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Former Virginia Senator and Secretary of the Navy James Webb On His 2016 Presidential Campaign

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Former Virginia Senator and Secretary of the Navy James Webb was my guest on today’s show:




HH: Pleased to welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt show James Webb, former Senator from the great state of Virginia, formerly Secretary of the Navy, assistant secretary of Defense, United States Marine, a recipient of the Navy Cross, author, filmmaker. Welcome back, Senator Webb, it’s great to have you.

JW: How are you? Good to be with you, Hugh.

HH: I’m great, and I have not talked to you, actually, since Born Fighting came out, that long interview we did. It’s great to have you back.

JW: That’s right. We had a great show on Born Fighting.

HH: The first question I get about you is very simply: “Is he serious, because if Webb is serious, I might want to be a part of that?”  So are you really serious about running for president?

JW: We are serious. And we’re trying to do all of the methodical work to make sure that if we step forward, we have a viable candidacy. And so it’s, you know, we’re taking our time, but we’re going to decide fairly soon.

HH: You’re going back to Iowa very soon in June. You’ve been there a few times. If you get into the race, are you going to box with Hillary, or are you going to dance with her? Go hard or be an officer and a gentleman?

JW: You know, I think I would, my approach is the same approach as when I ran for the Senate, and that is to lay out the issues that we are about, or the issues that concern me about the country, and to let other people make up their mind about whoever else is in the race.

HH: Will you speak to her record at the Department of State?

JW: I’m happy to talk about the administration’s record there, yes.

HH: Well, let’s start on the Libya adventure. I know you were opposed to it at the time, even as you were opposed to the invasion of Iraq. She was aggressively for it. Will that be a defining issue between the two of you and what has happened since?

JW: Well, it is one of the key strategic issues in terms of how the United States has approached that region. You know, I think we have made two strategic blunders, post-9/11. The first was to invade Iraq and become an occupying power in that part of the world. And I think as you remember, even when we were talking about this in ’04, I had written a piece for the Washington Post five months before the invasion, saying this is going to empower Iran, it’s going to cause sectarian violence, our troops are going to become terrorist targets, and in the long term strategy, it’s going to reduce our ability to deal with China. And unfortunately, I think we are reaping the harvest of what happened there. But on top of that, when the Arab Spring evolved, and when in many ways, this administration encouraged some of the activities, I spoke out very strongly against the way that the administration approached the Libyan incursion. They were pressing forward with this doctrine of humanitarian intervention in giving the President the unilateral authority to decide to use military force at a time when there were no treaties in place. There were no Americans under attack or threat of attack, and no Americans to rescue. It was no clear national interest of the United States. And people tend to focus particularly on the Republican side, I think they tend to focus on Benghazi. But the real issue that I was trying to put on the table was the entire idea of unleashing all of these forces inside Libya in a way that Qaddafi was taken out, and including the weapon systems that were taken from a lot of the storage areas and spread across the region. So what happened in Libya, you know, to me, is a very serious blunder.

HH: What happened in Libya as well, some Republicans and conservatives focus on talking points memo, etc. I don’t. I focus on how the administration reacted that night. Now you’ve commanded men in combat, and Mrs. Clinton was at the Situation Room at the State Department on the 7th floor, in the Situation Room at the White House. She left at 1:00 in the morning with her ambassador dead and her number two in retreat, and the CIA annex under fire. I would thinking of the movie Rules of Engagement. I believe you were the screenwriter of that, were you not?

JW: (laughing) Yeah.

HH: Yeah, I thought so.

JW: …for a long time, yeah.

HH: So what did you make of Mrs. Clinton’s conduct on the night of Libya, not even calling Greg Hicks back?

JW: Well you know, I confess that I haven’t looked at that in the same detail that you outlined it. My concern about Libya was the way that we went in created the situation where a Benghazi was highly possible. And that raises two points. One is what were we doing. This wasn’t even a civil war. And I remember having Secretary Gates testifying before we went in, and when I was on Armed Services Committee and Foreign Relations Committee, and some of the State Department people, and asking them what are doing, this is going to unleash this tribal revenge throughout Libya. And sure enough, after we did this, you know, it became hard even to get to the Tripoli Airport. So something was bound to happen, and not exactly at Benghazi, but these kinds of things were put on the radar screen by the way that we went in. And by the way, in terms of long term government policy, when you have a situation like this, which they called responsibility to protect humanitarian intervention, you know, no American interest directly at threat. That’s the time when you need to go to the Congress and get some specific support from the Congress, not just consult with them. They didn’t do any of that. And the minute by minute on Benghazi, I mean, there are plenty of people who are talking about that and would do a better job explaining it to you than I would.

HH: Former deputy director of the CIA, Mike Morell, was on the show, and I interviewed him again up at the Reagan Library, and we talked about the server at Mrs. Clinton’s house, and the deputy director said almost certainly foreign intelligence services monitored that. Do you think she made a misjudgment for which she ought to be answerable by putting in a private server at her residence, Senator Webb?

JW: Again, I think that’s best addressed to her. You know, when I look at what we are trying to do here in terms of my interest in potentially running, it’s to put the issues in front of the country that I feel strongly about. And one of those is responsible leadership that you can trust. I think whether people agree with me or not on a number of issues, the message that I have gotten consistently over the last year from a lot of Republicans and a lot of independents, and more recently from a lot of mainstream Democrats, is that we don’t always agree with you, but we can see a long career path of open mind and firm judgment, and we will support you. So thank you.

HH: And honorable conduct. But what I worry about, and I think the guy who I was talking about you two nights ago, retired A-4 pilot said will Webb mix it up with the Clintons, because if you don’t, you can’t beat them. And that’s what I meant by will you dance with her or will you box with her, and not wanting to take on the specifics. Well, we’ll come back to it another time. Let me ask about the bigger issue, Egypt. The Obama-Clinton era treatment of Egypt was to undermine a longstanding ally, then not to rally to them and go backwards, and see them topple and welcome in Morsi, and then basically antagonize al-Sisi. What do you make of that policy? And what would Jim Webb do differently vis-à-vis the cornerstone of the Arab world?

JW: Well, I think there was a pattern in the Arab Spring that began largely with the Egyptian situation. And my advice to the administration at the time was just remember that the first rule of wing walking, don’t let go of what you have until you have a firm grasp of where you are going. And I think that the pattern that was set there, you can see it having been replicated.

HH: Are you afraid now, with the commitment yesterday of 450 troops, that we are piecemealing in Iraq the same way that Vietnam escalated in the years that you served there without a strategic plan?

JW: Well, I think in general, this country has lacked a clear, strategic doctrine since the end of the Cold War, since 1993. The best doctrine we’ve had in my adult lifetime was the Nixon Doctrine, by the way, which clearly that laid out the circumstances under which we would use military force and come to the aid of our allies and provide nuclear umbrella and those sorts of things. So overall, we haven’t had a strategy. And I think that the situation in Iraq right now, and in that region, would require two considerations by the presidency. The first is in those areas where we have a direct national security interest, and the president is the one who has all the intel and can make that decision, then we should be doing something to protect our national interest. And that is the fundamental principle on international terrorism. What we do not want to do in that part of the world, and we don’t want to fall back into it, is to believe that we can become a nation builder or that we can export ideology at the point of a gun. That was the problem with the initial invasion of Iraq. And I don’t see that happening right now. I don’t see this as incrementalism, but we, you know, with this situation with ISIS, the eventual solution is going to be brought about by the Sunni populations in the region, and that’s really where the responsibility should like.

HH: Let me pause there for a second. General McChrystal is coming to the studio tomorrow to talk about his new book, Team of Teams. But in his memoir, My Share Of The Task, he wrote about the invasion of Iraq, Senator Webb, “What few accurately anticipated was the devastating sectarianism that quickly contorted the conflict from a largely one-directional Sunni anti-government fight to what became a brutal civil war. In the end, the surreal levels of violence that sectarianism produced were too much for the Iraqi government, which needed American force to subdue it.” Now we’re looking at an even more hellish situation, and I wonder if you aren’t worried that when Vietnam ended badly, it stayed there. But this Islamic State and Iranian confrontation isn’t going to stay there, is it? Don’t we need to…

JW: Well, first of all, let me say to General McChrystal’s comment that I did predict that there would be sectarian violence in Iraq. And I was in the Pentagon during the Iran-Iraq war, and Cap Weinberger, I used to meet with him every morning, and one of this great comments was that was a war between the worst regime in the world and the second worst regime in the world, and he couldn’t figure out which was which. But it was clear that if we went in there and undid the Iraqi government, such as it was, and became an occupying force, that there was going to be sectarian violence. With respect to Vietnam, you know, I have my own feelings about Vietnam. I’m very proud that I was able to server our country there. I still believe in the reasons that we went in. But I don’t use Vietnam as the touchstone for my beliefs on strategy and foreign policy. I was raised in the military, I spent five years in the Pentagon, I worked as a military planner in Asia after I left the Marine Corps, and my first book actually was on our strategic policies in Asia, assuming, you know, the end of the Vietnam War. I wrote that in 1974. So the biggest problem for us, the biggest challenge for us in Asia is how to address on the one hand our economic intertwinement with China, and on the other, their very clear expansionism, military expansionism that I’ve been writing and talking about for fifteen years.

HH: You are very on top of the Navy, the naval issues, and not surprising, having been secretary of the Navy. You see what China is doing. Are we funding adequately a ship count? Do you think we’re even close to what we need? And I always ask people about not having a replacement for the Ohio-Class nuclear submarine, but in every category of ship? Are we even close, Senator Webb?

JW: We’re not close, and the other issue with respect to China and its expansionism is that we are not properly addressing in diplomatic and economic terms what China has been doing, because for fifteen years, they have been marking sovereignty issues on territories that are legitimately contested by other countries. And just over the past three years, I wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal three years ago talking about how they had created a new political prefecture in that region, two million square kilometers of territory out there in the South China Sea that reports directly to Beijing. China is building a deep water navy, blue water navy. In fact, the Chinese and the Russians are going to hold joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean this summer. And our navy has gone from 568 ships when I was secretary of the Navy, and much more than that, actually, when I was commissioned, down to about, in the280s now. And in the future, I think that the size of our Navy should be up well above 300.

HH: So Senator, that makes you sort of the Democrats’ Tony Blair. And I’m one of those Republican analysts who believe if you might not win, you could get real close to winning the nomination of the Democratic Party, but only if you’ll fight as hard against Hillary Clinton as you did against George Allen. What I’m listening for, and I haven’t heard it, yet, in your voice is that kind of resolve, because you know, they throw hammers. They don’t play beanbag. Neither do you. Is that factoring in? And when are we going to find out the Webb decision on this?

JW: Look, when I run, and when I talk about politics, I talk about the issues that I want to put on the table. And you would see that if you go back and look at the Senate campaign…

HH: Yes.

JW: We announced nine months to the day before the election. George Allen had just gotten the highest number of votes for president on the conservative Political Action Conference. We were 33 points behind. We never got close to even one-third of the funding. But I didn’t go out every day and bash George Allen. I went out and talked to people about what I thought the country needed. And eventually, you know, we reached a center of mass, 14,000 volunteers, and we won. So I just, you know, I don’t believe that there is a necessity for me to go out and simply bash another person who is running. There are a lot of people who are out there who can ask questions in that regard. What I want people to understand is what I care about as a leader, and what I think we can get done, and a record where I can demonstrate that we got things done. The best GI bill in history, I put that on the table my first day in the Senate. And that was not an easy lift. It seems to logical in retrospect, but we were pushed back by the Bush administration until the day that was signed for a number of reasons. We took on criminal justice reform, which is, that’s kind of ironic, because nine years ago, people were telling me I was committing political suicide…

HH: Yes.

JW: …to talk about how we need to fix the criminal justice system. And now you’ve got both parties talking about it. Well, we brought it out of the shadows. We took the hits, took the risks, I took, I had two and a half years of hearings in the Senate to put that issue on the table. We opened up Burma. The State Department did not like the fact that I wanted to work toward opening up that country that was at the time under a military junta, took seven months out of my own office. I’d been there as a private citizen in the early 2000s, and we led the delegation. I was the first American leader to go into that country in ten years, the only American who ever met with the leader of the military junta. These are positive things where we take on complicated issues and show we can bring results. And that’s what I want to put on the table.

HH: So last question, Senator Webb, and thanks for your time, can you beat Hillary Clinton? And you’re a year older than she is, which would put you around Ronald Reagan’s age. Is age going to be an issue in this election? Can you beat her? And do you have the energy to do it?

JW: I think, I think if we run, I’ve been getting very receptive crowds, you know, very receptive encouragement and those sorts of things. I think we have a very good shot if we get the kind of financial support that is necessary in this day and age. And you know, I think a country’s looking for somebody who has lived a life other than simply in government, and who knows how to make decisions. And you know, there’s wisdom that comes with age. I think Ronald Reagan proved that.

HH: And so will we be hearing the name Reagan a lot in the Jim Webb 2016 campaign?

JW: I’m very proud to have served in the Reagan administration, and I say that all the time. I think the administration that was put together by Ronald Reagan when he came in was the best managed administration in my adult lifetime. And he brought strong people into the administration, he gave them a vision, he let them lead, and the country was better for it, is better for it.

HH: Senator Jim Webb, a great conversation. I hope you come back early and often throughout 2015 and ’16, and I hope you get into this race. Thank you, Sir.

JW: Thanks, Hugh, good to talk with you.

End of interview.


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