Biden and Netanyahu on the same page? Parsing Biden-Ryan words on Iran

October 12, 2012

Foreign policy was probably over represented as an issue in yesterday’s debate: Americans are more interested in domestic issues this year, and the time devoted to Iran and Israel doesn’t reflect the weight that the voters will give these issues as they make their decisions. Nevertheless, it was an important part of the debate and an interesting one. And while during the live broadcast concentration on every sentence was a bit difficult (Biden’s teeth prevented me looking directly at the TV screen), the transcripts make it easier. So, here's an attempt to show some of the things the candidates say and further explain their meaning:

Ryan: We should have spoken out right away when the green revolution was up and starting; when the mullahs in Iran were attacking their people. We should not have called Bashar Assad a reformer when he was turning his Russian-provided guns on his own people. We should always stand up for peace, for democracy, for individual rights.

Ryan’s intention was to criticize the Obama administration and convince the voters that its foreign policy is “unraveling before our eyes” – with a caveat: He needed to be careful not to give the voters the impression that a Romney administration is going to start another Middle Eastern war to fix Obama’s failings (Biden, naturally, was pounding with this exact message: We ended wars, Romney will start another war). Thus, the above statements represent a pattern: Ryan is blaming Obama for being soft – not supportive enough of Iranian revolutionaries, calling Assad a “reformer”, without being specific about the alternative policy. The most detailed suggestion he had during the night was to “not to be imposing devastating defense cuts”, which is no less about the economy than about foreign affairs.

Biden: …with regard to the ability of the United States to take action militarily, it is — it is not in my purview to talk about classified information. But we feel quite confident we could deal a serious blow to the Iranians.

Translation: We are strong, we are tough, and there’s still plenty of time for us to act, so don’t you try to push us around to attack Iran now.

Biden: Now, with regard to Bibi, who's been my friend 39 years, the president has met with Bibi a dozen times. He's spoken to Bibi Netanyahu as much as he's spoken to anybody. The idea that we're not — I was in a, just before he went to the U.N., I was in a conference call with the — with the president, with him talking to Bibi for well over an hour, in — in — in stark relief and detail of what was going on.

He is my friend, so I call him “Bibi”. He is my friend, and we talk to him all the time. But I will not tell you what we tell him when we talk to him, and I will not really answer the question of why Obama refused to meet Netanyahu in New York.

Biden: What Bibi held up there was when they get to the point where they can enrich uranium enough to put into a weapon. They don't have a weapon to put it into.

Biden repeated this sentence twice during the debate, one of the most important sentences on foreign policy of the night: “they don’t have a weapon to put it into”. Of course, Biden is right, the Iranians don’t have a weapon yet, but the whole point of Netanyahu’s speech was this: enriching is the hard part, getting the material into a bomb is the easier part. Once the Iranians have the enriched material, building the device with which to use it can be done more discreetly.

Here’s how Netanyahu framed it: “For a country like Iran, it takes many, many years to enrich uranium for a bomb. That requires thousands of centrifuges spinning in tandem in very big industrial plants. Those Iranian plants are visible and they're still vulnerable. In contrast, Iran could produce the nuclear detonator – the fuse – in a lot less time, maybe under a year, maybe only a few months. The detonator can be made in a small workshop the size of a classroom. It may be very difficult to find and target that workshop, especially in Iran. That's a country that's bigger than France, Germany, Italy and Britain combined. The same is true for the small facility in which they could assemble a warhead or a nuclear device that could be placed in a container ship. Chances are you won't find that facility either. So in fact the only way that you can credibly prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, is to prevent Iran from amassing enough enriched uranium for a bomb”.

See? Netanyahu was saying: we have to stop them while they still enrich. Biden said: I’m not that worried as long as they don’t have a weapon. That is a huge difference – not between Biden and Ryan but between Biden and Netanyahu.

Ryan: “They're four years closer toward a nuclear weapon”. Biden: “…they are not four years closer to a nuclear weapon”.

Truth is, we don’t know if they are closer or not to the weapon. We will only know who’s right here when the dust settles and the crisis is over. Materially, they have more enriched uranium – Ryan’s right. On the other hand, the sanctions are much more severe – Biden’s right. What we do know is that in four years the Obama administration hasn’t yet solved the problem.

Biden: He [Defense Secretary Gates] is right. It [an attack on Iran] could prove catastrophic, if we didn't do it with precision.

Gates’ quote doesn’t quite match Biden’s claims, and does help Ryan argue that the Obama administration didn’t speak with one voice on Iran and wasn’t sending a clear message to the Iranians. Biden’s solution: reinterpreting Gates. Here’s what Gates said: “The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world”. Do you see anything about precision here? 

Some more True/False comments:

  • Ryan was overstating his case on sanctions (“the administration was blocking us every step of the way”): The administration didn’t always go for the harshest suggestion on the table, but Biden is right to argue that sanctions today are crippling and that this is the administration’s doing.


  • He had a better case though, when he talked “about credibility”. Ryan said that “when this administration says that all options are on the table, they send out senior administration officials that send all these mixed signals”. He is right – that’s exactly what the administration has been doing in recent months.


  • “This is a guy who's repaired our alliances so the rest of the world follows us again”. No – he did not repair U.S. alliances, not all of them. No – the rest of the world doesn’t “follow” the U.S. again. I wish it did.


  • Biden: Syria “is five times as large geographically, it has one-fifth the population, that is Libya, one-fifth the population, five times as large geographically”. That’s a mistake. Libya is much larger than Syria. But the factual mistake is not what matters here – Biden was using geography by way of explaining why Libya-style intervention in Syria was impossible. But if his facts are baseless, his explanation crumbles.


  • Ryan kept hammering the message that “We wouldn't refer to Bashar Assad as a reformer when he's killing his own civilians with his Russian-provided weapons”. This might or might not be true, but one has to remember: While calling Assad a reformer was ridiculous even at the time, it’s been a long time since the Obama administration has called him that.
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