EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Joe Lieberman On Iran/North Korea, Assad/ISIS, and Scoop Jackson

At a recent event for United Against Nuclear Iran, I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting former Senator Joe Lieberman. I sat down with him for a short interview.

Q: I've heard many times that Iran and North Korea had been cooperating on their nuclear programs, but I never knew that in 2012 there was a formalized agreement in that regard.

Lieberman: There is, there is, and I mentioned it today. It’s not explicitly clear what it covers, but it’s pretty clear to me. I don’t think I’m being unduly conspiratorial, this was to formalize an agreement by which they were sharing both scientific information and equipment that would support the nuclear weapons development programs and the ballistic missile development programs of Iran and North Korea. These two countries have a common interest and it's not a coincidence they need each other. They’re both outlaw nations, they’re two-thirds of which George Bush correctly called the Axis of Evil and their cooperation on nuclear weapons development really is now an axis of evil because together they represent a security threat to the rest of the world. The development, the pace of development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program has been stunning, it’s been so quick and it worries me that they’re not doing it alone and part of it, we will find — I don’t have any evidence I want to be clear — we will find that Iran was cooperating with North Korea and what they were doing. The worst interpretation — again I’m theorizing — while they were complying with the technical requirements of the JCPOA [the Iran deal], Iran is effectively outsourcing their nuclear missile program to North Korea.

Q: How much of a role did Bashar Al-Assad play in supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq, which became ISIS, and how much blame would you put on Assad for the emergence of ISIS because of that?

Lieberman: I honestly don’t know the answer to that. I mean, ever since that development occurred which is ISIS in that area, I’ve been out of the Senate so I don’t have access to intelligence, but I will tell you that Bashar Assad was responding to the uprising of his people who wanted freedom and opportunity, used military force to kill them. He created a whirlwind and a vacuum into which Iran, Russia, and the Islamic State came and got footholds, so I guess directly or indirectly blame Assad for whatever presence the Islamic State still has in Syria.

Q: I ask because I read an opinion piece that you wrote in 2007, ten years ago, that Damascus is Al Qaeda's travel agency. They all fly into Damascus. They all have training camps in Syria where they go on to fight the American soldiers. It was these people who became ISIS. And yet, people continue to blame us for the emergence of ISIS as if we created these people.

Lieberman: Right, we didn’t create them, you’re absolutely right. I wanted at that time to give people who read the piece another understanding that Syria was our enemy. In that case, the Damascus airport was a major transit point for people from radical Islamist groups from around the world to find their way into training and then into Iraq to be part of the battle against us or out into terrorist acts in the rest of the world. Including the U.S.

[Note: In 2007, Lieberman's article was necessary because Democrats led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — as part of their anti-Bush crusade — were traveling to Syria and meeting with Assad, giving him legitimacy at a time when President Bush wanted Assad's regime isolated for Assad's support for Al Qaeda in Iraq, for his assassination of the anti-Hezbollah leader of Lebanon, and for his support for Hezbollah in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. — SM]

Q: How would Scoop Jackson [iconic Democratic hawk] feel about the party leaders? Both parties?

Lieberman: That's a great question. So Scoop Jackson would definitely be unhappy about the leadership of the Democratic Party on foreign policy. Remember Scoop Jackson was the kind of Democrat we don't find very often today. He was pretty progressive on domestic policy like labor issues and things of that kind and quite conservative on foreign and defense policy. My guess is he would have supported Hillary Clinton in the election last year as the preferable alternative. I think he would have found Donald to have been almost incomprehensible, so different from anything that he knew during his time — though Scoop Jackson, I’m just guessing, would have found some of the strong Trump foreign policy decisions such as the Iran nuclear agreement and North Korea to make sense.

Q: Though Jackson probably would not have been so reluctant to criticize Putin.

Lieberman: Yeah. The central foreign policy argument of Scoop Jackson’s time and my early time in politics was the Cold War, the clash between communism and capitalism and freedom against totalitarianism. So it would've been very strange had Scoop Jackson come back to life and found the Republican candidate in the campaign last year hesitating to be critical of the leader of Russia, who happens to have been a former KGB guy. Talk about Rip Van Winkle.

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