On September 13, The Jewish Policy Center’s inFOCUS magazine editor Matthew RJ Brodsky interviewed Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Over the course of his four terms in the U.S. Senate, Senator Lieberman became known as one of Congress’ most influential voices on security issues. He has been at the forefront of efforts to increase American investment in defense and transform the U.S. armed forces to better meet the threats of the 21st century. Domestically, Senator Lieberman supports economic policies that spark business growth and innovation, legislation protecting the environment, and investing in public schools. Senator Lieberman is Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Small Business Committee.
iF: In the Special Report that you released on the lessons from the U.S. government’s failure to prevent the Fort Hood attack, you concluded that the Defense Department and FBI “had sufficient information that detected Hassan’s radicalization to violent Islamist extremism but failed to understand and to act on it.” What should the government have done differently and what lessons should Americans learn about homegrown terrorism?
JL: To start at the end of your question, homegrown terrorism, particularly by lone wolves—individuals—is a growing threat to us. In fact, the most damaging terrorist attacks that we’ve had in this country since 9/11 have been carried out by homegrown, more-or-less self-radicalized terrorists: Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at Ford Hood was one, and there was another man in Arkansas by the name of Carlos Bledsoe who killed an army recruiter.
The army should have created a climate in which people could tell the difference between Islamist religious feelings and extreme Islamist political opinions. And it also should have encouraged people to speak out if they saw suspicious behavior, similar to the New York City program of “See Something, Say Something.” Hasan said so many things in public at Walter Reed that were flashing enough red lights to indicate he was dangerous. If somebody had reported that up the chain of command, I think they would have taken him out of the American army, where he didn’t belong, and he never would have had the chance to kill 13 people at Fort Hood.
But the FBI—it was almost a bureaucratic slip up, though bureaucratic is not really an adequate explanation—but they had information that he was emailing with Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric in Yemen. And they should have known that Hasan was in the American military. That should have set off alarms immediately. So, I think the FBI has really reacted in response to the Special Report and I think it’s much less likely that anything similar would happen again. The army, I’m afraid, and it’s true the administration still is not willing to use the terms “violent Islamist extremism…”
iF: That was my next question. To what extent is that political correctness affecting America’s ability to defeat radical Islamist ideology at home and abroad?
JL: Well that unwillingness, I presume for reasons of political correctness, to use the term “violent Islamist extremism” creates a climate: first of unreality, because there is such a thing as violent Islamist extremism, which is different from the religion of Islam. So, it’s actually respectful of Muslims to distinguish between the two. But it also creates the kind of climate that existed in the army at Walter Reed where people don’t want to get involved for fear of causing trouble or for fear of being labeled anti-Muslim. But, what they would be is anti-violent Islamist extremism and pro-American, which is a good thing to be.
iF: In the statement you released yesterday (September 12) with Senators McCain and Graham, you said, “Despite this horrific attack, we cannot give in to the temptation to believe that our support for the democratic aspirations of the people in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the broader Middle East is naive or mistaken.” So how should the U.S. support democracy in the Middle East in places where the future outcome is uncertain?
JL: The one word answer is: Carefully. What’s happened in these Arab countries is really remarkable, historic, and significant. As a matter of principle we can’t oppose what’s happened—that is the overthrow of the dictators—because it’s consistent with our national values of democracy and human rights.
Now obviously, the governments that have followed these “Arab Spring” uprisings have gone in different directions. Some, ironically, like the Libyans have been encouraging because they elected a moderate, more secular leadership. Some like Tunisia have been encouraging because even though they elected Islamists, they seem committed to human rights, democracy, and rule of law. Some like Egypt are unsettling and we have to see where they go. I think our support for each government should be determined by how committed the leadership of these countries are to democracy, to human rights, and to having good relations with the United States. In other words, we should be guided by our national principles but also by our national interests. So we can’t just blindly be writing checks to people who are fomenting anti-American feeling. We have to judge people by their behavior. That’s the bottom line.
iF: You have been outspoken about the need for the U.S. to do more to support the protestors in Syria. Why should Syria be considered a strategic interest to the United States and what specifically should the U.S. do to assist the opposition?
JL: Syria is one of those cases where humanitarian and strategic interests converge. In the first place, for more than a year-and-a-half the government of Bashar al-Asad has been slaughtering its own people who began this uprising with peaceful protests. So we have a moral obligation along with the rest of the world community. It is even a concept in the United Nations that a government has the responsibility to protect its own people, which this Syrian government is not doing.
Secondly, the strategic interest that America has in Syria is, of course, that Asad is the number one ally in the Middle East and Arab world of our number one enemy in the world, which is Iran. And if Asad goes down it will be a significant setback for Iran. The Iranian regime understands this and that is why they have doubled down on their support for Asad. So what do I think we should do? For a long time I’ve felt that there is a very committed, brave opposition to Asad in Syria. They don’t want us to fight for them, but they desperately need weapons from us, and to me that’s the most significant thing we can do.
I would also like us to consider assisting the opposition in setting up a safe zone in areas they now control, particularly in the north of Syria. And we, probably with allies in the Arab world and in Europe, will need to provide air cover for a no-fly zone. It could serve as a base not only for training the Syrian opposition army, but more importantly it can serve as the location of a transitional alternative government for Syria. Once that happens, it will send a message to the people of Syria and to Asad that his days are numbered.
iF: When President Obama broadcasts to the Asad regime in Syria that using chemical weapons would be a red line for the U.S., are you concerned that he is essentially telling Asad that anything short of using WMD is acceptable?
JL: Frankly, some of the Syrian opposition reacted that way; they reacted very negatively to President Obama’s statement. I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way. I’m sure he was trying to give a specific warning to Asad not to use his chemical weapons on his own people. But it was subject to misunderstanding in the context of American policy, which has done less for Asad’s opposition than they had hoped and prayed for.
I was in Turkey again last week meeting with the Free Syrian Army, the political opposition to Asad. They are increasingly frustrated, disappointed, and angry that the U.S. has not done more to help them. A day will come when Asad will fall—I hope sooner rather than later—and when that day comes, as one of the Free Syrian Army colonels told me, they will always remember who was with them and who was not.
iF: Do you think that it is possible for the U.S. to devise a red line for Iran that satisfies the Israelis and is consistent with our strategic interests? And what might that look like?
JL: This is not going to be easy, but the important point is that we do have an overriding American strategic national interest in stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear power. It matters to our safety; it matters to all of our allies in the Middle East, both Israel and the Arab world. They are very anxious about the Iranian nuclear program.
In the specific case of Israel, which obviously is worried based on what Iran’s leaders have said about being willing to annihilate the Israelis—they are concerned about whether they should be acting by themselves to stop the Iranian nuclear program. In my opinion, that’s not the best course to follow because the Israelis don’t possess the military capacity that we have. On the other hand, President Obama has said that he respects that the government of Israel has a responsibility to protect the security of its own people.
So that’s where you come to a point where President Obama has to find a better way to spell out to the Israelis that he does not believe it is possible to contain a nuclear Iran, and he is committed to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. But we’ve got to be more explicit about what that means. And, of course to me, with Iran not responding to sanctions or diplomacy, the Israelis have to understand that America is prepared to use our military might to knock out the Iranian nuclear program because the Iranians will give us no choice sometime soon.
iF: Do you believe that President Obama is at all likely to order a strike on Iran given this administration’s track record and our current defense posture?
JL: It’s impossible for me to say. People have asked me: Is President Obama capable of launching a military strike on Iran? And I would say yes, he’s capable of it. If somebody says, “There is no way that President Obama would ever launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” I would say that’s not true. I base that on what the president has done in office. It’s not just the gutsy decision to send the SEAL team in to take out Osama bin Laden, which had risk involved in it more than other alternatives such as dropping a bomb on that compound. But he has also persistently used drones to strike at terrorists in critical areas of the world. To me, this says that the president is capable of ordering such a strike. Will he? I don’t know.
iF: Given the lack of trust between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as the stakes for Israel when it comes to Iran, is there something you think that the Israeli leader might be missing from Obama that would enable him to feel a greater degree of confidence that this administration is a reliable partner?
JL: In my opinion the personal relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is not as bad as the media makes it out to be. But it’s also not as good as we would like it to be. This is not new in the U.S.-Israel relationship over the years. Some presidents have had better relationships with prime ministers, others worse. But this is a critical moment. The Iranian threat is really a very dangerous and significant threat. It’s important that the Israelis and Americans work very close together.
President Obama will say that the military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries has probably never been better, and everything I know says that’s true. Nonetheless, it’s really important that the heads of government, the president and prime minister, are talking to each other regularly and have a deep trust in one another. We are speaking today on September 13. Two days ago the president and prime minister apparently spent an hour on the phone together. Both sides said it was a good conversation. So the more that happens the better we all should feel, since it means we are actually cooperating in our mutual defense.
And frankly and interestingly, I think when that happens, the leadership of the Arab world feels a growing confidence because they are very concerned about whether the U.S. will take action against the Iranian nuclear program soon enough.
iF: Turning to the domestic front, what combination of tax entitlements and fiscal policies would you recommend to those who will be confronting the problems of a struggling economy, the fiscal cliff, and unsustainable entitlement programs after you leave office?
JL: The best thing we can do to get our economy growing again and creating jobs is to adopt a bipartisan, long-term, balanced budget program. That will give certainty and confidence to our business community, which is now sitting on more liquid assets than ever in our history because they’re not confident about what the future holds. If we can create that confidence they’ll invest, which will create trillions, which will create more jobs than any government program could.
Secondly, it’s clear that something like the Simpson-Bowles recommendation, a bipartisan commission, is the way to fix our debt problem. Right now, with this sequester we are dealing with, all of the savings are coming out of discretionary spending—it’s a governmental word, but it basically means what’s in the federal government besides entitlements and interest payments. It only amounts to about a third of the budget, and it’s not by any means the fastest growing part. So if you’re trying to save all the money out of a third of the budget, you’re not dealing with the other parts. And the biggest part that’s growing the fastest is entitlements, including Medicare and Medicaid. We’ve got to act together, not to cut Medicare and Medicaid, but to slow the increase in spending for Medicare and Medicaid, or else those programs and the whole federal government will go bankrupt.
The other thing we have to do is raise taxes. You could call it tax reform, it’s a good idea. But tax reform, which would lower rates and close some of the loopholes including capping some popular deductions, is the way that we’re ultimately going to have to go.
iF: Looking back at your long history of service to this nation, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
JL: I feel overall very grateful for the privilege of serving in the Senate for 24 years. It’s really been an honor. And I feel good about a lot of the things I’ve been able to do in different areas.
Probably the most significant accomplishment I am most proud of is my involvement in keeping our country safe after 9/11. I was the co-sponsor of the legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security. Then another piece of legislation created the 9/11 Commission and then I co-sponsored the legislative recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. All of which together were, I think, the most substantial reforms in our national security agencies since the beginning of the Cold War in the late 1940s because we were facing a new enemy—violent Islamist terrorism. And I believe that legislation has made us a lot safer.
That’s probably the most significant thing I’ve done. There are a lot of other achievements I am proud of as well. I worked on environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act amendments in the early 90s. I’ve always been very supportive of civil rights and I’m particularly proud that I’ve played a leading roll in a series of measures aimed at protecting gay and lesbian Americans from discrimination. Probably the most significant was to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
iF: Thank you very much for your time.