Former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman

Co-chair of AEI’s American Internationalism Project, the former VP candidate assesses the role the U.S. might play in resolving the escalating conflict in Iraq.

A former three-term senator representing Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman is considered a center-conservative Democrat. He supported legislation creating the Homeland Security department, supported the Iraq war and was a vocal advocate for campaign finance reform. He was also the Democratic VP candidate in 2000 and sought the party's presidential nomination in 2004. Lieberman served in the Connecticut state senate and as state attorney general. He retired from the U.S. Senate at the end of his term in 2013 and became senior counsel at a New York law firm. He also continued his foreign policy advocacy by joining the American Enterprise Institute, where he co-chairs its American Internationalism Project.


Tavis: While a senator from Connecticut first as a Democrat, then as an Independent, Joe Lieberman was an outspoken supporter of U.S. intervention in Iraq.

He’s now co-chair of the American Internationalism Project at the American Enterprise Institute, AEI, that has as its mandate to rebuild – their phrase – American leadership around the globe. He joins us now from New York. Senator, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Joe Lieberman: Thanks, Tavis. Great to be back with you. Thank you.

Tavis: Let me start by asking what that means practically to rebuild American leadership around the globe. What does that mean and how do we do that in this world?

Lieberman: Yeah, well, I think the first thing that Senator Jon Kyl and I, who’s a former Republican colleague and a senator from Arizona, co-chair the project that’s broadly bipartisan, left to right, Democrat, Republican, all committed to American international leadership, really we’ve decided that our first task is to remake the arguments to the American people about why it matters to us to be involved in the rest of the world.

Obviously, people were unhappy with Iraq, Afghanistan; worried about the economy domestically. Turning inward. And we’re trying to fashion some arguments to say not only our security, but our prosperity and, of course, our values depend on us being involved in the world and being leaders in the world.

We can’t do it all. We don’t want to do it all. But if the U.S. is not there, the American people are going to suffer.

Tavis: There are some watching tonight who no doubt feel that part of what got us in this trick bag to begin with was eight years of a Bush administration that gave the impression that we didn’t care about the world, that we could in fact go it alone, this sort of cowboy attitude.

How much of the mess that we’re in now has to do with what happened before Barack Obama arrived?

Lieberman: Well, I mean, there’s no question that mistakes were made particularly in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam. I’m not the first to say and I won’t be the last that the American military proved its capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. But then the question of how to stabilize the countries was not so easy to achieve.

You know, it’s true that a lot of world did see President George W. Bush as a kind of go-it-alone president, and yet, ironically, President Obama who has actually reached out greatly to try to engage with the rest of the world and not be seen as just reaching for American military power first. Nonetheless, the U.S. seems to have as many skeptics or opponents around the world as we did during the Bush time.

Maybe that’s part of being still the most powerful country in the world or maybe it’s just part of the difficulty of conveying what we’re all about which I continue to think is better than what most other countries in the world are about.

Tavis: It might be not just that we’re the greatest super power in the world, but it might, Senator, be how we use the power that we have. Obama continues the Bush policies and I don’t have time to list all those things. You’re a former senator. You know this better than I do.

But, for example, just one, the issue of drones. Barack Obama’s administration has used – there are drones on steroids as compared to George Bush. So it’s not just this notion that we’re the most powerful country in the world and people don’t like us. I mean, maybe it’s the way we use our power.

Lieberman: Well, I mean, look, yeah. There’s no question. You know, I’ve been critical of some of the things President Obama has done on foreign policy, but I’ve been supportive of others. And I must say, the drone policy is one of the things that I have been supportive of.

I think President Obama came in understanding that there was no appetite either within the American people or with himself for a massive American troop involvement elsewhere around the world.

But I think he also concluded that we have enemies and then technology through these drones gave him the ability to hit at our enemies. And I know from inside the White House that he’s taken this power that he has very seriously, thoughtfully.

I mean, to the extent that would surprise people, to the best of my knowledge, President Obama is involved in the decision about every one of those drone strikes, which is the responsible thing to do.

You know, I continue to feel that we are, certainly more than any of the other great powers in the world – I’m talking about China, Russia – we are driven by ideals and sometimes our ideals to protect freedom, for instance, number one, lead us to do things that don’t make us popular.

But we’re not, in my opinion, an empire builder. We’re not any more a mercantilist power the way China is, wanting to go into places in the world, Latin American, Africa, really just to extract raw materials for their enormous population.

We’ve got to discipline ourselves sometimes and realize that there are some places that we’re not going to be able to make the change we are.

But I continue to feel that, to the best of our ability, we try to be true to what our founders said was our mission, which was to, you know, that self-evident truth that we’re all created equal and endowed with those rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And, obviously, the good Lord didn’t just give those rights to Americans. He gave them to everybody in the world and we’ve seen that as our mission. Sometimes too much, but better to have that mission than just to be as Russia is today about power and money and China is about, in a sense, survival of an enormous population.

Tavis: Let me just put a final point right quick before we move on, Senator, if I can, this point about the deliberative process that President Obama uses. He may very well do that and I would expect that of my president or any president to be deliberative about how he’s going to engage us militarily.

And yet the body that you were once a part of has complained vociferously about the fact that, while you think he may be methodical and deliberative, they’ve been shut out.

The American people are still waiting for some transparency here on this drone program. So to give the president a pat on the back to say he’s methodical and he’s deliberative, he’s involved, yes, he is.

But the American people, because his administration has hid the facts from us, still don’t know the truth and the details about this drone program and that comes not from Tavis Smiley, but from the body that you used to belong to, that they have been shut out.

Lieberman: It’s true. This is a classic constitutional controversy in American history. I don’t want to take too much time, but I taught a course in this, one of the things I’m doing post-Senate at Columbia Law School. Congress also wants more information and the American people do.

The president ultimately as commander-in-chief has a lot of authority and the problem here with the drone strikes, you can certainly describe to the public and Congress the broad outlines of your approach and you probably ought to plug Congress in as much as you can to significant use of those drones to strike at terrorists.

But you can’t announce them to the world because then, obviously, you wouldn’t be able to successfully carry out those strikes.

Tavis: What should we do on Ukraine? I know you just gave a major talk about this. At this moment, they have a new president, of course. But this is still an area of sensitivity, great sensitivity. What’s your posture be at the moment?

Lieberman: So I was in Prague last week at a conference that was called to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the communist regime and the Czech Republic and throughout eastern and central Europe.

But, of course, the focus became Ukraine and the fact that Putin’s Russia has grabbed Crimea which is the first change of a border in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

I got to tell you that I was struck by the extent to which our allies in Europe are agitated by what Putin did, but honestly not eager to do very much about it.

You know, as I said to them, values are what we’re supposed to be about, but values don’t protect themselves. You got to have political will, sometimes military power, to do that. So what I think we should do now is to be much tougher on the sanctions economically that we apply against Russia and Putin.

But I got to tell you, there’s only so much we can do because we don’t have that much business with the Russians. The Europeans have an enormous economic exchange back and forth and they, particularly Germany, which is the great economic power in Western Europe today, has to be part of these sanctions.

To me, right now I’d like to dream that Putin will let Crimea go back to Ukraine. That’s not going to happen soon. What I worry about is what he’s going to grab next or try to grab next. The very presence of NATO preparing for war was what made sure that it was never a hot war, but only a cold war. Hopefully, that’ll happen again.

Tavis: Given all the news of late and all the commentary still forthcoming about what the defeat of Eric Cantor means, he experienced this on the right. You had this similar sort of problem on the left.

That is to say, you were a Democrat. You turned Independent. We all know the story of what happened. You survived and then you went on to retire.

But what do you make of what’s happening to the Republican Party right now and whether or not we will ever get back to a place where Moderates or Independents really have any opportunity to have and to share power in Washington?

Lieberman: Well, two things quickly. The first is that the Republican Party is in one of those moments which the Democratic Party has been through before where they’re different factions and they’re going to go through a process not so much toward the Congressional elections this year, but in the presidential primaries of 2016 where they’re going to try to figure out whether they have a platform that can be supported by a majority of Republicans first, not just an inner constituency, and then can win the election.

The second thing is that the irony here, Tavis, is that, as you look at numbers of registered voters, the fastest growing party in America, political party, is no party. It’s unaffiliated voters. They keep growing more and more understandably because of the failure of the two major parties to get anything done.

And yet in the nominating press, it’s always the conservatives in the Republican Party and the more liberal, more conservative, in the Democratic Party that win those nominations that the parties vie to get. And that holds them apart when they get in office so they can’t cooperate to get something done.

The one ray of hope comes from the West Coast, California, nonpartisan commissions to draw the lines every 10 years of the districts. And then really the most important thing of all, nonpartisan primaries. You don’t have a Republican or Democratic primary.

Anybody who wants to be the congressman or state assemblyman got to run in the same primary. The top two vote-getters run it off and I think that will force them to come back to the middle. And when they get to office will probably be more likely to cooperate with people in the other party.

The irony here is that I understand that when they redistricted Eric Cantor’s seat, they made it more Republican to make it easier for him. But it’s those very Republicans, probably more on the right and angry at him, who knocked him out of office. Ironically, if it was a nonpartisan primary, the odds are that Eric Cantor would have won.

Tavis: Former Democratic and Independent out of Connecticut and, for that matter, former vice presidential running mate, Joe Lieberman. Senator, always an honor to have you on the program. Thanks for sharing your insights again.

Lieberman: Great to be with you, Tavis.

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Last modified: June 17, 2014 at 1:16 pm