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Brookings Hosts Bipartisan Defense Policy Discussion with House Armed Services Committee Representatives

Fred Dews

On April 28, the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute hosted a discussion on future issues in U.S. defense strategy and spending. Representatives Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), both members of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and two of the leading voices on defense strategy and spending on Capitol Hill, offered their views.

On China

Both members of Congress have traveled often in the Asia-Pacific region, including in China. Rep. Thornberry was part of a delegation led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor that visited Japan, South Korea and China ahead of President Obama’s trip there last week. Rep. Thornberry said that he observed nationalism in all three countries, “partly for domestic political reasons,” creating tension among them. He also shared that top leaders in China “see China as a rising power” and see “the United States as a declining power.” Plus:

They have some historical grievances. And maybe that was the thing that concerns me the most because I kept thinking back to the history books and what things were like in Germany before World War One. The sense of Germany being a rising power but with historical grievances that they would soon be in a position to correct in some way. That doesn’t mean conflict is inevitable but the tensions over the various maritime disputes and the other issues that are there, you really felt the potential for increasing amounts of conflict.

Rep. Larsen, who recently took his ninth trip to China, said that he would “be concerned about China’s economic rise if it doesn’t happen.” He pointed to three issues the Chinese Communist Party has at stake in continued economic growth: supplying economic opportunities, dealing with China’s environmental problems, and dealing with the vast corruption. “They have to get it right,” he said, “and part of getting it right is ensuring that their economy continues to grow.”

On China’s military spending, Rep. Larsen described the challenge China has in investing in its military and in talking about it:

The challenge that it faces is that it does a poor job of explaining it to everybody else. And … when they do explain it to everybody else, it really just sets up the region for further disputes and possible conflict. It’s not something I think China wants, and certainly not something that the United States or these other countries want, but there are legitimate claims that many of these countries that are friends and allies of ours have in the area and I think there is some rewriting of history that goes on on the Chinese side.

On the U.S. Rebalance toward Asia

Both members of Congress agreed that one of the most important aspects of President Obama’s recent trip to Asia was to reassure allies in the region. Rep. Larsen said that “the United States has a direct interest because of our friends and allies in the region.” Rep. Thornberry said that one reason for the congressional trip was “to really emphasize that Republicans in Congress agree with the president that we are going to stand by our treaty commitments; no dispute about that.”


Rep. Larsen called Obama’s trip “largely successful in terms of assuring our friends and allies in the region that the U.S. is going to be a Pacific country, that the rebalance is real, that the president is putting some reality to that.” He also argued that the rebalance was not just about defense. Rather, it is about defense, trade (including the effort to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership), economic security and other factors.

Rep. Thornberry agreed on the importance of TPP, saying that it is “very important for us to move ahead” and that it is “important for the countries in that region to understand that there is support for that in Congress.”

On Asia-Pacific Maritime Disputes

Neither member of Congress felt that the U.S. should commit in advance to a specific response to a specific hypothetical Chinese action, like China seizing one of the islands it disputes with Japan (the Japanese call them Senkaku, the Chinese call them Diaoyu). But both thought the United States should reassure allies that it stands by treaty commitments plus use a range of resources to respond. Rep. Thornberry emphasized the importance of countries knowing that “the United States is a reliable friend,” and Rep. Larsen said that “reassuring our allies that the treaties mean something is important.”

On Europe, NATO, Ukraine, Russia and the response to Putin

Rep. Thornberry called the situation with Russia and Ukraine “a big deal” and “a major change.” “Most of us,” he said:

had basically in our minds thought the cold war was over and we don’t have to worry about that anymore. And the brazenness of this aggression, similar to tactics we have seen in history, I think is somewhat startling. And so one conclusion one could draw is that it expands the range of military options for which we have to be prepared. And maybe we thought certain kinds of conflict were in the past and we didn’t really need that stuff anymore. But maybe that’s not true. And then tight budgets, as we prepare for everything from relatively low-level ground combat to cyber and space and all these things in between, [just add] to the complexity, [to] the number of national security challenges we face.

Rep. Thornberry also said that, in response to a question about Chinese military action in the disputed maritime area, that he does worry a little “that slowly ratcheting up sanctions as we’re doing in Ukraine doesn’t seem to me to be effective. And so it is important for the president and all of us on a bi-partisan basis to make clear that we have a full range of options should some country decide to take aggressive actions.”

Rep. Larsen pointed to several things we have done in Europe “as a ‘for instance’ to reassure our friends there, including new deployments to Poland and the Baltic States plus new sanctions “targeted at the right folks.” He continued:

There aren’t many folks who run Russia. They are all friends of the leader there, President Putin. And going after those folks is a great start … to let the Russian leadership know that there is a penalty to them. And also I think it seems the experience of taking over the Crimea so far might have been a great nationalistic thing for Russia to do but so far has been a disaster for Crimeans and Crimean Russians as well. Things hardly run down now there as a result.

“I think the NATO deployments,” he added, “are an important signal to our NATO allies and I would assume to Russia that the NATO alliance is important to us and it’s important to NATO partners.” He continued that:

I think that the nonlethal aid and financial support given to Ukraine is important and I think the EU needs to, if it can, move faster on an association agreement. I think right now there is only one way that the Ukraine, as a government is headed and that is west, not toward Russia. … Anytime the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine can take OSCE monitors as hostages, that only helps the United States and the West.

He was quick to emphasize that of course he doesn’t favor or condone this hostage-taking, but rather that Russia suffers a blowback when such incidents occur. “That shows how uncoordinated, how amateurish, and how reactionary those folks are,” he said, “and I can’t imagine that Russia sees that as a positive, either. So we need to leverage that in the court of public opinion … in order to change the facts on the ground.”

Rep. Thornberry spoke to how the Ukraine crisis means asking about the implications for NATO, asking “is NATO worth anything? … What’s the purpose and value of that alliance at this point when it meets this situation, which is what it was created for?”

On Afghanistan

Both congressmen agreed that the United States should continue to play a role in Afghanistan’s security after December 2014. “I think it is very important for us to be there,” Rep. Thornberry said, “to continue to provide support of various kinds for a security situation where the Afghans themselves are taking the lead. He added that “it would be a terrible mistake for the situation to get to the point where we have a complete withdrawal” from Afghanistan, as it would “increase the dangers to us, it would increase the dangers to Pakistan [and] it would increase the problems that many countries face.”

Rep. Larsen echoed this view, emphasizing the importance of Afghanistan signing a bilateral security agreement with the United States. “It would be a terrible mistake if they didn’t,” he said, referring to the two Afghan presidential election candidates who will participate in a runoff. The BSA is “a very important tenant,” he said. “It makes it easier for me to go home and say … there’s an agreement, it protects us, we get to do our job. But we also need to continue the investment in the Afghan national security forces taking control on behalf of their civilian government, their own security.”

On Defense Spending and Sequester

Throughout the program, both Reps. Thornberry and Larsen spoke to budget and sequester issues, although from slightly different perspectives. Rep. Thornberry said that “we’ve got to spend more money on defense. Whether you are talking about China or Russia or a host of other countries, what they respect is strength.”

On the various budget plans that have been put forth, Rep. Thornberry said that there isn’t necessarily a “magic number” but that “the world is watching what we do. And if China, Putin [and others] think that we are not capable of increasing defense, of being strong, of having the capabilities we need to deter them, then they will be more aggressive.”

Rep. Larsen offered that “Right now neither party I think is willing to make the concessions in a negotiation to lift the sequester cap or get rid of it all together.” Referring to what HASC Ranking Member Adam Smith has said, Rep. Larsen said that,

if we are going to deal with the sequester, you have to deal with 100 percent of the budget. Not a part of the budget. No one gets carve outs for any reason. Dealing with the sequester is about dealing with discretionary and mandatory spending, not just discretionary budget or not just defense or not just non-defense spending.

He added that while we are continuing to make investments in our military, “we are also making investments in things that are no longer used.” There are “a lot of things we can do before we respond to calls for a bigger budget,” he said.

Rep. Thornberry observed, during a portion of the discussion on acquisition reform, that “Congress needs to … work with the Pentagon [to] get more defense out of the money we spend.” However, we also “have to begin to reform entitlements” because “until we deal with them we will not be dealing with our budget issues.

Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon and AEI Resident Fellow Mackenzie Eaglen moderated the discussion and Q&A session with the audience.

Listen to the complete program below or watch it on C-SPAN:

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