month]. The president has been meeting with our G8 partners and specifically—very, very specifically on the phone with everyone from [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel to [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy, [British Prime Minister David] Cameron. I mean we are engaged in making it clear to them that there is an answer. They’ve got to step up.

NEWSWEEK: But they’re looking to us for something we can’t give anymore, which is cash to bail them out.

BIDEN: We’re not going to. These guys at the end of the day are going to have to choose: they either lose now or lose later. And if they lose later, they lose real, real big.

NEWSWEEK: And it’s got to be their bailout, not ours?

BIDEN: Exactly right. We did our bailout. They’ve got to do their bailout.

NEWSWEEK: What are our vital interests in continuing to fight a major war in Afghanistan?

BIDEN: We were in Afghanistan for two reasons. One is to deal with, curtail, begin to dismantle, and eventually eliminate al Qaeda. Not only from being able to come back into Afghanistan and control Afghanistan but from the region—to decimate al Qaeda.

NEWSWEEK: Almost an impossible goal to achieve.

BIDEN: No—to fundamentally alter their capacity to do damage to American allies and vital U.S. interests, to fundamentally alter that. We have done that. It doesn’t mean they’re not capable.

NEWSWEEK: It means we’ve done it for the time being, but depending upon who comes to power in Afghanistan in the future, they can come back. I know you don’t favor staying there ad infinitum to prevent that.

BIDEN: I would argue they are not able to come back. I would argue that there has been serious damage done to their infrastructure in a way that the coherence of this thing called al Qaeda and their ability to metastasize has been severely damaged.

NEWSWEEK: So we no longer have to stay in Afghanistan to fight for it?

BIDEN: No, let me finish. That is not fully achieved, it is close. The second reason for us to be in Afghanistan was to make sure that a country with tens of millions of people and nuclear weapons called Pakistan did not somehow begin to disintegrate or fall apart. That is a hell of a lot tougher job.

NEWSWEEK: Mr. Vice President, I just don’t see the links. Because in the first place, whatever happens in Afghanistan, the Pakistanis have an interest in protecting their nukes and seeing that extremists don’t take over the country. Secondly, the Pakistanis don’t agree with your logic, because they have been doing almost everything they can to hurt us in Afghanistan. And finally, that’s a country of 180 million people that has its own profound problems that won’t be fixed or made worse by whatever happens in Afghanistan.

BIDEN: Look, we inherited a situation in Afghanistan where, at the time we came into office, there was no coherent rationale or policy as to how we were going to deal with our foremost interest: al Qaeda. At that time, the first year and a half, had there been no election that took place, as imperfect as it was, in Kabul; had that government collapsed; had there been an outbreak of a new civil war, Pakistan would have been sucked into that in a way far beyond where they are now.

The second piece of this was we decided that what we would do is do our best to deal with al Qaeda, do our best to stabilize the circumstance in Afghanistan so that we would be able to put them in a position by training their forces that they could protect their own self-interest as we gradually but absolutely set a path to get out in a rational way. That is what we have done. That is what is going on right now.

NEWSWEEK: I know you don’t believe we can reshape Afghanistan and make it into a caramelized democracy.

BIDEN: Look, look, Les, let’s posit that your statement is that it’s clear that Pakistan could live with an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban.

NEWSWEEK: They did.

BIDEN: We could not. We could not because they harbored, sheltered, and supported an outfit that created a real threat to the United States.

NEWSWEEK: And we told them if you stop harboring al Qaeda, we’ll live with you too.

BIDEN: Yes, but they didn’t.

NEWSWEEK: And we can make that deal now.

BIDEN: We didn’t. That is part of what the reconciliation process is about right now. We are not just deciding that all we are doing is supporting a government and building up their military capability. We’re engaged in a reconciliation process. Whether it will work or not is another question. But we are in a position where if Afghanistan ceased and desisted from being a haven for people who do damage and have as a target the United States of America and their allies, that’s good enough. That’s good enough. We’re not there yet.

Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy. That’s critical. There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests. If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us. So there’s a dual track here:

One, continue to keep the pressure on al Qaeda and continue to diminish them. Two, put the government in a position where they can be strong enough that they can negotiate with and not be overthrown by the Taliban. And at the same time try to get the Taliban to move in the direction to see to it that they, through reconciliation, commit not to be engaged with al Qaeda or any other organization that they would harbor to do damage to us and our allies.

NEWSWEEK: You’ve seen the articles recently that we have toned down our commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. I won’t cite the statements you’ve all made but it has really gone from saying we’re going to use all our power to prevent the development of nuclear weapons to something less than that.

BIDEN: That’s not true.

NEWSWEEK: Is the world reading something into it?

BIDEN: They’re reading something into it that just does not exist.

NEWSWEEK: All right, so there’s no change in the commitment?

Then why do we make so much more of an issue of Iran than we do, say of North Korea or of Pakistan for that matter?

BIDEN: Two reasons. They’re both already nuclear powers. And two, if, in fact, Iran gets nuclear capability and is able to put it on top of a weapon that can fly places to hurt other people it will be only a matter of a half a decade before you have two or three other nuclear powers in that region, which is incredibly destabilizing not only for the region, but for the whole world.

NEWSWEEK: But as you know from Iran’s point of view, they say, all right, Pakistan crossed that threshold. North Korea crossed that threshold. They’re safer now than they would have been otherwise because we can’t attack them anymore.

BIDEN: I understand their rationale. But the fact of the matter is that doesn’t mean it makes sense for the region and the world to yield to their rationale. And we’re going to do everything in our power.

And look what we’ve done so far. We started off being the isolated country relative to Iran, now Iran is isolated. And notwithstanding how imperfect it may be, even the Chinese and the Russians have joined us. And these economic sanctions are hurting incredibly badly; even Ahmadinejad had to go to their majlis and acknowledge that.

Can I guarantee that this economic pressure is going to result in a crack where they give up their ambition to get a nuclear weapon? I can’t guarantee that at all. But the critics are looking at Iran as if it has gained power and momentum. They’ve actually lost power, lost momentum. They have less influence in the region than they have had in the last 20 years.

NEWSWEEK: Let me pick up on China. The key part of our relationship has been economic. They’re a huge part of our economic future. They own more than a trillion dollars of ours. They’re out-trading us every year. They’re not playing fair on exchange rates. And their economy continues to grow at a pretty damn good rate, ours at a poor one. Aren’t they winning this economic competition? And isn’t that weakening our power relative to China to get almost anything done?

BIDEN: Absolutely not. I went to China at the end of August right at the time we had been downgraded. And every press guy in China, every press guy in the world was asking, was I coming to apologize. We had meetings with [Chinese President] Hu [Jintao]. I spent four days with [Vice President] Xi [Jinping]. We were in one of the big halls and the Chinese press guys asked me, why is China still buying U.S. Treasury bills? And I stood up and I said, you don’t have to buy any more. It’s OK with us. Don’t buy any more Treasury bills. I said, let me remind you, you own 1 percent of America’s financial assets—1 percent. You own 6 percent—maybe 7 to 9 percent of American Treasury securities. We don’t need you. It’s OK. Don’t buy them. Go somewhere else. (Laughter.)

NEWSWEEK: Because they have nowhere else to go?

BIDEN: Bingo. Second message was we are a Pacific power. We’re not going anywhere. Now you also live in the neighborhood, and you are an emerging power in the neighborhood. We can coexist as long as you abide by international rules.

Thirdly, we want to see—literally this is what I told them—we want to see you succeed. The reason we want you to succeed is because you’ve got a big problem that we don’t have. You’ve got to come up with 5 million jobs a year to accommodate people coming into the workforce. We have a problem with our safety net, with our entitlements, but you guys? You will have increasingly fewer workers for every retiree.

And lastly, guess what, your economy cannot continue the mercantile practices you have because you’re going to be in real trouble. Not us, you.

NEWSWEEK: One last question? After we get out of Iraq—and thank God we’re out—what continuing interest and responsibilities do we have there in case the place blows up or Iran threatens it?

BIDEN: Look, our responsibility and interest are one and the same. Our responsibility is to put Iraq in a position and enhance their prospect of them being able to be responsible and run their own affairs.

NEWSWEEK: But we’re not going to intervene again?

BIDEN: No, we are not going to have to intervene again. What would you look for in Iraq? For us to be out of there, have Iraq united, secure within its own borders, not a threat to its neighbors and no one able to fundamentally threaten them. That’s where they are now. I’m confident by our continued engagement with them we can strengthen that, and that’s overwhelmingly in our interest to do that.

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