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Remarks by Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) Regarding U.S. Policy Towards Iraq

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Location: Washington, DC


Remarks by Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) Regarding U.S. Policy Towards Iraq

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SEN. BIDEN: Good afternoon.

Like the rest of my colleagues, I listened very closely to President Bush's speech at the United nations, and I think his speech was a powerful indictment, by the United Nations' own standards, of Saddam Hussein and his contempt for the world.

Some of us have been saying for some time that this is not only the U.S.'s fight, it's the world's fight. It's the world's fight against Saddam Hussein. And the credibility of the United Nations is on the line as well here. And I thought using the U.N.'s own standards, using the resolution the U.N. Security Council has passed, by definition unanimously, the president has made it absolutely clear that Saddam Hussein has violated and reneged on every commitment made.

Some say, by the way, that, well, why focus on Saddam? Other nations are seeking weapons of mass destruction. Other nations are potential threats. No other nation invaded another country, lost a war and as a condition of staying in power agreed to a specific set of responsibilities they would undertake. The issue is weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's flaunting (sic) of the U.N. resolutions requiring him -- Security Council resolutions requiring him to give them up and have them destroyed.

I think the president, on second point, also did the right thing by going to the United Nations. It is very important, very important for our national interest, that the president demonstrate what he did demonstrate today, and that is that there is nothing unilateral about what we are doing. We are reminding the world and the U.N. of its obligations. We think there is a serious threat, and we know there has been a flat, unadulterated rejection of the commitment made by Saddam Hussein after he was defeated after having invaded Kuwait.

And so I think the president did a very good job today. I think that we should now wait and see specifically what resolution the president is going to ask the U.N. Security Council to respond to, and move from there.

But I'm open to questions.

Q How soon should a resolution come up before the United Nations, do you think? And what kind of timeframe are we looking at?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, based on what the president said privately to some of us and what he implied as I read him speaking today, he is prepared to be reasonable on this, that he -- I got the impression that he was not going to set any ultimatum; he was going to work with the Security Council to decide what was a rational time in which to have such a resolution, whatever the format exactly is, acted upon. And also, I would think the president would want to give the secretary of State, who's very persuasive and extremely well respected around the world and within the Security Council, an opportunity to make the case, whatever case the president decides in the literal terms to make, before the Security Council.

So the president pointed out that there is no urgency in terms of days or weeks -- possibly even months, although I think he's thinking in terms of weeks -- and, as you all know, and as the administration has indicated, that it would be -- it would take some time -- regardless of what decision we make, it would take some time for the United States if it concluded that the U.N. was not prepared to act and we felt we had to act independent of the others in the U.N. or U.N. authority. We're talking next year.

And so I don't see a sense of urgency in terms of days or weeks, either on the U.N. resolution or, quite frankly, on us, the United States Congress, acting on -- I'm hearing people talking about -- we're going to be presented with or some members are going to draft a joint resolution authorizing the president to use force. I think both those things are premature at the moment. Let's see -- let's take -- the president has said he's a patient man. Some of you have asked me in the past, since the fall -- since the spring, wasn't it already a foregone conclusion that the president would not go to the United Nations? And was arguing, no, it was no such foregone conclusion.

Some of you were asking the legitimate question: Wasn't it a foregone conclusion that president, as late as the middle of August, would not come to the Congress to see congressional authority, which I believed all along he had an absolute requirement to do. And I've been saying all along the president has not made up his mind definitely on any specific point. He's approaching this, as I see it, in a very logical, methodical and rational way to enhance the prospects that if and when the United States moves upon Saddam Hussein, we do it with the consent of the United Nations, or at least, if that does not occur, being able to have made the case that we did it by the numbers, we did it by the numbers; we were not unilateral, we were not acting just, you know, with only our own self interests in place.

And the president, by this step, by this speech, by this presentation he made today, made a very strong case against Saddam, for the United Nations having to act, and demonstrating that we were acting according to the rational rules of international procedure here. And I think that's all positive.

Yes, Miles?

Q Would you oppose --

SEN. BIDEN: I'm sorry.

Q Would you oppose a resolution authorizing military action if it came before -- soon, within the next few weeks?

SEN. BIDEN: It would seem to me that that would -- well, it would depend on what it said. And I don't want to prejudge it. But it would seem to me that's putting the cart before the horse. Here the president is going to the United Nations today and he says it's your responsibility to act in accordance with the resolutions you've already passed, and which Saddam has already agreed to. I -- as I read what he said -- I, President Bush, representing the United States, am coming back to you again and saying this is our responsibility to act. I'm going to ask you in the very near term -- meaning days or weeks -- to act on a specific additional resolution -- as I read what he said today -- and I will reserve judgment on how the United States will respond based on what you do.

Now, let's assume, let's assume he goes to the United Nations with a specific proposal for unfettered, uninhibited U.N. inspections on the basis of whatever the U.N. asks for.

And let's assume that passes the Security Council. It may not, but let's assume it does. It would seem to me to be somewhat foolish for the United States Senate in that time period to be up here essentially issuing a declaration of war.

So I think we should let the president work his way through this process. And that's what he seems to be doing, at least from my perspective in the way which I wanted to see him act. And he's doing it.

Yes, (Miles ?).

Q Two questions on that. Senator Lott said that it would helpful for the president in negotiating foreign countries to have a resolution beforehand, that it would strengthen his hand in these negotiations with the Security Council members that Congress was on board and that the allies, the key five --

SEN. BIDEN: I don't think that's -- I don't think there's any doubt about that. I think we could gather up -- and I'm not that significant a senator, but we could gather up, quote, "the leading senators" in the United States Senate of both parties to stand at the White House, on the lawn of the White House with the president of the United States and say, "We support exactly what the president asked you to do. We stand together."

Q But including the potential use of military force?

SEN. BIDEN: Yes, including the potential. Just the way you said it. That's what the president said today. The president did not say today -- at least I didn't hear, and I have not heard him say in private with me -- I didn't hear him saying -- "This is an ultimatum. You, the Security Council, pass this resolution; if you do not pass this resolution, the United States is invading"; or say, "You, the Security Council, pass this resolution; and if it's passed and Saddam doesn't respond, we're invading." He didn't say either of those things.

He was extremely prudent, consistent with what Brent Scowcroft and what every other major serious player has been saying. And that is, "Mr. President, you did the right thing. You went out and said, `First things first. There's a case, according to U.N. standards, that you, Saddam Hussein, have flouted the authority of the United Nations. We insist that you adhere. We're asking you one more time.'"

Depending on whether or not the U.N. does that, or depending on whether they do it and he refuses, then the president has options. And the option always is -- I made a speech yesterday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 9/11, and I was asked, as a consequence, at the World Affairs Council speech, what did I think, and I said I thought the worst option was going alone. But it's an option. It's an option, an option I support. I would not want the president to give it up. I would not want the president to forswear it. But obviously it's better for us. It's better for our interest if in fact we do not do this alone.

So I think we should take this one step at a time. My colleagues always amaze me, how they talk about not wanting to micromanage, but they don't let presidents proceed, when they're doing it the right way, in an orderly fashion.

Q And if the president comes before the U.N. vote with a request that Congress authorize military force?

SEN. BIDEN: It would seem inconsistent to me to do that, to ask us to for the authorization of military force before whatever he's asked the Security Council to do they've had a chance to respond to. Big nations can't bluff. Big nations can't bluff. Senators and congressmen should not vote for the equivalent of a declaration of war unless they plan on going to war. This should not be an ancillary thing -- you know, something -- you know, you give a president that authority, so he has it in his pocket; we declare war on you if the president wants to. That seems to me not to be a rational way to do this.

Now again, I have -- I know I've been the odd man out for the last eight months in predicting what the president would do and not do. Well, I'm going to be the odd man out, I guess, today as well. Let's just see what the president asks for. I'm not talking about you, the press. We -- senators and congressmen -- we should just all just calm down a little bit. The man did a brilliant job today. He made a strong case today. He laid down the gauntlet to the Security Council and the United Nations. He made an unassailable case that Saddam has flaunted (sic) the U.N.'s own standards. Now let's see what the next step is.

Q Has Secretary Powell or any other member of the administration briefed you on their strategy in dealing with the Security Council, particularly with regard to China and Russia?

SEN. BIDEN: I have had the occasion to speak at some length with Secretary Powell and others. It has not been so much a briefing on what the strategy is.

I have spent -- because, quite frankly, I don't know that anyone in the administration could've told you with certainty 48 hours ago exactly what that speech was going to say, because as we all know -- and I'm not saying this as a criticism -- there's still competing factions. I'm sure there's some people in the administration who are unhappy the president even went to the United Nations. Remember now what was being said across the river and in other places in the administration all during the months of April, May, June, July and August -- that any -- any -- talk of weapons inspection was just a simple waste of time. So I assume those people -- have been saying that were disappointed the president went up, because I know --

Poor Miles; he's had to cover me all the time -- Miles has heard me say publicly and privately, in response to you, I thought it was critical the president go to the United Nations even if they were going to say no -- even if they said no, just to "check off the box," to let the whole world know we are not being capricious here. We are pointing out that this guy has violated every commitment he made to the world through the United Nations -- not to us; to the world. This is the world's problem, not just ours. But at the end of the day, if the world refuses to exercise its responsibility, we should reserve the right to exercise it on our own. Let's take it one step at a time. That's my view.

Q Along those lines you said earlier, the president did not issue an ultimatum to the United Nations. But it's not much of a stretch to read between the lines and whatever -- (inaudible).

SEN. BIDEN: No, it's not. It's called diplomacy, and he did it the right way.

Q Should the British or the French offer the resolution?

SEN. BIDEN: That is a tactical judgment that I think should be left to the executive as to how to do that. I, for one, have -- I've spent extensive time Senator Lugar and Senator Hagel and some other of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. I think there's a way to pass a very strong resolution -- a very strong resolution. I think there's a way to get a very strong resolution that --

And what's the purpose of the resolution, folks? Let's go back to that -- in my view, so you know where I'm coming from and, I think, where the president's coming from, although I clearly do not speak for the president on this. The purpose of the resolution is to let Saddam Hussein know that he either has to depart with power, or to depart with the weapons (sic).

Now, his inclination to depart (sic) with the weapons is increased expedientially to the extent that China, Russia, France and others insist that he part with the weapons.

So, what is the most favored outcome for us? If you had the choice, to put it in terms of what I say at home, if I had the choice of having Saddam Hussein in power with a guarantee he had no weapons of mass destruction, or Saddam Hussein out of power with no guarantee that those weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed, I know what I'd pick. I'd pick no weapons of mass destruction.

And as Senator Lugar is pointing out in my hearings, there is no guarantee that if we take out Saddam -- (laughs) -- that we take out the weapons. Who succeeds? We don't need to know the answer to that ahead of time. But it's a rational question to ask yourself. Because what is this about? It's about weapons of mass destruction. There are a number of countries that flaunt international treaties in terms of the way they treat their people, the way in which they do not abide by commitments made. And we should pursue those. But cut it all away.

I heard John McCain earlier. I agree with John. It's about weapons of mass destruction.

Q So you're -- you're splitting with the administration here on the --

SEN. BIDEN: I'm not splitting with them on -- no. The -- now, look. I think there should -- by the way, the president didn't use the word "regime change" this time, if you notice. He hasn't used that word in the last two weeks, I've noticed. And he talks --

Q (Off mike) -- in his only interview on September 11th.

SEN. BIDEN: Well, it's -- I didn't hear that. Because when we met with him, he didn't use -- he talked about disarmament. That's why I say we have to wait here. We have to wait and see what is the resolution the president asks for. Is the president -- is the resolution the president asks for one that would require him to give up his weapons of mass destruction or face the prospect of U.N.- supported sanctions against him, physical sanctions, or face the prospect of unilateral -- U.S. -- military force against him? Let's take these one at a time.

So far you've all been wrong about the president so far. None of you have gotten it right so far. None of us have. He hasn't made up his mind completely yet. Let's see what he says. (Laughs.)

Q Senator Biden --

Q Senator Biden, are you concerned about how close the resolution may be coming to the elections, if you wait till after --

SEN. BIDEN: Well, I'm always -- look, there are -- there's an overused expression, which maybe never made a lot of sense, but conveys a notion, since I've been here in the Senate, since '72, that politics should stop at the water's edge.

I'd paraphrase that. Some issues are so serious, so important to the United States, that they should in fact be taken as far out of the realm of politics as possible. This is one of those issues.

I believe that it would be wise, if the president concludes he wants a resolution authorizing him to use force against Saddam Hussein, that that be done in as dispassionate and non-political a fora as possible, like last time. Were I advising him, I would say, "Mr. President, ask the Congress to come back one, two, three, five days after the election, devote one, two, three, five days to a debate and a vote on whatever you ask them for."

What I do not want to see happen for the United States is I don't want to see a congressional vote that's like the old joke, "The board votes 5 to 4 for your speedy recovery." I don't want a 51-49 vote -- whatever we do. I want a 99 to 10 (sic) or 100 to nothing vote. Because to the extent that the president's supporters are correct -- and on this score I count myself as one -- that it's useful that the world knows he has our support, the greater the show of that support, the greater leverage he has.

And since nobody is arguing -- I've not heard a single person, responsible person, say the United States may have to act with force before January 1st. Since I've not heard a single person say that, why not be rational about this, why not be studied about this? Why not do this is in as dispassionate way and nonpolitical way as we can? But I can't control that.

Q But, Mr. Chairman, the White House has made it pretty clear they expect -- that they would like to have a resolution out of the Congress sometime this month, by the end of the month. And the Republican leadership has suggested they've already begun working on it.

SEN. BIDEN: But it's not done yet. The White House made it clear they didn't need our support -- didn't they -- before? Didn't they? They had a memo that they circulated to you, and they said in August, "We make it clear, Mr. President, you don't have to go to the Congress." And all of you, and people like you said to me, "Isn't it clear the president is not going to come to you?" Wrong. He came to us.

I am not prejudging anything. I am not prejudging anything. I am saying to you that I think the most rational way to proceed, with the greatest amount of support, if we are left with no option but to act alone, is to have run all the traps, is have gotten as broad of support from the American public as possible, through their elected officials, in a timely fashion, before you would have to contemplate assembling force to act. That what I think the policy should be. I don't control that policy and, therefore --

Q A follow up on that, though, Mr. Chairman.

STAFF: Last question.

Q Are you suggesting that the vote is likely to be more affirmative after the election than before it?

SEN. BIDEN: I'm suggesting that it's more likely to be viewed by the world and by the American public as less political after than before. That's what I'm suggesting.

Q Senator, Senator McCain, trying to make the argument that he thought at in the end, a resolution would in fact have overwhelming support. Somebody asked what Democrats do you have on your side, and he said your name.

SEN. BIDEN: Well he's right. He's right about --

Q So what --

SEN. BIDEN: Look, look, the devil's in the details in all these things. Let me give you one other example, and then I'll leave. You recall when 9/11 occurred, the president came to the United States Senate and asked for a resolution, a joint resolution, authorizing the use of force. Remember that?

Now, there was a blanket resolution that went through the House. It landed on my desk because my colleagues, because of my responsibility, and the leader turned to me and said, "Look at this resolution." The resolution was overly broad, overly broad. I was told by my colleagues at the time, "No one can resist this resolution." And my response was, "Occasionally reason prevails. Occasionally reason prevails."

And so I, along with the help of two others -- I had the main responsibility -- redrafted the resolution, worked with the White House.

Much more proscribed resolution. Totally consistent with our constitutional theory, our history and how we should act responsibly. And it passed overwhelmingly. And so I do not assume anything, I do not assume anything about the detail of what we're going to have to respond to.

On the generic point of whether or not Saddam Hussein should stay in power with his weapons and his appetite to increase possession of deadly weapons, my view is, no, we cannot tolerate that. If five years from now Saddam Hussein is still around and nothing's happened, we're in real trouble.

Now, what do I do in the meantime? I, as a United States senator, have only one option. I can make my suggestions, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, when asked by the president. And I don't say this in any -- he has been kind enough to ask me on a number of occasions my view on this and other subjects in foreign policy. I can attempt to make my views known through administration officials, from the secretary of State, to the White House counsel, to the national security adviser -- with whom I meet regularly. But after that, all I can do is react. And what you are, fairly, asking me to do is react to speculative possibilities. And I'm not going to do that.

But John McCain is right, he and I are on the same wavelength. I do not rule out war with Saddam Hussein, but the devil's in the details. "How?" "When?" "Under what circumstance?" "With whom?" are all important questions.

And let me conclude by saying to you, I am -- John and I -- John was a hero in a war that wouldn't take me because I flunked the physical, but we do come from the same generation, the generation of Vietnam that, if anything, no matter what our position on that war was, we all agree on one thing, by my observation so far the last 30 years: that no matter how well-formulated a foreign policy, it cannot be sustained without the informed consent of the American people. Let me say that again: the informed consent of the American people.

Go home and ask your wives and your husbands whether they think they have been informed sufficiently to know whether or not they're willing to risk sending American forces into a circumstance that they may be struck with chemical and biological weapons. Go home and ask your spouses, your families, whether they feel they're informed enough to make a judgment as to whether or not they want to run the risk of every embassy in the Middle East burning down the moment we cross into Saudi -- into -- excuse me -- into Iraq.

Ask them. Are they -- do they feel informed enough to know whether we're going have to maintain forces in Iraq after we defeat Saddam Hussein? Are they prepared to pick up a bill of $100 billion front- end and maybe a bill of $20 billion a year for the foreseeable future? I am prepared, the case being made, to undertake all of those things, but not without first informing the American public.

And that's why I think it's premature to put the cart before the horse. People are saying to me, "Joe, hold more hearings" -- Democrats and Republicans. If we have a resolution next week, what's the point of hearings? Vote first, listen later? We should be deliberate about this. We should make sure the country is behind us. The end where John McCain -- I began with saying John McCain listed me; John was right to list me. John knows that if we make the case, if we make clear to the American people what we think the possible sacrifices they'll have to make are, I am prepared to act.

But what I am not comfortable doing is acting in a vacuum. I am not comfortable in acting without having told the American people what are the probable consequences of our action -- not merely the consequences of inaction, but the consequences of action. And so I have faith -- I really mean this -- I have faith in the president. I have faith that he will, in fact, do this in a studied way. When I left the meeting -- he was kind enough to call on me at that meeting with the congressional leadership. He said, "Joe" -- or, "Mr. Chairman, what do you think?" And I told him. I said, "Mr. President, I'll be with you if you make the case in a deliberate way and you fully inform the American people, including, Mr. President, the need for us to stay -- stay -- in Iraq after we defeat Saddam." And his response was, "I will."

That case has not been made yet. The American people have a right to know. And so I am confident every step of the way he has ultimately -- not ultimately -- he has acted in the fashion that I think is appropriate for the president to act. I'm assuming he will continue to do that.

Q Senator what's your --

SEN. BIDEN: Thank you all very, very much. Thank you.

Q Any -- (inaudible) -- hearings?

SEN. BIDEN: Not until we know -- I mean, I plan on setting up hearings. But if all of a sudden, I find we're voting on a -- you know --

Q Can you go back --

END.


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