NPR's Robert Siegel talked to Vice President Joe Biden about Iraq and its future following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. Biden discusses the lesson from the war in Iraq and the country's relationship with its neighbors, including Iran. The following is the transcript of the conversation:
ROBERT SIEGEL: Vice President Biden, welcome to the program once again.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's a delight to be with you.
SIEGEL: Nearly nine years, at least $800 billion, 32,000 Americans wounded, more than 4,000 killed: Was the war in Iraq worth it?
BIDEN: I think history is going to be the only judge of that. But I can tell you that when we came to office, we had – we had over 150,000 folks there, a war with no political end in sight. And after three years, we've met our commitment, brought the war to a responsible end, and by December 31st of this year, there'll be no more troops in Iraq.
SIEGEL: When there are no more U.S. troops in Iraq, will Iraq be an ally of the U.S. that we can count on in regional matters?
BIDEN: Well, we're not looking for an ally; what we're looking for is a stable, democratic government that is not beholden to anyone in the region and is able to be secure within its own borders and have its own policy. I'm confident because of the – what we call the strategic agreement we're now working on with them, we will be deeply involved within every aspect of their government from helping them improve their agriculture, to train air traffic controllers, to train pilots for the F-16s they're buying. So we'll have a deep relationship.
SIEGEL: But President Obama – yeah. But President Obama yesterday avoided the word "ally." He used the word "partner." Is the word "ally" off the table here?
BIDEN: No, no – they're a partner. To be an ally is a formal military alliance. And we have a formal military alliance in NATO. But we are partners with other countries all across the world. And they're – they will be a partner.
SIEGEL: President – Prime Minister al-Maliki expressed some reservations about sanctions against Syria; he remembers the sanctions against Iraq. With the Iraqis taking a different view of Syria on such a basic question, can the president persuade him? Can you persuade the Iraqis?
BIDEN: Yes, but it is not a fundamentally different view. Maliki has had overwhelming difficulty with Assad, has had confrontations with him, supports the Arab League's position, but is skeptical about whether or not the sanctions will result in the outcome, which is getting rid of Assad and a stable government coming to the fore. But we have no fundamental disagreement with the Saudis – I mean, excuse me, with the Iraqis any more than we do with the Arab League, which we happen to support the position they're taking.
SIEGEL: Since Iraqi Shiites, Prime Minister Maliki among them, have very strong historic religious ties with the biggest Shiite country, Iran, what is an appropriate limit to Iranian influence on Iraq?
BIDEN: First of all, everybody – I know you know, but there are Persians and Arabs. The fact they share a religion, a Shiite religion, does not mean that they – that they are – they're close. It doesn't work that way. There is a relationship because there is a long border. There is going to be trade between them. They should have a relationship. They want to make sure that – though, that there is no undue influence coming from Iran or any other country in the region.
And look, the fact of the matter is that Maliki has been very tough with the Iranians. Maliki is the guy that's gone down and gone after their sponsored forces down in Basra and so on. So there is no indication that Prime Minister Maliki is anything other than a nationalist.
SIEGEL: If indeed Iraqi forces were attacked by Iranian-backed militias, would the U.S. assist Iraq in repelling them? Is that part of our relationship with them?
BIDEN: Well, I'm not going to speculate in that. But look, if in fact Iranian forces invaded any country in the region, there would a fundamental response by the whole free world. And so – but that's a – that will not happen. There is not – that's just not in the cards.
SIEGEL: But Secretary of Defense Panetta and U.S. commanders in Iraq over the summer were talking about the potential threat of forces backed by Iran – backed by Iran.
BIDEN: No, they weren't. No, they weren't. No, they weren't. They were not talking about Iranian forces crossing the border.
SIEGEL: The militias backed by Iran.
BIDEN: Well, that's true, and that is a problem. That's a problem all around the world.
It's a problem as well in other parts of the Middle East. It's a problem that we think the Iranians are backing Hezbollah; the Iranians are backing terrorist activity in many parts of that region.
SIEGEL: There are some pretty basic questions about Iraq that remain unresolved as our forces are leaving: whether profits from oil under the north of Iran (sic) should go to the region or to Baghdad, how high up in the old regime one should be to be disqualified --
BIDEN: Well, that's not true. That's not true.
SIEGEL: It doesn't seem resolved to the – to the liking of the prime minister of the Iraqi – of the Kurdistan region.
BIDEN: No, but it is resolved where the resources go. They all go through Baghdad right now. All the profits from oil go through Baghdad. And the reasons get – in the case of the Kurds, they get 17 percent of those resources. The issue remains as to who can decide whether or not to contract with an oil company on what territory. It's kind of like a debate as to whether or not could Texans bring in a foreign oil company to look for oil without the United States government agreeing on it.
So there are those dilemmas that they're working out. But they need an oil law that will further refine who can make the call as to when a contract can be made. Thus far, there is no disagreement on the sharing of the revenue.
SIEGEL: But do pressure – yeah.
BIDEN: And that has to be done.
SIEGEL: But do pressure points, like who can contract with an oil company, who should control the city of Kirkuk, how high on the old regime should someone be to be disqualified from a role in the new regime –
SIEGEL: After several years, those remain questions that are still open. Are you concerned that these are pressures points?
BIDEN: That's true, but all the big issues have been overwhelmingly resolved. They've had two elections. They now have a government – in the past, where the Shias didn't – the Sunnis did not participate at all, fully participated. They now have a government where the speaker of the (core ?) of their parliament is a Sunni, where they have a Kurdish president, where they have a Kurdish foreign – if you notice, when President Maliki was here, he was with a Kurdish foreign minister. So there's been overwhelming progress made. Are there still things that have to be resolved? Absolutely. Absolutely.
SIEGEL: Mr. Vice President, we're speaking in one of the ornate secretary of war suites of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. There are portraits of former war secretaries surrounding us, and some artifacts of old conflicts.
BIDEN: It's a great place to talk about ending a war.
SIEGEL: Ending a war. So what was the lesson of this war?
BIDEN: Well, there are a number of lessons to this war. One of the lessons of the war is that when you go into a country that is under a dictatorship, no matter what the underlying makeup of the country is, that it takes an awful long time to be able to help re-establish a circumstance where there's a possibility of a democratic country emerging. And so that's one of the lessons I think everyone has learned.
SIEGEL: Re-establish or establish for the first time the conditions for that?
BIDEN: Well, I would argue, in this case, establish – you could argue re-establish, but basically establish for the first time a government where there are shared powers of the three – in this case, three major factions in a country that was – you know, Tom Friedman talked about there are – there are countries with borders and countries – and tribes with flags. There's an awful lot of countries in the Middle East that, as a consequence of two centuries of activities of colonial Europe and conflicts with – between the Ottoman Empire and so on, that have been left with very significant difficulties to overcome in terms of reconciling the population there – the makeup, the ethnic backgrounds and the religious divisions.
So – and it's always difficult. And it's going to be difficult, for example, in the so-called Arab Spring. And you're going to – we're going to – some countries are going to emerge into a democratic status much more rapidly than others. But it's a difficult process.
SIEGEL: Just before you go, one last very quick point. Do you believe that the Arab Spring only happened because there had been a war in Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein?
BIDEN: No, I do not believe that at all. I think the Arab Spring is a consequence of – a consequence of the passage of time and history and the exposure of that part of the world to a – as, again, to quote my buddy Tom Friedman, a flat world.
This is a very different world. There's a – the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats — talking about his Ireland in 1916 in a poem called "Easter Sunday 1916" — said, All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty has been born. All has changed in the last 20 years, well beyond Iraq.
SIEGEL: Vice President Biden, thank you very much for talking with us today.
BIDEN: Thank you. Appreciate it. Thanks.