Mike Gallagher is the U.S. Representative for Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District. First elected in 2016 at the age of 33, he previously served for seven years as a Marine Corps counterintelligence officer, including two deployments to Iraq. Since assuming office, Gallagher has emerged as one of the Republican Party’s youngest foreign policy wonks, an outspoken advocate for Congressional reform, and a conservative with an independent streak. He was recently one of only 13 House Republicans to vote against President Trump’s declaration of an emergency on the southern border.
TAI recently invited Colin Dueck, Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and the author of Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II, to interview the Congressman in his office on Capitol Hill. The following interview has been lightly edited and is also available as an episode of our podcast.
Colin Dueck (TAI): The first question I’ve got for you is this: There’s a sense today that the temperature in Congress and American politics more generally is a little overheated. Others think it’s just healthy competition between and within the parties. Where do you come down on this? Where do you think the rhetoric is right now?
Mike Gallagher: On the scale of healthy to unhealthy I think we are leaning towards unhealthy. Now, that being said, I know we share a mutual love of history. To quote one of our favorite movies, True Romance, I read a lot of history, I find that stuff fascinating. Obviously, there have been times that have been more intense. Right behind me is a picture of Wisconsin’s most famous politician then or since, Bob La Follette. This is an old cartoon during World War I where the German Kaiser is pinning medals on him because he had led the opposition to World War I—he very much did not want us to get involved.
He led a filibuster of Wilson’s bill to arm merchant vessels, which he thought, correctly, was a prelude to war, and at one point there was a rumor going around that one of his colleagues was actually going to shoot him on the Senate floor. He called his son, who subsequently became a senator from Wisconsin, as well, and told him to go bring a shiv to the House floor. The whole thing was very intense. Perhaps that was because what happened on the House and the Senate floor back then actually mattered, whereas in the present day we just do political theater.
But I do think the rhetoric fueled by social media is getting out of hand and it’s not actually resulting in better debate. It’s very rare that we have actual meaningful debate on ideas here in Congress. To the extent that we do, it happens in the committees that still function. I’m lucky to be on the Armed Services Committee, which I think is the exception that proves the rule. Every year we pass an authorizing bill. We’re one of the few authorizing committees that do that. We go through a very laborious process of oversight of the Pentagon, of debating things. We have an all-day, all-night debating committee, but I do think that doesn’t happen enough here in Congress.
TAI: I know that Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr. once beat a pacifist on the steps of the U.S. Senate, so this isn’t the first era where we’ve had heated disagreement! Now, you’ve been outspoken the last few weeks, particularly as a number of your colleagues have been on foreign policy issues in relation to the President. Is Congress sort of reasserting itself right now? What’s going on?
MG: I was struck at one of these defense conferences recently. There seemed to be a bipartisan and uncritical acceptance of the premises laid out in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. On the one hand, Trump gets criticism from the other side for everything he does, but on the other hand I don’t see anyone on the Left right now saying, “No, the National Security Strategy actually got it wrong. We’re not in a period of great power competition with Russia.”
As we’ve talked about before, when it comes to Russia, which has been a source of a lot of criticism and controversy, the actual policy that the administration has been pursuing has been one that is quite strong and quite tough on Russia. I actually think there’s more consensus than dissensus right now on foreign policy in Congress. I do think, however, that you are seeing younger, newer members, particularly those with foreign policy backgrounds, engaging in this question of “How can Congress reclaim some of its foreign policy authority?” How can we restore the role of Article I in the foreign policy process, for example, by clawing back our constitutional authority to regulate commerce with foreign nations and pushing back on some of the things that the administration wants to do on Section 232 national security tariffs?
There’s an interesting debate happening right now on Yemen as to whether we’ve actually triggered the War Powers Resolution, whether what we’re doing in providing support to the Saudis constitutes engaging in hostilities. I do think there’s a weird thing going on—or a healthy thing going on, let me say—where there’s a bipartisan group of foreign policy-interested members in the House that are trying to reassert Congress’s role in foreign policy.
TAI: You listed a number of regional issues. Functional ones too. Let’s go down the list. You’ve been outspoken about the notion that the U.S. might withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan. What’s your reason for this and where do you think things stand at the moment?
MG: Well, on a personal level when I was in the Marine Corps I deployed to Iraq in 2007, and in 2008 I was on the tail end of the surge in the westernmost part of the country. I was stationed on the Syrian border. The town that I was deployed to, Al-Qa’im, subsequently came after we had sort of systematically destroyed ISIS’s forbear, al-Qaeda in Iraq, after we had provided some semblance of stability in the town. When I was leaving in 2008, if you had told me that a few years later that that town would be occupied by ISIS I would have told you that’s absolutely crazy, because from where I stood at the time, it seemed like we won.
Then when I was a civilian watching President Obama precipitously withdraw from Iraq for what I viewed to be political reasons, I was very distraught, and I think all the predictions we made at the time about creating a vacuum and how dangerous that was proved to be true. And I think the broader regional policy in the Obama Administration of seeking accommodation with the Iranian regime in the hopes that this would produce what the President referred to as a new equilibrium in the region produced exactly the opposite: disequilibrium. For me in the present day, I just worry that by precipitously withdrawing from Syria after having to go back into certain parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq because of the Obama decision, we’d recapitulate that same mistake, we’d create another vacuum on the ground, and we would throw our allies under the bus.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are primarily comprised of our Kurdish allies on the ground, who would be at the mercy of the Turks, or they’d have to strike a deal with Assad in order to survive, and I think that would send a signal that would undermine our credibility globally.
I actually think after bouncing between two extremes of all-out Bush 43-style aggressive involvement and Obama-style retrenchment, we’ve arrived at a Moneyball approach in the middle right now, whereby with a modest investment of resources, 2,000 special operators on the ground working by, with, and through local forces who are doing the majority of the fighting, and with us providing them the things they don’t have, be it air support or intelligence, we can achieve our limited objectives without a massive infusion of U.S. troops. This is the Moneyball approach in the Middle East, or at least I haven’t figured out another way to operate without falling into the Obama trap on the one hand or the nation building trap on the other.
TAI: As Brad Pitt says in Moneyball, “It’s a process. It’s a process. It’s a process.” Are you worried about the possible outcomes of the negotiations with the Taliban? How do you see those proceeding?
MG: Yeah, which is another reason why I think the White House’s recent announcement that it’s going to withdraw was ill-advised, because I think it’s going to affect the negotiations in a negative way. You’re sitting down with the Taliban and attempting to sue for peace without asking the broader question as to whether that’s even advisable. You don’t want to be sending the signal that you want to get out as quickly as possible, because you surrender all your leverage in the moment.
I don’t know what’s going to come out of those negotiations. I confess I’m extremely skeptical. I do think, though, the President has asked some very useful questions about Afghanistan. “What are our interests? Why are we still there? What’s our theory of victory?”
I went there last year and I just had this feeling as I was getting all the briefings from all the generals and all the intelligence professionals that this is the same briefing people have been getting for years and years. I do think we need to be a bit disciplined in how we define our interests and the resources we’re willing to spend in pursuit of those interests, but announcing withdrawal prematurely undermines our ability to get a negotiated outcome.
TAI: You mentioned the President’s foreign policy style: Some people love it and some don’t. But what do you think are the strengths and the weaknesses of that approach?
MG: I think the primary strength is that the President understands the source of American strength; in other words, that we need a strong military in order to have any hope of diplomatic success on the world stage. And I think the fact that we have been able to invest more in the military over the last two years, and are continuing this process of modernizing the U.S. military, is important, particularly when it comes to our ability to push back against China and Russia. That’s something the President consistently said throughout the campaign.
I would also say his willingness to act in certain instances where his predecessor would not has been a huge asset, and I think again of Syria. I think of that moment when he was having dinner with General Secretary Xi, and he steps out of the room and he approves a strike on the Syrian regime and then he comes back to the dinner. I can’t help but believe that that enhanced our credibility across the world, whereas Obama’s decision not to strike in Syria undermined our credibility. I give the administration enormous credit for that.
As I’ve said before, notwithstanding all the hysteria over Russia, if you examine the policy on the ground it’s been strong in pushing back against Russia, whether it’s authorizing lethal assistance to the Ukrainians, whether it’s approving Montenegro’s succession to NATO, whether it’s sanctioning a lot of oligarchs in Russia, sanctioning a lot of individuals that have been called out in the Mueller report, whether it’s exploring the development of low-yield nuclear weapons that the Pentagon has talked about, the list goes on and on and on. Oh, and by the way, killing 200 Russian mercenaries in Syria. That probably sent a message.
Then I think that Trump has gotten one huge thing right and it could be the biggest thing, which is to say that China is the biggest threat we face. It is the biggest long-term threat we face. The National Security Strategy has this great recognition that the last three decades of bipartisan policy vis-à-vis China has failed. This big bet we made that integrating China into the global economy would moderate their behavior turns out not to have worked at all, and the administration has recognized that and they are attempting to change course, and I give them enormous credit for that.
That said, I don’t support using Section 232 tariffs to punish our allies, primarily because I think what they’re trying to do economically on China is the right thing, and I see it as the only hope we have of uniting the free world in opposition to China. So to simultaneously pick an economic fight with the EU, with Canada and Mexico, on the grounds that we face a national security threat from Canadian steel or Mexican steel—no offense to your motherland, and the evil Canadian steel that could destroy us all—strikes me as counterproductive.
Then I think in the Middle East the administration has done a lot of good things in terms of moving the embassy to Jerusalem, but more importantly, getting out of the Iran deal. Its stated policy is that we need to roll back Iran’s malign influence, but I think we still haven’t seen that policy taking shape on the ground. I think there’s a lot of holes that need to be filled in the Middle East right now.
Again, the only way you can actually put more resources in the Indo-Pacific region is if you find a way to play Moneyball in the Middle East. And the only way you can do that in my mind is if you take advantage of the natural alliances that are forming on the ground right now, and that’s the historic level of cooperation we’re seeing between the Israelis and the Sunni Arab Gulf states. But that means you have to work with some unsavory people that do some dumb things, and clearly some of our closest allies have done some pretty dumb things right now that make our cooperation with them very difficult.
TAI: You mentioned in each one of those cases the importance of U.S. allies. Why bother to have allies? Trump asks very basic questions that for some Americans seem valid. Why do we have these bases? Why do we have these alliances? What good are they?
MG: Again, I view most things right now through the prism of our long-term competition with the Chinese Communist Party. What you’re seeing now is certain Chinese academics are recognizing this basic reality. I forget the name of the gentleman, the Chinese economist [Yan Xuetong] who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in 2011. He said something that I thought was very true at the time and has become even more true since, and that’s that the core of competition between the U.S. and China will come down to who has better friends. This is our most natural advantage besides our founding values, which attract a lot of countries to us that want to be part of the U.S.-led global order. Because it’s a benign order and one in which they benefit and no one’s going to dictate outcomes to them, in contrast to China, which doesn’t want allies. It wants vassals and tributary states.
The most natural advantage we have over countries like China and Russia is this network of alliances that we’ve built since World War II, and I think our formal allies alone comprise something like 40 to 50 percent of the world’s GDP, and unless we want to do everything by ourselves—which I would submit to you that we don’t because we don’t have infinite resources—we’re going to have to work with allies, partners, and friends on the ground to share the burden.
Now, I get it. We’ve always wanted our allies to do more. But to paraphrase Churchill, and I know this is an overused expression, the only thing harder than fighting with allies is fighting without them. I think burden-sharing is in our interest, and that comes with a little bit of free riding at times, but our allies do bring enormous capabilities to the table—and ultimately we offer an alternative vision of what we want the world to look like than our enemies in Beijing and Moscow do.
TAI: In a case like Saudi Arabia, how do you strike that balance? On the one hand the administration clearly believes that you can’t be too hard on the Saudis because that undermines the effort against Iran. In a way, they’re doing what you would recommend; they’re working with allies. But these are not lovable allies in the case of the Saudis. Then on the other hand in Congress, there are a lot of voices speaking out on the human rights issues. Where do you come down on this?
MG: I spent my most formative years in my early and mid-20s as a young Marine officer working with Anbari tribal leaders in western Iraq. I know full well that there is no easy way to do this. There’s no silver bullet approach. As my first professor in the Middle East said, rule number one is that things can always get worse. But I do think it requires you to prioritize, painfully at times, your first-order national security interests in the region. That often ends up being just basic security and stability concerns. Yes, we should take advantage of every opportunity we have to advance human rights, but part of the benefit of having close relationships—even with problematic partners—is that you can shift their behavior in a better direction. It is the bear hug approach. It is an act of love but it also fundamentally constricts their movement so they don’t go too far off the reservation.
Now, clearly in the Saudi case, they did go beyond the bounds of what we would consider acceptable. The answer to that isn’t to ignore it completely and say “We are okay with the Crown Prince ordering the execution of a journalist,” but nor is it to jettison the relationship entirely, because as problematic as you might think that partnership is, I can guarantee you that whatever would come in the wake of the collapse of the Saudi state or a hot war or an even hotter war between the Saudis and the Iranians right now would be far worse, would require far more U.S. resources, and would inevitably drag us into that conflict. You have to find a way to prioritize what’s most important in the relationship while also slowly getting them, behind closed doors, to take action on human rights.
What’s interesting is that Mohammed bin Salman was doing this sort of publicity tour prior to the [Khashoggi] controversy. He was saying all the things that we had wanted someone in the Saudi royal family to say for a long time: He was diversifying the economy and weaning it off its reliance on fossil fuels, but he was also doing the things that are most visible in terms of human rights, like allowing women to drive, greater participation for women in the political system, and so on. Those are all good impulses that we should seek to nurture, but I just don’t see how you can do that if you cut off ties completely, because these countries do have other options at the end of the day.
They want to partner with us but we’ve seen in the Middle East time and again that when we cut off a weapons sale, for example, because we’re pissed off at something someone did, they’ll go and buy that weapon from the Russians or the Chinese. So we’ve lost influence, we’ve lost the economic benefits of the military sale, and we haven’t actually improved the human rights situation.
TAI: You are in favor of the tariffs in relation to China but not in relation to U.S. allies. Do you view this as a constitutional issue or is it just a prudential one, where the tariffs make sense in one case and not the other?
MG: Well, I think tariffs are taxes that distort the free market, so I’m not in favor of tariffs, all other things being equal. All other things are not equal. When it comes to China it’s really their non-tariff barriers that are of the most concern to us. Yes, their average applied tariffs are higher than ours, but not by a wide margin. But tackling things like intellectual property theft is far more important. Cyber espionage, how they give their state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage, how we don’t have economic reciprocity, what they demand in return for market access—all of those things are more problematic than their tariffs. I am willing however to allow the administration to explore the use of tariffs as a tool to strike a bigger deal.
The problem with the 232 tariffs in my mind is that Congress has ceded far too much authority to the Executive Branch. This is just a fact. Over time, Congress has surrendered its power to regulate commerce with foreign nations to the Executive Branch. Ironically, and you’d need to check my history on this, I believe this was part of a trade liberalizing measure. The theory was that the Executive Branch as a unitary actor would be less prone to parochialization. In Congress, I’m going to be arguing for dairy because I’m from the dairy district. You have 535 people that are all going to be arguing for different things, going to make it harder to advance the cause of free and fair trade. Whereas if you give that authority to the Executive Branch there’s a better chance that they can advance that cause.
Now, the opposite is happening. With 232 tariffs, the problem is that they’re saying we face a national security threat from Canadian steel, Mexican steel, and aluminum. We face a lot of national security threats, and certainly I can make a national security argument for having some domestic steel production in America. But this is not a national security threat. It strikes me that they’ve stretched the bounds of the statute beyond recognition. Moreover, we have recent examples under Obama and Bush where they’ve attempted to do something similar and it hasn’t actually worked, if for no other reason than that there are far more people that work in steel-consuming or using industries than there are in steel-making industries.
And then you get to the broader level where I do think there’s a difference. I am all in favor of getting tough on China’s predatory economic practices, and I understand that our allies may not be perfect in that regard, but there is a difference here, because if you actually examine the economic data, what they suggest is that “Wow. The Canadians have a supply management system that effectively prevents our dairy producers from getting into their market.”
We have similar programs for example with sugar. We have bizarre sugar programs to subsidize our domestic industry. When you average tariffs across different goods, applied tariffs are actually higher in the U.S. than they are in the EU or Canada by a tiny margin. They’re very low to begin with. I do think there are different things going on here, if that makes sense.
TAI: But Canada’s looming really large right over Wisconsin. Is that a national security threat?
MG: That’s true, and as you know, I do not trust Trudeau, and I’ve gone on record as saying I want to box him.
TAI: I was not aware of that. All right. Well, on the constitutional issue, you were one of I think only 13 House Republicans who voted against the national emergency. Is that right?
MG: I had forgotten about that.
TAI: You have already forgotten?
MG: Just kidding. My grassroots has reminded me every single day about that.
TAI: Well, that was quite a vote. Tell us what your motives were.
MG: I have supported the President’s efforts on border security for the last two years. I voted for the $5.7 billion. I voted against every Democratic proposal that I thought would not actually solve the problem. When I was in uniform I worked for a year at the Drug Enforcement Administration.
I’ve been down to the southern border in that capacity. It’s not secure. It’s a problem. It’s a crisis. I could even call it an emergency. But the question is, what was intended under the 1976 National Emergencies Act and what precedent is this setting? While I would very much like it if we were able to wave a magic wand and solve this problem, how we solve this problem actually matters. Because I’m old enough to remember when Republicans were up in arms about Obama doing everything through executive fiat, and if we surrender that principle then we will not have a leg to stand on when a President Warren or a President Sanders or an eight years of President Ocasio-Cortez declares a national emergency on climate change or gun control to do a whole host of things that we view to be stupid and destructive to individual rights and private property. I firmly believe that we have to stand our ground on the principle of resisting the expansion of executive order, and I do that fully supporting what the President is trying to do, and fully recognizing that his critics are hypocritical.
It pains me to watch Schumer and Pelosi make these absurd arguments when ten years ago they were voting for this stuff, and I know that they’re playing politics with this. But I would be full of it if I had spent the last two years talking about the fact that the cancer at the heart of our Constitution is the expansion of executive authority because Congress is surrendering all its power, and then said I was cool with it just because it’s my guy is doing something that I happen to support.
TAI: Do you think that what it means to be a conservative or a Republican on foreign policy has changed a lot over the years or had it been fairly continuous?
MG: I once read a brilliant book called Hard Line that explored the history of Republican foreign policy. I don’t think you went back to Alf Landon. I think it was from [Robert] Taft to the present.
TAI: That’s right.
MG: If I’m remembering the argument you made, there is a consistent theme of—maybe not peace through strength, but some basic appreciation for the role of American military power and the need to be strong on the world stage. I view that as one of the foundations of Republican foreign policy. It was perhaps best expressed by Ronald Reagan, but I think it remains relevant today.
Now, we’ve also always had a more isolationist streak within the party. That was the whole reason Eisenhower ran for President in ‘52, in order to make sure that the Taft wing of the party didn’t prevail on foreign policy matters. That tension has always been there but I think luckily, more often than not, the peace through strength camp has won out over the isolationist camp. But I do think this tension is a healthy impulse and I think this gets to conservative philosophy more broadly, to have a healthy respect for unintended consequences, because it’s easy to get carried away on the world stage, and things that look neat and tidy in air conditioned offices in Washington, DC get extremely messy and dangerous when you’re at the tip of the spear actually trying to implement them.
I saw that firsthand in the military. I think that tension between wanting to be strong on the world stage, wanting to solve problems before they devolve into major crises—recognizing that we have friends and enemies on the world stage and being distrustful of utopian world government schemes—I think that the tension between that and doing nothing and retreating into Fortress America is a healthy tension that the party’s always had to grapple with.
TAI: When you talk to your constituents in Wisconsin, insofar as foreign policy or national security policy comes up at all, what do they tell you? What are their concerns?
MG: I think most of the political science literature and polling data would suggest that foreign policy rarely matters. “It’s the economy, stupid” was certainly my assumption going into my first campaign ever in 2016. For someone whose background was all foreign policy and national security that wasn’t exactly a great place to be in, but I was always amazed at how many people came up to me to ask about foreign policy. Think about where we were at that time.
The first joint appearance Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were supposed to do together was going to be in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which is where I live. My hometown’s the heart of my district. I was freaking out because I didn’t want them to come to my district, but it got canceled and she never came back, infamously, because of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
That was the latest in a string of incidents from San Bernardino to the downing of the Russian airliner to Nice to all of our various European capitals that created this sense that something was going wrong, and particularly when it comes to the threat of ISIS or Salafi jihadism more broadly, that whatever we were doing wasn’t working and it was no longer just an “over there” problem. It was quickly becoming a right-here-at-home problem, including in places like the Midwest. I would have people come up to me and say, “Is it safe to go to a Packers game?” I would submit to you that if American leadership had languished to the point where it affects Lambeau Field, then we truly have a problem.
I actually thought foreign policy mattered a lot in that election, and I think foreign policy is not just a matter of abstract things like “How do you feel?” No one’s asking me about the nuances of Section 301 tariffs versus 232. But it’s also a way to communicate respect for basic American values. Respect for the troops, respect for American leadership, a sense that we are a force for good in this world, and I think there are some dangerous ideas on the Left right now that suggest the opposite. I’ve come to believe that foreign policy does matter. It may not be the most important issue, but how you talk about it does matter politically.
TAI: It sounds like in 2016 ISIS terrorism was a real issue. In 2018 did you get the sense from voters that tariffs were a concern or were most voters willing to give the President a chance?
MG: I think it was starting to turn. For example, I think Trump won my district by 18 points. A lot of ag[ricultural] areas. We’re America’s dairyland. A lot of cows in my district. I think that demographic are largely people that voted for the President, wanted to give him a chance, but tariffs are hurting Wisconsin dairy farmers right now. They’re caught in the crossfire of this low-grade competition between us and the EU and Canada and Mexico, particularly as we sell a lot of dairy to Mexico right now too. I think there’s a sense that they want the President to be successful in striking a deal that results in a fairer playing field for them, but not at the expense of their bottom line, their farm, their family.
TAI: Something that’s come up a couple of times already is the way the President talks about foreign policy. For example, on Russia you mentioned that on the ground it’s pretty solid. What do you think about the rhetoric or the language of the tweets? Is it irrelevant? Does it matter?
MG: I think it matters. Certainly whenever the President says something it matters, whether it’s in a tweet or in a formal speech. I guess I will never get comfortable with the President tweeting at 5 a.m. It’s certainly an unusual and an unorthodox style of communication. There are a lot of people that like it in particular because it bypasses a media complex they view to be biased. And it is biased. I also think that even where I might disagree with the President, he’s usefully forcing Republicans to question certain assumptions. In foreign policy, it’s easy for DC to fall victim to groupthink. So to the extent we’re forced to show our work with “What’s the case for being in Afghanistan? What’s the case for being in Syria? Have we gotten our priorities right?,” I think that’s a healthy thing.
Where I think it actually undermines the President’s own cause is where the tweets are at odds with his policy on the ground. I just don’t believe that directly bashing allies is useful, but again, I try and stay focused on the actual policy. On the big picture stuff, I think the President’s gotten a lot of big things right, particularly when it comes to great power competition with China and Russia. And NATO. For all the concern about “Oh, the President hates NATO. The President’s going to get out of NATO,” I don’t think the last two years suggest that’s going to happen. Our NATO allies have actually responded to the President’s rhetoric by increasing their commitments in many cases. The administration has reaffirmed its commitment to NATO, including in speeches that Trump himself has given.
I was at the Munich Security Conference where I thought Pence gave a great speech, and he pointed out something quite true to our allies which they may not want to hear. He had a great phrase where he said, “We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies become dependent on the East.” What he’s talking about is you have countries like Germany right now that are considering what their 5G architecture’s going to look like and they’re considering striking deals with companies like Huawei and ZTE that we know are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Chinese Communist Party. He was talking tough to our allies, which I’m sure is not something they’d like to hear to their face, but he’s right. He’s totally, totally right.
So I think we can have those disagreements among friends, but I don’t know. Back to your original question, I think Twitter’s making everyone look stupid, and I put myself in that category too.
TAI: You’ve alluded to the fact that your experience in the Marines gave you firsthand experience for what it means when the U.S. is there and when it isn’t there.
MG: Yeah, when I was bravely writing intelligence reports and correcting spelling errors on the front lines.
TAI: What else do you think you learned from your time overseas, your time in the U.S. armed forces and in the Marines that’s relevant for U.S. foreign policy and informed your approach to it?
MG: I think beyond a healthy respect for unintended consequences, one of the reasons I’m so excited about young veterans on both sides of the aisle coming into Congress and serving at this particular time is not only because they bring that firsthand, tactical real-world experience with these issues to the National Security committees here in the House, but they bring that basic military ethos of “Here’s a hard problem. Let’s work together to solve it.”
At the end of the day, that’s what’s most remarkable about the military. It takes people from all over the country, different backgrounds, different levels of competency. It puts them through a tough crucible and it forces them to work together to get a difficult job done. It’s not always pretty. It’s not always perfect, but usually it works out, and that’s a remarkable thing. I was lucky to be a part of that, and I hope that we, i.e. the 9/11 generation veterans in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, can bring that same ethos to our work here in Congress. And if nothing else, recognize that we can have knock-down, drag-out debates about policy issues without questioning each other’s motives.
I don’t look at a Democratic colleague who has served and think, “Yeah, that person hates America and wants to destroy America,” because I know it’s not true. Now, I may think they have dumb ideas when it comes to socialized medicine or some other things, but I want to have a transparent and open and robust debate with them without it devolving into mean-tweeting about how we hate each other.
I would also say that one of the promises of veterans serving in Congress or people that have foreign policy experience is that they can conduct more effective oversight of the military in particular. Kennedy has this great phrase in the wake of the Bay of Pigs where he says, “If someone comes to me talking about the minimum wage or something else, I have no problem arguing with them or overruling them. But I always assume the military and intelligence folks have some knowledge not available to ordinary mortals.” And I do think there’s a tendency to be awed by anyone who has a bunch of stars on their shoulder. But people who have served in the military I think can ask the right questions to get at “Is what we’re doing in Syria working? Is what we’re doing in Afghanistan working?” That I think is a useful skill that people in the military bring to Congress.
TAI: Finally, are there any top concerns or foreign policy priorities that we haven’t talked about and you think should be mentioned or discussed? Or to put it another way, what are the leading foreign policy challenges for the United States today in your view?
MG: Again, I think the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy have gotten the basic conceptual shift right, which is to say China is the pacing threat and Russia is maybe a distant second. I think we are at a moment right now that is similar, though not identical, to where we were with the Soviet Union in the period roughly from 1948 to 1953. What makes it more difficult is that we haven’t yet had something like the Soviets setting in a new nuclear weapon in ‘49 or the invasion of Korea the year after that galvanizes public opinion to recognize that we need to wake up and change some things if we want to prevail in this competition.
I see no reason why what some people have called an emerging Cold War with China needs to be as hostile as what we had with the Soviet Union, but I think it’s going to require a similar level of attention by America’s best and brightest.
For example, it’s important that the best and brightest programmers working at Google don’t have a hostile view of the Pentagon and therefore don’t cooperate in a way that allows our AI to be better than Chinese AI; and we need a way to fix our immigration system so that we can get the best and brightest from the rest of the world to come here, stay here, build companies here that give us an economic advantage and that in turn allows us to turn that economic growth into military investments; and we need to do so in a way where we don’t become the thing we’re trying to contain.
In other words, if we sacrifice our founding values, if we change the system of government in a fundamental way where it’s no longer American because we feel like we need to do so in order to survive, well then we will have defeated ourselves.
I do think there’s a risk right now in trying to out-China China. We may be going down the road of socialism-lite that would ultimately be a disaster, because we need to draw a hard contrast between the system that China’s offering and the American system, which are two fundamentally different things.
It’s also going to require us to rediscover certain muscles that we haven’t flexed in a while, whether it’s political warfare, ideological warfare, looking back at some of Reagan’s best speeches such as his speech at Moscow State. They were masterpieces of ideological warfare. That’s a long way of saying I do think that the administration is right to suggest that is the biggest threat we face. That is a generational threat and we are in a competition for global supremacy that’s probably going to play out for the next three decades, and it’s not foreordained that America’s going to win by any stretch.
Other issues that relate to that that we’re taking a hard look at here in Congress right now. . .one is the question of foreign investment in the United States. Do we have the tools necessary to understand some of the investments that the Chinese Communist Party is making? We just did an entire reworking of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States last year in the National Defense Authorization Act.
But the final thing I’d say in relation to an earlier strain of conversation we had is I do think in order to be successful Congress will have to demand a bigger seat at the table at all these discussions. Going further down this path of allowing everything to be done through executive fiat, it just continues this trend where politics becomes solely about the presidency, and every four years we await the coming of a messianic presidential figure who’s going to solve all our problems. That person inevitably fails and then we’re either bummed out or we just convince ourselves that the other side is so terrible that we need to go further down the path of executive fiat.
The Framers wanted Congress to be the preeminent branch of government. This phrase “coequal branch of government” is a fiction that crept into our lexicon in the ‘60s. If you read the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, the Framers were indeed worried that the legislative power would necessarily predominate. They never would have predicted that we would have surrendered all our power to the Executive Branch. I think if we find a way on matters domestic and foreign to claw back some of that authority, our politics would be far more boring, but boring is good. A Congress that just went about doing its business with boring diligence and wasn’t mired in constant crisis or controversy or scandal would actually start to regain the trust of the American people, and if the American people don’t trust their government or the people that represent them, that’s a bad place to be in.
I know I’m droning on, but I want to say this finally, because it relates to the last question you asked about “What do you learn in the military and what does that mean for Congress?”
Growing up I took everything for granted. I had a great family in Northeast Wisconsin. I didn’t know anything about the world outside of Wisconsin. It wasn’t until I left the United States of America, and it wasn’t until I went to some countries like Iraq that don’t have what we have here that I truly realized how lucky we are to be Americans. It wasn’t until I saw people in other countries that were willing to fight with us, sacrifice their lives just to have a fraction of what we have that I truly realized how lucky we are to be Americans. And for all our problems, for all the dysfunction in DC, we are still a force for good in this world. We’re not perfect but we are the good guys, and I think recognizing that, being grateful for that, and recognizing that we need to pass it on to the next generation is a profound responsibility all of us have, particularly those who serve in public office.
Editor’s Note: This transcript has been updated since original publication.