Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman understands the war better than all the other Democrats, and better than a handful of Republicans.
HH: Pleased to welcome now to the Hugh Hewitt Show Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Senator, good to have you, thanks for joining us.
JL: Hugh, good to be with you. How are you?
HH: I’m great.
HH: Senator, I want to talk about this war vote that’s been going on up there.
HH: What would the effect be of the imposition and the implementation of an arbitrary date for the draw down of American troops in Iraq, Senator Lieberman?
JL: Well, I think it would be a disaster. I mean, first thing, obviously, it would send a message to al Qaeda and the Iranian-backed terrorists that they know when we’re leaving, they should wait us out. Second, the Iraqi political leadership that we have been working so hard and pressuring to come to some kind of political reconciliation, they would exactly pull back from that, and they’d begin to, not just hedge their bets, but hunker down for what they would all assume would be a civil war. And I’ll tell you, just give you an anecdote, I was in Iraq about a month ago. I was in the city of Ramadi, which we’ve cleared of al Qaeda, quite remarkable, standing with a group of Iraqi and American soldiers. The local general of the Iraqi forces asked if he could talk to me privately. And Hugh, to tell you the truth, it has happened once or twice before, I thought he was going to ask me to do what I can to get them better equipment and weapons and all. Instead, he said he watches American television by satellite, and he said he’s very worried, and he said please go back, when you go back to Washington, tell your colleagues who want to set a deadline for withdrawal and get out of here, that they’re basically signing my death sentence. And not only mine, but my family. And you know, he’s right.
HH: He’s right. Well, some of your colleagues said on the floor yesterday that the surge had already failed. Are there any reports that have been given to Congress that seem to indicate that? Is there something we don’t know about? Because the surge, if you read Michael Yon’s dispatches…
HH: If you read John Burns in the New York Times, it seems to be working.
JL: Right. Absolutely right. Look, there is a gap between the real war that’s being fought in Iraq and the political war over the war in Iraq that’s being fought here in Washington. And very often, the statements in the debate here have very little to do with the reality on the ground. Every indication, really remarkably, when you think about the fact that there just the full complement of troops about a month ago for the surge, it’s showing tremendous results. The reduction in sectarian in Baghdad, number one goal, al Qaeda chased out of Anbar Province, and then uniquely, they ran a lot of them to Diyala Province, as you know, instead of, as always before, when we couldn’t chase them. Now, we have enough people because of the additional surge forces. We went after them, and we’ve got them on the run there. So no, these are people…the surge has not failed. People say the war is lost. The war is not lost. These are people, to put it as bluntly as I can, they’re talking about a change in course of our policy in Iraq. What they’re really talking about is accepting an American defeat there, which is a victory for al Qaeda and Iran, and that’s about the last thing any of us should want.
HH: Yesterday, Senator Lieberman, Michael Ware said that your optimistic assessment of conditions in Anbar suggested that, quoting now, “Senator Lieberman has taken an excursion into fantasy.”
HH: What does…does Ware get out much? Did you guys visit the same country?
JL: (laughing) Well, this is not the first time Mr. Ware, who’s got a very gloomy view of what’s happening there, anytime he says something positive about the American effort there, I feel it must be really good. And I can only tell you, and this will be confirmed by any number of my colleagues, including some of those who don’t feel as strongly as I do about the war who’ve been to Anbar, it’s just a fact that al Qaeda was in control of the place, they were beginning to settle down to make Anbar Province, an enormous part of Iraq to the west of Baghdad, the capitol of their new Islamist republic of Iraq. The chief of Marine intelligence said nine months ago, Anbar was lost. And at that time, he was right. They’re gone. I mean, the tribal, the Sunni tribal leaders are now back in, I walked through the streets of Ramadi, it’s a city that shows the signs of having had terrible conflict, but it’s totally peaceful now. And so fantasy is one thing I’m not engaged in. You can disagree with my opinion, but I saw with my own eyes.
HH: Does the American media generally, getting…walking away from CNN or Mr. Ware…
HH: Does it generally produce coverage that strikes you as balanced? Or is it just overwhelmingly defeatist?
JL: It’s very negative, and I mean, I think it’s really hurt the war, the political war at home. Look, the American military, working together with coalition forces including Iraqis, will never lose the war in Iraq. I just can’t stress that enough.
JL: We will never lose the war in Iraq. If America suffers a defeat in Iraq, it will be because the American people didn’t stick with it, didn’t have the will. And some people here in leadership positions politically were so much against it that they built up that public opposition, that a lot of it is framed by the media. I won’t say a lot of them lie, but the constant focus is on the suicide bombers. And I know that’s news, but you know, the suicide bombers are our enemy. They’re carrying out more dramatic acts because we’re on the move, and we’ve got them on the run. And incidentally, Hugh, they’re not only trying to kill Iraqis and Americans with the suicide bombs over there, they’re trying to kill American support for the war in Iraq.
JL: They’re trying to affect American public opinion, and unfortunately, they’re succeeding.
HH: When you talk with a Tim Russert or a Wolf Blitzer, or any of the big Beltway media types, do they display to you, on air or off air, any grasp of the consequences of an American defeat in Iraq?
JL: Oh, I must say in fairness, I never much get into that. But that is the point. This is a battle, and no matter what you thought about us going in, and of course I supported it, and no matter whether you think we made mistakes after Saddam was overthrown, which I do, the fact is we’re now…two things. One is, the President made a change in policy – the surge, a new general, Petraeus. It’s a dramatic difference. It’s working. But honestly, who are we fighting there? We’re fighting al Qaeda and Iran. And that’s the consequences. You know, one of the generals when I was over there last time, said to me a month ago, when you talk to your colleagues in the Senate, tell them if they don’t like what’s happening in Darfur, they’re going to really hate what happens here in Iraq if we pull out too soon.
HH: Right. In a statement earlier this month, Senator Lieberman, you said that, and I’m quoting here, “The fact is that the Iranian government, by its actions, has declared war on us.” Given that, if President Bush announced he felt compelled to take military action against Iran, would you support him?
JL: Yeah, of course I would. My instinct would always be to support the commander-in-chief. Right now, what I’ve been focused on is the evidence that the American military has put before us more and more detail, most recently about a week ago Monday, General Kevin Bergner, and our spokesperson in Baghdad, documents, evidence that the Iranians are taking groups of Iraqi terrorists to three training bases on the outskirts of Tehran, and they’re training them in the use of sophisticated weapons that are then being brought back by them into Iraq. And they have resulted in the deaths of literally hundreds of American soldiers. So you know, we’ve raised this with them…and I always want to give them a chance, so we raised it with him at the one meeting that occurred between the American ambassador, Baghdad and the Iranian in May, and I gave them the evidence, asked them to stop. They haven’t. I’m very pleased that yesterday, I sponsored an amendment resolution in the Senate, it passed 97-0, documenting the case, kind of an indictment against Iran, and basically telling them to stop it. And it’s not an authorization of use of force, but it’s not a prohibition of it, either. And if the President decided to take action there, of course I would support him.
HH: If our intelligence, and the intelligence of other countries, told us that Iran was reaching that critical mass, or going critical, capability of nuclear weaponry, would you advise the President to strike those facilities in which that capability was being assembled, Senator Lieberman?
JL: Well, you know, I should leave him some room, but I think he’s made clear, and a lot of us have, that you know, this is dilemma, and the kind of inconsistency here, Hugh, that we’ve got most every member of the Congress, Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, has said we cannot allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. This is a state where since the revolution of ’79, they gather in the tens of thousands and shout death to America, death to America. Ahmadinejad says he wants to wipe out Israel. You could go on and on. And nuclear weapons in their hands would be a disaster, a whole nightmarish development in the world. But a lot of my colleagues, after they say we can’t let it happen, they think we can talk the Iranians into changing their plans. The Europeans talked to them about this for more than two years, and they did nothing. So we’re squeezing them economically with some sanctions. We ought to toughen the sanctions, and yes we have to be ready to do everything we can to knock out as much of their nuclear program as possible, if all else fails.
HH: Some critics say we can’t trust our intelligence, because of the WMD, which raise a couple of questions. Do you think Saddam had WMD in 2002?
JL: Well, look, he surely, even the Duelfer report, which was the most authoritative report, said he had some, and he had a network of chemical and biological experts working on it, and a kind of fallback network on nukes, which is what he really wanted. Here’s the point. In 2002, Saddam himself said he had weapons of mass destruction, and we gave him every chance, pursuant to the UN resolutions, which the U.S. asked for, to come clean and show us that he had destroyed the inventory of WMD that he filed with the UN as a condition of the end of the Gulf War in ’91, and he wouldn’t do it. So you know, I know people look back and say this was some classic colossal act of deceit by out government. I think everybody in the world, and the best intelligence services, frankly, including most people around Saddam Hussein who’ve been interviewed since, thought that he had WMD.
HH: Senator Lieberman, a couple of political questions. These are very serious issues, Iraq and Iran.
HH: And if you were to follow the example of Jim Jeffords and cross the aisle, it would end, at least for this Congress, the circus surrounding the defeat by a date certain rules, and all these different bills. Isn’t that enough of an incentive to cross that aisle?
JL: Well, it’s a fair question. My guess is that it wouldn’t change much but the leadership, because the votes would be the same. That would have some effect…look, I’ve got a feeling that I’m carrying a banner for a group of Democrats who believe that you could be, you know, progressive on domestic policy and tough on foreign policy. Unfortunately, a lot of them, most of them are gone now, but I’m talking about Truman and Scoop Jackson and Hubert Humphrey and…
HH: Jack Kennedy.
JL: Jack Kennedy, exactly right, who was the inspiration for my generation to get into politics. So for now, I’m going to stay and fight this fight here. But I’m disappointed with the Democratic Party. I’m deeply disappointed.
HH: Is it possible if this undermining of the effort continues, though, you would reassess that? I understand…
JL: I don’t eliminate the possibility. I’ve said that all along.
HH: Let me ask you one other political question, but a couple more on general things. Would you accept a place on a Giuliani, a Romney or a Thompson ticket if offered to you?
JL: No, I think I got that bug out of my system. But…the national bug, I mean. It’s nice of you to ask, and I don’t think any one of them in their right mind would ask me, but my wife will appreciate that you asked.
HH: Is that an unequivocal no, Senator?
JL: Yeah, that’s unequivocal. Actually, my wife probably would not appreciate that.
HH: (laughing) Okay, let me ask you, when you were the national standard bearer for the Democratic Party, extremely popular in the country at large, with many Republicans, across the whole Democratic Party. Now, the only thing that’s different is the country’s been attacked, we’ve counter-attacked, and now the hard left netroots have risen within the new media.
HH: What happened to your party? What took them from being, you know, a party with two wings to being a party with one wing and Joe Lieberman?
JL: Yeah, this is a danger. And you know, there’s a group within the party, a small group, that’s very activist, very aggressive, very left, and driving the agenda. Obviously, what’s also happened, for the reasons that we talked about before, Hugh, is that the war has generally become unpopular, so now there’s actually a broader political incentive to be against the war. But you know, as I said the other day on the floor, the folks didn’t send us here, they didn’t elect us just so we would work to get reelected. They elected us to be leaders, to protect the country, to defend our values, our freedom. And you know, I think this is a challenge, the likes of which we have not faced for a long, long time. And we’re only going to defeat the challenge if we pull together. Partisanship here has gone crazy, but the worst part of it is that it’s now a significant part of our debate about foreign and defense policy. And who benefits from that? Our enemies. I mean, sometimes around here, people treat each other like members of the other party are the enemy. The Islamist extremists are the enemy.
HH: Agreed. Two more questions, Senator, and I’ll let you go.
HH: Senators Clinton, Edwards and Obama have all been your colleagues. Which one is most competent to conduct this war if it comes to that?
JL: (laughing) I’m going to gracefully not answer that. You know, I’ve declared myself for now an independent, as I was elected in the presidential. So I’m just watching, and I’m not going to endorse anybody until after the two parties have their nominees, and I’m going to support whoever I think is best for the country, regardless of party.
HH: Oh, that’s fascinating. Last question, how do you think history’s going to evaluate George W. Bush?
JL: Well, I personally believe look, mistakes were made, and I know the polls are down, but I think on the largest issue of our time, which is the rise of Islamist extremism, that he will be judged as a president who saw the threat, and in the midst of an unpopular war, he stuck with it. And so I think overall, over time, his ratings among the historians will be greater than his ratings in the polls today.
HH: Senator Lieberman, this is one Republican who thanks you for what you’re doing on the foreign affairs side.
JL: Thank you.
HH: We look forward to talking to you again some time soon. Good luck on the Hill there.
JK: Thanks, Hugh, all the best to you.
HH: Thank you.
End of interview.