HH: On the eve of the debate of the Defense Authorization Act, there is simply no better person to talk to than Retired Admiral James Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University where he himself earned his PhD while on active duty. He’s chairman of the board of the U.S. Naval Institute, NBC News’ chief international security and diplomacy analyst, and of course, a 37 year sailor of the seas, a four star admiral who has sailed not just all of the oceans, but also commanded on land as well. While in the Navy, Stavridis served as commander of U.S. Southern Command, and commander of U.S. European Command, and NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe from 2009-2013. He’s the first Navy officer to have held those positions. He was also on Hillary Clinton’s short list for vice president, and President Trump’s short list for secretary of State. I personally with both had stopped looking after they talked to the Admiral. His first two books, The Accidental Admiral, and Leaders’ Bookshelf, are must-reading across the military and business leadership communities, but it is his new book, Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans that could not be more timely for the NDAA authorization debate this week, this year, and indeed, the decades ahead. Admiral Stavridis, welcome, it is great to have you.
JS: Wonderful to be with you, Hugh.
HH: Now I have to start with the headlines. Last night, President Trump made a change to the chief of staff. General John Kelly, who was previously commander of Southern Command, you didn’t directly toss the baton to him, but a four star admiral must know a four star general.
HH: What do you think of General Kelly and this choice?
JS: So I’ve known John Kelly since we were in our 20s together back in the late 1970s steaming around the Mediterranean Sea on the carrier Forrestal. I know him intimately. I know his family. John is a spectacular choice for this job. If anybody can bring order out of chaos in the White Houses, it’s General John Kelly. But Hugh, here’s the bad news. The problem is not Reince Priebus. The problem creating the chaos is the President’s style. So John has to form a true bond with his principal, as any chief of staff does, and bring order out of chaos. That is the principle function of a chief of staff. It’s a principle function of a commissioned officer in the Armed Forces. I think John has the best shot of doing that of anybody I can think of.
HH: Let me talk to you about one of the concerns that surfaces occasionally. We now have a Marine general as chief of staff, a Marine general as Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, a Marine general as chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. They’re in the sea services, but they’re not Naval officers. Nevertheless, you’ve got an Army veteran, West Point number one in his class, Mike Pompeo, at the CIA, his favorite senator, Senator Cotton, is an Army Ranger. Is this too much military around Donald Trump, especially at those highest three levels?
JS: You know, I’d really start worrying if I saw a few admirals in there, Hugh. But in reality, I think that again, what President Trump needs more than anything else is order and discipline, so I think this might be a special case of an administration where bringing in a disproportionately high number of military would make sense. As a general proposition, I think it probably is a few too many retired senior military, but again, in this administration, it kind of feels like part of the solution, not a problem.
HH: Now I’m selling Sea Power…
JS: Thank you.
HH: …because I want everyone to be equipped for the strategic debate that’s about to unfold. But I left off General McMaster, who’s the national security advisor. So the question in addition to this is worldview. Is enough non-military worldview going to get through to the President as what looks like a war cabinet to me? We’re about to talk about North Korea, which is heavy through Sea Power. Is this a war cabinet that’s forming up?
JS: You know, I know all of these officers extremely well. And take John Kelly as an example. His principle four star command was U.S. Southern Command, everything south of the United States. That’s not a war portfolio. We’re not going to go to war in Latin America and the Caribbean. It’s a soft power region of the world. General Mattis, famous for saying in Congressional testimony if you don’t fund the State Department, you’ll have to buy me more ammunition. Secretary Mattis/General Mattis really understands the power of smart power and soft power. General McMaster, in Iraq, famous in Northern Iraq for using every tool from strategic communication to humanitarian relief to disaster relief as part of the solution, so this is a unique group of generals who I think are not primed for war. They’re certainly capable of conducting war, and they’ve proven that. But they understand the full spectrum of operations.
HH: Then let’s go to the crisis of the day, week and month, North Korea, indeed a couple of years. General Dunford at the Aspen Institute told NBC’s own Andrea Mitchell of course there’s a military option. It would be ugly. In your book, Sea Power, North Korea pops up on Page 193. You call it, I quote directly, “the most dangerous country in the world.” 200 pages later, on Page 339, you say Kim Jung Un is, we are tempted to be mocking of him, but he’s actually quite a menace. Are we going to have a shooting war, or a conflict that involves a great loss of life on the Korean Peninsula soon, Admiral Stavridis?
JS: I hope not, but let’s think of it this way, and I’ve always said this. Two streams are crossing, Hugh. One is the miniaturization and the hardening of nuclear weapons, and the other is intercontinental ballistic missiles that can be fired to reach the United States. It’s like in Ghostbusters. You don’t want those streams to cross. They are very close to crossing. And this most recent firing just yesterday tells us that that intercontinental stream is moving. But let me shift analogies. At some point, this becomes a game not of Ghostbusters, but Dirty Harry. Do you feel lucky? Is that gun really loaded? I think we’re going to have to make the determination that it is loaded very, very quickly. So that will drive us either to a preemptive military strike, General Dunford’s point, or we can deploy diplomacy and attempt to get China to get this under control, unlikely, or Hugh, we’re going to have to live with it and create a very impressive deterrent regime that would make it impossible in Kim Jung Un’s mind that he would actually use that weapon against the United States. Those are all bad options. I think we’re going to end up on number three.
HH: If I go according to form, we’ll end up this interview in the second part talking about China. But I want to put it up front right now. The People’s Republic of China is becoming a blue water navy. They are militarizing their atolls. What would their reaction be, Admiral, if we came to a shooting conflict with North Korea, given the array of weaponry that the fleet has dispatched there?
JS: They would be deeply concerned about two things – the flow of refugees out of North Korea, which would impose enormous economic burdens on their region which abuts North Korea, and secondly, they would be deeply concerned about the possibility of the reunification of that Peninsula. That’s what they want to avoid, because they fear the creation of a mega-state must as East Germany and West Germany came together to create this juggernaut in Europe. They fear that in Asia, so their game, China’s, is to avoid a shooting war, because it avoids, ultimately, a reunification of the Peninsula. They’re playing the long game.
HH: Let’s switch to the other crisis. David Sanger, New York Times this week, said Iran deal, the President wants to rip it up. He’s looking for a way to rip it up. A lot of us didn’t like the deal to begin with. In Sea Power, you talk about how the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf has become a Cold War lite between Sunni Islam and the Iranian Navy, and we’re in the middle of it with the 5th Fleet. How dangerous is that flashpoint? How dangerous is that Iran deal given what we see unfold in North Korea under the 1994 agreement?
JS: Yeah, indeed. The Iran deal, I think, is/was a bad deal as it was negotiated. But I think, Hugh, simply ripping it up at this point would be counterproductive, because our allies would fall out of that equation enormously, and we would end up standing alone and steaming into a potential hot war in that region. We’ve had a hot war in Iraq, a hot war in Afghanistan. I don’t think we need a new one with Iran. So what should we do? We ought to be using our Sunni allies, our Israeli allies, and building a real coalition to stand against this Shiia Persian Iranian aggression, which is driving into Damascus, driving into Lebanon, driving into Yemen, and…
HH: Iran want to build a naval base in Lebanon.
JS: Indeed, they do. And they probably will, and watch for one in Yemen so they can control the approaches to the Persian Gulf. They are playing a maritime game, and that’s what we talk about in Sea Power.
HH: A minute to our break, Admiral. We don’t have enough assets in the fleet. When they do the NDAA this week, what’s the ship mix got to look like? And how soon does it have to get there?
JS: We’ve got to go from 275 ships current to 350 ships. Every responsible analyst agrees with that, Hugh. That means 12 carriers, 12 ballistic missile submarines, 12 big deck amphibs, and the ships that support them. Quantity is a quality all its own. We can’t face these multi crises that we’ve been discussing without a fleet of about 355 ships.
HH: How quickly do we have to get there?
JS: We need to get there as quickly as we can, and I’d say that’s going to take us 8 to 10 years. And we need to build more. We need to extend the life of some of those ships, and we may have to pull a few out of mothballs.
HH: What about buying foreign ships, Admiral?
JS: We should look at a few different models out there. The Australians make a pretty productive catamaran-like ship that we have actually bought. We can look at some of the Spanish-style frigates. There are models we could look at out there, but ultimately, we want to be able to build this fleet at home, Hugh.
HH: I will be right back.
End of segment.