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Talking Defense Spending and 2016 With Robert O’Brien

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Robert O’Brien served in a variety of national security positions with the George W. Bush administration and a law partner of mine joined me to discuss the defense spending showdown within the GOP which I also covered with Senators Graham and McCain today:




HH: I’m so pleased to now welcome back my friend, Robert C. O’Brien. He is a member of my law firm. He’s one of my law partners. But before that, he served a lot of positions with the George W. Bush administration. He’s an expert on national security and Defense issues. And I pretty much talk to him every day about the sequester and about what’s going on in all of the areas of the Pentagon, especially Navy, from this. And Robert, it’s a good day. The Speaker has committed to getting the money and breaking the cap on the floor of the House next week. and McCain and Graham are both saying the same thing. They think it’s going to get through the Senate. This is long overdue. It has to happen.

RO’B: It has to happen. But the one thing we have to be careful of here, and I’m a fan of taking what you can get in politics, because you don’t control the White House, and we need to take this extra money and use the OCO to get it. But we can’t just have a one year $10 billion dollar increase in the naval budget, or $38 or $40 billion dollar increase in the Defense budget. We need to work that into a permanent solution so that we have over the long term a sustainable budget so that our planners can plan for platforms down the road and replace the Ohio Class, and do the things we need to do to keep America strong.

HH: Now this is a Band-Aid, and I talked about that with Lindsey Graham. I’m sure I’ll talk about it with John McCain next hour. The Band-Aid gets us so that the Republican Congress can fashion a sequester lift off of the Pentagon. The sequester can remain in place for the rest of domestic spending, and you and I will be happy about that. But it cannot be subjected. It was almost an afterthought when it came along, Robert O’Brien, and I believe you were opposed to it at the time. Jon Kyl was. Everyone was afraid we would end up here. And Thomas Ricks on the show said yesterday nobody wants to cut Defense stupidly, and everyone is committed by law to do so right now.

RO’B: Right, and when this happened, I remember having conversations the evening that it was announced with both John Bolton and Mitt Romney, both of whom were opposed to the deal because of Defense sequestration. Keep in mind that this Defense sequestration was not something that came from the Congress or from the Republicans. It’s been, the Congress has been blamed for it, but this was an idea that originated in the White House. The White House has tried to distance itself from it, but it’s been caught red-handed, and has had to admit that sequestration was a White House idea. And basically, the idea was we’ll take the Defense budget hostage, and if we can’t get the Republicans in Congress to give us more money for discretionary domestic spending, then we’ll shoot the hostage, and the Republicans will never allow us to decimate the United States Military. And now that’s a very poor way to treat the men and women who are in uniform, and it’s a poor way to treat the American people who are entitled to a first class defense.

HH: Now I have to ask you, O’Brien, I know your legal work took you to Africa this week, and it has in the past, and you speak Afrikaner, so I don’t want you to lapse into Afrikaner here. But what is the buzz around Southern Africa about Boko Haram and the North Africa meltdown from Tunisia and Libya and Nigeria? Are they afraid it’s spreading south?

RO’B: Interestingly enough, in South Africa, I was in South Africa, Namibia, and Zambia. I didn’t hear a lot about Boko Haram or concerns about the Islamic extremism situation in North Africa. The talk of the town in all of these places was China. The Chinese are moving into Africa in massive numbers, not just with investments. They’re seeking military bases. I’ve got a piece that’s coming out next week on the Chinese that are going to take, that are attempting to build a naval base in Walvis Bay, Namibia, which may sound like an out of the way place, but it’s the most important deep water port in the South Atlantic. Chinese immigrants are moving in to Southern Africa in all of these countries. And so there is a massive, massive Chinese move to Africa where they hope to secure mineral rights, oil and gas, food, and living space for Chinese nationals, so it’s a very interesting story that’s taking place in South Africa. Namibia, Zambia…

HH: Why would a Chinese deep water port in Namibia concern an American, Robert O’Brien? This is where we have to kind of work to connect the dots for people.

RO’B: Sure, it’s a good question, Hugh. The South Atlantic is a vast ocean, and it’s played a very important role in the 20th Century in all of the conflicts that have taken place. In World War I, there were important naval battles there. In World War II, there were important naval battles there. And of course, everyone remembers Margaret Thatcher sending the fleet down to the Falklands to retake the Falklands in 1982. The South Atlantic is, it’s the approach to the mid-Atlantic and the North Atlantic. And the North Atlantic and mid-Atlantic sea lanes between North America and South America and Europe, and between Africa and Europe are still among the most important sea lanes in the world. So the Germans tried to cut off shipping in the battle of the Atlantic. Their submarines operated out of the South Atlantic, and were constantly harassing both in World War I and World War II merchantmen there. The Russians and Cubans used Angola as a base in the Cold War to spread communism, but also to threaten the shipping lanes between South America and North America and Europe, and also between Africa and Europe. So it’s a very, very important area from a naval point of view. Up until now, it’s been fully controlled by the West. And in fact, the Brits have basically taken over responsibility for the South Atlantic. The Chinese now, if they get this deep water port in Namibia, which is in the African side of the South Atlantic, and they base four to six guided missile frigates there, will all of a sudden be in a position to exert a power and project power into an area that has been America’s backyard for well over a hundred years.

HH: And this is why I’m going to talk with John McCain about why we have to get out of one year fixes. We have to start building a navy that is a 30 year, 40 year, 50 year navy. And I always bring up the Ohio Class submarines, because they go out of service at the end of the next decade, and they don’t have a replacement, and they’re the backbone of deterrence to crazy people everywhere, aren’t they?

RO’B: Absolutely. The strategic triad is the ultimate defense of the United States of America. And it will deter our strong adversaries, our peer competitors like Russia or China from ever thinking about launching an attack on the United States with a first strike that would immobilize us And it would also, will hopefully deter even the less rational actors – Iran, North Korea and others from launching a nuclear attack. The third leg of the triad that you talk about is almost invulnerable. Those are the subs that are underwater. They can’t be taken out in a first strike. And so having a replacement for the Ohio Class is absolutely critical. It’s a national strategic priority.

HH: Robert, stick around with me for one more second.

— – – —

HH: As I said, I recorded an interview with John McCain earlier today, which is about to air in the last hour. And I’ve already posted it over at My guest, Robert O’Brien, national defense expert, national security expert, is one of my law partners, served in a variety of positions under George W. Bush, you know, John McCain said, Robert, he doesn’t think NATO would stand up for the Balts. It’s kind of stunning, actually. People should listen to it coming up. But he expects that Russia is going to go in and take one of the Russian enclaves, I think, in Estonia and send in their special forces, and that we’re not going to do anything. Are you surprised by that?

RO’B: Sadly, having watched this administration deal with Ukraine and deal with our other allies, whether it be Israel or Taiwan or even the United Kingdom when it comes to the Falkland Islands, you know, if that happened, it would not be entirely surprising. I will say that it could be the end of NATO.

HH: That’s what I mean. It is the end of NATO. We have an alliance. If we don’t do it, it isn’t worth the paper that it’s written on.

RO’B: The whole purpose of NATO is to deter Russians from invading sovereign countries in Europe that are part of the alliance. And if the alliance steps back and allows the Russians to invade, I don’t care if it’s just a Russian speaking enclave of Estonia, or if they allow them to take territory from the Norwegians, or to readjust the borders of Poland. If any of those things happen, and all of them are plausible courses of action for Vladimir Putin. He’s shown no reluctance to use military force to alter borders in Europe, whether it be Georgia or Moldova or Ukraine. That would be a very significant blow to the NATO alliance. It’s hard to imagine countries would believe that the security guarantee in Article 5 of the charter would have any meaning whatsoever if the United States and the other NATO countries did not come to the aid of Estonia.

HH: So it would mean right now if you want to prevent that, you would dispatch a whole bunch of American troops to Estonia, wouldn’t you?

RO’B: Look, you know, Vladimir Putin is a very canny leader. He’s got strategic vision. He’s a geopolitical specialist. He was trained by the KGB. And he’s willing to gamble, but I don’t think, he’s entirely irrational. And I don’t think that Vladimir Putin wants to go to war right now with the United States. I could be wrong, but at least I would hope, and I still have to think that he does not want a war with America. And so if we had Stryker brigades, if we had A-10s,which the administration is trying to retire, ground attack planes, jets, if we had American military personnel on the ground, so that if the Russians tried a Ukraine-type move in Estonia, they would come into contact and possibly come into combat with Americans, I think that would have a very chilling effect on Putin’s ambitions. Further, it would complicate the lines of Russian planners, because as they’re planning an invasion, they’ve got limited resources, and they don’t, you know, there is somewhat limited. As they’re planning an invasion of the Baltics, if they think that the United States is going to strike back and strike back hard, they’re going to have to think about whether this makes military sense for them or not, because they don’t want to lose.

HH: This is what people need to be thinking about. This is the real world. Robert O’Brien, always a pleasure to talk to you. Follow him, @RobertCOBrien on Twitter. Thank you, Robert C. O’Brien.

End of interview.


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