Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson on The Syrian AUMF Vote
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HH: Another day in the Syrian debate, and the President is in Russia shaking hands with Vladimir Putin. John Kerry was back on the Hill, more on that in a second, but it looks like the votes against the authorization for the use of military force are piling up. One United States Senator who voted yesterday in committee against the draft resolution is Senator Ron Johnson, great friend of the program from the great state of Wisconsin. He joins me now from Washington, D.C. Senator Johnson, welcome, it’s great to have you on.
RJ: Hello, Hugh, how are you doing?
HH: I’m good. Now I read your statement to the Journal-Sentinel last night. It sounded to me as though you’re still open to voting for the AUMF if your questions are answered when it comes to a final vote. Is that the case?
RJ: Well, I think in a matter of such import and such gravity, I think you have to keep an open mind, and until the time you actually cast that final vote, you have to be open to additional evidence. But just on the basis of the process, I mean, I thought it was inappropriately rushed, the vote yesterday. We started hearings 25 hours before we were forced to take a vote in committee, and the administration didn’t even come close to answering all the questions I certainly had. And again, this is an incredibly important issue here. But the fact that, for example, during the hearings when I was questioning the Defense Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and just asked them so what is the size of the rebel forces, and neither individual could answer that question. I thought that was pretty jaw-dropping. So I don’t understand the strategy behind this military strike. I don’t really get a feel that this administration is really planning ahead and understanding or thinking about the repercussions, the unintended consequences, and how they might react to those things. And Hugh, I really think in the end that ineffective action is probably worse than no action at all.
HH: Senator Johnson, I’m a strong proponent of the AUMF, simply because I fear what the Ayatollah Khamenei and other evildoers, to use a term from the Bush years, will make of the United States if the Congress doesn’t back up the President, even at this level of unpreparedness and fecklessness. And so don’t you worry about what our enemies are going to say?
RJ: Sure. You know, Hugh, I’m incredibly concerned about the credibility of America, but I don’t believe that the credibility of America is at stake right here. Certainly, the credibility of this administration and this President is, but he’s squandered that credibility starting right away with his apology tour, with the fact that he unilaterally withdrew the missile defense shield from the Czech Republic and Poland. He didn’t support the protesters in Iran. He did not negotiate a status of force agreement in Iraq. So this isn’t about America’s credibility. We’ve got a problem for the next three and a half years with President Obama at the helm. So this is about his credibility, and I don’t believe that is a sufficient justification to take military action that could backfire on us.
HH: Now Senator Johnson, I want to respectfully disagree with that as a professor of Constitutional law for years and years, and studying the historical record, I started, my first job was with Richard Nixon as a ghost writer in San Clemente. I worked in the Reagan White House. We cannot separate the presidency from the president. And if the enemies of America see a Congress unwilling to back up a weak president, they will inevitably conclude it is a weak country.
RJ: And Hugh, I think there’s a better way of backing up the President’s words, though. You know, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I serve on that, that’s where the hearings occurred, voted 15-3 to arm the, and let me underline the vetted rebels. Syria is by and large a secular society. There are elements there that we could support if we had a robust effort to do so. You know, one of the things I read in the classified briefing was a couple of paragraphs from a Thomas Friedman article basically laying out the strategy of arm and shame, and really underscoring the fact that if we do this almost unilateral military action, that will focus the world’s attention on our action, when the world’s attention should be focused on the heinous crimes against humanity of the Assad regime. So I think a better strategy is find those elements that we can support, arm them, topple the regime. I think that’s a far better response. It’s actually the policy of this administration. They just don’t have any kind of way to achieve that policy. President Obama has stated that policy, but he certainly didn’t put into position a coalition of the willing to actually accomplish that. Now is the time to do that, and we should shame anybody, including Russia, and I realize Iran is not shameable, but anybody we need to isolate that would support this heinous, these heinous war crimes of the Assad regime.
HH: Senator Johnson, the only people I think end up shamed, if Congress walks away from this, is the Congress and the United States. I’ve got to tell you, there’s a piece I put up over at www.weeklystandard.com. Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of a speech that Winston Churchill, then the wartime prime minister of Great Britain, gave at Harvard about the responsibilities of a great power. And your soon to be colleague, Tom Cotton, combat veteran, Ranger, has spoken to this, as have many other people, that the United States just doesn’t get any free passes. The only guy who matters to me is Khamenei. And I’m wondering if you…abroad, not world opinion, but Khamenei, have you had a chance to read the new Foreign Affairs article on him, Who Is Khamenei, The Mind Of The Iran Supreme Leader, yet?
RJ: No, I haven’t read that particular article. I’ve read others, but go ahead and inform me here.
HH: Well, he’s a fanatic, and I think fanatics always, whether or not it’s deserved, they’re not going to read the press releases or the elaborate statements. Senator Rubio issued a very compelling, eloquent statement yesterday that I don’t think anybody reads, because they just see he voted no, and they conclude the President doesn’t have a prayer, and the United States’ Congress is weak, and they’re running away, and that the United States has gone isolationist. I know you’re not an isolationist, but I was with Pete Wilson last night, great former governor of California, former member of the Armed Services Committee in the Senate, and he is adamant that we would never desert Ronald Reagan in a situation like this, and we being…
RJ: You know, Hugh, listen, I understand talk is cheap. But again, this President, his stated goal of this military intervention was a shot across the bow. And you know, no matter how strong Senate or Congress words of resolution, the man who’s going to be making the decision is President Obama. And his stated goal of this military action is a stalemate, you know, really doing very little other than to deter further use, supposedly degrade the capability for the use of chemical weapons. But again, we’ve signaled this. Those assets, by and large, have been disbursed. I’m sure we can do damage to the Assad regime, but again, if in the end, Assad can emerge from his hidey-hole and go, “I survived that attack,” I think it’s a legitimate concern to say that he may be in a stronger position than had we done a different strategy, which was again arm the rebels that we can support, and actually engage in a strategy to replace the Assad regime with a coalition of the willing. And that’s what this President has failed to do. He has not done the groundwork to get the support of the world, and he certainly hasn’t got the support of the American people, which also, Hugh, is a very dangerous thing for the president of the United States to engage in military action without the support of the American people, because he wont’ have the commitment to success and victory.
HH: No, I agree with all that. But this is a tailspin of credibility, and it’s becoming a vortex of American credibility. In fact, the Secretary of State, your former colleague in the Senate, John Kerry, blew up at a House hearing today. Let me play you a little bit of this in an exchange with a Congressman who dares to bring up to him Benghazi. It’s Jeff Duncan of South Carolina.
JK: There have been efforts to tip it..
JD: Weapons in the hands of Syrian rebels, and also a transfer of weapons from Libya to Syria.
JK: Well, let me begin, Congressman, by challenging your proposition that I’ve never done anything except advocate caution, because I volunteered to fight for my country, and that wasn’t a cautious thing to do when I did it.
JD: Mr. Secretary…
JK: I’m going to finish, Congressman. I am going to finish. When I was in the United States Senate, I supported military action in any number of occasions, including Grenada, Panama. I can run a list of them. And I am not going to sit here and be told by you that I don’t have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this. We’re talking about people being killed by gas, and you want to go talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious.
HH: All right, Senator Johnson, your old colleague is melting down. Someone’s got to buck up these people.
RJ: Well, listen, I think Secretary Kerry’s done a pretty good job of laying out the moral imperative of action. I mean, America does have to respond, but I think good people can have a difference in terms of what is the most effective course of action. And I guess you and I somewhat differ on that point. But listen, I do want to make sure that we can free the Syrian people, the secular people, of the heinous regime that is the Assad regime. It’s a matter of what’s the most effective way of doing it, and I’d like to do it with the world on our side, and we have not laid the groundwork for having that occur right now. And I really think military action done in a far more unilateral state, which is what we’d be talking about right now, might be less effective, might be worse than doing what I’m…and basically what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended. Let’s arm the vetted rebels. Let’s make sure we topple the Assad regime. There’s a real punishment.
HH: But that’s not…Senator, please come back again. I appreciate you taking the time, but the only option on the table right now is the AUMF, and their house is on fire. Our country’s credibility is on fire in the world, and if we undercut this President, and the Secretary of State’s melting down in exchanges on Benghazi, and the President’s shaking hands with Putin, I just think the bad guys are laughing at us, just laughing at us. So we’ll continue the conversation. Ron Johnson, great Senator from the state of Wisconsin.
End of interview.