A Conversation With Adam Smith

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

U.S. Representative From Washington (D); Ranking Member, House Armed Services Committee; CFR Member


National Security Correspondent, Wall Street Journal; CFR Member

U.S. Representative Adam Smith discusses the future of U.S. defense priorities, including continued support for Ukraine from the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).


GORDON: Well, good afternoon. I’m Michael Gordon from the Wall Street Journal, and I’m here to introduce our event today and our speaker, Congressman Adam Smith. I think he’s very well known. He’s an influential, longstanding, and extremely articulate voice on defense and national security writ large on the Democratic side.

And I’ve been sort of forewarned that due to votes in the Congress this event might end a little bit earlier than we anticipated. That’s not quite clear, so we’re trying to move along fast here. I’m going to—going to have a discussion here. I’m going to curtail my questions a little bit to open it up, give a little more time here from the membership here.

So, without further ado.

SMITH: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here. I appreciate CFR hosting us. I look forward to the discussion. It is definitely a very, very interesting and challenging time in the area of national security and defense policy to be involved. And I think it is just crucially important that we get the policy right, get the message right, and work hard to build the coalition necessary to move that forward, because I think that’s sort of the overarching theme as we’re trying to pull all of this together: We are in a very divisive time. Certainly, we are in a divisive time here in domestic U.S. politics, but also globally. It’s hard to pull that coalition together, but it’s got to start with a clear message from the United States.

And I’m going to abbreviate this because I think the questions and answers are going to be more illuminating, but the bottom line is the U.S. needs to play a strong role in global-U.S. affairs. I think that basic principle is where we start from. And there is a lot of pressure against that. And that’s sort of one of the easiest ways to look at the world. In the U.S., and with our coalition and our allies, they want us to be engaged and involved in a variety of different areas. On the other hand, the threat environment—the challenges that we face, coming primarily from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and transnational terrorist organizations—or, as I have pitched repeatedly—I asked my staff a while ago to come up with an acronym for this, because every hearing we went to it was Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, terrorist groups and all that, and they came up with CRING, which I liked. (Laughter.) It’s China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and global extremism. (Laughter.) And at the end of the day, that’s the threat environment that we’re facing.

And the one thing that all of those groups have in common is they want us out. They want the U.S. gone. Whether it’s Iran that wants us gone from the Middle East, China that wants us gone from Asia, Russia that wants us gone from Europe, they see us as an impediment to their ambitions and what they want to accomplish. Therefore, we need to be present. That’s one of the most important aspects of our defense policy and foreign policy, and which is why I believe that any sort of isolationist approach is so dangerous to future peace and security in the world.

Now, key to that, in my view, is that the U.S. needs to be part of the larger solution. If there ever was a thought that the key to the twenty-first century was the U.S. remaining the only dominant power in the world, I hope we can officially bury that, OK? We have to be one of a series of partners in order to make this work, and we’ve seen this play out. The success in Ukraine is born of a coalition of I think it’s right around fifty-four different countries. Yes, without question the U.S. is the indispensable partner in all of that, but the whole group is really important. In Asia, we’ve begun to have success with the AUKUS agreement bringing Australia and the U.K. in; with the Quad—Japan, India, the U.S., and Australia. It is partnerships and coalitions that give us the strength to stand up for the global order that we are looking for.

And that’s the other key point in all of this. I say we need to be present. I say these countries are trying to push us out. But what’s the point? I mean, why? Why does the U.S. need to be present? Why do we need to be engaged? What are we trying to accomplish? And I think we need to be a lot clearer on that.

We are trying to accomplish something very straightforward. And we’ve heard it all—you can almost say it with me at this point—a rules-based international system, right? And we also want to, to the greatest extent possible, promote economic and political freedom and peaceful resolution of our differences. Broadly speaking,

that’s what we are trying to do. We don’t want a world where simply stronger nations subjugate weaker nations. We don’t want that. We want a rules-based international system where we resolve our differences peacefully and we move towards greater economic and political freedom.

Now, the last—I think this is the last point I’m going to make. I could be lying; there may be another one. But the last point that I definitely want to make is that as we do that I think it is important that the U.S. come at this project with humility, because mostly what countries that resist us—on Russia, for instance, as we’re going around in Africa and Latin America and South Asia and India and elsewhere and saying: You got to be with us against Russia. What Russia is doing is awful and terrible. They are disregarding sovereignty, waging a brutal war on Ukraine. The rest of the world goes: Well, you guys aren’t perfect. I mean, look at what you did in Iraq. Look at what you did in Libya. Look at the history of colonialism coming out of Europe. And all of that is true.

I think our approach is to say: Yeah, we’re not perfect, all right? There is not perfect economic freedom perfect political freedom, perfect resolution of differences. We acknowledge that. But we are trying to establish those things and we are up against a group of people who want to destroy those things outright. These countries can’t go to Russia and China when they disagree with them and say: You’re being hypocrites. Russia and China, they’re not being hypocrites. They don’t care about human rights. They don’t care about economic freedom. They don’t care about political freedom. They don’t care about a rules-based order. They don’t care about peacefully resolving differences. And they make no bones about that. They’re going to take what they want, and the only thing that’s going to stop them is the inability to take it. That’s the choice, people.

So, yeah, we’re not perfect. We have some history where maybe we didn’t live up to those ideals. But at least that’s the conversation if we’re the ones helping to drive it. If it’s Russia and China, there is no conversation. I mean, look at what’s going on in West Africa as the Wagner Group has become the dominant security force there. There’s no respect for human rights. They’re killing whoever they have to kill. We want to work towards a rules-based international order.

And actually, I did lie; I have one final point to make. Being, you know, the ranking member, I think one of the main reasons that I miss being chairman is that was so much easier to say. Everyone knows what it means when you say that you’re chairman of the Armed Services Committee. When you say you’re the ranking member, a lot of people are like: Well, what does that mean, exactly? Well, I’m the top Democrats, which means that—no, anyway.

As a prominent member of the Armed Services Committee—(laughter)—deterrence is enormously important. As much as I say that the U.S. has to come at this project with humility, with a sense of our own, you know, successes and failures, we also have to come at it from a position of strength. Deterrence matters. Having a robust military force in the U.S. and with our partners—and the partners are increasingly important—is the primary thing that is going to deter Russia and China and Iran and North Korea in the short term from blowing up that order.

Who here thinks that if President Xi thought that he could take Taiwan tomorrow militarily without any problem that he wouldn’t do it? He would. It is only by being deterred that he doesn’t. So having that adequate, strong military—a lot can be said about what we need to do to build that—has to be a cornerstone of this policy.

So, broadly speaking, that’s what we’re trying to do. There are a thousand different other places to take that, but that’s why we’ve got the Q&A and our very, very able interviewer. So we’ll have that conversation and I look forward to it. And I look forward to working with all of you on these issues well past today, obviously. Thank you. (Applause.)

GORDON: OK. Well, thank you. So we’re going to talk for about twenty minutes or so and then open it up to this group here, and I’ll try to move quickly.

So there—you know, obviously, there are a whole host of challenges. You pointed to Ukraine, China, Iran enrichment. Even Iraq is a little problematic since it was an Iraqi militia that fired the drone that killed the American contractor in northeast Syria, it’s been determined. Historic shift of the NDS, but this is happening at a time when we’re not marking up the defense bill. And you had some rather sharp words on this in a statement you put out last week where you talked about the debt ceiling and markup colliding in a “ridiculous, hypocritical fantasy.”

Take us sort of inside the room, if there is a room. What’s happening now in the discussions about a markup? Will there be a markup? When might there be a markup? Why does this matter? And what are the implications of the debt-ceiling debate for defense?

SMITH: Sure. The answer to the question nobody knows, but you can sort of look at the situation and be very alarmed because the position of the Republican House majority is—well, it’s a little unspecific in terms of what they actually want, but they have certainly set up some interesting parameters. They will not raise the debt ceiling without some substantial cuts to government, but they refuse to specify what those cuts will be—and for good reason, because politically speaking you have to remember the American public likes to cut government in the abstract. In fact, if there’s any pollsters in the room, if you could do me a favor I’d love to do a poll sometime. If you ask the American public, do you support a 5 percent cut in the government, I would love to see how high you could go on that number and still maintain a majority. I’d put the over/under at about 30 (percent), but it could be higher than that, OK? Abstract, they’re all in favor of cutting government. Specifically, they are opposed to cutting absolutely anything, all right? And that’s a problem, all right, because it's illogical and impossible to achieve.

So the Republicans know that the public wants to see the government cut, so they say we’ll cut it by some percentage, whatever. But then you say, OK, well, what are you going to cut? Well, we all saw at the State of the Union—(laughs)—sorry, I got to laugh thinking about it. I’m thinking back to the first couple of State of the Unions I went and then to the one that I witnessed most recently, and things have changed. Let’s just put it that way. We all agree that Social Security and Medicare aren’t going to be part of it. Well, boom, there’s 60 percent of the budget off the table. We’re not raising revenue; heaven forbid. We’re not, you know, touching defense. In fact—this is the hypocritical part—they want to raise defense above the amount that President Biden put out there by, I gather, about 10 (billion dollars) or $15 billion.

And then we point out, OK, well, see, you’re operating only within the discretionary budget. The discretionary budget is, let’s remember—what is the percentage? It’s maybe a third of the overall budget, if that. Maybe a little less than that, something like that. So you’re not dealing with a lot of money to begin with, and over half of that is defense. Another, I think, like 10 percent of it is veterans. This is the latest little kerfuffle as we said, well, if you’re—if you’re not going to cut this and you’re not going to cut defense, well, you’re going to have to cut veterans. Oh, no, we will never cut veterans. So they’re throwing that out there. So once you get all the way through that, they would have to cut everything else in the discretionary budget by roughly 40 percent, just—and that, by the way, wouldn’t make that big a difference in the overall deficit anyway. So there’s no logical way out of this trap.

And what we’ve been told on the markup is they don’t want us to pick the number. This actually is kind of what happened the last couple of years because the appropriators didn’t move as quickly. We on the authorizing committees wound up picking the number. We went first, and we set a defense number, and that wound up being the defense number, and it led to the alternate agreement. The Republicans don’t want to do that. So we are not going to mark up until that impossible-to-resolve debt-ceiling issue gets resolved. So there you are. It seems like we’re going to be stalled for a little while until people get over that logical hurdle.

Now, the other two key pieces of this is, one, I am very fond of government functioning, which sounds obvious. But passing appropriations bills, passing the defense bill, just getting that done—in fact, I think it’s one of the great accomplishments of the last, you know, four years now, is we did that. We passed appropriations bills, we passed the defense bill, and we accomplished a lot of things. Everyone’s in favor of that.

Now, the problem is, as we’ve done that, the debt and the deficits have ballooned. There’s just no denying that. And that’s where we get into this logical problem. Sort of the functioning of government—which gets into a whole lot of different debates about we should spend money here, we should spend money there, we should do that policy, do the other policy—and then overall you’ve got the monster in the basement there that is the $31 trillion debt and, what are we up to now, like $1.3 trillion deficit. But what we’ve all kind of agreed is we’re going to cross our fingers and hope that that doesn’t ultimately turn out to be as big a problem as everyone’s told us it’s going to be. And that’s possible, OK? But in the meantime, once we make that decision—or you can decide, no, we’re going to be fiscally responsible—sorry, that’s a little bit overstatement—or we’re going to take a different fiscal approach; we’re going to try to reduce the deficit, OK? But if you’re going to do that, you have to do it, all right And what I’m afraid of is what we’re going to do is, because we don’t want to choose between either walking down that road of just continuing to have the fiscal challenges that we have or actually making the cuts, that we’re not going to pass the defense bill, we’re not going to pass appropriations bills, we’re not going to raise the debt ceiling; we’re just going to come into a frozen gridlock because we know that what the American people want is us to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting spending, and that is simply impossible. So—(makes sound)—we freeze and we don’t do anything, and that’s bad. Better to make the choice.

GORDON: Let me ask you two defense-related questions and then a broader foreign policy question.

On defense, you mentioned the importance of deterrence and standing firm against China and building up capability. And one idea that the Air Force secretary, Frank Kendall, had that—I’m looking at a piece in Air and Space Forces magazine on it that he did—it was to create a rapid response to emerging technology advancement or threats. That’s what he called it. But basically, the idea was to have a fund of $300 million or so—not a huge amount of money for this government—that the DOD could use to start up new programs in response to urgent needs so it wouldn’t have to go through this laborious and sometimes gridlocked congressional system to get the congressional authority to do this. But obviously, for Congress to support it, it means it’s giving away a little bit of its authority.

SMITH: Yeah.

GORDON: Would you support—would you support this idea?

SMITH: I’m a—I’m hugely supportive of it.

GORDON: You are.

SMITH: The appropriators, not so much. And that’s the challenge.

And look, and I understand where the appropriators are coming from. I had a dinner discussion last night with a whole bunch of defense people talking about this very issue. And it’s like, well, we can’t give DOD that much money without exercising aggressive oversight. And I get that, but I just disagree because innovation is so crucial right now.

And what we’ve gotten good at—really good at might be an overstatement, but what we’ve got good at is R&D. And Ash Carter, I think, was one of the people who led this in helping set up the DIU and a whole bunch of other things. If you’re out there and you’ve got an innovative idea on drone or counter-drone or missile technology or any number of different things, you’ve got a decent shot of getting RDT&E funding, you know? And we’ll spend, I don’t know, 5 (million dollars), $10 million and we’ll develop the idea.

Where we’re not good is buying it once we decide that it works. And that’s a challenge. That’s something that’s really limiting our ability to take advantage of innovative technologies like AI, hypersonics, whatever, is because you do all this work, you spend all this money, you develop it, you go to the Pentagon, and the

Pentagon says: I love that. I want to buy that. Great, all right? And we’ll get back to you in, like, two years on whether or not we can do it.

So this fund envisions being able to take that situation and saying: I love that. Here’s 50 million (dollars). I’ll take a hundred. And I think we have to do that. I think we have to err on the side of innovation and be willing to let go a little bit of the control. I have not been able to convince a single solitary appropriator of this because they are very reluctant to give the Pentagon that amount of money. I think we need to work on that discussion because it’s really hampering our ability to innovate in DOD.

GORDON: Let me ask you another defense question. There’s been a—commercial entities that want to go into 5G technology have been interested in acquiring part of the spectrum, the so-called S-band, the 3.3 to 3.45 gigahertz portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. This is a portion of the spectrum that DOD uses for a lot of its important programs. And in fact, C.Q. Brown, Air Force chief of staff and projected chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said it would cost him a couple billion just to adjust in the case of one program. What’s your view on that or your perspective on that? On the one hand commercial industry wants it to pioneer (in 5G ?), and on the other hand DOD says they need it.

SMITH: Yeah. I think both things are important. And I think within the defense community we tended for too long to sort of pooh-pooh the commercial side of this. But if we are going to maintain our deterrent and competitive advantages in the world we need robust private industry, and spectrum’s crucial to that. So many of the technologies that are going to be developed are going to require, you know, investments in that. And if, in fact, DOD is hoarding spectrum and blocking the ability of the private sector to develop, that is also harmful to national security. I mean, when we go to the world and say don’t buy Huawei because it’s evil, they look back at us and say, OK, what do you got. And if we don’t have anything, that’s going to be a—or if what we have is more expensive and less effective—so making sure that we maintain our leadership in whatever G you want to throw out there is really important.

Now, the part of this that I don’t have an answer to—and I’ve sat through every classified brief I can—DOD argues that it is impossible; they cannot share, it will knock all of their programs off wire, and all this stuff. FCC and others go: No, there’s plenty of room here. I mean, the analogy that I came up with in my head is just like we’re arguing about how many lanes there are in the freeway. You know, the FCC says: Oh, there’s eight lanes. We’re only using two. We have plenty of room to throw more cars on here. And the DOD is like: Hey, we only have two lanes. It’s already full. There’s no room. And who’s right about that goes way over my head. I just—I’m not an engineer. I can’t—I can’t figure it out. But that’s what they’re arguing about.

I think it’s really imperative that we try to resolve it and make sure that spectrum is more widely available to the private sector if possible because it will hamper our ability to be competitive in crucial information technologies if that—if there isn’t some greater spectrum available.

GORDON: I’m going to ask one last question and then open it up to the group because we’re operating on an expedited schedule. So you’re a strong supporter of providing continued military assistance for Ukraine, right?


GORDON: And there’s a counteroffensive coming up, but no one can really say how long this conflict might take or whether it could be prolonged for years. Does the U.S. and the U.S. industrial base have the means to—and the allies—have the means to sustain Ukraine for a long fight, not just a matter of several more months but perhaps a matter of a few more years, and also simultaneously do what needs to be done to buttress Taiwan’s security? Or does it need to make a choice, as some people like Bridge Colby have begun to argue, where more emphasis has to be placed on Taiwan? And is Congress doing what it needs to do, if you believe it can do both—meet both of these challenges, so that the U.S. is—can take care of both these deterrent requirements?

SMITH: Well, mostly I would say that the question is premature. Right now, today, yes, we can. We have the ability to do that. We have pulled the coalition together.

And by the way, the Biden administration gets nowhere near the credit that they deserve for pulling together the coalition that has helped Ukraine fight back against Russia. It’s like we take it for granted. And I was at the Munich Security Conference a week before the war started, and at the time, you know, people were highly skeptical about this coalition coming together and being successful. So the efforts of Secretary Austin and Jake Sullivan and others to pull the coalition together and provide Ukraine with the equipment they need have been remarkable.

And I think right now we can do that and we can also begin to help supply Taiwan. Now, we’re going to have to increase that capacity by the time we get to the end of this year, and that’s why partners and allies are so crucial to this. There’s a lot of capability out there, not just in the U.S. but amongst dozens of countries that are willing to partner with us, and efforts are underway to ramp up the production capacity to help put us in a position to meet those needs.

Now, we can’t predict for sure what’s going to happen in Ukraine at the end of this year. I’ll tell you—I’ll be honest enough with you to tell you this: We are not able to sustain the fight at the current level for years. We’re not. Neither is Russia, by the way, OK? So that—something’s going to have to give at the end of this year. Right now what we need to do—and we’ve done it—put Ukraine in the best possible position to retake as much territory as possible to be in the strongest possible position by the end of this year. And we’re doing that.

GORDON: OK. Let’s open it up for questions. Just a reminder that this is all on the record, so if you—and we’re trying to cram a lot of questions in in a short period, so if—when you make a question, just identify yourself and keep it short.

Go ahead just back there, and then we’ll go up there.

Q: Thank you. Fascinating conversation. Massimo Calabresi from Time magazine.

Quick question on nuclear policy. I’m old enough to remember Brent Scowcroft arguing for a preemptive strike in North Korea. The genie, obviously, out of the bottle there. In general, how is the U.S. positioned to face the new nuclear world with multiple and proliferating powers? And what is Congress’ role in trying to address it?

SMITH: Well, I think we are well-positioned. I think we have a very strong nuclear deterrent, and we should. And that is the cornerstone of our—you know, well, one cornerstone of our nuclear deterrence policy, is have enough nuclear weapons so that, you know, North Korea or, you know, Russia or whoever, you know—mutually assured destruction, OK? I think we have that. I think we’ve communicated that clearly.

Where I am really concerned is in the lack of dialogue between nuclear powers, particularly—well, China, Russia, and the U.S. We’re not talking anymore, and you know, that can lead to miscalculations. You don’t know what the other side has. New technologies are being developed. Does someone start to think that there is such a thing as a winnable nuclear war? There isn’t, but I am a hundred percent in favor of opening up negotiations. And I don’t presume—we’re not—we’re not talking arms limitation at this point. Let’s just regularly get together with Russia and China and talk about making sure that we don’t stumble into a nuclear war. And we’re not doing that right now. The lack of communications concerns me greatly given the new technologies are being—that are being developed and the possibility of misinterpretation of what each side has. So it’s a dangerous, dangerous time for that reason.

GORDON: Over here.

Q: Ariel Cohen, the Atlantic Council. Thank you so much for a comprehensive tour d’auresal (ph), especially on the budget issues. Couldn’t agree with you more.

When you’re talking about our deterrence and lack of dialogue with Russia and China, one country comes to mind as a potential proliferation threat, and that’s Iran. The Biden administration repeatedly said that we will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. How would we do that, do you think? How close did they get to it? There are many reports. You probably see better reports than I do. But in the current situation when we are actively engaged in support of Ukraine and worry about Indo-Pacific and Taiwan, what can we really do to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed power? Thank you.

SMITH: It’s a very fair point. I think, you know, being perfectly honest, it’s extraordinarily difficult to do that. And you know, I take the president’s point; you know, we don’t want a world where Iran has a nuclear weapon. But then you’ve got to take the next step and go: How do you prevent that? And look, I know—(laughs)—I see some of the faces in the audience out here who won’t agree with me on this point, but getting out of the JCPOA was not a smart decision. It just wasn’t.

And I don’t want to relitigate the whole thing, but Iran is a problem. Iran is a problem on a whole series of levels. I recognize that. They are destabilizing Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen. I’m probably leaving out a few, OK? They’re a constant threat to Israel, obviously. And we wish none of those things were true. But we sort of walked away from the JCPOA agreement because we were upset about these other bad things that Iran was doing. And I always summed it up by saying you can either have Iran as a terrible, awful bad actor with a nuclear weapon or you can have them as a terrible, awful bad actor without a nuclear weapon. I’m going to choose door number B on that one, so—letter B, actually. But—and we didn’t.

And so now I don’t know that we have much in the way of power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The military options are decidedly unappetizing. This isn’t, you know, we’re just going to drop a couple bombs. (Laughs.) Sadly, Tom Cruise is not going to show up and take out their nuclear capability. So, yeah, we’re in a pickle, and I don’t have an easy solution to that. I think certainly we need to, you know, continue the diplomatic pressure, continue to, you know, make the case that, you know, if Iran proliferates, then that means that Saudi Arabia and others are likely to follow suit. You know, Russia and China have a lot more influence in Iran than we do, and if, you know, they are going to be any kind of responsible global actor, is it in their best interest to have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East? It’s not. But no, there is no great option and I’m not going to pretend that there is.

GORDON: Right there.

Q: Hi. Sarah Leah Whitson from DAWN.

I wanted to ask about your reflections and reactions to the recent reports in the Washington Post and New York Times about over five hundred U.S. military personnel going to work for Gulf governments, I think over half of them working for the UAE at salaries exponentially greater than what they would earn, as well as senior U.S. government officials doing business and accepting massive investments from the Saudi government’s public investment fund—over $2 billion to Mnuchin, over a billion—I’m sorry, to Kushner—over a billion to Mnuchin. Do you support legislation that will bar senior government officials and military officials from working or doing business with foreign governments when they leave office? Do you think it undermines the credibility and trustworthiness of our existing government officials to make foreign policy decisions when they may be planning their future job prospects and business prospects while in office? And do you—also, would you personally pledge not to work for a foreign government when you leave office?

SMITH: Well, two things about that.

First of all, I think there should probably be some restrictions on that; that, you know—because the point in all of that that I think was important was, you know, what decisions are you making as a public official. And you know, it—and if you’re looking at hundreds of millions of dollars being on the table and these folks, you can call into question your objectivity. And I think there should be some restrictions on that after you leave office.

You know, personally, the only pledge I’m making is I’m going to be ethical in how I do things no matter what the circumstances are, and I’m going to follow the law, and I’m going to follow the rules. And you know, I don’t have anything against people getting jobs after they leave government. In fact, I think one of the problems that we have right now is a lot of the restrictions that have been put in place, particularly under Democratic administrations, that say if you’ve ever had anything to do with industry we’re not going to hire you sort of, you know, blinds us a little bit to some talent out there. So I would—I would like to balance those things. I don’t think you’re unethical just because you work in the public sector and you work in the private sector. I think there are legitimate ways to do both of those things.

But certainly, I mean, we have restrictions on the ability of people in office to go lobby the government. And it certainly makes sense to say we should have at least some restrictions on the ability to work for foreign governments. Yes, I’d be happy to look at that legislation.

GORDON: Go ahead, Dov.

Q: Yeah. I wanted to ask you—oh, sorry.

GORDON: Introduce yourself.

Q: Good to see you.

The Brits have just announced they’re sending Storm Shadow to Ukraine, and we still don’t want to send ATACMS, and we don’t want to let our allies send F-16s. And each time the Brits have done something, Mr. Putin has not launched a nuclear war. Do you support, first of all, sending ATACMS to Ukraine? And second of all, do you support getting F-16s somehow—if it’s not from us, from our allies—to the Ukrainians in order to make that counterattack actually work?

SMITH: Yeah, there’s a complicated answer to that question and I want to make sure I get it right. Overwhelmingly, the reason that the administration isn’t sending F-16s and ATACMS has nothing to do with a fear of escalation. It doesn’t. That is a misperception.

Now, I say “overwhelmingly.” There was a little part on the ATACMS. There were some within the administration who are concerned about the escalation. But ultimately, that’s not the primary reason why we have not sent them. The primary reasons why we have not sent them are—well, the details are classified. Can I say this? We don’t have that many, OK, you know, and it’s a problem. Now, we are developing new capabilities in that regard, but we don’t have those new capabilities yet. And so the concern, basically, is that it would undermine our national security—we don’t have them to send, that’s the bottom line, to meet our national security concerns.

You know, if the argument is we shouldn’t send the ATACMS because of the long range and escalation, no, I don’t agree with that at all. And early on, I was very aggressive about saying we should send them ATACMS. But you know, those restrictions—we have to make sure that we can meet our national security needs, and that comes to the production issues that you were asking about earlier and ramping up that production.

The F-16 thing makes me a little insane just because it’s just not a decisive weapons system, and the primary reason that we’re not doing it is because we’re spending our money sending other things. The amount of money that it would cost to try to develop the—you know, we got to do the training, got to do the maintenance, got to do all this. And it’s a fourth-generation fighter. And by the way, all fourth-generation fighters are not equal. If you had the best, newest F-16 that would be one thing, but that’s not what’s on offer. It’s something a little bit down here. There are scenarios that an F-16 can be somewhat useful in the fight, OK, very narrow scenarios. I mean, the Russians are struggling to use fifth-generation fighters in the Ukraine battlefield. To the extent they’re using them, they’re standoff from a long way away, OK, because of air defenses. And I’ve met with a bunch of Ukrainians. I’ve had this conversation. I just don’t think they’re a decisive piece of equipment.

And I don’t think—and I think giving the perception that the Biden administration isn’t supportive of this because they’re worried about escalation is inaccurate. That’s not the reason those decisions have been made. Meanwhile, we’ve been sending a whole lot of other stuff that’s really, really important as we’re pulling the coalition together.

I can’t—the only thing I think that we should have sent them a long time ago is the Gray Eagle. That is because there’s a technology transfer concern that I just don’t agree with. But other than that, I think the administration has by and large tried to pull together everything they can and getting it—gotten it there. It’s difficult.

I mean, the tank issue. You know, our tanks use a very specified type of fuel. And setting the logistics—I mean, you can send them a tank; you just can’t send them the fuel. So that’s probably not worth it.

I dove into a lot of these discussions with Kath Hicks and Jake Sullivan and Secretary Austin and others. I am quite confident they are doing everything they can to get whatever we can to Ukraine to help in the fight, that they’re not pulling punches for the sake of pulling punches. And I dove into that with a skeptical eye.

GORDON: Let me just follow up to Dov Zakheim, who was too shy to identify himself, former Pentagon controller’s question. On the ATACMS, did I hear you say that you don’t have reservations about sending it from the perspective of escalation?

SMITH: Correct.

GORDON: If it’s determined we have enough?

SMITH: Yeah.


SMITH: Absolutely.

GORDON: Because I dug into this and I called—I called industry, and industry told me—the contractor—that about four hundred are produced a year and there’s capacity to produce five hundred a year, but no one—there’s a—so there’s substantial capacity to produce more that’s not being used if the administration wanted to so use it.

Can I just throw another quick question to you? What about DPICM, cluster munitions? Do you support that or are you against that?

SMITH: I haven’t decided yet. I think the big problem right now is—well, the big—the big advantage of the cluster munition DPICMs is we have a lot of them. To the extent that we’re unable to provide sufficient ammo in other areas, they could certainly fill that gap.

What I’m trying to figure out—and also, our cluster munitions have a much lower dud rate than the Russian cluster munitions. I’m not in favor of spreading cluster munitions around the world, but in this particular case the Russians are already doing that in Ukraine. The issue of the Ukrainians having to deal with unexploded ordnance is done. They’re going to have to deal with it for decades, OK, for a long time. And if our cluster munitions could bring the war to a conclusion sooner, it’s something I’m open to. I haven’t officially made the decision yet, but I think arguing that cluster munitions are bad therefore we shouldn’t send them misses the point of what Russia is already doing in Ukraine and the threat that that’s placing to them. And if those weapons are decisive—“decisive” is too strong a word—if those weapons are helpful, then it’s something I think we need to consider.

And the administration is concerned about how it would impact the coalition. You know, Europeans are against cluster munitions. A number of them have signed a treaty. And also we’re concerned about the coalition in Congress. So conversations are going on about that, but I could certainly see myself in this particular circumstance, you know, seeing that this might be something we need to do.

GORDON: How are we doing on time? Wrap up?

SMITH: I’m sorry, when did they call the vote?

STAFF: Two minutes ago.

SMITH: OK. We got—we got time for another question. That’s fine.

GORDON: You’ve got time for another question.

SMITH: Yeah.

GORDON: Is this an important vote?

SMITH: I’ll get there. (Laughter.)

GORDON: OK. Let’s—I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to—we’re going to take these three last questions, but you got to be super fast, and you answer as much as you have time to answer. One, two, three, but just ask them fast.

Q: Greg Thielmann, board member of the Arms Control Association.

Take your point about being honored by charges of hypocrisy. However, I did want to ask about rules-based international order. It seems like there are multiple cases—Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, ABM Treaty, Iran nuclear deal—where we can’t seem to approve even those agreements that we basically designed. Is there anything that can be done about that?

GORDON: Let’s take the next just two questions and then, Congressman—someone there had a question?

Q: I’m Tomicah Tillemann. I’m on the board of the Truman National Security Project and also work in venture capital.

You had raised the issue of 5G and the fact that the U.S. doesn’t really have great alternatives to 5G that are being—the good 5G systems that are being offered by the Chinese.

SMITH: I wanted to say so we want to make sure we weren’t in a position where we didn’t, but I didn’t say that we don’t. I said it’s a constant challenge, and we have to make sure that we’re meeting that challenge.

Q: So an analogous challenge is playing out right now around global financial networks, where the Chinese and other governments are developing systems that are dramatically better, faster, cheaper than what the U.S. has on offer. But we don’t yet have a national security conversation underway about that challenge.

SMITH: Got it.

Q: What can we do about that?

GORDON: OK. And then last question, and then the response.

Q: Jeff Pryce, Johns Hopkins SAIS.

I wonder if you have any thoughts about the effect on the force of the pace of confirmation of officers currently.

SMITH: Sure.

So to answer your question, look, we don’t—and that’s what I mean by saying we have to be realistic about the fact that when I say greater economic freedom, greater political freedom, rules-based system, peaceful resolution of differences, it’s like democracy; it’s never perfect, OK? Democracy implies that everybody gets a say in everything, OK? Well, they don’t, all right? We’re a nation of 330 million people. We don’t vote on everything. We elect—it’s not a perfect system. We are not going to sign up for every international treaty. No country is, all right? But China and Russia by and large are like—they just don’t believe in the concept, OK?

So, yeah, we’re not going to agree with everything. We’re not going to be perfect and all that. But we support the general movement in that direction.

And by the way—and I hadn’t—thank you for the question, because one of the points I usually like to make in saying this is part of our mission, I think, is to get Russia and China to the point where they’re willing to do that more. I don’t envision a world where we conquer Russia and China. Not going to happen, all right? They’re going to be there. We’re going to be there. We need to figure out a way to peacefully coexist and bring them into that rules-based order while admitting the fact that, yeah, I mean, we’re not going to agree with everything on that. But the basic concept that you don’t just, you know, invade Ukraine, that you don’t just fish wherever the hell you want to fish, for instance, that’s what we need to try and promote, understanding that it’s not going to be perfect. Human beings trying to get along is never going to be perfect.

Oh, financial. I don’t know that I—and I’m not a financial guy, but I would really question the notion that somehow Russia and China have set up a better international financial system than we have. I can be convinced otherwise, but I would doubt that as a starting point.

But, yes, this is a big deal. And as we’re looking at sanctions, as we’re looking at sanctioning everybody all over the place every time we disagree with them—and this is part of the reason why JCPOA isn’t coming back, is Iran thinks they got other places to go now, OK? And we have to factor that into our thinking.

This is all part of what I said at the very start. You know, 1991 is so over, OK, you know, that heady moment when we all thought we can do whatever we want. Look at the Gulf War. You know, we came in and just—(makes sound)—no. The rest of the world’s catching up.

And beyond that, the rest of the world doesn’t want a situation where the U.S. can dictate everything. I mean, think about it: Who would want that, you know, even if we were benevolent, OK? You know, it is a more multipolar, diverse world that we have to be smarter about how we navigate.

The Senate drives me insane—(laughter)—on just all series of levels. If there is a less democratic democratic institution in the history of the world, I cannot think of it, all right? And my God, can’t we fix that? I don’t see anywhere in the Constitution where it says one senator gets a bug up his ass and he can shut down everything for however long. The hell does it say that in the Constitution? It doesn’t, OK? You can change the rules over there so that one person can’t just grind government to a halt, and it is a problem.

And I can’t—it’s Tuberville, I guess, not—(changes pronunciation)—Tuberville. But either way, yeah, he’s the latest example of this, and it’s a huge problem. It slows down the functioning of government, going back to one of my central points that I’m a fan of functioning government. I am, OK? Even if it’s not perfect, even if the appropriations bill isn’t exactly the way I would have written it, even if, you know, I don’t totally agree with our fiscal policy. You know, where did we get the idea that a democracy meant that you get everything that you want, and if you don’t you take your ball and go home? That’s not what representative government is about.

You set up a process, you go through the process, and sometimes you lose, OK? And then you let everything function, not: I lost, therefore how can I burn this damn place down, all right? Not the way it ought to work. And I just wish we could change those rules in the Senate so there was a little less unilateral power to freeze everything.

And now I must sprint. But thank you very much. Good to see you. (Applause.)

GORDON: Thanks.


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