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Robert C. O’Brien Gives National Security/Foreign Policy Debate Advice To GOP Candidates And The Media

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The audio:

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The transcript:

HH: I’m joined by Robert O’Brien, who was a longtime deputy to John Bolton at the United Nations. He is one of my law partners at Arent Fox. He is an extraordinary authority on all things security. And we’d scheduled to talk today about, on the eve of the Democratic debate, about how to talk about international affairs in a presidential debate. We did not expect it to be this relevant tonight, Robert.

RO’B: Well, the first thing, our hearts go out to the people of Paris. They’ve suffered tragedy before with the Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher deli attacks, and certainly for the many victims, the dead, the wounded. Our hearts and our prayers and our thoughts go out to them and their families, and also to the people of Paris, France, the great ally. In fact, they were our first ally. And this is a terrible unfolding event for them to undergo.

HH: Now Robert, obviously if you’re John Dickerson, you’re tearing up your notes. And I’m getting ready for a debate in December, and that’s what we want to talk about tonight, and how candidates prepare for a major debate on national and international security issues. What would you do is you were Dickerson? What would you ask Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders tomorrow night?

RO’B: Well, certainly the Democrats have been very weak on defense throughout the Obama years. Defense sequestration has led to a budget that is, in real dollars, has fallen over 10% since sequestration was enacted in 2011. So there’s not a strong record on defense. There’s certainly the disengagement from Iraq, the disengagement from Afghanistan, although fortunately, the President is going to leave a couple thousand troops behind in Kabul. But this idea that we could somehow sidestep history, that we could get out of the fight against, that we could end the global war on terror and talk about manmade contingencies, this is a real soft spot for the Democrats, and they’re going to have to, and we’re now seeing with this, the unfolding events in Paris, the Democrats candidates, O’Malley, Sanders and Clinton are going to have to explain to the American people how they’re going to keep them safe and how they’re going to support our allies, and help keep our allies safe.

HH: Now I want to use this time, though, Robert, to focus on the Republican field, because not only do I have to get ready for debates, I think they have to get ready to talk about national security. And it kind of broke out this week, and I want people to understand that not only are you my friend and law partner, but you were Scott Walker’s senior foreign policy advisor prior to Scott Walker withdrawing. You have not committed, am I correct, to any campaign since then? You’re not affiliated with anybody?

RO’B: That’s correct. I’ve got a number of friends that are in the race. I’ve talked to a number of the campaigns, and have given them advice, but I have not endorsed a candidate at this point.

HH: Well, I talked with General Bob Dees yesterday, he’s Ben Carson’s senior national security advisor, about preparing a candidate. And I thought I’d talk to you as a neutral. What do you think candidates ought to know, for example, about nuclear deterrence, because this is not something that’s easy to bring up, and people’s eyes might glaze over, but it’s kind of the essence of being the commander-in-chief.

RO’B: Well, it’s something that we grew up with, Hugh. I mean, you can recall growing up being worried about, you know, the nuclear threat being the number one concern that we all had about national security. I mean, there was, during the Reagan years, there were folks that were pushing for unilateral disarmament. President Reagan took a different approach, and deployed tactical, shorter ranger nuclear weapons, intermediate range nuclear weapons to Europe to counter the Soviet threat. That ultimately led to both sides withdrawing those weapons, and intermediate range nuclear forces treaty being passed by both sides. Unfortunately, that’s one of the treaties that Moscow is currently violating as they covertly develop new intermediate range nuclear forces. But look, our nuclear deterrence, our ability to convince the Chinese, the Russians, the North Koreans, the Iranians, and others that any attack on the United States would be met with such a devastating response that they shouldn’t even consider such an attack, that nuclear deterrent is just critical to keeping America safe. Unfortunately, our deterrent is getting, our forces are getting older. The equipment is getting older. And we need to make some significant investments there to maintain our edge and to maintain our deterrent stance.

HH: Do you think candidates need to be up to speed on the INF, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and what Putin is doing, because he’s actually violating it with impunity. I don’t even know if Americans know about all of the different things he’s done in just the last three weeks.

RO’B: No, there was a report yesterday from Russian TV that he is developing a nuclear submarine drone to take out submarines. He’s been flying his Blackjack bombers over U.S. and British naval ships. He’s been using his longer range Tupolev bombers to fly into U.S. airspace. Those are the bombers that would launch long range cruise missiles against the American homeland and against our allies in Europe. He’s going back to a very Cold War posture of testing our ability to intercept and deter Russian aggression. And he’s also letting folks know that he’s got nuclear weapons and is prepared to use them if necessary in Russian interest. And so our deterrent is critical. It’s important that our candidates understand the nuclear triad, and that’s something that I think should be a subject at the debate that you co-moderate next month.

HH: Now when they rattle their sabers this way, Chris Christie had a very aggressive response in the undercard debate this week when he said we can use our cyber capabilities to send a message to Beijing. I’ve been reading Ted Koppel’s new book, Lights Out. I was talking about it with Jeb Bush earlier today. What do you make of that, that kind of hawkish, Christie lean forward and making voluble threats that may or may not impress a watching television audience?

RO’B: Well, I think Governor Christie and Senator Rubio, Senator Cruz, to a lesser extent, the other candidates, are going back to the Reagan peace through strength philosophy of national defense, national security policy. That was certainly Governor Walker’s policy before he got out of the race. And what that means is you have to have a next generation of nuclear subs capable of launching a counterstrike, the replacement for the Ohio Class. It means you have to have the long range strike bomber. It means we have to modernize our Minutemen II missiles so that our adversaries know that if they attempted to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, it would result in their, you know, absolutely assured destruction. Number two, it means that we have to get ahead of the game on cyber. I mean, right now, we’re losing the cyberwar. I mean, the Chinese are hacking us at will. Their entire advanced military platform has been hacked, has been stolen from Lockheed and Northrop and Boeing. When you look at their newest ships and their newest aircraft, they’re all clones of American designs with Russian engines. So we’ve got to be tough on cyber, and we’ve got to be ahead of the game on cyber so that again, if anyone launches a cyberattack on us, they have to know that the response will be devastating.

HH: I’ll be back with Robert C. O’Brien.

—- – – —

HH: You’ve heard the candidates talking about defense spending, Robert O’Brien. What level should they be specific, do you think? At what level should they be talking about, for example, keeping the A-10 flying, or getting the B-3 off the ground, or not?

RO’B: Well look, at the level of specificity on the overall, the top line defense budget, you know, the sequester budget is somewhere around $560 billion. It may be a little bit more with the new deal. The Gates baseline budget, which is you know, what the National Defense panel and most independent observers believe is the minimum necessary, that would be a $630 billion dollar budget, so about a 20% increase over the 2015 budget that the President proposed. So look, we need about another $108 billion. Again, that doesn’t take us to, that doesn’t take into account a lot of the recent threats and the activity of the Russians, ISIS, the Chinese increased tempo in the South China Sea. But at least it would get us back to what Secretary Gates back in 2011 thought was the minimum necessary. So I think Republicans have to call for at least $110, probably more, billion. On the specific platforms that you mentioned, we’ve got to keep the A-10 flying. I was down visiting some SEALs in Coronado, and they looked at me and said Mr. O’Brien, why are they going to take the A-10 away? These guys were, they literally had their lives saved by the A-10 in Afghanistan. That’s a low speed ground attack fighter that gives close air support to our troops, especially in permissive environments like Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve got to keep those flying. They’re paid for. They’re highly effective. They can be upgraded at very little cost. So there’s no reason that we have to have an either/or, we have to have the F-35 or the A-10. We need them both. Certainly, the crews or fleet in the Navy is another example that…

HH: Expand on what a Ticonderoga Class cruiser is and does, Robert O’Brien.

RO’B: So a Ticonderoga class cruiser basically is the warship that rides shotgun on our carriers. It has scores of vertical launch cells that can launch all kinds of different types of missiles. It’s got just a magazine of missiles. It can launch anti-missile missiles, so it can defend the aircraft carrier and the battle group from incoming missiles, cruise missiles, other missiles, even ballistic missiles shot by our adversaries. It can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles at ground targets, and so it’s a very effective offensive weapon on that front. And so when we have to hit ground targets or training camps in the Sudan or in Afghanistan, the Tomahawks can be launched from the cruisers. It can also perform anti-submarine warfare. It can take out enemy ships. It has anti-surface combatant missiles, the Harpoons. And because it has so many launch tubes, over 80 of them, it really is, it’s the heavy firepower in a carrier battle group. And they literally ride shotgun to protect our carriers and to protect our battle groups. Having said that, they’re also very effective ships in their own right, and a battlegroup can be built around a cruiser or a cruiser force. We’re the only country that has a 22 cruiser fleet. The Russians have about 4. They’re the key ships in the Russian Navy. The Chinese are now starting to build them.

HH: What are we doing with them, though? Aren’t we mothballing them?

RO’B: The Navy would like to mothball 11 of the 22 cruisers. Now they’re being very careful to say they just want to put them in for extended maintenance, but the reality is they want to mothball them, because the President has not allocated enough money to upgrade them and to keep them in the fleet. And you know, for about $380 million dollars, we can upgrade these. They have an Aegis radar system on it, and combat suite, so that they can do ballistic missile defense. They can do so many things. They’re just a Swiss Army knife of a ship. They’re basically paid for. The cost of upgrading them is less than the cost of the least expensive Coast Guard cutter that we can put out to sea. So the idea that we wouldn’t modernize these ships, they’ve got, most of them have 20-30 more years of life. And we wouldn’t have them out there patrolling the seas for the United States? It’s just, it’s shocking.

HH: So do you expect a presidential candidate to know that, to be able to say our Ticonderoga class cruisers are going to be kept active? Do you expect to hear that from them, Robert, 30 seconds to the break?

RO’B: Yeah, they should know about the Ticonderogas. They should know about the A-10s. I mean, that’s been a big issue in Congress that Kelly Ayotte has championed. They ought to know about the Apache helicopters that they’re trying to retire or move from the Army National Guard. I mean, those are some of the very basics that we need, I mean, these are the ships and planes and helicopters that keep our fighting men and women safe.

HH: I’ll be right back with Robert C. O’Brien. Don’t go anywhere, America.

— – — –

HH: Robert C. O’Brien, you know this from your experience in our Afghanistani theater, and in Iraq and around the world when you’ve in various missions for the United States, former national security advisor to Governor Scott Walker, John Bolton’s colleague at the U.N. We never quite know what’s going on for days, actually.

RO’B: No, we don’t, but this looks like a coordinated attack. It has all of the hallmarks of an al Qaeda-style or and ISIS-style coordinated attack, really an al Qaeda-style attack. But we don’t know who’s behind it. What is really shocking is that it’s happening in Paris and not some third-world capital. The French are very effective at counterterrorism. Their General Directorate of External Security, DGSE, is a highly-capable anti-terrorist intelligence force. You’ve been on the streets of Paris. You understand how many policemen are out patrolling in Paris with submachine guns, with assault rifles. It’s a relatively hardened city. And the French are pretty good at this, so that the idea that there could be, and with good intelligence service and good, hardened facilities and an excellent police force in Paris that has paramilitary capability. So to see a terror event of this magnitude taking place in Europe has got to be shocking to everyone across Europe. And look, it’s a wake-up call for us here in the United States.

HH: Your old colleague, Ambassador John Bolton, wrote in yesterday’s Boston Globe, there will be no pirouette away from the Middle East for the next president. The global war on terrorism must continue, most definitely including ISIS. So what do you want to hear these presidential candidates say on subjects as ISIS generally, and Paris specifically, of Iran’s deal generally, and Hezbollah acting in concert with Syrians, Assad specifically? What do you want them to show us in terms of chops?

RO’B: Well look, we’ve consistently said, President Bush said this when I served him, Governor Romney talked about it. If we don’t fight the terrorists where they live and breathe and spawn, we are going, and that means you know, in Raqqa, in Mosul, in Yemen, in Afghanistan, in the tribal regions of Pakistan, if we don’t fight and kill them and defeat them there, we will end up fighting them at home. And sadly, today in Paris, assuming that this is Islamic extremism and Islamic-inspired terrorism, which it appears to fit that pattern, although we don’t know now based on what we’re seeing in the breaking news, this is just one more warning that if we don’t fight them there, we’re going to have to fight them in the West, whether it’s London or Paris or Washington or New York. And I’d much rather fight them there, and we need to fight to win there. We’ve got to relax the rules of engagement on our soldiers that don’t allow them to get fully into combat. We’ve got to put the forces on the ground necessary to defeat ISIS, to defeat the terrorists. If we don’t, a vacuum is going to be created, and the terrorists are going to have plenty of safe havens.

HH: Earlier today…

RO’B: And from those safe havens, they’re going to launch on Paris and London and New York.

HH: Earlier today, I tweeted out that I hope John Dickerson tomorrow asks the former Secretary of State whether or not she sees a connection between the withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, December, and the events in Paris tonight. And I doubt very much that he will. That’s an abrasive, blunt question. But is it a fair question? Do you expect our candidates to make the point, Robert O’Brien, that whatever you think about the invasion of Iraq, the war had been won, and there was no ISIS in 2011.

RO’B: No, the surge was one of the great successes of the American, in American military history. And whatever you want to say about the initial invasion and occupation of Iraq, the surge was a success. Iraq was relatively stable. We could have had a status of forces agreement. We did not. And now, you have large swathes of Iraq and Syria controlled by the most barbaric terrorists we’ve seen in, you know, hundreds of years. And so, you know, there is a direct connection, just like there was a direct connection of leading from behind in Libya and what happened in Benghazi. The bottom line is we can’t declare this war on terror over. We can’t end the name and call it something else and hope that these barbarians are going to go away or go quietly into the night. They’re not. They’ve declared war on us, and we’re going to have to fight them. And you know, that’s just the reality, that whether we have a Republican or a Democrat as the next president, they’re going to be engaged in fighting terrorists in the Middle East.

HH: But is there a danger in overwhelming the audience with threat matrix, because we haven’t even talked about China and their artificial islands, and you wrote a piece about their new harbor in Namibia, and their colonization in all but name of large swathes of Africa. But if you bombard an audience with too much of this, what happens? And what’s your recommendation to a candidate on these issues?

RO’B: Well, that’s why again, the touchstone in our lifetime of a president who understood difficult threats against the United States, remember, Ronald Reagan came into office at a time that Nicaragua had fallen to the Sandinistas, Grenada was under the control of the Cubans, Russian and Cuban troops were fighting in Angola and Mozambique, the Russians had invaded Afghanistan, El Salvador was teetering on the edge. I mean, it was a very, very difficult time in the world. The Soviets were on the march, the Bear was all over, and no one really gave the West or the Americans a chance. And what Ronald Reagan did was he came in with a peace through strength foreign policy in which he built up our military capability so that our adversaries so feared what would happen if they came into contact with American forces, they moderated their behavior in significant fashions. They withdrew from areas, and they essentially sued for peace. And that’s, if we rebuild our military capability, that alone will send a message to the Chinese, to the Russians, the Iranians and others that the American eagle is back, and that they need to be very, very careful. Right now, there’s a vacuum of leadership. They understand that we will not use or deploy military force under almost any circumstance. And they’re taking advantage of that vacuum, and they’re on the march across the globe. So that can be turned back. And by the way, our allies will be more willing to stand by us if they know that we have both the capability and the will to defend our interests.

HH: I’ll be right back. One more segment with Robert C. O’Brien.

— – – —

HH: Robert, you were a part of the Walker team. You’re a free agent now. I keep pressing all the candidates to tell me who their top tier of advisors are. How important is the bench? How important is who they have advising them to your assessment of their credibility as a candidate?

RO’B: I think it’s very important. Look, the candidates, these are, every one of them running has tremendous experience. They’re smart men and women, even if they haven’t been involved in national security and foreign policy. They’re the type of folks that can assimilate large amounts of information quickly. What they have to do, though, is get good information and then good advice. And so I think when you look around and see some of the folks that are, we’ve got a very strong bench on the Republican side, some veterans of the George W. Bush administration, others that have come from the military. There are a lot of young national security experts. I think of Jamie Fly and Lanhee Chen over at the Rubio campaign, certainly Victoria Coates is a very savvy former Rumsfeld staffer who is advising Ted Cruz, John Noonan is a young former Air Force officer who is advising Jeb Bush. They’re all in the peace through strength camp. They’re some very good folks out there advising the candidates.

HH: Should those names be front and center in a political reporter? And is it fair to keep pressing for them? We have less than a minute, Robert O’Brien. If a candidate does not give us a list, ought we to be a little bit worried about that?

RO’B: You know, I think it is important to find out who is advising the candidates, and I think as we’re going to, this Paris attack unfolds and Americans become more and more concerned about their safety, they’re going to be demanding to know where the candidates stand on these major national security and foreign policy issues. And that will include who is advising them.

HH: Robert O’Brien, thank you so much for joining me on a dark night in Paris. We will continue to bring you the news, America.

End of interview.

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