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MSNBC Meet the Press - Transcript

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MSNBC Meet the Press - Transcript
Sunday, August 14, 2005


MS. MITCHELL: We're back, joined by the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden.


SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN, (D-DE): How are you doing, Andrea? It's great to be with you, Andrea.

MS. MITCHELL: Good to be with you. Let's start, first of all, with today's Washington Post, today's headlines. The lead story: "U.S. Lowers Sights on What Can Be Achieved in Iraq." It says, "The Bush administration is significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq, recognizing that the United States will have to settle for far less progress than originally envisioned during the transition due to end in four months, according to U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad. The United States no longer expects to see a model new democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a society in which the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges, U.S. officials say."

Are you seeing this possible leak as an exit strategy?

SEN. BIDEN: Absolutely. I think that the administration has significantly downgraded their expectations. They have squandered about every opportunity to get it right. The best thing they've done so far is the man you've just spoken to, our ambassador there, who seems to understand it better than anyone in the administration. But the bottom line is, they are significantly lowering expectations.

MS. MITCHELL: I want to return to that in just a few minutes, but I also want to get to today's headline in The New York Times...


MS. MITCHELL: ...because The Times' lead story says that the U.S. is struggling once again, for the second time, in fact, with body armor, that the body armor is failing our troops. This is a critical issue.


MS. MITCHELL: What is your response to this and how does this happen?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, you know, I don't understand how it happens. Imagine if Secretary Rumsfeld was the CEO of a corporation. These guys talk about how they came from business backgrounds. He'd be fired by now. The idea that we are at this moment, with this headline saying "U.S. Struggles to Get Soldiers Updated Armor," is absolutely irresponsible. And I realize all the problems. If you read the article, it goes back two and a half years and the mistakes consistently being made. And I just--I don't get it. I think Rumsfeld should get his notice on Monday morning.

MS. MITCHELL: Well, in fact, one of your colleagues, one of your Republican colleagues, John McCain, this morning on FOX reiterated what he said previously: that he does not have confidence in Don Rumsfeld. Is Rumsfeld just a...

SEN. BIDEN: No one does but the president.

MS. MITCHELL: ...convenient whipping boy for this, though?


MS. MITCHELL: This is the president, this is the Pentagon; I mean, this is larger than just one defense secretary, is it not?

SEN. BIDEN: No, that's true, but we can't fire the president and the vice president for their incompetence, to the extent that it exists, but you can, in fact, do that with the secretary of defense. And look, one of the reasons we've had difficulty getting others to get involved, meaning our European friends, NATO, the EU--they look out there, and as long as Rumsfeld's in charge of this operation, as opposed to the uniformed military, they virtually have no confidence in our ability to get the job done. And I just think it is--I don't understand the president's willingness to continue to follow the advice of a man who has not been right on a single major piece of advice he's given the president since the statue of Saddam has fallen in that circle on that fateful day over two and a half years ago.

MS. MITCHELL: Well, in addition to the military challenge that we face minute by minute in Iraq, obviously today a major political challenge; you just heard from the ambassador...


MS. MITCHELL: ...the president, as you heard this morning, said on Thursday in Crawford that hopefully--hopefully--we will be able to have a constitution there that permits equal rights for women. After $215 billion spent since the war began, just on the military side, not even on reconstruction, and, of course, the most important value, the more than 1,800 American troops that have lost their lives and countless others who have been injured, are we creating a fundamentalist country there that is more rigid, more hard-line, than what originally existed under Saddam Hussein?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, hopefully, that won't occur. But it's become a likelihood, or it's very probable that we may face that problem. And it's because we have misread, misrepresented, and misunderstood from the day we've gone in with this civilian side of this administration exactly what was going on in Iraq.

And, look, you have Zal now, our new ambassador, in place. If he had been there from the beginning, I doubt whether we would be in this place. You look, Andrea, and for the past six to 10 months, we have virtually had hands-off in terms of anything having to do with the constitution, refusing to bring in any regional powers to be part of the political success that may be enjoyed in Iraq, and only now with Zal coming in at the very end, he may be able to pull the chestnuts out of the fire, but we have squandered one opportunity after another. And it's frustrating. It is really--and it makes it hard to support this administration.

MS. MITCHELL: Well, Secretary Rice told Time magazine last week that the real measure of progress will be political progress. She said, in fact, to Time, that the insurgents are "losing steam." Do you agree with that?

SEN. BIDEN: I see no evidence of that. And it's questionable whether or not political progress alone, without military progress and progress in reconstruction on the ground, changing the lives of the people who live in the neighborhoods that are now wracked with crime, have sewage running in their streets, have no electricity, have no jobs--I don't--I'm not sure that political progress alone, absent those military and economic progress, is going to make the difference that this administration seems to be counting on.

MS. MITCHELL: Let's talk about the troops and whether or not we are stretched too thin...

SEN. BIDEN: Oh, we are.

MS. MITCHELL: one of our analysts, General Barry McCaffrey, has suggested. Are we stretched too thin?

SEN. BIDEN: Absolutely. Positively. From the very beginning, when we went in with too few troops, we fired General Shinseki, the chief of the Army, for saying we need several hundred thousand troops. That's what we needed from the beginning. We have a situation--I just came back from my fifth trip over the Memorial Day weekend into Iraq. Every flag officer, every general level officer I met with pointed out that we don't have enough troops to mount a sufficient counterinsurgency. That area of Anbar province, which is up against the Syrian border--these brave Marines go in, they clear it out, they cannot stay in, occupy it, it fills back up again. And so now there's this race, this race against time. Can the insurgents bring more people in from the outside, jihadists, before we can train up an adequate military in Iraq? And that's going to take at least another year.

MS. MITCHELL: Another year? Well, Senator, Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers both said this week that we've now trained and equipped, to use their language, 178,000 Iraqi troops. That's 5,000 more than what they had told Congress a month ago. So they say they're making progress.

SEN. BIDEN: That is...

MS. MITCHELL: You told FOX a week ago--you told our friends at FOX, that only 3,000 are really trained and equipped and able to stand on their own. That's a very...

SEN. BIDEN: Fewer than 3,000.

MS. MITCHELL: Well, how do you account for that disparity? Are you lowballing it?

SEN. BIDEN: Well--no, I'm not.

MS. MITCHELL: Are they exaggerating it?

SEN. BIDEN: Look, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the number of troops that we have trained out of 100 battalions that are in uniform--and battalions make 300 to 800 people in each battalion. These are Iraqi battalions. We have fully trained fewer than 3,000. Fully trained meaning they can take the place of an American troop. We have another probably 20 to 30 battalions out there that, with embedded U.S. military, are able to do a serious, positive job. After that, it falls off the cliff.

If we have 178,000 troops that are already trained, Andrea, why do we need 130,000 American troops which would get you over 300,000 people in Iraq, with the body counts going up, with the insurgency gaining strength? And the president continues to say he is pleased with the training schedule. I don't know any military man or woman in Iraq who's pleased with that schedule.

MS. MITCHELL: Well, let me show you what the president said only this week about that.

(Videotape, Thursday):

PRES. BUSH: Our mission in Iraq, as I said earlier, is to fight the terrorists, is to train the Iraqis, and we're making progress training the Iraqis. Oh, I know it's hard for some Americans to see that progress. But we are making progress. More and more Iraqi units are becoming more and more capable of fighting off the terrorists.

(End videotape)

MS. MITCHELL: In fact, there was a report just recently from Ramadi that there were Sunni forces willing to go to bat to protect Shiites in their area from Zarqawi attacks.

SEN. BIDEN: Yes, but none of those...

MS. MITCHELL: So is there some progress?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, there is some progress, but just to get that straight, the Sunnis who went to bat to protect the Shia against al-Qaeda forces were not trained by the United States. They were tribal forces that were taking on in their region the al-Qaeda elements of Zarqawi. That is a very positive step, but that is not an organized army. That is not the trained military we are talking about. It is useful. It is positive.

But, look, Andrea, my greatest concern is this gigantic riff between the rhetoric we hear from the administration and the reality on the ground and it's causing the American people to abandon what is an essential fight we have. We must succeed in Iraq leaving a stable country behind that's not a haven for terror and we need more time to do that. And when the president continues to talk about this success, the American people just turn on your channel, they turn on your television. They understand that they are not being leveled with here.

MS. MITCHELL: Senator Biden, what should the endgame be? Big picture. Do we need to create a democracy in Iraq? Is that even realistic? What is the definition of success?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, my definition of success from the very beginning has been not a democracy. It will not happen in my lifetime there will be a liberal democracy. What I am hoping for, along with Republicans members of the Senate, as well Hagel and Lugar and others, has been that there be a secure nation within its borders that's basically a representative government where everybody thinks they've got a piece of the action that is federated in part where there is more autonomy given to the regions than ordinarily would be assumed in a united democracy, and the institutions in place where there is enough ability for that government, whatever is elected, to secure the physical safety of its people and not be a threat to its neighbors. That is as good as it is going to get and pray God that that's what happens. But the idea of a liberal democracy with institutions that function like Western democracies is beyond my comprehension in the near term.

MS. MITCHELL: There is a mother of a soldier who died in Iraq who is protesting down in Crawford and has now been joined by organized anti-war protesters. Do you agree with Cindy Sheehan? Should we withdraw immediately?

SEN. BIDEN: No, we should not withdraw immediately. The fact of the matter is if we withdraw immediately, now we're going to end up with a haven for terror, the very thing that didn't exist before, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in the middle of a region that is of vital interest to us. We have a lot of hard slogging to go and the first measure is to level with the American people about how much more is needed. If you listen to--and you did obviously--to the ambassador, he said, "We need more time," and he indicated something--he's the first administration official to say it, something that I've been saying and others for some time. We need a regional policy.

When we're in the Balkans, we, in fact, dealt with the Croates as well as the Serbs in order to the Dayton accords. We need a regional policy that encompasses some sort of agreement and deal with the Iranians, the Syrians, the Saudis. The irony here is you have the United States and the Iranians pitching in with the Shia and the Kurds and you have the Saudis and the Syrians promoting the Sunni extremism. There's got to be a regional policy here. They have none thus far.

MS. MITCHELL: Let me show you a recent poll of how the American people now view the situation in Iraq. The CNN-Gallup Poll says that only 34 percent now feel that it has made us safer. Fifty-seven percent feels it's made us less safer. The president in his radio speech yesterday said that we're fighting this war in Iraq as part of a global war on terror and we're fighting there so we don't have to fight them at home. Is the homeland safer because of the war in Iraq?

SEN. BIDEN: We're all better off Saddam is gone, but I--this is an example once again where the American people are brighter than their leaders, they're smarter than their leaders. They understand fully that what's happened is it has become a training ground. There's actually some evidence when I was there back in--Memorial Day that not only are these jihadists coming in and fighting and getting trained on the job, that they're also after being trained being exported to Europe and other parts of the world. So the fact of the matter is we have not become safer from terrorists as a consequence of this, but the irony is unless we now finish the job, we will be considerably less safe than we were before and that's why we must stay in order to try to put a government in place that has the capacity to, in fact, secure its own country.

MS. MITCHELL: Senator, let's turn to domestic issues. You are a prominent member of the Judiciary Committee.

SEN. BIDEN: Thank God I'm no longer chairman.

MS. MITCHELL: Well, you may not be chairman, but you carry a lot of weight on that committee. And you and seven other Democrats on the committee have written to the administration demanding documents, records from when John Roberts was in the solicitor general's office. Is this a fishing expedition?

SEN. BIDEN: Not at all. There are very--it's a very narrowed request, as you know. Walter Dellinger, the former solicitor general who pointed out in the Miguel Estrada case, saying that you should not have access to those papers, has pointed out that with a political appointment and a senior person like John Roberts there at the solicitor general's office is totally appropriate. In addition to that, the administration has already given us those materials when he worked at the Justice Department and the White House, and so they've waived any privilege that existed.

And look, this shouldn't be a game, Andrea, a game of hide-and-seek here. The American people are entitled to know what general views that the new nominee has on the major issues of the day. And so instead of playing a game like us having to, you know, sort of we got you, you got to give us this document, they should be willing to be forthcoming and have to state forthrightly what his views are on a number of these major subjects.

MS. MITCHELL: Well, would you follow your own precedent with the John Bolton nomination and oppose the nomination of John Roberts if you don't get these documents? You opposed Bolton when you didn't get the documents...

SEN. BIDEN: Well...

MS. MITCHELL: were looking for.

SEN. BIDEN: Well, the answer is that my vote for or against John Bolton will depend upon how forthcoming he is about his views.

MS. MITCHELL: You mean John Roberts.

SEN. BIDEN: I mean, excuse me.

MS. MITCHELL: Go ahead. Sorry.

SEN. BIDEN: I mean John Roberts. Excuse me.

MS. MITCHELL: I think that I confused everybody here.

SEN. BIDEN: No, no, no, that was me. My vote on Judge Roberts will depend upon how willingly forthcoming he is about his views. Imagine us saying to a presidential candidate or a Senate or House candidate, "Look, we don't really care what your views are. We just want to make sure that you're honest and decent and bright." Can you imagine the public saying, "Oh, that's OK. That's all we need to know." And here we're about to appoint someone for life; for life, and God willing, he will serve over 30 years based on the actuarial tables if he is confirmed and he is required, we are required, under the Constitution, to find out what his general views are on how to interpret those difficult clauses in the Constitution, like the liberty clause and the takings clause in the Fifth Amendment, and all other aspects of what are the defining issues of the day for the Supreme Court.

MS. MITCHELL: So you would be prepared to vote against him if he is not specific...

SEN. BIDEN: Oh, absolutely.

MS. MITCHELL: ...and/or you don't get these documents?

SEN. BIDEN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, positively, and I told that to the judge when he visited with me. I was very impressed with him. He's a very bright fellow. He has a great personality, and he seemed to understand that he had an obligation and a requirement not to tell us how he will vote on a particular case, but to tell us how he views and how he approaches interpreting those very, very difficult elements and words and phrases in the Constitution that have serious consequences relating to our privacy. For example, does he believe there's a right of privacy in the Constitution? I believe there is. A significant number of scholars do and a significant number don't. What is his view? I don't want him to tell me how he would vote on any position regarding Roe v. Wade, but I do want him to tell me if whether or not he believes that there is an area of autonomy we have in our lives that the government cannot intrude upon.

MS. MITCHELL: In fact, Roe v. Wade was predicated on the so-called right to privacy...

SEN. BIDEN: Exactly.

MS. MITCHELL: ...which has been challenged by legal scholars on all sides.

SEN. BIDEN: Oh, it has.

MS. MITCHELL: But let me ask you this. In the last few days a prominent pro-choice group, NARAL, has withdrawn a television commercial against John Roberts, which is very controversial, which, in fact, is, by all accounts, misleading. Would you have run that ad?

SEN. BIDEN: Absolutely not. It was a misleading ad, and the thing that bothers me about it is it takes our eye off the real issue and that is now we're going to debate whether or not the ad was misleading or not--and I believe it was misleading and unfair--instead of focusing on what is Judge Roberts' view on the question of whether or not the government--the Constitution protects individuals from the government being able to intrude on their autonomy, like the Schiavo case? What does he think the extent of the power of the government to invade our personal space is and what extent does he think that the government can act as a shield against major interests, major powerful economic interests, like can we stop tobacco companies from targeting our children so that they smoke? Is that a violation of the First Amendment? These are issues that he should be discussing. They're critical to our future, and I expect him to do that.

MS. MITCHELL: Now, Senator, back in June, you stirred things up in Washington and around the country when you told my friend Bob Schieffer that is your intention now, to use your words...


MS. MITCHELL: run for president. Are you any closer to making a decision, to establishing an exploratory committee, to raising money?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, yes. I'm out there. I've spent a lot of time in the red states, Andrea, trying to find out if there's anybody but me that thinks I should run for president of the United States of America.

MS. MITCHELL: And what have you found?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, I've found that it does not a nomination make, but I've found some sporadic support. Where I've gone, there's been--it's been--I've been greeted with open arms. It does not mean that I would be the nominee, but it does mean I'm going to continue the quest to determine whether or not I can put together a campaign and raise the money and be a viable candidate for president. That's my intention. Now, I know I'm not supposed to tell you that; I'm only supposed to play the game like the rest of the potential nominees and say, "Well, I'm"--but I am thinking about it and that's my intention until I run against something that indicates to me that I would not be viable. I believe I can be a viable candidate, but it's too early to make that final judgment.

MS. MITCHELL: But aside from a final judgment, so far you're encouraged by what you're seeing...

SEN. BIDEN: Oh, yes, I am.

MS. MITCHELL: the so-called red states?

SEN. BIDEN: No. No. No, I am. I am. I know what I think. I know what I believe. And I believe that if I state clearly my views on where this country should go, if I can convince enough Democrats to share that view, that I would have a shot at being the nominee.

MS. MITCHELL: All right. Well, stay tuned, and we will watch that progress.

SEN. BIDEN: Thank you.

MS. MITCHELL: Senator, thank you very much for joining us today.

SEN. BIDEN: Thank you, Andrea. I appreciate it.


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