Jim Webb, former senator and secretary of the Navy, gave this keynote address at The American Conservative’s “Foreign Policy in America’s Interest” conference on November 15, 2016.
Thank you very much, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be with all of you today, and also to be here in support of the American Conservative Magazine, which I think is one of the fine magazines, thinkers’ magazines in the country today. I’d like to thank Bill Kauffman for that introduction. I will promise you that he has not read my speech, because I there are a few things he said that I actually want to talk about today.
I don’t know if anybody has mentioned this or not, but this is Bill Kauffman’s birthday. Happy birthday, Bill.
You know, this conference is about foreign policy, but the reach of the American Conservative Magazine is far broader than that. With what has happened in our political system over the past year or so, I think we should start with this. Who were the so-called deplorable people who repudiated Secretary Clinton’s insult and put Donald Trump over the finish line?
Bill mentioned a little bit about this in his introduction, to my surprise. What were they thinking? As someone who unsuccessfully contemplated the presidency from inside the Democratic Party, let me give you a conclusion and some thoughts.
Both Parties Have Abandoned Middle America
The basic unavoidable conclusion is that for a very long time both parties abandoned the hardworking people out in fly-over land, who have done so much to make this country great. It took an outsider, whatever his wealth and lack of government experience or credentials, to speak the truth unencumbered by the boundaries of political correctness, and the need to grovel before millionaires in order to finance an election.
I attempted to do this as a Democrat, I quickly learned the power of pay-to-play political machines in an era where it takes either a billion dollars or a lot of luck on social media. With few exceptions, we know in this country that a hardwired elite now controls or dramatically influences our media, major media, our financial institutions, and in many ways our political system itself.
I look back on the turning points in this campaign. I think of a great friend of mine, a fellow marine named Mac McDowell, who served in my company in Vietnam. In fact, we were wounded on the same day. Mac has been very loyal to me, even though he was a conservative Republican. He runs a gun shop on a shooting range in Erie, Pennsylvania.
When I decided not to continue the attempt at the presidency, he sent me an email. He said, “This guy Donald Trump,” he says, “the Republicans hate him, the Democrats hate him, the media hates him, I think I found my guy.” So, I would like to salute Donald Trump for his tenacity, and for the uniqueness of his campaign.
How Vietnam Bred Entitled Elites
Our country is deeply divided, and will remain so for some time, but hopefully the results of this election will provide us an opportunity to reject a new form of elitism that has pervaded our societal mechanisms. This is not quite like anything that has ever faced us before in our history, at least in my reading of our history. It has many antecedents, but the greatest barrier, even to discussing it, has come from how these elites were formed, largely beginning in the Vietnam era, and how their very structure has minimized the ability of the average American even to articulate clearly, and to discuss vigorously, the reality that we all can see.
Part of it was the Vietnam War itself, the only war with mass casualties, 58,000 dead and 300,000 others wounded, where our society’s elites felt morally comfortable in avoiding the draft and excusing themselves from serving. As I wrote of a Harvard-educated character in my novel, “Fields of Fire,” Mark went to Canada, Goodrich went to Vietnam, everybody else went to grad school.
This created, among our most well-educated and economically advantaged, a premise of entitlement that poured over into issues of economic fairness, and obligations to less advantaged fellow citizens. I know many of you know the writings of writer and lawyer Ben Stein. Years ago he wrote of his years at Yale Law School with Bill and Hillary Clinton, quote that, “We were supermen, floating above history and precedent. The natural rulers of the universe, the law did not apply to us.”
The Effects of Broader Immigration Plus Affirmative Action
The second impact was the Immigration Act of 1965, which has dramatically changed the racial and ethnic makeup of the country, while keeping in place a set of diversity policies, and education, and employment, that were designed under the Thirteenth Amendment, to remove the badges of slavery for African-Americans. This is a policy I have always supported and continue to support, the African-American affirmative action programs.
This policy, designed to remove the badges of slavery for African-Americans, was gradually expanded to include anyone who did not happen to be white, despite vast cultural and economic differences among whites themselves. More than 60 percent of immigrants from China and India have college degrees, while less than 20 percent of whites from areas such as Appalachia do. That to be white in the law, and in so much of our misinformed debate, is to be specially advantaged, privileged as a slogan goes, while being a minority is to be in the law disadvantaged.
Frankly, if you’re a white family living in Clay County, Kentucky, the poorest county in America, which the poverty rate is about 40 percent, and whose population is 94 percent white, wouldn’t this concept kind of tick you off? Wouldn’t you see it as reverse discrimination? Wouldn’t you hope that someone in a position of political influence might also see this and agree with you?
Part of it, finally, is that diversity programs coupled with the international focus of our major educational institutions have created a superstructure, partially global that on the surface seems to be inclusive, but in reality is the reverse of inclusive. Every racial and ethnic group has wildly successful people at the very top and desperately poor people at the bottom. Using vague labels about race, ethnicity, might satisfy the quotas of government programs, but they have very little to do with reality. Whether it’s blacks in West Baltimore, who have been ignored and left behind, or whites in the hollows of West Virginia.
Behind the veneer of diversity there is an interlocking elite that has melded business, media, and politics in a way we never could before imagine. Many of these people also hold a false belief that they understand a society with which they have very little contact. Nothing has so clearly shown how wrong they are than the recent election of Donald Trump.
Presidents Don’t Risk Themselves By Going Into War
How wrong are these elites, at least as it relates to the rest of the country? Look for a moment at the most glaring foreign policy failures of the past 15 years. Ask yourselves how could one Republican presidential administration have made such an incredible strategic blunder as the invasion and occupation of Iraq, only to see the next Democratic administration make an equally grave strategic blunder, at least as bad and possibly worse, by initiating what was called the Arab Spring? Unilaterally intervening in Libya and instilling an inflammatory foreign policy concept known as humanitarian intervention, giving a president, any president, the power to unilaterally intervene anywhere, under the euphemistic rubric of responsibility to protect.
Responsibility of whom to protect whom? At whose risk and whose benefit? The answer is that in too many cases the masters of our foreign policy decisions are no different. Not only in foreign policy but in a large percentage of the issues that face the country.
I’ll give you an example. I was very proud of developing a policy where we were able to open up the military junta that was governing Burma, and to bring Burma, now Myanmar, back in from the shadows into an expanding program, that eventually I think will bring us a democracy. I had visited Burma as a private citizen before I came to the Senate. When I came to the Senate, when I started in the Senate I got my staff together and I said, “We are going to focus on changing the relationship, strengthening our relationship in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and to change the formula in Burma.”
We figured out a way to do that through intermediaries, took us seven months. We started this before Barack Obama was elected, before the so-called pivot to Asia had begun. I was the first American leader to visit Burma in ten years. I was the only American leader who ever was able to meet with the leader of the military junta, General Than Shwe. I met with Aung San Suu Kyi at the same time as well.
We began a process where Burma was opened up. After I left the Senate, a prominent think-tank here hosted an evening dinner on the future of Burma. On one side of this table there was the ambassador to Burma/Myanmar, back for a visit. On the other side was the southeast Asia expert from this think-tank, and other people. Some of us, who had participated, were around the table.
The ambassador started off with this comment, he said, “You know, if a Republican was president,” he pointed to the individual sitting across from us, “If a Republican was president you’d be sitting here and I’d be sitting there.” It was really no difference in terms of how the foreign policy programs were to be looked at, other than the titular notion of which party you were in.
From Championing All Working Folks to Identity Politics
The Democrats, Democratic Party unfortunately, with respect to these issues, moved away from working white people. They want the party, the party of Franklin Roosevelt, had a champion the rights of working people, the party that was my grandmother’s … Franklin Roosevelt, being my grandmother’s favorite politician, the individual that pulled my mother’s family out of poverty, after my grandfather died, and after three of seven siblings, and my mother had died in childhood of childhood disease, had opened up an ammunition factory in north Little Rock, where my grandmother got a job making artillery shells.
That party, descended from the party that had championed the rights of working people regardless of race, creed, gender, or any other differentiation, to the point that it made white working people their most convenient whipping posts, particularly white males. It’s clearer now than it was ten years ago, when I was trying to put this on the table.
When I was running for the Senate in ’06, we had a, I guess we could call it, candidate school, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee had us come up to Nantucket. They got those of us who were candidates and talked us through how to appeal to different sections of the electorate. They got to white working male, white males, how do we get the white male vote? They put up this legislative item, this bill, that bill, you know minimum wage, et cetera, et cetera.
I listened to this and when they were done I said, “Look, I was in the Reagan administration, you know I’m a Reagan Democrat. I know how the Republicans are approaching this, I know how you’re trying to approach this, but here’s your problem: white working people don’t vote for you because they don’t think you like them.” That became clearer and clearer over the past ten years.
In October 2004 I wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal about the Scotch-Irish, Bill kind of alluded to this in his introduction, calling this group, white working people, the Republican Party’s secret weapon. In the last paragraph of that article I wrote, “The decline in public education and the outsourcing of jobs has hit this culture hard. Diversity programs designed to assist minorities have had an unequal impact on white ethnic groups, and particularly these whose roots are in a poverty stricken South. Their sons and daughters serve in large numbers in a war whose validity is increasingly coming into question. In fact, the greatest realignment in modern politics could take place rather quickly if the right national leader found a way to bring the Scotch-Irish and African-Americans to the same table, and so to redefine a formula that has consciously set them apart for the last two centuries.”
I believed this was impossible, as I said, I grew up in an admirer Franklin D. Roosevelt. I ran for the Senate as a Democrat, concerned about our society’s drift toward a permanent aristocracy, and believing that the Democratic Party could be rebuilt along the lines of inclusion, bringing white working people back within its ranks. Instead, unfortunately, after the election of Barack Obama, who could have been that figure, I will say, the reverse happened.
Repudiating the Men Who Made the Country They Rule
Think about this, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, were long regarded as the founding fathers of the modern Democratic Party. Across the country, the most celebratory dinners every year, [or 00:19:23] what they called the J.J. dinners, Jefferson-Jackson dinners, in honor of the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the up-from-nothing American frontiersman, who created the very notion of bottom-up populist American-style democracy.
By the sixth year of the Obama presidency, the Democrats were changing the names of the dinners, as if to be ashamed to be associating with the legacies of these two great American. Actually just today in the newspaper, there was an article about how the president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, was admonished because she had sent a post-election letter out to UVA community, quoting Thomas Jefferson. He gave them their school. This is sort of Orwellian to me when I look at it, how you can’t constantly reinvent your history in order to shape the issues of today. Frankly it’s bad for the country, and I worry about it a lot.
Let’s just talk about how this relates to foreign policy, because it does on a fundamental level. It’s no accident, as I said, that a large percentage of the Republican foreign policy elites objected so strongly to Donald Trump’s candidacy, by endorsing a Democratic candidate who was on the wrong side of almost every single issue over the past 15 years, but who was considered to be a part of the revolving-door structure of the establishment.
That’s done. We’re now facing four years, or more depending on how the country reacts to a Trump presidency, where we are going to be divided. In terms of our foreign policy, this is an opportunity to reshape our national strategy in a way that otherwise has not been possible. The basic elements are really not that difficult to define. We need a clear statement of our national security and foreign policy. This has not existed since the end of the Cold War.
We Need National Security in America’s Interests
An understandable statement of our national security interests is the basis of any great nation’s foreign policy. Clearly understood principles, and the determination to stand by them, are essential to stability and to public support. Our allies will be able to adjust to our clarity. Our adversaries will know that we are serious, and our people will understand the logic of our place in the world.
We don’t have that now. Our foreign policy has become a tangled mess of what can only be called situational ethics. In fact, when I was a chairman of the East Asia Subcommittee …in the Senate, I held a whole hearing on situational ethics. How can you have one set of standards with respect to democracy, openness, and openness to the media for a Burma, and not apply the same standard to a China? What is it that the United States truly believes, and what will we do in order to communicate that to the rest of the world?
Tell me what our national interest is, how we’re going to defend it, how we will know we have accomplished our mission, and if you can do that you have a strategy. Once the Cold War ended we lost our way, and we ended up and continue to be trapped in this never-ending, ever-changing entanglements, particularly in the Middle East. Beginning with the Pandora’s box that was opened with the invasion of Iraq, and continuing through the illogical and still fermenting nightmare of the Arab Spring.
I was one, obviously, who warned before the invasion of Iraq, that our entanglement would destabilize the region, empower Iran, and we can offer influence not only in the region, but in other places as well. The historical record is unfortunate but clear regarding this invasion, I don’t need to expound on it in greater detail today.
Libya: A Sad Allegory of American Intervention
I do want to take some time though to discuss the implications of the intervention in Libya. It became sort of a sad allegory of everything that has been so wrong for America and that part of the world. No direct national security interests were involved in Libya. No American forces were at risk, no treaties were in play that could have called for our military action.
Senator Bob Corker and I tried many times without success to call for a floor debate on this, in order to force the Senate to vote before the president would take any action. The Republicans did not want to debate it because Senator McCain and some of his colleagues were adamantly in favor of military action under any circumstances. The Democrats didn’t want to debate it because President Obama was facing reelection within a year, and did not want that on the table. So the Congress dithered, the president intervened, the result was a disaster.
The action led by Secretary Clinton and approved by the president, is one of the most serious failures in recent American history. Its implications have largely been ignored, other than the inevitable tragedy of Benghazi, which took so much of our time, and the media’s time during the last campaign.
How bad was this intervention? Let me read a couple of paragraphs from a special study that was completed by the Kennedy School in September 2013. This is quotes. “The conventional wisdom is wrong. Libya’s 2011 uprising was never peaceful, instead it was armed and violent from the start. Muammar al-Qaddafi did not target civilians or resort to use of indiscriminate force. Although inspired by humanitarian impulse, NATO’s intervention did not aim mainly to protect civilians, but rather to overthrow Qaddafi’s regime, even at the expense of increasing the harm to Libyans.”
Point number two, “The intervention backfired. NATO’s action magnified the conflict’s duration about sixfold and its death toll at least sevenfold, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors.” Read, among other places, Syria. “If Libya was a ‘model intervention,’ then it was a model of failure.”
All this was clear before the intervention even began. Senator Corker and I, among others, a few others, discussed this again and again during hearings. I on Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Corker on Foreign Relations Committee.
In the short term, right after Muammar al-Qaddafi was assassinated, Secretary Clinton gave an exultant CBS interview, triumphantly announcing, “We came, we saw, he died.” The front page coverage in The New York Times regarding the creation of a new strategic doctrine for the use of American military force.
What Our Governing Principles Should Be
Looking to the future, what should be our overall governing principles? First and foremost, if a president wishes to conduct offensive military operations, he or she should be able to explain clearly the threat to our national security, the specific objectives of the operations, and the end result that they wish to obtain.
Second, we will and must honor our treaty commitments, but we’re not obligated to join a treaty partner if they elect to use force outside the direct boundaries of our commitment, as in Libya, which was a NATO fig leaf operation. Neither United States nor NATO has the power to bring the United States into an elective war without the consultation and the consent of the Congress.
Third, it’s imperative for the United States to maintain superiority in our strategic systems. That goes unsaid, but it needs to be reset. This includes not only nuclear weapons, but also areas such as technology, space, cyber warfare.
Fourth, we will preserve and exercise the right of self-defense, as guaranteed under the international law of the United Nations Charter.
Fifth, we have important allies around the world. Some of them are treaty allies, others are, especially in Asia and the Middle East, who we will continue to support in many ways. This should not cease. In fact, as we clarify our commitments these relationships should be strengthened.
Six, with respect to the war against terrorism, we will act vigorously against terrorist organizations if they are international in nature, and are a direct threat to our national security. This includes the right to conduct military operations in foreign countries, if that country is unwilling or unable to address the threat. As I said we have this right under international law, and through article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
On China, Russia, and NATO
Then a thumbnail, a greater strategic, long term challenge– military, economically, and culturally, is our relationship with China. This is made more difficult because our two countries operate from dramatically different political systems, which is a point that’s rarely made when we had discussions about trade and other things.
Our greatest day to day challenge here at home, cyber-security in every manifestation, and also the security of our borders. Our greatest day operational challenge for the United States military, strategic deterrents and counter-terrorism operations, with respect to Russia, briefly. They intend to remain and historical power, they have been an historical power. In no foreign policy area is it more important for us to communicate our national security concerns clearly, and to work towards solutions that at a minimum reduce and de-conflict our operations.
With respect to NATO, I’ve talked about the importance of our treaty alliances, but just a comment. NATO expansion since the end of the Cold War, has created a new environment in terms of how the NATO actually works. Part of this is geographic and part of it is terms of membership. Many of the new members, who joined NATO since the end of the Cold War, are clearly protectorates, rather than allies when it comes to traditional strategic doctrine. This creates a new set of challenges for the United States, because article of the NATO Charter requires us to militarily defend any NATO member under attack.
We should never undersell the importance of our security alliances in Asia. They are crucial. First of all, China is clearly attempting to slice off one country at a time in its bid to expand power in the region. Our country has served as the indispensable guarantor of stability in east Asia since the end of World War II. Northeast Asia is the only place in the world where the geographical interests of three historic powers intersect. Russia, China and Japan.
Our fourth hand in that historical, we say conundrum, but this historical revolving power alignments, our fourth hand has stabilized the region. Southeast Asia, particularly the South China Sea, where China has over the past three or four years begun militarily strengthening different islands and asserting its sovereignty, is by far the busiest commercial seaway in the world. We must be there in terms of counterbalancing, we’re the only country that can counterbalance China’s steady militarization.
As for the Middle East
With respect to Syria and the other countries in the Middle East, these things have been going on over there for a long time, and I’m going to finish my remarks with advice I got from a sergeant in 1983. I was covering the Marines in Beirut for the news hour. We’re out on a an outpost and up on top of a roof of a building, in front of us there was a Druze position, underneath us was a Lebanese army position. The Druze and the Lebanese got into one of these like intramural firefights, one of these arguments, shooting back and forth. A Lebanese soldier was shot, the Marines took some rounds, and Marines started shooting back.
We had the Lebanese, the Druze, the Marines, and then we had one of these militias, we don’t even know which one, started joining in over on one side. Then the Syrians came over on a ridge line, and according to the Marines, were shooting at us with 25 millimeter machine gun rounds. It was sort of a free-for-all. The sergeant I was laying next to underneath this wall said, “Sir, never get involved in a five-sided argument.”
Every time I look at what’s going in the Middle East I think of that sergeant. Thank you very much for having me today. Thanks for your patience, as I spoke. I think we have time to take a couple of questions, if you like.
Watch the full speech here: