In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and one of the Senate’s most influential voices on national security, said “my particular brand of foreign policy thinking generally, not just on the Middle East, seems to have more followers in the Republican Party than the Democratic party these days”, and that while “I’m not seeking any position in whatever administration is elected,” if asked, “I’d certainly give it serious consideration.”
On Syria, Lieberman said he was “very skeptical” about Iran’s involvement in any regional initiative, although “It would be great if Iran was going to assist in finding some way to convince Assad to go and create transitional process to a new government, but I don’t see anything they’ve done to show that that’s the case.”
On Iran, Lieberman said “I will continue to support the diplomatic and economic attempts to resolve this crisis with Iran until it’s clear that there is no alternative but a military strike ... so far the Iranians have given us no reason to believe that the diplomatic path will work to resolve this crisis and that is the real tragedy here."
Asked his reaction to Mitt Romney’s statement that there is “no way” to reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Lieberman said “if we stick with it there’s an opportunity to reach at least a partial agreement that will enable progress to occur on the ground for both parties that is Palestinian people and Israeli people and that should be the US goal.”
On Iraq, Lieberman said, “the Arab Spring did not really begin when that street vendor set himself on fire in Tunisia though that was clearly a catalyst. It really began in the minds of tens of millions of Arabs in the Middle East when they saw the monstrous statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down by the people of Iraq in 2003."
The full interview ...
Al-Monitor: Egypt’s President Morsi yesterday in his speech to the UN General Assembly called for a regional diplomatic initiative involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, to complement the efforts of Special Envoy Brahimi. Iran has also tried to broker a diplomatic solution. Al-Monitor has been covering these efforts. Should the US support a regional diplomatic initiative as a means to end the violence in Syria? Is there a role for Iran?
Lieberman: Well, I’m very skeptical about any regional initiative and diplomatic initiative related to the crisis in Syria that involves Iran because Iran has been a major cause of the crisis and it continues to be the most significant supporter in terms of weapons and personnel and training and economic assistance to the Assad government. It would be great if Iran was going to assist in finding some way to convince Assad to go and create a transitional process to a new government but I don’t see anything they’ve done to show that that’s the case. So I don’t think the US should jump at the offer of President Morsi. Though I must say that I give President Morsi credit for the fact that he went to Tehran and spoke so explicitly in support of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad. But to me what has to happen is that there has to be a regional and global alliance or international alliance in support of the opposition to Assad. But for it to really work it has to have a much more active presence and leadership by the United States. And obviously Qatar just called for such an alliance.
Turkey has been trying to get us involved for some period of time and most poignantly of all, the leaders of the opposition have asked us to be more involved. So I think, final point the premise here, my premise, is that I don’t believe a diplomatic initiative will work until the balance, the military balance on the ground, is altered and right now it remains in favor of the Assad government and the Assad government has only not triumphed because of the extraordinary will and determination of the Free Syrian Army.
Al-Monitor: Just one point you mentioned at the beginning of your remarks you said that you were skeptical because of Iran’s support for Assad. If the regime was to step away from that support or support some type of managed transition do you think that’s an opening?
Lieberman: It’s possible. I mean, obviously I’m comforted that among the countries that President Morsi mentioned were Saudi Arabia and Turkey because they have been as explicit as anyone in support of the opposition to Assad and to the end of the Assad regime but I think this is a dangerous path to go down. I mean the Iranians have proposed themselves a regional initiative. I think you’ve got, its very hard to get the main supporter of the regime that you are trying to oust into the diplomatic process because they have not indicated in anything I’ve seen that they are really prepared to let go of Assad and until they are then I don’t think they belong in any effort to resolve the crisis.
Al-Monitor: You were an original co-sponsor of the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq in 2002. In a recent interview with Al-Monitor, our friend former KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih said that “let’s not repeat the mishaps of the Iraq transition” in Syria. What in your mind are the lessons learned from Iraq for Syria?
Lieberman: Yeah, I mean every country is obviously different. I will say in passing that I was in the Middle East earlier this year and a leader in one of the Arab countries said the Arab Spring did not really begin when that street vendor set himself on fire in Tunisia though that was clearly a catalyst. It really began in the minds of tens of millions of Arabs in the Middle East when they saw the monstrous statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down by the people of Iraq in 2003 and because it said to them that these despots these totalitarian governments are not necessarily forever, which they’ve been thinking.
OK, so let me come back to your question. I’d say there are a couple of quick questions that I’ll just tick off. One obviously is in the long run, it may be satisfying in the short run, but in the long run its not a wise thing to take all of the people who seem to be on the other side and kick them out and that’s all the Baathists being kicked out and all the basically the Iraqi army being dismissed.
So I would say that in Syria it’s very important the lesson here, post-Assad: One, of course, we’re now working with our allies and others to encourage the opposition to unify, to give specific assurances to the Alawites, the Christians and Druze and, of course, the Kurds ... they’ll be protected and supported in a post Assad period and also to people in government unless they have actual blood on their hands, metaphorically speaking, that they won’t be tossed out of their positions that there’ll be a continuity of government so I think that that’s probably the biggest lesson from Iraq for Syria.
Al-Monitor: Most would agree, I think, that both an Iranian nuclear weapon and an Israeli or US attack on Iran are undesirable. You have advocated if I am correct a tough line on Iran, but have also supported diplomacy with Iran, to a point. Given the stakes, do you think there is still time for a diplomatic solution that would, either directly or indirectly, involve the US, Iran, and Israel and perhaps even others on a solution that can stave off both a weapon and a conflict?
Lieberman: Yeah, I do I think there is still time for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis involving Iran’s nuclear development program but this would require a real change of approach by Iran so it’s hard to be optimistic about that. In other words I’ve supported the economic sanctions as a way to push Iran into diplomacy I’ve supported the P5 +1 talks with Iran. It’s clear that the sanctions are having a negative effect on the Iranian economy but they haven’t affected Iran’s commitment and forward movement on its nuclear weapons capability development in any way not really in the slightest way from all that we know, not just from suggestions by the intelligence community but from public documents that the IAEA has put out about the Iranian program. So I will continue to support the diplomatic and economic attempts to resolve this crisis with Iran until it’s clear that there is no alternative but a military strike because Iran has reached a point, in other words that day that its reached a point, where it’s very close to developing nuclear weapons capability and again I say that so far the Iranians have given us no reason to believe that the diplomatic path will work to resolve this crisis and that is the real tragedy here.
Al-Monitor: Do you think that Israel, from what you know, you visit regularly the region and to Israel and know the leadership there carefully, are they receptive to a diplomatic approach that would assure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon? And is it even in the cards to think that they might directly or indirectly have some interest in diplomacy with Iran if they were assured that we were on the right path to a resolution?
Lieberman: Well, I think both the Israelis and our Arab allies in the region, both of, all of whom, are very worried about the Iranian nuclear weapons development program would prefer a diplomatic solution to a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program, nuclear assets. But again they’re skeptical about whether Iran is really prepared to do that and then I think they’d want to have the diplomatic resolution be implemented in an agreement that is real and will be monitored because ... if it’s not monitored and guaranteed, [it] will lead to real instability in the Middle East overall. So, yeah, I think no one really wants a military resolution to this problem including me, but the Iranians are increasingly telling their neighbors and the rest of the world that they are really not prepared to negotiate a resolution to the crisis that is acceptable to the other countries that are so concerned about what they are doing, and that’s the problem.
Al-Monitor: Moving to American politics in the Middle East, Gov. Romney made some controversial remarks at a fundraiser awhile ago about Israel, Palestinians, and the peace process, including, “I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say, ‘There's just no way.’" What is your reaction? You know the Israeli-Palestinian leaders better than anyone and have worked on this issue for years. What’s your reaction to those comments and that analysis?
Lieberman: Well, I mean there are certainly some elements within the Palestinian community, and particularly in Hamas, if you go by their public statements their official policies. I’m talking about Hamas, which obviously controls a significant percentage of the Palestinian territory and population. The comments of Gov. Romney fit them exactly unfortunately. But I’d say in terms of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, and which is to say the West Bank basically, there is a real desire that I take to be sincere to achieve a two-state solution and of course that is also supported by a majority not only by the current Israeli government but by a majority of Israelis so the problem is moving the negotiations forward in a circumstance where the leadership of the Palestinian Authority doesn’t essentially have political sovereignty over all the Palestinian territory and people.
But this is a very important crisis or conflict to try to resolve and it is resolvable, it’s not easy but we can certainly make progress on it. So I know there are some who say, including some in Israeli politics and in Palestinian politics, that this is not going to be resolved, some say ever, others say you know for 25 years. I hope not and I don’t really believe that. I think that if we stick with it there’s an opportunity to reach at least a partial agreement that will enable progress to occur on the ground for both parties that is Palestinian people and Israeli people and that should be the US goal.
Al-Monitor: You have been mentioned as a possible candidate as secretary of state in a Romney administration. Do you consider yourself more closely aligned with the foreign policy and Middle East positions of President Obama, or of Romney?
Lieberman: That’s an interesting question. So I’m an independent these days and I agree with each of them on some things and disagree on others. It’s true that my particular brand of foreign policy thinking generally, not just on the Middle East, seems to have more followers in the Republican Party than the Democratic Party these days, although I always think that my foreign policy approach is quite similar to what President Kennedy’s was and he inspired me and a lot of other people of my generation into politics so I’ve always kept that same point of view.
But there are others in the Democratic Party who share my policy, my foreign policy views, and I just hope that they’ll get stronger over time. But you know I’m not as you know I’m retiring from the Senate this year and I’m not seeking any position in whatever administration is elected this year. But in fairness I would say that based on my belief in public service that if anybody actually asked me to do, which I don’t expect, do any job in the government I’d certainly give it serious consideration but it’s not what I or I might add my family are looking forward to right now.