Jim Webb on Foreign Policy

Campaign 2016: A Conversation with Jim Webb

Jim Webb

Candidate, 2016 Democratic Presidential Nomination; Former U.S. Senator (D-VA); Former Secretary of the Navy; Former Assistant Secretary of Defense 

Jacob M. Weisberg

Chairman and Editor in Chief, The Slate Group LLC


Jim Webb, former U.S. Senator (D-VA) and candidate for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, joins the Slate Group's Chairman and Editor-in-Chief Jacob M. Weisberg to discuss U.S. foreign policy and his presidential ambitions. Over the course of the conversation, Webb addresses a range of foreign policy topics, including the United States' relationship with China, humanitarian intervention, the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Obama administration's nuclear accord with Iran. Webb additionally addresses domestic issues, including gun control and criminal justice reform.

For further information, please see The Presidential Candidates: In Their Own Words, and CFR Blog The Water's Edge by James M. Lindsay.


WEISBERG: Welcome to today's meeting with Jim Webb. And I also want to welcome Council members who are participating via the live stream on the Web. And we're going to get started and talk a little bit and then we'll at about 1:30 we'll open up for questions.

I wanted to start by introducing Senator Webb. There is no way I can do justice to his biography which is really a kind of great American story. But just to give you a few highlights, it starts with his Scotch-Irish background which he wrote about in a terrific book called “Born Fighting,” and continued to the Naval Academy, and then to Marine Corps training, and Vietnam, where he was wounded and highly decorated, including with the Navy Cross.

He wrote a novel which is really one of the most acclaimed novels about the Vietnam experience, called “Fields of Fire.” I don't know, we've had other presidential writers, including Barack Obama, but I don't think we've ever had a president so far who's been a novelist, so we have that opportunity for a first.

He served in several staff positions in Congress before becoming assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and then secretary of the Navy. He's an Emmy Award-winning journalist. He's the author of 10 books. And oh, yeah, he was a U.S. senator from 2006 to 2012. I could go on, there's more detail here.

But I want to start, Senator Webb, by asking you just about the debate the other night, which I'm sure most people in the room saw at least some of. You were clearly frustrated through some of the debate that you didn't get to say everything you wanted to say. And I thought maybe we would give you a chance to make up for some of that gap here.

I should say that in the Slate poll we did afterwards, you were a very strong third to Hillary's second and who won the debate. Of course—

WEBB: Well, in the Drudge poll I was a very strong second, Hillary was 25 (percent)—I mean, I was 25 (percent) and I think Secretary Clinton was 7 or 8 (percent). And in the Time poll we were a strong second, I got 36 (percent) on it.

Let me just, first of all, appreciate all of you being here today. It actually is a good opportunity to come and talk about a lot of things that I tried to speak about the other night. I know Karl Rove this morning characterized the different people in the debate and he called me Mr. Angry. I would say, you know, it was either the option in that debate, which was, I'm going to be very frank, it was rigged in terms of who was going to get the time on the floor by the way that Anderson Cooper was selecting people to supposedly respond to something someone else said.

I even turned around to Bernie Sanders at one point and said, Bernie, say my name, will you? Say my name. (Laughter.) So you know, in that kind of an environment, you know, I was either going to be Mr. Angry or I was going to be a potted plant. That was the only way to try to get into the conversation.

And it's very difficult to win a debate when you don't have the opportunity to speak the same amount of time on issues as the other two did. It's a reality that the debate was being portrayed as a showdown between Mrs. Clinton and Bernie, but if you're going to be invited to participate and people are going to judge whether you, quote, “won” or not, at least you should be able to have the kind of time that's necessary to discuss the issues that you care about, that you've worked on.

And there were so many issues that were out there that I have done pioneer work on, for instance criminal justice reform, I took great risk beginning in '06 with my political career by saying that we have a broken criminal justice system in this country and we have to fix it. It's not a political problem, it is a leadership problem. And we turned that issue around over the space of about five hard years of work so that now it is comfortably in the national discussion and it's on the radar of a lot of prominent Republicans. It was not that way when we started.

But it's very difficult to make those kinds of points, and also the foreign policy differences that I have had with the past couple of administrations in terms of where we put our priority and these sorts of things, when you can't talk. I think I got 14 minutes in two hours—14 minutes. So 14 minutes and 30 percent on a Time poll, I'll take that for starters here.

The issues that I have been saying are the most important foreign policy issues for us to be working on—I'm just—I'm not going to give a speech here, but I'd like to mention four that I believe we should be focusing on. And I will do it in just one or two sentences for each one so we can talk.


WEBB: But I believe that our most important, long-term, strategic challenge is our relationship with China. And it is many-pronged, as everyone in this room, I think, knows. We tend to forget in our national discussion that these are two completely different political and governing systems. And we are interdependent in some ways, but we also are very different in other ways and we're seeing some of these other ways come to a head right now, the expansionism of the Chinese military, the cyber warfare situation that I mentioned the other night, and we can talk more about that. That's number one.

Number two, in terms of day-to-day here in our country, I worry about cyber warfare, cyber threat, not just cyber warfare, but cyber threat, how our governing systems and, in many cases, our privacy can be so easily penetrated and used in ways that are not to the health of our country or to our people.

The third is the day-to-day operational environment in the Middle East and how we need to be able to secure our national interests on the one level, but also not be so exposed in terms of physical presence in that region.

And then the fourth obviously is how we're going to manage our relationships with Russia or with Putin, depending on how long Putin is going to be around, and that's not a forecast, but there are different personality situations there.

And those are the big four to me, the ones that I think about and read about and try to discuss every day. And with that, I'm happy to be with you and thanks for giving me the chance to say a few words at the outset.

WEISBERG: Senator, you and John McCain in the Senate were both shaped by the Vietnam experience and came out of it with diametrically opposed responses to military interventions under discussion. Senator McCain sort of in favor of every one and then some, you were sort of against every one and then some. Can you give me some insight into how your views of the world so diverge based on the same fundamental experience?

WEBB: Well, I would begin by saying that I've known John McCain since the late 1970s when I was a committee counsel in the House and he was still on active duty and came on as a Senate liaison for the Navy. And I have a lot of respect for him. You know, he's a guy that's got his own views, they are very strongly held.

I can't say that John McCain and I had the same experience. He was shot down and spent five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war and then he had his own journey when he came back. I can remember actually during the Iran-Iraq War and shortly thereafter, he and I were pretty much on the same page when I was Beirut as a journalist in 1983 with the Marine barracks bombing at the same time. I think John and I were pretty compatible.

My experience in Vietnam was in ground combat, intense ground combat. The Marine Corps lost a hundred thousand killed or wounded in Vietnam. We tend to forget that when we look back at our recent history. We lost 14,000 killed just in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. In the year that I was in Vietnam, we lost, America lost twice as many combat dead as we have lost in Iraq and Afghanistan combined in the entire war.

And so the intensity of the ground combat operations and the moral choices that had to be made every day and the reality of seeing how people lived and the area where we fought had an impact on me that I can only personalize and say I don't know whether that had any impact on how John McCain and I view these things.

But I don't think it's right for me to be characterized as saying I am anti-intervention. I led what became called the strategic pivot to Asia. I started this the minute I got to the United States Senate. I've spent a lot of time in Asia as a journalist, as a business consultant, as a military planner right after I left the Marine Corps when I was in law school out trying to figure out how we were going to reshape our strategic positioning out there. And I've been very strong about the idea that we are the guarantor of stability in that region and we will do what it takes in order maintain that stability for the health of the region.

Where John McCain and I, I think, differ is how to handle the situations in the Middle East. And that probably had more to do with me being in Beirut than being in Vietnam. I can remember being out with a Marine unit in Beirut in 1983 when they were involved in a firefight that became a firefight from multiple parties. You know how Lebanon could be back then. And a Marine turned around to me and said, sir, never get involved in a five-sided argument.

And if you look at the Middle East, one of the things I keep coming back to is, when is the last time that an outside power attempted to occupy a portion of the Middle East and came out OK? And I came away with a very strong feeling that we do not belong as an occupying power in that part of the world.

We are not a Trotsky nation. We don't export our ideology at the point of a gun. And I think that's where Senator McCain and I have had differences in many different situations in that part of the world.

WEISBERG: You've also, though, been a critic of the idea of humanitarian intervention. Is that because they've all been in the Middle East? I mean, for example, would—

WEBB: No, that's a—


WEBB: That's a separate and very important question. And it came up most strongly for me when I was in the Senate with the Libyan intervention. My view, in terms of humanitarian intervention, is that it's so difficult to define clearly, to make it just a part of a check-the-box foreign policy, that you should have a rigorous debate in the United States Congress before we would move forward into a humanitarian intervention scenario. And that was my problem with Libya.

WEISBERG: Would you have voted for intervention in Rwanda to prevent genocide there had you—

WEBB: I think, you know, I would have wanted a rigorous debate and to see clearly the objectives that we would have wanted to obtain and how we would attain them before I would go into any situation just under the rubric of humanitarian intervention. Libya is a classic example of that. We had no treaties in place. NATO was later sort of used as a fig leaf. But we had no treaties in place that compelled us to move or allowed, in my view, the president to move without coming to the Congress. No Americans were at risk. You can go down the whole laundry list of what usually justifies unilateral presidential use of force.

And it became a lot easier and it's going to become a lot easier because of drone warfare and these sorts of things where an administration can sit back and say, well, we don't have boots on the ground. And I spoke again and again against doing this unless it was brought to the Congress for a vote. I wouldn't have done it in any case, quite frankly.

WEISBERG: How do you rate Barack Obama as a foreign policy president?

WEBB: I believe in this area the Obama administration has set a very dangerous precedent. Because when you come out of the situation in Libya—and again, I think we need to spend some time there. We tried, a couple of us tried—Bob Corker from Tennessee was someone who felt this way as well. We tried to get a debate, went to the Senate floor and tried to get a debate. We tried to get it into hearings and wanted to get a vote.

And there was really nothing else going on at the time. The Republicans had decided to shut everything down. The debt was, you know, being supposedly debated every day. You could look at the Senate floor and there would be nobody out there. It was not—would not have been that hard to have a vigorous debate on this.

And the reality in—at that time was that there were a core group of Republicans—John McCain, Lindsey Graham being two of them, Kelly Ayotte also another one—who were vigorously in favor in intervening in Libya. And the Democrats at that time, in 2012, the leadership, was afraid of harming President Obama’s reelection choices if there were that sort of debate. So we just didn’t have one. And that’s a legacy that’s going to have to be sorted out, quite frankly. I think that’s the greatest confusion moving forward out of the Obama administration.

WEISBERG: He announced just today that he’s going to delay withdrawal from Afghanistan, where we’ve been there for 14 years and running, and that the troops will not be withdrawn, potentially withdrawn by the time he leaves office. Do you think that’s the right decision?

WEBB: Clearly, from ’01 until today the mission in Afghanistan markedly changed. I would say that the first thing as president of the United States that I would say in terms of troop levels would be I would want to confer with the Joint Chiefs and the, you know, the commanders, down to combatant commanders, and listen to the logic and the mission that a core element that remained would be performing. And then there would be a decision.

But, you know, I was in Afghanistan as a journalist in ’04. I was in nine different places. There weren’t many Americans there in ’04; I think there were, like, 15,000 maybe before it really escalated up. And the original mission that we had, which was to go after core centers of terrorist activity and those sorts of things I think were valid. And when you get into the notion of nation-building, you—in that part of the world—you really run a risk.

I can remember being in the Senate, and—on the Armed Services Committee, and—holding hearings on what we would do as the—’08—’07, ’08—what are we going to do in Afghanistan, what are—we’ve got a, in many cases, to be quite frank, a narco-state, a large part of that country. And we had the DOD witness coming in and saying, well, we’re going to eliminate opium, we’re going to—we’re going—and what—the reason they’re growing opium is because it can be transported. And so we’re going to be build roads, and then at the end of the road they’re going to—they’re going to grow tomatoes and perishable fruit, and they’re going to make money and we’re going to be able to get it out because now we’ve got the roads, you know.

And then I watched some of the senators talking about that, and I just said, look, I got to say this: I will never be able to go to Afghanistan again in the way that I did when I was a journalist. You know, when you go as a member of Congress or now even as a former member, you have to have this coterie around you that kind of insulates you from the reality of what you see. But I’ll tell you what, they grow opium because it’s a demand pull product. You know, the rest of the world wants what they grow. And I said in the hearing—and it’s true—I can’t tell you there’s an opium patch in every village in Afghanistan, but I can tell you there was an opium patch in every village I was in Afghanistan.

WEISBERG: (Chuckles.)

WEBB: So in order to retain a contingent in Afghanistan, the first step for a president is to ask to define the military necessity and what the mission would be, and it could be related to a specific objective, or—could potentially make the case for longer-term stability. But foreign militaries don’t do well long term in that part of the world.

WEISBERG: Yeah. And so, given your view of that, what should be we doing about ISIS in Syria, and what should we be doing about Putin in Syria?

WEBB: Well, first—I said this the other night—if you want to understand why Russia is in Syria, you can start first of all with three strategic blunders of two—from two different administrations, I think—two blunders and one decision that I have serious reservations about.

The first was the invasion of Iraq, which I opposed. I wrote a piece in The Washington Post five months before the invasion saying this was going to increase sectarian tensions and it was going to increase the leverage of Iran in the region, among—

WEISBERG: You opposed the first Gulf War too, didn’t you?

WEBB: Yes, I did. In terms of moving beyond the immediate areas there, I did.

And I had—I had watched when I was—we’re getting a little sidetracked from the three points on Russia, but I’m glad to answer your question here—when I was secretary of the Navy, we ended up tilting toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. And Secretary Weinberger, who I think is a very underrated secretary of defense, Cap Weinberger—I met with him daily for four years when I—when I was in the Pentagon—he used to say the Iran-Iraq War was a war between the worst administration in the world and the second-worst administration in the world, and he couldn’t figure out which one was which. But when we did tilt towards Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, and I spoke at that time, when I was secretary of the Navy, saying in this part of the world we have to be very careful in terms of how we articulate our national security interests, and I did not think it was valuable for our country to have—to have tilted toward Iraq. And here, a couple of years later, here we were fighting Iraq. And that’s how crazy that region can get.

Now, why is Russia in Syria? Number one, the invasion of Iraq, the way that we did it, the unsettling that it did in terms of the sectarian components inside Iraq and empowering Iran. Number two was the Arab Spring, in my view. I think it was a real error to have intervened in Libya the way that we did, and I think we probably got ahead of ourselves in terms of encouraging dissident elements in some of these countries to stand up and oppose the existing authoritarian governments. I made a comment at the time to please remember the first rule of wing walking: Don’t let go of what you got until you got a firm grasp on where you’re going. And if you look, for instance, in Syria, Assad, you know, he may be an authoritarian leader, but what are you going to do if he’s gone? Did anybody—has anybody figured that out? And in many cases, we tend—I think we tend to have encouraged some of these uprisings, very similarly to what was done in 1956 Hungary uprising, and then we did not have the capacity to assist the people who had been encouraged. And what we ended up seeing is power vacuums, particularly in Syria and in Libya, that have not been resolved, and where terrorist elements were able to come in.

And then the third, I believe, error was this agreement with Iran, this nuclear agreement with Iran. First of all, I don’t think it should’ve been an executive agreement. I think it should’ve been a treaty. It has long-term implications. But secondly, the timing of an agreement, whether—you know, this is not an argument about whether it can be—the conditions inside the agreement can be met or cannot be met; only time will tell. But the timing of it in terms of the turbulence in the region itself appeared at—in the region—I think you’re seeing that now—to have been a sign of weakness of the United States acquiescing an Iran gaining a larger toehold and creating an imbalance in the balance of power in the region among our greatest ally, which is Israel, and the Sunni states, particularly the Saudis dominant among them, and Iran. So when you have those three and you have Russia’s history in the region with Iran and with Syria, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Russia has moved into Syria right now.

WEISBERG: So President Obama picked up the idea you were strongly identified with, the pivot to Asia. And—but despite sort of sharing some of your skepticism about intervention from the Middle East, he sort of never got to Asia. He got bogged down in Middle East policies. How does the next president, whether it’s you or someone else, avoid that same scenario, assuming that this—the case that we have more to gain from a deeper engagement with Asia than the Middle East is right?

WEBB: Well, I think the region itself has become more—at the moment; this could change—but the region itself, countries in the region itself have become more willing to work with us in terms of security and other multilateral solutions than they were eight or nine years ago, partially because of the pivot and largely because of how China has been acting in terms of the Senkaku Islands and the Spratly Islands— and I was writing about this 15 years ago, the methodology of the way that the Chinese military has been expanding: They will create issues of sovereignty, mark their spots, and the United States would kind of defer and sort of call them tactical spats rather than clearly strategic sovereignty issues. And now is the time. We have to draw a line with China in terms of the Spratlys and keep a hold of the positive relationships that have come out of this, with a lot of ASEAN countries, the Philippines, Vietnam; even Singapore supported doing something about this when I was in the Senate.

WEISBERG: So I wanted to ask you a little bit about the military and society. In preparation for this I re-read some of your old articles, which are terrific; I mean, you’re the only politician I know who, if elected, will—it will be a loss for journalism. But you did maybe a slightly notorious piece in 1979 arguing against women serving in the military. Not just that, you didn’t think at that point that women had a place at the service academy. And I wonder, you changed your view since then? And how and why?

WEBB: Well, let me—first of all, I—when I was thinking about running for the—for the Senate, Jim Carville made a comment to me. He said, you’ve made your life as a writer. He said, you got 2 million words out there. Do you know what they’re going to do to you? (Laughter.) And, you know, I’ve got 2 million words out there, and, you know, there’s a couple of thousands of them here and there that I kind of wish I had back. The piece I wrote—(laughter)—

WEISBERG: (Laughs.) It was a great piece, by the way. It was extremely persuasive. I mean—

WEBB: Well, you know, actually, it was—you know, it was a very strongly—

WEISBERG: —I don’t agree, but—

WEBB: It was a very strongly felt piece. It’s in many ways I think been—parts of it been misinterpreted. It made—it was a finalist in the Penney-Missouri journalism awards that year. But I wrote it as someone who had just come back from a very hard combat tour in Vietnam. And it was not about women in the military; it was about women in—and—women in—holding combat billets. Not even—not women being shot at, but women in combat billets themselves.

And, you know, there are—you know, my positions at the time also were shaked by the Carter administration having said that they were going to issue a blanket removal of all restrictions in all of the combat MOSs in the military. So there was a—there was a fight going on. You know, word bombs were being thrown back and forth.

I—when I became secretary of the Navy—years later; I mean, I wrote that piece 36 years ago—when I became secretary of the Navy, I opened up more positions for women in the Navy than any secretary in history.

And we did it the right way. I grew up in the military, served in the military. And one of the real concerns back then was the political leadership just telling the military what to do, not consulting with them, not embracing them. And this was something that I worked on very hard when I was in the Senate on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” issue—I was chair of the personnel subcommittee—you have to involve the military when you’re making these fundamental decisions that affect their culture. But I put together a panel when I was secretary of the Navy of active-duty military men and women, officers and senior enlisted, had them go around to the bases around the world, consult, come back and report, where is it that we could open up positions for women in the military in a—in a functional and positive way at that time? And to report not just to me but to report through the chief of naval operations, have the military report to the secretary. And we opened up more positions than any secretary at that time in history.

This issue is still with us, by the way. If you have followed the study that the Marine Corps just went through—nine-month, in their view, exhaustive study of women in infantry and artillery MOSs. And they came back with a set of recommendations that the current secretary of the Navy rejected in one day. He didn’t—you know, he just—he said this is anecdotal and I’m not going to look at it. And I don’t think that’s the way that the political leadership should treat the military when they come to you with a nine-month, multimillion-dollar study trying to address not only the issue of women but combat effectiveness.

If I were a mother today with a son or a daughter in the Marines, I would want to listen to the Marine Corps leadership rather than to the political leadership.

WEISBERG: Some of what you predicted in that article about the service academies has come to pass with the rape scandals and sexual harassment. You thought that was probably an inevitable outcome.

WEBB: Well, my main—I mean, look, as I said, what were you doing 36 years ago? But I am comfortable with the service academies now. And I think that opening up so many of these positions to women in the military is healthy. It’s healthy for the country and it’s healthy for the military. I don’t have any problem with that. But when you’ve got the military leadership talking to you also in areas like infantry and those sorts of things, you need to pay attention.

WEISBERG: There is a lot we didn’t get to. And I’m going to turn to the members to ask all the questions I did not ask. So if you have a question, please look for one of the microphones coming around. Please identify yourself and please make your question a single question and make it brief so we can get in as many as possible. And we’ll start here.

Q: Thank you, Senator Webb. Ted Pulling from JPMorgan.

You said now is the time to draw a line with China. Can you define what you mean by that?

WEBB: The—my comment was with respect to their military expansionism in the region and the sovereignty that they have claimed. I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal in August of 2012, three months after China created an entirely new prefecture reporting directly to their central government that includes 2 million square kilometers of ocean area in the South China Sea that they now say is a prefecture of China; most of the Spratly Islands; areas off of the coast of Vietnam.

They have become—our response, which I was concerned about, our government’s response at that time was we take no position on sovereignty issues. We only talk about sea maneuvers, open sea lanes and that sort of thing. But as I was saying at the time, to take no position on an issue that relates to these sovereignty issues is to take a position. It is to accede, because China insists on bilateral solutions to these problems and they will always intimidate the smaller countries. They’ve done it with oil exploration off of Vietnam. They’re doing it now with militarizing and actually doing land dredging on some of these islands off the coast of the Philippines and—

Q: So would you drive a naval ship 12 miles within the exclusion zone of those—

WEBB: I absolutely would, in a heartbeat. And if we don’t—if we don’t assert their—or if we don’t meet their wrongful claims of sovereignty now, you will see this expand in other areas. And the Senkakus are a classic example of that. I spent a lot of time in that part of the world as a journalist and reported from Japan many times; served there part of the time when I was in the Marine Corps.

If you look at the Senkakus, they’re about halfway between China and Okinawa. China has never recognized Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa. And to yield on the Senkakus eventually would be to call into question the sovereignty of Okinawa. That’s just the way that it works. And when you have an expansionist nation that is not accepting international law in these things, you have to do something about it, and we’re the country that does.

Now, that has to be done under the umbrella of talking to them also about the fact that through the cyberwarfare they have accumulated data on millions of Americans’ personal data; millions of Americans. I got my little notification from OPM, you know, saying that because I was a federal employee they got my file. So they won’t find anything in it that they don’t already know, I’m sure. But that’s an act of aggression.

And then the third thing is we do need to sort out our economic relationship with them. And we need to be working—in my view we need to be working toward eventually a harmonious relationship, a less adversarial relationship with China because of the fact that we do need each other economically. We’re not—I’m not saying that, you know, we should have a more controversial relationship than is necessary, but you have to stand up to the nations that are clearly acting in an expansionist way.

WEISBERG: Yes. At the middle table there.

Q: Thank you. Thank you. Paula DiPerna, NTR Foundation. And thank you for your service.

How does your view of the constructive, productive, humane role of government today differ from that of the other candidates in the Democratic ticket—Democratic Party primary?

WEBB: Do you have anything specific that you are curious about?

Q: Yeah. I’d like to know what you think the role of government is today as we move through libertarianism and into a sense of small government is best. One, what’s your definition of the role of government? Two, how is it different from the other candidates?

WEBB: You mean in terms of human rights issues at home?

Q: No. A general role for government. What is the purpose of government today?

WEBB: The first purpose of government is to maintain order. And the next purpose is equally important to me, is to assure that you have a society that people believe is fair. I’ve spent a lot of time throughout my professional life working on issues of fundamental fairness.

I think the criminal justice reform effort is a classic example of that. I started speaking in `06 when I was running for the Senate talking about how the system is so broken that we have 25 percent of the prisoners in the world, people imprisoned in the world, and only 5 percent of the world’s population. Either we’re doing something wrong or we have the most evil people in the world. And I think we’re doing something wrong.

And when I started talking about this, I had political consultants coming up to me, Democratic Party political consultants coming to me, saying you’re committing suicide by talking about this issue in Virginia, where we have very tough crime laws and lock-them-away laws. And I took the hit.

When I got to the Senate I was not on the Judiciary Committee but I said this is going to be one of the issues that we are going to try to change in the country. And if you’ll recall, 10 years ago it was political suicide to be saying we’re locking up too many people. We held hearings. I was on the Joint Economic Committee, which is a non-legislative committee. It’s an oversight committee. So I went to Chuck Schumer, who was the chair of it, and I said, Chuck, I’d like to hold hearings on the economic implications of mass incarceration. We held wonderful hearings, amazing hearings on it; the economic consequences of the drugs law—you know, drug policies from point of acquisition to reverberations in the criminal system and those sorts of things.

We did seminars. I partnered with George Mason University and brought people from across the philosophical spectrum together to talk about this, to debate the issues of incarceration and drugs.

And finally, we introduced a piece of legislation saying there should be a national commission on criminal justice reform in this country, something that covers all the way from point of apprehension to re-entry into civil society after you have been in prison. Prison administration. How long should a sentence be? When should someone be diverted into, say, a drugs court instead of going into the regular criminal justice process?

Justice Kennedy became a big supporter of this. We met with a hundred different organizations from across the philosophical spectrum on this issue and eventually got a buy-in to what we were doing, all the way from the National Sheriffs’ Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, all the way to the ACLU and even the Marijuana Project. And it’s the only piece of legislation I know that ever got to the Senate floor with the backing of the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Marijuana Project.

We got hit by a Republican filibuster. We got 57 votes. So we did not get our national commission that would have cost only $14 million. That’s one helicopter. But we did bring this issue out of the shadows and into the public discussion. And if you’re looking for a prototype role model on what I would—what my beliefs are about social justice in this country and the role of government, I think that would be the best prototype that I could give you.

WEISBERG: You know, Senator, just if I could intervene for one second, I know you feel strongly enough about that that you hired a convict to work for you. I wonder if you could just talk about that experience, because clearly their reintegration into society is a key—

WEBB: Well, I—you know, for people’s privacy, you know, I’ve never even—I know this is—what you’re saying is true, but I never trumpeted it.

WEISBERG: Then don’t talk about individuals.

WEBB: But I—

WEISBERG: Just talk about—

WEBB: My view is, you know, I had so many people. Once I started talking about this, I had so many people who would come up to me everywhere I’d go and would say can I talk to you for a minute? You know, my brother has been in prison or I was convicted of something when I was 18 years old. I’m now 32. And every time I try to get a job, the first thing that pops up is that I was convicted and imprisoned.

And so I just—you know, you’ve got to walk like you talk. You know, I started bringing people. And no one on my staff, no one else on my staff even knew—that’s why I want to be sensitive about this—unless that person wanted to talk to them about it. And it was a good experience. I didn’t have a—I did not have a bad experience.

WEISBERG: Yes. In the back please. You. Yes. Blue tie.

Q: I’m Matthew Hurlock. I’m a lawyer.

You said China is the number one strategic threat. What is—

WEBB: May I please clarify what I said? I said our number one strategic challenge is to resolve the different portions of our relationship with China.

Q: And what—to your mind, just to get a clearer feel for it, what is the threat or threats that they represent? And what would be the objective you would want to get to? Because you said you’ve got to know what you’re grabbing hold of before you let go of what you’ve got. Where would you want that relation to get to? And what is the threat that you’re responding to?

WEBB: What I’m—and I’m not playing with words here. What I’m talking about is the challenge that we have as a country with our overall relations with China. The priorities that I would have, first of all, would be to articulate to—first of all, our country to understand that we are two different governmental systems. They are an unelected, autocratic governmental system that has repressed its own people and is very careful about who they bring in, for instance, as journalists. That’s the only country that has ever denied me a journalist visa because I’ve been strong on these issues for a long time. I guess that’s why. I never asked them why; they just didn’t let me. (Laughter.)

But that is the truth. You know, when we were having hearings on Libya when I was in the Senate, Leon Panetta was testifying, secretary of defense. He came and he testified and he was saying—on the issue of humanitarian assistance he was saying any government that represses and kills its own people has lost its legitimacy. I said, well, what would you say about Tiananmen in 1989, when 2,000 Chinese demonstrators were killed in the middle of a city because they were asking for democracy? Does that legitimize—delegitimize them? And his comment was, well, I guess in my personal view it does.

And I don’t believe that—I mean, I’m saying I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia. Asia is incremental. I’m not saying that that would delegitimize our relationship with them. But if it happened today, I think it might. It is a comment, though, on the power of authoritarian government. We’re two different systems. That’s the first thing people in this country need to understand.

I’ve worked with these different systems. I’ve spent a lot of time working with Vietnam, from bringing—you know, down the trade embargo, trying to bring government officials out, coming in you know, creating harmony between the Vietnamese community in the United States and the Vietnamese government, et cetera.

But number one, understand we’re two fundamentally different systems. Number two, we have to be clear and strong about these sovereignty issues. I think they’re very important in terms of China signaling its future intentions as it—as it becomes a greater power. Number three, we have trade issues. We’re always going to have trade issues with other countries. We want trade harmony. So, I mean, that’s—those are the three.

WEISBERG: I think I see Lauren Wilkins from the NYPD there.

Q: Thank you. Well, Jacob outed me.

WEISBERG: (Laughs.)

Q: But I do want to ask about—I want to ask about policing and gun violence that we’re seeing in this country. I think you have such a unique positon because you are clearly—criminal justice reform is something that’s important to you. You’ve also been in personal experiences where you’ve felt yourself in danger and being in a law enforcement role or a military role. And you have a position and gun control and the Second Amendment which is interesting. And I would love to hear you weigh in on the discussion that we’re having in America right now about gun violence and also the role of policing.

WEBB: First of all, with respect to the role of policing, you know, we’re such a large and complex society—more than 300 million people here—it’s very difficult to give you one view in terms of policing that I think would apply in a place like New York City and also down in, say, Kensett, Arkansas, where my—where my mother is from, obviously. But people want—citizens want to have order. They want to be protected from lawlessness. And the overwhelming majority of the police officers that I have been in contact with in my life, people who choose that as a profession, are professionals. And they—you know, they are to be respected. Those who are not professional should, you know, face the consequences of that.

I think we’ve seen, since 9/11, a tendency in many police departments to move toward treating certain elements of the citizenry as adversaries in a larger sense than I think ever before. Part of it’s the training I think they’ve had on antiterrorism and those sorts of things. When you look out and see all the SWAT teams that are out there right now or the equipment that has been received from the Department of Defense, I think we have to be very—we should be very careful in terms of how these tools are applied in communities. And you—I think we can do a lot better in terms of working for harmony, community harmony between law enforcement and communities. So those are some of the general observations that I would make.

With respect to the Second Amendment, I view—I would say this: there are two vital areas that come together here in our society. One is the necessity to keep guns, firearms out of the hands of people who are either mentally incompetent in terms of using firearms or criminals, and they’re two different—two different groups. But that’s—and that—for that reason, I support—I have supported removing what’s called the gun show loophole in terms of acquiring firearms.

And the gun show loophole is a very broad term. But in my experience with the law the gun show loophole means, for instance, if you’re buying a firearm at Virginia—we have a lot of gun shows in Virginia, and I’m a gun owner, you know—and if you’re going to buy a firearm and if you buy it from a dealer at a gun show, then you automatically go into a background check. Takes about 20 minutes, and you can purchase a firearm or not. But you can be a private citizen selling a firearm and—at the same show—and there’s no background check, and that’s just not right. It’s not even fair to the gun dealers because they got to pay a fee to, you know, do a background check when they sell a firearm.

But, yes, number one, we need to keep firearms out of the hands of people who should not be using them. And our country has a mental health crisis right now, and part of this has been because of well-intentioned laws from 30, 35 years ago that were being pressed by the ACLU, among other organizations, regarding involuntarily committing any individual into a mental facility. So they were protecting the individual, but the result ended up being that there are a lot of people out on the street who need the kind of mental assistance—mental health assistance that we don’t have available anymore.

And the second part of this is how you share information. For instance, if you look at the Virginia Tech shooting in April of ’07, that individual had been treated by three different mental health care professionals and they could not share that information—for privacy laws, they could not share that information laterally among one another or to the situation where this individual was not allowed to purchase firearms. For every one American who’s now in a mental health facility, there are 10 who are in prison—mentally ill people in prison. We need to invigorate our mental health treatment in this country so that we can take care of these people before they reach that point.

But in terms of gun ownership for the vast majority of Americans who are not in those two categories—either a criminal element or those who have mental issues—I’m a strong believer in the Second Amendment. You know, I believe I have the right to protect myself and my family. And as I mentioned the other night, there are a lot of very high-ranking government officials who have 24-hour-a-day—and not only government officials, businesspeople, too, who have—24 hours a day they’ve got armed bodyguards who protect them. The average American doesn’t have that. And also, I come from a culture where firearms are part of the tradition, the Appalachian Mountains—you know, Ulster-Scots Appalachian Mountains culture, where firearms are a way of life. And in my lifetime I have never been in or around a situation where those firearms were used in a criminal manner or against another person. So we don’t want to deny people who have the tradition on the one hand, and the purpose of protecting themselves and their family on the other, from having a firearm.

WEISBERG: Let’s have another question. Yes, in the back, and then we’ll come this way.

Q: My name is Lucha Enthini (ph). I’m the correspondent of a magazine that translated into English would be entitled Foreign Affairs, from Rome.

Could you expand a little on your opposition to the Iran deal? But not so much in terms of the nuclear question itself, but of the balance that it affects in the Middle East, please.

WEBB: Yes.

WEISBERG: Thank you.

WEBB: The way—the way that I was addressing that issue when I spoke earlier is exactly to your point. On the one hand, the—whether or not this agreement can be properly implemented through the time period, at the end of it we have essentially acquiesced to the idea that Iran could acquire a nuclear weapons and the—or the materials to construct and use nuclear weapons. And the timing of this, the agreement—whatever’s in the agreement: the lifting of sanctions, all these other things—is a very bad timing in the region with all of the instability that we are seeing because of other policies. So the way—in my view, the way that this agreement is being viewed in the region is that we are acquiescing to Iran having a larger role in terms of the traditional balance of power among those three entities in the region.

WEISBERG: We might have time for two more questions. The gentleman in the middle table here.

Q: Thank you. And thank you, Senator, for your service, which has been extraordinary.

I work in the intersection of religion and public policy, and I’d like to ask you about how you understand conceptually our strategic interest as a nation. As I listen to you answer the question about intervention, particularly—

WEBB: I’m sorry, the question about?

Q: About intervention.

WEBB: Oh. Yes.

Q: —particularly about Rwanda, I found myself going back through the 20th century wondering which of our military engagements would qualify on your terms. And it’s not clear to me, other than the response to Pearl Harbor, that any of them would qualify. Your response to the question about China suggests that we are the people to stand up to any threat to national sovereignty. I’m trying to arbitrage—

WEISBERG: Could you just frame it as a question? Yeah.

Q: How do you understand our national strategic interest as it relates to the tension between state sovereignty and human rights?

WEBB: Well, essentially from the first part of your statement before your question, you’re asking what the definition of—what definition of humanitarian intervention would be acceptable under the comments that I was making. The answer to that is this: Without the involvement of the United States Congress, what you have is a completely undefinable standard that is determined solely by whoever is president of the United States. That is—that is the lesson from Libya.

For instance, it didn’t have to be Rwanda. If we—you know, I got a lot of Irish ancestry on both sides. Some people tease me I’m Irish Protestant Irish Catholic, so I’m on sort of my own battleground. (Laughter.) But let’s just say something—this is theoretical, but let’s say something flared up in Ireland. Under this weak standard, a president arguably could just say, OK, we’re going to go do a humanitarian intervention there. I mean, it’s just—it is undefinable.

There’s nothing wrong—if you take a look at Libya, there was—you know, there was no timeline in here. This was not an urgent situation. The president could have come to the Congress and said, these are my objectives, this is what we are seeing. And by the way, there was—there was so much in terms of Libya that was being hyped, you know, to get people’s emotions going, that really didn’t occur at all. The main thing that occurred in Libya was the transportation of about 2,500 weapons—antiaircraft missiles, these sorts of things—out into the rest of the region that only inflamed the problems in the region.

So it’s an excellent question, sir, and I think the answer is you bring these situations to the Congress so that you don’t have unbridled authority by the administration—by any administration.

WEISBERG: I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. But I do want to say thank you, Senator, and good luck on the campaign trail.

WEBB: Well, thank you very much, I appreciate all you coming. Thank you. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

"I believe that our most important, long-term, strategic challenge is our relationship with China."
- Jim Webb
"In order to retain a contingent in Afghanistan, the first step for a president is to ask to define the military necessity and what the mission would be, and it could be related to a specific objective, or—could potentially make the case for longer-term stability. But foreign militaries don’t do well long term in that part of the world."
- Jim Webb
"I don't think it's right for me to be characterized as saying I am anti-intervention. I led what became called the strategic pivot to Asia."
- Jim Webb
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