The Last Word: John Edwards--'Real Moral Leadership'

Republican opposition killed the proposed takeover of some American port facilities by a Dubai company, but congressional Democrats were the first to fan the flames of the controversy. Eager to capitalize on President George W. Bush's weakness in the polls, and with midterm elections looming later in the year, opposition-party members were clearly looking to regain some ground on national security. Former senator John Edwards, a vice presidential candidate in 2004, has similarly been laying the groundwork for a future run at the presidency by trying to bolster his foreign-policy credentials, most recently by co-chairing a Council on Foreign Relations task force examining U.S.-Russian relations. NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Beith spoke with Edwards about the Democrats, Dubai and Russia's bid to end the Iranian nuclear crisis. Excerpts:

Beith: Where do you stand on the ports deal?

Edwards: We shouldn't discriminate against any country, certainly not against an Arab country. The United Arab Emirates have done some really good things. [But] when it comes to the operation of our ports, I think American companies should be doing that. I don't think it should be British companies, or U.A.E. companies--I think we should be doing it. A lot of our ports are being operated right now by companies from other countries. I would not cancel those contracts or attempt to stop them, but as they expire... We should be doing this ourselves just because there's so much at stake. I also think simultaneously we need to be doing much better in terms of providing security in our ports. We're only inspecting about 5 percent of containers. We've got to have a goal of screening 100 percent of those containers.

With the congressional elections coming up later this year, how do you rate the Democrats' chances?

I think we're going to do well in 2006. It's critical for us to hold Bush and the congressional Republican leadership accountable for all their failures. I think there are so many examples of incompetence in this administration, it's amazing: the management of the war in Iraq, the response to the hurricane, efforts to implement the Medicare prescription-drug bill... the list goes on and on and on.

But talking about what they're doing wrong is not enough. We also have to lay out our positive vision for the country so that it's clear to the American people what we would do. That's across a whole range of issues, [such as] poverty in America [and] absence of health-care coverage, and show that we're going to lead on the big moral issues that face the world. Not just the war in Iraq, but things like global poverty, genocide in Darfur, human-rights abuses... We have to show not only that we're strong, but real moral leadership.

What should the United States do to improve relations with Russia?

[With Russia] we need to work with our allies in Europe--because when we speak with one voice, Russia responds much more positively. When it's just America, we don't get that kind of response. The second thing is we need to broaden the areas where we can cooperate. For example, we could enter into a civilian nuclear agreement with Russia in much the same way that we have with India. Nonproliferation is a place where we can expand and strengthen our relationship.

Have the Russians been helpful on Iran?

If I were going to choose a single test for our relationship with Russia, Iran is the test. We're united with the Europeans on this, so it really matters what Russia does in the Security Council. If ultimately the Iranians reject what we're demanding--us and the Russians--then we also should be saying to the Russians: "You should stop this Bushehr project because you can't continue to help them develop a nuclear facility while they're obviously in the process of trying to build a nuclear weapon."

How do you see the situation in Iraq right now? What would you be doing differently if you were in charge? There's a fundamental judgment about whether the footprint that we have in Iraq now is more harmful than helpful. I believe it's too large and, as a result, is more harmful. What I would do is quickly reduce the size of that footprint--reduce it by at least 40,000 troops, because we have to send a clear signal to Iraq and that part of the world that we're not going to stay there forever, we're going to allow Iraqis to govern themselves, we're going to allow them to provide their own security, and that we're not there for oil.

Second--we should already have been doing this for many months now--we have to intensify our training efforts, because these two things work together. Third, as we reduce our footprint, [we need to make] much more effort to engage in diplomacy in that part of the world, to try and get others to help us [and] help the Iraqis. The third one is by far the hardest. I'm very realistic about that. But we at least need to make the effort.

Have you decided whether you'll run for president in 2008?

No, I have not decided anything.