U.S. Security Amid Budget Cuts: A Conversation with Senator Chris Murphy
U.S. Senator (D-CT); Member, Senate Committee on Appropriations and Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Washington Bureau Chief and Senior Vice President, CNN
As Congress considers President Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the State Department and USAID, Senator Murphy unveils a dramatically different approach that calls for a near doubling of the international affairs budget as a means to ensure U.S. national security.
FEIST: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Senator Chris Murphy. I’m Sam Feist, the Washington bureau chief and senior vice president for CNN, and I’ll be presiding over our conversation. In addition to the Council members who are here in Washington, I also want to welcome those of you around the country who are watching on CSPAN this afternoon. So, obviously, today’s meeting is on the record.
Our speaker today is Connecticut Senator Christopher Murphy. Senator Murphy was elected to the Senate in 2012, after representing Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District for two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Senator Murphy serves on the Appropriations Committee, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and, most appropriate for our purposes today, serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he is the ranking member on the Europe and Regional Cooperation Subcommittee. He has been particularly outspoken recently on Syria and Russia, so I guess that means we’ll have plenty to talk about. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Senator Chris Murphy. (Applause.)
MURPHY: Well, thank you very much, Sam. I look forward to our conversation. Thank you to all of my friends at the Council for having me here today, and for your guidance throughout my time in the Senate and in the House of Representatives.
The speed and precision of Thursday night’s military attack on an airbase in Syria—it was as impressive as it was predictable. The destroyers, the USS Porter and the USS Ross, approximately $4 billion worth of steel and weaponry. They quickly moved into position in the Eastern Mediterranean as strike planners and intelligence officers, scores of them, were busy assigning targets. In eastern Syria, 500 U.S. troops amassed to help plan and orchestrate the upcoming assault on the city of Raqqa, at a cost of about a million dollars per troop per year, were ordered to retreat to safety in order to avoid potential retaliation. When the missile strike was finally ordered, almost 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched, costing about $1.5 million each. Ninety-eight percent of them struck their intended target.
Within one week of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack, a major military attack was conceived, planned, and executed with deadly precision. It was America, frankly, at its most impressive. No military in the world has more capacity than ours. None is more lethal. None is more efficient. None is more nimble. When the U.S. military is given a task, resources are never a question, capacity is never in doubt, time is just a minor obstacle. And so no one was surprised Thursday night when word came down that the attack went as planned, perfectly.
And Friday morning, no one was surprised when the attack did nothing to change the reality of the dystopia-creating civil war inside Syria that has killed 400,000. No one was surprised that a political solution still seemed a billion miles away. No one was surprised that no matter how badly damaged that airfield was, Syria is still just as big a national security nightmare for the United States and our allies. Why? Well, because neither the root of the crisis in Syria, nor the way out, is rooted in problems that the military alone can solve. The way in and the way out—it’s political, it’s cultural, it's social, it's economic.
And so it’s no secret why Syria feels just as hopeless after Thursday as it did before. When a problem is diagnosed as military, the Department of Defense never has to worry about having enough money or capacity or support from Congress. But when a problem like Syria is diagnosed as political, or economic, or social, no one can even imagine a real solution because the agencies that do that work—the State Department and USAID primarily—they are set up to fail. They are only given the funding crumbs and never resourced to actually win, just enough to keep the doors open.
And this happens over and over and over again across the landscape of U.S. national security problems. Yes, some of our major adversaries and rivals across the world, they’re building up their militaries. But almost without exception, the crises that are popping up globally have little to do with kinetic power. Russia’s military, it’s revamped, but Moscow is on the march because it’s figured out how to use its oil and gas largess, old-fashioned intimidation and graft, and information and propaganda in order to bully neighboring countries into the Kremlin’s corner. China’s building an aircraft carrier, but it has more friends now than ever before because of its willingness to spread capital all over the globe, no strings attached, bribing leaders to China’s side with gigantic investment deals. North Korea may be trying to build the capacity to fire a missile at the United States, but their only successful attacks on U.S. soil have been cyber, not nuclear.
And those are just the state actors. As political instability grows all over the world a record number of displaced persons, four current famines, states breakdown and extremist groups step into the vacuum. Fewer capable governments mean less capacity to deal with game-changing developments, like disease outbreaks. The continued creep of political breakdown, it’s potentially catastrophic news for the United States—more ungovernable space means more room for the enemies of the U.S. to grow, whether they be terrorist organizations or untreatable viruses.
The non-military challenges to the world order and to American security, they mount by the day. Frankly, the define the new threats that lay at our doorstep. And yet, we scratch our heads and wonder why, under both President Obama and President Bush, pursuing very different philosophies of strategies, with nearly unlimited resources, our enemies seemed only to multiply and strengthen.
The answer to me is simple: A strong American military is still vital to guard against conventional security threats, but the emerging threats to global stability exert influence that cannot be checked with military power alone. We face a new world today. And the new global power players, emerging economies, energy-rich bullies, developing world youth poverty bulges, and shadowy terrorist groups, are increasingly immune to the blunt force of American military hegemony. The world has changed, the tools that our rivals and our enemies used have transformed. And yet, we have stayed the same.
Now, we pay lip service to standing up new capacities to meet these new threats, but it’s largely just that—lip service. Military and intelligence spending still outpaces diplomacy and development spending by a 20-to-1 margin—20-to-1. Think about it this way, we have more people working at military grocery stores today than we have diplomats in the State Department. That’s insanity. Or how about this, in the global competition for foreign investment China’s lapping us. Why? Maybe it’s because our budget for public diplomacy around the world is $650 million and their budget for creating economic and political goodwill is $10 billion.
Or how about foreign aid? We wonder why it’s not effective anymore. Well, in 1950, when we were rebuilding Europe after World War II, we were spending 2 percent of our GDP on international assistance programs. Today, that number of 0.1 percent. That’s a 94 percent diminution. We’re getting what we pay for. We wonder why Egypt won’t get serious about governance reform that could reduce the flow of young men into terrorist groups. Well, maybe it’s because Saudi Arabia’s pumping 10 times the amount the United States is into the Egyptian economy. And as a consequence, their priorities take precedence.
The bottom line is this, every U.S. president—Republican or Democrat—is destined to fail if we don’t recognize that the toolkit that we currently give to our commander in chief is a total mismatch for the real challenges that our nation faces. So here’s the argument that I want to make today. It’s time that we thought about our non-kinetic forces in the same way that we think about our war fighters. We need to give the Department of Defense everything it needs to succeed. We should do that. It’s a dangerous world out there. And peace is achieved in party through military strength. I want my country to have the capacity to do what it did on Thursday night.
What I’m saying is that we should look at the State Department and USAID like we look at the Department of Defense. If it’s reasonable to ask for $50 billion more in military funding, as the president is, then it should also be reasonable to propose $50 billion more in non-military security funding. And so today, I’m unveiling a detailed proposal to change course, and I hope you’ll take a look at it. I’m showing the path forward to right-size America’s national security budget for the real threats that face our country. I’m outlining the way that we can rebuild our country’s nation security toolkit so that presidents have, for the first time in our memory, the option to succeed globally if they choose to.
And so here’s how it would work. First, we need to recognize the success of the Marshall Plan wasn’t an accident. Spending money on building stability is a great national security investment. And it’s never been in greater need than it is today. We can’t compete with China or Russia or even ISIS if America exits the economic development playing field. And we cannot continue playing the role of global fire department, responding to crises only after they’ve developed into four-alarm blazes. Instead, we need a 21st century Marshall Plan that recognizes that the best prophylactic against extremism, despotism and armed conflict in at-risk regions, and the best pathway to open new markets to American goods, is economic empowerment.
So the plan sets forward specific proposals to do this. First, let’s just take the handcuffs off of U.S. development financing. This doesn’t come at any expense to the U.S. taxpayer. Why is America, the global capital of capital markets, allowing China to run circles around us when it comes to global finance. It’s time to consolidate the current alphabet soup of financing agencies into one powerhouse, the U.S. international development bank, and take off all the restrictions that currently exist on development finance so that we can complete with countries like China or Russia or India for global deals that are good for the U.S. and U.S. companies.
Then let’s really ramp up the Millennium Challenge Corporation. It’s a model that works, but the money isn’t enough to demand real reform and there’s a line of countries that want in. A reinvigorated MCC could make huge leaps forward on global stability. And we should partner the MCC with a new program to fragile states, where money is fronted to coincide with the implementation of reforms, so that the development aid coming from the United States reaches countries where it really matters.
Finally recognize that our adversaries, they are using energy as a weapon. And we should start fighting back. Begin financing energy independence for countries on the periphery of petro-dictators. Put money up to do it, and have a robust policy of moving U.S. LNG to ports of allies and would-be allies. Making Ukraine energy independent is a better long-term investment than anything we could do with their military.
And a second set of proposals envisions an America that can truly respond to security crises before they necessitate the deployment of cruise missiles. There is nothing soft about the work that our diplomats do to protect and advance U.S. security, whether they’re countering Russian-fed corruption in the Balkans, working to stem the flow of undocumented migrants from Central America, or spreading—or fighting the spread of intolerant Islam in the Middle East, our diplomats are hardened defenders of U.S. security all over the globe. And by the way, they don’t cost 1 million per year to deploy.
So this report focuses on powering up some of the most important missions of the State Department, a renewed focus on countering extremists and state-backed propaganda. It’s already underway, but it needs more help. Rapidly spreading corruption, it’s undermining the rule of law and U.S. interests all over the world. And a new cadre of Foreign Service officers who are dedicated to promoting good governance can help turn the tide. And no organization provides better diplomacy bang for the buck than the Peace Corps. It builds stability and it helps sell America. So it deserves to get back to Kennedy-era levels of performance.
And the third and final set of proposals would put into place the necessary funding so that the United States can finally lead on global crisis management and prevention. Eventually the slope of every international crisis, it flows to the United States. Developing and festering crises, whether they be military conflicts or famines, they eventually threaten us. Civil wars in the Middle East drive extremist recruitment. Public safety crises in Central America drive undocumented migration to America. Disease epidemics in Africa, they can be at our shores within hours. If the United States doesn’t step up to address these crises and prevent them before they arise, no one will. And we will end up paying the price for this abdication of global leadership.
And while this proposal calls for some immediate increases in the historical accounts that fund humanitarian assistance, there are two major reforms included here. First, a major consolidation of the existing flexible funding accounts within State and USAID to respond to developing political or military or social crises. These funding streams as they exist now, they’re well-meaning but they’re redundant and they’re underfunded.
I always remember the undersecretary who came to my office to complain that though the U.S. saw Al-Shabaab moving into northern Kenya, we couldn’t do anything about it because we didn’t have the authority to move money from one account to the other to stand up the capacities that were needed to keep terrorist recruitment in Kenya at bay. Our new global crisis prevention account will give the president the ability to deploy non-military stabilization assets into an area before it falls into governance chaos. We simply don’t have the resources or the agility to do this now.
Second, a new pre-funded global health account that would allow the president to stop a pandemic in its infant stage, rather than having to wait for Congress to appropriate billions necessary to turn it back once it reaches adolescence. Estimates are that the billions spent on Ebola could have been just millions of the Obama administration had the money to spend a year earlier.
Now, as you read through this report or—it’s a big report, so at least the executive summary—I do hope that you’ll think that I haven’t gone mad, because I understand what I’m doing here. I’m arguing unapologetically for a doubling of the foreign affairs budget over the course of five years at a political moment in time when our president is calling for the same budget to be cut by 30 percent by this year alone. I understand that today this is not a realistic proposal. But it’s a marker. It’s a marker for where we should be, and a marker for the coming debate so that the terms don’t start such that flat funding is on one side and a devastating 30 percent cut is on the other.
And for the majority of smart thinkers on global security that know that our foreign affairs budget is badly underfunded today, we need to be on offense. President Trump’s medieval view of the world, in which the U.S. can protect itself with a big army and a bigger moat, it’s wrong and it’s dangerous. And the fawning, frankly, that’s happened over this weekend’s missile strike in Syria will just fan the flames of his backwards views on national security. Syria is just a big a mess today as it was Wednesday, maybe even a bigger mess if Assad or Russia or Iran responds to the attack with an escalation of their own. And the world is a mess too. The clean-up can’t happen if the U.S. continues to spend money the way we are today, ignoring the blizzard of crises that cannot be solved if we continue to equip the Department of Defense with everything they need and the Department of State with the crumbs that are left over.
I am glad that we have those aircraft carriers, but the best investment in U.S. national security isn’t another piece of military machinery. It’s making unstable places stable. The world has changed. The tools of our rivals have transfigured. The battlefield is different than it was decades ago. And the way that we fund the fight has to keep up.
Thank you very much for having me today. I look forward to the conversation. (Applause.)
FEIST: Thank you very much, Senator. You have given us quite a bit to think about. Full disclosure, I grew up in Connecticut, but you wouldn’t want that to affect the quality of the quality of the questions in any way. (Laughter.)
So we’ll get to Syria and the strike in just a moment, but I want to follow up on your proposal that you’re releasing now. So I had a chance to look at it over the weekend. And the costs of your proposal add up, if I did my math right, to $131 billion over the next five years, adding $131 billion to the existing federal budget. That’s before you count the president’s 30-something percent cuts to the State Department and foreign aid budget.
So first I want to follow on something that you said. Donald Trump won the election. Is this the time to be suggesting that there’s any chance in the realistic future of adding $131 billion to the State Department and the foreign aid budget?
MURPHY: Well, again, I try to set this in context of the debate that we’re having. President Trump has called for a massive plus-up in national security funding. His proposal is at the Department of Defense. But he signaled—he is signaling a willingness to talk about increasing the resources that we’re using to protect this country. And what I’m trying to lay forward in this proposal is that if we are going to talk about that massive increase, then it’s misspent if it’s only happening in the buildup of ships and aircraft carriers and tankers.
So, yeah, I understand that this is cross-cultural today. But remember President Trump as a candidate, right? As a candidate, listen, his foreign policy signals were all over the place. But he did seem to preview that he understood the danger of U.S. military intervention inside the Middle East without a political component to that plan, right? He was much more of a skeptic about military intervention than he was an enthusiast. And so, if that’s the president that we have, the strike last night notwithstanding, then why wouldn’t he want tools that would allow him and his administration to learn the lessons?
He seems to have set up this sort of dichotomy between hard power, which is good, and soft power, which is bad. Part of the pitch that I’m trying to make here is that there’s nothing soft about what the State Department does and what they can do, right? These are hardened warriors for American security and national security. And I think if we try to reframe this debate and go on the offense, maybe there are some people in that administration who do know the disaster of American foreign policy in the Middle East over the last 15 years, who are looking for some new ways of thinking.
FEIST: So the president has proposed some $54 billion in increased defense spending, paid for largely by cuts in domestic spending, including the State Department, as we’ve just discussed. Do you support any increase in defense funding at this point?
MURPHY: Absolutely. And I try to make that point, you know, in my speech and in the piece, that I really do believe in peace through strength. There are a lot of bad things that have not happened in this world because people knew that if they crossed certain lines the U.S. military would be there as a backstop. So I do support increased military spending. I certainly don’t support it at the expense of the State Department or domestic accounts. I just—you know, I’m laying out a very aggressive proposal, but I think we should be talking about commensurate increases in State Department funding with military increases.
FEIST: Do you want to put a number on it? He proposed $54 billion in increased defense spending. If you were in charge of the world, what would you recommend?
MURPHY: Well, again, I think I can easily find—and I’ve recommended over five years increasing—the numbers sort of play out different ways if you parse it different ways—but I’m recommending about 50 billion (dollars) in increased foreign affairs spending after five years. So I can argue for $50 billion this year split evenly between military accounts and non-military accounts. I think we could put that to good use very, very quickly.
FEIST: So polls show over and over and over that the American public has absolutely no idea how much is really spent on foreign aid.
FEIST: A recent one suggested that the American people believe—the average American believes that some 31 percent of the U.S. federal budget goes to foreign aid, while the actual number is obviously less than 1 percent. Why is the public so woefully uninformed? Where is this coming from?
MURPHY: Well, you know, it’s been a convenient talking point for a lot of folks who don’t, you know, have a stake in this game. And, you know, there have been very high-profile uses of this money overseas, right? People watched U.S. conduct in Afghanistan and Iraq on their nightly news for 15 years. And a component of that story was the amount of money that we were spending to build up those countries. It’s interesting, because the next question in those polls is how much money do you think the federal government should be spending. And Americans actually don’t think that 1 percent is the right number. They actually think the right number is closer to 10 percent.
So if you actually drill down, Americans are much more willing to spend additional dollars if they know the actual size of the account today. And people do have this sort of wonderful nostalgia for the 1950s and ’60s, when we were helping to rebuild Europe. They remember the beneficial uses of that funding. And if you told them that you’ve seen a 94 percent diminution from those halcyon days, and you make that argument consistently, you can reframe the debate.
FEIST: So what’s happened to the folks on your side, the people who want to spend more money, think that we need to spend more money on accounts such as the ones that you described in your talk earlier, that you side has so woefully failed to communicate this reality, that the public is so completely uninformed about what the government spends, what it doesn’t spend and, as you suggested, what they should spend?
MURPHY: Yeah. I mean, listen, this is a disease that infects my party all the time. We sort of get on, you know, the wrong side of the debate, and we start—we stop fighting it, and then it just becomes a vicious downward cycle, right? That happened on health care. The minute we felt like were losing that debate, we just stopped engaging in it. The same thing has happened with respect to foreign aid. You know, of course, it’s a very attractive argument, the idea that you should spend money here rather than over there. But we’ve decided to make a massive commitment to national security. It’s just a matter of where those dollars are best spent.
And when you walk through the American public, in just five minutes, to talk about the way that our enemies are building up these non-military sets of tools, it frankly is not that long a journey to get them to the point where they understand this. It’s just that Democrats—look, a couple things happened. Democrats lost a lot of our foreign policy big thinkers in the Senate, you know, in a very short period of time. So the folks who were really good at making this argument in the Senate—you know, Joe Biden and, you know, my predecessor, Joe Lieberman, you know, they all left. We need to rebuild a bench of foreign policy leaders in the Senate.
But then we also have to have the courage to know that if we make this argument, spend a little bit of time explaining to people why it’s more necessary to spend money outside of the military globally than ever before, that people will actually follow us there.
FEIST: So I want to get to Syria, before we have a chance to take questions from the other folks who are here. I want to pin you down on what happened last week. So, on the one hand, you were very complimentary of the capabilities of the U.S. military and what the strikes did, what the strikes were intended to do. And yet, you remain very critical of the—of the president’s overall policy. Just focused on what happened last Thursday night, do you believe that the president did the right thing in sending those cruise missiles?
MURPHY: I don’t. First and foremost, because he is not constitutionally authorized to do it. And that’s not a cop out, by the way. Some people say, well, what’s the strategic calculus, not the legal calculus. They are wrapped together, right? The reason that Congress is supposed to weigh in on these things is that we are supposed to be allowed to have the full scope of review when it comes to military activities overseas. And the Congress hasn’t weighed in on any of what’s happening in Syria today—not just the missile strikes, but also the 500-plus troops that are sitting in Raqqa, waiting to retake that city, but also getting involved in very complicated ways in the proxy fights that play out around.
Second, so long as we have a policy of trapping those children inside Syria and now allowing them to leave—either by stopping refugee flows into the United States or gutting resettlement accounts at the Department of State—it is an inhumane policy to bomb a country, setting off what we know will be some set of escalation, and then having no process to help people get out.
FEIST: Would you have voted to give him the authority had he gone to Congress on Thursday asking for the authority before he sent the missiles?
MURPHY: I mean, Congress would have then been able to have a conversation about what the policy in Syria is. It wouldn’t happen over the weekend, right? Congress would have debated for a couple weeks, let’s be honest.
FEIST: Which is one reason that sometimes presidents take action before they go to Congress.
MURPHY: Well, yeah, but that’s not an excuse. Just because it’s hard to get authorization, just because it takes time—remember, we give the permission to the executive to take immediate action if an imminent threat is made to the United States, because in those cases it doesn’t make sense to come to use for authorization. But, you know, let’s be honest about this strike. That message could have been sent a week later. Maybe they would have shipped all of their aircraft out of that particular air base. But if you’re really just interested in a pinprick, then you could have done that a week later. And during that time, we could have talked about what kind of authorization we wanted to give, whether we wanted to give—maybe we would have wanted to have given authorization for a targeted strike to respond to the chemical weapons attack, but not give authorization for the massive buildup of ground troops that eventually could sit in Syria for years. That debate could have happened. And it didn’t.
FEIST: Not to pin you down, but would you have supported the resolution you just described?
MURPHY: I think if there was a resolution before Congress to limit the potential for the expansion of a U.S.-led ground war with Syria, combined with an authorization to strike, I think that’s something that I would have been interested in potentially supporting.
FEIST: All right. So take a bigger-picture view of Syria for a moment. If you were in charge of the world, starting where the president started when he was inaugurated or starting right now, what would you do? It’s a mess. We know it’s a mess and there’s a long history of why it’s a mess. But what would you do now?
MURPHY: So I think, to step back for a second, America’s the only country in the world that believes that we can solve complicated political, social, religious problems on the other side of the world in places that we fundamentally don’t understand. We still have this leftover hubris as a nation that even after the Iraq and Afghanistan War is still with us, that we have to shake. Restraint sometimes is a smart policy. And so I know this is totally unsatisfactory to the folks who work professionally in the field of foreign affairs, but what we have done over the last four or five years in Syria is make the situation worse. We have given these rebels just enough support to keep the fight going, but never enough to win.
We have prolonged the carnage inside that country. You need to decide that you’re in or you’re out militarily. I would argue that we should be out. We should be focused on defeating ISIS, but we should not be engaged in the ultimate fight over who controls the Syrian regime. And we should have a robust humanitarian policy to let anybody out of that country who wants to be out, and be a player in the political process, use the levers that we have on countries like Russia and Iran and the Saudis to come to the table, but not believe that we are going to drive the political solution and not believe military support into the country to keep the fight going, though it’s never enough to get it done.
So what would I do? I’d pull the support for the rebels. I would up my game when it came to political pressure on the Iranians and the Russians, and use whatever levers—sanctions included—at our disposal to try to pressure them to step-up the fight. And I would dramatically expand our humanitarian assistance to help people who want to get out.
FEIST: Doesn’t that just leave Syria then to Assad and what he currently controls and Russia to basically run over the rest of the country, because without our assistance, without our military assistance including our airstrikes, there’s nothing left for the rebels to do. They can’t stand up to the Syrian and the Russian military.
MURPHY: Well, it begs the question. Would you take Syria into 2010 as a trade for Syria today? I mean, Assad is a terrible guy.
FEIST: Right, but you have to start with today.
MURPHY: But what you’re saying is that a Syria where Assad is in charge for any period of time, and the Russians have serious equities is an unsatisfactory outcome. I understand, given what Assad has done, right, it is impossible to imagine a U.S. policy that allows him to stay even for a heartbeat. But we continue to pretend that there is this political settlement in which Russia and Iran abandon him. And so we continue to sort of feed this civil war under the belief that someday a set of circumstances will magically occur in which Russia and Iran push out Assad, they agree to willingly leave, and there is a pluralistic American-oriented government installed in Damascus. That is not happening. And so if there—if Assad needs to be a transition, if we need to guarantee some continued stake in Syria’s affairs for Russia and Iran, I don’t think that’s an unjustifiable price to pay for the end to the carnage that’s happening inside that country.
FEIST: Well, that suggests that if we leave it to Russia and to Assad, that the carnage would somehow end or be abated. It would—very much likely would continue in one form or another for a while, but it would—just without our help.
MURPHY: Right. I mean, the question is had we—so had we not sort of propped up the rebels with training, with weapons, had we not worked with our partners to do that, where would Syria be today? It may be that the civil war wouldn’t be continuing, maybe that Assad would still be in power, but it might be a fundamentally less violent place than it is today.
I’m not—I’m not saying—I don’t do this—you know, I don’t spend every moment of my day thinking about this problem. So I think a lot of about it. I’m not telling you I’m sure that’s the right outcome. But the middle ground that we are in today where we are propping up this civil war and just waiting for the moment in which all of the things that we want align themselves just to me seems a fancy.
FEIST: At this time I’ll give our Council members here an opportunity to join our conversation with questions. Please raise your hand and then please wait for the microphone. Speak directly into it. State your name and your affiliation. And we’d like to get as many members as possible, so please keep your question to a question. My definition of a question, something like 15 to 20 seconds. After that it definitely becomes a statement. So let’s stick with the questions.
We’ll start right here. Sir.
Q: Thank you, Senator Murphy. Mark Jacobson, Georgetown University.
Secretary of State Tillerson is headed to Moscow. How would you define success with regards to his mission there?
How does that sound? Is that OK?
FEIST: Excellent. Thank you.
MURPHY: Yeah, that’s a good—yeah, that’s a short one.
Well, I mean, I’m pleased at the, you know, really stunning change of rhetoric that has happened with respect to U.S.-Russia relations in the last 48 hours. I mean, it’s sort of hard to understand why we all of a sudden decided to take this antagonistic stand when the president or his team wasn’t willing to do that. And I do think that there is a way to read what happened in Syria last week through the lens of softness on Russia. Russia has complicity in these chemical weapons attacks. And you have to ask themselves, did they think they could away with it because the United States had essentially signed for most of this administration that there was really no price to be paid by the Russians if they behaved in irresponsible manners throughout the—throughout the world? So I think you have to ask that question. But again, that’s past. What is prologue is this meeting with Lavrov.
What’s success? Boy, I have very low expectations for this—for this meeting in part because the Russians are going to try to make it unsuccessful in order to provide a repercussion for this dramatic turn in rhetoric. So, you know, I guess success to me is Tillerson coming out of it talking the same way that he did going in and then coming to work with us in Congress on a set of sanctions that start to continue to tighten the noose on Russia so that eventually we have the leverage necessary to get a better deal. I think I have very low expectations for this meeting.
FEIST: Although if I read between the lines I thought I heard you saying that there is at least a little bit of a positive development over the last 48 hours.
MURPHY: Yeah. No, absolutely. I mean, this is a very different administration when it comes to the way that they talk about Russia. And I think that’s a positive development. We have legislation ready to go in Congress that they could work with us.
Again, all of this is dizzying to our allies and adversaries. And the fact that, you know, we still don’t have a Syria policy—we had two different ones on the TV talk shows. So all of this—
FEIST: There’s nothing wrong with TV talk shows.
MURPHY: I know. There’s no—and yeah, especially if they make news in the way that they did yesterday.
No, but I think it’s good that we change. But I'm not excited for an administration that seems to have this kind of sort of rapid transformation in their policy and rhetoric. That’s not great news for global stability.
FEIST: Right here, ma’am. Right in front. Microphone’s right over here.
Q: Senator, thank you for coming today. Frances Cook.
As one of quite a—probably a dozen FSO ambassadors in the room, I think all we can say to your funding comments is hallelujah. Thank you. I hope it comes with slots, too.
Watching the Congress from this end of town has not really been edifying in the last couple of weeks between the health care debate and the Gorsuch fight. Do you think that there’s enough people in the Congress who would support what you’re proposing today so that we can maybe hope for this in coming years? It certainly won’t come from the administration, but the Congress controls the budget.
MURPHY: Yeah. No, I don’t there are enough. But there—but there is bipartisan support for a proposal like this. As you know, you know, Lindsey Graham has been traveling the world making the case for a new Marshall Plan. He understands—you know, there’s no bigger hawk out there than Lindsey Graham, and he understands—as General Mattis does, by the way—that as General Mattis says, if you cut my State Department funding, you got to buy me more bullets.
You have some new voices in the Senate who are really good on this stuff as well. Anybody that’s listened to Senator Todd Young, the new senator from Indiana, boy, you know, he is a strong voice when it comes to these accounts. And, you know, just a few extra advocates in the Senate can make a difference.
I think what we’re going to—what we’re going to—what—victories in the short term is parity between State Department increases and military increases. But in the long term, we’ve definitely got a handful of people who understand the value of plussing-up these nonmilitary tools to counter what our adversaries and rivals are doing.
FEIST: Questions in—yes, sir, right here in the middle.
Q: Greg Thielmann, board member of the Arms Control Association.
Senator, President Trump apparently decided very quickly without consulting Congress, without consulting our allies, without engaging the international community on this attack. Doesn’t this make an argument for the Markey-Lieu legislation? It would at least require the president before he launches a first nuclear strike to consult with Congress.
MURPHY: I’m not—I’m not as familiar with that piece of legislation as I should, so I’ll get familiar with it.
Yeah, I would say that notification to Congress and consultation with Congress was woefully lacking here. There were I think a handful of discussions that happened, but there was no broad notification. In fact, I know that top Democrats were being told as the strikes were being launched. It certainly appears that many of his lieutenants had international conversations after the fact. It doesn’t seem that President Trump had many direct conversations. Again, much of the work on this seems to have been outsourced. Now, he was busy this weekend. He was conducting some pretty important diplomacy with the Chinese. But he did seem to leave a lot of the international conversations to others.
As you know, you know, international support for the strike has been, you know, fairly robust. And so I don’t think you can fault him for not building an international coalition if in the end most of our international players were supportive of the—of the strike. It maybe would be better if he was doing a little bit of that ahead of time or personally.
FEIST: Yes, sir.
Q: Thank you. Manji Dawadi (ph) from the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and one of Senator Murphy’s constituency from Connecticut as well.
In your plan, Senator, would you support—you talked about a Marshall Plan. Would you support a Marshall Plan for a country like Tunisia, who is making a transition to democracy but still struggling with its economic and also security situation on the border with Libya?
MURPHY: I mean, Tunisia in many ways is almost the poster child for what I’m talking about. Tunisia, right, a country obviously that, you know, is an outlier in that it comes out of the Arab Spring somewhat intact but has enormous security challenges—you know, the per capita flow of foreign fighters out of Tunisia, you know, still alarmingly high given the fact that this is a, you know, a government that made that transition better than others; a country crying out for economic investment and has an inclusive political structure that’s able to take it, and yet, you know, we have to fight every single year just to keep a tiny flow of economic development funds flowing into Tunisia. Don’t assume that Tunisia stays stable. And the amount of money that we may have to spend five or 10 years from now on managing a crisis is—well, it’s just a mountain compared to the peanuts that might be necessary to build some real political stability there.
FEIST: Yes, sir, right here in front.
Q: Yeah. Tom McNaugher at Georgetown.
Abrupt change of subject. Can you tell me where the Budget Control Act plays in your plan? And where do you think it’ll be next fall? And if it’s still there, what are you cutting?
MURPHY: Yeah, so the—so the—so the current sequestration and budget control constraints would have to be removed in order for this kind of plan to be—to be put into place. So again, I’m imagining this in a world where we finally have decided that the insanity of sequestration should no longer apply.
But the amount of money we’re talking about is big. I’m not going to suggest that $50 billion isn’t a large number. But that’s the amount of money that you save if you decide to directly negotiate the price of prescription drugs with drug companies through Medicare, right? There are single policy changes that can get you $50 billion. That is a minor adjustment in tax rates for upper income earners. The policy changes are not—are not catastrophically large if you chose to make them in order to come up with this money.
And part of what I’m arguing is just that the administration and the folks that propose these supplementals should be thinking about supplemental requests in these nonmilitary accounts. You know, when the president makes many of these proposals, you know, often they’re unpaid for because they’re to treat emergencies. When they do that, they should be including nonmilitary accounts as well.
FEIST: Right here in the middle.
Q: Sean Murphy from George Washington University.
I’m wondering, Senator, if part of your argument could be supported by observing that a large amount of what the Department of Defense does is in fact not hard power. That is, a lot of what they do are things like working on the ground in Afghanistan or in Iraq or building tents in West Africa to address Ebola, disaster relief in various contexts. There is certainly hardware behind it and so on, but I’ve always been struck at how much diplomacy our American men and women in the service do. And if you conceive of that as part of the soft power side of things, then all you’re talking about is augmenting that with other experts who have language skills and experience and so on to make the whole package work together extremely well.
MURPHY: I think it’s a—I think it’s a wonderful point. I think you’ve seen this sort of slow, quiet shift since 2003 in which the military has outsourced—has outsourced sort of traditional military work to the covert agencies, and the State Department has outsourced diplomacy to the military. And the one group sort of left without much to do these days is the State Department because much of their work has been shipped off to somebody else, and they’ve been badly underfunded just to do what they need to do today. So yeah, I think that that’s part of the argument.
And, you know, as Rosa Brooks points out in her wonderful book that she wrote about sort of all things becoming military, part of the reason that we channel so much traditional diplomacy through the military is because they’re flexible. It’s because they can stand up capacities really fast in a way that the State Department, frankly, cannot. The State Department’s funding is so compartmentalized, right, there is so little flexibility for an assistant secretary to move money from one country to another, right—it’s all country account-specific and capability account-specific—that when you decide you want to do something like, you know, dramatically expand arable land in a corner of Afghanistan, the Department of Defense can come to you and tell you how they can do it much faster than the State Department can do it.
And so that’s why a big part of my proposal is built around giving more flexibility within the State Department, consolidating accounts so that you can move money around. I know to many of my Democratic friends that’ll be a scary discretionary power to give this executive. But again, I think that every president is destined to fail unless we give them the kind of flexibility in the nonmilitary account that we give them in the military account.
FEIST: To just pick up on that for just a moment: We are in a city now that is controlled by Republican Senate, Republican House and a Republican White House. Yet we have a president who frequently talks about making a deal. At the end of the day, we know the president has a bias towards a military buildup. You have ticked through quiet a number of things that you believe that foreign aid and the State Department should focus on and the money that we need to spend on that. At the end of the day, what’s it really matter if the president—if you and the president and other like-minded members of Congress work together on accomplishing what you want to accomplish but via the Department of Defense rather than the Department of State?
MURPHY: I think that’s a—I think that’s a great—that’s a great question.
So I think in the end, the military, even given all of the new capacities they have given, are still trained and driven to do one thing primarily, which is that strike on Thursday night, right? They have transformed the way that military education occurs, but there is no way to create the capacity and basic training to mirror the capacity that you get in foreign service school. So it would involve a revolution of the State Department and the way in which people are trained into it—
FEIST: You mean the Defense Department.
MURPHY: The Defense Department, the Defense Department—in order for them to do it.
Listen, I think in a real big think environment, given the way that the world works today, you may want to have a conversation about one superstructure, right, which sees the full gamut of security challenges and is able to move the pieces around underneath it. Maybe sort of the, you know, 19th-century idea of an army and a foreign office doesn't work any longer.
And I’ll give you an example. Jim Jones and others put together a proposal that sort of starts to tease getting to that point. They suggested, why don’t we start by consolidating the State Department commands and the military commands, right? That’s one of our problems today is that you have—you have the State Department carved up in a way that actually doesn’t overlap with the way that the U.S. military command structure is set up. And so they’ve got a wonderful proposal out there that talks about consolidating the commands and have one person at the top of each regional command that’s overseeing both the military response and the nonmilitary response. That might be a start.
FEIST: Question right here in the middle.
Q: Hello. Nathan Hosler with the Church of the Brethren, D.C. office. I also convene a working group on Nigeria.
There is a Church of the Brethren much larger than the U.S. church in northeast Nigeria. So much of our work is around the ongoing crisis with Boko Haram. The working group has raised concerns around the accountability of the Nigeria military as well as need to increase humanitarian assistance. One of the pieces of that is—and you mentioned flexibility—the need for flexibility to work with smaller NGOs or on-the-ground organizations in a place that is very, very difficult to get to for larger organizations. So just a comment on that.
MURPHY: So I don’t—I don’t know Nigeria as well as others. But again, Nigeria strikes me as a place in which our current toolkit has simply not worked in part because, you know, we are supplying—what we try to hang over Nigeria’s head is support for the military. So we have this big slush fund in the Department of Defense which allows them to move foreign military aid around very fluidly; Nigeria is always in that pot. And we try to use that money to force the political change inside Nigeria that we know is necessary in order to build long-term stability.
But again, back to this question of who should be doing that, right? The Department of Defense, right, which is not in the business of creating political stability, probably isn’t the best agency to be using funding as leverage for political change. The State Department is in that business. That’s what they do. They should be the people that have the big bucket of money that is—use this pressure to leverage political change. But because we have a $10 billion slush fund in the Department of Defense but we don’t have a $10 slush fund in the Department of State, it’s the military, it’s generals that are sitting across from the Nigerians saying, hey, we’d love to give you this new money in order to fight Boko Haram, but you’ve got to make some big commitments in political reform; I’m not an expert on what those are, but it’s really important that you do that. The State Department is much better equipped to do that. They just don’t have the capability.
FEIST: But why can’t you use the same $10 billion slush fund, bring over friends of Ambassador Cook from the State Department and get the advice and accomplish the same thing or something similar—meaning we don’t want to wait for three years and nine months, or people on your side don’t want to wait for three years and nine months, to do something while, you know, we know who’s going to be in the White House; isn’t there something that you can do to work within the current power structure in Washington to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish—which are admirable, understanding that it’s highly unlikely that they’re going—that there is going to be significant funding increase at the State Department? In fact, at this point, president’s budget says there are going to be significant funding decreases.
MURPHY: Right, yeah, and I think today, you know, that’s probably what you want to do, right? I mean, over the next 12 months, you probably want to make sure that you have more sort of professional diplomats sitting at the table helping to negotiate military funding increases.
But listen, I’m just not willing to accept the way things that are done today. I understand what I’m proposing is a radical departure in the way that things are financed. Bu I don’t know, I mean, I’ve found in this town everything is impossible until it’s no longer impossible. You know, the things you never thought could come true sometimes do come true. And so why not put out a different way of doing things and think about it with respect to Nigeria as an example?
So today we’re stuck spending military dollars and using it as a means to push political reform. But if we had the capabilities that I’m talking about, then 10 years ago we could’ve been using money in Nigeria to build the kind of political reform that may have never allowed for extremism to run out of control as it is today. I don’t know that that’s how it would’ve played out, but when I said that at the beginning of the speech, I mean we can’t even envision, we can’t even envision real political economic solutions for places like Nigeria because we simply only have the resources to envision military solutions.
FEIST: Question over here in the red jacket. Yes.
Q: Hi. This is Jessica Kosmowski from Deloitte.
And I’m going to riff off of your question and maybe take it to the next level. What we’re talking about here is backing out from a 30 percent reduction in State to get to potentially zero to actually get to a plus-up position. And you’re going to need to do that along with Secretary Tillerson and bring him along in that journey in addition to thinking about getting more power back potentially from DOD back into State to re-establish their—you know, their chutzpah across the world. What is the plan for you and your brethren on the—on the committee to work with them to actually have them sort of flip their narrative to get back to being an advocate for this?
MURPHY: You guys are so practical, you know? (Laughter.) I’m trying to, like, lift your—I’m trying to lift you guys up into the clouds here, but you’re not coming, so—(laughter)—yeah, no, I think—obviously, this is our trade every day, so we’re thinking about how to plot forward the tactics of this.
So I have not lost hope in Secretary Tillerson, but I am not expecting him to be a daily advocate for plussing-up the accounts in his department. We had a private lunch with him two or three weeks ago, and he did not use that occasion to express a high level of confidence in the work that his department does. And so it’s going to be left to the State Department’s friends in the—in the Senate and the House to try to make those arguments.
And we have them. I mean, we have really good—we might not have ultimately Republican support for the massive increases that I’m talking about, but we have lots of Republicans who know how devastating a 30 percent cut would be.
And so I am—I’m not losing sleep at night thinking that there is going to be a budget that ends up with a 30 percent cut or even a 10 percent cut for the Department of State. I think at the very least we can maintain flat funding. And I think there’s a pretty good chance that we can get Republican and Democratic support for some targeted plus-ups in certain accounts within those subcommittees.
FEIST: I’m interested in that private lunch, just hearing a little bit more about it just among our friends here. (Laughter.)
MURPHY: I just—listen, I—you can—no, you can imagine the conversation—no, he—listen, he—Secretary Tillerson was good to have the Foreign Relations Committee, Republicans and Democrats, over at the State Department for a private meeting two weeks ago. You can imagine the subjects we talked about. Many of them were off the record.
But I didn’t walk away from that lunch thinking that this was a—that these 30 or 40 percent cuts were deeply antithetical to his way of thinking. He sounded like someone who was going to defend those cuts rather than push back against them.
And you’ve seen different members of the administration deal differently with these cuts. There are some that have come to Congress in their confirmation hearings and said, I don’t—you know, I don’t support them; I’m going to argue for more money for my department. And then there are other secretaries who, you know, don’t want to raise any public riff over it. It suggests to me right now that Tillerson is going to be of the latter category, not the former.
FEIST: Yes, right here in front.
Q: Thanks. Elisa Massimino with Human Rights First.
This is another practical question down in the weeds that deals with the relationship between the Pentagon and State.
Last month the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan stopped interviewing Afghans who had served with American forces there, people who are now fearing for their lives from the Taliban because of their service with us. There just aren’t any more special immigrant visas to be had. And now Senator McCain, Senator Reed, Senator Shaheen, a number of senators from both sides have proposed legislation that would increase by I think 2,500 the number of special immigrant visas to help save these folks who helped save us. What do you think about that? And how do we solve that problem?
MURPHY: Well, it’s a moral imperative, and it’s a national security imperative. I mean, I hope that in my political lifetime we’re not going to have another deployment like we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s probably likely that we will. And when we are in another country with big numbers, we are going to need the local population to work with us in a variety of ways, the least of which probably being simple translation services. And so as the word gets out that if you work with the United States, we are going to leave you to die, we are not going to rescue you, then why will anybody else work with us and cooperate with us overseas? It’s a moral stain, but it’s ultimately a practical liability.
And there are more of these folks in need than you can imagine. I mean, just small increases doesn’t begin to fill the need because the threats come not just to the individual but to their entire family. I literally was on the road going from pancake breakfast to pancake breakfast and stopped in to get something to drink at a convenience store, and the clerk at the convenience store in—I forget what town it was—Branford, Connecticut—owned two radio stations in Kabul that he had let the U.S. military use during the early stages of the occupation. Because of it, he was run out of Afghanistan. But his family was still there. And, you know, to his great fortune, a U.S. senator comes in to buy a Diet Mountain Dew. (Laughter.) And we started having this conversation about how many are left behind.
Again, this is a tough one because you’ve got the support in Congress, but when you start talking about fiddling with immigration policy, you know, with this administration, that may be one of their bright lines, which would be absolutely tragic.
FEIST: Right here. Yes, ma’am.
Q: Hi, Senator. Mona Yacoubian, formerly from USAID.
My question takes us back up into the clouds a big. For your plan as you’ve proposed it to gain traction, it seems that it would need to be—it would need to be anchored in a fundamental rethink of our national security strategy. Would you agree? And if so, what would the key tenets of that be?
MURPHY: Well, you’re clearly right, I mean—and I hope I articulated that in my remarks.
What I’m suggesting is that the tools that our adversaries are using are not primarily military in nature, and yet ours continue to be. And so you’ve got to build up a basket of tools that the American president has that matches those overseas, right? We are so proud of the fact that we have the biggest, baddest military in the world, and right, we wear it as a badge of honor that all of the other countries that—the next—the next 10 biggest militaries combined don’t equal ours. But that’s the only capacity in which we are the world leader, right? And why is that acceptable? Why is it acceptable that we are not the world leader on information flows? Why are we not the world leader on economic assistance? Why are we not the world leader on energy assistance? Why do we—why are we so proud to be the world leader when it comes to military power but we accept being in second or third or fourth place on all of these other capacities, which increasingly suggest as the ones that are going to really matter?
Second, I just think you’ve got to be thinking every day about stability, right? You know, in a world in which it only takes a little bit of ungovernable space for a handful of really bad people to plot a highly deadly attack against the United States, you got to be waking up every day thinking about how to reduce ungovernable space. And big military hardware doesn't do that. In fact, it often exacerbates the ungovernable space. So you got to be thinking every single day about that question in developing the capacities. You’re never going to eliminate ungovernable space, but dramatically reducing it makes it much less likely that anybody is going to be able to get a foothold on territory that will allow them to launch strikes against us.
FEIST: Senator, we end exactly where we—where we began. So thank you for your time today. Thank you all. Thank you for watching at home. Good afternoon. (Applause.)
This is an uncorrected transcript.