A Conversation With Adam Smith

Thursday, November 17, 2016
Sam Lee/Flickr
Adam Smith

Ranking Member, House Armed Services Committee (D-WA)

Claudia Rosett

Foreign Affairs Columnist, Forbes.com

Representative Adam Smith shares his outlook on Congress and U.S. foreign policy priorities for the next administration.

ROSETT: Good morning, everybody. Please get comfortable and welcome today’s council meeting on foreign relations—today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Representative Adam Smith. This meeting is on the record. Mr. Smith is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, on which he has served since 1997. He is now in his 10th term. He has also previously served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. You have his full biography in the handout.

I just want to say, as we all know, he joins us today at a pivotal moment in American politics. There’s a lot to talk about. He will deliver brief remarks and I will then join him on stage. We’ll talk for about 25 minutes and then open the floor to questions. Thank you.

SMITH: Thanks very much. I appreciate this opportunity. I agree, this is a critical moment and a transition point in U.S. foreign policy. Well, it’s a transition that’s been going on for about 10 years. And now, of course, we have, you know, a new president. We’ll have a new secretary of state, a new secretary of defense, a new CIA director. And where all that goes is anyone’s guess. I just want to make three quick points because when I took debate in college they told me you have to. (Laughter.) And also it sort of fits in what I want to say today.

The number one most important thing I think—well, they’re all three equally important, I believe. But, you know, the Republican Party coming into power, they don’t really have a foreign policy right now. For eight years, their foreign policy has been very simple: Whatever President Obama does is wrong, and they’ve been opposed to it. He went into Libya. That was wrong. He didn’t go into Syria soon enough. That was wrong. The Iran deal was wrong. Getting out of Iraq was—it twists is a whole bunch of different circles.

And doesn’t have any sort of cohesive whole because theoretically, you know, President Obama, at least accidentally, would gotten one thing right at some point if they had a consistent foreign policy that fit into it. So it really is true that their foreign policy has been very much focused on the world is going to hell and it’s President Obama’s fault for fill-in-the-blank reason. That leaves you with kind of a blank slate when you actually have to be in charge of making decisions in terms of what to do in Afghanistan, how to handle Russia, how to handle China, and all of the different issues that come at us.

The second thing, of course, is—with President Trump—foreign policy was not really the focus of his campaign. The focus of his campaign was economic populism. There’s, you know, a significant number of people in our country who aren’t getting a fair shake, and he stood up as the person who was going to be their voice. I won’t get into that in any greater depth, because I know there’s a lot of emotion on both sides of that argument. But foreign policy was kind of an afterthought.

So what does he do now? Nobody knows. I mean, when you look at the names that are being floated around for who’s going to have which Cabinet position, there’s really no consistency in it, in terms of the views of those people, first of all. And second of all, I think half the Republican members of Congress think they’re up for a Cabinet post. (Laughter.) So nobody knows. You know, I have talked to a couple of them. And they don’t know who you’re supposed to talk to, who’s making those decisions. So there’s a great unknown about what President Trump is going to do. And then the great unknown about who his team is, and what they are going to do.

Now, the final thing is there’s actually, believe it or not, an opportunity in this, because we have been transitioning in our foreign policy view. We had a very consistent foreign policy, relatively speaking, post-World War II up until, I don’t know, somewhere around—well, up until 9/11, arguably. And that is, you know, post-World War II we tried to build an international system of alliances and organizations to promote the greatest stability and prosperity that we could, and also to contain communism.

So, you know, we formed NATO. We formed the U.N. Back here, the National Security Council was created. And we built a system of alliances that was based on U.S. if not dominance than prominence. We were the guarantors of security for Europe, for South Korea, for Japan. And we built this structure around that. Now, obviously, those of you who know the history know there are a whole bunch of hiccups in what I just said—you know, wars and alliances that came and went, and different challenges.

But that was the structure. And you at least had a reasonably clear idea of what U.S. foreign policy was all about, who our allies were, who we were concerned about. Well, a lot of things have sort of blown that apart. And we need to sort of restructure what our global foreign policy picture is. Now, personally, what I would like to see happen is a recognition of growing powers elsewhere in the world, that, you know, the U.S. is not going to be the dominant power in the world, the way they were in the 20th century, in the 21st century. And personally, I think that’s OK, because having that kind of responsibility, as we’ve learned, is very, very difficult.

I found it very interesting that during the—you know, one period of the conflict in Egypt, both sides were claiming that the U.S. was backing the other side, because they knew that if they could convince people of that it would make more people agree with them in Egypt, because the U.S. had been in so many places for so long and done so much that we had offended and have offended a lot of people. And that has, you know, lessened our influence. And so going forward, I think we’re better off if we build a structure around a bunch of different countries that have responsibility for global prosperity and stability.

And, you know, theoretically that’s possible. And you can obviously know the countries that are going—would be part of that. China, obviously, you know, a growing power with an interest in global stability. The European Union still, despite some of the weaknesses that have come out of that in recent years. Hopefully Russia, though that took a wrong turn about a decade ago. Countries like India I think could be critical. Brazil, although, again, they’re struggling a little bit now.

But you could look at a global security approach that is focused on alliances and partners—and not just the large ones, but also working with local partners in parts of the world where we’re concerned about stability or have interests. The best example of that is the Horn of Africa, where, you know, the instability in Somalia led to Al-Shabaab and also al-Qaida getting a foothold. So we built alliances with Ethiopia, with Rwanda, with Kenya, and—I’m forgetting somebody, anyway—Uganda, and helped contain that part of the world at a relatively low cost to the U.S. in terms of the number of troops put there. And we can sort of build those alliances.

But all this, you know, has been kind of thrown up in the air by, number one, the rise of violent extremist Islamists and how we contain and deal with them and the terrorist threat that comes by that. Number two, the rise of Putin, where in Russia they have decided their number-one goal is to break down that structure that I just described. They don’t want Western control. They don’t seem to have a vision of what would come once it went away. And I think it is one of the great unfortunate incidences in foreign policy that we couldn’t find a way to sort of roll post-Soviet Russia into our global alliance and work with them as a partner instead of an adversary.

But Putin has made his decision, make no mistake about it. He wants the West to be weakened because he views it back in sort of the Cold War mentality of a zero-sum game. What’s bad for the West is good for Russia. What’s good for the West is bad for Russia. I hope we can find a way to convince him that that is in fact not the case and change some of his policies. But it’s a significant challenge. And, of course, China is trying to figure out how they fit into all of this. And then we’ve got Iran and North Korea as, you know, pretty strong wildcards in the whole scenario.

But this president and this foreign policy team that is coming in, and this Congress and the leaders, have an opportunity to shape a foreign policy that can best protect U.S. interests, that can best protect us from the terrorist threat that I described, find a way to work with Russia and China, find a way to contain North Korea, find a way to both contain Iran and hopefully move Iran towards a more peaceful player in the world—because I personally think there’s a real opportunity in Iran given that the overwhelming majority of the people don’t support their government’s extremist position. And if we can sort of move them in a more positive direction I think that could calm things down in the Middle East, at least a little bit.

But there are a ton of challenges and we need to build a new structure to accommodate those challenges. And the new president, the new Congress, that’s what we’re going to have to try to work together to do. And again, I think that structure should be around the notion of partnerships, that the U.S. is a significant player in global stability, but not the only one—and in parts of the world, probably not even the preeminent one—willing to work with and build partnerships that will help advance our interests. And it’ll be interesting to see how President Trump and his new Cabinet approach that.

So, with that, I will turn it over to the moderator and, you know, take your questions. Thank you.

ROSETT: Thank you very much—

SMITH: Thank you.

ROSETT: —for that overview. I want to start—my questions are mostly broad, but I want to start with just a quick personal question.

SMITH: Sure.

ROSETT: The Washington Post this morning has a lead article that brings us a list of some of the top members of—in Washington, on the Republican side. The controversial, provocateur Steve Bannon, the unquestionably loyal son-in-law, the firebrand Senator Jeff Sessions, the consummate party man Reince Priebus, the wonky Paul Ryan, the wily Mitch McConnell. Could I ask you, in that same spirit of descriptive brevity, how you see your role in this scene?

SMITH: Yeah. I found that descriptive brevity to be remarkably unhelpful, actually, because I don’t think anyone can be described so succinctly. (Laughs.) But I would say that the role that I hope to play on foreign policy issues is to help lead the Democratic Party, and the progressive wing of our party, in formulating a reasonably articulate foreign policy along the lines of what I just said. And I hope in the next four years we take a different approach than the Republicans took in the last eight, decide on what our foreign policy should be and not simply say that everything that President Trump does is idiotic and wrong, to fit it into that larger context of what we’re trying to accomplish.

ROSETT: In that spirit, could I ask you, again just in brief, what you see as main issues—if you can be specific on these, that would be great—where you really can work together. And could I ask—I’d ask you, what are the likely most explosive areas of disagreement?

SMITH: You know, it’s really hard to say because, again, you know, I don’t know exactly—I don’t think anyone knows exactly what Donald Trump’s foreign policy is going to be. At times, he has sounded like an isolationist, that he wants to bring folks home. At other times, he’s been critical of the Obama administration for not doing enough to combat Daesh and, you know, to deal with the situation in Syria. So it’s really kind of hard to say, you know, where we’re going to be able to work together and where we’re going to clash, because it’s not clear at this point what foreign policy is going to advance.

ROSETT: Well, let me ask you about a specific. On the Iran nuclear deal, which I believe you’re a strong supporter of.


ROSETT: And we’re all wondering, where does this now go? One concrete thing that’s been very troubling, but can you tell us how to understand Iran’s continuing testing of ballistic missiles. What is that for? And given that this sort of thing has been going on—you know, violations reported by the IAEA, but specifically the missiles because that, I think, does raise big questions. What is it that you think President-Elect Trump, President Trump should do with that deal?

SMITH: Well, I don’t think it’s hard to understand. And I think, you know, we have sanctions that we place on them for the use of ballistic missiles. And that’s important. Remember that there was a whole bunch of sanctions that were placed on Iran because of their nuclear program. That’s what was involved in the negotiation. There were also sanctions that were placed on Iran because of their promotion of terrorism, and their violation of the Ballistic Missile Treaty.

ROSETT: If I may, though—

SMITH: If—let me get there.


SMITH: You know, and we will continue to make those sanctions.

As far as what it’s all about, I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out—so to speak—why Iran wants ballistic missiles. They feel threatened by us. They feel a distinct need to protect themselves.

ROSETT: But we’ve got this deal. I mean, is there a purpose you can see, other than to carry nuclear weapons? In which case that throws open the whole question of what kind of a deal—how we could—in other words—yeah.

SMITH: Absolutely. Is there a purpose for ballistic missiles other than nuclear weapons?

ROSETT: What are they doing it for?

SMITH: Yeah. They’re doing it because they, you know, feel threatened by different parts of the world, including us. I mean, keep in mind they were, you know, part of the axis of evil there. They watched as we invaded and took down a leader on one border, in Iraq—I’m sorry, I’m getting my chronology wrong here, but anyway—and invaded, you know, Afghanistan on the other border and took down a leader. And at one point we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 175,000 U.S. and/or NATO—and NATO troops on both of their borders, and a rather massive fleet floating in the sea out in front of them, and a whole lot of politicians in the United States talking about how evil and awful Iran was. So—

ROSETT: But, yeah—but you get to—

SMITH: You know, their paranoia is not unjustified.

ROSETT: Well, except if—you might call—you can it paranoia, but some could call it threatening behavior on their own part. The Israelis, for instance, see it that way. I think the Saudi Arabians do too. The Jordanians are worried by it. So my question is, it is behavior where if you grant me that it can be seen as threatening when you test ballistic missiles.

SMITH: Sure.

ROSETT: I mean, if Costa Rica did I would worry.

SMITH: I don’t have to grant—

ROSETT: But what is it that a Trump administration should do? Should they—how do they deal with this? Because sanctions have not stopped this continued testing. We’ve had them—we have the deal and et cetera, it’s still going on. So what is the next move? Here’s this deal where they’re doing things that are in violations of U.N. sanctions, that are apparently in violation of the deal. That produces a complicated situation for any new administration. So where should the Trump administration take this? Renegotiate? Ignore this behavior? Walk away? What to do?

SMITH: I’ve already answered it. You didn’t like my answer, but I’ll try it again. (Laughter.) First of all, the ballistic missiles are not part of the nuclear deal. Stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is an enormously important accomplishment. And I think we should focus on that deal from within that context. I mean, we cannot control the behavior of other countries past a certain point. I mean, you talk about Iran. But North Korea is testing nuclear weapons as well as ballistic missiles. And you know, it’s—we can’t just go please stop that.

Now, in the case of Iran, I think we have a slightly better chance, because North Korea doesn’t care if their people starve. Iran does. So, you know, you could have said three, four years ago that the sanctions weren’t working on their nuclear program, but eventually it became so bad for them economically that they felt they had no choice but to try to make a deal. So I think we should continue the sanctions on the ballistic missiles.

ROSETT: Well, but, may I ask you, on that aspect, in 2009 there was this uprising in in Iran.


ROSETT: And President Obama stepped aside. He decided to bear witness and wait, and it didn’t happen. We continued to have the problem, (like, et cetera ?). We had the whole series of events we know about. Should something like that come along again, would you recommend that a President Trump behave very differently?

SMITH: No. I mean, and I’ll tell you why. We are not in a position to affect regime change in Iran. And if we were to do that, we would further weaken the people who oppose the regime. Again, because if it looks like the U.S. is coming in for their own interest to change a regime in Iran—look, I would hope that if the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that a U.S.-Western military force cannot come and in and change a Muslim country. You know, that we just don’t have the credibility to do that.

And you described what Obama did as going, eh, I just don’t care. And that’s not what they decided. What they decided was there really wasn’t anything they could do to help the people in that uprising because the number-one biggest argument against the uprising was, oh, you are simply doing this at the bidding of your Western masters. And that is an argument that resonates with 80 percent of Iranians, if not more. So the U.S., given our credibility, we just can’t go in and militarily remove the Iranian regime.

ROSETT: So is it accurate, then, to say that you see America as basically shackled by the problem that if we try to intervene somewhere to really affect the course of events in ways we want, and the regime doesn’t, that we’re basically destined for blowback, it just won’t work? I want to ask you—

SMITH: We’re absolutely shackled by that. I mean, that’s not even debatable. But—

ROSETT: Can I ask you on North Korea—

SMITH: But, before we get to North Korea, let me say, we’re not in the position that we were in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, where we had the strength, the might, the credibility to, as we did in many cases, not helpfully, go in and effect change. I think of the Congo—Democratic Republic of Congo, where we put Mobutu in charge, and he just absolutely pillaged and destroyed the country. But he was anti-communist, so, there you go. Now, we’re a little bit more—less able to do that. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t develop these partnerships that I’ve talked about—work with other countries, work with allies to effect change.

It simply means—and this is what Donald Trump will learn very quickly, even that the Republicans have been complaining for a long time, how come Obama didn’t fix Syria? How come he didn’t fix Iran? He will find that it is really not terribly easy to do that. And we have to do it in a more patient, collaborative way to effect change in the world.

ROSETT: Well, could I ask you a question about these partnerships—you know, sort of bringing in the regional power that looks benign enough so we might want it to do something, and yet. And I think we’re seeing in a number of places that this is being overwhelmed by powers that are not necessarily friendly to us, especially if they have the chance to jostle their neighbors. And I’m talking here about Russia, now in the Middle East. China jockeying in the South China Sea. So once you stand back and unleash that, are you—I would worry that—some would worry; I would worry—that you’re now on your way to much bigger conflicts. Where does that go?

SMITH: Yeah. I just think that the premise of what you’re asking these questions is wrong. The premise is if we simply stepped in earlier we could stop this and everything would be fine. You know, we don’t have that kind of power in the world. We have got to work with partners and allies to try to contain the bad behavior and, you know, work with China and Russia as best we can. But if you’re thinking that, oh, if we were just stronger China would, you know, back off and not be concerned about the southern islands, I don’t even know what that means. I mean, does that mean that we lob a couple missiles at them and tell them to stop it? That’s not the world we live in.

ROSETT: Well, let me ask you about one of the toughest ones here, and that is North Korea.

SMITH: Sure.

ROSETT: Where just about everything has been tried. Agreements, those have failed. President Obama tried basically ignoring them—or not agreeing to—that has—where they are is they’ve tested five nuclear weapons, four under this presidency, and they’re ready for the next one.

SMITH: Yeah.

ROSETT: What do we do? What’s the—

SMITH: Well, first of all, I disagree with you that it’s failed, in the following sense. There are two goals involved here. One is it would be nice if North Korea wasn’t crazy and didn’t possess nuclear weapons. And if there was some way to get us to that point, we would want to work towards it. So President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama tried various different agreements, because that was really the only thing that was on the table for any of them. And it didn’t work because North Korea doesn’t care. They don’t care if their people starve.

Now, I would say that it hasn’t failed in the following sense, that the other goal in that area is to make sure that North Korea does not commit violent acts, doesn’t invade South Korea, doesn’t attack, does not start a war in that part of the world. And they haven’t. So that is not to be underestimated as a success. And I’ve said, a long time ago, that our policy in North Korea is very simple. Yes, we’d like you to stop building all the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. We’ll continue to sanction you. We’ll continue to put pressure on China. We’ll continue to do all these things. They’re unlikely to work, but better to try them than not. But ultimately, test what you want. But if you do anything provocative towards South Korea or Japan, we have the power to wipe you off the face of the map. And we will. That is the policy that we have to have to contain North Korea.

ROSETT: The question—quick question there. Do we have the credibility at this point? I mean, we have facilities in—


ROSETT: Now is that consistent with the argument you’ve laid out?

SMITH: Yes, we absolutely have the credibility. You know, because we have the military power, the military might. You know, if North Korea tries to lob a nuclear weapon at anybody, we have enough nuclear weapons to completely destroy North Korea. And I think they are aware of that.

ROSETT: I want to go—not necessarily keeping North Korea in the focus, but some big test is coming of the new administration. What is it you anticipate? We’re going to see some crisis. What is it you’re most concerned about?

SMITH: There is no one thing that I’m most concerned about. There is a group of those things that we’re concerned about. And one, obviously, is terrorism from groups like al-Qaida and Daesh, wrapped around the instability in North Africa and the Middle East that, you know, gives them, you know, greater ground to develop that terrorist threat. So that’s certainly, you know, always at the top of my list—because whatever you can say about North Korea and Iran and Russia and China, there is only one group of people that wakes up every day wishing to kill as many Westerners or Americans as they possibly can. And that is the violent Islamist extremists. So that’s number one, we have to worry about, you know, how do we contain them? How do we deal with Syria, and all the other unstable countries, gosh, from Mali to Somalia, and continuing to do that?

 You know, second is, you know, how do we stop Putin from doing even more provocative things in Eastern Europe? You know, Iran, you know, making sure that they don’t do any—you know, trying to contain their threatening behavior. You mentioned North Korea. We talked about that. And you know, lastly, you know, China. You know, make sure they don’t expand in a way that is, you know, problematic for their neighbors. So, I mean, those are the threats. What boils up it’s impossible to say. I could guess, but it would be pointless.

ROSETT: Could I ask you, on North Africa and Libya in particular, do you think that if we had put boots on the ground, given that we did intervene there—yes, under a U.N. resolution, but America led the bombing—that we should have put boots on the ground, gone in there once we knew that Gadhafi was going or gone, and made every effort to try to stabilize it, instead of the terrible scene that’s unfolded there?

SMITH: Yeah. It didn’t exactly work in Iraq. And we put an unbelievable amount of money into that effort. So, no, I don’t think we should have put boots on the ground in Libya. I don’t think Libya would be particularly more stable now.

ROSETT: Or anything else that we should have done? And I ask with an eye to such situations may arise again.

SMITH: Oh, unquestionably.

ROSETT: What’s the correct course? Would you say let it happen? What should America do?

SMITH: I mean, there is no—well, there’s a correct course, but the question implies there’s something we could do that would make everything work out just fine. There’s not.

ROSETT: Is there a way to make it work out better?

SMITH: Well, that’s what I was getting to. (Laughter.) As I said, there’s a correct course of action. And I think it really depends on the circumstances and on the country. And it’s very difficult. And, I mean, you can take all the different countries we’ve been involved in. In Libya, you know, oh, we took out Gadhafi, we had no plan. I mean, Libya was in a state of absolute civil war, you know, when we took out Gadhafi. Gadhafi was probably going down at some point anyway, and chaos was coming. You know, we tried to work with, you know, forces that we thought would bring peace to the area.

But, you know, there are countries in the world—in Libya, and Somalia, and Syria, and to some degree in Iraq and others—there isn’t stability there and we cannot impose it. But what we should try and do is work with the most reasonable people we can find to give some opportunity for stability. I think Somalia is a decent example. There was a time when the government of Somalia basically consisted of a room of about this size. It’s now slightly bigger. There is slightly more stability there as we’ve worked with them and we’ve worked with our partners to contain terrorism.

But I don’t think anyone would say, you know, Somalia’s a wonderful place and didn’t that work out well. All of this stuff is going to take a lot of time and is going to be very difficult. And, no, I don’t think the U.S. has a button that they can push to make it work. And I do think we should be concerned about the cost to us in lives and in our Defense budget. So we send 100,000 troops into Libya. You know, we have another 2(,000), 3,000 dead Americans, another 30,000 wounded, and we still have an unstable country. I don’t think that would have been a good choice.

ROSETT: I have one more question, and then I’m going to open up the floor. And that is, on the handling of classified information, this question comes from talking with our—some members of our own special forces, people who have seen combat, whose lives have been or are on the line. And one of them asked me to put a question, something like this: How would you recommend that the incoming administration restore their confidence in the confidentiality, the correct handling of confidential information, after what happened with Hillary Clinton’s email server, the things—the information that got out, the kind of thing that they’ve seen, and the way that some of this was handled? What should the next administration do?

SMITH: Yeah, I think that whole thing is remarkably overblown. If you just talk about the information, that it, quote, “got out,” I’ve never seen anything that said that there was something in her emails that got out that caused a problem. You know, what’s classified and what’s not? I mean, every day we read things in the newspaper that are highly classified, and I can’t talk about them because it’s still considered classified. For instance, you know, what I have to say as a public official is that we are not conducting drone strikes from Pakistan, OK? (Laughter.) That’s what I have to say. I also have to say that we in no way tried to mess with Iran’s nuclear program through sending a virus into what they’ve got. I also I have to say that. And everybody laughs at this, because of all the stuff they read in the newspaper.

So what I would say is, you know, put aside the partisanship involved in Hillary Clinton’s emails, and understand that if you’re worried about classified information getting out, that’s the least of your worries. Let’s worry more about, you know, Edward Snowden and—it’s Chelsea Manning now, and this new guy who came out. You want to worry about, you know, protecting classified information, worry about how we protect it from people. I mean, the information that Snowden got and these other people got, vastly more damaging. And maybe you can point to some Hillary Clinton email that revealed some big thing that led to something bad, but if you can you’d be the first.

And I’ll also say that there are members of Congress, who shall go nameless, who have revealed many things inadvertently just talking to the press or elsewhere. In the age of information that we live in, this is an incredible challenge that has very little to do—or, Hillary Clinton is but one teeny little piece of a much larger problem. So I would urge all of those people to put their partisanship aside and look at the issue of protecting classified information in its real context.

ROSETT: Sounds like we should be worried about all of that. But thank you.

OK. I’ll start with you.

Q: Thank you.

ROSETT: Oh, I’m sorry. I just need to make a question announcement about questions. Yes, my apologies. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. Please wait for the microphone, speak directly into it, state—please stand, state your name and affiliation, and please limit yourself to one question, keep it short and to the point, so everyone has a chance. OK.

Q: Amen. (Laughter.) I’m Paula Stern.

My question goes to the age of information, the digital age, and in particular Russia, where we had numerous intelligence professionals of our government suggesting that there was hacking that was going on that the Russian authorities—

SMITH: They weren’t suggesting.

Q: I beg your pardon?

SMITH: I said, they weren’t suggesting.

Q: What would you say?

SMITH: They concluded.

Q: They concluded, thank you. (Laughter.) I was trying to be softer, but thank you for putting a point on it.


Q: They concluded that the Russian authorities were behind an authorization of that hacking. When it comes to classified information, therefore, I am wondering what you believe the Trump administration, which is incoming, will need to do to assure the American public and its allies that President-Elect Trump is not further encouraging this type of activity, as he did during the campaign?

SMITH: Yeah. No, I think that’s a rather big problem. And, you know, we asked all about Hillary Clinton’s emails, but Russia apparently—not apparently—actually, our intelligence agencies, every single one of them, has concluded that Russia hacked into the DNC and elsewhere in a specific attempt—and what one would have to argue was a successful attempt—to manipulate the U.S. election and elect Trump instead of Clinton. I mean, that’s clearly why they did that. The FBI, at the moment, is refusing to investigate this. That strikes me as a much larger problem than some email that Hillary was sending back and forth to Huma that was later deemed to be somewhat classified, that didn’t mean anything to anybody.

I would suggest that Congress and the White House do a very strong investigation as to what Russia did, how they were able to do it, and, quite frankly, whether or not there was any coordination with the Trump campaign while this was going on. That is a question worth asking. And I don’t know the answer to it. But since we know without question that Russia intervened specifically to try to throw our election one way or the other by hacking into our information, this is something that we ought to investigate. I mean, if Russia has that kind of power over our elections, that strikes me as an enormous problem that ought to be investigated and talked about a lot more than it has been.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Thank you, Adam. Thank you for being here today. Thanks for your continued service at difficult times. You give a very optimistic assessment, I think, of the potential for working across the aisle. And I wanted to see if it extended to two specific areas. The first is the potential for a budget deal, including for defense. And second, to building out the partnerships that you talked about, including for—you just named two specifically that you didn’t—for in the Middle East the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and UAE.

SMITH: Yeah. Again, it’s hard to say, because I don’t know, A, who the key Cabinet people are going to be. And, believe me, you look at the people coming up on the list and they—you go everything from the most isolationist person you know to, you know, the most interventionist person you know. And again, these are all rumors. We don’t know. I mean, the Trump transition team may have a much more specific idea about what sort of person they’re looking for from a policy standpoint. But we don’t know for sure.

But I think it’s kind of inevitable, if we want to be involved in the world, that we have to build partnerships. And I think there’s a lot of potential for bipartisan cooperation on that, you know, now that we have a Republican administration to work on. So, you know, I think there is room for that. As far as a budget deal is concerned, you know, the president-elect has promised I’m going to say $5 trillion in tax cuts. I might be off by a few hundred billion, but it’s pretty close to that.

He’s promised to—the things he’s promised to do for defense, give us a roughly $800 billion a year Defense budget as opposed to the 610 (billion dollars) or the question of the day—is it 610 (billion dollars)? Is it 619 (billion dollars)? Is it 622 (billion dollars)? Is it 616 (billion dollars)? Somewhere in there, anyway. In the low-600s at any rate. You know, and then, of course, he’s also promised a significant amount of money for infrastructure.

He has a rather significant math problem when he get into office. (Laughter.) How is he going to resolve that? He also says he doesn’t want to touch entitlements. So we’re looking at about a, oh, $2 trillion a year deficit. So, you know, is there potential for cooperation on that? It’s hard to see, you know, because with the Republican approach that no tax increases ever under any circumstances, and then we’re going to cut them by a whole bunch more, and then of course we can’t raise any of those anymore—because once you’ve cut it anything you do to change it is a raise—I think bipartisan cooperation is going to be very tough to come by on the budget.

ROSETT: I encourage people in the back of the room to come up with questions too, please.

Q: Thanks very much. I’m Carter Page, Global Energy Capital.

I’m curious, I previously worked under the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Dr. Les Aspin. And he always focused on sort of hard-core analytics—whether it was his bottom-up review with Colin Powell, et cetera. And I’m curious, you know, in terms of Russia, what do you see as kind of, you know, better sources of information going forward, because I think there’s been a lot of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. You know, you mentioned foreign policy wasn’t an issue, but, you know, in keeping with McCarthyesque rhetoric, you know, demonizing Russia really was a central piece of the campaign. And so I’m just curious to hear your thoughts in terms of the strategy with respect to Russia. And how would that look going forward, you know, in terms of your recommendation?

SMITH: Well, what I’d like to get to—and actually, you know, I think there is an opportunity with President Trump, that he clearly has a good relationship with Russia. We hope it’s not too good of a relationship with Russia. But my viewpoint that I stated at the start there would be consistent with wanting to find a way to work with Russia, so that they could be part of that community of nations of global powers that is concerned about stability and prosperity in the world. So, you know, there was a huge missed opportunity after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And we can debate, you know, why it happened. You know, expansion of NATO. Some of the things we did that, you know, Russia felt insulted by and threatened by. Russia itself has no end of internal problems in terms of, you know, becoming and actual functional, you know, free, democratic state. So there’s a bunch of different things. But I think we should try, because we do have a lot of things in interest. I mean, Russia has, you know, several hundred million people. They are trying to feed them and provide prosperity. They are threatened by Islamist extremists, you know, global energy issues have a huge impact.

There’s a lot that we can work together on. And I want to do that, but not if Putin says, yeah, we can do that and, oh, by the way, I’m going to take Ukraine, and I’m going to invade Estonia, and, you know, I’m going to keep buzzing your airplanes and buzzing your ships and, you know, sending submarines in the water where they don’t belong, keep violating all these international norms. I mean, if there’s a way to get them to take a step back and find a way to work together, that’s where we should go.

And I’m with you. I mean, on the Armed Services Committee, you know, far too frequently we demonize—we demonize China more than we demonize Russia, it seems. And I don’t think that’s productive. I think we have to find a way to work with these other powers, because we have more in common now in this world than we do, I think, that differentiates us. But it’s not going to be easy.

Q: Elisa Massimino with Human Rights First.

I want to ask about an issue that we haven’t raised this morning yet, although it’s a symptom of many of the crises that you—that you laid out, and that’s the global refugee crisis. We have a situation here where, you know, the failure to solve the underlying challenges in Syria and other places has created this crisis that now throws off its own foreign policy challenges and national security challenges, both straining our allies in the region but also now in Europe where the failure to deal humanely with refugees is undermining the EU, where the far-right is exploiting that.

So what do you—how do you see the relationship between the global crisis and then our leadership and the treatment of refugees at home? And what should the U.S. be—is this one of these challenges that we can have an impact on? What should we be doing.

SMITH: Well, we can have an impact on it, but we’re not going to solve it. I mean, the number of displaced people in the world from the wars and unstable governments is beyond something we can fix. You know, I think, personally, you know, we’ve always accepted a lot of refugees and we should continue to do that. I don’t think it weakens us a country. But us accepting, you know, some isn’t going to solve the problem. The only thing that is going to solve the problem is going to bring stability to the governments that these people have fled so they have some place to go home to. And in the meantime, we are simply managing a crisis as best we can.

So, you know, I don’t know that there is any, you know, easy solution to this. And it will cause further instability, as you describe. And again, the only solution to it is, you know, a stable Syria, a stable Somalia, a stable Central America. You know, so that the people can feel comfortable in the countries that they were born in. And I don’t have any, you know, snap my fingers, you know, make Syria work solutions. So we’re simply going to have to manage the crisis as best we can. I don’t think we should close our doors to the refugees from Syria. I don’t think we should close our door to Muslim refugees. I think we will benefit more by being more accepting.

ROSETT: The gentleman in the back.

Q: Larry Korb, Center for American Progress.

SMITH: Good to see you.

Q: Congressman, thanks for a great sober analysis this morning.

Let me get back to something that you’re going to have to deal with. Assuming that the Defense budget’s closer to 600 (billion dollars) than $800 billion, how about the whole nuclear modernization? Where do you think that’s going to go, and where do you want it to go?

SMITH: Yeah. That’s entirely a separate and very important question, I think, because what has happened—and his has always happened on the Armed Services Committee. I noticed this during, you know, my very first term, that basically what the Armed Services Committee consists of is we have people come into our hearings to scare the hell out of us and convince us that we have to spend more money than possibly exists. I remember there was a very memorable exchange between secretary Gates and a member of our panel who shall remain nameless, because Secretary Gates was talking about managing risk, and that basically that’s what they do. There are no guarantees, but we manage risk as best we can.

And this member said, well that—look, we have to be safe. Tell me, you know, what budget you need to eliminate risk. (Laughter.) I laughed out loud, which probably wasn’t appropriate. (Laughter.) And Secretary Gates just said, yeah, we don’t live in that world. So I can’t answer that question. I think, with our, you know, budget priorities, that putting all of our money into Defense would be an enormous mistake. And I’ll walk through a couple for you. We have a crumbling infrastructure. We have huge needs here domestically. And I keep hearing from members of the Armed Services Committee when I raise this point: I serve on the Armed Services Committee. We have to worry about that. We can’t worry about that other stuff. And I’m like—

ROSETT: Could I—

SMITH: Yeah, I’ll get there. You know, I serve in Congress as a whole, OK, not just on the Armed Services Committee. It is my personal opinion that if we focus on partnerships, that if we have a more realistic idea of what the U.S. can accomplish, we can live with a lot less money in the Defense budget. And one of the places that I would start is on nuclear modernization. We do not need the number of nuclear weapons or delivery vehicles that we are contemplating building at a cost north of a trillion dollars, all right? And if we want to be able to have an Army, to build ships, we spend all that money on a nuclear program we don’t need, this is a zero-sum game. You spend it here, you can’t spend it there. There are a ton of ways we could change our global posture, the way we look at Defense, where we could still be secure and spend a lot less money on the Defense budget.

Q: Hi. My name is Lesley Warner. I’m on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

My question is, there’s clearly a lot to be determined from what the incoming administration stands for. And there’s a lot of inconsistencies as well. And so it might be difficult to answer this question, but I’m curious as to your thoughts about how our own domestic politics, or the domestic atmosphere here in the United States is going to affect our ability to work by, with, and through certain partners. So, for example, since the election we’ve seen a spike in racially or religiously motivated hate crimes, including anti-Semitism, including attacks on Muslims. So how does that affect our ability to work by, with, and through partners such as Israel, even though certain members of the incoming administration may be pro-Israel, or, you know, partners in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, et cetera?

SMITH: Negatively, would be the answer to the question. You know, it is one of the things that’s sort of going on. As the world—as the world has become more unstable—and also the internet is part of the problem here, that actually Thomas Friedman in his book, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” in 1997—one of the most prescient books I’ve ever read—sort of predicted what would happen with globalization. And it referred to super-empowered individuals, that basically the ability to transmit information quickly would empower a lot of people. And unfortunately, it has also enabled people to very much live in their own little world, OK, and not interact with diverse groups of people.

And we’ve gone somewhat tribal, both here in the U.S. and elsewhere, to want to be around people who think like us and look like us. This is a big problem because, you know, what’s what divides people up. That’s what gets people thinking, well, my goodness, if my views don’t prevail the entire Armageddon is going to come and destroy us all. We need a much more open, tolerant approach to other people. And we’re headed in the opposite direction. So I think it’s a big problem, and one that I hope the incoming president works on. And certainly his rhetoric during the campaign was not helpful. So I think it presents a challenge, because this—you know, there’s a ton of examples, but she always gets uncomfortable when I talk more than 30 seconds, and I’m over that already. (Laughter.)

ROSETT: I want to get through a lot of stuff here.

SMITH: But, you know, the best example, of course, is I mentioned dealing with violent Islamist extremism. We need Muslim partners to do that. And the more we offend the Muslim religion, the fewer partners we’re going to have to confront the very real challenges that are there. And there are countless other examples.

ROSETT: Way in the back. We’ll give you 45 on this one.

Q: Hi. Jordana Mishory with Inside the Pentagon.

I understand that a deal had been reached on the NDAA. And I was wondering if you could shine any more light on that, as well as the budget figures attached to it.

SMITH: Yeah. It’s not true. (Laughter.) A deal has not been reached. We are still talking about the numbers.

ROSETT: What’s the basic point of contention.

SMITH: Basic point of contention is money. And it’s kind of a semantic argument. (Laughter.) But, you know, the president sent up 610 (billion dollars). Now that he’s done a supplemental it’s 616 (billion dollars). The Republicans wanted 628 (billion dollars) in the House. The Senate stuck to the 610 (billion dollar) number. They want more money. Now, the authorizing committee cannot actually create more money. (Laughter.) And since we’re going to have a CR, worst kept secret in town, by the way, that somehow they’re going to work towards an appropriations bill. Look, they know they have more power come January 20th. So they’re going to try to push a CR through. If they push a CR through, it really doesn’t matter what number past 610 (billion dollars) we pick, because it’ll be hollow budget authority.

So it’s conceivable that I could live with 619 (billion dollars), since it preserves the rest of the bill and they’ve gotten rid of a lot of bad stuff. So it’s conceivable we could get there. But I love the way this town works. Literally during the photo session on the Armed Services Committee Mac and I were just talking up there. And I just sort of said—I said everything that I just said to you. And, you know, 12 hours later we had a deal. (Laughter.) And I’ll tell you, it was based solely on that casual little back and forth. And I even said, you know, there’s people above me here who are going to have a say in this, so I can’t guarantee it, but personally I could live with 619 (billion dollars) at this point for all of the reasons that were said. That’s not a deal. That’s just a casual conversation that may turn into a deal. We’ll see.

ROSETT: The gentleman there.

Q: Bill Richardson, Burdeshaw Associates. Retired military.

 A question regarding the number of ground forces that exist today and the limited budget we have. Is it adequate that we have what we’ve currently got, in view of the fact that we want relationships around the world to be able to react promptly, when necessary, in order to support on these particular, let’s say against Putin and so forth, over there? The adequacy, in your view, is it current? Is it adequate? Defense budget aside, just what aspect of that Defense budget is more important to have with the relationship to the forces that we can move around, as opposed to nuclear weapons?

SMITH: Yeah. I would prefer to see a bigger force structure if we could save money in some of these other areas. But, look, you know, I mean, Secretary Gates always had this line about how, you know, we have a perfect record in terms of predicting what the next war was going to look like, and that is that we’ve always been wrong. (Laughter.) We’ve always missed it. And, you know, most people took that to mean that we need to be a better job of being prepared, that we need to have a bigger military, that we need to better anticipate the threats.

Personally, I reached a different conclusion. You know, if we have that perfect record no matter who is in charge, then it would seem to me that that perfect record is going to continue. And what it means is you cannot anticipate surprises. I love it when people say that because it’s such an illogical thing to say. Well, that’s why they call them a surprise. (Laughter.) If you knew it was coming, it wouldn’t be a surprise. So what we have to do is we simply have to build, you know, a force that meets what’s coming up. And if something—and I have a phrase here that I won’t use—if things go bad, and all of a sudden we have a much bigger problem than we have surge capacity, OK? It becomes a crisis.

Post-9/11, you know, was the force that we had in the ’90s ready to deal with what we had to deal with? No. But we doubled the Defense budget from 2001 to 2010. When we needed MRAPs to protect us from, you know, IEDs, bam, we built 3,000 of them. You know, I do not want us to build a military that is supposed to anticipate every possible bad thing that could happen in the world, because that military would spend most of its time sitting on its thumbs waiting for something bad to happen at the waste of enormous amount of money. I think we need to look at the threats that we have right now, and most of them are of the unconventional variety—like I said, terrorism.

I would much rather have the ISR capability to fight the guys who are plotting against us than build a 700,0000-person Army so that in case Russia invades Western Europe we can take them on. You have to make choices. And I will compliment Secretary Gates, in the sense that he always explained that well. It’s managing risk. And part of the problem, again, with the Armed Services Committee and the way a lot of people look at things is we have to build a military that accepts no risk. You know, we don’t have that kind of money. Surprises happen. And we have to adjust and have a surge capacity.

But again, I would like to see a slightly larger force structure than the current budget’s going to force us down to. But to get there, I’m going to save money on, one, nuclear and, second, you know, personnel costs, which I don’t want to get into in great detail here, but our health care costs—there’s a lot of money to be saved. We have significantly increased pay. We significantly increased benefits. A lot of that’s going to need to be restructured if we’re going to have the size of force we need that is trained and ready.

ROSETT: Time for one more question. Anybody really urgent out there? (Laughter.) Right back there. Thank you.

Q: Hi. I’m Pat Host with Defense Daily.

You made it pretty clear you opposed the nuclear modernization effort. I’m wondering what you propose instead. There’s obviously a number of components to this. They want the new cruise missile, new ICBMs, and they’re doing the new subs. What would you propose?

SMITH: Yeah, I oppose the new cruise missile. And I think one of the main areas we could save money is in the new ICBMs and the land-based force. I think we could spend a lot less on that. I like the submarines. They are the most undetectable and the best deterrent that we have out there. So I don’t oppose nuclear modernization. I oppose what is being proposed as the nuclear modernization. Obviously, we have to modernize the nuclear forces. We need new submarines. And we’re going to need some new nuclear weapons. I just don’t think we need as much as what they’re predicting.

ROSETT: Thank you very much.

SMITH: That’s my shortest answer yet.

ROSETT: That was. (Laughter.) Thank you, Congressman. Thank you for coming.

SMITH: Thank you. Appreciate it.

ROSETT: Thank you to our members. Thank you for your questions. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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