Capital Sources: Biden on Iraq

Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware is poised to retake the chairmanship of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, after the new Democrat-controlled Congress is sworn in. Biden discussed his plans for stabilizing Iraq by creating a federal system of three autonomous regions—Kurd, Shiite and Sunni—and for addressing Iran's nuclear program, among other issues, in an interview with NEWSWEEK's Michael Hirsh. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: I understand you're planning to hold hearings on Iraq in January as your first act as chairman.

Joseph Biden: I am. We're putting it together now. It will probably amount to six weeks of hearings. We'll have experts who are left, right and center, neocons, internationalists and isolationists, to come in and dissect the various elements of our Iraq policy. For example, the never-examined premise upon which we say we're going to stand up Iraqis and stand down ourselves. It's not a question of getting them to stand up; it's getting them to stand together … I've gone back and looked at hearings from the past to get some sense of how this is done from a historical perspective. We're going to try to do something that is sound.

Will the hearings examine the report of the Iraq Study Group being co-chaired by former secretary of State James Baker and former House member Lee Hamilton, which is expected to be out by then?

I think that's only part of it. It depends on whether Baker and Hamilton remain relevant. I've asked Baker and Hamilton to appear, along with former secretaries of State and Defense and other officials.

Will you produce your own, separate report with a set of recommendations?

That's one of the things we're considering.

Senator, how would you address the problem of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric , who may be the most powerful and dangerous man in Iraq today, and his militia, the so-called Mahdi Army?

There are three elements to thinking about Sadr. First, dealing with Sadr's aberrations directly. Making it clear to [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-] Maliki that he had better not tell our military that we can't respond specifically to Mahdi Army attacks on our forces. This is why federalization is so critical. That's the second element. That will have the healthy effect of forcing Sadr to compete for territory within his own region. When the Iraqis were debating federalism in the Parliament, the only people who voted against the implementing legislation were Sadr's bloc and the Sunnis. Why would that be? Sadr knows that if there were a larger Sunni region in the center, a Kurdistan and a Shia region in the south then he becomes marginalized within the pool in which he has to swim. He has to deal with the Badr Brigade [a rival Shia militia.] He has to deal with the two major political parties in there for ascendancy. Read the constitution. So few people have read those actual portions. If you have federal system you get local police control. That's what this is about. The third piece is what I would be doing to make sure elements of genuine Iraqi military are in place. There are 10 divisions now; five are serious, five are not. What we should do is give the central government the power vet and turn that army into a real army. Ultimately the central government has to have ability to control them. What we're doing now, we're not separating out the militia. Number one, we're not going into a full blown vetting operation … When people criticize my plan, I say, "Do you think in the next 10 years there is any likelihood that no matter how well trained Iraqi police are that people in the Sunni region will allow Shia police to roam in their territory or that Kurds will allow the Sunnis to do so?" About 930,000 people have self-ethnic cleansed already.

What are the prospects for John Bolton, the controversial U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to be confirmed in your committee?

Bolton's gone. These guys have got to get real. They can't even get him out of a Republican-led committee. All they keep floating is the prospect that they're going to come up with a construct to keep him there—make him a deputy [which wouldn't require Senate confirmation] but not send anybody else up. I wish they'd grow up.

What should President Bush do about Iran and its nuclear program, now that it seems Tehran has successfully divided the United States, Europe and Russia on the issue of sanctions in the U.N. Security Council? Does he need to move to broad direct talks that will link up the nuclear and Iraq issues, among others?

I think he's going to end up talking to Iran because he has no alternative. The terms [of the talks] should be wide open. This administration spends too much time arguing over the shape of the table. They don't get anything done. But guessing what this administration is going to do is like reading the entrails of goats in ancient times. I think this is the gang that can't shoot straight.

You don't think Bush will attack Iran in the end?

I don't think so … The reason being, we have no capacity to do that. Even with airstrikes, now that you've energized the Iranian population, what do you do then?

What about Mideast peace? Some within the administration have hinted in recent months they are hoping to get the Israelis and Palestinians back together.

I hope they're moving in that direction. We've been AWOL on that issue. My view is there's paralysis in Israel. It seems to me there are enough people to speak to in all parts of the Israeli government, and this may be an opportunity to deal with Syria in a way that advances our mutual interests. We should be acting as a catalyst, offering private initiatives. We should also be significantly increasing our aid to the Lebanese government.

What would you do about North Korea, which is showing few signs of backing down from its progress toward becoming a nuclear power?

Again, you've got to talk. The North Koreans aren't all stupid. The idea that you are going to say to any country, "Change your behavior, and after you do we're going to change your regime," when in fact you have no option to change the regime, doesn't make any sense. These guys have got to get in the real world here. In order to change [North Korean] behavior you have to give up regime change and pre-emption as the only two prongs of our foreign policy … But nothing else happens unless you get Iraq squared away.