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House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Buck McKeon, On The Syrian Question

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HH: I begin the show this hour with Congressman Buck McKeon, who is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Chairman McKeon, thanks for joining us. I appreciate you doing so.
BM: Hey, thanks for having me on, Hugh.

HH: Your reaction to the Senate Committee vote today, 10-7, and to Marco Rubio voting no?

BM: Well, you know, I would never predict what the Senate would do other than for the last few years either not take something up, or vote to support the President, or just kind of…it’s an interesting place, the Senate.

HH: Well, I’ll ask Robert Costa later. I think if I count heads, even with the defection of Marco Rubio from the McCain-Graham side, I think it’ll get through the Senate, and it will come to the House. What’s going to happen in the House, in your opinion, and what ought to happen, Chairman McKeon?

BM: Well, those could be two different things. I don’t know. I would not make that prediction. Generally, when you get the White House, the leadership, everybody behind something, on both sides of the aisle, they generally pass. But this has been an interesting year, and I wouldn’t predict anything.

HH: I wrote this morning that I was hoping someone in the House would attach to the AUMF authorization to fully fund the Pentagon, restore the sequester, or at least fund this operation. Any chance of that happening?

BM: I read that. I applaud you for that. That’s the position I’ve been taking. I flew back there for that meeting with the President yesterday. And I told him that I had been on all the conference calls, and I had held my own conference call with members, the Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee. And most of them were, I told him not to take positions, but a lot of them already, I could tell by their comments, would probably be voting against the resolution. I said you know, wait until everything’s in. Wait until you’ve heard the debate. But they’re so upset with what sequestration has done, and we get a chance to visit with the military to visit the bases, to talk to the troops, to visit with the civilians, the defense companies that are making the things that our war fighters need, there has been so much disruption with sequestration that it’s caused more harm than most people realize. So they’re really upset about that, and I told the President that you just can’t keep asking the military to perform while you’re cutting them. You know, for the last couple of years, he has done the surge in Afghanistan, which I supported. But then he cut the military budget. He did the flights over Libya, and cut the military budget. He did a shift to a Pacific strategic, and cut the military budget. Over a trillion dollars that’s come out of their budget, starting a couple of years ago and going forward the next ten years, you can’t keep cutting them back, cutting our Navy back to the size it was in World War I, cutting our Air Force back to the size smaller than it’s been since it was created, cutting back the Army troop strength back to before the size it was before World War II, and then expect them to keep taking on more and more missions. It can’t happen.

HH: Now the Reaganauts need, yeah, the Ronald Reagan heirs need to stand up and say that, Mr. Chairman. I know you’re one of them. But is there any chance of getting the leadership to take the AUMF and say yeah, we’ll give you this authority, Mr. President, and we’re attaching to it the billions you’ve cut that would at least cover this mission, and by the way, tell your Secretary of Defense to stop talking about taking us down to eight or nine carrier groups. That is such a weakness telegraph, I can’t believe it.

BM: Well, it’s interesting how the media focused on the fact that we have another carrier out there. The reason that’s newsworthy is because most of the carriers have been sitting in port, because we can’t afford to deploy them. And so the fact that we had another one over there made news. You know, it’s…when the commander of the Pacific, Admiral Locklear, he testified before our committee, and I met with him, and he said generally, when things flare up like they did a couple of months ago in Korea, he said I would send a carrier out there to calm things out. I don’t have a carrier to send. And he says then I would send a B-2 or send some F-22’s. And he said now we’re cutting the flying hours, so I can’t send them. So it just, you know, this thing that’s happening in the Middle East is also happening around the world. And I visit with leaders from around the world, and their ambassadors and legislators, and their opinion of us and what they think about us, has really dropped in the last few years.

HH: Well, I’m afraid if we defeat the AUMF in Congress, and this would be my principal argument, is that we will embolden our enemies. I’m looking at the picture of Khamenei, the Iranian Ayatollah, on the cover of the new Foreign Affairs. And so Mr. Chairman, do you think you will be supporting an AUMF in order to deter not only Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but our enemies everywhere?

BM: Well, you know, we’re really on the horns of a dilemma. If we don’t end sequestration and take this off of the back of our troops, you know, the chairman and the joint chiefs have all been there now a matter, well, they serve a three year term. Chairman Dempsey just got renominated for a second term. But in that time, they have never had a budget. You know, we have over a $600 billion dollar budget a year for the Defense. They’ve never had one. They work under a C.R., and then finally get some kind of a spending bill. But they don’t know from year to year how to plan. That’s unconscionable. So while we’re talking about the morality of letting this despot get away with killing his own people with nerve gas, or Sarin or whatever, chemical weapons, that is immoral. It’s unconscionable. But it’s also, I believe, immoral to keep asking our troops to do things while we cut their ability to do it.

HH: Is it even procedurally possible, though, to attach funding to the AUMF?

BM: I don’t know a way, but I do know that after our meeting yesterday, the President came up to me and shook hands, and said well, you know that, I know where you are on sequestration. He says I don’t like it, either. I’d like to get rid of it. So when I get back there next week, I’m going to follow up on that conversation. And I’m going to try to see anything I can do to use any possible leverage we may have at this time to get rid of it.

HH: But does he mean by that, is he just trapping the Republicans in a political, is he using Syria, and this is some of the concern of my audience, is A) that we topple Assad and the al Qaeda people take over. I’ll talk to Jack Keane about that, or B) there are no good guys at all, and all these different things. But many people are just worried that the President is trapping the Republicans in quicksand in order to get domestic spending restored. Is that what’s happening?

BM: Well, I don’t know. I’ve said a couple of months ago when Secretary Kerry first briefed me on this Syria problem, and they were starting to push then, I told him I didn’t know that the President could get the votes to do it, and I didn’t know if he could get the votes to pay for it.

HH: Wow.

BM: And so I think both of those are problems, but I think that, I don’t know. You know, you want to think that everybody is telling you the truth, but you have to go back to the trust and verify. And I think we’re going to be trying to do that next week. And so I have not committed one way or another. In the meeting, I know the Speaker and Nancy Pelosi and a couple of others committed that they would support the President’s proposal. I have not made that commitment. I think that I’ve been fighting sequestration since before it happened. And I’m going to continue to fight it with everything I’ve got. And right now, when they need something, I’m probably in the best position.

HH: Oh, good for you.

BM: But on the other hand, I do realize that there are real consequences if we vote against the President when he lays the prestige. That’s why he shouldn’t have…

HH: Done it, but he did. Well, I hope you get the best of both words, which is an AUMF which restores military funding where it needs to be. That’s the column that I wrote today. And Chairman McKeon, thanks for reading it, and thanks for joining us.

End of interview.


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