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PBS "The News Hour" - Transcript


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JIM LEHRER: Shortly before the change-of-command ceremony, Margaret Warner spoke with Vice President Biden. They met in a building north of Baghdad that used to be Saddam Hussein's hunting lodge.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Vice President, thank you for having us.

JOSEPH BIDEN: Happy to be with you, Margaret, really am.

MARGARET WARNER: Last night, President Obama said, we have met our responsibility in Iraq. We have been here a while. A lot of Iraqis say to us: You haven't. You came to a country, dictatorship, but at least we had services and we had security. And now we don't have either.

What do you say to them? I mean, have we met our responsibility?

JOSEPH BIDEN: Well, the vast majority of the Iraqis I speak to acknowledge that there is a great deal more security than there ever has been since the beginning of the war, number one.

Number two, when the president said we have met our combat responsibilities, he means, by that, we have trained up 650,000 Iraqi forces, and, I might add, crack special forces, who really can do the job. But the president also pointed out that this is just the beginning of our engagement with Iraq. We are ramping up our diplomatic and our civilian engagement. We want to participate in helping them develop an economy. They have got great human capital. They have got great natural resource. This is far from finished, far from finished, but there has been progress.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when the president says that the combat mission is over...


MARGARET WARNER: ... the fact is, the brigades that are staying are completely combat-ready.

JOSEPH BIDEN: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: They are combat brigades who just have a new name.

JOSEPH BIDEN: They're 50,000 troops that can shoot straight, if they have to, God willing. And we still have -- some of those troops are going to be going out on counterterrorism efforts, mentoring the -- the Iraqis. But what -- what it means is that the lead responsibility for the combat missions will be handed over and has been, quite frankly, as General Odierno points out...


JOSEPH BIDEN: ... it's been handed over for months.

MARGARET WARNER: But more American service men and women are going to die here.

JOSEPH BIDEN: Well, it's a heck of a way to put it, but there are still going to be 50,000 American service men and women here. And this is a country where you're at risk, randomly at risk. You have seen these recent bombings that have taken place. You know, the statistic is not comforting to people that it's on average that 12 events kill three people each event. Well, that's not comforting to the three people who got killed, so -- or their families.

So, it's still difficult, but it's nowhere near what it was before. And the Iraqis are now positioned, are now positioned to begin to take over the totality of their security needs. We're -- we're on course to meet President Bush's commitment to withdraw all combat -- all troops by the end of 2011.

MARGARET WARNER: On this question, as you said, the attacks have been on the uptick in the last couple of months. Do you consider that a temporary blip around Ramadan, around this handover, or could it continue to escalate?

JOSEPH BIDEN: I do think it's a temporary blip. And, again, put it in focus. It's still lower than it ever has been, even though there has been an uptick. It took a long time for al-Qaida and the extremist groups to plan that last coordinated effort, which, in a broad sense, was not very successful.

MARGARET WARNER: You are talking about the one last Wednesday...

JOSEPH BIDEN: Yes, last Wednesday.

MARGARET WARNER: ... where about 50 or 60 Iraqi civilians died.

JOSEPH BIDEN: Yes. Yes. And...

MARGARET WARNER: But when you say things are better or safer, what's your benchmark?

JOSEPH BIDEN: I will tell you the benchmark.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you talking about the dark days of '06 to '08?

JOSEPH BIDEN: No. Or six months ago, eight months ago, 12 months ago.

MARGARET WARNER: But to use as the bench -- Iraqis say to us, to use as the benchmark the dark days when they would come out of their houses in the morning and there could be hundreds of people literally in the streets, people had holes drilled through their head with power drills, I mean, it was horrific -- that is not normal life.

JOSEPH BIDEN: I'm not comparing it to that, no. That -- that is not what we're comparing it to. I'm making a comparison. This is a much more functioning society. The bazaars are open. There are still people who are -- who occasionally get killed. It's still, in many cases, a dangerous place. But the vast majority of this country is not today -- people aren't walking out their front door thinking, it's probable I may find myself in a situation where I may get blown up. That's changed.

MARGARET WARNER: Not probable, but possible?

JOSEPH BIDEN: Possible. It is possible. This is still a dangerous part of the world. There are still people who are willing to strap a bomb to themselves and blow somebody else up.

MARGARET WARNER: Here's another thing we hear from Iraqis. They blame this upsurge in violence on the politicians' failure, six months after they all went to the polls to vote, the politicians' failure to form a government.

Do you think there is a connection?

JOSEPH BIDEN: Look, if I were an Iraqi, that's what I would think as well.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think it?

JOSEPH BIDEN: The truth of the matter is, they're taking too long to form this government. But the second piece of this is, the Iraqis went and voted. But guess what? No clear -- not only no clear majority, barely a plurality. So, in a parliamentary system, this is not unexpected. But I am confident that they are now -- all have run the course of what other options they have, and it's getting down to the point where, in the -- in the next couple months, there's going to be a government.

The only thing I have said in the name of the president, and as it relates to this government, the government has to reflect the outcome of the election, which is another way of saying, all the four major entities that did relatively well have to be included in the government. That's a difficult thing to put together.

MARGARET WARNER: So, would it be unacceptable to the United States for the scenario that we're told Iran is pushing very hard, which is to have Maliki's party team up with the more religious Shiite parties, and exclude, in fact, the party that won the most seats, which has been Sunni-backed, the party of Dr. Allawi?

JOSEPH BIDEN: It is not, for the Iraqi people, a formula that allows them to realize their potential if any one of the major parties are left out. In my view, in our view, you cannot have a government that is likely to succeed if all of the Sunnis are shut out. That would be a mistake. And, look, there's been a lot of speculation with regard to Iran. First of all, Iran invested $100 million to try to influence the outcome of this election. It didn't go very far, number one.

Number two, Iran has tried several gambits about how to go forward. I think what Iran is basically doing is trying to figure out what the most likely outcome is and embrace it, so they say they didn't lose. But I don't think there can be a government that is going to reflect -- going to have the support of the people of the Iraqi unless it includes the Sunnis as a major player.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that there would be hell to pay in the streets if, in fact, that were to happen?

JOSEPH BIDEN: I think it would increase exponentially the difficulty of unifying this country long-term if, in fact, any one of the major parties were left out.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama said in his radio address, by the end of next year, all troops will be coming home.


MARGARET WARNER: Now, if this new government says, we would like to talk about a more longer-term arrangement and keeping some U.S. troops here as a sort of guarantor, are you saying that is a nonstarter?

JOSEPH BIDEN: No, we're not saying that. We're saying we're going to keep the commitment we made, that George Bush made, President Bush made, to the Iraqi people and to the then-government of Iraq.

And, by the way, every single poll that's been conducted in this country says two-thirds-plus very much want America to keep that commitment and to totally leave. It is important people get that straight, because I turn on the news and I hear, well, the Iraqi people really want America to stay; they think they're being abandoned.

Two-thirds want us to leave. They still want a relationship and a partnership with us, but they want to claim their own sovereign ability to secure themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: But you're not saying that -- that the Obama administration would absolutely refuse if, six months from now, a new Iraqi government said, it would be helpful for us to keep some...

JOSEPH BIDEN: It would be highly unlikely that we would even consider the idea of maintaining 50,000 troops indefinitely here in Iraq. But we have committed -- and we will keep the commitment to the Iraqi people and the government -- that all troops will be out by the end of next year. If they come forward and say, we don't want you to do that, we want you to leave some troops to help us on a specific item, we would, obviously, consider that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, President Obama noted last night he was keeping his campaign pledge.


MARGARET WARNER: What kind of credit do you expect voters to give your administration and the Democrats in November on this point, that you're getting out of Iraq, as you said you would?

JOSEPH BIDEN: I'm going to give you an answer that's going to sound like what you would expect, a political one, but it happens to be true. I don't think that -- the only credit the president deserves is that he keeps his word. The real credit goes to the people here. We have had more than a million forces that have rolled through this country, over 4,000 fallen angels in this country, over -- you know, thousands upon thousands wounded.

I mean, when my son came home after a year of being here, I felt so grateful and, in a sense, so guilty that he came home, thank God, completely intact after a year here, and I -- all I could think of was -- I really mean this sincerely -- all I could think of was, the funerals I have gone to before and since of those families waiting for people to come home, they're the people who deserve all the credit.

MARGARET WARNER: But, in the credit department, as you know, the Republicans and John Boehner, the House minority leader, said just last week, you and President Obama are claiming credit for this milestone. The real credit goes to President Bush's surge of troops, which helped bring some kind of security here, and that you're just unwilling to acknowledge that.

Does he have a point?

JOSEPH BIDEN: Well, see, that -- that is simply not true. The president's speech acknowledged President Bush's contribution.

MARGARET WARNER: But not the surge.

JOSEPH BIDEN: Look, look, look, if you really go back and take a look at this, you could argue the surge made possible what was the most significant thing that occurred, which was a political transition where we put over 100,000 Sunnis on the payroll. That was the...

MARGARET WARNER: The Sons of Iraq.

JOSEPH BIDEN: The Sons of Iraq. That was the first political -- and General Petraeus deserves a lot of credit, and the last administration. Look, there's no question we had serious disagreement with the way this war began, the way it was initially conducted. And that's -- that's -- that's just a fact. But the truth of the matter is, everyone from the beginning said, including the members of the last Defense Department, said that, look, the only solution is a political solution.

And that political solution didn't really begin until the Sons of Iraq, the Sunnis, were pulled away from...


JOSEPH BIDEN: ... al-Qaida. And it's our -- and so -- but, again, I think litigating all this -- it's time to just move on.

There's, first of all...

MARGARET WARNER: But you are acknowledging that the surge makes this possible?

JOSEPH BIDEN: No. What I'm acknowledging -- look, I said at the time, I didn't have any doubt at all that the surge would meet its military objective, but that would be hollow absent a fundamental change in the political dynamic here. Up to that point, the administration was saying they want a very strong government in Baghdad. They were going to have this centralized and, you know, tight, when, in fact, look at where we are. We have a very different situation in Kurdistan. We have a very different situation in Anbar Province now. And now they're moving together and sharing power.

And, so, I don't want to argue -- look, if -- if John Boehner or anybody else wants to say the surge did this, fine. Fine. The fact of the matter is, we're not there yet. We're making significant progress.

The only time success will be able to be declared is when the Iraqis form a government, and, several years from now, they're in a position to maintain their own security, they're not a threat to their neighbors, and their economy is growing and prospering. That's when everyone can say, it's a success.

MARGARET WARNER: And final question: What should the voters take from this about the depth and the firmness of the president's commitment in Afghanistan to start drawing down troops in July 2011?

JOSEPH BIDEN: They should take him at his word. Take him at his word.

And here's what he said: We will begin to transition in July of 2011 responsibility to the Afghanis, and that that will be conditions-based on how quickly that transition takes place. But, look, an unending war is not a policy. A policy rests upon, ultimately, the Afghani government wanting peace and security more than we even want it. We can't want it more than they do. And they're going to have to step up.

But transition will begin, as General Petraeus has said, as the president has said, in July of next year.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Vice President, thank you so much.

JOSEPH BIDEN: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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