ASKED to describe the threats the next president will face, Sen. Joe
Lieberman's voice remains calm - but there's no mistaking his
determination to win every fight forced upon us.
best actor on earth or the most decent man in American politics (I'd
bet on the latter), Lieberman is precisely the sort of statesman
we need to have thinking hard about our security - not just about
today's headline issues, but also about those that will trouble the
world for decades.
In an exclusive interview during his flight
home from the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy, the senator
went down the list of the key challenges that will confront the next
Nukes: "Nuclear weapons in the hands of
rogue regimes, such as Iran and North Korea" constitute the greatest
threat the senator sees ahead. "It's worth devoting attention to
strengthening the non-proliferation regime, but we need a hard-headed,
Nor is the prospect of a nuclear Iran
only a regional threat. "If we don't get Iran right, other countries
are going to want nukes," setting off an arms race fraught with tragic
The senator feels that the media and political
partisans misread the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's
suspension of its work on bomb design. Those who just want to play
Gotcha! ignored the key issue: Iran continues its nuclear enrichment
program full speed ahead - an endeavor that will provide "the fissile
material that remains the greatest hurdle to developing nuclear
As he said in his speech in Munich, Iran can restart
its weaponization work at any time - and it could go undetected for
years. Indeed, he noted that some foreign intelligence services believe
Iran has already restarted its bomb-building effort.
Defending human rights: "We have to have an affirmative human-rights agenda," including support for democracy. "We're not just against Iran," he told me. "We're for democracy in Iran."
Lieberman believes that America does
have a mission, but that we have to pursue our goals more
intelligently, with a deeper sense of nuance, than we've shown in the
past. He wants results, not just rhetoric, when it comes to standing up
for our core values.
The return of great-power rivalries:
"History doesn't rest . . . Russia's back, as an economic power with
petrodollars. The Russians will challenge us and we must stand our
principled ground and push back.
"We may come back to
big-power rivalries . . . and we'll need to worry that a small incident
could blow up into a major conflict." The senator has studied the
lessons of history and understands how easily unwanted wars can begin.
The resurgence of tribalism:
Lieberman spoke at length about the problems that the default to
fundamental identities, such as tribe or clan, pose in weak or failed
states. Yet, when our talk turned to Afghanistan, he made it clear that
we can't merely be pessimists, but have to look for the hidden
opportunities in today's evolving security environment.
Launching into a well-informed world tour (he's been working security
issues for decades), Lieberman began with China. He doesn't see Beijing
as conventionally expansionist, but as "mercantilist expansionist" in
Asia, Africa and Latin America.
He feels we must remain alert
to Taiwan as a flashpoint where the military situation could spin out
of control - but his view of security goes far beyond warships and
aircraft. He stressed that it's essential that we "get out of debt" to
The senator's a free-trader, but a common-sense one who wants a level playing field. "Protectionism just doesn't work and it creates instability." He wants China to play by the rules - which it isn't doing at present.
Shifting to Africa, he worries about growing government instability in
states that could become terrorist bases, but also about
"neo-colonialism" and "Chinese neo-imperialism."
America, "we need to counter [Venezuelan strongman Hugo] Chavez's
expansionist ideology," and we have to support "good allies, such as
Brazil and Colombia." Regarding the latter, he stresses that a
free-trade pact is in our best interest, as well as being good
for a staunch ally and a beleaguered democracy. He also worries about
Iran's growing ties - and presence - in the southern half of our
Returning his focus to the Middle East, the
senator reminded me that "Israel remains our most important ally" in
the region, with "shared values." He's encouraged that Arabs are now -
finally - alarmed over Iran, and (behind the rhetoric) know full well
that Israel doesn't share Tehran's expansionist ambitions.
Wrapping up our conversation with a discussion of the stresses and
future demands confronting our military in this grave new world,
Lieberman stated, "I feel strongly regarding the need to re-equip our
force. We're still at a historically low percentage of GDP [committed
to our military] compared to past wars."
equipment and aging weapons systems is an "urgent national-security
need." While it's "hard to get there politically, we must spend more
money to deal with the challenges that are coming." Lieberman cares
deeply about our defense - and about our troops.
is so earnest and so determined to put principle over politics, that
just being around him restores your faith in our system of government -
and makes you wish he had even more authority to help us prepare for a
future that's bound to be turbulent.
Of course, all
politicians try to please. But when Joe Lieberman smiles, it just seems
real. His rare competence would make him a superb secretary of Defense
or State, but his fundamental decency would also make him a good
There aren't many folks in Washington I'd say that about.