In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Antony “Tony” Blinken, former deputy Secretary of State and current foreign policy adviser for the Joe Biden for President campaign. Morell and Blinken discuss a potential Biden administration’s foreign policy priorities and its likely approach to top global security challenges, including climate change, armed conflicts, and strategic threats from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Blinken also details the Vice President’s likely approach to the U.S. intelligence, diplomatic and military communities. A corresponding interview request has been extended to the Trump White House, and is pending.
- ON AMERICA’S ROLE IN THE WORLD: “I would sum it up in three words: leadership, cooperation and democracy…Joe Biden would reassert American leadership, leading with our diplomacy. We’d actually show up again, day in, day out. But to engage the world, not as it was in 2009 or even in 2017 when we left it, but as it is and as we anticipate it will become: rising powers, new actors super-empowered by technology and information, who we have to bring along if we’re going to make progress.”
- CONFRONTING CHINA: “I think we all recognize China poses a growing challenge, arguably the biggest challenge, we face from another nation state: economically, technologically, militarily, even diplomatically. And, you know, the relationship has adversarial aspects, competitive aspects, but also cooperative ones. So I think the question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘What is the most effective strategy to protect and advance our security, our prosperity, our values when it comes to engaging with China?’ And I think the Vice President would tell you that we have to start by putting ourselves in a position of strength from which to engage China so that the relationship moves forward more on our terms than on theirs.”
- RELATIONSHIPS WITH U.S. INTELLIGENCE: “[A] President Biden will not politicize intelligence, will insist that truth always be spoken to power. Will demand that people bring their best analysis and best judgment and not in any way shape it to what they perceive to be the political desires or political interests of the incumbent…And of course, what flows from that, too, is the people that you appoint to lead these agencies. He would insist that that be their standard and he would insist that they communicate the same thing to the men and women working with them and working for the country.”
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – ANTONY BLINKEN
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS
MICHAEL MORELL: Tony, welcome to Intelligence Matters. This is your second time on the program, but your first representing the Biden campaign, it is great to have you on the show.
TONY BLINKEN: Thanks, Michael. Great to be with you.
MICHAEL MORELL: I should say that we asked the Trump White House to provide a spokesperson on the President’s foreign policy that we could produce as a separate episode that we would run after yours, Tony, and we are still waiting to hear from them. I just wanted my listeners to know that.
So, Tony, we’re glad you said yes. And maybe, Tony, the place to start is, because this is Intelligence Matters, I’d like to start with the Vice President as an intelligence consumer.
Can you talk about what he was like as an intelligence consumer when he was the vice president? And how do you think he might approach the intelligence community as president?
TONY BLINKEN: Michael, the word that comes to mind in terms of the Vice President’s consumption of intelligence products is ‘voracious.’ And you know, when he was out of office, he told me early on the thing he missed the most was the morning PDB meeting, the President’s Daily Brief, where he really felt that he knew what was going on in every corner of the world and something he felt very disconnected from when he was out of office.
So, I suspect – no, I know – that as president, he would be a voracious consumer of intelligence. Unfortunately, that stands in rather stark contrast to President Trump. We’ve seen it reported again and again that at critical moments he either didn’t read or ignored vital intelligence products. When he was getting warnings about COVID-19 in his President’s Daily Brief, either he didn’t read them or he ignored them. And similarly, reports that when he got intelligence about Russia paying bounties to the Taliban to kill our troops, same thing: either didn’t read it or ignored it. That would not happen in a Joe Biden administration.
MICHAEL MORELL: Tony, you were his National Security Adviser during the first term. Did he get the PDB before the session with the president or was that the first time he was seeing it, when the president was there?
TONY BLINKEN: No, no. He got it before. He typically – he certainly had the book before. On occasion, he’d get an actual briefing of his own beforehand and in fact, I’d get called in sometimes before we went to see the president, where he wanted to get into greater depth on something. But typically he had read the the book before the meeting with the president.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you think he thinks about having to – a little bit of a difficult question – but, do you think he thinks about having to repair the relationship between the IC and the person who sits in the White House?
TONY BLINKEN: In short, yes. And unfortunately, that repair mission is probably one that will have to happen across the board with a multiplicity of government agencies that have been grievously politicized by this administration, turning them into instruments of the president’s personal interests as opposed to the national interest. And unfortunately, the intelligence community is probably right at the top of the list.
MICHAEL MORELL: How do you do that? How do you go about fixing that? And I understand that’s, you know, going to be something that’s going to be done across the board. But how do you go about doing that in practice?
TONY BLINKEN: First thing, Michael, is to send a very clear and direct message that a President Biden will not politicize intelligence, will insist that truth always be spoken to power. Will demand that people bring their best analysis and best judgment and not in any way shape it to what they perceive to be the political desires or political interests of the incumbent. And I think that’s a signal, a message he would send immediately. And of course, what flows from that, too, is the people that you appoint to lead these agencies.
He would insist that that be their standard and he would insist that they communicate the same thing to the men and women working with them and working for the country. So it really starts on Day One with the message you send, what you say, who you ask to to lead these agencies.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Tony, I want to get into a set of specific issues and kind of run them by you, but maybe a handful of kind of general questions before we get to the specifics. And the first is, the Vice President’s vision for what a Biden administration’s foreign policy would look like. I guess it comes down to, how does he think about America’s role in the world?
TONY BLINKEN: So, look, I would sum it up in three words: leadership, cooperation and democracy. Which also sums up the profound differences between President Trump and Vice President Biden. I don’t think the choice could be clearer or the contrast starker. So bear with me for a second, Michael.
On leadership, whether we like it or not, the world just doesn’t organize itself. And until this administration, the U.S. had played a lead role in doing a lot of that organizing, helping to write the rules, to shape the norms and animate the institutions that govern relations among nations. What we have now is a president who has unfortunately abdicated that responsibility, putting us in retreat from our allies, from international organizations, from hard-won agreements.
And here’s the problem. When we’re not engaged, when we don’t lead, then one or two things is likely to happen. Either some other country tries to take our place – but probably not in a way that advances our interests or values – or no one does. And then you get chaos or a vacuum filled by bad things before it’s filled by good things. Either way, that’s bad for us.
So Joe Biden would reassert American leadership, leading with our diplomacy. We’d actually show up again, day in, day out. But to engage the world, not as it was in 2009 or even in 2017 when we left it, but as it is and as we anticipate it will become: rising powers, new actors super-empowered by technology and information, who we have to bring along if we’re going to make progress.
And I think he would act with a combination of humility and confidence. Humility, because most of the world’s problems are not about us, even as they affect us. We can’t just flip a switch to solve them. But also confidence, because when we act at our best, we still have a greater ability than any other country on Earth to mobilize others.
But cooperation here is critical. And that’s the second piece: not a single one of the big challenges we face, whether it’s climate change or mass migration or technological disruption or pandemic disease, can be met by any one country acting alone, even one as powerful as our own. And there’s no wall high enough or wide enough to contain these threats. But at the very time we need to find new ways to cooperate and bring other countries along, by nearly every measure, the credibility and influence of the United States under President Trump are in freefall. You’ve seen the most recent Pew global survey: People have more confidence in Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to do the right thing regarding world affairs than they do in the president of the United States. So we’ll have to pick up the pieces of this carnage wrought by President Trump, salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership, and then mobilize the country and our allies to meet new challenges.
Final piece is this: democracy. It still reflects who we are, how we see ourselves, and at least until recently, how the world has seen us, but it’s being challenged. And the strength of our own democracy at home is directly tied to our ability to be a force for progress in the world and to mobilize that collective action I was talking about.
But here’s the problem. President Trump’s daily assault on our own democracy, on its institutions, on its values, on its people, that’s deeply tarnished our ability to lead. At the same time, the flip side is other democracies are a source of strength for our country, especially when we act together. But you know this, Michael, democracy has been in retreat. Freedom House ranks countries and it’s done it for decades. Of the 40 or so countries that were ranked ‘Fully Free’ from the 80s to the 90s to the early 2000s, half have fallen backwards. There’s a democratic recession and autocracies from Russia to China are trying to exploit our difficulties. And yet here again, the very moment democracies look to the United States to be leader of the free world, we have a president who, by embracing autocrats and dissing Democrats, seems to have suited up for the other side. So I think what Joe Biden would do would be to renew our democracy at home and then work to revitalize our alliances and partnerships with democracies around the world.
You’ll see an America that is leading not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. And that starts with democracy.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Tony, this rebuilding ties with allies. You know, I still talk to a lot of former foreign government officials who I used to work with. And one of the questions that they have is how can a President Biden assure us that we’re not going to go through the same thing again in 2024 or 2028? Right – How can we make sure that we that the bet we put on the United States is going to be a long-term one?
TONY BLINKEN: Look, there’s no guaranteed answer. But I will say this, Michael. So much hinges on November 3rd. From my own conversations with folks around the world, what I’m getting is, if Joe Biden is elected on November 3rd, I think a lot of people will see the last four years as an aberration. Conversely, if President Trump is knowingly re-elected, given all that we know about his leadership and the way he engages abroad, that will, I think, set us back for as long as I can look into the future.
So, so much hinges on the very fact of the election itself and who wins and who loses. Much will be taken from that about, you know, people’s sense of where America is and where it’s going. Having said that, and in fairness, I do think that President Trump is as much a symptom as he is a cause of some of the challenges that people see now. And he may also be an accelerant, but the fact is there are big underlying challenges that predated President Trump and that will succeed him when he leaves office.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, which kind of brings us to to – you know, there’s 24 hours in a day, right, and resources are finite. So to what extent does foreign policy get constrained by the problems at home? The acute problems of the pandemic and the economy and the more chronic problems of race and income inequality and health care, et cetera, et cetera?
TONY BLINKEN: Well, look, we have to face facts, which is the 800-pound gorilla is COVID-19. And it is the gravest challenge the United States has faced since World War II. It’s killed more Americans than died during all of World War I and killed more Americans than perished in every war we’ve fought since 1945 plus 9/11, combined. And of course, we’ve got a recession that it unleashed the deepest downturn since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans unemployed, entire sectors of our economy threatened with ruin. And then we’ve got so many tails that could wag the COVID dog. And I remember we were talking about this months ago: an emerging markets debt crisis, food insecurity, migratory upheavals, humanitarian disasters. And then, on top of that, more protectionism, more nationalism, more xenophobia, all of which can ricochet back in different ways on the United States.
So in a sense, the pandemic itself is a national security crisis of the first order. But I think that getting out from under the COVID rock actually requires asserting American leadership, not running away from it. Think about it this way: look at some of the previous global crises – none of this magnitude but still very significant – that we had to deal with; HIV/AIDS, the 2008-2009 financial crisis, Ebola. In each and every instance, the US led the way to international cooperation and coordination. The Bush administration, with HIV/AIDS, doing a remarkable job of saving hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of lives. The Obama administration, again, with the financial crisis and Ebola. We seized the G7, the G20, international financial institutions.
This time out, the United States, when COVID broke, actually was chairing the G7. We didn’t even call a meeting. It took the French President, Macron, to convene that group. And the G20 has been totally ineffectual in the absence of our own engagement. So I think these two things go together.
And the other problem is the world doesn’t take a time out because of COVID. So I don’t think we’d have the luxury of approaching things sequentially. We have to be able to walk and chew a lot of gum at the same time: getting COVID under control, but also dealing with some of its repercussions and dealing with the other challenges that have not gone away just because COVID is striking everywhere.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Tony, the second kind of broad question I wanted to ask you is about the issues of the tools of statecraft, right. The military, the diplomatic community, our economic power. How does the Vice President feel about the health of those tools and even more importantly, about the balance among them in terms of how they’ve been used over the last couple of decades?
TONY BLINKEN: So I think he’d tell you that where the balance is not good and that there is overreliance on the military tool and an under-reliance on, for example, on diplomacy. And that would change in a Biden administration.
Let me just talk about the piece that that I know best, and that’s the diplomatic piece and in particular the State Department. So we heard some talk about “swagger” at the State Department, but unfortunately, it’s more like a stagger. As I hear it from so many foreign service officers and civil servants, we have a Department that’s demoralized and decimated by departures and vacancies in the in the most senior ranks. And we have a leadership that does not seem to have the backs of its own people when they are literally attacked by the President of the United States. Everything is politicized with loyalty lists, efforts to find so-called traitors or “Deep Staters.”
There was just – you may have seen this. There’s a major survey of federal employees that’s, I believe, undertaken every year. The one last year, 2019, found that political coercion was rampant in certain bureaus in the State Department. And here’s a statistic that left me with my jaw dropping: within the State Department’s legal bureau, when asked if about the State Department’s leadership, 34 percent said the department’s leadership did not have high levels of honesty and integrity, versus 0 percent in 2016 when John Kerry was running the Department and Barack Obama was president.
I’ve worked with foreign service officers, as I know you have, in my case, for nearly 25 years. And for virtually all of them, I could not begin to tell you who’s a Democrat, who’s a Republican, who’s an independent or something else. I can tell you that, across the board, they’re remarkable professionals who dedicate their careers to serving our country, not one party or another. So I think what you see under a Biden administration is diplomacy as our tool of first resort. The world’s greatest power deserves to have the world’s very best diplomatic corps. And I think you’d see us support and invest in reforms to make the Department more strategic, more modern, more agile, more effective. And we’d be treating our diplomats with respect, not contempt. And I would hope and believe and expect that we would not only expand and reform the foreign service, but do it in a way that reflects the diversity and richness of the country it represents.
MICHAEL MORELL: OK, Tony, let’s shift to some specific issues and let me just throw them out one at a time and get you to talk about how a President Biden might approach them. And I’ll put what I think the most important one is, first, which is climate change.
TONY BLINKEN: Yeah. So Michael here it’s interesting, I think this is a reflection of what we were talking about a minute ago. When it comes to climate change, I think that success at home is directly tied to our ability to lead effectively abroad. Success can breed success and strengthen our credibility. When we’re actually modeling good behavior, and when we get results, other countries are more likely to follow our lead.
Conversely, when we fall short of the mark as, for example, on COVID-19 or racial justice, it’s a lot harder to change someone else’s conduct. So, in the case of climate change: we’re 15 percent of global emissions, so by definition, we can do everything right, but if the rest of the world, responsible for 85 percent of emissions, fails to do the right thing, we can’t solve the problem. But, we will be a lot more effective in getting others to do the right thing if we’re actually doing it ourselves.
So under a Biden administration, I think you’d see us urgently embrace much greater ambition to meet the scope of the challenge, ensure that we achieve a 100 percent clean energy economy and get to net zero emissions no later than than 2050. A series of executive orders on Day One that go well beyond what the Obama-Biden administration did to put us on the right track, working with Congress to get legislation to establish an enforcement mechanism that includes milestone targets no later than the end of the Vice President’s first term in 2025. Historic investments in clean energy and climate research and innovation, incentivizing the rapid deployment of clean energy innovations across the economy, and building a stronger, more resilient nation with the investments we make in infrastructure that are climate-ready.
And as we do that, we’re in a much better position to rally the rest of the world to meet the challenge. So the Vice President is committed to rejoining Paris on Day One, but then going further than that, leading an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets and working to make sure those commitments are actually transparent, enforceable, and also trying to make sure that countries can’t cheat by using some of our economic leverage and the power of our example as well. So climate change would be fully integrated into our foreign policy and national security strategies, as well as our approach to trade. But you’ve got to bring the domestic and the international piece together if you’re going to succeed.
MICHAEL MORELL: OK, Tony, China.
TONY BLINKEN: So that’s the big one. And look, I think we all recognize China poses a growing challenge, arguably the biggest challenge, we face from another nation state: economically, technologically, militarily, even diplomatically. And, you know, the relationship has adversarial aspects, competitive aspects, but also cooperative ones. So I think the question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘What is the most effective strategy to protect and advance our security, our prosperity, our values when it comes to engaging with China?’ And I think the Vice President would tell you that we have to start by putting ourselves in a position of strength from which to engage China so that the relationship moves forward more on our terms than on theirs.
Here’s the problem: right now, by every key metric, China’s strategic position is stronger and ours is weaker as a result of President Trump’s leadership. Think about it this way: President Trump helped China advance its own key strategic goals, weakening American alliances, leaving a vacuum in the world for China to fill, abandoning our values and giving China a green light to trample on human rights and democracy from Xinjiang to Hong Kong. And maybe worst of all, debasing our own democracy by attacking its institutions, its people, its values every day, and so reducing its appeal.
It’s another way of saying, Michael, that in many ways the challenge posed by China is almost less about their strength and more about our own self-inflicted weaknesses. The challenge is about us. And so that means we have to focus on the competitiveness of our own economy and workers, the strength of our own democracy and political system, the vibrancy of our own alliances and partnerships, and the assertion of our own values, all of which President Trump has done so much to undermine, but all of which are actually within our control.
So that’s where the Vice President would focus first, in making those investments. And that’s also, by the way, the best basis upon which to advance cooperation with China on issues of mutual concern, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s nonproliferation or global health.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then how confident are you, Tony, that if we do all of that, and in particular if we rebuild the alliances and build a kind of coalition that we can say to China, ‘You’re welcome to exert more influence in the world if you live by the rules and international order, and If not, we’re going to push back on you.’ How confident are you that we can change their approach?
TONY BLINKEN: Look, there’s no guarantee. But, for example, on trade, when we’re acting alone, when we manage to pick fights with with our partners and allies who are similarly situated when it comes to China. And so they’re not with us and we’re trying to deal with this alone. We’re about 25 percent of the world’s GDP. When we have our partners and allies with us, we’re 50 or 60 percent of the world’s GDP. That’s a lot harder for China to ignore. And we have many big issues, but we have one of the most, I think, defining issues of our time will be the fault line between techno-democracies on the one hand, and techno-autocracies, like China, on the other hand, and whose rules, whose norms, whose values – to the extent technology infused with values –carry the day is going to make a huge difference in the lives of people across this planet. We have to do a much better job in leading, coordinating, working with the other techno-democracies to make sure that we carry the day and not China.
MICHAEL MORELL: OK, Russia. With the realization that a President Biden would be facing a Vladimir Putin, who actually worked to prevent President Biden’s election.
TONY BLINKEN: So I came back across something a few weeks ago that I that I copied and made sure that I kept with me. And I just want to take a second; I’ll read it to you. It’s a quote. And it reads as follows: “At the bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Russia’s rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with an economically advanced West, a fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies. For this reason, Russia’s rulers have always feared foreign penetration. Russians will participate officially in international organizations where they see opportunity of extending power or inhibiting or diluting the power of others. Efforts will be made to disrupt Western national self-confidence, to hamstring measures of national defense, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity. Poor will be set against rich, Black against White, young against old, newcomers against established residents.”
Well, that quote was written in 1946 by an individual by the name of George Kennan in his famous long telegram and it is eerily on point to what we’re experiencing now.
We’ve got a president, unfortunately, who’s making things worse, not better. When President Trump stands with Vladimir Putin on the world stage and takes his word about Russia’s attacks on our elections over that of our intelligence agencies, that exacerbates the problem. When we have a president who is told that Russia may be putting bounties on the heads of our troops in Afghanistan and does nothing – in fact, worse than nothing, by his own acknowledgement, speaking to President Putin at least six times after he got that report and not raising it, not confronting him and even inviting President Putin to Washington and Russia back into the G7 – we have a real, fundamental problem.
So I would say quickly that a President Biden would be in the business of confronting Mr. Putin for his aggressions, not embracing him. Not trashing NATO, but strengthening its deterrence, investing in new capabilities to deal with challenges in cyberspace, in outer space, under the sea, A.I., electronic warfare, and give robust security assistance to countries like Ukraine, Georgia, the Western Balkans. Impose real costs where we need to; coordinated sanctions, exposing corruption, being very clear and very specific with President Putin about what he risks, but also maybe what he might gain through trade, through investment, through a seat at the table. If Russia changes its conduct to relieve some of its growing dependence on China.
We’ve got to build our own resilience by hardening election infrastructure, getting dark money out of politics, pushing tech companies to deal with disinformation. But we also have to deal at the same time – and we can – with strategic stability. The Vice President believes we should extend New START and look for other avenues to advance strategic stability with Russia, even as we confront Mr. Putin’s aggressive actions.
MICHAEL MORELL: Tony, North Korea. The North Korean nuclear threat threat is greater today than it was in January of 2017 when the Vice President left office.
TONY BLINKEN: Look, our goal is clear. A Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. It takes very smart, very tough diplomacy to get there, working closely with allies and partners.
I would be the first to acknowledge: this is a hard problem. But we managed to get success with Iran – different details that matter, but a hard problem, too. I still think we have opportunities to move in the same direction with North Korea. The problem is, as you mentioned, under President Trump’s watch, the problem, already hard, has gotten more, not less dangerous.
We’ve had a president who’s veered radically from bombastic threats to exchanging what he himself called “love letters” with one of the world’s worst tyrants. We’ve had three empty summits with no preparation with Kim Jong Un. The Art of the Deal really turned into the ‘Art of the Steal’ in Kim’s favor.
One of the world’s worst tyrants gets equal billing on the world stage with the President of the United States. And to boot, we suspend military exercises with our allies to appease them. We take our foot off the pedal of economic pressure. What do we get in return? Worse than nothing. North Korea has actually increased its nuclear arsenal and its missile capabilities, and despite that, the President actually said to the American people, ‘There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.’
I got to say, lying to Americans about our own security in matters of war and peace may be the worst of the president’s adversarial relationship with the truth. I don’t know, maybe he thinks that, like COVID-19, North Korea’s nukes will somehow miraculously disappear.
So the hard part is this. We have to work closely with allies like South Korea and Japan and press China to build genuine economic pressure to squeeze North Korea to get it to the negotiating table. We need to cut off its various avenues and access to to resources – something we were doing very vigorously at the end of the Obama-Biden administration. That takes a lot of time, a lot of preparation, a lot of hard work. But again, it can pay off.
It did get us the Iran nuclear deal, which was working until President Trump tore it up. And I think we could get us to a verifiable agreement with North Korea. Now, I’m not under any illusions. I don’t think North Korea is going to be abandoning the totality of its arsenal tomorrow. So this is something that would have to proceed in stages and phases, but it is doable with sustained, focused foreign policy.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Tony: Iran. You mentioned Iran. It’s obviously on the list here.
TONY BLINKEN: It sure is, and there again, unfortunately, we have, I think, a terrible indictment of the current administration’s foreign policy. When President Trump walked away from the Iran deal, an agreement that, again, was verifiably working to block Iran’s path to nuclear weapons, or at least to the fissile material necessary to to make a weapon, he promised a better deal. And, of course, the opposite has happened.
Iran is building back its nuclear capability. President Trump effectively freed Iran of its commitments under the nuclear agreement. And so now it’s enriching uranium at higher levels, its stockpiling more. It’s using more advanced centrifuges. And the breakout time necessary for Iran to have enough nuclear material to fuel a weapon has decreased from more than a year, as it was under the so-called JCPOA, to a handful of months. And all of this has happened under President Trump’s watch. And he has no plan that I can discern to deal with it.
So now fast forward – and in the process of doing this, we managed to alienate virtually all of our key partners who wanted to stick with the deal. And they’ve now spent most of their energy and efforts trying to keep the deal alive instead of working with us to confront some of Iran’s behavior, egregious behavior, in other parts of the world and in other areas.
We’ve had the most recent chapter play out just in the last few days, the conventional arms embargo that expires in October. The United States launched an effort to extend it indefinitely at the United Nations. We got a grand total of one out of the 15 members of the Security Council to support us. Russia and China got to keep their vetoing try. It was a diplomatic debacle. Now we’re invoking the sanctions snapback provisions in the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by President Obama and his administration. There’s just one catch: those snapback provisions to put sanctions back can be invoked under the terms of the agreement by a participant to the agreement. And in pulling out of the Iran deal, the administration literally titled its press release, “Ending U.S. participation in the JCPOA.”
So our partners and allies are saying, ‘Hey, you can’t snap back the sanctions. You’re no longer a participant in the agreement.” So if Joe Biden is President, if Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear agreement, we would do the same. But then we would use that as a platform, working with our allies and partners to try to strengthen and lengthen it. And that also has the merits, I think, of putting us back on the same page with our allies and partners so that we can more effectively push back together against Iran’s other destabilizing activities and make sure that when it comes to those activities, Iran is isolated, not the United States.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then, Tony, the last issue on my list – a lot of people have different names for it. But I call it “Endless wars.” So, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, any number of places where U.S. troops are on the ground involved in some way. How does the Vice President think about that issue?
TONY BLINKEN: He’s been very clear about this, and he’s said that large-scale, open-ended deployment of large, standing U.S. forces in conflict zones with no clear strategy should end and will end under his watch.
He’s very focused on the conditions under which you would actually deploy U.S. forces. Vital national interests need to be at stake, or maybe it’s a commitment to to a treaty ally. We’d have to have a clearly-defined strategy and end game. And we need the informed consent of the American people, ideally through their representatives in Congress.
But we also need to distinguish between, for example, these endless wars with the large-scale, open-ended deployment of U.S. forces with, for example, discrete, small-scale, sustainable operations, maybe led by Special Forces to support local actors. This is something, Michael, as you know very well, we worked on with the by, with and through strategy in the Obama-Biden administration, and it actually worked very effectively in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS.
In Syria, at its height, I think we had about 2,000 U.S. forces, mostly special operators, in support for them. They leveraged 60 to 70 thousand Syrian democratic forces, Kurds and Arabs, who did the heavy lifting and the heavy fighting to defeat ISIS and take away the geographic caliphate. That’s smart, that’s strong, that’s sustainable, that’s effective. So I think we have to, in ending the endless wars, we also have to be careful not to paint with too broad a brush stroke. There are ways, times, means by which we need to be able to use force, but very, very carefully cabined, as I suggested a minute ago.
MICHAEL MORELL: Tony, you’ve been great with your time. Last question: You know the Vice President better than anyone else when it comes to foreign policy and national security. Tell us how you think, as Commander in Chief, a President Biden would think about a decision to put U.S. servicemen and women in harm’s way.
TONY BLINKEN: Well, you know, one of the most, I think, painful moments in recent weeks has been the reporting about what President Trump thinks about our men and women in uniform, the folks who sign up to put their lives on the line for this country. Calling them, as has been reported, “suckers,” “losers.” And of course, on the record in his own voice, he called John McCain a “loser” for becoming a prisoner of war. And we talked about the the incident with the reported Russian bounties on our forces in in Afghanistan. And the President did nothing.
I don’t think the contrast could be any starker on this issue when it comes to the difference between President Trump and a President Biden. Joe Biden knows what it’s like to send his own child into harm’s way, as he did when his son Beau was deployed to Iraq during the Obama-Biden administration. It’s personal to him and I think better than most, he can, as a president, he would be able to put himself in the shoes of mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, of children who have a loved one deployed.
And one of the things I’ve heard the Vice President say for a long time is, “It boils down to this: Government has many obligations, but only one sacred obligation, and that’s to train and equip and protect our troops when they go off to battle and to look after them and their families when they come home.” That basic obligation, that sacred obligation, as he calls it, that would guide a President Biden’s decision making when it comes to our men and women in uniform.
MICHAEL MORELL: Tony, thank you very much for all of that and thank you very much for joining this hour for joining us. I hope this encourages the Trump team to provide a person to outline President Trump’s thinking on these important foreign policy and national security issues. But thank you very much for taking the time today to join us.
TONY BLINKEN: Michael, thanks for having me. Great to be with you.
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