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Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton's VP pick, told us why he wants the US doing more in Syria

Tim Kaine speaking about the ISIS war.
Tim Kaine speaking about the ISIS war.
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton's newly announced vice presidential running-mate, sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and in his four years there has become a rather vocal critic of the Obama administration's guarded approach to ISIS and the Syrian Civil War.

I spoke with Kaine in November, following the Paris attacks, on what he thought the administration's approach was missing.

Kaine has helped lead an effort to move the anti-ISIS war out of its legal gray zone with a new congressional authorization for military force, and in April 2015 co-signed a letter along with Sen. John McCain and two others calling on the US to set up "humanitarian safe zones" within Syria.

Kaine, in our conversation, criticized members of Congress who'd voted to shut out refugees, as well as the Obama administration for not setting up a safe zone in Syria. "While the risks are real, compared to this outflowing of refugees and the crisis that's occurring throughout the world, I think it would be the better choice. It would have been obviously better to do it 2 million refugees ago," he said. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.


Zack Beauchamp: You've been critical of the US effort so far against ISIS. Is that just a matter of rhetorical emphasis, or are there real areas in which the US needs to change its policy?

Tim Kaine: There are some real policy areas. Let me give you one that's both: Is it the policy of the United States that Assad must go? You hear very different things about that depending on whom you talk to. Certainly, folks outside the United States don't understand what the policy is.

The president said, "Assad must go." But we haven't taken actions to oppose Assad vigorously. I think — this is my intuition, I'm not giving you any inside info — the president probably heard himself say, "Assad must go," and he was reminded that he had said the same thing about Qaddafi and Mubarak. President Bush said the same thing about Saddam Hussein. [Obama may have concluded] that when we try to dictate who another country has as its leader we've not been very good at doing it, especially in this region.

I would also say that the US assistance in this humanitarian crisis is very mixed. We've written a big check, $4.5 billion dollars, to Syrian refugees who are leaving the country. Beyond that, the assistance to the refugees and the humanitarian effort has been pretty paltry.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution in February 2014 calling for delivery of humanitarian aid inside Syria to the refugees there, and virtually nothing has been done about that. I have been along with some colleagues of both parties, one who suggested, "Look, with that Security Council resolution giving us a legal authority, I think we ought to be very vigorous in delivering aid into Syria to refugees there creating a safe space for them, even if that means it has to be enforced militarily." I think if we had done that, we wouldn't have seen 4 million people fleeing the country.

I've spent time with Syrians in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, and most would want to stay if they felt like they could stay safely. We didn't work to establish the kind of no-fly zone, the humanitarian zone, and as a result we see this humanitarian crisis that is serious.

Zack Beauchamp: There's differing opinion among Democrats on whether the US should help to set up "safe zones" within Syria, which Hillary Clinton says she supports. Do you see this as a tool for defeating Assad and ISIS, or do you see it as a tool principally for delivering humanitarian aid?

Tim Kaine: It's principally a tool for delivering humanitarian aid pursuant to the UN Security Council resolution that even Russia voted for. I think, done correctly, it could also accelerate a path to a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war.

Whether it would have an effect on the battle against ISIS, I don't really know. I think this is a big enough humanitarian crisis that enforcing the UN Security Council Resolution would be a good thing, and, frankly, having a security council resolution that isn't enforced actually weakens the credibility of the institution.

You're right, there's differences of opinion; I began urging the administration to consider this idea in February 2014 after I got back from a visit to Lebanon. Earlier this year, Sens. McCain, Graham, Durbin, and I wrote a letter to the White House weighing in. The opposition to it comes from [a concern that] we'd need US military assets to protect the no-fly zone if Assad wanted to barrel bomb people or if ISIS wanted to attack. That is true: We would need US military assets to protect it.

I think the chances of a successful attack are small, but they are real. While the risks are real, compared to this outflowing of refugees and the crisis that that's occurring throughout the world, I think it would be the better choice. It would have been obviously better to do it 2 million refugees ago.

Zack Beauchamp: Would you support the use of US ground troops in significant numbers to defend a safe zone?

Tim Kaine: There would need to be ground troops, but in my conversations with regional nations, they have made claims to me that they are willing to put ground troops into a situation like that if the US continues its strong provision of air support. They really have wanted the US to be more forward-leading in terms of activity in Syria to provide humanitarian aid.

If we're all-in on providing humanitarian aid and air cover, I think other nations will provide the ground troops. Especially nations such as Turkey, which are getting most affected by the now 2 million refugees that live there: They actually prefer that refugees continue to live in Syria. The Syrians I visited with in Turkey back in July, they would rather stay in their own country if they could do so safely.

Zack Beauchamp: You said earlier that a safe zone would pressure Assad to come to some kind of negotiated settlement. Why do you think that?

Tim Kaine: It's not a straight line, A to Z. There would start to be re-created civic [and] government systems within the safe zone area in northern Syria that could then become part of the transitional government core. You're not going to have a successful transition if all the governing systems and all the people running government agencies are suddenly gone.

Having some functioning systems in a populated region of the country together with guarantees — not to Assad but to the Alawite minority that has been the governing class under the Assad regime — that there is a place for them in this next chapter. I think that could create conditions more favorable to finding a negotiated outcome.

Zack Beauchamp: Just before we started talking, the House passed a bill that would make it more difficult for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to get into the United States. I imagine you're not a fan.

Tim Kaine: No. I'm very against it.

These refugees are people who are terrorized, not terrorists. They have been on the receiving end of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. To paint them with any kind of stigma, as if they've done something wrong, is really outrageous.

After the bombings in Paris, it's not unreasonable to have security concerns. We have to look at our security issues, but frankly the refugee vetting process is one of the safest areas that we have. I think the chances that the governors that are coming out and saying no Syrians understood the process is virtually nil. I blame them for that, but also, frankly, I blame the administration for not doing a better job of explaining the process.

syrian refugees
Syrian refugees.
(Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images)

If anybody wants to be resettled to a third country instead of the country that they first reach, that's a subset the UN analyzes. If you want to go to a third country, we know what different countries' profiles are in terms of whom they'll accept. They've made, since 2011, 20,000 referrals to the United States. It takes them about a year to make a referral because they're doing their own analysis and some degree of pre-vetting.

Of the 20,000 that have been referred to the US for refugee consideration, the US basically said quickly to 13,000 of the 20,000, "No, we're not going to consider you." There've been extensive interviews and vetting of the remaining 7,000, 2,000 of whom have been allowed in. Then the process from the referral to being allowed in is about 18 months. The folks who get in have been vetted quite carefully.

Zack Beauchamp: Some of the anti-refugee rhetoric has been quite harsh. You've heard state representatives say things like, "We need to put them in segregated camps." One mayor used Japanese interment as a positive example.

Tim Kaine: That was a Virginia mayor, I'm sad to say.

Zack Beauchamp: Where do you think this is coming from?

Tim Kaine: You know that the Paris attacks, I mean, largely, sadly were committed by French and Belgian citizens. There is some evidence that one of the attackers might have gone to Syria. They are trying to track down whether that is accurate or whether they were fakers. [Ed. note: The Syrian passport discovered at the scene was determined to be fake.] These are not Syrians, at all.

Look, there's a lot of misinformation, and people are afraid. I get that. And when people are afraid they jump to conclusions, and often the conclusions are wrong.

There wasn't something up on the White House website explaining it really clearly. Walking through the numbers I gave you — from 4 million to 20,000 to 7,000 to 2,000 and taking more than 18 months — that kind of stuff gives you confidence about the program. We [Kaine's office] had to pull that together ourselves. I think the White House has not done a good job in speaking to the natural security fears that people have and pointing out, Okay, this is a horrible thing in Paris. It obviously calls to mind for us the [9/11] attack on New York, which stokes additional fears.

The fear is the process we have with respect to these refugees. I think if we had done a better job on that, we wouldn't have eliminated every bit of xenophobia or every bit of extreme rhetoric, but I think we would have reduced the tension level a lot.

Zack Beauchamp: One issue you've been active on is creating a legal framework for operations against ISIS, which seems to have stalled out in Congress. Why did that happen?

Tim Kaine: I tell you, Zack, it's not a hard thing. The members of Congress are afraid to vote on war, period. They are afraid to vote on war.

There is no harder vote than a war vote. There is no vote that could be as unpopular as a war vote. A war vote that leads to the use of military forces, even if everything works exactly as planned and perfectly, is still going to have negative consequences. You're probably going to lose some wonderful young men and women. Then things usually don't work just perfectly — even if successfully, they don't work perfectly. I see in my colleagues a huge desire to avoid being accountable and to frankly just criticize President Obama.

[But] I have been heartened to see, and it really began with the president's announcement of the 50 special forces into Syria, a growing chorus of other members of Congress who are saying, "Okay, we've got to do an authorization." So you have 35 House members who wrote a letter, both parties, to Paul Ryan, after he became speaker, saying it's time for us to act. In the Senate, Jeff Flake [R-AZ] and I have had this bipartisan authorization for a number of months, but we're starting to see more senators saying, "We need to tackle this."

In the Foreign Relations Committee, I don't always have to be the only one to raise this issue. There are others who are now raising it. I was very heartened with Secretary Clinton, first in the debate and then in her speech [Thursday] morning, saying, "Look, it's time to have Congress really involved in this." I think that we will now get involved in the debate in a meaningful way and try to craft an appropriate strategy that encompasses military but also nonmilitary dimensions to defeat this threat. The events of the last 10 days have shown that it is not going away; as much as Congress just wishes it would fade away, that's not going to happen. We've got to have the right mixture of military and nonmilitary action.

Zack Beauchamp: It seems like there's also a question as to whether you repeal the 2001 authorization for use of military force (AUMF), which the administration has cited to justify action against ISIS.

Tim Kaine: What Flake and I did in our [ISIS war authorization bill] was we repealed the 2002 Iraq authorization, and we stated that this specific authorization we had proposed will be the sole statutory authority for military against ISIS and that the 2001 authorization will no longer apply. We don't repeal the 2001 authorization.

The reason we don't is that President Obama basically said to the country in a speech at the National Defense University in May 2013, "I'm going to work with Congress to come up with an appropriate revision and maybe, eventually, repeal of the 2001 Authorization before I leave office."

The White House hasn't really meaningfully engaged in that, other than saying they would do it in May 2013 and again in the State of the Union speech in early 2014. They haven't yet done it. I think we ought to keep pressuring them to do it.