Joe Biden Criticized at Democratic Debate over Iraq, Afghanistan Wars & Failure to Close Gitmo

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Former Vice President Joe Biden sparred with Senator Bernie Sanders about his support for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and faced scrutiny over his failure to close Guantánamo Bay during President Obama’s tenure in the White House at Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles. We look at the candidates’ foreign policy stances with award-winning investigative reporter Azmat Khan, a New York Times Magazine contributing writer and a Future of War fellow at the New America Foundation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the hour on the final Democratic presidential debate of the year, held at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. We’re going to turn right now to the PBS moderator Yamiche Alcindor, who questioned Senator Warren about Guantánamo Bay.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: President Obama pledged to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, but could not. Forty prisoners remain there. Last year, U.S. taxpayers paid $540 million to keep Guantánamo open. Would you pledge to finally close the detention facility? And if elected, how will you do it?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Yes. It’s time to close this detention facility. It not only costs us money, it is an international embarrassment. We have to be an America that lives our values every single day. We can’t be an America that stands up and asks people to fight alongside us, as we did with the Kurds in fighting ISIS, and then turn around, in the blink of a tweet, and say that we’re turning our backs on the people who stood beside us. After that, who wants to be an ally of the United States? We have to be an America that understands the difference and recognizes the difference between our allies, the people who will work alongside us, and the dictators who would do us harm. And we need to treat our allies better than we treat the dictators.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Vice President Biden, why couldn’t you close Guantánamo Bay? Why couldn’t the Obama administration close Guantánamo Bay?

JOE BIDEN: We attempted to close Guantánamo Bay, but you have to have congressional authority to do it. They’ve kept it open. And the fact is that we in fact think it’s the greatest — it is an advertisement for creating terror. Look, what we have done around the world in terms of keeping Guantánamo open, or what what Trump has done by no longer being an honest broker in Israel — there’s no solution for Israel other than a two-state solution. It does not exist. It’s not possible to have a Jewish state in the Middle East without there being a two-state solution. And he has played to all the same fears and all the prejudices that exist in this country and in Israel. Bibi Netanyahu and I know one another well. He knows that I think what he’s doing is outrageous. What we do is, we have to put pressure constantly on the Israelis to move to a two-state solution, not withdraw physical aid from them in terms of their security.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Vice President Joe Biden being questioned by the PBS moderator Yamiche Alcindor. We’re joined right now by Azmat Khan, who is an award-winning investigative reporter, New York Times Magazine contributing writer, a Future of War fellow at the New America Foundation. Her investigations into U.S. wars have taken her to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria, currently writing a book about America’s so-called precision airstrikes. Thanks so much for being with us. Can you respond to everything from the Israel-Palestine conflict to Guantánamo?

AZMAT KHAN: Right. So, this question about Guantánamo was one that was big during the 2008 election. And we’ve heard very little talk about Guantánamo in recent years. And that’s because the American public largely believes that the U.S. is no longer involved in the detention of so-called terrorism suspects. And the reality is very different than that.

While there are a few people left in Guantánamo, and the United States is struggling with what to do with them, the reality is that someone is running prisons that the U.S. no longer maintains in countries like Iraq and Syria and in places like Afghanistan. And that is, the U.S. is now relying on partner governments, on allied governments, on partner forces — for example, Kurds in Syria — who are running these prisons and holding these suspects. And torture and abuse are widespread in some of these prisons.

We may not be talking about it, it may not be an agenda issue, but detainee and torture and policy related to that should be a major issue for candidates to be talking about, because it is something that continues to happen and is not being discussed, particularly with respect to ISIS. Iraq and Syria are filled with sprawling prisons. Some of them include children of families who have been accused of involvement in ISIS. And there’s very little discussion about what to do with them. The abuse that I mentioned that’s happening in these places, if we look at recent history, we know that these have had devastating consequences, often serving as incubators for groups like ISIS. And there’s very little discussion about what to do with them, particularly when it comes to the repatriation of ISIS fighters who came from Western countries.

The United States needs a clear policy on this, and it’s not something that candidates are talking about. This discussion about detention has been relegated to the issue of Guantánamo and a few prisoners, but it’s much bigger than that. And that torture discussion really warrants serious debate.

AMY GOODMAN: And Israel-Palestine? And, overall, your assessment of the questions that were asked last night on these issues?

AZMAT KHAN: So, these — yeah, these questions came up briefly, and there were some answers. And so, I think, with the Israel-Palestine question, you know, Bernie Sanders came to say that we don’t need to just be pro-Israel, we need to be pro-Palestinian, as well. Biden came forward to say that — you know, he criticizes Bibi Netanyahu and what he’s doing, and that there needs to be a two-state solution. But what that actually would turn into, there were very few specifics. So, there really isn’t much to dig into here when it comes to what a real policy forward would look like, what kind of pressure that Biden said needed to be put on Israel. What does that pressure actually look like, particularly when he said that, you know, the military or security aid should not be off the table? You need to really illustrate what those pressure points are, and he didn’t actually do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to turn to Afghanistan now. Last week, The Washington Post published confidential documents that revealed for years senior U.S. officials misled the public about the war in Afghanistan. I want to turn to a clip of PBS moderator Amna Nawaz questioning again Vice President Joe Biden about whether he withheld information about the war during his time as vice president under President Obama in the White House.

AMNA NAWAZ: Mr. Biden, the question was about your time in the White House, though. And in that —

JOE BIDEN: I’m talking about the White House.

AMNA NAWAZ: In that Washington Post report, there’s a senior national security official who said that there was constant pressure from the Obama White House to produce figures showing the troop surge was working — and I’m quoting from the report here — “despite hard evidence to the contrary.” What do you say to that?

JOE BIDEN: Since 2009 — go back and look — I was on the opposite side of that with the Pentagon. The only reason I can speak to it now is because it’s been published. It’s been published thoroughly. I’m the guy, from the beginning, who argued that it was a big, big mistake to surge forces to Afghanistan, period. We should not have done it. And I argued against it constantly.

AMNA NAWAZ: Senator Sanders, you had your hand up?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, in all due respect to my — to Joe, Joe, you’re also the guy who helped lead us into the disastrous war in Iraq. What we need to do is, I think, rethink — and The Washington Post piece was very educational. What we need to rethink is the entire “war on terror.” We have lost thousands of our own men and women, brave soldiers. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have been killed abroad or forced to leave their countries. It is time right now that we bring this world together to try to end these endless wars and address the root causes which are causing these wars.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Senator Bernie Sanders and, before that, former Vice President Joe Biden. Azmat Khan?

AZMAT KHAN: So, what we heard here was Biden refer back to an effort he made in 2009 to promote something that’s referred to as the “Biden Plan” or as the “zero option,” this idea that he argued for, against the advice of military generals, that the United States should scale back its footprint, these ground troops in Afghanistan, focus more exclusively on counterterrorism operations and U.S. Special Forces. It’s something he pushed for and didn’t win back in 2009. He failed to persuade Obama to do that. And he says this is the kind of approach he would bring now.

But there’s a massive misconception here. This implies that somehow war operations would decrease. The reality is that most combat operations today are conducted not by ground troops, they’re actually conducted via airstrikes. There have been more bombs dropped in Afghanistan when U.S. troop levels have been lower than they were at their surge in 2011. In 2011, we saw around 5,000 bombs dropped in Afghanistan. In 2018, when troop levels are at some of their lowest, we saw more than 7,000 bombs dropped. And same with this year, we’ve seen that escalated. So, what there is and what even any kind of a zero option would have included was an acceleration in the pace of airstrikes. And these airstrikes have devastating consequences on civilians. More civilians have been killed in the war in Afghanistan this year than in any year of U.S. history in this war, in these 18 years of war.

So, what we’re seeing is a reality in which there is a belief, a mistaken belief, that ending the war comes down to removing troops on the ground, when the reality is, is that most of these wars are being carried out via airstrikes. And whoever the next president is, whoever these candidates are who are trying to shape or talk about, you know, a manta we’re hearing a lot of, “ending endless war,” will need to have a very specific policy when it comes to airstrikes. It’s not just about ground troops. That’s an erroneous misconception that comes up again and again.

And it’s interesting because, you know, we heard Sanders, as well, here, talk about ending endless wars. If you look at the foreign policy statements of each of these Democratic candidates, they are more or less in a similar vein, with one exception, and that, so far, has been Sanders, who, I think in June, issued a sort of lengthy piece on ending endless wars in foreign affairs, in which he sort of spelled out what it would take to get there. And it distinguished him from many of the other candidates on stage, none of whom have really articulated a clear vision on what it would take to end endless war.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s interesting. CNN just released a poll that said it’s Bernie Sanders who is the most popular Democratic presidential candidate right now. But on this issue of his challenge to Biden, you had Biden, together with Senator Clinton, who voted to authorize the Iraq War back in 2002, the vote for authorization.

AZMAT KHAN: Right, that war — that war vote. So, if you look at Biden’s statements on his Iraq War vote, he has oscillated in describing what his thinking was at the time. But there are many who voted to authorize for — who voted for the Iraq War who have now come back and since said, “You know, I don’t think I made the right decision. We didn’t have the right information.” It’s one where there is a lot of political leeway in expressing regret. The Afghanistan War vote has not had that same kind of regret. So it was interesting to hear Sanders say last night that that was a vote he regretted. That war vote was far less controversial. And it’s interesting to hear people talk —

AMY GOODMAN: Interesting to go back to the one person who said no, and that was Barbara Lee.

AZMAT KHAN: Yes. Yeah, exactly, exactly. And so, she is the one person who said no, who is now being talked about by these other candidates for that vote. And it’s coming up in the context of a reconsidering of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. And this is something Pete Buttigieg brought up last night. He said that — he was reflecting on his war experience. He was saying, you know, “I’m surprised it’s gone on for this long. I would propose, you know, a three-year limit on these kinds of — these authorizations for force.” And the implication here that he’s making is that had there been some kind of a three-year limit in which Congress would have to revote on the war in Afghanistan, that maybe we wouldn’t be in that war today.

And I don’t think that stacks up with reality. If you look at congressional leaders, if you look at senators, congressional leaders on the Afghanistan War, it has been relatively bipartisan when it comes to an understanding of troop levels, when it comes to an understanding of what the United States should be doing in the country. The only real shake-up we’ve seen when it comes to that war has been under the Trump administration as the United States pursued negotiations with the Taliban. So, I don’t think — you know, while it may be worthy to reconsider the AUMF and to hear candidates talk about it, to assume that that would have ended the Afghanistan War, I think, is a mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Azmat Khan, award-winning investigative reporter, New York Times Magazine contributing writer, Future of War fellow at the New America Foundation. Her investigations into U.S. wars have taken her to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria, currently writing a book about America’s so-called precision airstrikes. She mentioned Pete Buttigieg. We are going to hear him and Elizabeth Warren spar over who pays for the candidates — Wine-gate, you might say. Stay with us.

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