Senator Joe Biden, the top Democrat in the Senate on foreign relations matters is a presidential prospect for 2008. He says there is a Democratic alternative in Iraq and sat down with Chris Matthews to discuss.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL": Is that a good estimate of your strength, foreign relations and probably running for president?
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: Correct.
MATTHEWS: OK, let me ask you about this good news we got in a bad news environment, Iraq. We were all rooting for her, Jill Carroll got out.
BIDEN: That's great, and I think this is a case where, in my view, who the hell knows why they let her go. But I think the fact that so many clerics in Iraq signed on, called for her release, created a circumstance that made it a heck a lot more difficult for whoever is holding her, but it is good news.
MATTHEWS: Were you surprised, Senator, how she came out today, and she's in good health, the doctors have checked her out and she's happy, she seems to harbor no ill will. I don't want to overstate it, but she says she wasn't badly treated or anything.
BIDEN: Well of all the journalists over there that I've had occasion in my trip, I don't know her but in my trips there and what I've heard about her is that she really sort of has gotten into the milieu of the Arab culture, of the Iraqi culture and it doesn't surprise me.
I think that's probably part of the reason why she also was released. I think that's one of the reasons why the clerics stepped up to the ball and started. So who knows, but I wish the rest of Iraq was going as well.
MATTHEWS: The Democrats came out with a plan just the other day, a bit late I would argue, but your party has a plan. Does your party really have cohesion on this issue? I mean, if you were to go on national television tonight and debate the president, could you clearly and articulately give the Democrats alternatives. Is there such a thing on Iraq?
BIDEN: On Iraq, there is a Democratic alternative. And the bottom line of the alternative is that we're going to have to figure out how this president or the next president, whoever it is, how long it goes, turns around and makes sure there's more autonomy for each of the sectors that are there, the Sunni, the Shia and the Kurds.
You've got to figure out how to divide up the oil revenues. I think there should be an amendment to their constitution that we should be pushing and saying 20 percent of the revenues go to the Sunnis. I think that would buy them off in terms of them having an autonomous state. I think you should have each of the regions have like states used to have, their own laws governing everything except national security, border security and revenues.
MATTHEWS: So a confederation rather than a republic?
BIDEN: A confederation. And because as you know, you've been way ahead on this. There's no possibility of a democracy if Iraq like we think of a democracy in Iraq.
And I think you have to then in turn turn to the Iraqis and one thing everyone is saying now is that you have to say, “Hey guys, not stand up, when you stand up, we'll stand down. If you don't stand up, we're going to stand down. So get moving.”
You've got to make these kinds of concessions, you have to make these kinds of changes, and I think we're going to be left with the reality of something the size of a brigade, somewhere in the region, to make sure that the terrorists cannot occupy territory.
So you don't end up leaving, no ability to go in back in Anbar Province and find out you have an al Qaeda training ground that is in full bloom like it was in Afghanistan. So I think there's a realistic approach that says, get these guys on one page in terms of splitting of revenues, drastically draw down our forces in the near term because they're becoming as much a problem as they are an asset, leave if place enough to make sure you can deny territory to terrorists, and move from there. I think that's basically where everybody is.
MATTHEWS: Would the president accept that proposal?
BIDEN: I think so. I think that's where the president is going.
MATTHEWS: Why can't you negotiate with him? Why can't you as the ranking Democrat in the Senate ask for a meeting with the president, go down there and say, “We can deliver a bulk of our party and there will be no more complaining and carping about running the war if you can agree on a combined strategy here?”
BIDEN: I'm about to say something on national television could get me in trouble. Eight, 10 months ago I did that before the last election, I went down to the president and said, “Mr. President, if you do the following things, not only will you get support. Those of us who are supporting Kerry on this issue, because it's more important in the election will stand up and say you did the right thing. We will stop the carping.”
Now look, you're always going to have 20 percent of my party and 20 percent of their party who the not going to be signed on to anything that is basically reasonable, but I just get the sense that these guys, they just have closed the doors. And if you ask my Republican colleagues, ask them what they're getting back. I'm confident some of the serious Republicans are going down saying, “Mr. President, how about if you move boom, boom, boom and we'll all be on one page.” But you know, the reality is, I think at least, he's already drawing down. He's already moving along those lines and yet he says it's conditions-based. What good has happened in 95 days to justify 35,000 troops being drawn down, other than they're already underway in this direction?
MATTHEWS: Are you surprised or stunned even by the fact that the president in a press conference recently said, I'm going to leave it to a future president, that could be you potentially, to solve this problem and get our troops out of there? He's basically laying down the law and saying I'm keeping troops in Iraq as long as I'm president. That doesn't coincide with what you say.
BIDEN: No, it doesn't, and it did surprise me number one. And it did make me wonder whether or not he's on the same page that the rest of his administration seems to be, in the way they're moving.
You talk to the generals out there, you talk to them back here, you talk to the people at State and Defense Departments. The reality is we can't sustain 150,000 troops there without breaking the volunteer army. The reality is that we're not going to be in a position to even sustain 130,000. It's going to get down below 100,000 people, so I think what he's trying to do is get two pieces.
That 30,000 or that brigade level I talked about being left behind. Everybody left, right and center who thinks there is something at stake in Iraq, not a democracy, but a stake in a total loss in Iraq, thinks you have to have something like that around. All I can figure is he's talking about that without looking like he's changing policy.
MATTHEWS: OK. So just to sum it up, you is said you think the solution to the political problems of Iraq, the sectarian violence, the civil war that's incipient all the time, is some kind of a division of power so that it's reasonably based.
MATTHEWS: It's more of a confederation. Oil wealth is distributed among the three different parties and we stick around the region simply to kill any building up of some terrorist camp in that country.
MATTHEWS: That's our role. We're out of the business of stopping a civil war, we're in the business of stopping terrorism again.
BIDEN: Yes, but the presumption would be if you've got that kind of agreement, there would not be a civil war.
MATTHEWS: Basically, wars end when both sides realize they're not gaining anything from the war. And you said the Shia, who are the dominant people in Iraq, would stop fighting because they realized what?
BIDEN: They realize that even if they dominate the Sunnis, it's going to be a cauldron of insurgency there for the next generation. They can't completely shut it down and crush it and kill it. The Sunnis have figured out they can no longer control the country, and if the best deal they're going to get is regional autonomy, making their own laws like states make their own laws plus, and a guaranteed 20 percent of the revenues.
You're going to have to work something out and that's where we can get the regional powers in, in terms of access to the sea, access to their ability to have some commerce.
MATTHEWS: Do the Iranians want a civil war?
MATTHEWS: Do the Syrians want a civil war?
MATTHEWS: Do the Palestinian radical front people want trouble? Some people just want trouble. The al Qaeda people want trouble.
BIDEN: Oh, they absolutely want trouble, and I think the jihadists want trouble, no matter whether they're Palestinian or otherwise and I think just so the people don't misunderstand, I think the Iranians like it just the way it is now, no civil war and us in there bleeding.
But if the choice is a civil war that they encourage, or no civil war, they don't want 17 million Shia on their border who are a Arabs, learning how to fight very well and equip themselves when they have got 55 million of their Shia out of 60 some hating them in Tehran. That's not a good thing.
MATTHEWS: Do you believe that this administration wants to end this war or do they want to continue this war, in the language they use, as the central front on the war against terrorism, that they need to have this front active so that they can say that they're fighting terrorism in Iraq?
BIDEN: I think they're split on it now because the public no longer thinks this is the war on terror. They think this is the terrorist war, and so I think they're split. I don't know.
MATTHEWS: OK, well, let me talk to something unsavory now, the issue of immigration. Is there a Democratic Party position which accommodates the need to stop illegal entry, punish people who hire people at cheap wages illegally, and also gives hope to people who live here illegally and people who want to come here right now? Is there a possible combination that hits all of those points?
BIDEN: I think there is and I think that the McCain-Kennedy Bill, Kennedy-McCain, the Specter Bill that came out, does that. If you take a look, Chris, at what Frist is talking about, only enforcement, the enforcement provisions that sit inside the Specter Bill, or the Kennedy-McCain Bill, there ain't a dime's worth of difference to them. They're the same amount of money, 12,000 new border agents...
MATTHEWS: Do you think they will work?
BIDEN: I think they will work better if they actually, in fact, do it.
MATTHEWS: Can you scare an employer in this country, whether he's an agriculture worker or a housewife, into not hiring an illegal because the punishment is so high that if you get caught, it's a huge embarrassment to your family and you may just get hit with a fine that will kill you?
BIDEN: Absolutely you can.
MATTHEWS: You can do that?
BIDEN: And that's what she should do. Well, I think you should do that.
MATTHEWS: Because you can't catch everybody.
BIDEN: No. No, you can't. And the last part of this is that the Democratic position also recognizes you have got 11 million illegal aliens here. They have to have a way to earn their way into the deal. This isn't amnesty. They're required to take 11 years worth, they pay a fine, they have got to learn to speak English, they've got to pass a test.
MATTHEWS: I like the English part.
MATTHEWS: If we want the problems of Canada right now, keep encouraging people to keep their foreign language. English is going to unite this country potentially. It always has in the past.
BIDEN: Let me put it another way. I can't think of a country that has two languages as their accepted languages, that is doing all that well, including Switzerland and/or Canada.
MATTHEWS: It divides us when you can't talk to each other. Anyway, thank you, Senator Joe Biden.
BIDEN: Thank you.
MATTHEWS: You've solved it. You've done it. I just listen.