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Robert C. O’Brien On National Security And His Upcoming Trip To Gitmo

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HH: Next week, you’re not going to want to miss Wednesday, because I’m going to be talking with my next guest, Robert O’Brien, managing partner of the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox, former representative of the general assembly of the United States and member of the Bush administration on many important initiatives. I’m going to be talking to him from Gitmo, where he is headed down for the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trial. But today, I’m talking to him about his national interest piece. Robert O’Brien, welcome, tell people what you’re doing in Gitmo next week.

RO’B: Thank you, Hugh. Well, I’m going down to be one of the civilian observers of the military commission pretrial hearings for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his cohorts for 9/11. The commission’s getting up and running, and we’re moving swiftly towards trial of the perpetrators of the massacre, and I’m going to go down and observe for an NGO called the Pacific Council.

HH: Well, that is, we look very much forward to talking to you about Wednesday, how that is going. But first, let’s focus on what you wrote this morning at National Interest. I’ve linked it at I have Tweeted it out a number of times. I talked to Lindsey Graham about it at the beginning of this show, Echoes Of The 30s: Where’s Our Winston Churchill? What prompted this?

RO’B: Well, we’ve been talking about this, Hugh, for the past couple of years, ever since the Romney campaign, that the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place. And it’s become even measurably more dangerous over the past couple of months with Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimea, with further belligerent, at least, statements by the Chinese in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, attempts to block the Philippines from resupplying their islands, the declaration of the air defense identification zone. So you know, what we’ve talked about is American weakness is provocative, and we’re now provoking our adversaries in the authoritarian regimes in the world to take advantage of the vacuum of power.

HH: You know, I was in Fort Worth last night, a few hundred people there with Eric Metaxas. And as we started to tick off the sequence of events of the last eighteen months, I just kind of said to him, and it may have shocked a few people, we are as bad off as we’ve been since 1978-’79 and ’80, and maybe worse. Then your argument comes out this morning, it’s actually worse. It’s sort of like the 30s.

RO’B: I think it is worse, Hugh, because what happened is after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter came out and said that he was naïve, and he immediately started rebuilding American defenses. The Reagan build up built on the very late term Carter build up, because Carter saw the Russians for what they were, and he saw aggression and understood it, and realized that America had to rebuild. We’re doing just the opposite. We’re watching Russian aggression in the Crimea, further threats against Ukraine and the Baltics, we’re watching a deteriorating situation in the Far East, and instead of rebuilding our defenses with sequestration and the Obama administration cuts, we’re eviscerating our defenses at a time that we need them.

HH: Now what Senator Graham began the show saying, I wonder if you agree with this, he thinks Putin will not rest until he gets either Finalandization of the Eastern Ukraine, or outright annexation. Do you agree with that, Robert?

RO’B: I do agree with it, and why shouldn’t he do it? There’s been no costs whatsoever for invasion and occupation and annexation of Crimea. And he’ll move forward and assert Russian interest in the face of feckless Western leadership any day. There’s no reason for Putin not ot move forward. There’s been no penalty for what he’s done so far.

HH: And in Moldova, Graham said, is next on the check list for Russia. Do you agree with that?

RO’B: I do, and I’m very concerned not only about Moldova and these separatist movements that the Russians have fostered there and are supporting militarily, but also in Georgia. When I was in Georgia in October, we were quite near the Russian lines, and the Georgians were, well, what’s made the translator and driver, said that if you get too close, the Russians will take pot shots at Georgians who get anywhere near their lines. So remember, Russia’s still illegally occupying Georgia some, almost six years after their invasion there.

HH: Now Robert O’Brien, you’ve been playing the great game for a while. And at the U.N. especially, people watch. A lot of people we don’t even think are watching us, are watching us. Can you expand on that for the audience?

RO’B: Sure. What happens is our allies become nervous when they see America, a lack of American leadership. And so they attempt to cut deals or to make their own arrangements with the rogue regimes or with the bad players, the authoritarian regimes in the world. And so that reduces our influence. Then the other folks that watch are the regional powers. I mean, Iran watches Russia get away with the invasion and occupation of a sovereign state. Other states in the Middle East see that as they eye Israel. Certainly in China, there have got to be hardliners in Beijing that are pressing President Xi to simply invade Taiwan or invade the Senkaku Islands and take them. I’m sure they’re telling him that if Putin can invade a major European country and there’s no detriment, we’re a much bigger economy, we’re much more important to the world. Why can’t we invade and expect the same treatment? So it creates a very dangerous environment for our allies, and it causes our adversaries to maybe make reckless decisions.

— – – –

HH: What interested me about your National Interest piece, Robert O’Brien, is that you said at the end there people in China have to be aware as well as Americans, because there are people in Russia and China who don’t want this. But they’re not necessarily the most powerful elements in their government. And if we stand up, they can stand up.

RO’B: Absolutely, Hugh. I mean, one of the great things about the Reagan administration and President Reagan is he made America the shining city on the hill. So if you were in a distant jail anywhere in the world, whether you were in one of Castro’s jails or in a Soviet gulag, you could look to America and you would know that you had an ally that stood for freedom and that was calling out these regimes. And look, in Russia, Putin probably stole the last election. People went to the streets, but he very effectively put down the demonstrations. We know in Iran there was the Green Revolution, and we did nothing to assist the folks on the street in Tehran seeking their freedom and seeking to overturn a corrupt election result. Instead, we reached out to the mullahs and tried to get a deal on nuclear weapons, which seems to be going nowhere fast. So it’s not just the hardliners that are watching us, but it’s the folks that believe in the rule of law, that believe in liberty, and they have to be disappointed. That’s why I talked about Churchill and why we need a Churchill to emerge now, even if it’s in the opposition party, and to be a voice in the wilderness.

HH: Now I don’t want people to think I’m saying that Lindsey Graham or Jack Kingston are Churchill. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying I did read Robert’s piece, and I thought, you know, conservatives have to get very serious about this, and they can’t indulge…you know, I just don’t agree with Lindsey Graham on a lot of stuff. And Jack Kingston is one of three great Congressmen, but together, they are the most serious guys in their respective races on national security. And it seems to me, Robert, and that’s why I actually called up Lindsey Graham this morning and said would you come on, I want to endorse you. I called up Jack Kingston this morning, because I had read your piece and thought Republicans and conservatives have to be serious about this. And I’m not sure, and your colleague, Lanhee Chen, from the Romney campaign, said the same thing earlier this week. I’m not sure that there is a bench, yet, in the Republican Party since the loss of Romney to emerge who are willing to be forthright on these issues.

RO’B: Look, we’re all concerned about the budget deficits and the overspending. But the first duty of a government is to provide for the national defense. We’re neglecting our defenses at a time when the Russians have revitalized their defenses. They come up with a new, I was at NORAD this week. The Russians have come up with a new long-range precision cruise missile. They’re modernizing their nuclear defenses. We’re cutting ours. I go back to what Churchill said after the Anschluss, and after the Munich Deal. He said the people should know the truth. They should know that there has been a gross neglect and deficiency in our defenses. They should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel with us along our road. We’re neglecting our defenses. We’ve sustained a defeat in the Crimea, and it may get worse. I mean, hopefully, there won’t be an attack on the Baltics. If there is, it could lead to a war. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are NATO members. We have a duty to come to their defense. If we don’t, it will mean the collapse of our alliances around the world. So this is a very serious time, and we need Republicans to stand up in the opposition like Churchill did in the opposition in the 30s and say enough. We have to stop the madness.

HH: To that end, the Wall Street Journal revealed this week that the Pentagon has decided, and by that, it means the President and Secretary Hagel, to cut missile launch tubes on submarines from 336 today to 240 by 2018. That’s a 30% cut, and to cut the number of our nuclear bombers, these are B-52’s and B-2’s from 96 to 66, which is a 38% cut. Now this is your home turf, Robert O’Brien. When you’re not lawyering, you’re reading proceedings at the Naval Institute for fun. What do you make of this?

RO’B: Well again, it’s sending precisely the wrong message to the Russians. The Russians have been cheating on the new START treaty. They’re modernizing their defenses. They’re not making the cuts. The treaty itself was not particularly helpful to the U.S. It allowed the Russians to maintain an advantage in nuclear weapons over us. So at a time when our adversaries are modernizing, the Chinese are doing the same thing. The Chinese have built miles and miles of tunnels underground to protect their nuclear missiles. We’re sending precisely the wrong message. What we ought to do is stop the cuts immediately, and it’s not just to the nuclear deterrent. It’s on the conventional front. I mean, the idea that we’re going to get rid of our A-10s for close air support and the planes that the Russian tankers fear the most, again, makes no sense. The fact that we’re going to cut our cruisers at the same time that our Chinese are starting to build cruisers makes no sense, and it’s one thing after another, Hugh. And we have to stop sequestration. We’ve got to stop these massive cuts. And I’d like to say it’s the decimation of the Defense department, but these cuts are far more than 10% that a decimation would apply.

HH: Now you go to China. You do international arbitrations and negotiations. You’re not a stranger to the PRC. Nevertheless, were you shocked that the Chinese Defense minister kind of chewed out Chuck Hagel in public on Chinese turf? It’s just not the way that things are normally done, and I don’t ever recall a United States secretary of Defense being berated, really, by his counterpart on their soil.

RO’B: Well, it shows the absolute confidence of the Chinese to do that. But more important than the word were what they did. They took Chuck Hagel out to their brand new aircraft carrier. It’s a refurbished Soviet model, but it’s been so well refurbished that it’s really a new ship. They released the Flying Shark and made it public, which is their new airplane that’s going to land, take off and land from the carrier. And within the last several weeks, they’ve allowed the press to report on a brand new guided missile cruiser that they’re building, which is probably bigger than any of our Ticonderoga class cruisers. And they’ve announced that they’re going to build four to five more aircraft carriers. So more important than their words and the lack of respect shown to a U.S. secretary of Defense are the fact that the Chinese are actually rolling out their new navy and their air force, and letting it be known that they’re going to stand up and take their place in the world. And if it means the diminution of American power and our real influence with our allies, so be it.

— – – – –

HH: Robert, the reason I wanted to keep you, Eli Lake, who was a guest on earlier today, had a story today about NATO General Philip Breedlove going to Congress last week or at the end of March and giving off the record briefings to the Armed Services Committee, telling them in the House you guys have got to do something. We’re getting rolled. And you know, there are people talking to you candidly who are in uniform. Now the uniform services never get involved in this stuff, and they never go on the record. But I’m getting a sense that a lot of them are panicked about what’s happening at the Pentagon. Am I right?

RO’B: You’re right, and you’re even seeing the chief of naval operations came out in the past couple of days and said we just can’t fulfill the missions that we’re being asked to undertake in light of the cuts that have been made, and not just the cuts that have been made now, but the cuts that are coming. It goes to Churchill made the same point right after the Anschluss when Germany took over, illegally took over Austria on a very similar pretext to Russia overtaking Ukraine. He said about Britain, a country like ours possessed of immense territory and wealth, whose defenses have been neglected, cannot avoid war by the lady upon dilating upon it horrors, or even by continuous display of specific qualities, or by ignoring the fate of the victims of aggression elsewhere. War will be avoided in present circumstances only by the accumulation of deterrence against the aggressor.” He was basically saying what Ronald Reagan called peace through strength. When America is strong, we are going to have an opportunity, we will avoid war. When America is weak, it provokes our [adversaries] to get away with what they can, and it will ultimately draw us into a conflict that’s not at a time or place of our choosing, and we’ve got to avoid that consequence.

HH: You know, people have got to just start putting together all the various signals, because a lot of people are trying to say the same thing, whether it’s Robert Kaplan in Asia’s Cauldron, your piece in the National Interest, serious people, the uniform services. Even Dick Durbin made some noises about this, this week, which is astonishing given his record of cutting Defense. And Lindsey Graham said it’s no longer peace through strength. Now it’s security through strength. And so do you think this turns around absent a change at the White House? I mean, can a Senate led by Republicans, Robert O’Brien, 30 seconds, do it on their own?

RO’B: They can’t do it on their own, but they can make a huge difference. Remember, these cuts were rammed through, and the sequestration were rammed through when the President had a vast majority in the Senate of some ten votes, and many of the cuts started when he controlled both houses of Congress. We can at least put the brakes on the cuts by electing a Republican Senate in the fall. Ultimately, though, if we’re going to rebuild our national defenses, we’re going to need a conservative in the White House.

HH: Robert C. O’Brien, we’ll talk to you from Gitmo next week. Safe travels to our military base in Cuba, and say hello to the men and women in service down there.

End of interview.


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