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Joseph Biden Discusses Military Efforts in Afghanistan

Aired October 13, 2001 - 17:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: I'm Robert Novak. Al Hunt and I will question the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

AL HUNT, CO-HOST: He is Democratic Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware.


HUNT (voice-over): While Americans worried about terrorists using the anthrax disease as a weapon, U.S. war planes continued to hit the Taliban in Afghanistan. Five days after the first attack, President Bush assessed its effectiveness.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are dismantling their military, disrupting their communications, severing their ability to defend themselves. People ask me: How long will this last? This particular battle front will last as long as it takes to bring al Qaeda to justice.

HUNT: Joe Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972, right before his 30th birthday after serving two years as a county council member in Wilmington.


HUNT: Chairman Biden, as you heard President Bush said the first six days of this attack have gone very well. How soon do you think it will be successful and the Taliban will be toppled?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: Well, I think it's -- I wouldn't want to guess at that, Al. I don't know how long until they'll be physically toppled and out. But I think the handwriting's on the wall; they've lost the support of their sponsors, the surrounding states. They've essentially become isolated. We are on the move.

And so I wouldn't want to guess whether it's days or weeks, but it's inevitable.

HUNT: Well Chairman Biden, the reason I ask you about timing is I think it's clear the American people have patience, but can the United States continue for weeks to bomb a Muslim country without inflaming -- further inflaming dangerous tensions within the Islamic world? BIDEN: Well, I think it depends on how many mistakes that we make, like were made in one case today -- how many civilians are injured. And I don't think we have an indefinite amount of time, Al, but I think we have more time.

NOVAK: Mr. Chairman, I certainly don't want you to give away any secrets, particularly after the president was so upset by some alleged leaks on the Hill. But do you feel that the administration has a long-range strategy for winning this war against terrorism? And if so, what is it?

BIDEN: I think they do have a long-range strategy, but they acknowledge that it's going to be a little bit of learn on the move here.

Their long-range strategy is, first of all, to take out al Qaeda in terms of having this sanctuary to be able to operate with impunity in a particular area. That's going require to take down the Taliban; that's underway.

And what their hope is that -- what they're going to do is, to use the phrase someone else used is fill that swamp. And that is, hopefully we can, with other nations, and possibly even with the ultimate sanction of the United Nations, end up with a government in Afghanistan that has some stability, represents both the north and southern divisions -- ethnic divisions in the country.

I think the president -- I know the president is of a mind that we have to stay involved, not necessarily with American troops, but with money and leadership and resources in that region of the world. And I think the hope is -- the hope is, the intention is, that if we're successful in prosecuting this effort in Afghanistan, it ups the ante for other nations that are harboring, continue to participate with and/or sponsor directly or indirectly other terrorist organizations, including cells associated with al Qaeda.

So I think that's generically the plan. And -- but I think the president would be the first to tell you that this is a case of first instance, and they're going to be doing some back-filling and stitching as they go along.

NOVAK: Senator Biden, on CNN today there were interviews with the ambassadors to Washington of Lebanon and Egypt, two friendly Arab states. And they raised the point that the United States -- what they regard as a bias of the United States toward Israel really makes it very difficult to wage this war effectively. Do you believe that they do -- nobody is saying that Israel was the cause of the terrorist outrage of September 11 -- but do you feel that solving this problem does require a somewhat more even-handed policy in the Middle East?

BIDEN: No, I think what it requires is it requires finding somebody with whom the Israelis can deal. In other words, one of the things that has worried me from the beginning of this whole process is that Israel would end up carrying the weight and the responsibility of what happened. I know you know as well or better than I do that this had nothing to do, initially -- in its initial stages -- with Israel. You have bin Laden having no interest in Israel. He's never expressed an interest in Israel. You even have the Palestinian leadership now saying, as bin Laden is being much more empathetic toward the, quote, "the problems of the Palestinians" saying, whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute, this guy is not making our case.

But what you do have is a consequence of our efforts against bin Laden. You have a generic problem, and that is there is unrest in Egypt, in West Bank, in Jordan, in Syria relative to what's going on between the Arabs and the Palestinians. And they're going to get mixed up. And what happens is the Palestinians provide more -- some very disaffected young Palestinians provide very good fodder, and recruiting material, for bin Laden; but that's not bin Laden's target.

So I guess what I'm saying to you is that what I'm worried about now is, because Arafat played a card that he couldn't deliver on; and that was hoping that Israel would respond in a very negative way, changing world opinion. That's why he turned down, in my view, Barak's offers. He didn't prepare his people for anything having to do with the possibility of a settlement.

Now he finds himself on the spot. He's in a race for his life with Hamas and those who have concluded in the Palestinians that there isn't going to be two states. We've been operating all along -- there's going to be an independent Israel and the Palestinian state. Now what's going on on the West Bank, now what's going on within the Palestinian Authority is, hey wait a minute, are we even going to agree to the existence of Israel at all?

HUNT: Chairman Biden, let me take you back to Afghanistan. You said a moment ago that we have to stay involved post-Taliban. Let me get you to be a little bit more specific. Do you agree that the United States, in conjunction with the United Nations, has to be intimately involved in what has to be called nation building there, as Secretary Powell suggests, or do you agree, as Secretary Rumsfeld said this week, that the United States does not have, quote, "any responsibility to try to figure out what kind of government that country ought to have?"

BIDEN: Well, I think Powell is correct, but let me make it clear here. I don't want to -- the reason I'm not going to use the word nation building -- it's become such a loaded political term. Let me say what I think that I'm under the impression, let me put it that way, that the president is thinking about and I know the State Department is thinking about. I don't know about Rumsfeld.

And that is, I don't think the president has any intention of keeping, once we successfully prosecute this effort against bin Laden, which means the Taliban, as long as they are his proxies here right now, once that's successfully done, I don't think the president has any intention keeping American troops stationed on the ground in Afghanistan.

But he does understand, he does believe at this point that there's a need to have a government in place that is going to be accepted by the Pakistanis as well as the Iranians as well as the Russians as well as the Indians, et cetera. That requires some involvement, some keeping this coalition together to provide for a government that can meet that need.

HUNT: But Mr. Chairman, if there are not going to be American troops there afterward, given the history of that country, what military presence will there be there to assure that the bin Ladens of the world can't come back?

BIDEN: Well, again, I'm not sure who it will be, but I can picture the Norwegian countries willing to play this part and being acceptable. I can picture there being a coalition of even some Arab countries. You know, I don't want to second guess that now, but it's possible to be able to put together a circumstance where there's even theoretically a U.N. mandate temporarily. There are ways to do this.

Now, I don't think anybody has the secret answer to that yet, except one thing we know -- I shouldn't say we know -- the one thing I believe the president believes and I tell you I believe. If we walk away from Afghanistan, leave it in chaos after we have succeeded against al Qaeda, it is a time bomb waiting to erupt.

NOVAK: Mr. Chairman, we just have less than a minute before we take a break, and I wanted to ask you about where you come down and what seems to be an internal dispute within the Bush administration. Even if there is no clear evidence linking Iraq and Saddam Hussein to the outrages of September 11, and it doesn't seem to be that kind of evidence, do you think it is necessary sooner or later for U.S. military force to be applied to Iraq -- against Iraq as a state that sponsors terrorism?

BIDEN: The answer is, maybe. Let me explain what I mean by that in a second. And that is, I think after this successful functioning of our effort in Afghanistan, we ought to now be able to build a genuine coalition to strangle Iraq in a way that we've been unable to do with regard to sanctions and the possibility of a multi-national force moving against Saddam if he continues to stay outside the box.

So when I say maybe, it may very well be that we get to that point, but I think the environment has changed so significantly that we have the opportunity to not have to do any of this alone.

NOVAK: OK. We are going to have to take a break, and when we come back, we will talk to Chairman Joe Biden about the war here on the home front in Washington.


HUNT: Chairman Biden, the "New York Times" had a fascinating piece on Friday in which they wrote about a quote, "Wolfowitz cabal," end quote, led by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that is planning the next phase of this war, including having U.S. troops in Iraq as part of an effort to overthrow Saddam. The story also said that in these deliberations, Secretary Powell has been excluded. My question is, is this undermining the secretary of state, and does it matter?

BIDEN: The answer is I don't know. I don't know whether the report is true.

HUNT: It also said that Jim Woolsey, the former CIA director, was sent by Pentagon officials to London and that Mr. Powell didn't know about it.

BIDEN: That would be unfortunate if he didn't know about it.

HUNT: Let me turn one question to the home front, then. As you know, there is an FBI warning this week about a possible terrorist threat. There have been anthrax threats. At the same time, the White House is telling everybody to try to return to normalcy, to go to ball games, to fly, to shop, to take your kids to parks. My question is, is it possible for people to return to normalcy as long as the vice president sometimes seems in hiding and can't even come out to swear in the homeland security head?

BIDEN: Well, let me leave the vice president aside and speak to what I consider a very difficult call, and that is can we get back to normalcy when the president or the director of the FBI says there's, you know, there's going to be an attack somewhere in America or somewhere against American interests.

I realize this is a tough call, but my view is that unless they have more specific information it is not a very useful thing to tell the country that somewhere, somehow, some modality, some interest in the world is going to be affected. That I think has a very chilling effect on what we do, and I guess we are going to go through this for a while, but I hope that there's a little bit of making sure that we -- that the particular agencies cover themselves here to make sure they don't get criticized for not having said something will happen. But I'm not sure how helpful it is to do that without any specificity.

NOVAK: What advice would you give to the president, Mr. Chairman, when he gets that information from the FBI, just keep it to himself and not release it to the public?

BIDEN: Well, let me be clear. I don't know that I'm right on this, but the president -- I did talk to the president about that. I had an hour opportunity last week in the middle of the week with three other of my colleagues, and that is my advice.

But again, look. I'm sure as my -- as my children said to me -- they're grown -- they said, hey, dad, you say that, and then something happens, and everybody is going to say, look what Biden said, don't worry. I'm not saying don't worry, I'm saying that we have to deal with the reality, that if somebody's going to try to do something to us again, and unless we know exactly what it is I don't think it's helpful that the president of the United States is saying, sending two messages. One, go to the ball game, but by the way, we are going to be attacked. I think that's kind of a conflicting message.

NOVAK: Mr. Chairman, behind all the bipartisanship, there's a rather partisan dispute over one nominee by the president that's in your committee, Otto Reich to be the secretary of state for pan- American...

BIDEN: That's true.

NOVAK: ... inter-American affairs and Western Hemisphere affairs, I believe they call it now. And there are matters of fact in dispute about his record that we certainly don't have time to review here.

But my question to you is: Why not have a hearing? Give him the privilege of a hearing so that those matters of fact can be disputed in the open public.

BIDEN: Well, two reasons. One, we don't have all the facts yet; we're still going over some things and seeking some information. But two, there's a number of Republicans as well as Democrats who would rather not vote on that now and have an open dispute now and, because they don't want to have an open fight.

Quite frankly, I think the nomination is not likely to go anywhere. I understand the point: have the hearing and have a major debate, a major fight. It's going to be held up. My advice to the president is: move on, get somebody else. This is first guy we've had a problem with. But, again I don't really have that big of a dog in this fight, but I'm trying to explain to you there's a lot of people on both sides that don't want this fight now.

NOVAK: We're going to have to take another break. And when we come back we'll have "The Big Question" for Joe Biden.


NOVAK: "The Big Question" for Senator Joe Biden.

Mr. Chairman, there have been many reports about the FBI not sharing information with other law enforcement agencies that might have been helpful in preventing the disaster of September 11. As a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as its former chairman, do you think there is a serious problem with the FBI?

BIDEN: The answer is: I don't know. But as you know, part of this sharing of information between agencies up to now, until we passed this terrorism bill, has been against the law. I don't know, factually, whether or not there was information that could have been helpful that wasn't shared. We'll find that out, but I don't know the answer.

HUNT: Mr. Chairman you really are the foreign minister, if you will, for the opposition parties -- the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Isn't it clear, though, that for the next couple years you're basically going to give President Bush a blank check on this war effort?

BIDEN: No. I think as long as he keeps pursuing it the way he has he'll get full support. The reason I'm supporting him now is I happen to think he's right now. If, for example, if tomorrow -- and it will drive Bob nuts -- if tomorrow he came and said our answer now is we've got to build a national missile defense, I'd say, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, hey, that's not part of the deal here.

And so I agree with him, I support him, I think he's doing it the right way. But I don't think he gets a blank check.

HUNT: Chairman Joe Biden, thank you very much for being with us today.

Robert Novak and I will be back in a moment with a comment or two.


HUNT: Robert, Chairman Joe Biden is actually pretty close to Secretary of State Colin Powell. And he kind of, I think, pulled his punches a little when he set it was unfortunate if the so-called Wolfowitz cabal and the others aren't including Powell. In fact, I think Joe Biden is quite angry about that, and I think there's going to be heat from the Hill on this issue.

NOVAK: Chairman Biden has often been critical of Republican presidents, but he gives -- he doesn't say it's a blank check, but he goes along with President Bush on his war strategy. The only thing he criticizes him for is putting out that FBI warning and scaring the devil out of the people; and on that point, I do agree with Senator Biden.

HUNT: You know, Bob, even Joe Biden stays away from the term "nation building." But, in fact, that's what he, and that's what the administration now think has to be done after the Taliban is toppled. You have to go in there, it's going to require a military presence -- I'm not sure it's going to be the Norwegians, I think it's probably has to be a Muslim force if you can; but it's going to be nation building.

NOVAK: I think the Norwegians will love Afghanistan.

This program this week took a new name: "NOVAK HUNT & SHIELDS." It bore the name of Rowland Evans for 19 years. My longtime partner and friend died at the age of 79 this past March. He was a great journalist and a wonderful television interviewer. His presence always will be felt on this program.

I'm Robert Novak.

HUNT: And I'm Al Hunt; and I concur on everything you said, Robert.

CNN's coverage of "America Strikes Back" continues. Thanks for joining us.




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