Obama might be able to shrug off his unsightly relationship with Lieberman as purely coincidental, noting that he could not have known in 2006 how Lieberman would have turned out in 2008. But it is Obama’s relationship with another that raises the most questions about not only how little separates mainstream Republicans from Democrats when it comes to war and peace, but also Obama’s judgment, and by extension his fitness to lead.
Before I go on, I need to conduct a bit of full disclosure: Joe Biden and I have a history. Many people are familiar with the infamous “Scotty-Boy” line uttered by Biden during my Senate testimony in September 1998, coupled with his dismissive (and insulting) comments about the issue of Iraq being “above my pay grade” and best left to those who “get the limos” (it was at this juncture that John McCain, much to his credit, came to my defense, noting that “ … Some of us who fought in another conflict wish that the Congress and the American people had listened to someone of your pay grade during that conflict, and perhaps there wouldn’t be quite so many names down on the wall. So we appreciate the fact that someone of your pay grade would be willing to come forward with this vital information.”) What many people don’t know is that I was invited back to Biden’s office a few weeks later, where we had a more frank and open exchange void of the rancor of domestic politics. (Biden was, during the hearings, in full “attack dog” mode, defending the policies of President Bill Clinton, which I was daring to question in a public manner.) We agreed that the subjects discussed during that meeting would remain private. Sen. Biden did, however, take the time to pen me a personal note afterward. “Dear Mr. Ritter,” he wrote. “Thank you for taking time to meet with me. Your insight into this complex issue is invaluable and I appreciate your candid thoughts regarding the continuing challenges that we confront in Iraq. I hope that I can call on your knowledge and expertise in the future as we move forward in making some difficult choices.” Underneath his signature, in the same blue ink he used to sign his name, Biden wrote “PS—I hope to speak with you again.”
I gave Biden that opportunity in May of 2000. I was in Washington for the purpose of trying to head off what I viewed as irresponsible rhetoric about Iraq and its WMD programs. I was pushing for getting U.N. weapons inspections back on track in Iraq, especially since the last inspectors had been ordered out of Iraq by President Clinton in December 1998 on the eve of “Operation Desert Fox,” and felt that the speculation over what Iraq may or may not have in the way of WMD was without foundation. I had verbally coordinated with Sen. John Kerry, who encouraged me to put my concerns down “in writing” (this led to my June 2000 Arms Control Today article), and had a lengthy meeting with Sen. Chuck Hagel, who cautioned me not to expect any “profile in courage moments” from Congress when it came to Iraq. But Hagel had left the door open for some sort of political solution, so I called Biden’s office in an effort to enable him, to quote the senator, “to speak with [me] again.” Biden was busy, but he did arrange for me to meet with Edward P. Levine, a senior professional staff member of the Committee on Foreign Relations who, Biden said, represented him “personally.”
The meeting did not go well. Levine immediately questioned my view of Iraq as a nation “qualitatively disarmed.” I had with me a draft of the Arms Control Today article, together with a collection of supporting documents dating back to my time with the United Nations. Levine challenged my facts, noting that my former boss, Rolf Eké us (a Swedish arms control expert and diplomat), had testified differently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I stated that I could not directly speak to what Eké us had or had not said, but could only note that the documents I had, and which I was prepared to share, directly supported my position. Levine immediately exploded, stating that the documents I had were sensitive in nature, and shouldn’t be in my possession. I reminded him that these documents were from my time as a U.N. inspector, and that there was no security-related issue so far as the U.S. government was concerned. Levine stated that, in his opinion, the fact that I had these documents in my possession only demonstrated, in his eyes, my disloyalty, and that if it were up to him I would be arrested as a traitor. I held my tongue, and then reminded Levine that as a former officer in the Marines Corps, I did not take such accusations lightly and, unless he wanted to take this conversation to another level, he should tone down the emotions and focus on the issue. Certainly, I queried Biden’s “personal representative,” Levine wasn’t trying to suppress the truth? He eventually calmed down enough to admit that the U.S. policy regarding Iraq was a shambles but, like Sen. Hagel, he underscored that there would be no changing of policy during an election year. “The Democrats are not going to get out ahead of Al Gore on this issue before an election.”
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