US Affairs: Lieberman’s legacy

As he prepares to step down after 24 years in Congress, Senator Joseph Lieberman talks to the ‘Post’ about Iran, Israel’s strike on Gaza, and partisanship.

US Senator Joe Lieberman 370 (R) (photo credit: Joshua Roberts / Reuters)
US Senator Joe Lieberman 370 (R)
(photo credit: Joshua Roberts / Reuters)
Perhaps Israel’s greatest friend in the US Senate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, will remain steadfast in his support to the very end. The iconic legislator from Connecticut, a former vice presidential candidate and an independent in his 24th year in Congress, will retire at the end of this year from public service.
But after two decades at the forefront of America’s foreign policy debates, Lieberman had no hesitation commenting on Wednesday’s assassination of Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’s head of military operations in Gaza.
“So long as Hamas is attacking them, [Israel] can’t just accept those attacks without making clear to those who are ordering them that they are endangering themselves,” Lieberman said when first hearing the news.
“From an American perspective, as you think about what happened today in Gaza, it’s quite comparable to the drone attacks that President Obama has been ordering against terrorists, who, if they go ahead unthreatened or unattacked, would clearly attack and kill Americans.”
Lieberman can speak about America’s commitment to Israel with confidence: his longstanding position has succeeded. The American bench of support for Israel is so deep, he says, that even he will be replaceable in the years ahead.
“I’m sure if my mother were still alive, she’d say I was irreplaceable,” he said with a laugh. “I’m sure there’ll be many that will step in and play the leadership role that I’ve been privileged to play in the US-Israel relationship.”
Indeed, America’s Israel policy is only one of two strategic American policies that Lieberman says have significant bipartisan support. The second is an ancillary Israeli issue: Iran, which he warns is giving little choice to an American electorate tired of war.
He says with candor that the American government has tried everything else, almost to the point of exhaustion. And he promises that, in his final session in Congress, there will be yet another push to reinforce existing sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
“Though the sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy – and, unfortunately, too many of the Iranian people – they have not up until this moment at all affected the all-out commitment of the Iranian regime to their nuclear program,” he says. “And that means they’re reducing our choices to two: accept a nuclear Iran and try to contain it, which everybody from the president on down says is unacceptable, [or] strike them militarily.”
This year, Lieberman introduced a Senate resolution ruling out containment of Iran’s nuclear program as an acceptable American policy. The resolution won with overwhelming support.
Lieberman has confidence that Obama is personally capable of making the heavy decision whether or not to go to war – and knows that, either way, he will have a bipartisan Congress behind him, nearly unanimous in its support.
“You might call it a war of choice because we would make the decision,” Lieberman adds. “It doesn’t mean that we only engage in war defensively after we’ve been attacked. That’s not a policy that any nation can accept – if you see danger rising, and an attack imminent, you need to act to prevent it. And to me, that’s the course we’re on with Iran, unless they surprise us.”
Lieberman entered the Senate in 1989 and has hit political turbulence most frequently in his support of American wars. He was one of few Democrats to support the Gulf War, and lost his Democratic primary election in 2006 for his position on Iraq.
But the senator’s legacy may not be those votes.
Instead, it will likely be his pioneering of post-9/11 legislation, and his leadership in founding of the Department of Homeland Security, which together represent one of the greatest national security overhauls in America since the 1940s.
He believes America is at its best when it remains loyal to its ideals – democracy, freedom of will and the protection of human rights – as universally applied.
But leaving office, the eclipsing of these values remains his biggest fear: that the cancer of partisanship will grow to overcome foreign policy, endangering the homeland and those who benefit from American leadership around the world.
“It’s partisanship,” Lieberman warns, “and it’s a concern about a loss of the kind of patience that is necessary to successfully prosecute the kind of unconventional wars we’re involved in today.”
“The public grows impatient, and then it becomes tempting for politicians – for partisan and personal reasons – to appeal to the public’s desire for our troops to come home,” he says.